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Political row erupts in India over island ceded to Sri Lanka 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accused opposition parties of “weakening” the country’s integrity 50 years ago  

A small uninhabited island at the center of a territorial dispute between India and Sri Lanka in the 1970s has stirred a fresh political row in New Delhi ahead of general elections in the country. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several key ministers of his government have waded into the controversy over the island of Katchatheevu, located 33km off India’s coast, accusing the opposition Congress Party of “weakening” the country’s integrity and interests by ceding the territory to neighboring Sri Lanka while in power in 1974.  

The cession of the island took place under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Congress. The 163-acre territory was part of the Madras Presidency during British colonial rule, and had been used by fishermen from both countries. The 1974 Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Agreement renounced India’s claim to the island. Indian fishermen were granted the right to fish in the surrounding waters, although in 1976 another pact was signed which barred them from waters around the island. 

Speaking at a political rally in Meerut on Sunday, Modi claimed that India cannot trust a party that gave away an “integral part” of its territory. He was reacting to an article published in the Times of India, which revealed the details of how the decision to cede the island to Sri Lanka was reached. The report was based on documents obtained by Tamil Nadu BJP chief K Annamalai through an RTI (Right to Information) application. Modi, who leads the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the main rival of Congress – has described the revelations in the report as “eye-opening and startling.”

Modi also targeted the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party that rules the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which is close to the island and has historical ties with Sri Lanka. Citing the Times of India report, Modi said the then-Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi had given consent to the 1974 agreement, despite the DMK’s public posturing against the pact. 

The accusations have stirred political tensions in Tamil Nadu, a state where the BJP traditionally struggles to gain more influence – India’s largest party has only four members in the 234-member state assembly. The DMK, seen as a regional powerhouse, is part of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), a bloc of opposition parties that aim to defeat the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the forthcoming general elections. 

On Monday, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar commented on the row, saying Sri Lanka had detained more than 6,000 Indian fishermen and 1,175 fishing vessels over the last two decades, following the 1976 deal. Speaking at a press conference at the BJP headquarters in Delhi, Jaishankar claimed that the prime ministers under Congress rule displayed indifference towards Katchatheevu and gave away Indian fishermen’s rights, despite now publicly “posturing” for their cause. He alleged that the DMK “connived” with the Congress in 1974. 

P Chidambaram, a senior leader of the Congress, questioned why Modi had brought up the 1974 Island issue now and urged him instead to speak on the “Chinese occupation” of India. Ties between New Delhi and Beijing are strained following a 2020 skirmish in the Ladakh region that caused casualties on both sides. The border dispute remains unresolved despite de-escalation efforts and ongoing talks to achieve complete disengagement. 

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April 02, 2024 at 02:41PM

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