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Kachchatheevu – Mixed Signals

Paper No. 6124                                 Dated 09-Jun-2016

Guest Column by Prof. V. Suryanarayan

The popular Tamil news channel Puthiya Thalamurai last week came out with the sensational news that Sri Lankan naval personnel are present in the Island of Kachchatheevu. Sri Lanka watchers who were interviewed were of the view that Sri Lankan Navy was supervising the reconstruction of St. Anthony’s Church. St Anthony is the guardian angel of fishermen who will rescue them when the waters of the Palk Bay become turbulent.

During the last St. Anthony’s festival which was held at the end of March 2016 the Bishop of Jaffna told Vice-Admiral Wijeguneratne that the existing Church has become very old and it cannot accommodate large number of pilgrims. He suggested that a bigger Church should be constructed. The oral suggestion was followed by a formal request by Rev. Dr Bernard Gnanaprakasam. The foundation stone for the new Church was laid on Monday, May 9, 2016.  

St. Anthony’s Church is a sacred place for devout Christians living on both sides of the Palk Bay. According to the 1972 Gazetteer of Ramanathapuram during St. Anthony’s festival a Catholic priest from Thangachimadam (near Rameshwaram) would visit Kachchatheevu and   conduct the mass. The Church is believed to have been constructed by a fisherman from Rameshwaram named Seenikuppan Padayachi to fulfill a vow. Consequent to the 1974 India-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary Agreement the island became a part of Sri Lanka. Since then the Church is under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Jaffna.

St. Anthony’s Church had always been a good illustration of camaraderie and common heritage. Therefore, it would have been proper if the Bishop of Jaffna had worked in unison with the Christians living on the Indian side before making the formal request to Colombo. Unfortunately it was not done and the foundation stone laying ceremony triggered a controversy between Chennai and New Delhi and between India and Sri Lanka.   

The first to enter the fray was Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Jayalalitha characterized the construction of the new Church as a “carefully calculated provocation which will adversely affect the traditional rights enjoyed by Tamil Nadu fishermen”. She added that Sri Lanka should be prevailed upon to accept the construction of the Church jointly by India and Sri Lanka after getting the consent of Tamil Nadu fishermen. New Delhi, in turn, took up the matter with the Government of Sri Lanka. Indian concern about the reported moves had the desired effect. According to media reports Navy Commander Ravindra Wijegunaratne told the Sunday Times that construction work has been suspended until all issues are resolved. However Sri Lankan naval presence in the island continues.

It may be recalled that the Island of Kachchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka consequent to the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Maritime Boundary Agreement in June 1974. Chief Minister Jayalalitha is not reconciled to this reality. She emphatically maintains that the island was part of the Zamindari of Raja of Ramnad and when Zamindari was abolished the Island became a part of Madras Presidency. She is also of the view if Indian territory is to be ceded to a neighbouring country there should be a constitutional amendment. New Delhi did not amend the Constitution in 1974 and, therefore, the ceding of the island is unconstitutional and invalid. Jayalaitha has filed a case in the Supreme Court for judicial remedy; judgment is yet to be delivered.  As far as New Delhi is concerned, it has made it clear that Kachchatheevu is a closed chapter and it has absolutely no intention to reopen the issue of ownership of the island.

However, Indian Tamil fishermen continued to enjoy traditional rights of fishing in the Palk Bay. Sardar Swaran Singh, then Minister of External affairs, informed Lok Sabha that Indian fishermen continued to enjoy the rights of fishing in and around Kachchatheevu. But these rights were also bartered away in the Exchange of Letters dated March 23, 1976. The letters were signed by Kewal Singh, Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India and W T Jayasinghe, Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defence, Government of Sri Lanka.

According to the 1974 Agreement, Indian fishermen continued to enjoy the right to take rest and drying of their nets in Kachchatheevu. They could also visit the island without taking visa to participate in St. Anthony’s festival. In this connection two points deserve mention. Fishermen have switched over to nylon nets and these nets do not require any drying. Second, during the protracted ethnic conflict, for security reasons, St. Anthony’s festival was not held at all. After the end of the war, the festival has resumed, but it is no longer a common festival, but one which is organized by the Bishop of Jaffna where, as a matter of tradition, Indian pilgrims are allowed to participate.  Shared heritage has receded to the background; the concept of sovereignty reigns supreme.

Indian Tamil fishermen continue to enter Sri Lankan waters in large numbers. During the ethnic conflict they were occasionally subjected to firing by Sri Lankan Navy. Some lost their lives, many more were injured, fishing trawlers were damaged and fish, worth crores of rupees, were dumped into the sea. What is more relevant today, Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen who want to resume fishing find the presence of Indian trawlers to be the major hindrance to their livelihood. If the embittered Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen take up to arms, Palk Bay will be spilled with Tamil blood. A likely scenario which will have adverse consequence for all concerned.

New Delhi’s timely intervention few years ago prevented a serious crisis developing in India-Sri Lanka relations. Amb. Lakhan Lal Mehrotra was the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka at that time. Amb. Mehrotra informed the Author that when he came to know that the Minister for Internal Security Lalith Athulathmudali was contemplating the promulgation of an ordinance converting the maritime waters between India and Sri Lanka into a “prohibited Zone” he immediately expressed his protest and Colombo gave up the move.

A time bomb is ticking in the Palk Bay. The need of the hour is statesmanship. New Delhi must convert this crisis into an opportunity. This can be done only if India projects a vision that the Palk Bay is not a contested territory, but common heritage. What is more, instead of imposing a solution from above, a solution from below has to be worked out. This will come about only as a result of dialogue among fishermen of both countries. Colombo and New Delhi must consider Palk Bay not as a contested territory, but as common heritage which it was for several centuries.

(Prof. V. Suryanarayan is founding Director and former Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. His e mail id: