Earth has diverse forms of land ranging from mountains and forests to deserts. Coastal areas of all continents may have small islands and they might have a history of formation or destruction. The coastal boundary of India begins from Gujarat in the west and Bengal on the east. The southern most point falls under the region of Tamil Nadu, and slightly along the east there are a series of little islands. Well known island of Tamil Nadu is Rameswaram, a major fishing hub of Tamil Nadu.
There is a myth around land connections between Rameswaram and Sri Lanka. Along the trail, there are many small islands, of which now many of them belong to Sri Lanka. One such little island spanning more than 200 acre is “Katcha theevu”, which was believed to have formed during 15th century due to natural disasters.
Katcha theevu – formation and ownership
Katcha theevu is believed to have formed by a volcanic eruption that occurred around 1480. The island was under the rule of Sethupathi kings who ruled the areas around Ramanathapuram. During British rule, it became a part of Madras Presidency, and when the Zamindari system was abolished, the ownership of the island was under question.
Sri Lanka claimed Katcha theevu to be its territory though no specific historical records supported this claim. But there are several mentioning of Katcha theevu in the history of Tamil rulers such as Sethupathy kings of Ramanathapuram.
Indo-Sri Lankan agreement
The disputes continued until 1974 when the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, entered into an agreement with Sri Lanka giving away the island to the ownership of Sri Lanka. She further noted that it was given on the basis of friendly terms with the neighbouring country and not based on historical facts. The agreement however allowed Indian fishermen to sail around the islands and dry their nets in it.
When the civil war started in Sri Lanka, complaints arose on the grounds of Katcha theevu as acting a base for smuggling weapons by LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Since then Indian fishermen were not allowed to sail around or enter the island. Main point to note here is – such fishermen were branded as “Tamil” fishermen. Though they are Indians, being a Tamil fisherman is a disturbing term for Sri Lankan navy forces as they were against Tamil extremist protestors.
Sensitivity of the issue
Since the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement over Katcha theevu, there arose several political agitations in Tamil Nadu, claiming that the island was given away without consulting the government of Tamil Nadu. Several efforts to bring it back to India was initiated by the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu over the decades. But the killing of Indian fishermen continue to happen along the marine borders.
There are rules regarding crossing borders. Land borders are visible, but oceanic borders? Most of the fishermen cross seas due to lack of awareness, negligence or to catch more fish. Sri Lanka claims that its marine resources get depleted due to illegal poaching. The issue remains unsolved for several decades and a little island with no inhabitants remains as a topic of political debates.
The most powerful source of information today is media. But they project Tamil fishermen as “Tamil” and not Indians. This secludes them to a small cultural or ethnic group and their loss is not acknowledged nationwide.
India is a developing nation by all means and like any other country, it tries to strengthen its borders and enter friendly relations with all neighbouring countries. The only neighbouring country at the south is Sri Lanka and there are only water boundary and no existing land boundary. It is essential to mark clear water boundaries with use of technology and educate fishermen so that they understand where to sail and where not. This may help to maintain peace and save lives of fishermen along the little uninhabited island – Katcha theevu.