“I too would like to have Indian citizenship…,” says Rangasamy, a resident of the Gummidipoondi camp of Sri Lankan refugees for over 20 years and who must be in the late 50s.
He gives a pause. It appears that he knows it is not easy to get Indian citizenship. He goes on to say that in Tiruchi, he has ancestral property, a portion of which he had sold to marry off his daughter.
Rangasamy's is not an isolated case. A number of people living in the camps are desirous of acquiring Indian citizenship. But, there is another section of people living in Gummidipoondi, Puzhal, both close to Chennai, and many other such camps in the State who have been identified to be eligible for Sri Lankan citizenship. The population of this section is 28,500.
Under the 2009 amendment to Sri Lanka's Grant of Citizenship to Stateless Persons (Special Provisions) Act, 1988, any person, who was a permanent resident of Sri Lanka with Indian origin as on October 30, 1964, was compelled to leave the island nation due to circumstances beyond the control of such person and later resided in India, would have the status of a citizen of Sri Lanka.
The date – October 30, 1964 – assumes relevance as it was on that date that the governments of Sri Lanka and India signed a bilateral agreement, popularly named after the then Prime Ministers Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri, to settle the issue of stateless persons living in Sri Lanka then. One more agreement was signed in January 1974 between the two countries when Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi were Prime Ministers.
But, as the Chennai-based Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR)'s Director-Advocacy M. Sakkariyas says, these 28,500 people are unable to return to Sri Lanka due to the uncertain conditions prevailing in the neighbouring country.
They were originally from the hilly region of Sri Lanka. He also points out that after the 1977 ethnic violence, a large section of people in the hilly region migrated to areas in the Northern Province such as Vavuniya, Killinochchi and Mullaitivu and when the 1983 conflict broke out, they had also fled to India.
There is one more category of people who claim they should be regarded as Indian citizens. Sixty-odd families living in the Kottapattu camp of Tiruchi district contend that they are covered under the bilateral agreements and entitled to get Indian citizenship but have not yet been given the citizenship documents.
Two years ago, they moved the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court and their case is pending since then. It is also learnt that the office of the State Rehabilitation Commissioner, under whose control the Sri Lankan Tamils refugee camps fall, has taken up their case with the Indian High Commission authorities in Sri Lanka.
V. Suryanarayan, veteran academician and Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Asia Studies, Chennai, describes them as Indian Tamils who should not be mixed with Sri Lankan Tamils. He strongly supports the case of these people in the Kottapattu camp and says India should give them the necessary documents at the earliest.
Totally, there are about 68,600 persons living in the camps for Sri Lankan Tamils. There are many instances of refugees marrying local citizens. Besides, the population of non-camp refugees in the State is around 34,000, according to an official.
Referring to the strength of minors in the overall population of the camp refugees, another senior official says that 90 per cent of the minors are born in the State.
Of the total population, about 60 per cent, a rough estimate reveals, have been born here. Those who were born and brought up in the camps can be given Indian citizenship, subject to their willingness. A similar option should be made available to others.
Pointing out that in the case of children born to the refugees, their parents have to register the births at the office of Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission, Chennai, Prof. Suryanarayan says this requirement would help the children to seek Sri Lankan citizenship if they or their parents choose to return to Sri Lanka. However, not many follow this procedure.
In respect of those born to refugee-local couples, the existing legal framework does not completely support them. Many of them are stateless persons. An amendment in 2003 (which came into force in December 2004) to the Citizenship Act, 1995 stipulates that either of the parents of the applicant should not be an illegal migrant at the time of his or her birth and the other is a citizen of India. Prior to this amendment, the relevant provision (which was in force since July 1, 1987) did not refer to the aspect of “illegal migrant.” The least the Centre could do is to give citizenship to those who were born between 1987 and 2004.
Even though the refugee status has been granted to those who fled Sri Lanka in the wake of the ethnic conflict, they are all regarded as illegal migrants, the official says. It is because they did not come with valid travel documents, given the extraordinary conditions under which they reached the Tamil Nadu shores.
Interestingly, all the refugees have been issued identity cards by the State government and are covered under all welfare schemes of the government. (Driving licences for two wheelers are given. But, a resident of the Puzhal camp complains that the authorities are not willing to give four-wheeler licences as they insist that the applicant must own a car or a four-wheeler).
The other dimension to the issue of illegal migrants is that the camp refugees can only travel to Sri Lanka, not to any other country. This compels them, in a way, to adopt illegal means to go to other countries, even if for genuine reasons such as seeking livelihood opportunities, the official says.
Prof. Suryanarayan wonders what the rationale is in treating them like illegal migrants when they are given refugee status. Pointing out that India has not ratified the 1951 U.N. Convention and 1967 U.N. Protocol on Refugees, he says that the Centre should bring out a comprehensive law, spelling out the position on the rights of refugees to life, education, livelihood and form associations. Such a law would provide them certainty of their stay and better security.
Apart from the humanitarian angle, the proposed law could address security concerns of the country.
The option of “citizenship by registration,” provided under the Citizenship Act, is not open to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees going by an internal circular of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, the official points out.
Prof. Suryanarayan adds that the Centre's decision to make the legal provisions on citizenship quite stringent may have more to do with illegal migration from Bangladesh than Sri Lanka. The established position of New Delhi on refugees is that once normality returns in their respective home countries, such persons should go back.
Two years ago, the then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, requesting him to take steps for regularising the stay of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in the State. Except for the statement of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram in October 2009 that the matter was under the Centre's consideration, there has been no word.
Notwithstanding complex issues concerning the question of citizenship, Mr. Sakkariyas says that the Indian authorities could make certain things simpler at least in respect of procedures.
For example, to extend their stay in the country once in six months, those who came to India prior to 1995 and who are living in Chennai have to go through, at the Bureau of Immigration, the process of filling forms and obtaining letters from the house owners concerned and police stations concerned.
But, this procedure is not followed in other districts, where the refugees have to merely produce themselves before the authorities at the offices of Superintendents of Police.
Another inexplicable aspect is that Sri Lankan Tamils cannot seek the status of Persons of Indian Origin (PIO). “Is it not discriminatory?” Mr. Sakkariyas asks.
At the same time, he also makes it clear that the OfERR, as a matter of principle, is for the refugees to return to their homeland and eke out their living. In fact, while imparting skills to unemployed youth now living here, he favours the teaching of those skills that may be relevant in the event of their return to Sri Lanka.
There are several more questions that require clear-cut answers from the Centre which should be based on a comprehensive understanding of the issues and problems of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees.