The plight of nearly 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in India is set to snowball into a major issue in Tamil Nadu, ahead of the assembly elections in 2021. The state goes to polls along with other states like Assam, West Bengal and Kerala where the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has created a political storm for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The exclusion of Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan for fast tracking grant of Indian citizenship on the grounds of religious persecution has riled the opposition in these states.
Tamil Nadu politicians have woken up to realise that the Centre has forgotten about the 60,000 Sri Lankan Tamils cooped up in the state’s own 100-plus refugee camps and nearly 30,000 outside the camps when the BJP pushed ahead on its key agenda.
The Tamils who came from Sri Lanka are of two types: those who came before 1983 and those who came after when the ethnic conflict in the island nation took a violent turn followed by a series of anti-Tamil riots.
Most of the Sri Lankan illegal immigrants who live in Tamil Nadu today are those who fled in boats to escape this violence. 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 to become citizens of the country of their choice. Many of those who arrived in India until 1982 got legal accommodation. About 400,000 plantation Tamils came to India following the two Indo-Sri Lanka pacts but some of these people of Indian origin are said to be still in Sri Lanka.
The status of refugees has meant security and travel restrictions, apart from not-so-great conditions in camps in India. Many Sri Lankan Tamils are allowed to work as casual labourers in Tamil Nadu but they are not allowed to hold regular jobs. Security agencies also suspect some of them of having links with banned Tamil militant outfits.
When the CAA was enacted in Parliament, the DMK and other regional parties forcefully demanded the inclusion of these refugees under the act. But the ruling AIADMK, which has had a cosy relationship with the BJP, could not bargain with the Centre though it offered support for the CAA. The DMK and other ridiculed the AIADMK for not extracting concessions for the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the state when it voted in favour of the CAA. But for the support extended by the AIADMK, especially in the Rajya Sabha, the CAA would not have become a law today.
In a bid to deflect the issue, the AIADMK has pressed for dual citizenship for them. It has also tried to question the role of the DMK and its failure in getting citizenship for the Sri Lankan Tamils despite having been part of the UPA government at the Centre. As a show of its intent in the run-up to the polls, the DMK has also filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court, against the CAA, saying that it is indifferent to Tamils who had fled Sri Lanka and have been staying in India for many years.
Subsequently, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edapaddi K Palaniswami met Modi at least twice and Home Minister Amit Shah once, to press for dual citizenship for the Sri Lankan Tamils. The Centre’s response so far has been not an outright “no” to his plea. Undeterred by New Delhi’s response thus far, Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarlal Purohit reiterated the state government’s demand in his address to the state assembly on January 6.
With the opposition leading the Muslim protests in Tamil Nadu against the CAA, the AIADMK is on a fire-fighting mission to douse the ire of the DMK – for backing an act at the cost of exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from its ambit.
However, Tamil Nadu politicians know that there are major difficulties in considering any proposal for dual citizenship. Article 9 of the Constitution does not allow dual citizenship. Demand for dual citizenship was first mooted by former Chief Minister J Jayalalitha in 2016. But she did not include it in the Governor’s address that her government prepared. Instead, she submitted a memorandum to Modi. Nothing came of it. Also, Sri Lanka, like India, does not permit dual citizenship. If India grants Sri Lankan Tamils citizenship, they stand to lose their Sri Lankan citizenship. The Centre may also never agree to the idea.
Therefore, the best course would be to grant citizenship to those Sri Lankan refugees who want it so that they can seek employment or set up business in the country, TN leaders say. Alternatively, the Central government can withdraw its instructions — issued first in 1983 and reiterated in 2007 — to the state government not to entertain applications from the refugees for citizenship. This would allow the refugees to apply for citizenship under the normal course, under the option of naturalisation.
On January 9, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena met Foreign Minister S Jaishankar to discuss a range of bilateral issues including the refugees. He indicated that 3,000 Tamil refugees in India have volunteered to go back to the island nation and their return should happen in the next few months. According to him, the first batch has been identified. But he refused to give a timeline for the return.
Of the 90,000 Tamil refugees in India, Sri Lanka could take back as many as 60,000. The other 30,000 now have families or work in India, and so may not head back to Sri Lanka, officials say.
Defending the Centre’s stand on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), senior BJP leaders have held that the best solution would be their return to their motherland. What the Tamils have faced in Sri Lanka is persecution on ethnic grounds and not on religious grounds, which is now covered under the CAA. While Sri Lankan Tamils in India are mostly Hindus, the Sinhalese are a majority in the island.
But, as the elections approach next year, the BJP too may be tempted to come up with a quick-fix — because of its political ambitions in Tamil Nadu. It should surprise no one if the Centre takes a lenient view of the refugees and offers a deal for those wanting to stay on in India. Maybe, another amendment of the Citizenship Act to include them?
The writer is a former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi.