Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 19, 2021
Independent of the ruling party or leader in Colombo, New Delhi’s concerns viz China in Sri Lanka is bound to grow.
Taking back Katchchatheevu?

In Tamil Nadu recently, Gen V.K. Singh (retd.), veteran Army chief and Union Minister of State for Transport and Highways, declared that the Centre was making ‘sincere efforts’ to retrieve Katchchatheevu from Sri Lanka — and it would take time. In the same vein at Madurai, the minister also said that India transgressed the LAC more than China, providing meat to Beijing to target New Delhi.

In the normal course, Singh’s ‘Katchchatheevu promise’ has been dismissed as a poll-eve promise by a second-line leader of the ruling BJP-NDA at the Centre, rather than comments from a war veteran, who knew the intricacies of the matter better. But there is more to it this time, going beyond the demands based on the lives and livelihood of Tamil Nadu fishermen on the one hand, and constitutional issues, on the other. It directly impinges on New Delhi’s new concerns, flowing from Colombo’s decision for Chinese firms to install ‘hybrid renewable energy systems’ in Nainativu, Neduntheevu, also known as Delft, and Analaitivu, all of them located off Jaffna Peninsula, in the Palk Bay only 55 km from India.

There is more to it this time, going beyond the demands based on the lives and livelihood of Tamil Nadu fishermen on the one hand, and constitutional issues, on the other.

India has adversarial relations with China, whose ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ has a large footprint in Sri Lanka. Independent of the ruling party or leader in Colombo, New Delhi’s concerns viz China in Sri Lanka is bound to grow. In the post-war Sri Lanka, India rushed massive developmental aid into Tamil-majority northern Sri Lanka, and with the approval of the host-Government, not only because of the ‘umbilical cord’ relations with the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. After Hambantota, where Chinese creditors have since obtained a 99-year lease of Sri Lankan property/territory, India does not want China to come anywhere closer to its shores, in the name of funding and executing infrastructure projects in the island-nation if it could help.

Relations between India and Sri Lanka, which has been on a near-permanent yo-yo for long, nosedived one more time, after the reigning Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa cancelled the Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) signed by the predecessor Government, with India and Japan, to jointly develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) in Colombo Port. The Indian strategic community is convinced that China was behind the move, though they are unsure if Beijing had ‘influenced’ the Colombo Government or the labour unions that precipitated the crisis in recent months However, Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Dinseh Gunawardena has denied Chinese pressure in the matter.

Whether it is the Rajapaksas, who are in power in that country now, or anyone else in their place, New Delhi cannot afford to take chances.

A section of the Indian strategic community is genuinely concerned that alongside green-power projects, China can install ‘listening posts’ in the northern islands of Sri Lanka, to eavesdrop on India. If it is the Jaffna islands now, it can be Katchchatheevu next. Or, that is how India needs to look at the emerging situation. Whether it is the Rajapaksas, who are in power in that country now, or anyone else in their place, New Delhi cannot afford to take chances. Indians need only to recall how predecessor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, supposedly more ‘India-friendly’ than the Rajapaksas with their stout professions, had converted the previous Rajapaksa era Hambantota construction-cum-concession deal with China into a debt-equity swap, ensuring the 99-year lease.

Irritants

When it came to demarcating the IMBL (International Maritime Boundary Line) between the two nations, New Delhi has always maintained that it had not been done until the twin-accords of 1974 and 1976. It did not accept historical records that showed that the 285-acre Katchchatheevu isle was in the possession of the Sethupathi rulers in southern Tamil Nadu. It is immaterial that Indira Gandhi was in power when the two nations signed the 1974-76 Accords, and that the second one was signed during the Emergency and after the Centre had dismissed the elected DMK State Government of M. Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu.

The Indian hopes from the past now seems to have been now belied by Colombo inviting Chinese closer to the Indian coast.

As per the Accords, the two nations agreed to a sharp deviation from the internationally-accepted ‘median-line’ principle. This meant that Katchchatheevu fell on the Sri Lankan side of the IMBL. It also meant that the Palk Strait, linking the two nations, became an ‘exclusive waters’ of the two. It is a factor seldom acknowledged in Tamil Nadu, and highlighted by New Delhi, in the aftermath of the Chinese aggression in 1962, and the two wars with Pakistan (1965, 1971), that too at the height of the Cold War, when the US looked at India with suspicion. The Indian hopes from the past now seems to have been now belied by Colombo inviting Chinese closer to the Indian coast.

The security angle to the genesis of the Accords goes like this: After wars in the 60s and early 70s, especially after Pakistani naval vessels and submarines had begun traversing the waters off India, New Delhi needed friends in the neighbourhood, especially on the less-secured Ocean front. BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee had opposed the Accords when signed, but as Prime Minister, he acquiesced to them. Ironically today, China is very much in Sri Lanka, and the current Colombo Government’s frequently-reiterated commitment to an ‘India First’ foreign/security policy, has begun sounding hollower than ever. This is despite the recent conversion of the trilateral ‘maritime security agreement’, which also includes common neighbour Maldives, into a ‘maritime and security accord’, with all the connotations, explicit and implied.

Impediments

The late Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, in that order, had filed private petitions in the Supreme Court, challenging the Centre’s ‘ceding’ of Katchchatheevu, without parliamentary approval, as enshrined in the Constitution. After Jayalalithaa returned to power in 2011, the Tamil Nadu Government also filed a near-similar petition. With the death of the two leaders, the State Government petition may alone be current.

No Government in Sri Lanka, in the foreseeable future, can be expected to give/gift the isle (back?) to India.

On the political front, after coming to power for the first time in 1991, Jayalalithaa, in her Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Fort St. George, the seat of the Tamil Nadu Government in Chennai — and even months before her hospitalisation and death in 2016 — declared that she would take back Katchchatheevu .For long, all regional parties in the state have been airing such sentiments, especially on occasions when Tamil Nadu fishermen face Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) bullets and harassment at sea.

In August 2014, only months after the Modi Government had assumed office at the Centre,  then Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi told the Supreme Court that India could take back Katchchatheevu only through war — and a war was not on the cards. He had a point, as the two nations had notified the 70s Accords under the UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea), and unilateral withdrawal was not possible. It is also the position under international law. No Government in Sri Lanka, in the foreseeable future, can be expected to give/gift the isle (back?) to India.

Time to think over

While the Katchchatheevu part of the Accords is well known, India getting exclusive possession of ‘Wedge Bank,’ or the waters off Kanyakumari, is little known or understood, both by the Tamil Nadu polity and many scholars on the subject. By way of acknowledging the Sri Lankan fishers’ claims to Wedge Bank, India permitted them to continue fishing for three years, and offered to supply the same at a pre-fixed cost for another three.

New Delhi will need time to think over things — and should hence advise ruling party leaders.

Since the conclusion of the ‘grace period’ (?) for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan fishers in the Wedge Bank area, New Delhi has also enforced the pre-decided bar on the latter coming into those waters. This is unlike the 1974 Accord promising freedom for the Indian fishers to dry their nets in Katchchatheevu isle — leading to an academic argument that they would require to dry their nets only if they got wet, and thus implied permission to fish in those waters. If India had to take ‘back’ Katchchatheevu, Wedge Bank should ‘go back’ to Sri Lanka. Thanks to the rocky formations in these seas, even a patrol boat cannot take to these waters. This applies to boats, including camouflaged fishing vessels of nations adversarial to India. That is some saving grace.

In the overall context, New Delhi will need time to think over things — and should hence advise ruling party leaders, as they arrive in Tamil Nadu in droves, to campaign for the BJP and its ruling AIADMK ally in the May polls. Incidentally, veteran parliamentarian Sushama Swaraj’s ‘Sea Lotus’ (‘Kadal Thaamarai’) campaign at Rameswaram, ahead of the historic 2014 polls, over the fishermen’s issue, still rancour on either side of the Palk Strait. As Minister of External Affairs (EAM), post-poll, she could not keep her promise to Tamil Nadu, but her poll-time statement did become an avoidable irritant in Sri Lanka, including the Tamil fishers in that country.

A near-similar episode involved Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari, who said, both inside Parliament and outside, that they would build a sea-bridge connecting the two nations. In 2015, Gadkari even put the cost at INR 24,000 crores. Reports indicated that not only was the Sri Lankan Government of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe — otherwise the first one to propose such a scheme — not consulted, but it was also not informed in advance of the minister’s statement in India.

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