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Sri Lanka; Book Review on Tamil Refugees

Paper No. 6768                  Dated 21-Mar-2021

By Kandaswami Subramanian

Book Review -Akatiyin Tuyaram, V. Suryanarayan, Translated into Tamil by Bernard Chandra,  Kalachuvadu Publications Pvt Ltd., Nagercoil 629001, pp.133, Rs.160.

This slender book on the troubled situation in our neighbouring country Sri Lanka is a treasure trove of scholarly information on the history, politics, and social dynamics of the country. Prof. Suryanarayan is one of the scholars of standing who has devoted a lifetime of research on Sri Lanka. In some ways, this book may be taken as the high point of his work on Sri Lanka...

Though separated from India by the Palk Straits by a few kilometres, the differences between the socio-political changes of the two countries pose a challenge to researchers. In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy remarked, “All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In keeping with this profound observation, we may add that there is no single matrix that can capture fully the refugee situation in all countries. It is clear from Suryanarayan’s study that Sri Lanka’s case in several respects is Sui generis.

There was a time, before the Second World War when the refugee phenomenon appeared to be a passing regional phase that could be tided over through government assistance or help from private charitable agencies. No longer. Refugees are all over the world.

It is assessed that in the recent past decade, the global refugee population has more than doubled. UNHCR reported that, as of the end of 2019, there were 79.5 million “forcibly displaced” persons. Of this, 26 million persons are refugees who come from just five countries, viz. Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. It is indeed disturbing to know that half of the refugees are children. Even more distressing is the fact that 85% of refugees are hosted in developing countries. The burden of refugees is more on developing countries even though the rich, developed countries are making more noise about immigration and enforce draconian laws to prevent it.

These data and the accelerating socio-economic tensions, both within and across the countries, have triggered academic interest and resulted in a vast body of writings by scholars. In recent times, the refugee problem of Sri Lanka is the oldest and dates back to the early eighties. It continues to lacerate the Sri Lankan society and spills across the Palk Straits to India!

Naturally, India should have paid attention to the outbreak of ethnic and religious conflicts in the country with which it has had close religious and cultural ties for centuries. For social researchers, Sri Lanka has posed a puzzle. Here was a country that had attained high scores in the Human Development Index ((HDI) and high levels of education, welfare, etc. It was acclaimed as a model by Nobel Laureates like Amartya Sen. How was it that in such a prosperous society the ethnic/religious tore apart and could not resolve their differences? Why do they continue to depart?

Many researchers and social analysts have studied at length the problems faced by Sri Lanka. For those in Tamil Nadu, there was a debate on the Indian military involvement fraught with a high level of emotion. Add to this the other surcharged issue of the rise and fall of the LTTE. In the early years, the Tigers were romanticized by some sections in Tamil Nadu as “freedom fighters” for a separate state of EELAM. It was in later years, especially after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi that the true nature of the LTTE came to be realized. Indeed, the Tamil regional politics queered the pitch in Sri Lanka.

Prof. Suryanarayan is one of the many scholars who have done deep and sustained work on Indo-Sri Lankan relations. Throughout his life, he has maintained a steadfast, scholarly approach of detached and objective analysis. He was not swayed by passing emotions or fall prey to the media hype. He was unique in having friendly, personal relations with the leaders on both sides of the Straits. He had undertaken fieldwork in the Tamil-dominated parts of northern Sri Lanka. He has visited camps in Tamil Nadu where refugees are accommodated and ascertained their tribulations and hopes. The results of his fieldwork are evident in the relevant chapters, especially 4 and 5. He could even inspire trust and win over the confidence of LTTE cadres who shared information with him.

Prof. Suryanarayan’s writings on the refugee problem date back to 1996. Page 133 lists them out chronologically. Also, he has written articles from time to time in news media on specific issues that cropped up. If one can venture to summarize Professor’s contribution to the unravelling of the Sri Lankan malaise, one may put forward the following hypothesis: In the early stages when the conflict erupted, he was hopeful of reconciliation and further that they could be resolved within Sri Lanka’s Constitutional framework and, if necessary with amendments like the 13th. Unfortunately, this hope was belied. It was due to the growing Sinhala adamancy marked by an uncompromising wave of majoritarianism. More troublesome was the rise of the LTTE and its ability to spread itself across the Straits and into other countries like the U.K., Canada, Germany, etc. The backlash of the LTTE was the growing militarism of the Sinhala which ultimately resulted in the Sinhala army rule and the decimation of the LTTE. The strident majoritarianism of the Sinhala persists even seven years after the subjugation of the LTTE. It raises doubts about the return to democracy and normalcy.

During this phase, Prof. Suryanarayan has been championing the cause of protecting the safety and rights of “stateless” refugees in Sri Lanka and also of those who had returned to India under the Shastri-Srimao Pact. He fights for the grant of human rights and citizenship to all of them.

Prof. Suryanarayana is deeply concerned about the trauma, displacement, and “forced migration” faced by them. He buttresses his arguments with the personal accounts of refugees he had met or drawn on literary sources such as stories, poems, etc. written by refugees. A good part of the book draws on them and tapestries them into a human drama. For instance, his account drawn from Jayapalan (p.60) is beyond comparison. As Jayapalan asks or cries, “Are our families cotton pillows to be torn and scattered by monkey fate?” Professor has drawn heavily on the reports of UNHCR on the “trafficking” of refugees and how the tightening of immigration laws in developed countries has spawned a market for false documents. The net result is that a refugee lives in constant fear of being caught by the police and being extradited with “nowhere to go.”                         Suryanarayan fears that “there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Difficult days are ahead both for Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora.”.

In the chapter on “Island in distress,” there is a quintessential summary of the fractious politics at play. Even after nine years since the war with the LTTE ended, the Sri Lankan leaders are engaged in competitive one-upmanship. Ethnic reconciliation remains a distant dream. There are strong grounds for despondency. Sri Lankan refugees have scattered across the world, as vividly described by Jayapalan, and they will have to live in fear with no hope of a return to their home country.

As we began this review, this slender book is a treasure trove of scholarly material on Sri Lanka and the refugee situation there. It deals with the historical circumstances that led to the refugee problems. It captures graphically the status and trauma or dilemma refugees face. After reading, this reviewer kept aside the book with a heavy heart. T.S. Eliot said, “Human mind cannot bear very much reality” This can well be said of the refugees from Sri Lanka.

The reviewer has a duty to coment on the Tamizh translation of the book by Prof. Bernard Chandra.It is a commendable effort as he has taken meticulous care to stick to the original. English text.. There is Kanyakumari flavour to the Tamizh used!

One last, if sticking, point: The title of the original is “Refugee Dilemma.” This is  translated as “Akatiyin Tuyaram.” It would have been more appropriate if it is translated as “Akatiyin Aadhangal.” Tuyaram in Tamizh connotes only ‘suffering” or “sadness” while ‘aadhangam” encompasses, suffering, anguish, hopes and expectations. Every refugee, despite years of suffering and trauma, hopes to return to the home country some day. 

(The writer is a Retired Joint Secretary in the Department of Economic Affaoirs, GOI and can be reached at