In his first term in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi entrusted to his colleague and then Union Minister of State for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, Pon Radhakrishnan, the task of finding a solution to the Indian fishermen’s issue with Sri Lanka. Mr. Radhakrishnan had invited 200 fishermen from Rameshwaram to hold discussions with the officials concerned in New Delhi. As he was aware of this writer’s work on the subject, Mr. Radhakrishnan invited this writer too. In a public meeting at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s headquarters, 19 of the fishermen spoke about the ceding of Katchatheevu and how Indian fishermen were being shot by the Sri Lankan Navy. When this writer’s turn came, he complimented the fishermen for their lucid speeches. But he added that none of them had touched upon the relevant problem. At this point he asked: “Do the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen have the right to fish in their waters?” There was stunned silence in the hall.

From the perspective of Tamil Nadu, the root cause of the problem is a conflict of interests. On the one side are the two governments which do not want to reopen the issue of Katchatheevu. On the other side are the Indian fishermen who will not easily give up a means of livelihood which they have enjoyed for several years.

There are two interrelated issues that should be kept in mind. First, the unilateral scrapping of a bilateral agreement will have profound consequences not only on India-Sri Lanka relations but also with several of India’s other neighbouring countries. Bilateral agreements have a sanctity of their own and cannot be scrapped based on the whims and fancies of every party in power. At the same time, the Centre should be urged to take immediate steps to ensure the livelihood of fishermen on both sides of the Palk Strait. It would be unwise to attempt to create a Berlin Wall in the Palk Strait. India and Sri Lanka are like Siamese twins. What afflicts one will affect the other.

The quest for a peaceful solution

This writer’s research on the subject began in early 1990. The objective was to find a peaceful solution so that the livelihood of the fishermen was not in jeopardy. The greatest problem was that all the primary sources relating to Katchatheevu had been taken away by New Delhi. At that time there was no Right to Information Act and this writer had to rely on secondary sources and interviews with the lead players.

In 1974, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in the Opposition. In a debate in the Lok Sabha, he characterised the gifting of Katchatheevu as Bhoodan. He asked BJP leader Jana Krishnamurthy to file a case in the Madras High Court seeking judicial remedy. Jana’s appeal was dismissed because he could not produce even a shred of evidence to prove that Katchatheevu was a part of the Zamindari of the Raja of Ramnad and that once the Zamindari was abolished, it had become a part of the Madras Presidency.

After studying the pros and cons, this writer came up with two suggestions. First, get back the island of Katchatheevu on lease in perpetuity — Tin Bigha in reverse. The sovereignty of Sri Lanka would be upheld but India could use the island and the surrounding waters for the purpose of fishing as a result of lease in perpetuity. Those days, Tamil Nadu fishermen did not venture far into Sri Lankan waters. The second suggestion was to allow Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters up to five nautical miles. There was a precedent to this. Under the 1976 Agreement, Sri Lankan fishermen were permitted to fish near the Wadge Bank, near Kanniyakumari, for three years. While the Tamil Nadu governments (both the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) accepted this writer’s suggestions, the greatest obstacle was in the form of New Delhi refusing to reopen the issue.

Introduction of trawling

Another important point needs to be highlighted. In the 1960s and 1970s, India faced a severe financial crisis. Indira Gandhi gave several incentives for ventures that earned foreign exchange. At that time prawns were a great delicacy in Japan and the European countries. As a result, bottom trawlers were introduced in the Palk Bay. The ethnic conflict was a godsend for the Indian fishermen. The Sri Lankan government had banned fishing and the Tamil fishermen from Sri Lanka came to India as refugees. They were employed by trawler owners and with their guidance, Indian fishermen began venturing deep into Sri Lankan waters. India’s foreign exchange earnings went up, but most of it was due to prawns that were caught in Sri Lankan waters.

The use of bottom trawlers did incalculable harm to the sea bed. The trawlers swept away everything from the sea bed, resulting in no fish being available on the Indian side of the Palk Bay. Indian fishermen have to enter Sri Lankan waters to fish. And Sri Lankan fishermen began to complain that Indian trawlers would also destroy their sea bed. What is more, bottom trawlers are banned in Sri Lanka.

The need to have good personal relations with Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike was the main reason guiding India’s Sri Lanka policy. By early 1974, Mrs. Gandhi was determined to cede the island. According to S.P. Jagota, then Director of the Legal and Treaties Division, Mrs Gandhi overruled the views of senior officials. What is more, she was even prepared to modify the median line so that Katchatheevu would fall on the Sri Lankan side. The Agreement, however, provided for the continued use of Sri Lankan waters around the island for the purposes of fishing, but this right was also given up under the 1976 Agreement.

M. Karunanidhi’s attitude, to say the least, was strange. Before the signing of the Agreement, then Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh visited Madras to hold discussions. M. Karunanidhi should have followed the stance taken by B.C. Roy, who went to the Supreme Court of India on the issue of transfer of Berubari to East Pakistan. B.C. Roy submitted evidence that Beru Bari was an integral part of India and to give away Indian territory to a foreign country, the Constitution would have to be amended. The Court upheld the claim.

M. Karunanidhi should have filed a case in the Court and prevented the ceding of the island. Instead, he got a resolution passed by the State Legislative Assembly. A resolution on a subject exclusively under the Centre’s jurisdiction is not binding, whereas a judicial decision is binding on all concerned. This writer repeatedly asked then Law Minister S. Madhavan why M. Karunanidhi did not follow the West Bengal example. There was no convincing answer. It is reasonable to conclude that New Delhi had blackmailed M. Karunanidhi into submission.

Two interrelated points must be highlighted. Even if India were to get back the island of Katchatheevu, the problems faced by Indian fishermen will continue. And, if the Sri Lankan government were to file a case in the International Court of Justice — as the Philippines did against China a few years ago — India’s image in the comity of nations would take a nose dive. Let us remember that the judgment indicted China. The politicians of various hues in Tamil Nadu who are raising an outcry today about Katchatheevu should realise that the problems Indian fishermen face are the result of Indian fishermen venturing deep into Sri Lankan waters and also the excessive use of bottom trawlers, which are banned in Sri Lanka.

The need for bold decisions

Every challenge provides an opportunity. The problems in the Palk Bay can be solved only if we start thinking outside the box. Here are two suggestions. The Palk Bay is not a barrier but a bridge between India and Sri Lanka. We must convert the Palk Bay from being a contested territory to one that is a common heritage. The first essential prerequisite is for the Government of India to ban all fishing equipment which are banned in Sri Lanka. And then, we should work to ensure that fishermen can equitably enjoy the rich marine wealth. There can be a formula: Sri Lankan fishermen can fish in the Palk Bay for three days, while Indian fishermen can fish on the other three days. One day can be a holiday. Second, let us encourage the Tamil fishermen of both countries to meet, form cooperative societies, and venture into deep-sea fishing. The trawlers can be modified into vessels that can assist the mother ship.

Such joint ventures will also help repair the damage Indian fishermen have caused to the livelihood of their Tamil counterparts. It is only bold initiatives such as these that can lead to a win-win situation.

V. Suryanarayan is the Founding Director and Senior Professor (retired), at the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies (CSSEAS), University of Madras. E-mail: