The recent news reported by media about Sri Lanka’s proposal to demolish the century old St. Antony’s church in Katchtheevuhas irritated the Indian ruling elite, particularly the political parties across Tamil Nadu. These parties are now standing in one voice to pressure New Delhi to thwart this Sri Lankan move.
Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka by India in 1974 to gain support from Colombo on the calculation of cold war. Until the early 1980s, a mutual cordial understanding stood between the Indian and the Sri Lankan fishermen permitting both to use the Katchatheeu for their livelihood. However, this pleasant relationship dramatically eroded when the conflict between the Sri Lankan army and LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) was started. This conflict had a drastic impact on the lives of the fishermen on the both sides of the Palk Strait between India and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamil speaking fishermen had completely lost their livelihoods during the war. However, during the war time the Indian Tamil speaking fishing community, particularly on the Palk Strait, encountered numerous atrocities from the Sri Lankan coast guards. The Times of India (August 18, 2012) report claims that more than “167 incidents of shooting on Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy between the years 1991 and 2011. As many as 85 fishermen had been killed and 180 injured in these incidents”.
Post war also witnessed the continuation of the Si Lankan atrocities on the Indian fishermen. This is due to two main factors. Firstly, Sri Lanka accused that Indian fishermen were often crossing the international boundary while fishing. The devastated Sri Lankan fishermen community also blamed the Indian fishing community of using the technique of bottom trawling to catch more fish on each venture. Secondly, Sri Lanka is more caution to thwart the regrouping of LTTE in any format has mutual Indian support. Since the Indian fishing community on the Palk Strait speaks the same language as the Sri Lankan Tamils – Sri Lankan coast guards pushing the Indian fishermen back to the Indian boundary causes damage to the Indian fishermen. From the Sri Lankan side, the opinion holds that neither side of the fishing community should be used for smuggling of narcotics, explosives, illegal drugs etc. Though the war against the LTTE was deemed oved by 2009, the continuous vigil of the Sri Lanka’s costal guards continued. This indicates that India also has mutual acceptance of Sri Lanka’s concerns on the mattersof security.
The post war rehabilitation was seriously regarded by India with the genuine and sincere interest to help the devastated Tamil family in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksha administration offered India the opportunity to consider in developing the Hambanthotta port. Though India offered for the Sri Lankan Tamils with the rehabilitation programme that consisted of building houses, railways and other infrastructures and facilities, the country did not partake in the Hambanthotta development project. This may have been due to the heavy investment that the proposed project demanded. However, after strategic calculation and evaluation, China accepted to develop the port. This has serious implications regarding Indian security. Moreover, India’s refusal and China’s acceptance of the port permitted a path for the placement of Chinese in Sri Lanka for various reasons, which cannot be questioned by India. This posed serious challenges to India’s interest and security on the Indian Ocean.
China articulated with its policy aimed to circle India by its strategy of “string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean, that it does not have viable strategic response from the Indian side. While China expands its foot print on the Indian Ocean, India should not forget that it gradually losing its advantages. On this context the proposal of demolishing the old St. Antony’s church to build a new one in Katchatheevu irritates the policy makers in New Delhi.
This is time for India to respond seriously on this issue. Firstly, demolish and rebuild the St. Antony’s church has no valid reasoning. So far Sri Lanka hasnot expanded their army on the isle, the present motive of Colombo can be perceived that they are ready to alter their strategy by receiving an input from China. India should take this move as after China’s involvement in developing the Hambanthotta port, Sri Lanka’s motive has changed dramatically. Secondly, Sri Lanka’s change of policy in reaching out to the isletwith infrastructure may have some serious hidden agendas. The South China Sea has now become a burning issue because as China ‘flexes its muscles’ towards all the man-made islandswith the consideration of keeping its naval base can be a link with Sri Lanka’s new motive on building a new church in the India ceded islet. While building a new church and keeping the future requirements based on their strategic agenda in mind, Sri Lanka is able to build infrastructure demanded by naval forces. Who knows about their hidden move? This may now display to our diplomatic circle as unimportant, but if India permits Sri Lanka to continue in this direction, the consequences would be disastrous for the future of the security of India.Even a tiny unit should not be considered to be kept on the islet since it just 12 nautical miles away from India’s Rameshwaram.
Thirdly, if India blindly accepts any form of consultation with Sri Lankan regarding their agenda on Katchatheevu, it would implicate that the red carpet for China to land in the islet. It means Sri Lanka would cooperate with China for their security and pose a very big threat on India. For this reason China will be ready to display extensive support for Sri Lanka in any regards. If this would occur and subsequent war arises with China, then China could deploy their ground troops from Himalayas and from Katchatheevu. Moreover, India would have to face attack from China’s ‘all–weather friend’ Pakistan from the western side. Demolishing and building a church may look to be a religious and non-political to the untrained eye, but it could prove to subsequent political complications that are registered by policy makers.