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It isn’t often when a foreign policy issue generates as much heat within India’s polity, but this week both the PM and the EAM set off a debate over a 1974 agreement with Sri Lanka that quickly saw pushback from the opposition, and some concern in Colombo. My colleague D. Suresh Kumar has more on the domestic politics over Katchatheevu.

Let’s just tell you how it played out in terms of foreign policy:

1. At a press conference on EAM Jaishankar expanded on a tweet by PM Modi accusing the Congress government of 1974 and the Tamil Nadu State government at the time of “colluding” to “give away” the island.

-The agreement was signed in 1974 and an exchange of letters in 1976 clarified the rights of both sides-

-Katchatheevu, an island less than 2 square kilometres large in the Palk Strait (MAP), was found to lie on the Sri Lankan side of the International Maritime Boundary Line

-Indian fishermen did not have fishing rights around the island, but they could use the land to dry nets, and were allowed to visit the solitary structure, a church for St. Anthony, especially on the day of an annual festival there

-India received rights to the Wadge Bank – rich in petroleum

-The final agreements in 1976 also defined the trijunction point in the waters between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives

You can find the agreements themselves on the MEA website, the links are given online

The issue has been contentious for decades, but interestingly, when Mr. Jaishankar was Foreign Secretary in 2015, an RTI by the MEA shown by the opposition actually said that the agreement did not involve “acquiring or ceding” of any territory as none had been demarcated historically.

2. Mr. Jaishankar also claimed that Indian fishermen are still being arrested, shot at and even killed by Sri Lankan authorities as a result of the agreement

While it is true that hundreds of Indian fishermen have been detained – about 100 a year for the past few years, they are not detained on Katchatheevu, according to a parliament reply

3. Finally, and perhaps what really was of interest to foreign policy experts was the EAM’s contention that there needs to be a “solution” to the problems created by the 1974 and 1976 agreement, although the matter remains in the Supreme Court at present.

The questions that have been raised are over what the government plans to do next:

1. Will the government seek to reopen the 1974 and 1976 agreements bilaterally with Sri Lanka? Sri Lankan FM Sabry has said this is not on the table, the MEA said it had no comment

2. Would the reopening of these agreements on Katchatheevu lead to other agreements with Sri Lanka that have no doubt been built on the back of this understanding?

3.If the government is calling into question this agreement, then will it also take a re-look at other agreements made in the past with the intent to revise them, especially those that deal with territorial issues in the neighbourhood

-With Pakistan, India has already called into question the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, writing about a year ago to the government in Islamabad that India is seeking to renegotiate the water sharing agreement that was guaranteed by the World Bank

-In the case of Bangladesh, the government accepted the 1974 for the exchange of enclaves that was signed between PM Indira Gandhi and Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In 2015, the Modi government completed the transfer.

-With Nepal, India currently has a major dispute over territory that ignited in 2019, after the publication of new maps by the government post-reorganisation of Jammu-Kashmir and then the Nepali publication of new maps. Could reopening old agreements have an impact on that dispute?

Most importantly, the question about whether foreign policy issues are now entering and even dominating domestic policy discourse.

While the Pulwama attack and Balakot strikes on Pakistan dominated 2019 elections, the issue was one of terrorism- essentially a domestic issue

However, in the run up to 2024 elections, the government notified rules for the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is expected to feature in the election campaign in Assam, and could bring ties with Bangladesh into question. Already, the opposition there has called for an “India Out” campaign, although it hasn’t gathered much steam

The opposition is also raising on practically a daily basis the India-China boundary dispute and China’s land grab along the LAC, which may become more pronounced as the election goes forward

And ties with the Maldives have suffered in reverse, as ties with India were the target during the Maldives election, and President Muizzu has insisted on Indian troops being removed entirely from the island, setting a deadline of May 10 for the process to be completed

WV Take: Just as New Delhi would prefer not to feature as a polarizing campaign issue when neighbours go to vote, it is best to leave foreign policy negotiations outside the briefing room on domestic elections in India as well. Above all, the government should do nothing that calls into question its credibility in current negotiations, by raising a precedent that would mean future governments could reopen present agreements as well.

WV Reading Recommendations

1. Subcontinental Drift: Domestic Politics and India’s Foreign Policy Rajesh Basrur

2. Haksar on India’s Sri Lanka Policy by V Suryanarayan, Ashik J Bonofer

3. INTERTWINED LIVES : P.N. HAKSAR AND INDIRA GANDHI by Jairam Ramesh

4. 1971:A GLOBAL HISTORY OF THE CREATION OF BANGLADESH by Srinath Raghavan

5. Worldviews of Aspiring Powers: Domestic Foreign Policy Debates in China, India, Iran, Japan and Russia by Henry R. Nau and Deepa Ollapally

6. India and the Global South: Edited by Surendra Kumar, essays by diplomats and experts

Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar

Production: Gayatri Menon and Richard Kujur

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