In a speech while addressing the Tamil diaspora in Tokyo in the course of his overseas tour in May 2023, to Singapore and Japan, to attract investments to the State, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.K. Stalin, had said that the Government of Tamil Nadu would protect the Tamil diaspora that has spread far and wide in search of education, business, and employment. He added that protecting the Tamil language meant protecting the Tamil community. He held forth the promise that his government and the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) would extend all support to the Tamil community.
Among the Indian diaspora, Tamils constitute a substantial number. They form the overwhelming majority of the Indian population in Malaysia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, are in good numbers in Myanmar, Mauritius, South Africa, the Seychelles, the Re-Union Islands, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, Australia, New Zealand, the Gulf countries, the United States and Canada, Britain and the European countries.
These dynamic groups have three identities — first, the Tamil identity; second, the Indian identity, and third, the identity of the countries in which they have settled. Equally interesting is the phenomenon of the diaspora of the diaspora. From Fiji, Malaysia, and Singapore, the Indian diaspora is migrating to greener pastures such as Australia, Canada, and the U.S. Bharati Mukherjee, the well-known diasporic writer, was apt in saying: “I am a woman with a series of countries. It is necessary for me to put down roots wherever I land and wherever I choose to stay.”
It would be simplistic and naïve to assume that the hopes that they entertain and the problems that they face are identical. It is closely related to the nature of their migration, their numerical numbers, their educational and professional attainments, their economic clout, and, above all, the majority-minority syndrome in the host countries. The Tamil diaspora has excelled in politics, economics, literature, the fine arts, sports, and science. A few names that shine include Dr. Chandrasekhar, Monty Naicker, Sambandan, Janaki Thevar, T.S. Maniam, Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, S.R. Nathan, Muthiah Muralitharan, Nagamattoo, Indira Nooyi, Sundar Pichai, Raghuram Rajan and Kamala Harris.
Host country policies, their impact
Mr. Stalin’s speech is a reminder of two statements made by Jawaharlal Nehru, in Malaya in March 1946 — “When India becomes free, her hands will be long and powerful to protect each and every one of her children abroad.” And, “Indians abroad must remain united and guard their rights and uphold their heads proudly as Indians — children of a country with a great past and greater future.”
But Nehru’s hopes were soon shattered. The first legislative enactment of Ceylon, soon after independence, was to render the Indian Tamils, who were taken to Ceylon under the protective umbrella of the British Government, to provide labour in the tea plantations. Nehru’s principled stand was that all those who considered Ceylon to be their home and have stayed there for long should be conferred citizenship. Ceylon argued that it was its sovereign right to introduce citizenship regulations.
The Burmese government never granted citizenship to thousands of Indian Tamils and expelled them. On the eve of their departure, the Burmese currency was demonetised. The women could not even bring their mangalyasutra with them. As far as neighbouring countries are concerned, bilateral relations have two dimensions.
The first is to improve relations with governments, politically, economically, and culturally. The second is to protect and foster the interests of Indian minority groups. An overview of India’s policy towards Sri Lanka shows that to improve political relations, New Delhi, on some occasions, was willing to sacrifice the interests of the Indian diaspora. The Sirimavo-Shastri Pact of October 1964 is an example of betrayal. New Delhi adopted the policy of give and take and converted the Indian Tamil community into merchandise to be divided between the two countries. It must be highlighted that all important leaders of the Madras Presidency, Rajagopalachari, Kamaraj Nadar, C.N. Annadurai, P. Ramamurti, and Krishna Menon were opposed to the agreement.
Mr. Stalin has highlighted the necessity to protect and promote the Tamil language. But the sad fact remains is that in many countries, the Tamil community has forgotten the Tamil language, one of the key elements of Tamil culture.
Federal camaraderie is essential
The policy towards the Indian diaspora comes under the exclusive jurisdiction of the central government. Even then, State governments can influence policies by building public opinion. What is essential, in the present context, is camaraderie and friendship between the Narendra Modi government and the DMK government.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), could have used the term ‘persecuted minorities’. The CAA also does not include Sri Lanka, where ethnic fratricide has compelled many Tamils to come to Tamil Nadu as refugees. New Delhi terms Sri Lankan Tamil refugees as illegal immigrants and argues that they must go back to Sri Lanka.
Instead of trying to have cordial relations with the central government, a policy of confrontation by Tamil Nadu would be self-defeating. What the refugees want is Indian citizenship. All of them fulfil the residential qualifications laid down in the Indian Citizenship Act. Indian Tamil refugees, who number 29,500, are stateless. What is more, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are willing to surrender their Sri Lankan citizenship to get Indian citizenship.
The need of the hour is for the state and central government to come together and arrive at an amicable solution. This calls for statesmanship, not political opportunism.
V. Suryanarayan is the Founding Director and Senior Professor (retired), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. E-mail: email@example.com