Stateless no longer

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

ON October 7, Sri Lanka corrected one of its tragic mistakes of the past when Parliament passed a Bill granting citizenship to 1,68,141 stateless Tamils of Indian Origin. With the endorsement by all the 172 members present on that day in the 225-member House, political Sri Lankans undid what the House had done soon after the island's independence in 1948, when this category of people was disenfranchised.

The 1.68 lakh Tamils who were granted citizenship include 84,141 persons who had obtained Indian passports following the earlier agreements between India and Sri Lanka but could not leave the island after the separatist conflict escalated in 1983. Interior Minister John Amaratunga told Parliament that in addition to them, 84,000 persons born in Sri Lanka after 1964 were also granted citizenship.

Also referred to as Estate Tamils, the Persons of Recent Indian Origin are the descendents of indentured labour brought from India by the British, primarily to work on the coffee, and subsequently tea, plantations.

Under two pacts, in 1964 and 1974, between Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indian Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, the two countries agreed to send back to India hundreds of thousands of people of Indian origin, but the Tamil separatist conflict stopped a ferry that took back batches of Indians. Tamils of Indian Origin form about 5.5 per cent of the 18.6-million population, while Sri Lankan Tamils constitute about 12.5 per cent.

While Sri Lankan Tamils are concentrated in the north and the east, Estate Tamils live in the central plantation districts. Though they are identified largely with the estate sector, the contribution of their ancestors spanned a range of services. They played a significant role in creating the island's infrastructure such as railways and roadways.

Politically distinct from Sri Lankan Tamils, Tamils of Indian Origin had seven members in the 1947 Parliament, the same number that Sri Lankan Tamils had. Subsequently, the then ruling party, with the support of a section of Sri Lankan Tamil parties, brought in legislation to disenfranchise this group.

The move to classify them as "stateless" resulted in a split in the island's Tamil politics, with the late S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, leaving the Tamil Congress and forming a separate party, as he opposed his party's support for the disenfranchisement move.

Political representation for the Tamils of Indian Origin was regained after the two pacts between India and Sri Lanka. Since 1977, the late S. Thondaman, the leader of the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), had been the "King-maker" in Sri Lanka's politics.

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