Refugees as citizens

Published : Jun 15, 2007 00:00 IST

REFUGEES FROM SRI Lanka arrive at Arichamunai in Ramanathapuram district. A file photograph.-S. JAMES M . VEDHAN

REFUGEES FROM SRI Lanka arrive at Arichamunai in Ramanathapuram district. A file photograph.-S. JAMES M . VEDHAN

Parliamentarians in Sri Lanka agree to enact legislation to confer citizenship on refugees living in Tamil Nadu.

MAY 26, 2007, will go down as a `red letter day' in the otherwise divisive and fractious parliamentary history of Sri Lanka. The Treasury and Opposition benches in one voice agreed to enact whatever legislative measures were needed to confer citizenship rights on 28,500 "Sri Lanka Tamils of recent Indian origin" currently languishing in refugee camps across Tamil Nadu. What makes the collective resolve of the Lankan Parliament even more special is that the initiative for it emanated from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a party labelled as "ultra-nationalist" and known for its antipathy towards "outsiders" and "external influences" in the affairs of the island nation.

The subject of citizenship rights of Indian-origin Tamils, who had been brought to the island by the British to work in tea plantations and other sectors in the upcountry, was a contentious issue even before the island nation was liberated from colonial rule in 1948. Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka have undergone untold hardships since the unfortunate decision of the then Ceylon government to enact a law for their disenfranchisement. In a way, the matter involving the fate of close to a million people was the first major cause of social discord and political turmoil in the country.

Mercifully, beginning with the Kotelawala-Nehru pact of 1954 there have been sustained efforts to undo the injustice to Indian-origin Tamils. Slowly but steadily, they were absorbed into the mainstream in recognition of their enormous contribution to the nation's economy and society. The issue was addressed to the satisfaction of all. Successive regimes in Colombo, particularly the Bhandaranayake family and J.R. Jayawardene, deserve credit for their efforts, which culminated in the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord. Some residual problems, however, remained, and the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Tamil Nadu is one of them.

They could not obtain Sri Lankan citizenship, granted generously by the state of Sri Lanka to most Indian-origin Tamils after initial stages of reluctance, because of loopholes in the Act as amended in 2003 by the Foreign Minister, the late Lakshman Kadirgamar. Under the Act, continuous stay in Sri Lanka from 1964 is mandatory for eligibility for citizenship. In the case of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, the chain broke in the 1990s because of a situation that was not of their own making. An overwhelming majority of them had to flee the island in the early 1990s because of the disturbed security environment as a consequence of the conflict. Hence the need for a humane approach to the Sri Lanka refugees in Tamil Nadu.

Ramalingam Chandrasekeran and his fellow parliamentarian Bimal Ratnayake of the JVP deserve special praise. They not only made an effort to reach out to the hapless refugees during their visit to Tamil Nadu in the second week of May but also lost no time in getting a firm commitment from the government to redress the long-standing grievance of the refugees eager to return to Sri Lanka. Obviously, their adjournment motion in Parliament seeking equal status for the Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu has the approval of the JVP top brass, if not of the entire rank and file.

It is a rich symbolic gesture with the potential to enhance ethnic harmony and make a meaningful contribution to the efforts to resolve the strife that plagues the island. The press statement of Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy, though brief, succinctly captures the political and social significance of the action of the two JVP parliamentarians.

Welcoming the move, Swamy urged the Tamil community in the island to extend to those behind this move "a warm hand of friendship, and to bury the past so that the scourge of terrorism and forces of disintegration can be wiped out from the nation". Noting that the development followed a motion by the JVP in the Sri Lankan Parliament, Swamy said: "This move is an act of statesmanship for which the JVP should be congratulated."

The backdrop against which the JVP MP, along with his colleague Bimal Ratnayake chose to take up the cause of the refugees is interesting. The parliamentarians were in India from May 7 to 13 to take part in a summit held by the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the youth organisation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

At the invitation of OfERR, an organisation of Sri Lanka refugees headed by S.C. Chandrahasan, the JVP parliamentarians visited the Sri Lankan refugee camps. Chandrahasan, currently in Tamil Nadu, is the son of S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, the revered Sri Lankan Tamil leader who fought all his life through peaceful means for the rights of his brethren.

OfERR was set up in 1984 to motivate and empower Ceylon Tamil Refugees in Tamil Nadu to be ready to return to their homeland after the resolution of the ethnic conflict and help in rebuilding their war-ravaged nation. It is engaged in selfless service to help meet the needs and aspirations of the Lanka refugees stranded in Tamil Nadu. The organisation has helped 3,000-odd refugees to obtain university degrees.

The JVP parliamentarians, who interacted extensively with the refugees during their stay in Tamil Nadu, were so moved by their determination to end their "statelessness" and return to the island that they lost no time in taking the matter straight to Parliament. Responding to an adjournment motion moved by Ramalingam Chandrasekeran in Parliament, Minister Dharmadasa Banda said: "We believe [that] the Granting of Citizenship for citizens of Indian Origin Act No. 35 is sufficient. However, if some categories of people experienced difficulties in obtaining citizenship we are ready to amend the Act."

The motion said that around 28,500 people who are living in camps for Sri Lankan refugees had not received citizenship though they were entitled to it."In terms of the provisions of the 2003 Act, children of people who have lived continuously after October 30, 1964 are entitled to Sri Lankan citizenship. But those who have had to live as refugees in Tamil Nadu owing to the situation in Sri Lanka after 1983 have not been able to meet this requirement. As a result of this, about 28,500 have not received citizenship," the motion read.

Chandrahasan told Frontline over telephone from Chennai that while preparing for the return of the refugees, OfERR realised that 28,500 "Ceylon Tamil refugees" in Tamil Nadu would suffer tremendous disadvantages unless they were in possession of the Certificate of Citizenship issued under Section 4(2) of the Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin Act No. 35 of 2003 confirming their Ceylon citizenship.

Section 2 of the Act says: "Any person of Indian origin, who on the date of coming into operation of this Act, (a) Has been a permanent resident of Sri Lanka since October 30, 1964 or (b) Is a descendent resident in Sri Lanka of a person who has been a permanent resident of Sri Lanka since October 30, 1964, shall be granted the status of citizen of Sri Lanka, with effect from such date and be entitled, in like manner and to the same extent, to all the rights and privileges to which a citizen of Sri Lanka is entitled to, by law."

Chandrahasan says that most of the "Ceylon Tamil refugees" fled the island in 1990. Since then, the refugees referred to in the Act as "persons of Indian origin" had been accommodated in the camps run by the Government of Tamil Nadu. "During the course of our work among the refugees we came to know that quite a number of people among the refugees were hill country Tamils falling into the category of `stateless' citizenship," says Chandrahasan, whose organisation conducted a survey.

On the basis of a survey conducted by his organisation, a letter was sent to the President of Sri Lanka in July 2004, seeking steps to ensure that these refugees were accepted as citizens. This was brought to the notice of the Tamil Nadu government and the Government of India as well. When Lakshman Marasinghe, Chairman, Law Commission of Sri Lanka, visited the refugees, his help was sought, and the Law Commission prepared an amendment to Act No.35 of 2003 to meet the aspirations of the "Ceylon Tamil refugees" in Tamil Nadu.

One could only wish that various parties interested in the future of Sri Lanka take the cue from organisations such as OfERR to do their bit to provide a much-needed healing touch to remove the scars inflicted by the ethnic conflict and aid the multiple endeavours, though sometimes at cross purposes, for a political solution that is at least acceptable to the moderates among all communities.

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