Questioning Katchatheevu agreement could damage ties, credibility: former diplomats 

Questioning Katchatheevu agreement could damage ties, credibility: former diplomats 

Former envoys to Sri Lanka say the Ministry of External Affairs’s position for the past decade has been in line with previous government thus far

Any move by the government to revisit the 1974 India-Sri Lanka agreement on Katchatheevu island could have a broader diplomatic impact on India’s ties in the region and raise questions about other bilateral negotiations, warned former diplomats. Most also questioned whether External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s comments in a press conference on Monday on “ceding” Katchatheevu island, and finding a “solution” for the situation indicate a shift in the Ministry’s position as outlined in a number of parliamentary replies over the past decade, submissions in the Supreme Court, and Right to Information (RTI) responses that categorically denied there had been a “ceding” or “acquisition” of territory in the 1974 agreement. 

According to former National Security Adviser (2010-2014) Shiv Shankar Menon, reopening the half-century-old agreement by the government could be a “self-goal”.

“The situation on the ground is hard to reverse, but such issues being raised by the country’s leadership will damage the credibility of the country and could be a self-goal by the government,” Mr. Menon, who served as Foreign Secretary (2006-2009) and India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka (1997-2000), told The Hindu.

“Sovereignty, and territorial integrity are not issues where the government’s position changes when there is a change in government. If the government were to reopen old agreements, it would set a bad example,” said former High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Ashok Kantha, who added that the “whole architecture” of agreements with India’s neighbour could be “damaged if there is a change in the original understanding,” Mr. Kantha said. 

Former Foreign Secretary (2009-2011) and High Commissioner to Sri Lanka (2004-2006), Nirupama Menon-Rao said that political trends in India, specially in Tamil Nadu are watched closely in Sri Lanka and the impact on bilateral ties “cannot be inconsequential”. She pointed out that most recently in 2022, the government had followed previous governments’ position, even saying in court that the task of the retrieval of Katchatheevu was “impossible”.

In Ministry responses from 2014-2022, available on its website, the government has consistently said — as previous governments had — that the “island of Katchatheevu lies on the Sri Lankan side of the India-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary Line”, also referring to a number of writ petitions on the issue that makes the matter “sub-judice” in the Supreme Court. 

In addition, according to a reply in Parliament dated March 15, 2017, by then Minister of State for External Affairs General (Retd) V.K. Singh, the problem of fishermen being arrested by the Sri Lankan government was not linked to Katchatheevu island directly.

“While Tamil Nadu fishermen have not been arrested in Katchatheevu itself, a number of them have been apprehended in waters between India and Sri Lanka,” Mr. Singh had said in response to a direct question on the issue, detailing the arrests of 1,616 fishermen between 2014-2017 and the release of 1,804 fishermen within those years by the Sri Lankan government. 

The former diplomats pointed out that as Foreign Secretary (2015-2017) and as External Affairs Minister (2019-present), Mr. Jaishankar would have approved any replies given in Parliament by the government during this period. India and Sri Lanka are currently experiencing a surge in ties following the Modi government’s unprecedented support to Sri Lanka during its ongoing economic crisis.

“The problem with revisiting previously established agreements is that it makes you [Government of India] less credible as a power and as a partner. If PM Modi questions an agreement a previous government entered into, then what will stop a future government from questioning an agreement the present government is negotiating?” Mr. Menon asked.

They also said that the 1974 agreement had been responsible for a subsequent improvement in relations between the two countries. Under the agreement with Sri Lanka, Katchatheevu was found to lie in Sri Lankan waters, although Indian fishermen retain the right to visit to celebrate St. Anthony’s Day at the church on the otherwise deserted island, and also are allowed to dry their nets there. However, Indian fishermen cannot fish near the island, which has been the source of contention raised regularly by the Tamil Nadu government with the Centre.

“The two sides would do well to focus on the welfare of the fishermen of both countries and arrive at a proper understanding on the use of fishing grounds” instead, Ms Menon-Rao told The Hindu, stressing that implying that India is prepared to reopen an international agreement carries “reputational risk” as well.

A similar agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 had settled the decades-old land boundary enclaves issue, and India’s decision to accept the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague’s verdict in 2014 in favour of Bangladesh’s maritime boundary claims, led to an overall improvement in Delhi-Dhaka relations.

The reopening of the Katchatheevu island agreement follows the Modi government’s decision to write to Pakistan’s government last year, calling for the renegotiation of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, claiming the distribution of water is unfair to India. However, the matter is yet to make any headway, as India is awaiting a response from Pakistan. 

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