Katchatheevu | Foreign Secretary cited India’s security interests in 1974, to convince Karunanidhi to cede island to Sri Lanka

The documents throw light on the talks between then Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh and Mr. Karunanidhi, and the former’s emphasis on the India’s weak legal case for sovereignty over the island

April 04, 2024 02:46 pm | Updated 06:51 pm IST - CHENNAI

Sri Lankan and Indian pilgrims leave Katchatheevu after attending the St. Anthonys Church festival in 2023.

Sri Lankan and Indian pilgrims leave Katchatheevu after attending the St. Anthonys Church festival in 2023. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Documents shared by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) with BJP state president K. Annamalai recently under the Right to Information Act, have no doubt established that then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi was taken into confidence by the Centre before India signed an agreement with Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on the Katchatheevu islet in 1974.

While this has exposed the claim of Karunanidhi who had said he was not a party to the cessation of Katchatheevu during his lifetime, the documents also throw light on how the Government of India cited the country’s security interests and a weak legal case against Sri Lanka to convince him of the proposal to cede the island.

Also read: Katchatheevu | It was Jayalalithaa who fought for retrieval of island in Parliament, recalls AIADMK MLA Thalavai N. Sundaram

The MEA (Historical Division) document prepared by its Director B.K. Basu, details the record of talks held in Madras on June 19, 1974 between the Chief Minister and Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh in connection with the consideration on the question of Kachchativu (as spelt in the records). Mr. Basu was privy to the discussions along with then Tamil Nadu Chief Secretary P. Sabanayagam and Home Secretary S.P. Ambrose.

The purpose of the hour long meeting was to keep Tamil Nadu fully informed of the developments in the talks with Sri Lanka and get the benefit of its views and suggestions.

‘There is no map in which Katchatheevu has been shown to be a part of India’

As per the records, Singh explained to Karunanidhi the relative weakness of India’s case for sovereignty over Katchatheevu -- then spelled as Kachchativu -- as compared to that of Ceylon. Although the Raja of Ramnad had claimed the island belonged to him from time immemorial “there is no document which establishes his original title to the island”. The island is not mentioned in the Ramnad Manual nor in the Sanad granted to him in 1803 which listed some 21,057 villages as comprising the entire zamindari. There is no map in which the island has been shown to be a part of India.

On the other hand, the Foreign Secretary said, Sri Lanka has in its possession direct evidence to establish that Kachchativu has been included within its territory for several centuries. “Besides Sri Lanka side is very much aware of the correspondence between the Government of India and the Secretary of State during 1921-24 which ultimately led to the recommendations of the Government of India that Kachchativu belonged to Ceylon.”

Singh told Karunanidhi that Sri Lanka, being convinced of the superiority of its case, and also aware of the shortcomings of India’s case, “had maintained a sustained pressure on us to refer the issue to the International Court of Justice for a decision, if we could not settle it bilaterally at an early date.” It wanted the issue to be settled by June 1974.

Karunanidhi gave multiple options

Karunanidhi wanted to know if the issue could be kept pending for two years. However, the Foreign Secretary cited domestic and external compulsions, favouring an expeditious settlement. Among the domestic compulsions, he said, “in strictest confidence”, that oil structures were reported to have been located in that area and that at that time, the Sri Lankan side was presumably not aware of this. If the settlement was delayed and knowledge about this oil strike became available, the settlement would become more intractable.

Among the external compulsions, he mentioned the persistent threat from Sri Lanka to begin to exercise jurisdiction, in view of the extensive drilling operations they had already begun in the Gulf of Mannar area. The Foreign Secretary pointed to the existence of a “very strong pro-China lobby in Sri Lanka”, which was eager to take advantage of any misunderstanding between India and Sri Lanka and which may have been urging them to refer the dispute for arbitration or even go to the World Court to embarrass India. “Any further delay in solving the issue would in effect be playing into the hands of elements inimically disposed to India,” he told Karunanidhi.

When Karunanidhi wondered if the issue could not, at a later stage, be referred for an opinion to the World Court, Singh explained the difficulties inherent in arbitration by a third party and cited the Kashmir and Kutch arbitration issues. He said world opinion tended to side with a small against a big country. “Any course other than political negotiations would harm our national interest and would augment influence of other foreign powers such as China and adversely affect our security and economic interests,” he cautioned.

On the substance of the proposal Karunanidhi indicated that he was inclined to accept the suggested solution. His difficulty was, however, that he could not take the opposition into confidence without sharing with them the knowledge about the oil strike and convince them about the need to accept the compromise.

Karunanidhi then told the Foreign Secretary that for obvious political reasons he could not be expected to take a public stand in favour of it. He assured the Foreign Secretary that he would help keep the reaction at a low key and would not allow it to be played up.

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