Last Sunday, Sri Lankan Navy personnel arrested eight more Indian fishermen who were fishing near Neduntheevu, close to the Lankan coast. Already on November 26, fifteen Indian fishermen from the Southindian state Tamil Nadu were arrested on charges of allegedly violating the International Maritime Boundary Line between India and Sri Lanka. Currently, a total of 37 fishermen and 55 boats are held in Sri Lankan custody, after the Sri Lankan Navy had arrested 34 fishermen on different occasions earlier in November on charges of poaching in Sri Lankan waters.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa urged India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to secure the release of the fisherman. In her letter, she emphasized that the fishermen were fishing in the Palk Bay which "historically is their traditional fishing waters". The Tamil Nadu government does not recognize India's Supreme Court rulings that accepted the ceding of the islet of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka under the Indo-Sri Lankan agreements of 1974 which established the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) in the Palk Strait. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, said the ceding of the uninhabited islet to Sri Lanka under the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreements of 1974 and 1976 was the root cause of the fishermen's problem. She urged the the central Government of India to find a permanent solution to "this long pending and vexatious" issue. "I have repeatedly and emphatically brought to your notice Tamil Nadu's consistent stance about the unconstitutionality of the Indo-Sri Lankan Agreements of 1974 and 1976 and the ceding of the Katchatheevu islet, which is the root cause of the problem," the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister wrote.
Katchatheevu is situated in the very centre of the Palk Street that divides Sri Lanka from India. The island of a seize 1.15 square kilomtres originated from a volcanic eruption that occurred in the 14th century. It is now administered by Sri Lanka. But the Indian State Tamil Nadu claims the island was originally owned by the Ramanad Kingdom of Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district and later became part of the British Madras Presidency, which was a predecessor of today’s Tamil Nadu state (and other Southindian states).
But during British Rule Katchatheevu the administration was shared by British Ceylon. Around 1921 Ceylon started claiming territorial rights over the island. The ownership of the island was controversial between India and Ceylon / Sri Lanka up until 1974, when India recognized Sri Lankan ownership in the above mentioned IMBL agreement. The Indo-Sri Lankan agreement allows Indian fishermen to fish around Katchatheevu and to dry their nets on the Sri Lankan island, which situated on the Indian side of the maritime boundary. But fisherman from Tamil Nadu often take the opportunity to move into undisputably Sri Lankan territorial waters. This is treated by Sri Lankan authorities as illegal paoching and, during recent years, Indian nationals have been arrested in Sri Lankan territorial waters regularly, causing tensions between Delhi and Colombo.
The recognition of Sri Lankan ownership of the island has continuously led to agitations by Tamil Nadu politicians against the Indian government. The legality of the transfer was challenged in the Indian Supreme Court, since the recognizing was not ratified by the Indian parliament through amendment of the Constitution. But the Indian government has stated that “No territory belonging to India was ceded nor sovereignty relinquished since the area was in dispute and had never been demarcated”. In 2009, the Tamil Nadu Government declared that the area is controlled by Sri Lanka against the original pact of allowing Indian fishermen to access the water of Sri Lanka. In 2010, the Sri Lankan government issued a notice to the Tamil Nadu government saying the Indian court cannot nullify the 1974 agreement unilaterally.
All in all, this is a territorial dispute between the governments of Sri Lanka and the government of the Indian state Tamil Nadu residing in Chennai. India’s central government accepts Sri Lankan ownership of Katchatheevu. But this contributes to already existing tensions between Delhi and Chennai. Since 1967, Tamil Nadu has been ruled by two regional parties competing in intonations of anti-Hindi and anti-Delhi sentiments.
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