The GoSL must remember that the war almost wiped out a vibrant Tamil culture from the north (pix AFP)
These are days when small batches of Sri Lankan emigrants are heading home due to the threat posed by COVID-19. The return of these batches is facilitated by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In such an environment one wonders what the future would be for thousands of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in India and wishing to return to home. Most of them are in Tamil Nadu, one of the worst effected Indian states by COVID-19.
But the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee issue calls for more attention from Colombo. This is because these people chose to be refugees largely due to a civil war. Their need to return to Sri Lanka existed even before the coronavirus surfaced last year.
Most migrants have opted to return to Sri Lanka because the heath care offered in state hospitals to COVID-19 patients has been superior to what’s offered in a good number of European countries. But there could be political headaches if the scores of stranded Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are given the greenlight to return to the island in the wake of the COVID-19 threat.
Where would these Tamils returning from India be put up after they finish their quarantine period at a military camp?
Returnees belonging to other races would have homes to return to. But the majority of Tamils, who went to India to escape from the civil war, might not have that privilege anymore. The reason? Their lands have been occupied by government security forces or people who have encroached into these lands.
The Sri Lankan Tamils in India have several matters of concern to deal with. The most current one is that India’s Citizenship (Amendment) ACT doesn’t support the facilitation of these Sri Lankans gaining citizenship in India. This act seeks to amend the definition of illegal immigrants for Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The act will help fast-track their citizenship in India within six years. The other factor is that past governments of Sri Lanka have been pressurised by Tamil politicians to get this minority community sufficient rights (Preferably federal) and merge the north and the east.
Scores of Tamils died during the 26-year-old civil war. Former Northern Province Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran, in an interview with The Hindu, has said that he supports the return of Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka and props this statement by saying, “we’re running out short of Tamils in Sri Lanka”.
According to news 18.com around 90,000 Sri Lankan refugees are living in India. The Indian authorities maintain that Sri Lanka can take back as many as 60,000 of them. There have been discussions between foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardene and India’s External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar on the issue. However the Indian official stance on the Sri Lankan refugee issue is quite different. BJP Leader L.Ganesan maintains that though the Citizenship (Amendment) Act would amend the definition of illegal immigrants, Sri Lanka refugees don’t want citizenship in India. He has been quoted in an interview with Colombogazette stating that Sri Lankan refugees in India wish to return to the island nation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to put the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee crisis back in the news. The Sri Lankan refugees are put up in 100 plus refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. What spells gloom for them is that the Indian Citizenship (Amendment) Act has left out Sri Lankan Tamil refugees having links with the Plantations Tamils in the island nation and those living in Indian refugee camps. For the record Wigneswaran has pointed out that it’s good for Sri Lankan refugees in India to have dual citizenship because that would help them return home in case there are problems in India. However reports reaching us from India reveal that it’s those older citizens, who left the shores of Sri Lanka, who want to return more than the young ones; who are eager to remain in India due to new commitments they’ve made.
Coming back to the issue of land owned by Tamils forcibly occupied by security forces, many are of the opinion that the issue demands a permanent solution. The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) maintains that the lands held by the security forces are occupied to support tactical moves and to beef national security, according to reports carried in Reuters. These reports further state that Tamils have been offered alternative lands if the lands owned by them were situated in high security zones.
But the Tamils have refused to accept alternative lands. This is because the lands lost denotes ‘a way of life’, a religion, culture, food, water and the livelihood of the Tamil people. The message sent out by the Tamil people can be interpreted thus; this government like the past regimes must put the same effort to safeguard the Northern Tamil culture akin to the troubles taken to preserve the precious heritage sights that exists in the island. Land rights activists see reasons outside ‘security concerns’ for the government to hold on to these lands. They say that these reasons are related to agriculture, tourism and other commercial ventures. About 3000 acres of land is occupied by the police and the military according to data provided by city governments and appearing in Reuter reports.
The GoSL must remember that the war almost wiped out a vibrant Tamil culture from the north. Buildings were razed to the ground and the sound of guns and bombs buried the cries of the Tamil people who cursed the war.
The returning to their ancestral homes would be hard due to haunting memories of the loved ones who were lost at these premises as a result of the war. But what’s bad is that the regime has made it impossible for some to return home due to ‘land grabs’.
Is running away from the war zone and out of the country such a huge crime for these Tamil people to be denied a few square feet of land at the places of their birth?