Pix by Pradeep Pathirana
Though the history of St. Anthony’s Church is not clearly known some believe that it was constructed in 1905 by an Indian Catholic named Seenikuppa Padaiyatchi. Chief of Defense Staff Admiral Ravindra Wijegunawardene’s opinion is that it was constructed by Indian fishermen. The Admiral, who gave a brief description of the history of the church, said it had been constructed by Indian fishermen who managed to save their lives after being forced onto the island by a storm. The fishermen who were shipwrecked on the island had constructed the church as a gesture of thanks to St. Anthony, whom they believe saved their lives.
A report published in the Indian Express some time back states that Kachchatheevu was a 285-acre island which was located 17 km away from Rameswaram in India.
According to this report there are historical documents dating back to 1609. According to the report the island belonged to the Sethupathis, a royal family who ruled over the district at the time. Two centuries later, the British officials leased Kachchatheevu and maintained it. After 1947, the island became an owner-less land as the members of the royal family could not claim ownership to it any more under Vallabhbhai Patel’s watch.
The island was never suitable for habitation as there were no basic facilities on it such as water. Neither the army nor the LTTE had occupied the island during the conflict period due to this fact
The Indian Government held the island till 1974. It is a fact that Kachchatheevu was handed over to Sri Lanka by the Indira Gandhi led Government of India in 1974 when an agreement was signed in two parts — on June 26 in Colombo and June 28 in New Delhi. The island was ceded to Sri Lanka, but Indian fishermen were allowed access to Kachchatheevu ‘hitherto’. The agreement did not specify fishing rights.
Drafting of the agreement
After emergency was imposed in 1975 and the Tamil Nadu Government was dismissed in 1976, a series of letters were exchanged between the foreign secretaries of India and Sri Lanka. Both Parliament and the state Assembly were non-functional and, without consulting either, another agreement was drafted. This agreement stated, “The fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Sri Lanka.” While the 1974 Agreement was to settle the maritime boundary in the Palk Bay, the 1976 pact was to determine the boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal.
In 1991, the Tamil Nadu Assembly again sought the retrieval of Kachchatheevu and restoration of fishing rights of Tamil fishermen. The Northern Province and maritime boundaries were not guarded tightly, and Indian trawlers routinely entered Sri Lankan waters.
In 2008, ADMK Leader J. Jayalalitha filed a petition saying Kachchatheevu could not be ceded to another country without a constitutional amendment. The petition argued that the 1974 Agreement had affected the traditional fishing rights and livelihoods of Indian fishermen. After becoming chief minister in 2011, she moved a resolution in the Assembly and in 2012 went back to the Supreme Court requesting her petition be expedited in the wake of increasing arrests of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan authorities.
The Congress has always been defensive regarding the role of Indira Gandhi’s Government in handing Katchchatheevu to Sri Lanka. Before the Lok Sabha Polls, the BJP endorsed the demand of Tamil parties to restore the island to the state. BJP leaders promised to take measures to revisit the agreement with Colombo.
In August 2014, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi told the Supreme Court that the matter was closed, and it would require ‘war’ to get the island back. “Katchchatheevu went to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974. It was ceded and now acts as a boundary. How can it be taken back today? If you want it back you will have to go to war,” he said at that time.
Archbishop Emeritus Oswald Gomis in his book ‘Contribution of Catholics for Sri Lanka’s well-being’ states that there was a debate regarding the ownership of Kachchatheevu during the post independence era till Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike reached an agreement under which the island was handed over to Sri Lanka. The Bishop in this book claims that the island was not a private property. The evidence to suggest that the island was owned by Sri Lanka was provided by the Catholic Church according to Bishop Gomis. It was found out that the buildings in the island were constructed by Catholics. The buildings comprised a church and a mission house. The annual feast of the church was organized by the Jaffna Diocese for many years.
This fact suggests that the island was controlled by Sri Lanka for a long time. Bishop Gomis in his book explains that South Indians, who had secretly migrated to the central hills in Sri Lanka, had used Kachchatheevu as a transit point. The church has been blamed for providing opportunities for illegal immigrants to enter Sri Lanka. This caused the then Bishop of Jaffna, the late Emaliyanas Pillai, to stop celebrating the feast. However the celebration of the feast re-started following the advice of the late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike some time later.
Accordingly, the priest in charge of the church Fr. J B Devarajah was sent back to the island to take charge of the church once again.
According to the Sri Lanka Navy the island was never suitable for habitation as there were no basic facilities on it such as water. Neither the army nor the LTTE had occupied the island during the conflict period due to this fact.
Due to Indian politicians calling on their Government to reclaim the island and Sri Lanka claiming ownership of Kachchatheevu, the Island has become a catalyst on the lines of reconciliation among Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The festive mass of the annual feast was conducted in both Sinhalese and Tamil for the first time this year. The event serves as a platform for peoples of the two neighbouring countries to meet at least once a year to venerate the saint they both believe in. This was evident with the visit of 1920 Indian Catholics to the feast this year. Among them were six Indian priests who were led by Fr. Anthoney Swamy of St. Joseph’s Church in Wellapudu, Rameshwaram. Some of the Indian fishermen who visited called for a peaceful settlement to the fishermen’s issue between Sri Lanka and India. Apart from the Indians more than 7000 people from Sri Lanka had arrived for the feast. People were seen roughing it out by lying down on mats laid among the shrubs.
Both Bishop Justin Gnanapragasam of Jaffna and Bishop Raymond Wickramasinghe from Galle, who jointly conducted the festive mass, called for reconciliation in Sri Lanka. “We have been wounded by a war, but a miracle has happened today as a bishop from the South had been invited to participate in the mass at this Kachchatheevu Church for the first time in its history. It is important to share peace with everyone and give life to the Bible. The Bible is not just a book read by Christians which can always give life to it by living a kind of life which it recommends,” Bishop Wickramasinghe said. He added that there is no point in talking of reconciliation if people cannot love each other. Bishop Gnanapragasam also called for reconciliation and lauded the Navy and the Government for facilitating the devotees who visited the island for the feast.
Mariyam Pushpam, a middle aged woman, said she visited the church to offer thanks to St. Anthony for granting her a wish. “I came here last year and asked St. Anthony to give me and my family a chance to go on a pilgrimage to The Vatican. I have got an opportunity to visit The Vatican and I came here to thank the dear saint with my three sons,” she said. Mariyam had arrived in a boat from Chilaw. Maxwell Perera, from Ja-Ela, said that he came to Jaffna by road and then proceeded towards Kachchatheevu by boat. He thanked the Navy and the security forces for providing people with the facilities needed on their visit to the island. He said that he was happy to venerate the saint together with the Indian devotees.
There are historical documents dating back to 1609. According to the report the island belonged to the Sethupathis, a royal family who ruled over the district at the time
Chief of Defense Staff Admiral Ravindra Wijegunawardene said that he attended the mass also as a devotee. “I was sailing with my crew several years ago in the Northern waters and got caught in a storm. The boat nearly capsized. I began to think of St. Anthony for some reason and we were saved. I began to have faith in St. Anthony from that day onwards. I have attended the feast since then without fail,” he said.
Accordingly it was clear that the military personnel and devotes from both India and Sri Lanka had visited Kachchatheevu for two main purposes; to venerate a saint and pray for peace. Peace prevailed in Kachchatheevu on that day, but will it prevail in the island of Sri Lanka?