Plight of Sri Lankan Indian Tamils in India: Indian media should display greater sensitivity and responsibility

Plight of Sri Lankan Indian Tamils in India: Indian media should display greater sensitivity and responsibility


In a news report in the Chennai edition of The Hindu dated March 12, 2011 headlined “Kerala Tightening Vigil on TN border to curb LTTE activities”; it is stated “intelligence inputs say cadres tried to set up camps in Idukki”. The report adds that vigil has been tightened after receipt of reports that the LTTE had reportedly tried to set up camps in the forest areas near Idukki district.

The report adds that Idukki forest areas bordering Tamil Nadu in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) could be used by the Tigers to regroup. According to the news report, “it is estimated that 1,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live in the Pachchakanam Gavi inside the PTR when they had been repatriated as part of a rehabilitation pact signed between then Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru. They work in the cardamom plantations of the Kerala Forest Department Corporation Ltd”.Three factual corrections are in order. The agreement referred to in the report was signed between Sirimavo Bandranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri, and not by Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, there were two agreements, the first one popularly known as the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact was signed in October 1964 by which India agreed to confer citizenship on 5.25 lakh persons of Indian origin, with natural increase in their numbers, over a period of fifteen years. The second agreement was signed in 1974 between Sirimavo Bandranaike and Indira Gandhi as a result of which India was to receive another 75,000 persons of Indian origin, after those under the first agreement were repatriated. The entire process was expected to be completed by October 1981. Sri Lanka agreed, in turn, to absorb 3, 00,000 persons under the first agreement and another 75,000 under the second agreement as its nationals at the ratio of four Sri Lankan nationals for every seven repatriated to India. The agreements pertained to stateless persons of Indian origin and have nothing to do with Sri Lankan Tamils, who are as indigenous to Sri Lanka as the Sinhalese are. The 1000 people referred to in the report are Sri Lankan repatriates, who were conferred Indian citizenship. They should not be confused with Sri Lankan Tamils, who came to India after July 1983 as refugees.The inability to distinguish between Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamils of Indian origin have led to complete misunderstanding of the Sri Lankan situation. As mentioned earlier, while the Sri Lankan Tamils are as indigenous to the island as the Sinhalese are, the Indian Tamils are the descendants of those labourers who went to Ceylon under the protective umbrella of the British to develop the tea plantations. While the Sri Lankan Tamils mainly lived in the north and the east of Sri Lanka and gradually moved over to Colombo and other areas, the Indian Tamils mainly lived in the hill country. The demand for a separate state of Tamil Eelam was the demand of the Sri Lankan Tamils. The Indian Tamils never subscribed to that demand, because they are surrounded by Sinhalese villages and an independent state will not lead to their political salvation. The political awakening among the two communities has taken parallel courses. Except for a brief interval in the early seventies when the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian Tamils came under the Tamil United Front, their political aspirations have been different. For the Indian Tamils the main demand was to remove the stigma of statelessness and become Sri Lankan citizens. When the Sri Lankan Tamil political leadership accepted the slogan of Tamil Eelam in 1976, the Indian Tamils parted company with them. After the 1977 elections, the Ceylon Workers Congress became a partner in the UNP government. Thanks to the astute diplomacy of Senior Thondaman, the plantation areas remained an oasis during the turbulent years of the fratricidal ethnic conflict. Attempts made by the Tamil militant groups to recruit followers from the plantation youth did not succeed.

Unfortunately disassociation from the demand of Tamil Eelam did not bring about security to the Indian Tamils. They were subjected to vicious and savage attacks by the lumpen sections of Sinhalese population in 1977, 1981 and 1983. In the first wave of refugees, who came to Tamil Nadu after the communal holocaust in July 1983, a large proportion was Tamils of Indian origin. It has been estimated that nearly 29, 000 of the refugees who live in the camps in Tamil Nadu belong to this category of Indian Tamils.

The repatriation of Indian Tamils who were conferred Indian citizenship by the 1964 agreement began in 1968, proceeded slowly through the seventies and came to an end in July 1983 when the refugees began to pour into Tamil Nadu. As on 1984, the number of Sri Lankan repatriates, along with their natural increase, who came to India numbered 4, 61,639. Fortunately, as a result of prolonged parliamentary and extra- parliamentary struggles the Sri Lankan Government, under Ranil Wikramasinghe, in October 2003 passed a legislation to confer citizenship on all Indian Tamils, including Indian passport holders yet to be repatriated to India. Thus the era of indignity came to an end.

For those who came back to India as Indian citizens it was a bitter home coming. In fact the repatriation of Indian citizens from Sri Lanka is one of the most organized worker migrations in the twentieth century, but it went largely unnoticed. Unwanted in Sri Lanka and unwelcome in India, these people continue to languish in various parts of Tamil Nadu. Some of them have settled down in Kerala and in Andhra Pradesh thanks to government sponsored rehabilitation schemes. In Tamil Nadu, the local people and media referred to them as “Sri Lankan Tamils”, a position which they never got in Sri Lanka even after many years of residence and service to the island. The misleading report in The Hindu is a typical example.

The inability to distinguish between Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian Tamils (who are Indian citizens) has adversely affected the interests of the latter who have settled down in Tamil Nadu. In the dark days following Rajiv Gandhi assassination, some of them were rounded up by the security agencies on suspicion that they were Tamil militants. Few others found it difficult to enroll themselves as voters and get their names included in the voters list. Sixty one Indian Tamil families in the Kottapattu camp, who were granted Indian citizenship under the Sirimavo-Shastri pact, are yet to receive their citizenship papers. In desperation they have filed a case in the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court.

Those who are familiar with the working of the security agencies in Tamil Nadu and enforcement of law and order know that newspaper reports are followed by police enquiries and very often by harassment of innocent people. We hope the report in The Hindu will not result in such a situation. The Indian Tamils, who have come to India, after getting Indian citizenship, are law abiding citizens. Despite attempts made by the Sri Lankan Tamil militants to get a following among them, they have kept aloof from Sri Lankan politics. The need of the hour is for the media and the governmental agencies to show greater sensitivity and understanding about these people, who continue to be vulnerable and marginalized.

Prof. V Suryanarayan is Senior Research Fellow at Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. Ashik Bonofer is Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai