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Above: Sri Lankan refugees have been living in poor conditions in camps in Tamil Nadu/Photo: orfonline.org

Sixty-five Tamil refugees from Lanka who were living in camps in Tamil Nadu got a new lease of hope when the Madras High Court asked the centre to consider their application for citizenship

By PS Joseph in Chennai

If you want to know the meaning of statelessness, ask a refugee from Sri Lanka who has been living in camps set up by the Tamil Nadu government. The sordid conditions there and the fear of nowhere to go got a new twist recently when the Madras High Court asked the centre to consider the application for citizenship of 65 refugees living in refugee camps from 1983 when the civil war raged in Lanka.

They represent, like one lakh others from Lanka living in camps in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, the pitiable plight of refugees who are at the mercy of the host country where political equations change day by day. To add to the horror, the country they themselves were a part of it, is undergoing political turmoil due to terrorism. They were living in India in the hope that one day they would be assimilated as citizens as their language and culture are akin to the Tamils here.

These refugees were earlier part of indentured labourers from India, settled in the northern provinces of Sri Lanka where the Tamil ethnic population is in the majority. Though the civil war has ended in Lanka, the refugees are hesitant to go back as they want to be absorbed in India as citizens.

Matters came to a boiling point when the Madras High Court passionately argued for grant of citizenship to 65 Tamils who fled Lanka after the 1983 riots, saying the conditions in the camp in which they were housed in Tamil Nadu were “hellish”. These refugees have been engaged in a legal battle for more than two decades. Although the Indian government has promised not to deport them, it has not acceded to their dema­nd for Indian citizenship.

Last week, the Madras High Court passed an order on their plea urging the centre to take a sympathetic view of the plight of the petitioners and relax the norms for them to acquire Indian citizenship. Justice GR Swaminathan observed: “An illegal migrant cannot claim such a relaxation if he had merged with society surreptitiously. That is not the case here. The writ petitioners have been housed in camps set up by the government.”

The Tamil Nadu government, however, contends that they arrived through an illegal route and so their refugee status cannot be converted into citizenship. The centre has a similar view. The petitioners claim they are descendants of indentured labour who settled down in Sri Lanka’s tea estates during the colonial era, they are Tamil-speaking and their forefathers hailed from Tamil Nadu.

These Tamils crossed the narrow strip of sea dividing Lanka and Tamil Nadu when the first wave of hostilities began between the Lankan government and the Jaffna Tamils who were treated as second-class citizens. Out of one lakh refugees in Tamil Nadu, 65,000 are accommodated in 107 camps set up in various parts of the state. Those with big-ticket investments and those who had marriage and other filial ties were absorbed into Tamil society. But those in the camps are under constant watch. They get monthly cash doles, rations, essential commodities, dress materials, utensils and free education from the government. “They are having a good life there,” said a person associated with the rehabilitation process in the camps. This might not be entirely true as Justice Swaminathan too terms the conditions in the camps horrible. Moreover, they are not under the supervision of the UNHCR.

During the first wave of ethnic warfare in Lanka, leaders such as A Amirthalingam of the Tamil United Liberation Front led the protests. They had to be accommodated in Tamil Nadu till the hostilities subsided. In the second wave, extremists had taken over the political process in Lanka and at the beginning of the Eighties, there were several Lankan militant organisations owing allegiance to various outfits but finally, it was the LTTE which emerged as the only force in Jaffna which fought fiercely with the Sri Lankan government forces. India shifted its stand from supporting the Sri Lankan militant groups to being in favour of a negotiated political settlement with then president JR Jayawardene. This invited the ire of the LTTE which assassinated the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991.

In Tamil Nadu under the then ruling AIADMK government led by MG Ramachandran and the DMK led by M Karunanidhi, who would go to any length to support the Sri Lankan cause, the LTTE thrived. But with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the popular support for it waned in Tamil Nadu, so much so that when LTTE supremo V Prabhakaran was killed by Sri Lankan forces, there was lukewarm response to it and both the AIADMK and the DMK used the death for their political ends.

At the national level, political perceptions changed and granting of citizenship became a difficult process as many looked upon these Tamils suspiciously. The Easter bombing in Colombo this year added to the perception as it showed the rift within the community. The death of 310 persons in these bombings again made the Sri Lankan government suspicious of Tamil activities in the northern peninsula.

In India, the National Investigation Agency began conducting surveillance in Coimbatore and other areas in Tamil Nadu and Kerala to nab those who facilitated or supported the Easter bombings. “Even if they want to go back, the situation in Sri Lanka is gloomy,” said Sakkariyas, the regional coordinator of the Organisation for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation in Tamil Nadu. For refugees who spent decades in the camps with the hope that they would be given Indian citizenship, it was the last straw. They saw their future turning bleak.

But with the recent judgment of the Madras High Court, perhaps a new chapter will begin for these refugees so that they are absorbed into mainstream Indian society.

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