CAB and Sri Lankan Tamils

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India, the nowhere people

Print edition : January 03, 2020

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees travelling to the Kachchativu island in 2004. Photo: Sriyantha Walpola

Sri Lankan Tamil refugees at the point of arrival near Dhanushkodi, Tamil Nadu. A file photo. Photo: K. GANESAN

A refugee camp for Sri Lankan Tamils near Pollachi. A file photo. Photo: M. Balaji

Two communities of Sri Lankan Tamils have been left out of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill though they qualify on every count.

Defying logic, two communities of Sri Lankan Tamils have been left out of the ambit of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB): the plantation Tamils, who have roots in India and were forcibly relocated to Sri Lanka by the British as indentured labourers, and the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in India.

There are about 59,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the 100-plus refugee camps in Tamil Nadu and nearly 30,000 outside the camps. About four lakh plantation Tamils came to India following two Indo-Sri Lanka pacts, but the vast majority of these people of Indian origin, whom the CAB caters to, are in Sri Lanka.

Both the groups tick all the boxes that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has in mind—most of those belonging to both these communities are Hindu and have been subjugated to and suffered oppression and neglect at the hands of the government. The Sri Lankan Tamils in refugee camps tick one more box; many have lived in Tamil Nadu for at least a decade and a half.

There are practical problems that the Tamil refugees face if they are not citizens. For instance, a bright girl from a camp who had completed her schooling at the top of her class a few years ago (the Tamil Nadu government provides free education, health care, rations and a modest allowance for Tamil refugee families) was accepted to a university abroad on full scholarship. All that was needed from India was travel papers for her.

Unfortunately, there is no provision available for the “minders” of the refugee population in Tamil Nadu, the Q Branch police, to give out such travel papers. All that the Q Branch can do is to help access papers for travelling back to Sri Lanka. Even though the child had spent all her life in Tamil Nadu and had no connection to Sri Lanka, and the officers who handled the case were sensitive, they could not help the student because there was no provision in the rules for this.

“A lot of people in the [Sri Lankan Tamil] refugee community hope that they would get [Indian] citizenship,” said a refugee who did not want to be named. “They [the younger generation] have grown up here. They don’t know Sri Lanka. They do not want to go to Sri Lanka. This is home,” the refugee, who also grew up here, added.

There is a difference of views between the older generation, who are more open to going back, and the younger generation, who have literally grown up in India and who do not want to go back. “Most of these young people were born here in the 1990s. They have been here for almost 30 years. It is very difficult for them to go back,” a refugee said in response to a question.

Interestingly, there was also the question of facilities available back in Sri Lanka. Compared to the cities in Tamil Nadu, where some of the camps are located, both the north and the east of Sri Lanka, the places where the refugees hail from, are backward. “Some of the refugees who have gone back are unhappy there because they find it difficult to get access to livelihoods. They don’t fit in….” the refugee said.

There is growing frustration among refugee youths, who are unable to attend government and even private-sector job interviews because they do not have a passport. Many organisations have begun requesting job applicants to submit passports. “These are young people who grew up here and dared to dream. This is their home. They speak Indian Tamil. Many of them do not even speak Sri Lankan Tamil,” a refugee living in Chennai said.

It is not as if Tamil refugees living in camps love their surroundings. The populations in most refugee settlements have grown, but there is no provision for an increase in housing. Rain and drought are still problems; rain means flooded pathways in many camps and drought means walking longer distances to fetch water. Medical facilities are few and far away and sanitation issues are growing even though, as a community, the Tamils take great pride in individual hygiene.

There is also a massive problem of access to jobs and resources in rural camps compared to urban camps. Those living outside Chennai have to travel to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai for documentation purposes and this creates additional hurdles—resources to travel and permission from the Q Branch to travel. Instances of skirmishes between the refugees and police personnel belonging to the Q branch, who are unnecessarily harsh on the refugees, are not rare. In one instance, which was splashed all over the media, a refugee committed suicide in Madurai in 2016 following an adamant official’s refusal to allot rations for his son who was in hospital.

Living in no man’s land

Several residents of camps in Tamil Nadu are now stuck in no man’s land. They had expected progress on the question of rehabilitation of the displaced and the refugee Tamils after the new government took office in Sri Lanka in 2015. That government was seen as friendly towards India, and the Sri Lankan leadership at that time, both President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, had said that they intended to settle the issue of the Tamils’ political rights and a proper and phased resettlement of both the internally displaced people and the refugees.

The refugees in India were elated when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Jaffna the same year and became the first Indian Prime Minister to do so. But the events of 2015 were symbolic. They remained just that.

Four years later, there is not much progress on rehabilitation. The refugee Tamils claim that they are twice-cursed: “If we were in Sri Lanka [after the war ended in 2009] we would at least have been able to get a house [from the Indian Housing project]. The Indian government gave [internally displaced] people there houses. The war affected us much more than them and that is why we had to flee and come to India. We have nothing now if we go back. If we stay here, we are refugees and it is difficult,” one of them told this correspondent.

With Sri Lanka electing Gotabaya Rajapaksa President, any hope of progress on the question of rehabilitation and the political rights of Tamils remains a dream. Political rights are not even a term that Gotabaya Rajapaksa used when asked what his idea of reconciliation was (See “Rajapaksas back in the game”, Frontline, December 20, 2019).

Being a refugee means that apart from travel restrictions and intrusive police presence in their lives, they are also unable to find regular employment. Most Sri Lankan Tamils are allowed to work as casual labourers but they are not allowed to hold regular jobs. It is, hence, not uncommon to find an engineering degree holder among refugees working as a daily-wage foreman in an industry. “Sri Lankan Tamils who want Indian citizenship are eligible under naturalisation. They have lived here for so many years. They should surrender their Sri Lankan citizenship. Are they willing to do that?” Prof. V. Suryanarayanan, former Director, Centre for South and South East Asian Studies, University of Madras, told Frontline.

Many Sri Lankan Tamils in the camps that this correspondent interacted with requested the government to grant them citizenship as they had lived for more than a decade in India. Asked if India had included Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the CAB and would grant them citizenship, Rohan Gunaratna, Professor of Security Studies, S. Rajarathnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, told Frontline: “Sri Lanka is at peace after the end of the conflict. Nonetheless, Sri Lankan Tamils living overseas should decide where they should live. They should not be uprooted from where they are living, working and studying. They should not be compelled by any government to choose their place of residence.”

There are many in India who believe that they should be made citizens. Three-time Member of Parliament and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) functionary Maitreyan Vasudevan took a stand which is at variance with that of his party. He said: “Our leader Puratchi Thalaivi Amma [J. Jayalalithaa] was very vocal and concerned about the Eelam Tamils and the Lankan Tamils of Indian origin. Way back in 2015 itself she had demanded that the Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu should be given dual citizenship so that they can get employment and other opportunities. It would have been better if the Central government had included Sri Lankan Tamils also in the ambit of the Bill.” (In fact, in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha election, Jayalalithaa even said that a separate country should be carved out of Sri Lanka for the Sri Lankan Tamils.)

There is unanimity among political parties in Tamil Nadu on the question of Sri Lankan Tamils’ rights, but there still appears to be ambiguity over the various classes of Tamils in Sri Lanka. This could be deliberate and most Tamil political parties confuse the struggle of all Sri Lankan Tamils with that of the Eelam Tamils, a nomenclature used to indicate the Tamils of the north and the east.

There are four broad classifications of Sri Lankan Tamils. The Jaffna Tamils consider themselves to be at the top of the heap and think they are different from the eastern Tamils. The third category is the Colombo Tamil. The last category, virtually at the bottom of the pile, is the plantation Tamil, or the Indian Tamil. Their forefathers were Tamils brought from Tamil Nadu by the British.

Plantation Tamils’ story

The plantation Tamils were displaced twice: once by the British from India to Sri Lanka and other parts of the world, including Malaysia, Myanmar, the Caribbean, and even South Africa and Fiji, and then by a paranoid Sri Lankan government. Many Indians, especially Tamils, left on their own accord when the British offered them a chance of employment overseas beginning from the 1820s when large tracts of lands across many countries were converted into plantations.

The second displacement, from Sri Lanka to India, was a case of forced migration. The plantation Tamils, forcibly relocated this way to India, suffer to this day regardless of government concessions and schemes. For example, the Tamilnadu Tea Plantation Corporation (Tantea) was floated in 1976 with the express purpose of absorbing repatriate estate labour. It has long stopped serving their cause.

A key problem that led to this simple case of repatriation metamorphosing into a case of forced migration was the Sri Lankan act of tweaking the accord, which, despite being flagged, the Government of India refused to interfere with and set right: “The biggest mistake the Indian government made in 1964 was to link not merely their acceptance as Indian citizens but also repatriation to India to the granting of citizenship in this country,” S. Thondaman, the late leader of Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka, told N. Ram (The Hindu, January 25, 1986).

The Tamils were forced into India because of the Ceylon Citizenship Act, 1948, and two accords: the Lal Bahadur Shastri-Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Bandaranaike-Indira Gandhi accords. The Citizenship Act came out of the alarmist notion that the plantation Tamils would overwhelm Sri Lanka. “The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948, the first legislative enactment defining citizenship in Independent Ceylon [Sri Lanka], lays down that a person born in Ceylon after the ‘appointed date’ shall be a citizen of Ceylon only if his father also was born in Ceylon. The ‘appointed date’ is November 15, 1948. A person born after this date would be a citizen of Ceylon only if at the time of his birth, the father already was a citizen of Ceylon. Now, if the important restrictive qualification of the ‘appointed date’ were deleted, the sum total of the result of such a deletion would be that all stateless persons and their natural increase would become citizens of Ceylon,” notes Thomas Abraham in his article “The Repatriation Riddle”, published in The Hindu on April 16, 1986.

Of the plantation Tamils, nearly 70,000 of the 1.1 lakh families who have repatriated are covered by the business loan scheme, an India Today report, “Survey among Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates reveals anger at their current situation” (issue dated December 15, 1983 and updated February 1, 2014) said. “Most of these, their loans finished, are now literally on the streets, giving rise to all kinds of economic, social, and environmental problems,” the report added.

There are several stories of plantation Tamils who fell by the wayside in and around Chennai itself. “The hill country Tamils are of Indian origin. Why are we giving the people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh citizenship? Because they are of Indian origin. Where else will they go? This applies to the hill country Tamils. They are of Indian origin. They do not want to go back to Sri Lanka. They came here with the expectation that they will become citizens of this country,” said Prof. V. Suryanarayanan.

One of the many plantation Tamils who fell by the wayside was Letchumanan, a plantation Tamil, who finally ended up in the streets of Chennai.

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