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 Underlining that the issue of Katchatheevu Island is not just a territorial issue, former Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla on Tuesday said that it is rather an issue of the rights of our people, and the ability to fish well beyond the island.

Shringla said that India is currently in a situation where in some senses, there is the need to try and rectify many of the wrong decisions taken historically.

While speaking to ANI, Shringla said, “But it is not just a territorial issue. It is the issue of the rights of our people and the ability to fish well beyond Katchatheevu. Katchatheevu was a part of India, then we would have had rights well beyond Katchatheevu to fish and our fishermen today would not have been in the same predicament had they been, had this agreement been properly worked out in 1974 and 1976.”

On being asked if India now plans to reopen this 1974 agreement, Shringla said that it is for the Ministry of External Affairs to see that.

He highlighted how External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has rightly pointed out taking up with Sri Lanka the issue of fishing rights.

“…From what I can see, External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar rightly pointed out that we will take up with Sri Lanka the issue of fishing rights. that is not in the 1974 agreement. In fact, the Congress maintained that in 1974, fishing rights would not be affected. But in 1976, they went and concluded another understanding or agreement by which fishing rights were excluded from the purview of India,” Shringla told ANI.

“So in that sense, I think it would be correct on our part to try and have a dialogue with Sri Lanka on the restoration of fishing rights for Indians in and around Katchatheevu Island,” he added.

Shringla further said that Katchatheevu Island is a very important issue as thousands of Indian fishermen rely on Palk Strait (the waters between India and Sri Lanka) for their traditional fishing.

“The Katchatheevu issue is a very important issue because in our relationship with Sri Lanka, the main problem that we face is relating to our fishermen. Thousands of our fishermen rely on the Palk Strait which is the waters between India and Sri Lanka for their traditional fishing, and many of our fishermen are apprehended every year…I think even now there are 7000 Indian fishermen, mainly from the state of Tamil Nadu are there in Sri Lankan custody. So, this is a major factor. How has this factor come about? I think that is something that has been revealed after the RTI has gone public, and I think these are documents that have been also disclosed after 50 years, because normally the rule is that classified documents are released to the public after 50 years.” Shringla said.

Shringla said that it is a very important time, and there should be a public discussion and debate on this issue of the island.

Slamming the opposition over the Katchatheevu Island issue, Shringla said, “And I think this is a very important time because this is the time the public should know and there should be a public discussion and debate on this very important issue. And essentially what has transpired is that the problem which we face today with regard to fishing issues in Sri Lanka is linked to the agreement signed in 1974 and 1976 by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Congress Party that decided that Katchatheevu should be demarcated in favour of Sri Lanka.”

“I think today, you know, we are in a situation where we are having to, in some senses, try and rectify many of the wrong decisions taken historically. And that comes from Nehru’s time. Because Nehru also said Katchatheevu was a piece of rock, Mrs. Gandhi (Indira Gandhi) also maintained that,” he said.

The former foreign secretary went on to say, “Even in British times, when there was a separation of the Indian and Sri Lankan dominions, there was a proposal that Katchatheevu should be part of Ceylon. But the British refused to grant Katchatheevu to Ceylon and kept it as a part of British India because all the legal factors, including the land rights and zamindari rights exercised by the Raja of Ramanathapuram, which is the closest point of the Indian mainland of Katchatheevu has indicated that this is historically a traditional part of India.”

“So when the British did not put it as British India, why did the Congress government under Indira Gandhi delimit it in Sri Lanka’s favour?” he added.

The decades-old territorial and fishing rights dispute around Katchatheevu island has been brought back into the limelight with the BJP and the opposition engaging in a war of words over the issue.

PM Modi on Monday targeted the Congress party and DMK over the Katchatheevu island issue. He said that Congress “callously” gave away the island. He also alleged the ruling party of Tamil Nadu did “nothing” to safeguard the state’s interests.

The island, located between Rameswaram in India and Sri Lanka, was traditionally used by both Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen. In 1974, the then central government accepted Katchatheevu as Sri Lankan territory under the “Indo-Sri Lankan Maritime Agreement.”