[Indepth] Katchatheevu Island Issue – Explained

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Katchatheevu Island, a 1.15-square-kilometre uninhabited territory located in the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka, has historically been a point of contention between the two nations. Originally part of the Ramnad Zamindari under the Nayak dynasty, the island was ceded to Sri Lanka in the 1970s through bilateral agreements. Its strategic significance, especially in the context of China’s expanding influence in the Indian Ocean Region, and its impact on the livelihoods of Indian fishermen, particularly from Tamil Nadu, have kept it in the political spotlight.

Katchatheevu Island Dispute upsc mind map

This topic of “[Indepth] Katchatheevu Island Issue – Explained” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

Historical Background

  • Origin and Early Control
    • Katchatheevu Island’s origins trace back to the Nayak dynasty when it was part of the Ramnad Zamindari, established in 1605.
    • Initially, the island was under the control of the Jaffna kingdom of Sri Lanka during the early medieval period.
    • In the 17th century, authority over Katchatheevu shifted to the Ramnad zamindari based out of Ramanathapuram, located northwest of Rameswaram.
  • British Colonial Period and Post-Independence Claims
    • During the British colonial era, the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was not demarcated, leaving Katchatheevu’s sovereignty ambiguous.
    • Post-independence, both India and Sri Lanka laid claims to the island, with disputes primarily concerning fishing rights.
    • The British Ceylon government controlled the island since 1921, and it remained a disputed territory until 1974 when India recognized Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over it.

The Indo-Sri Lankan Agreements of 1974 and 1976

  • Details of the Agreements and Cession of Katchatheevu
    • The 1974 agreement between India and Sri Lanka was signed to demarcate the maritime boundary in the Palk Strait, leading to the formal cession of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka. This agreement was ratified on June 26 and 28, 1974, by the then Prime Ministers of India and Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi and Sirima R.D. Bandaranaike, respectively.
    • A joint statement issued on June 28, 1974, highlighted that the boundary was defined “in conformity with the historical evidence, legal international principles and precedents,” which included Katchatheevu falling within Sri Lanka’s domain.
    • The 1976 agreement further delineated the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal, and it came into effect on May 10, 1976. This agreement, along with a subsequent one in November 1976, extended the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar.
  • Impact on Fishing Rights and Livelihoods of Indian Fishermen
    • The 1974 agreement acknowledged the traditional use of Katchatheevu by fishermen from both countries but the 1976 supplementary agreement restricted fishing activities, stating that fishing vessels and fishermen of the two countries “shall not engage” in the territorial sea and exclusive economic zone of either country “without the express permission” of the other.
    • Despite the agreements, Indian fishermen continued to access Katchatheevu for drying their nets and participating in the annual St. Anthony’s festival. However, the restriction on fishing activities in the surrounding waters has been a point of contention, affecting the livelihoods of Indian fishermen.
    • The agreements have led to numerous incidents of detention of Indian fishermen by Sri Lankan authorities for allegedly crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and fishing in Sri Lankan waters, exacerbating the socio-economic challenges faced by the fishing communities in Tamil Nadu.
    • The cessation of traditional fishing grounds and the subsequent impact on the livelihoods of Indian fishermen have been significant, with reports of increased competition for resources and conflicts with Sri Lankan fishermen.

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Legal and Constitutional Challenges

  • The Berubari Union Case and Its Relevance
    • The Berubari Union Case of 1960 established a precedent that the cession of Indian territory to another country requires a constitutional amendment.
    • Despite this precedent, Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974 without such an amendment, raising questions about the constitutionality of the action.
    • The cession contravened the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Berubari case, rendering the transfer to Sri Lanka potentially unconstitutional and invalid.
  • Ongoing Legal Battles and Supreme Court Status
    • The issue of Katchatheevu’s cession has been challenged in the Indian Supreme Court, with petitions filed seeking to declare the 1974 and 1976 agreements unconstitutional.
    • In 2014, the Attorney General of India stated before the Supreme Court that Katchatheevu could not be retrieved from Sri Lanka, indicating the government’s stance that the matter was settled.
    • The Supreme Court has yet to make a final ruling on the petitions, leaving the legal status of Katchatheevu and the rights of Indian fishermen in limbo.
    • Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa filed a writ petition in 2008 seeking the retrieval of Katchatheevu, arguing that the cession was unconstitutional as it was not ratified by the Indian Parliament.

Political Implications and Recent Developments

  • Role of Katchatheevu in Tamil Nadu Politics
    • Katchatheevu has been a persistent political issue in Tamil Nadu, often surfacing during elections as a point of contention between parties.
    • The island’s cession to Sri Lanka in 1974 has been criticized by various political factions in Tamil Nadu, who argue that it affects the livelihoods of local fishermen and India’s territorial integrity.
  • Recent Statements by Indian Politicians
    • Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently reignited the debate over Katchatheevu by accusing the Congress party of “callously giving away” the island to Sri Lanka in the 1970s, leveraging this as a campaign issue ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
    • The BJP has utilized the issue to challenge the DMK and Congress, alleging their historical complicity in the cession and questioning their efforts to safeguard Tamil Nadu’s interests.
    • DMK President M.K. Stalin countered by questioning whether PM Modi had raised the Katchatheevu issue with Sri Lanka during his tenure and criticized the BJP for using the issue as an electoral strategy.
    • The controversy has sparked a broader political debate, with parties accusing each other of neglecting the fishermen’s plight and leveraging the issue for electoral gains rather than seeking a genuine resolution.

Strategic and Geopolitical Significance

  • China’s Influence in the Indian Ocean Region
    • Katchatheevu’s strategic location in the Palk Strait plays a crucial role amidst China’s efforts to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean Region through initiatives like the String of Pearls.
    • The island’s proximity to key maritime routes enhances its significance in the context of regional security and the balance of power, especially considering China’s maritime ambitions and infrastructure investments in neighboring countries.
  • Value for India’s Maritime and Economic Interests
    • Control over Katchatheevu could bolster India’s ability to monitor and secure its maritime boundaries, crucial for national security and safeguarding economic interests in the region.
    • The waters around Katchatheevu are rich in marine resources, offering potential for economic development through fishing, aquaculture, and possibly tourism, thus contributing to the economic stability of the coastal communities in Tamil Nadu.

Impact on India-Sri Lanka Relations

  • Effect on Bilateral Relations
    • The Katchatheevu issue has historically been a point of contention affecting India-Sri Lanka relations, with the island’s cession in 1974 often cited as a sore point in diplomatic discussions.
    • Political statements and actions surrounding Katchatheevu, especially during election periods in India, have the potential to stir diplomatic tensions between the two nations, as seen in recent political discourse.
    • The dispute over Katchatheevu and the treatment of fishermen from Tamil Nadu by Sri Lankan authorities have been recurrent issues that influence the perception of bilateral relations in both countries.
  • Diplomatic Efforts and Resolution Attempts
    • Diplomatic engagements have been made to address the concerns arising from the Katchatheevu agreement, particularly regarding the rights and safety of fishermen.
    • The Indian government has been urged to initiate diplomatic efforts to revisit the agreement or at least restore traditional fishing rights for Tamil Nadu fishermen, highlighting the ongoing dialogue and negotiation attempts.
    • Joint working groups and bilateral discussions have been established to address the fishermen’s issues, aiming for a mutual understanding and cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.
    • Despite the legal and political complexities surrounding Katchatheevu, both countries have shown interest in finding a peaceful resolution to fisheries disputes, emphasizing dialogue and cooperation.

The Humanitarian Aspect

  • Plight of Fishermen and Socio-Economic Impact
    • The detention of Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy has been a recurring issue, with instances of fishermen being apprehended for allegedly crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) and engaging in fishing activities within Sri Lankan waters.
    • Such detentions not only disrupt the lives of the fishermen but also have a profound socio-economic impact on their communities, affecting their livelihoods and exacerbating the vulnerability of their families.
    • The Rameswaram Fishermen Association has highlighted the seizure of over 150 mechanized boats by the Sri Lankan Navy between 2018 and 2024, demanding immediate intervention from both the central and state governments for the release and restoration of these vessels.
    • Fishermen’s associations and communities have staged protests and strikes, expressing their grievances and demanding solutions to their longstanding issues, including the return of seized boats and compensation for damages.
  • Cultural and Religious Significance
    • Katchatheevu Island holds significant cultural and religious importance for the local fishing communities, serving as a traditional site for drying nets and a venue for the annual St. Antony’s festival.
    • The annual Katchatheevu Church Festival is a vibrant event that draws participants from both India and Sri Lanka, reflecting the island’s role in fostering cross-cultural and religious connections.
    • Despite the island’s uninhabited status, the presence of St. Antony’s Church on Katchatheevu underscores its spiritual significance, offering a space for devotion and community gatherings.
    • The festival and the island’s religious sites serve as a testament to the shared heritage and enduring bonds between the fishing communities across the Palk Strait, transcending the geopolitical disputes that have marred the region.

Way Forward

  • Bilateral Negotiations and Agreements
    • Strengthen diplomatic channels to facilitate open and continuous dialogue between India and Sri Lanka, focusing on revisiting and potentially revising the 1974 and 1976 agreements to reflect current realities and mutual interests.
    • Establish a bilateral framework that specifically addresses the rights and concerns of fishermen from both countries, ensuring sustainable fishing practices and the protection of livelihoods.
  • Legal and Policy Reforms
    • Consider the possibility of legal reforms within both countries to provide a clear, fair, and mutually agreed upon framework for managing the maritime boundary and fishing rights.
    • Implement policy measures that support the livelihoods of affected fishermen, including compensation for losses, assistance in transitioning to sustainable fishing methods, and alternative livelihood options.
  • Joint Monitoring and Enforcement
    • Initiate a jointly managed patrol and monitoring system to oversee activities in the disputed waters, aiming to prevent illegal fishing and reduce the incidence of detentions.
    • Develop a joint crisis management protocol to handle incidents involving fishermen humanely and efficiently, minimizing tensions and fostering goodwill.
  • Community Engagement and Support
    • Enhance cross-border community engagement programs that build trust and understanding between the fishing communities of both nations, including cultural and religious exchanges.
    • Provide support and resources to the fishing communities for sustainable practices, including training in modern, eco-friendly fishing techniques and access to better safety equipment.
  • Regional and International Cooperation
    • Seek the involvement of regional and international bodies to facilitate dialogue and provide technical assistance in resolving the dispute, ensuring that solutions are in line with international maritime laws and sustainable development goals.


The Katchatheevu issue, entangled in legal, political, and socio-economic complexities, continues to strain India-Sri Lanka relations while significantly impacting the lives of Tamil Nadu fishermen. Despite diplomatic efforts to address the dispute, the detention of fishermen and the loss of traditional fishing grounds remain pressing concerns. The island’s cultural and religious importance further underscores the need for a compassionate and sustainable resolution that respects the rights and livelihoods of the affected communities.

Practice Question

Evaluate the impact of the Katchatheevu issue on India-Sri Lanka relations and discuss the measures that should be taken to resolve the ongoing disputes between the two nations. (250 words)

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