In the Swahili language, the term for a refugee is Mkimbizi, which means “a person who runs”. In his thought-provoking essay on the Burundi refugees in Dar es Salaam, Marc Sommers points out that many express disgust at the continued use of the “refugee” label, even after two decades of exile. Some believe that “being Mkimbizi not only identifies them as people who were compelled to flee their homeland in fear for their survival, but who continue to flee”.
The Sri Lankan refugees, who took asylum in Tamil Nadu following the genocidal attacks in July 1983, have been living between fear and hope for several years. In my long association with them, they have shared their innermost feelings—fear that they would be compelled to go back to the island, with its uncertain future. They often tell me of the dark days following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, when in 1992, the then chief minister pressurised them to sign forms agreeing to their repatriation. The Academics for Advocacy, to which I belong, assure them repeatedly that times have changed. The presence of the UNHCR in Chennai is a sure guarantee that they would not be sent back to Sri Lanka against their wishes. On certain other occasions, one could see a glimmer of hope in their eyes. When Justice G R Swaminathan of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, in his landmark judgment delivered on 17 June 2019, instructed the Union government to consider the applications for citizenship submitted by the Sri Lankan refugees of Indian origin, they heaved a sigh of relief. They believed that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
The media report that the government of Tamil Nadu has recently constituted an Advisory Committee for looking into the problems of the Sri Lankan refugees and recommending durable solutions should be welcomed by one and all. The committee is headed by the minister of minorities and welfare of non-resident Indians and consists of a Member of Parliament, a Member of Legislative Assembly, concerned government officials, the NGOs working among the refugees—OfERR, JRS, and ADRA, a UNHCR member from the Chennai office, academics, media, and representatives of camp and non-camp refugees. The first meeting was held at the end of December. According to informed sources, those present expressed their views freely, as there was no formal agenda. The refugees and others expressed the view that the former want and should be conferred Indian citizenship as early as possible.
One heartening development should be highlighted. Those who have so far been advocating voluntary repatriation also extended their support for the citizenship proposition, to conduct a study among the refugees and report on their intentions through a survey.
Conferment of Indian citizenship comes under the jurisdiction of the Union government. And the Centre has enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019, which would provide citizenship to those who have come to India—Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains—who wanted to escape persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The DMK has opposed the CAA on two grounds—first, it is not in conformity with India’s secular Constitution, as it discriminates based on religion. Secondly, it does not include Sri Lanka. During this period, I had suggested (welcomed by many including some BJP leaders) that instead of spelling out various religious groups, the government should have used the term “persecuted minorities” that would include non-Sunni groups who are also subjected to persecution in Islamic countries.
Opposition to the inclusion of Sri Lanka is based on flimsy grounds. The home ministry maintains that it is not a theocracy. Though the word theocracy does not figure in its constitution, in practice, as Prof. K M De Silva has written, Sri Lanka is a theocracy. According to Tamil poet Kasi Ananthan, who is a refugee, more than 2,000 Hindu temples have been desecrated by Sinhalese-Buddhist fanatics in the post-independence era. Though both the Central and state governments use the term refugee, their legal status, according to the home ministry, is that of illegal immigrants and they have to go back to Sri Lanka. What is more is that the home ministry, on several occasions, has maintained that as illegal immigrants, they are not entitled to Indian citizenship.
A policy of confrontation with the Centre on the issue of citizenship would be counterproductive. Refugees would be the ultimate losers. Instead, Tamil Nadu should adopt diplomatic finesse and mobilise the support of Members of Parliament (including those from the BJP) to bring about an amendment to the CAA and include the term persecuted minorities. The amendment should treat the Sri Lankan refugees on par with those who have sought asylum from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. We should create a national consensus on conferring Indian citizenship on all those who have come to the country seeking asylum.
In developed countries, the conferment of citizenship is based on individual application. But in the peculiar situation prevailing in Tamil Nadu, it would be proper if citizenship is conferred en bloc on those who have sought asylum and their family members, their children and grandchildren, and in cases of marriages from outside the camps, their spouses and descendants too. In the case of the Tamil refugees, arrangements should be made so that they renounce Sri Lankan citizenship. In Lanka, caste certificates are not issued; most of the refugees are either Dalits or most backward classes; the government should ensure that the refugees are also issued caste certificates.
The need of the hour is a humane approach. The Tamil refugees have lived in a state of Trishanku or limbo for long; they need our love and compassion. As the refugee poet Benjamin Zephaniah wrote: “We can all be refugees. Nobody is safe. All it takes is a mad leader. Or no rain to bring forth food. We can all be refugees. We can all be told to go. We can be hated by someone for being someone.”
Senior professor (retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras
(The author was the Founding Director of the Centre in the University of Madras)