Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s remark in the Supreme Court on Tuesday that India will have to wage war with Sri Lanka if it wants to retrieve the Katchatheevu island is a blunt admission of the impossibility of the demand frequently raised by Tamil Nadu politicians. Katchatheevu, an uninhabited stretch of sand with no source of drinking water off Rameswaram, was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974 while the two nations settled the international boundary. No mainstream Tamil political group had questioned the decision then. Fishermen from India were allowed landing rights, including permission to dry their gear since the island was part of the commons and accessed by all fishermen, irrespective of nationality. People were also allowed to visit the island during the annual festivities in the church, the only building on the island. For decades, Katchatheevu has been in the possession of Sri Lanka.
So what has provoked Tamil politicians to dispute the ownership of the island now? Katchatheevu has in recent times become entwined with the fate of Tamil fishermen in Sri Lankan jails. A number of them have been arrested by the Sri Lankan navy for trespassing into Lankan waters. It has become a political issue in Tamil Nadu with parties competing to rake it up. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa and others have demanded Central intervention. The real issue here is that fishermen who operate out of the Rameswaram harbour now try to fish in Lankan waters since overfishing has exhausted the catch on the Indian side. Ownership of Katchatheevu and the sea around would mean an expansion of the waters under Indian control.
The way forward is to address the core issue, which is the plight of fishermen whose livelihood is under threat. A new harbour could be built to the north of Rameswaram to enable fishermen to explore the Bay of Bengal. Fishermen who now scrounge the Palk Straits could be provided gear and training for deep sea fishing in the Indian Ocean. Better fisheries management is necessary to avoid overcrowding and overfishing. Instead of resorting to nationalist rhetoric, politicians must focus their energies on addressing the livelihood concerns of fishermen. And, they must work the diplomatic channels to ensure that Indian fishermen do not disappear into Lankan jails.