In 1968, Ceylon’s ‘occupation’ of Katchatheevu sparked a debate

A few Ceylon immigration officials moved into the islet on the eve of the annual festival at the St. Antony’s Church that year to cope with the movement of pilgrims from both countries. Jan Sangh, Samyukta Socialist Party and Praja Socialist Party members fiercely raised the issue in the Lok Sabha on March 1

April 02, 2024 10:48 pm | Updated April 03, 2024 03:03 pm IST

A piece of solid evidence: In its issue dated March 6, 1968, The Hindu published a report in which the news agency UNI had quoted the Raja of Ramnad as expressing the hope that with the old records in his possession, he would be able to “strengthen the hands of the Government of India against Ceylon’s claim to the island”.

A piece of solid evidence: In its issue dated March 6, 1968, The Hindu published a report in which the news agency UNI had quoted the Raja of Ramnad as expressing the hope that with the old records in his possession, he would be able to “strengthen the hands of the Government of India against Ceylon’s claim to the island”. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In the run-up to the Lok Sabha election, the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have raked up the issue of ‘ceding’ of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974. Interestingly, six years before India and Sri Lanka signed the agreement on the islet, reports of “occupation” of Katchatheevu by Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) triggered a fiery debate.

In the early 1968, a few Ceylon immigration officials had moved into the islet on the eve of the annual festival at the St. Antony’s Church to cope with the movement of Roman Catholic pilgrims from both countries. This led to claims that Ceylon occupied Katchatheevu.

Members of the Jan Sangh, the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) and the Praja Socialist Party (PSP), including Madhu Limaye and George Fernandes, had fiercely raised the issue in the Lok Sabha on March 1, leading to “near pandemonium”. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi urged the MPs to wait till the government had full confirmation and said the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo had been asked to ascertain the truth of the reports.

‘Friendly relations’

“We have very friendly relations with the people and Government of Ceylon. I think if we say more on this issue now it may create difficulties,” she said, according to a report in The Hindu dated March 2, 1968.

Minister of State for External Affairs B.R. Bhagat had noted that the issue of the islet’s ownership had arisen even in 1921. “So far as possession is concerned, it is completely uninhabited. There is no water even,” he said.

G.G. Swell, an Independent member, pointedly asked whether “at any time the Ceylon Government put forward its claim to the island and does the Government accept that the question of possession is in dispute...I would like to know in whose de jure possession it was.” When Bhagat responded, “It was neither in the possession of India nor of Ceylon,” he was greeted by cries of “shame, shame” from a section of the Opposition benches.

Issue in the Assembly

A day later, the issue echoed in the then Madras Assembly, with two SSP MLAs walking out after an unsuccessful bid to raise an adjournment motion to discuss the reported occupation of Katchatheevu by Ceylon.

Editorial | No man’s land: Playing politics over Katchatheevu?

Deputy Speaker K. Govindan disallowed the motion, holding that the matter involved a foreign country, and hence Parliament was the proper forum to consider it. SSP legislator S. Balasubramaniam alleged that Ceylon Army personnel had occupied the island “belonging to Tamil Nad”. Former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who was then the Works Minister, said it was not advisable to discuss the issue in the Assembly and suggested that the Deputy Speaker give his decision according to the Rules.

‘Rests with the Centre’

Govindan then said the matter was within the domain of the Central government. There were previous rulings in the House that matters coming within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Central government and also those involving another country should not be discussed in the Assembly. The proper forum to raise the issue was Parliament, he said.

Interestingly, K. Vinayakam, a Congress legislator, said the island was under the control of the former Ramanathapuram Zamin and contended that the House was competent to discuss it.

When the SSP legislators walked out, Karunanidhi said the State government was aware of its responsibility and would do the needful at the appropriate time, but the subject could not be discussed in the Assembly in the form of an adjournment motion, The Hindu reported on March 3.

Ahead of the St. Antony’s Church festival, the issue was raised again in the Assembly by Swatantra Party MLA K Cheemaichami, who alleged that people were afraid to go to Katchatheevu because of the “reported presence of Ceylon Government spies”. However, he did not press the motion, after Leader of the House V. R. Nedunchezhiyan assured the members that the Madras government would take all steps to collect details of records on India’s right to the island and forward them to the Centre. Nedunchezhiyan said there were historical records to show Katchatheevu belonged to the Ramanathapuram Zamin and “was therefore part of Tamil Nad”. In a dispute between the Ceylon government and the Ramanathapuram Zamin, a judicial decision had been given in favour of the Zamin, he said.

How a Katchatheevu church brings together Indian and Sri Lankan fisherfolk

Earlier in its issue dated March 6, 1968, The Hindu published a report in which the news agency UNI had quoted the then Raja of Ramnad (whose name was not mentioned) expressing the hope that with the old records in his possession, he would be able to “strengthen the hands of the Government of India against Ceylon’s claim to the island”. The Raja had jurisdiction over the inland till 1947.

According to the Raja, Katchatheevu served as an island of reunion of separated families. The annual church festival provided an opportunity to the husbands and wives, who lived separately in Ceylon and India, to meet without the necessity of obtaining passports and visas. He said there were instances of husbands living in Ceylon and wives in India because of the restrictions imposed by the Ceylon government.

Collection of taxes

The records he had in possession related to collection of taxes and levies by his Zamin from persons who used the islet. “People from the mainland used to leave their cattle, mostly goats, for grazing on the Kachathivu and the Zamin used to collect grazing taxes from the cattle-owners. The Zamin had been collecting these taxes till 1947 when it was taken over by the Madras Government following the Zamindari Abolition Act,” the report said.

The Raja stated that the islet had no significance now except for being the gathering place of pilgrims during March/April every year, “when people from India used to exchange articles like mats and tamarind for consumer articles like torch lights, and invalid and baby foods”.

“Although the Kachathivu is uninhabited, it can be developed into an important post when the Sethusamudram project scheme is completed,” the Raja said.

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