COLOMBO: Fifty years after the signing of the controversial India-Sri Lanka Agreement on the citizenship of nearly one million Indian Origin Tamils (IOT) in Sri Lanka, the community is seeing it as a blessing in disguise and not a tragedy.
The pact, signed by Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1964, had unjustly apportioned the IOT (mostly ill-paid workers in the island’s tea and rubber plantations), between the two countries without consulting them. “They were apportioned as if they were a sack of potatoes. Nevertheless, the pact gave Lankan citizenship to 300,000 IOT, something which had been denied to them immediately after Lanka became independent in 1948,” pointed out R Yogarajan, an IOT leader and opposition MP.
“By 1987, this nucleus had yielded a voting population of 250,000, with which the leaders of the IOT assiduously bargained with the mainstream Sinhalese parties to secure, by 2003, Lankan citizenship for all, including those who had been forced to opt for Indian citizenship under the 1964 pact,” he said.
The first breakthrough came in the run up to the 1988 Presidential election. The United National Party (UNP) candidate, R Premadasa, was fighting with his back to the wall.
Eager to secure the votes of the IOT, he pledged to give citizenship to all those who had not applied for Indian citizenship. The opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party did not oppose the move as it did not want to lose IOT votes to the UNP forever.
But there still remained 168,141 who had applied for, or had got Indian citizenship but who were either not repatriated to India, or did not want to be repatriated.
In 2003, thanks to Yogarajan, these too got Lankan citizenship. His backroom diplomacy had led to an all party consensus on the issue.
Lanka had indeed come a long way from the 1930s and 40s when mainstream Sinhalese parties were hell bent on sending the IOT packing to India as they were seen as a political threat (being the country’s largest minority) and a pawn in India’s hands.