Caught on the wrong foot over Katchatheevu, can Congress escape the blame?

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New Delhi: Katchatheevu Island, about 300-acre territory within Sri Lanka’s maritime boundary, is located 30 kilometres from Tamil Nadu. After decades of fluctuating stances about the sovereignty of this island by India, about 50 years ago, in 1974, the Indira Gandhi-led Indian government gave up the claims on the island and accepted it as a Sri Lankan territory. She was probably influenced by her father and the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru in the matter who believed the “little island” was not important and would “have no hesitation in giving up our claim to it”. While the prevailing political conditions in Sri Lanka were not conducive for talks during Nehru’s tenure, his daughter fulfilled his wishes when the opportunity arose in her premiership. Perhaps, she also believed that the step would strengthen India’s relations with the southern neighbour.

However, this decision by Gandhi has come to haunt Congress back after 50 years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday accused the Congress of callously giving away the island to Sri Lanka and added that the party cannot be trusted with protecting India’s sovereignty, integrity and interests. Asked about the need to rake up an old issue during the elections, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Monday said that “it is important for the public to know and the people to judge, this issue has been hidden too long from the gaze of the public”. He also accused Congress of even failing to secure the fishing rights for its people leading to the capture of Tamil Nadu fishermen and seizure of their boats by Sri Lankan forces. “They (Congress) simply didn’t care,” said the minister.

Reacting to the accusations, Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge said the BJP is raking up a sensitive issue on the eve of elections without realising that sometimes a friendly gesture by a larger country can go a long way in consolidating relations between the two countries. He also reminded that a similar gesture was made by the Modi government in 2015 when “111 enclaves from India were transferred to Bangladesh and 55 enclaves came to India” to realign the border with the eastern neighbour.

The uninhabited island of Katchatheevu was initially under the control of Ramnad Raja, who lived in Ramanathapuram. With the advent of British rule in both India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the island was used as a naval gunnery practice range. However, when the British left, both India and Sri Lanka claimed ownership of the island based on the historical facts suiting each. The dispute continued until the 1974 agreement between the two countries in which India renounced its claim.

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