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Fifty years on, Citizenship Amendment Act brings new fears to Tamils repatriated from Sri Lanka

A view of a tea estate near Gudalur taluk in the Niligiris district of Tamil Nadu.   | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

Valliyammal M., who was repatriated to India from Sri Lanka more than four decades ago, has been living in the same house in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu that the government built for her and her husband then. She has now partitioned the small single-room house into two, so that her son, Selvaraj, and his family can live in one half. As she boils water on a wood stove, the 75-year-old recalls how difficult she found life in India for the first two years after her return. “We were first put up in a camp in Mandapam in Rameswaram, set up to house repatriates brought back from Sri Lanka. Then we were brought here to Gudalur [a municipality in the Nilgiris district]. For the first 10 months we stayed in small huts with thatched roofs in the middle of dense forests. We cleared the forests ourselves so that tea could be planted,” she says. When she arrived in 1978-79, Valliyammal and her husband were among the 37 families who were given jobs at the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (TANTEA) estate in Pandiar in Gudalur. “I was about 30 years old then. My daily wage was only a few rupees,” she says. Valliyammal recalls the nearest shop being over 10 km from her home in Pandiar estate.

Today, Valliyammal does not work. Selvaraj is an estate labourer who earns ₹300 for a day’s work. Valliyammal’s daughter-in-law works at a private estate but her work is seasonal and she is paid less than her husband. Apart from the worry of livelihood, the family now has a new fear: proving citizenship.

A question of belonging

Valliyammal was among the six lakh Tamils of Indian origin who were repatriated to India as part of the Sirimavo-Shastri pact, signed in 1964 between Prime Ministers Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Also known as the Agreement on Persons of Indian Origin in Ceylon, this pact allowed for the repatriation of nearly 5.25 lakh persons of Indian origin who were taken to Sri Lanka over a century ago by the British to work in the tea, coffee and coconut plantations there. In turn, Sri Lanka agreed to grant citizenship to a section of Indians who had gone to Sri Lanka to work in its tea plantations. Later, a follow-up agreement called the Sirimavo-Gandhi Pact was signed between Prime Ministers Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi for the repatriation of 75,000 more persons of Indian origin. Following this, Sri Lanka again agreed to grant citizenship to another 75,000 persons of Indian origin. This meant that for every four people of Indian origin being granted citizenship, seven were to be repatriated to India.

Fifty years on, Citizenship Amendment Act brings new fears to Tamils repatriated from Sri Lanka

These two agreements were signed by the two governments without taking into consideration the views of the affected people. When invitations for applications for Sri Lankan and Indian citizenship were thrown open, the overwhelming majority applied for Sri Lankan citizenship. Though Sri Lanka had earmarked only 4 lakh for Sri Lankan citizenship, the number of applicants was as high as 6.25 lakh. There was a shortfall in applications for Indian citizenship: only 4 lakh people applied in the prescribed period, though 6 lakh people were to be given Indian citizenship. Subsequently, another 87,000 people whose applications for Sri Lankan citizenship were rejected also applied for Indian citizenship, pulling up the total number of people who applied for Indian citizenship to 4.87 lakh.

“These numbers clearly reveal the gap between the wishes of the people concerned and the arbitrary decisions of the two governments. Fortunately, the Government of India resolved not to extend the two agreements beyond October 31, 1981,” says M. Chandrasekaran, former South Indian Secretary of the National Conference of Repatriates and General Secretary of Hill Country People’s Repatriates Rehabilitation Association.

The Sirimavo-Shastri pact of 1964 and was to last 15 years. However, the repatriation process formally started only in 1968. As the pact was set to expire in 1979, the Sri Lankan government wanted the deadline for expiration of the pact to be extended to continue the repatriation process. The repatriation process continued till 1984.

Poor standard of living

Those repatriated to India were resettled in parts of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, in government-run tea and coffee estates, rubber plantations, and spinning mills, Chandrasekaran says. “However, after just a few years of functioning, the spinning mills shut down. This forced the repatriates to become migrant labourers,” he says.

Valliyammal, who was repatriated to India from Sri Lanka more than 40 years ago, poses with her son Selvaraj, an estate labourer.

Valliyammal, who was repatriated to India from Sri Lanka more than 40 years ago, poses with her son Selvaraj, an estate labourer.   | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy


M. Selvaraj, a repatriate, says most of those who returned have either died or moved with their children to other districts to look for jobs. “The number of repatriates in these government-run estates is slowly decreasing as many feel that their standard of living hasn’t improved in the last few decades,” he says. As more repatriates are sending their children to schools and colleges, they are moving away from the estates and into bigger cities that hold the promise of good job opportunities. Though data on the number of repatriates who have moved out of the estates over the last few years are unavailable with the government, local activists and organisations working in the region estimate that at least a quarter of the repatriates have moved to other districts or found other jobs.

Punniya Moorthy, a tea estate worker in the Cherangode division of TANTEA, says a worker can expect to be paid a little over ₹300 for a day’s work. “Many feel that the wages are inadequate. So, they work at construction sites in the surrounding districts of Tiruppur and Coimbatore, and even Kerala, to supplement their incomes. Many have also found work in private estates, where they are paid a little more,” he says. Echoing Selvaraj, Moorthy says the living conditions of the repatriates have remained largely the same since they first came to the Gudalur and Pandalur taluks.


M.S. Selvaraj, State Convenor of the Vivasayigal Thozhilalargal Munnetra Sangam, which has been working on land rights for repatriate communities in the Nilgiris and across Tamil Nadu, estimates that 2.8 lakh repatriates were resettled in Gudalur, Pandalur, Kotagiri and Coonoor taluks. “A number of government schemes were implemented to provide jobs, housing, healthcare and other benefits — business loans up to ₹7,500, loans for self-employment in dairy farming, to purchase cycle rickshaws, to incentivise them into buying land for agriculture, to grant them employment opportunities at government-run co-operative spinning mills, TANTEA estates, cinchona plantations and also in private firms through the Repatriates’ Co-operative Finance and Development Bank’s industrial schemes. However, none of these were implemented in proper spirit. As a result, these communities remain some of the most marginalised and impoverished groups in the Nilgiris,” he says. “Very few of them own land. And the few that do are often harassed by the forest department, which claims that they have encroached on forest land. They have been living in poverty for many decades, even as the government has earned a lot of revenue from the estates because of the work of these labourers. There should be conversations taking place about transferring management of the estates to these communities,” he says.

Suspicion and stigma

The repatriate communities have also faced challenges in integrating with the local communities. As a majority of the repatriates who were first sent to Sri Lanka were Dalits from some of the most impoverished regions of Tamil Nadu, their return to India and rehabilitation in the Nilgiris was met with stern disapproval from the local communities.

P. Ramalingam, a resident of Ketti town outside Udhagamandalam, says he and his brothers arrived in Tamil Nadu in 1974 and worked as tea estate workers in Gudalur. Then they worked as construction workers in Kerala. And finally they moved to Ketti. “There was definitely some stigma attached to us — first because we were Dalits, and second because the Tamil Eelam movement in Sri Lanka was gaining traction in the public consciousness, leading to suspicions that repatriates sympathised with the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam],” he says. As a result, repatriates were denied basic rights, he says. “For many large landholders, repatriates were only labourers to whom land would not be sold to, even if they had the money to pay for it.”

Fifty years on, Citizenship Amendment Act brings new fears to Tamils repatriated from Sri Lanka

R. Hariharan, a college student from the same village, says these divisions manifested in the way the settlements of repatriate communities developed. “For instance, a ‘repatriate colony’ even today exists as a separate unit. These colonies sprung up and developed over time outside pre-existing villages and settlements. Those villages and settlements were usually home to landowners who first gave jobs to repatriates as daily wage workers,” he says. For many years, landowners and village heads would refuse to sell land to members of repatriate communities if the land was too close to their village. “These challenges forced the children of repatriates to seek better opportunities to earn a livelihood outside the Nilgiris,” he says. “For decades our lives have been synonymous with tea estates and farm labour. We have had very little opportunity to aspire for something better. This is why youngsters are leaving their homes and starting afresh elsewhere.”

Chandrasekaran says there is no doubt that very few repatriates owned land. Many of the youth have managed to get a college education today, he says. Their standards of living have undoubtedly risen over the last couple of decades. However, while those who were resettled in tea and coffee estates managed to send their children to school and climb out of extreme poverty, others who were sent to work in spinning mills, which were subsequently closed down, were forced to become daily wage workers and migrant labourers. “The government must take steps to find out what happened to these people and rehabilitate them too,” Chandrasekaran says.

Documents lost

The repatriates today have new worries. While they face an uncertain future due to the fall in tea prices, a bigger concern is the government’s proposal to roll out the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens, which may require them to furnish documents to prove their citizenship. Many repatriates misplaced or lost their documents in transit several decades ago. Some others recently lost their documents in the rains that triggered landslips and floods in the hills.

An activist working with the repatriate communities in the Nilgiris says many repatriates became victims of fraud when they first arrived in India. “When we first got here, many brokers approached us with promises of getting us resettled. They took away our travel documents and made a lot of money by applying for loans and settlement packages on behalf of the repatriates. Anywhere between 25% to 30% of the repatriates lost their documents under different circumstances. It’s unclear whether this will lead to problems for the community [in proving their citizenship],” he says.


The repatriated communities in the Nilgiris, who comprise about a third of the total population, are now a major political force, he says. “So if they have to prove their citizenship, that could have wider ramifications for the district as a whole. If they are unable to prove their citizenship, they could be deprived of their right to vote or their right to government benefits,” he explains. What the repatriates do have are documents that attest that they were registered Indian citizens when they received their passports to travel from Sri Lanka back to India.

P. Manikandan, a resident of O’ Valley in Gudalur, says many lost their documents in the spell of heavy rains that led to flooding in the Nilgiris in 2019. “Even my parents’ documents, including their passports issued by the Indian government, were washed away when water entered our homes. We weren’t worried then, as the documents were nothing more than just reminders of our past, but now my parents are worried whether their citizenship will be questioned,” he says.

The identity and loyalty of the repatriates have been questioned before too, local activists claim. Repatriates were harassed after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. “The problem is that the police and even the government have little or no understanding of the difference between Sri Lankan Tamils, who are refugees in India, and repatriates,” says the activist. There needs to be clarity from the government on what awaits the members of the community who have lost their travel documents, he says. “One way to get around this problem would be to cross-check the details of the repatriates with the High Commission in Sri Lanka,” he suggests. 


Prominent writer S.V. Rajadurai, a resident of the Nilgiris, says the repatriate communities who have been resettled in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka will not be affected by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. However, Sri Lankan refugees who have lived here for decades are the most vulnerable to being deported forcibly. “The government’s claim is that Sri Lankan refugees are not victims of religious persecution, but victims of displacement caused by a civil war. But the underlying cause for their displacement was the religious and cultural persecution of the Tamil people, be it native Sri Lankans or repatriates,” Rajadurai says.

Decades ago, the majority of Tamils applied for Sri Lankan citizenship after the two agreements were signed. Many were repatriated to India. But today, more than 50 years later, their old anxieties have been rekindled.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 4:46:14 AM |

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