Katchatheevu Island issue – Political turmoil over Sovereignty and Fishermen Rights: India v/s Sri Lanka


Katchatheevu Island is a very small and uninhabited island spanning 285 acres in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. It is spread covers around 1.6 km in length and slightly over 300 m wide at its widest point. It’s in proximity to both the countries. It is situated northeast of Rameshwaram, approximately 33 km from the Indian coast, and it lies around 62 km southwest of Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northernmost point. The only structure on Katchatheevu is St. Anthony’s Church, built in the early 20th century. During an annual festival, Christian clergy from both India and Sri Lanka jointly conduct services, drawing pilgrims from both nations. However, despite the occasional influx of people, Katchatheevu is unsuitable for permanent habitation due to the absence of a freshwater source on the island. The geographical location of the island and rich fishing ground around the island makes it a point of contention between the two countries.

History on the sovereignty of Katchatheevu Island

The island during the early medieval period was under the control of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna kingdom. But, by the end of 17th century, it became a part of the Ramnad kingdom based in Ramanathapuram, India. In the British reign, it was administered as part of the Madras Presidency. From the early 1921, both India and Sri Lanka asserted their claims over the island to decide maritime fishing boundaries. After Indian Independence and establishment of Sri Lanka as a separate dominion, the status of Katchatheevu Island became a matter of dispute. While, Sri Lanka asserted its sovereignty over Katchatheevu by citing the Portuguese occupation of the island from 1505 to 1658 CE as evidence of jurisdiction, India relying on the various reports argued that the former Raja of Ramnad held possession of it as part of his estate and regularly collected taxes until the Abolition of Zamindari System.

Following such disputes the then Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi entered into a bilateral agreement with the Sri Lankan Government, wherein the island was officially ceded to Sri Lanka to resolve the maritime boundary issues in the region. However, since then it has led to a serious dispute especially among the fishermen of both the countries. The Congress Government defended its stance by stating that the decision regarding the island was made after thorough research of historical and other records pertaining to the island. The Katchatheevu Island involves the issue of fishing rights and the maritime security. Indian fishermen have traditionally used the water around the island for fishing purposes. But, consequent to the bilateral agreement in 1974, there have been numerous instances of arrests and detentions of the Indian fishermen and occasional violence. These conflicts have also caused a lot of diplomatic strains between India and Sri Lanka.

Life-line to the Indian Fishermen

The Indian fishermen mostly from the Tamil Nadu regions venture around the island for fishing and often encounter serious actions from the Sri Lankan authorities.

Article 4 of the Agreement stipulated that each State shall have sovereignty and exclusive jurisdiction and control over the waters, the Islands, the Continental Shelf and the subsoil on its side of the Maritime boundary in the Palk Strait and Palk Bay and Katchatheevu Island was determined as falling within Sri Lankan waters. The following article added that “Indian fishermen and pilgrims would enjoy access to the island as before and would not be required by Sri Lanka to obtain travel documents or visas for these purposes”.

During the time when the DMK governed Tamil Nadu in 1974, it contended that the Congress government had not considered its perspectives before signing the agreement with Sri Lanka. The party had organised several protests in response.

Under the leadership of J Jayalalithaa, the Tamil Nadu government consistently raised concerns about the issue and even resorted to legal action.

In anticipation of the visit by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to India last year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin had written to PM Modi, urging for discussions on the matter. He later corresponded with PM Modi again after numerous fishermen were detained by the Sri Lankan authorities.

In his letter dated February this year, Stalin further emphasised the impact on the livelihood of Tamil fishermen, citing the increasingly limited access to traditional fishing waters, which threatens the economic stability and social fabric of the communities dependent on the fishing industry.

Reasons for the spotlight on the issue

The report, published by The Times of India on March 31st and cited by Modi, was based on documents obtained by Tamil Nadu BJP Chief K Annamalai. It appeared to indicate that past Congress governments did not attach much importance to the island located about 20 km from the Indian coastline. The issue is at the centre of a war of words between the BJP and the opposition Congress, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi accusing the Indira Gandhi government of callously ceeding the territory to Colombo. After Modi cited a media report to criticise the 1974 India Sri Lanka agreement on the island, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge linked the premier’s stance to the upcoming general elections. Kharge likened the island’s ceding to the swapping of enclaves between India and Bangladesh in 2015 under Modi’s leadership and said both were friendly gestures towards neighbouring countries.

Relevance of Berubari Case to the present issue

The Nehru-Noon Agreement proposed to divide Berubari into two equal halves between India and Pakistan and the division was given effect by promulgating the Constitution (Ninth Amendment) Act, 1960. The Supreme Court’s ruling meant that a constitutional amendment would be needed to transfer Indian Territory to another country. While, the Constitution was amended in 1960, Berubari still remained a part of India. In light of such rulings, secession of Katchatheevu Island to the Sri Lankan Government which was done without any Constitutional amendment has to be overlooked.

Other Importance of Island

Geopolitical Location: Katchatheevu is strategically located in the Palk Strait, which serves as a crucial maritime route connecting the Bay of Bengal with the Gulf of Mannar and the Indian Ocean.

Security Concerns: Control over Katchatheevu provides India with strategic leverage in monitoring maritime activities in the region, including movements of vessels and potential security threats.

Fishing Resources: The waters around Katchatheevu are rich in marine resources, including fish and other seafood, which are vital for the livelihoods of fishermen from Tamil Nadu.

Commercial Potential: Control over Katchatheevu could facilitate the development of commercial activities such as fishing, aquaculture, and tourism, thereby boosting economic growth in the region.

Historical and Cultural Claims: Katchatheevu holds historical significance for India, with claims of traditional fishing rights by fishermen from Tamil Nadu dating back centuries. The island has historical and cultural significance for the Tamil communities in India and Sri Lanka, as it is associated with the legendary Tamil sage Thiruvalallur.

Concerns around the Island

The Restrictions on fishing activities around Katchatheevu imposed by Sri Lanka have led to humanitarian concerns, including instances of arrests, harassment, and loss of lives among Indian fishermen. It is essential from a humanitarian perspective to ensure the welfare and safety of fishermen and their families who depend on the waters for their sustenance. Further, Katchatheevu’s proximity to the Indian coast makes it a potential hub for smuggling activities, including arms, drugs, and contraband.


Katchatheevu Island despite its small size holds a large significance. It remains a complex issue between India and Sri Lanka due to its strategic location, impact on fishing rights, and cultural significance. The transfer of the island to Sri Lanka has strained bilateral ties and highlighted the need for a comprehensive resolution addressing maritime security, livelihood concerns of fishermen, and respecting the historical sentiments of both nations. It has turned out to be a blame game amidst the upcoming Lok Sabha polls instead to tackling the key concern around it. hence, resolving this long-standing dispute is the need of the hour to re-establish mutual understanding and fostering cooperation and stability in the region.