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Sri Lankan islet with Catholic shrine makes waves in Indian polls

India's ruling BJP aims to score over domestic opponents, and may not want a diplomatic row over Kachchatheevu in the Palk Strait
Catholic pilgrims from India and Sri Lanka travel by boat to celebrate St. Anthony's feast every year, on Katchatheevu Island in the Palk Strait.

Catholic pilgrims from India and Sri Lanka travel by boat to celebrate St. Anthony's feast every year, on Katchatheevu Island in the Palk Strait. (Photo: UCAN files)

Published: April 04, 2024 12:05 PM GMT
Updated: April 04, 2024 12:09 PM GMT

It’s election season in India and a little-known island with a Catholic shrine lying between India and Sri Lanka has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight.

The 285-acre, uninhabited Kachchatheevu Island in the Palk Strait belongs to Sri Lanka. Every year, thousands of Indian and Sri Lankan pilgrims sail to the shrine for the annual festival of Saint Anthony of Padua, considered the patron saint of fisher people.

Kachchatheevu was once a point of dispute between the countries, but in 1974 India ceded the island to Sri Lanka through a maritime agreement.

Another agreement in 1976 “restricted” fishing activities in each others' exclusive economic zones.

But fisher people from both countries continue to visit the shrine, built by an Indian Catholic in 1905, without requiring passports or visas as agreed in 1974.

For decades now, the Catholic fisherfolk’s festival, which falls on the second Sunday of every Lent season, has fostered Indian-Sri Lankan friendship.

But as the election campaigns began to heat up in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 31, which happened to be Easter Sunday, recalled how the island was “callously given away” by the then Congress government to Sri Lanka.

Foreign Minister Dr. Subramanyam Jaishankar, a former career diplomat, also slammed the principal opposition party for "weakening" the country's integrity and interests.

"We believe the public has a right to know not only who did it but also who hid it," Jaishankar said.

The foreign minister raised the heat further by pointing out how "in the last 20 years, 6,184 Indian fishermen have been detained by Sri Lanka and in the same period 1,175 Indian fishing vessels have been seized, detained or apprehended.”

This is the background of the issue that is being raised, he told media people in New Delhi.

The statements from India’s prime minister and foreign minister were not aimed at Colombo. More than a diplomatic tussle, it was a poll strategy aimed at the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Modi’s pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has hardly any acceptance among the Tamil-speaking people. The state sends 39 representatives to the 543-member national parliament.

So far, the BJP has only managed to win a single seat twice, in 1999 and 2014.

So, Modi seems to have decided to take up an issue that may resonate with the fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu’s coastal areas, projecting BJP as the champion of their interests.

Interestingly, nobody mentioned that Indian fisher-people did not take part in the St. Anthony festival this year as a protest against Sri Lanka arresting their colleagues. 

On Feb. 16, a magistrates court in Sri Lanka sentenced two fishermen from India to six months imprisonment for allegedly entering Sri Lankan maritime waters with illegal GPS equipment. This prompted fishermen from Rameswaram to stay away from the feast in protest against the “unfair” judgment.

Yet, BJP poll strategists feel their timing of raising the issues surrounding the island would expose the Congress and its alliance partner in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK or Dravidian Progressive Federation).

It may not be the BJP’s intention to start a major diplomatic battle with Sri Lanka but it may end up triggering just that while trying to score politically against the Congress and the DMK.

“So far in this election season this issue has been the biggest surprise,” said senior journalist Shekhar Gupta.

Congress senior leader P Chidambaram, who has been a federal minister in the past, advised Jaishankar to refer to a reply by his ministry in 2015 that “justified the circumstances under which India acknowledged that a small island belonged to Sri Lanka.”

“Why is the foreign minister and his ministry doing a somersault now? How quickly can people change colors?” he asked.

Chidambaram has been an elected lawmaker from Tamil Nadu in the past and knows the island issue well.

Even Shiv Shankar Menon, a former foreign secretary, said that the Modi government is wrong in raking up an old diplomatic matter in a political context.

“The situation on the ground is hard to reverse, but such issues being raised by the country's leadership will damage the credibility of the country and could be an own-goal,” Menon was quoted as saying by The Hindu newspaper.

Another ex-diplomat Ashok Kantha, a former Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, said: “Sovereignty and territorial integrity are not issues where the government's position changes the agreements. It would set a bad example."

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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