Second count

Published : Nov 07, 2008 00:00 IST

President Mahinda Rajapaksa greets former Tamil Tiger leader Vinayagamoorthi Muralidaran in Colombo on October 7, after he was sworn in as a Member of Parliament.-HANOUT/AP

President Mahinda Rajapaksa greets former Tamil Tiger leader Vinayagamoorthi Muralidaran in Colombo on October 7, after he was sworn in as a Member of Parliament.-HANOUT/AP

THE Mahinda Rajapaksa government, which is engaged in one of the most successful military campaigns against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), continues to baffle political and diplomatic observers with its thoughtless actions. Unfazed by the flak it received from within and without over the September 21 directive to people from the five districts of the Northern Province who have been living in and around Colombo (in Western Province) for the past five years to register with the police, on October 5 the regime extended the diktat to citizens from the three districts of the East.

The fact that the government has been showcasing on the world stage the liberation of the East from the Tigers and the ushering in of democracy there as the ultimate proof of its commitment to infuse a sense of dignity among the minority community made no difference to the mandarins resolve to lump the citizens of the North and the East together. The induction of the rebel LTTE leader, Vinayagamoorthi Muralidaran (widely known as Colonel Karuna or Karuna Amman), into Parliament as a member of the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) on October 7 and the generous help the government extended to the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) second-in-command, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan, to become Chief Minister of the Eastern Province in May are just two instances that illustrate the length to which the Rajapaksa government has traversed to make mission eastern liberation appear real and special.

Ironically, the October 5 police census, perceived in some quarters as tantamount to racial profiling, came less than two weeks after the Supreme Court gave its order on a case pertaining to the June 7, 2007, eviction of 300-odd Tamils residing in temporary lodges in Colombo on the plea that they did not have a valid reason for their stay. A cursory look at the order of the apex court on a case filed by the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) leaves one with little doubt that the government was economical with truth in its submission before the Supreme Court.

The operational portion of the apex court order in the Fundamental Rights case No 428/07 reads:

The counsel for the petitioner further submitted that a census of persons was taken yesterday (September 21, 2008), which is contravention to the order made by the court. Additional Solicitor General submits that this exercise was carried out by the respective citizens in order to ascertain who are newly registered within their areas and the police merely assisted in the process. This was not a compulsory exercise.

On the other hand, the Additional Solicitor General tenders to the court publicly, which is carried in todays newspapers in all the three languages which is in conformity with the order made by this court. In the circumstances, no further order is required.

It is signed by the Chief Justice and posted for further hearing on November 24.

Three days before the registration of citizens from the North, police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera insisted that the re-registration was not illegal. We have the sanction from the Attorney General and it has been signed by the Supreme Court. In the press briefings before the two rounds of segregated census there was no mention of respective citizens undertaking the mission with the assistance of the police to ascertain the identity of their new neighbours. It is true that the government had made it known that the process of registration was not compulsory and no action would be taken against those who refused to be counted.

However, a recap of the events leading to the selective census is in order to appreciate its real meaning. The idea of the census emanated less than a week after Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa publicly expressed alarm over what he termed as an unusual influx of outsiders into the national capital and how it posed a grave threat to the lives of innocent citizens.

The Defence Secretary, one of the brothers of President Rajapaksa, averred, I prefer most of these people who had come from other areas to Colombo and [its] suburbs and who are staying here without any valid reason to go back to their areas. It is an immense problem for the security forces to provide security. The LTTE mingles with these people to infiltrate these areas. He disclosed that 6,950 people had come to Colombo in August alone and were now living in lodges and houses. The source of his estimate remains a mystery as the September 21 and October 5 figures thrown up by the police survey of citizens from the North and the East give a different picture. Owing to the ongoing war, which is into its third year now, citizens from the North and East need permits from multiple authorities to travel to any other part of the island. Minus the cases of those who manage to sneak out, it is presumed that the government keeps a count of citizens on the move from the North and the East at any given point of time.

The results of the partisan census in respect of both Northern and Eastern provinces raised some worrying questions. The count on September 21 showed that the number of people who had migrated from the five war-torn districts to Colombo and its suburbs since September 21, 2003, stood at 37,037. Of them, 2,242 were new entries. In all, 10,820 families were registered. The police had expected 1,00,000 people to turn up. The figure of 37,037 citizens from the Northern Province registered with the police, means that on an average 617.28 outsiders migrated to the Western Province on a monthly basis. In other words, an average of 20.6 persons chose to travel down from the North on a daily basis in the past five years.

The census numbers for the Eastern Province were even more shocking. The police said 4,449 people from 1,419 families were registered. It translates into an average of 74.15 persons a month and 2.4 persons from the districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara in the East settling down in the Western Province over a period of 60 months. It is a miniscule number considering the fact that in population terms the Western Province accounts for over 10 per cent of the 19 million citizens of Sri Lanka.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the contribution of the Western Province to the gross domestic product (GDP) is around 40 per cent. The census figures should actually propel the policymakers in Colombo to ponder seriously as to how and why so few citizens from the North and the East come to the Western Province in spite of the economic and educational opportunities it offers. The numbers also do not square up to the well-known reality that 54 per cent of the Tamils in Sri Lanka live outside the provinces of the North and the East.

The dreaded question doing the rounds among the minorities in the Western Province after the two senseless census operations is whether it would be the turn of the upcountry citizens (from the plantation sector) next to stand up and be counted.

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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