Katchatheevu row backfires on BJP as debate steers towards Wadge Bank reclamation
Representative photo: iStock

Katchatheevu row backfires on BJP as debate steers towards Wadge Bank reclamation

Fishermen groups question Modi govt's silence for 10 years; many laud Indira Gandhi for exchanging Katchatheevu for Wadge Bank, a richer biodiversity zone

The BJP’s move of raking up the Katchatheevu island issue in Tamil Nadu ahead of the Lok Sabha elections may have backfired, as the debate has now shifted to the Congress government’s acquisition of the Wadge Bank in 1976 and why it is a 'richer' asset.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday stirred the hornet’s nest after he accused the Congress government led by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of "callously" cedeing Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974.

Modi made his claims on the basis of an RTI reply received by Tamil Nadu BJP president K Annamalai. In another social media post on Monday, he accused the DMK, which was in power in the state at that time, of being in cahoots with the Congress government in the deal.

'Family units'

“The Congress and DMK are family units. They only care about their own sons and daughters rising. They don't care for anyone else. Their callousness on Katchatheevu has harmed the interests of our poor fishermen and fisherwomen in particular,” he posted on X on Monday.

The BJP’s strategy of using the sensitive issue, however, seems to have boomeranged as several fishermen associations have questioned the sudden concern of the Union government about the issue when it was silent on it during its two terms since 2014.

In what has helped the Congress and the DMK, many have also steered the debate to the Wadge Bank, a submarine plateau known for its rich biodiversity, which was secured by Indira in 1976 after handing over Katchatheevu in 1974.

The 1974 India-Sri Lanka agreement is a maritime boundary agreement that affected the fishing rights of Indians in Katchatheevu. However, in 1976, Sri Lanka extended full rights to India over Wadge Bank, which is closer to Kanyakumari.

Tamil Nadu Congress Committee spokesperson, PV Senthil gave the counter argument during a press conference on Tuesday. He said Indira initiated the deal on Wadge Bank, which is much larger compared to Katchatheevu, “thinking of the livelihood of the fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.”

Katchatheevu vs Wadge Bank

Katchatheevu is a 1.09 285 acre island in the Palk Strait and close to Rameshwaram. It is an uninhabited island and lacks a drinking water source.

It is home to a church which hosts a three-day annual festival. The festival attracts devotees from both India and Sri Lanka, who visit the island with required approval.

On the other hand, Wadge Bank is a 25 lakh acre area located closer to Kanyakumari. It is rich in biodiversity and is an important part of an ocean sheltered from strong currents and waves. Experts say that only 20 Wadge Banks exist worldwide, and research indicates that Wadge Bank is preferred by fish for feeding and breeding.

Recently, there were protests in the Kanyakumari district against the Union government’s plan for an oil exploration project near Wadge Bank, as it is considered crucial for fish feeding and breeding.

Fishermen wary of BJP's claims

The BJP’s move of raising the issue during the election has been flayed by many voters, with several of them, especially in Rameshwaram and Kanyakumari questioning the timing of the RTI ‘expose’ and Modi’s diatribes.

M Sivanesan, a resident of Rameshwaram said he was happy to see politicians discussing the welfare of fishermen during the polls, but he doesn’t believe there is any way the island can be reclaimed now.

“It came as a surprise, but I'm also happy that they are talking about our welfare. I'm not sure how far this will help reclaim ownership of the island. We all know this issue cannot be resolved anytime soon," he said.

Fr. Churchil, general secretary of the South Asian Fishermen Fraternity (SAFF), told The Federal that many find it hard to believe the statements made by politicians from various parties.

“For several years, Tamil fishermen have suffered in jails in Sri Lanka. It’s unrealistic to believe that the BJP is now focusing on the welfare of the fishermen community. Political parties have not even kept our request to provide air ambulances to rescue fishermen during disasters. It is difficult to believe them now,” he said.

Will BJP’s ‘reclamation’ plan succeed?

Despite being criticised for using the issue to get votes, BJP leaders have asserted that the Modi government is indeed working towards reclaiming Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka.

Senior BJP leaders like Nirmala Sitharaman and Narayanan Tirupathy said the BJP's intention was to expose the Congress and the DMK for allegedly gifting the island without considering the rights of fishermen.

Speaking to The Federal, Tirupathy said, “Hundreds of fishermen are killed by the Sri Lankan navy. We have exposed how Congress and DMK did not care for fishermen and are not even ready to apologise for the serious mistakes committed by their ancestors. They have actually deceived the fishermen community."

He added that the BJP government's motive is only to inform people about the “dubious” distinction of the Congress-DMK combine. When asked about reclamation efforts, he said the government is pursuing legal avenues.

Sitharaman slams DMK

Asked why the BJP has brought up the issue in the run up to the polls, Sitharaman while speaking to reporters in Chennai said the BJP has exposed the DMK which had been “involved in false propaganda” on the issue and the issue can be addressed at any time.

“DMK has been indulging in false propaganda on the Katchatheevu issue for the last 50 years. We have now exposed it. We do not wait for the right time; there is no need to wait for the auspicious moment to discuss such an important issue of losing a part of our country. We can address it at any time," she told reporters.

However, the BJP's reclamation plan has also faced criticism from politicians in Sri Lanka. Senior Sri Lankan minister Jeevan Thondaman denied receiving official communication from India regarding Katchatheevu in recent months, asserting that the island remains with Sri Lanka.

Political analysts say whether the BJP was prudent in choosing the issue to woo voters in Tamil Nadu will only be revealed when the Lok Sabha polls results are out.

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