Former Sri Lankan Envoy Warns BJP’s Katchatheevu Rhetoric Poses Post-Election Diplomatic Challenge for Indian Government

Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) resurgence of the decades-old Katchatheevu issue ahead of the general elections, former Sri Lankan envoy to India, Austin Fernando, has cautioned that the rhetoric may create post-election challenges for the Indian government.

Speaking with The Indian Express from Colombo, Fernando, an esteemed and seasoned official, expressed concerns over the BJP’s stance on Katchatheevu. He highlighted the delicate diplomatic ramifications if the Indian government were to breach the Sri Lankan maritime international boundary line, describing it as a potential violation of Sri Lankan sovereignty.

Fernando’s remarks come in the wake of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accusation that the Indira Gandhi government callously ceded Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka in 1974. With the Lok Sabha elections looming in Tamil Nadu, Modi’s statement has stirred controversy, aimed at mobilizing voters in the region.

Commenting on the BJP’s strategy, Fernando noted that while the party’s influence in Tamil Nadu is limited, invoking the Katchatheevu issue serves as a significant vote-puller. However, he warned that once such rhetoric is unleashed, it becomes challenging for the government to backtrack post-elections, especially if the BJP secures victory.

Fernando underscored the complexity of resolving the Katchatheevu dispute, emphasizing the potential impact on northern fishermen’s votes in Sri Lanka if the government were to yield to Indian demands. He also questioned the efficacy of proposals, such as granting fishing rights in the Katchatheevu area, emphasizing the need for clarity on control mechanisms.

The veteran diplomat drew parallels, asking how India would respond if faced with similar encroachments by neighboring countries like Pakistan or Bangladesh. He referenced Sri Lanka’s historical stance, recalling President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s resistance to Indian intervention during the late 1980s.

Fernando’s insights into the diplomatic intricacies are particularly significant given his illustrious career spanning nearly six decades in various high-level positions within the Sri Lankan government.

Regarding India’s economic assistance to Sri Lanka during times of crisis, Fernando acknowledged the $4 billion aid and underscored the diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the issue. He cautioned against raising contentious matters amid Sri Lanka’s internal challenges and election environment.

The former envoy also highlighted potential repercussions on Indian investments in Sri Lanka, citing the Opposition’s criticism and its implications on the political landscape.

Former diplomats from both India and Sri Lanka have echoed Fernando’s sentiments, emphasizing that the 1970s agreement on Katchatheevu was reached in good faith, with concessions made by both sides. Indian diplomats have also pointed out Delhi’s gains, including access to Wadge Bank’s resources.

As the political discourse surrounding Katchatheevu intensifies, Fernando’s words serve as a sober reminder of the intricate diplomatic balancing act required to navigate through the complexities of the Indo-Sri Lankan relationship.


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