The exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils figured prominently in the debate on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, and the crucial support extended by the AIADMK to the government in Parliament has handed the opposition in Tamil Nadu a stick to beat the ruling party in the state.
About 1 lakh Tamils from Sri Lanka live in India, including some 60,000 in camps across Tamil Nadu. These refugees are mostly Hindu, and are of both Sri Lankan and Indian origin. The AIADMK claims Home Minister Amit Shah has promised Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami that the question of the Tamil refugees would be considered soon.
When did the refugees from Sri Lanka arrive in India?
Tamils who came from Sri Lanka can be separated into those who came before 1983 and those who came after, when the separatist movement in the island nation took a violent turn followed by a series of anti-Tamil riots. Most of the 1 lakh documented Sri Lankan illegal immigrants who live in Tamil Nadu today, fled this ethnic conflict.
Those who reached India before 1983 were mostly Indian-origin Tamils whose forefathers migrated to Sri Lanka a century previously, mainly to work in the tea plantations. In 1964, Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Sirimavo Bandaranaike signed an agreement to allow some 9,75,000 people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, who had citizenship of neither country, to become citizens of the country of their choice. Many of those who arrived in India until 1982 got legal accommodation; however, the process was not comprehensive, and was ultimately not completed.
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Some 4.6 lakh repatriations from Sri Lanka have been officially recorded so far, besides thousands of Tamils of Sri Lankan origin who sought asylum in India. Some of those who arrived from Sri Lanka managed to travel onward to countries of Europe; some others married Indians and resolved their identity issues.
The arrivals from Sri Lanka dwarf the arrivals from Burma (about 1.4 lakh from 1963 to 1989, when it was stopped) and Vietnam (a total 2,055 repatriates between 1975 and 1980), government records show. Arrivals from Sri Lanka turned into a flood after 1983.
What are the conditions in the Tamil Nadu camps like?
About 19,000 Sri Lankan families, comprising 60,000 individuals, live in 107 camps in Tamil Nadu. Some 10,000 of these inmates are children below the age of eight, according to latest available data from August 2019.
“Technically, those who arrived by boat and other informal, illegal channels during the war in Sri Lanka are considered illegal immigrants, not refugees,” said S C Chandrahasan, head of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OFERR), the only nongovernment agency that is allowed to work in the camps and have free access to the inmates.
Most of these “illegal immigrants” reached Tamil Nadu in the 1980s and 1990s. Thereafter, a few hundreds came over the years — until arrivals spurted during the last leg of war, which ended with the final defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
At least 20 per cent of these refugees claim an Indian origin on the basis of Sri Lankan birth certificates that identify them as “Indian Tamil”, and documents issued by Indian authorities that trace their links to Indian grandparents or other ancestors.
Dwellings in the so-called refugee camps are in most cases a single room that was allotted to a family when it reached India in 1983 or later, and where they have continued to live ever since. Most of these camps are in a shambles. No rent is charged from the residents, and they get rice for 57 paise a kilo. Each member of a family aged eight and older is eligible for 12 kg of rice every month. The head of the family gets an allowance of Rs 1,000 every month, the spouse gets Rs 750, and children below the age of 12, Rs 400 each.
Besides the 60,000 in the camps, about 30,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live on their own, and are required to periodically report to the nearest police station. They do, however, have greater freedom of movement than those who live in the camps, which have a system of attendance — inmates of camps cannot go outside Tamil Nadu, and require permission to even travel out of the district. A VIP visit in the vicinity of the camps almost always brings interrogation and inquiries from the Q-Branch of the police and central intelligence agencies. The relatively free atmosphere in the refugee camps changed permanently after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
What do the refugees from Sri Lanka expect from the government?
They expect citizenship of India — because they fear persecution and violence at the hands of the Colombo government and the Sinhala Buddhist majority if they return to Sri Lanka, and because they are unable to go anywhere else (such as to an European country). Also, most of the Indian-origin Tamils have ancestral roots, relatives, and property in India. Many could have got Indian citizenship under the Shastri-Bandaranaike Pact if they had chosen to come to India before the ethnic riots broke out in Sri Lanka.
OFERR’s Chandrahasan, who is himself of Sri Lankan origin, and the son of S J V Chelvanayakam, a prominent Sri Lankan Tamil leader and a torchbearer of the Tamil rights movement in that country, however, believes that those who live in the camps should return to Sri Lanka. It is better for them to “become one among the few millions in Sri Lanka, instead of being one among over a billion population in India”, Chandrahasan said.
“There is no process in India to give them citizenship, and these camps were built as a temporary arrangement for people in distress, to make them feel safe until such time as they could return to Sri Lanka after normalcy was restored. The European model of giving asylum and citizenship to refugees works on individual cases. That is impossible in India, as there are thousands of Tamil refugees,” he said.
A dozen-odd refugees whom The Indian Express met last week disagreed with Chandrahasan. Most of those in the camps have nothing left in Sri Lanka, no property or community to go back to, they said.
The situation of the Tamil refugees has been a fairly emotive issue in Tamil Nadu. DMK chief M K Stalin has in recent statements and speeches repeatedly attacked the AIADMK for voting in favour of the citizenship Bill that did not include a provision for Sri Lankan Tamils, and recalled the efforts of DMK regimes to make them eligible for government schemes.
The AIADMK, which finds itself on the defensive, has tried to counter-question the DMK for its failure in get citizenship for the Sri Lankan Tamils despite having been part of the UPA government at the Centre for a decade.