CHENNAI: Universally, the word refugee paints a picture of war, devastation and destitution; children running away from falling shells, families making it to foreign shores with just the clothes on their back, an undistinguishable uniformity within the confines of camps. An amalgamation of images subconsciously collected from half-read news reports, hastily brushed-over dinner table conversations and solemnly-liked social media updates. Reality — especially for Eelam Tamil refugees in India — isn’t far from this. In The Prajnya Gender Talks series for this month, activist and filmmaker Poongkothai Chandrahasan went beyond our limited understanding of this populace to offer the more up-to-date big picture. Under the highly encouraging banner of “From Refugees to Changemakers”, Poongkothai broke down the social and political history of the Eelam struggle — drawing upon her grandfather SJV Chelvanayakam’s contributions (as leader of the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi and Tamil United Liberation Front) and her ongoing own work as part of her father’s Organisation for Eelam Refugees' Rehabilitation (OfERR).
Born in Colombo, Poongkothai’s family moved her to India when she was merely three years old. But, this was after her family had endured through the Anti-Tamil Pogroms of 1956, 1958, 1966, 1977 and 1981. While the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War is officially marked in 1983, Poongkothai traces the events back to the disenfranchisement of Tamils of Indian origin all the way back in 1949. Followed by the Sinhalese colonisation of Tamil homelands starting with Gal Oya valley in 1952. The years of political struggle and peaceful resistance was all centred around four basic demands: parity of status for Tamil language, cessation of state-aided colonisation of Tamil lands, regional autonomy for Tamil provinces and restoration of citizenship of Hill Country Tamils. With these demands not being fulfilled and one political pact after another being disbanded, the island nation would eventually see the rise of Tamil militancy in the 1970s, with LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) soon emerging as the leader of the movement. While the war raged on and politics stood watch, “hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled the country and left to other parts of the world. The ones with money, of course, went abroad. But, the people who had nothing had to come to India with literally just the clothes on their back,” she recalled. This was in 1983, after the Black July Riots.
A start from scratch
This huge influx of refugees would be joined by more of their brethren in the next mass exodus of 1990 — after the Indian Peace Keeping Force had added its part to the conflict. Currently, there are around 60,000 refugees living in the camps in Tamil Nadu; all of them located in far-flung, backward, rural areas or relegated to the slum-like settlements in cities like Chennai. The biggest of them is, of course, the Mandapam camp in Rameshwaram. While they took up work as labourers to sustain themselves, the only upside came with the education their children found in government schools. It is at this juncture that a group of refugees came together to set up OfERR — an organisation for the refugees, by the refugees. “This organisation was formed in 1984 and immediately they started focusing on getting birth certificates and transfer certificates for the kids. Through OfERR’s advocacy, the Tamil Nadu government passed a law to accept any child in government schools without any certificate. OfERR’s workers would take the children to school and the headmaster was allowed to just speak to the child and decide which class to admit them into,” she narrated. With the funds coming to this NGO from the international community and Eelam diaspora, the organisation was able to fund the children’s education and get them the necessary supplies.
She remarked that the Tamil Nadu government had been quite sympathetic to their cause, recalling the time the then chief minister MG Ramachandran wore black for a week to mourn the 1983 riots.
All for one and all
Going a step further, they set up nursery schools cum daycare centres in every camp to ensure that the children were protected and cared for. Here, a refugee student would be trained to be a nursery teacher and look after the kids. Refugees trained as health workers would provide health checkups and nourishment (with the integration with the ICDS Scheme). Soon — particularly after the 2004 tsunami and the 2015 floods — these centres began serving Indian kids too. “Till date, we are working in government schools and in rural villages, where our refugees are setting up the same model that helped them empower themselves. Beyond tuition centres and nursery schools, the refugee organisation has not only set up successful revolving education funds (ESP and BVSK) for their children but extended them to their Indian counterparts as well. Student gardens, children’s parliament and self-defence courses were also passed on to Indian schools from refugee camps.
From their participation in the peaceful protests at the start of the conflict in Lanka, to their equal footing as members of the LTTE and right down to their enormous contribution within the confines of the refugee camps, women have played a fundamental role. And equality came naturally. As part of women’s empowerment, OfERR made way for women’s help groups. “When you bring women together, they started solving their own community problems (like alcoholism, violence, suicide). And women took the leadership for the community to the point that they established safe houses in every camp to help victims of domestic abuse,” she pointed out. Among the 437 SHGs set up by OfERR, the savings now stand at almost `3 crore. This for groups of people who turned up on these shores with almost nothing to their name. Soon enough, these women turned around and passed on the empowerment training to the Indian women too -- over six lakh of them.
Even with the ever-present question of returning to the homeland, the decision is being left to the female head of the household. At the community level, it is led by the women’s groups, shared Poongkothai.
OfERR’s contribution to the Indian community has also been in the area of disability care, elderly care, chronic patients care and sanitation programmes (WASH). And there’s more lined up for the future. This history of a hard-won revival and diligent means of giving it back to the people who fed them their first meal when turned up on the shore — senchotru kadan (red rice debt) — is what Poongkothai leaves us with. It’s up to you to pass it on.