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Modi’s claim on Sri Lankan island may be more than Indian election talk

by Tunae
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) holds up the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s symbol during a road show in Chennai, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, on April 9. Photo: AFP
Last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the Congress-led government in 1974 “gave away” Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka. The island is situated between a district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s northern Jaffna peninsula.

Worryingly, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar backed Modi’s assertion at a press conference and spoke of finding a “solution”. Jaishankar’s statements raise the possibility that India could formally assert a claim over the island and that Indian fishermen will demand a return of fishing rights in the waters around it.

Indian governments, including the incumbent, have consistently stated over the years that the Katchacheevu island lay on Sri Lanka’s side of the maritime border.

Former Indian diplomats who served as high commissioners to Colombo, such as Shivshankar Menon (1997-2000) and Nirupama Menon-Rao (2004-2006), have cautioned against revisiting the agreement related to the island made by the Indian and Sri Lankan governments in 1974, saying that such a move would affect New Delhi’s credibility.

Opposition politicians from the Congress party, news analysts and former Indian diplomats link the government’s current narrative with the Tamil Nadu election on April 19. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appears to want to win votes by accusing the Congress-affiliated ruling party in Tamil Nadu of failures and by taking up the issue of Tamil Nadu’s fishermen’s rights in the Katchatheevu waters.

In 1976, New Delhi and Colombo agreed that their fishermen would not cross their maritime boundary. Over the years, Indian fishermen who ignored this have been arrested by the Sri Lankan authorities. This issue has been a source of friction between the Indian state government in Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan government.
Sri Lankan fishermen catching fish in the traditional way in Weligama on January 6, 2017. Photo: Shutterstock

Sri Lanka’s fishermen accuse their counterparts from India of using big trawlers around the island’s waters and capturing huge volumes of fish, affecting their source of subsistence. Besides, a previous Indian minister of state for external affairs had said the arrests of Indian fishermen were not directly linked to Katchatheevu. Now, instead of restraining its fishermen, India appears to be signalling the possibility of a renegotiation of the 1974 agreement.

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Analysts on both sides have dismissed Delhi’s latest behaviour as the result of electioneering. But it may not simply be an election ploy – it appears to be part of an emerging pattern in the Indian government’s neighbourhood policy.

Last year, India issued a notice to Pakistan demanding to renegotiate the 1960 Indus Water Treaty – a water-sharing agreement – contending that Pakistan had breached the dispute resolution mechanism of the treaty.

Islamabad had approached the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague to object to India’s construction of two hydropower projects, the Kishanganga and the Ratle, on the western rivers, whose water flow was allotted to Pakistan. Islamabad fears that with the construction of dams on these rivers, India could use the water flow as a strategic weapon against Pakistan.

Villagers pass by an abandoned boat parked on the dry bed of the Indus River as they search for drinking water after their wells dried up, near Thatta, 75km northeast of Karachi, Pakistan, on April 7, 2001. The sharing of the water of the Indus has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. Photo: AP
In 2016, after a terrorist attack on an Indian army base in Uri in Kashmir, Modi said that “blood and water cannot flow together”. At the time, experts believed India did not have the required infrastructure to store the water even if it wanted to stop the flow of rivers to Pakistan. But India’s determination to build dams on the western rivers is increasingly the cause of disquiet in Pakistan.
Nepal has also been unhappy with India in recent years for its construction of infrastructure such as roads in their disputed border areas, including in the Lipu Lekh Himalayan pass. In 2021, Modi, speaking at an election campaign rally in the northern state of Uttarakhand, referred to the expansion of the road passing through Lipu Lekh that leads to a Hindu pilgrimage site in Tibet, causing an uproar in Nepal. Kathmandu has also protested against India’s inclusion of these territories in its map in 2019.
Nepalese policemen restrain protesters in front of the parliament building in Kathmandu on May 10, 2020. Dozens of youth from the “Save Border Movement” staged protests against India’s unilateral construction of a link road to Mansarovar in Tibet via the Lipu Lekh region. Photo: EPA-EFE

In 2020, Sri Lanka’s former high commissioner to India, Austin Fernando, wrote that, just as Delhi can challenge its boundary with Nepal, it can also violate its maritime boundary with Sri Lanka, which would be unable to counter such actions, nor does it expect other countries to come to its aid.

India looks increasingly assertive in its neighbourhood with its growing economic power and military modernisation. There appears to be purpose in its construction of roads, dams and other infrastructure in areas of dispute with Nepal and in the western rivers of Kashmir, as well as its plan to renegotiate historically solid agreements with its neighbours.

And it was India’s construction of military infrastructure in its disputed borderlands with China that led to their deadly 2020 clash in the Himalayas. Beijing is not dialling down its military posture and diplomatic positioning because it knows Delhi is trying to be assertive, supported by Western powers.

Western powers have few objections to India’s assertiveness because they see India as a regional counterweight to China. But they may have overlooked the effect of the combination of Indian assertiveness and the West’s seeming disregard for the concerns and interests of smaller South Asian states – there is increasingly little option but to reach out to China for defensive help.

Interestingly, the Democracy Report 2024 by the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute labels India as “one of the worse autocratisers”, after downgrading it to an “electoral autocracy” in 2018, a category it shares with Russia. Delhi, it seems, is taking a leaf out of Moscow’s playbook on how to expand territory in one’s neighbourhood.

Asma Khalid is an independent researcher and former visiting fellow at the Stimson Centre

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