Why is India discriminating against Tamil refugees?

Is systematic discrimination and ethnic violence against the Tamils in Sri Lanka any different from that suffered by the religious minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh?

The magnificent victory of the DMK and the assumption of office by MK Stalin as the Chief Minister marks a turning point in Tamil Nadu politics. The election campaign and assurances given in the manifesto have raised hopes of the people in the state for a clean, corruption-free and efficient government and establishment of an egalitarian social and economic order. The ambition of the father of our nation was to remove the tears from every eye. It may be beyond our reach, but as long as there are tears, our work would not be complete.

In particular, the government should pay attention to the tragic plight of the nearly 1,00,000 refugees, both living in camps and outside. They have been living between fear that they would have to go back to Sri Lanka with an uncertain future and the hope that they would be conferred Indian citizenship and given a chance to get assimilated with the local people.

The DMK manifesto has succinctly spelt out two interrelated issues of the refugee predicament. On the question of voluntary repatriation of refugees, the manifesto has pointed out that the Government of India “should make arrangements and extend all support to those who wish to return to Sri Lanka”. Voluntary repatriation could be sped up if shipping service is immediately resumed between Rameshwaram and Talaimannar. The refugees could be allowed to take back, without duty, all that they have acquired over the years, such as almirahs, gas stoves, bicycles, motorcycles and three wheelers. At present, repatriation takes place through air and naturally there is a limit to what the refugees could carry back to Sri Lanka.

Repatriation is taking place at a snail’s pace. According to UNHCR sources, between 2002 and 2020, 17,718 refugees have been repatriated. According to the Policy Note 2019-20, between 2014 and March 2019, only 4,017 refugees have gone back to Sri Lanka.  

Secondly, the state and Central government should impress upon Sri Lanka to confer special privileges on repatriates. It may be recalled that New Delhi conferred on displaced persons from Pakistan, for a period of 50 years, free land for the construction of houses, government loans, free medical aid, scholarships for education and reservation in government jobs. Unfortunately there is no such demand in Sri Lanka. Even the Tamil National Alliance is silent on the issue. 

On the second issue, the grant of Indian citizenship, the manifesto highlights the necessity to “grant citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian-origin Tamils (hill country Tamils) and their descendants who are in India as refugees for more than 30 years”. For the first time, a distinction has been made between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian-origin Tamils. All Sri Lankan Tamils are Sri Lankan citizens, and, if they want to acquire Indian citizenship, would have to renounce Sri Lankan citizenship. As far as Indian-origin Tamils are concerned, many of them are stateless. It may, however, be pointed out that the Sri Lankan government had enacted a legislation in 2003 by which all Indian Tamils—stateless as well as the residue of the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact—could acquire Sri Lankan citizenship. My interactions with the refugees, spread over many years, have made me realise that the overwhelming majority would like to acquire Indian citizenship. This is especially true of the younger generation who are born in India.

The question of grant of Indian citizenship has to be analysed in the backdrop of the welcome changes introduced by the Narendra Modi Government in refugee policy. India’s refugee policy, during the earlier period, was based on three premises that Jawaharlal Nehru spelt out in the Lok Sabha in 1959 with reference to Tibetan refugees: 1) India’s hope to maintain cordial relations with China; 2) protection of the territorial integrity and security of India and 3) India’s deep sympathy for the people of Tibet. The BJP had always been concerned about the plight of Hindus and Sikhs, who had been persecuted by the Islamic states of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh and had sought asylum in India. The result is the Citizenship Amendment Act that was enacted in 2019.

There are two obstacles in the way of Sri Lankan refugees acquiring Indian citizenship. The first is a circular issued by the Government of India to the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1983 that Sri Lankan refugees are not entitled for Indian citizenship. We should immediately demand that this circular be withdrawn so that the refugees could apply for Indian citizenship by naturalisation. The second is on the legal status of the refugees. Answering a question in the Rajya Sabha a couple of years ago, the home ministry clarified that their status is that of illegal immigrants.  And, according to Union Home Minister Amit Shah, “An illegal migrant is not eligible to acquire citizenship by registration or naturalization.” We should demand that Tamil refugees be treated on par with the refugees who have sought asylum in India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Why is New Delhi discriminating against Tamil refugees? Home Minister Amit Shah declared that Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are theocracies, whereas Sri Lanka is not one. Is systematic discrimination and ethnic violence in Sri Lanka different from that suffered by the Hindu and Sikh minorities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh? Though constitutionally, Sri Lanka is not a theocracy, the Constitution stipulates that it is the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhist religion. According to Hindu organisations, nearly 200 Hindu temples have been desecrated by Buddhist goons since the dawn of independence. It was the burning alive of a Brahmin priest in Panadura, among other things, that made LTTE founder Prabhakaran take up arms against the government. Arson, murder, loot and rape, whether committed by a Muslim or a Buddhist, remain the same. A criminal does not become a saint if he is a Sinhala Buddhist.

In a landmark judgment delivered on 17 June 2019, Justice G R Swaminathan of the Madurai Division of the Madras High Court instructed the Indian government to consider the applications for citizenship submitted by Indian-origin Tamil refugees living in the Kottapattu camp. Two years have elapsed, but the Kumbakarnas in the home ministry have not woken up. This is an appropriate time for the TN government to appeal to the Supreme Court for the issue of a writ of Mandamus to compel the home ministry to implement the recommendations of Justice Swaminathan.

I had the good fortune to interact with the Malaiha Tamil refugees in the Kottapattu camp on several occasions. They live, as I stated earlier, between fear and hope. We in Tamil Nadu can understand their predicament only if we realise that we can all become refugees. As Benjamin Zephaniah, the refugee poet, has written: We can all be refugees, nobody is safe. / All it takes is a mad leader or no rain to / bring forth food. We can all be refugees. / We can all be told to go. We can be hated / by someone for being someone.

Appeared in New Indian Express.

V Suryanarayan
Founding Director (Retd), Centre for South & Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras
([email protected])

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