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Welcome Gesture to Hindu Refugees from Neighbouring Countries

Paper No. 6145                                Dated 12-Jul-2016

By Prof. V. Suryanarayan

A news item in the Sunday edition (July 10, 2016) of New Indian Express holds out the promise of Indian citizenship to Hindu refugees from neighbouring South Asian countries, especially Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to make this historic announcement after unfurling the national flag from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day, August 15, 2016.

Attempts to build the nation on the basis of Islam, increasing popularity of obscurantist Islamic political parties, attacks on Hindu places of worship, forcible conversion into Islam and assassination of Hindu priests have become regular phenomenon in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Over the years, the Hindu population has registered a steady decline and, what is more, many Hindus are being converted to Islam. The Hindus do not occupy high positions in important walks of life like armed services, diplomacy, teaching, law and medicine. The more daring among the discriminated Hindus take the risk, cross the borders and have sought asylum in India. Conferment of Indian citizenship on these unfortunate children of Mother India will definitely be an act of magnanimity and will be welcomed by all sections of Indian population.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always advocated strong links between India and the people of Indian origin living abroad. Since religion is an important source of identity, the BJP has been promoting religious and cultural links. Three years ago, thanks to the initiative taken by Swami Vigyananda, a World Hindu Conference was organized in New Delhi. Delegates from Hindu organizations, spread across the world, assembled in New Delhi; free and frank exchange of views took place and number of decisions was taken to further deepen the contacts between India and the Hindu Diaspora.

It should be highlighted that the BJP in its election manifesto for 2014 parliamentary elections had promised to confer Indian citizenship on Hindu refugees. After coming to power concerned Ministries were asked to speed up the administrative and legal procedures. An amendment to the citizenship provisions of the Indian Constitution will also be introduced in parliament in due course.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to confer Indian citizenship on Hindu refugees is a welcome departure from the earlier policies of the Government of India. Speaking in Parliament on Tibetan refugees Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru explained the three pillars of India’s refugee policy. The first was 1) The refugee issue is a bilateral matter; 2) The refugees will be received with compassion and understanding and 3) When the situation becomes normal the refugees should return to their homeland. The return of Chakma refugees to Bangladesh is an illustration of the third point.   

But, there is one section of Hindu refugees about whom the Government of India has not spoken so far. These are the Hindu refugees from Malaiaham (hill country) of Sri Lanka, who are of Indian origin and who are very eager to get Indian citizenship.

This essay is an attempt to bring the issue of citizenship to these Hindu refugees of Indian origin into sharp focus. The Author hopes that their just demand will not be turned down by the Government of India.  I would also urge on the Prime Minister to make a reference to these unfortunate people of Mother India in his Independence Day address to the nation.

The refugees from Sri Lanka can be divided into two categories. First, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. The Sri Lankan Tamils are as indigenous to the island as the Sinhalese are. They do not consider themselves as of Indian origin, but of Tamil origin. They do not participate in the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas organized by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in January every year.

The second category of refugees is Indian Tamil refugees or Malaiha (hill country) refugees. They are of Indian origin and the term Indian Tamil is used by the Governments of Si Lanka and India. They are also shown as Indian Tamils in the census data. Their welfare was very dear to Indian nationalist leaders, especially Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. They do participate in the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas every year.

The Malaiha Tamils are those who are the descendants of the Tamil labourers who were taken to Ceylon by the British government to provide labour for the development of rubber and tea plantations and also for the construction of roads and railways in the country. On the eve of independence, they were more in number than the Sri Lankan Tamils. But the first legislative enactment of the independent Government of Ceylon was to render the Indian Tamils stateless. The problem of the Stateless people vitiated India- Ceylon relations for many years. However, when Lal Bahadur Shastri became Prime Minister he entered into an agreement with Ceylon by which India agreed to confer Indian citizenship on majority of Indian Tamils. There was also another agreement in 1974. By these two agreements of 1964 and 1974, New Delhi agreed to confer Indian citizenship on 600,000 with their natural increase and Colombo agreed to confer Ceylonese citizenship on 400, 000 persons plus their natural increase on the ratio 0f 7: 4.

Despite the common bonds of language and religion the two Tamil communities followed different political strategies. While the Sri Lankan Tamils drifted from co-operative arrangements with the Sinhalese political parties to the demand for a separate state, the Malaiha Tamils realized very early that a separate state will not lead to their political salvation. They wanted to live in harmony with the Sinhalese in whose midst the plantations were located. But their hopes were shattered. They were subjected to vicious and savage attacks by the lumpen sections of Sinhalese population in 1977, 1981 and 1983.  After 1983 holocaust many came to India as refugees. They sold all their belongings and came to India with the hope that they can permanently reside in India and eventually become Indian citizens. What is more, their children have inter-married with local families and are well integrated into Tamil society. According to reliable statistics, the Malaiha Tamil refugees number 29,500.  During my interactions with them they told me “come what may, we will not go back to Sri Lanka”.

According to the citizenship provisions of the Indian Constitution all these people qualify for Indian citizenship.  What stands in their way is a circular issued by the Government of India that the refugees are not entitled for Indian citizenship. The tragedy of Tamil Nadu is that no political leader – Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi, Vaiko, Nedumaran, Ramdas, Thirumavalavan – speaks a word about their fears, hopes and aspirations.

The Tamil Nadu Government has advocated that the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees should be conferred dual citizenship. This demand ignores one reality. Only people of Indian origin, who have taken citizenship of the country in which they live, are entitled for dual citizenship. And, as pointed out earlier, the Sri Lankan Tamils do not consider themselves as a part of the Indian Diaspora. The second suggestion, which was articulated by Sri Lankan Tamil leader Satchidanandan, few years ago, is to give the Sri Lankan Tamils the same rights and privileges that the Nepalese enjoy in India; in other words, like the Nepalese the Sri Lankan Tamils   should have free entry into India and they should be permitted to work in India. This suggestion is riddled with great difficulties. Can India afford to make a distinction between two categories of Sri Lankan citizens – Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils?

The tragedy facing the Malaiha Tamil Hindu refugees becomes more poignant if one compares their predicament in mid-1960’s and their precarious status today. When the two agreements, to which mention have been made earlier, were signed in 1964 and 1974, neither Colombo nor New Delhi made any attempt to ascertain the wishes of the people concerned. Savumyamurthy Thondaman, the undisputed leader of the Indian Tamils, described the situation as follows: “We are a community of human beings, with soul, mind and body, with personality and cannot be apportioned between countries like beasts of burden at others’ whims and fancies only to maintain good neighbourly relations. Humanity cannot be converted to merchandise in this modern age”.

In his absorbing novel, Refuge, Gopal Gandhi movingly describes the tragic predicament of the Indian Tamil plantation workers. When their applications for Sri Lankan citizenship were rejected, they did not know what to do. Avadai, toothless old man, called by the fellow workers as the “wise one” echoed their feelings: “We came to this land, because our own land could not sustain us… I remember how parched the earth was, how hungry we all were in our village of Avur in Pudukkottai. My father said, “Come, let us go and register in the Ceylon office”. And so we registered and we came here. We came in order to be able to work, to eat…and now we have lost all links with our native land, when we have sent our roots deep into this soil, like the tea bushes planted by us, we are told … that we do not belong here, that we must go back to India, that if we stay on here we will have no rights. Is this fair? Is this just?”

It will be a great pity if the Government of India does not sympathetically consider the request for Indian citizenship by the Malaiha Tamil Hindu refugees. They belong to Mother India and over the last few years they have taken deep roots here. And, what is more, to draw a divide between Hindu refugees from Bangladesh and Hindu refugees from hill country in Sri Lanka will be an act of discrimination. As Avadai in Gopal Gandhi’s novel asked: Is this fair? Is this just?

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is founding Director and former Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai His e mail id: