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'Ceding' Katchatheevu: BJP is Raking Up a Non-Issue, But Tamil Nadu Knows Better

The sudden re-emergence of the Katchatheevu issue has taken even seasoned poll analysts in Tamil Nadu by surprise.

4 min read
Hindi Female

As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strains every nerve to make an impact in the South, Tamil Nadu has increasingly been a state of focus for the party. This week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a broadside against the Congress party and its INDIA bloc partner, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, accusing it of gifting away the island of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka.

The PM suggested that the Congress could not be trusted to safeguard the integrity of India, considering they had ceded this island to Sri Lanka in 1974.

The sudden re-emergence of the Katchatheevu issue took even seasoned poll analysts in Tamil Nadu by surprise.

The island had been a political issue in the state for decades but never really a vote-catching one.

At one stage, during the height of the Eelam War, as Indian fishermen were being shot by the Sri Lankan Navy, there was anger – and this issue did have some resonance. But since the war ended in 2009, there has been relative calm, though fishermen continue to be arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy and released a few weeks later.

Even in those days, the emotive impact was limited to one district of the state, Ramanathapuram, whose fishermen were affected by the actions of the Sri Lankan Navy in the Palk Straits. So, why raise the issue now after quoting the reply to what seems like a set up RTI filed by the BJP's own Tamil Nadu Unit President, Annamalai, when there has been no real provocation?


Why Bring Up the Issue Now?

The answer lies in the electoral battle in Tamil Nadu. The BJP now contesting in alliance with the PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi), and a few smaller parties, finds itself in an unenviable position in the state that goes to polls in the first phase on 19 April.

Almost all opinion polls show the DMK-Congress combine winning the vast majority of seats, and though the BJP is seen to be gaining in vote share, they aren't seen to be in a position to win many seats. This, despite the Prime Minister's multiple visits to the state in the last few months.

While the BJP has always been a small party in Tamil Nadu with a vote share of around 3-5 percent, this time, it has aggressively been claiming that it would emerge as a major force in the state. As the campaign picked up pace, that claim seems to be unravelling.

The island of Katchatheevu has had a long history. For over two centuries, it belonged to the Princely State of Ramnad, but after Independence, its ownership appears to have been unclear. So, the Government of India took the stand in 1974 that they were not ceding Indian territory, as Katchatheevu had not been clearly demarcated as such.

That is why Parliament approval was not obtained when ceding the island, which covers an area of a few hundred acres. In return, India got Wedge Bank, an area of several thousand square kilometres off the coast of Kanyakumari.

The BJP believes that raising the issue of Katchatheevu would help it paint the DMK, and by extension, its partner, the Congress, as not being 'nationalistic enough' in their outlook. The DMK, in its early days, has flirted with separatism – and the BJP, perhaps, believes that there is still a streak of Dravidian nationalism in the party that it can exploit to its advantage. 

Why the BJP is in for a Disappointment

But if the saffron party believes that the Katchatheevu issue would bring it a sizable number of votes, it is likely mistaken. While many still accuse the then DMK government led by former chief minister M Karunanidhi of not doing enough to prevent the island from being handed over to Sri Lanka, using the same to embarrass his son and current Chief Minister MK Stalin is unlikely to work.

Katchatheevu is perceived as an issue on which nothing much can be done now, and except perhaps for a small number of fishermen of the region, no one seriously expects India to get the island back.

The question has also been asked about what the Modi government has done about this issue in the last 10 years, except tell the courts that retrieving the island was virtually impossible. Embarrassingly for Jaishankar, in 2015, when he was Foreign Secretary, his ministry had answered a question on Katchatheevu, saying that no Indian territory was ceded to Sri Lanka under the 1974 Agreement as the exact status of the island had not been determined then. 

Indeed, neither PM Modi nor Jaishankar, since they raised the issue this week, have ventured to speak about what the official government position on Katchatheevu is. Are they going to talk to the Government of Sri Lanka to try to get back the island? Is India planning to unilaterally abrogate the agreement signed in 1974? Extremely unlikely.

This entire issue is likely just for political point-scoring in a bid to dent the INDIA bloc in Tamil Nadu. That is why it is being raised through a convenient RTI on the eve of the elections. For the BJP, it is yet another throw of the dice to make inroads into a territory that has been one of the most resistant to its political juggernaut.

Tamil Nadu has repeatedly disappointed the BJP – and they are throwing everything into the electoral battle this time. If they believe Katchatheevu to be an issue they can exploit, they are going to be in for disappointment and soon. 

(Sumanth C Raman is a television anchor and political analyst. He tweets @sumanthraman. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Sri Lanka   Tamil Nadu   Election 

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