Reassessing Katchatheevu’s Loss through Wadge Bank’s Strategic Prism

So, did India actually hand over Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka back in 1974? And what occurred in 1976, when India entered into another pact with Sri Lanka? These questions revisit decisions made around 50 years ago, considering the consequences of exchanging territorial rights for the sake of maritime benefits and the wider strategic significance along the coast near Kanyakumari.

Weeks before the Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu, the BJP has brought the long-standing issue of Katchatheevu back into the spotlight. The Prime Minister criticised the past government led by Indira Gandhi on social media for irresponsibly surrendering the island to Sri Lanka.

So, did India hand over Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka back in 1974? And what occurred in 1976, when India entered into another pact with Sri Lanka? These questions revisit decisions made around 50 years ago, considering the consequences of exchanging territorial rights for the sake of maritime benefits and the wider strategic significance along the coast near Kanyakumari.

What Exactly Is Katchatheevu Island?

Katchatheevu is a small, uninhabited piece of land spanning 285 acres in the sea, situated within Sri Lanka’s maritime borders. It’s about 33 kilometres away from the northeastern side of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, India, and to the southwest of Delft Island in Sri Lanka. The island is believed to have formed from a volcanic eruption in the 14th century, as some official accounts suggest. It stretches roughly 1.6 kilometres in length and is about 300 meters across at its broadest section.

From 1795 to 1803, during the British era, the island fell under the jurisdiction of the Ramanad Raja’s zamindari, located in what was then known as the Madras Presidency, specifically in the district of Ramanathapuram. The presence of the St Anthony’s Church, which is more than 120 years old, adds to the island’s significance. This historic church becomes a focal point for religious festivities annually, attracting followers from both India and Sri Lanka.

What Was the Fate of Katchatheevu Island in 1974?

The contention over Katchatheevu began at least as far back as 1921 when a survey suggested the island was within Sri Lanka’s territory. However, a British Indian group challenged this, pointing to the Ramanad kingdom’s historical claim. This disagreement remained unresolved even after India gained independence.

Then, in 1974, with Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister of India, both India and Sri Lanka reached an agreement on June 26 in Colombo and on June 28 in New Delhi. As per this pact, Katchatheevu was officially handed over to Sri Lanka, but with the provision that Indian fishermen could still use the island for taking breaks, drying their nets, and participating in the annual festival at St Anthony’s Church.

The agreement stated that Indian fishermen and pilgrims would continue to have the right to visit Katchatheevu as before, without the need for Sri Lanka to ask them for travel papers or visas for such visits. However, the agreement left the fishing rights of Indian fishermen undefined.

Tamil Nadu’s BJP leader K Annamalai found out through an RTI request that the DMK government, led by M Karunanidhi at the time, quietly agreed with the central government’s choice to go ahead with the agreement. This information came from the notes of a discussion that took place at Fort St. George in Chennai, where the then Foreign Minister Kewal Singh met with Karunanidhi a month before Katchatheevu was transferred. Annamalai pointed out that Karunanidhi had a role in this decision, his only request being whether the decision could be delayed by two years.

Records from the Tamil Nadu Assembly reveal that in 1974, Chief Minister Karunanidhi tried to introduce a resolution in the legislative assembly to oppose the Katchatheevu agreement. However, the opposing party, AIADMK, did not support it.

What Events Transpired in 1976 Regarding Katchatheevu Island?

In June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in India, and by January 1976, Karunanidhi’s administration in Tamil Nadu was removed from power. Following that, India and Sri Lanka’s top diplomats exchanged several letters, and a series of official commands related to the Katchatheevu matter were put into action.

Through these discussions and decisions, India and Sri Lanka agreed on where their sea borders should be. India gained control over an important area in the sea called the ‘Wadge Bank’ close to Kanyakumari. The Wadge Bank is located just south of Kanyakumari and has been marked by the Fishery Survey of India as a vast fishing zone covering 4,000 square miles. It stretches from a longitude of 76°.30’ E to 78°.00 E and latitude 7°.00 N to 8° 20’ N. It’s known as one of the top fishing spots globally and is strategically more valuable than Katchatheevu. This spot has been crucial for fishermen from Tamil Nadu and Kerala for over 40 years.

The deal made between the two nations in March 1976 declared that the Wadge Bank falls within India’s exclusive economic zone. This means India has full rights over this region and its resources. Additionally, it was agreed that Sri Lankan fishing boats and their crews are not allowed to fish in the Wadge Bank area.

In a friendly move, India said that as long as they got permission from India, Sri Lankan fishing boats could use the Wadge Bank for fishing for three years, starting from when India set up its exclusive economic zone. However, there was a limit: only up to six Sri Lankan boats could fish there, and they couldn’t catch more than 2,000 tonnes of fish in a year.

The deal included a provision stating that if India chose to conduct searches for oil and other minerals in the Wadge Bank area within the next three years, Sri Lankan fishing vessels would have to stop their operations in these waters starting from the beginning of the exploration activities.

Events following the 1974 and 1976 Accords

During the 1970s, countries were sorting out who owned which sea areas. This led to deals where Sri Lanka got Katchatheevu and India got the Wadge Bank, an area with lots of resources.

In the 1990s, near the Wadge Bank in the Palk Strait (which was in the east), India started using more advanced fishing boats that could catch a lot of fish from the bottom of the sea. At the same time, Sri Lanka’s navy wasn’t very active in those waters because they were busy fighting the LTTE rebels on land. Because of this, Indian fishers often went into Sri Lankan waters to catch fish.

In 1991, while J Jayalalithaa was serving her first term as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the state’s legislative assembly wanted to get back Katchatheevu, an island given to Sri Lanka and also wanted to allow Indian Tamil fishermen to fish there like they used to. However, they couldn’t make progress on this with Sri Lanka because there was a civil war happening there.

Things changed after the war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009. Indian fishermen kept going into Sri Lankan waters because there weren’t enough fish left. The Sri Lankan navy started to arrest these fishermen and destroyed many of their boats for crossing into their waters. This led politicians in Tamil Nadu, from parties like the DMK and AIADMK, to start asking again to take back control of Katchatheevu.

In 2008, Jayalalithaa took a big step by going to the Supreme Court of India with a claim that Katchatheevu is part of India and that giving it to another country wasn’t legal without amending constitutional laws. She said that the deal made in 1974 was hurting the way Indian fishermen traditionally lived and worked.

When she became the Chief Minister again in 2011, she made a strong point in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, asking for the same thing. By 2012, with more Indian fishermen getting caught by the Sri Lankan navy, she urged the Supreme Court to hurry up and look at her case.

In August 2014, the main lawyer for the Indian government, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, told the top court that the issue about Katchatheevu was already settled and getting the island back from Sri Lanka would mean having to fight a war over it. He pointed out that the island was given away through an official agreement in 1974 and it now serves as a border marker. He questioned how it could be taken back now without conflict, saying, “If you want Katchatheevu back, you will have to go to war to get it back.”

The case about this issue is still waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court.


In the grand scheme, the exchange of Katchatheevu for a substantial maritime area was a strategic decision by India. By conceding 285 acres of the small uninhabited island to Sri Lanka, India solidified its rights over Wadhe Bank a significantly larger and resource-rich expanse of the ocean—approximately 4,000 square miles or 10,360 Square km in area. This area potentially offers vast economic benefits through marine resources and fishing rights, outweighing the loss of Katchatheevu. The enduring controversies and legal challenges highlight the complexities of international agreements and their impacts on local communities, yet on a national level, the trade-off seems to have favoured India’s broader strategic interests.

(The author Girish Linganna of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also the Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach out to him at: [email protected])


(Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not represent the editorial stance of Business Upturn)