Siva*, who lives in the Pooluvapatti camp for Sri Lankan refugees in Coimbatore district came to India in the 1990s when his parents fled from war-torn Sri Lanka. “We have been living here as refugees for nearly 30 years. Even as recently as a few months ago, we had asked for citizenship and given an application to the Collector. But now it is clear that there is no citizenship for us. Our name doesn't figure in the Union government's Citizenship Amendment Act. So they have told us clearly,” he says.
Not just Siva, but as the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act was notified in the Indian Gazette late on Thursday, many Sri Lankan Tamil refugees like him who have made Tamil Nadu their home, fear that they would be deported from the country. The legislation was strongly contended by the Opposition in both Houses of Parliament for its exclusion of Muslims as well as Sri Lankan Tamils. However, the legislation, introduced by Union Home Minister Amit Shah passed in both houses with support from BJP lawmakers and allies like the AIADMK and JDU. The Act will allow persecuted minorities from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian faiths from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to apply and avail Indian citizenship.
The refugee camps for Sri Lankan Tamils were originally meant to be a temporary shelter for those who fled persecution during the ethnic strife in the island nation beginning in the 70s. Almost 62,000 Sri Lankan Tamils still live in around 107 camps located across Tamil Nadu, and another 36,000 outside the camps. The camps are spread across almost all districts, with the highest number of refugees living in Madurai. Though the war got over in 2009, according to the Tamil Nadu government, only 3,000 refugees went back, the majority staying back in India as they still fear for their future if they are forced to return.
In the run up to the 2016 state Assembly election just three years ago that elected the current Tamil Nadu government, late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa had promised to press the Centre to grant dual citizenship for Tamils. In addition to demanding an independent, international probe into the genocide, she had also promised to secure a separate homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka. However, the AIADMK, now an ally of the BJP, voted in support of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha where it has 11 MPs, despite raising apprehensions about the exclusion of Tamils and Muslims. This support helped pass the legislation that saw 125 voting in favour of the Bill and 105 voting against it.
Stigmatized for refugee status
In one of the camps located on the western suburbs of Coimbatore, small homes are held together with asbestos sheets. With few facilities in the area to rely on, the people say that even those with degrees among them are forced to take up jobs in the unorganised sector owing to lack of citizenship.
“Wherever we go, they brand us as agadhi (refugee) or mugaamkaarar (belonging to a refugee camp). Even the students who study with our children don't respect them. This is no fault of ours. We are also Tamil, right? Why have they left us out? What have we done that is so bad? They say Tamil Nadu is a state that helps migrants live a good life but we are living here for 30 years with the stigma and stamp of a refugee,” says Rathi* from the same camp.
She adds, “It would be good if you give us citizenship and treat us and our children as one of yours.”
In response to MPs, including Vaiko, raising the exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils from the new law, Amit Shah cited refugees returning to Sri Lanka to claim that no injustice had been done.
“Several MPs have raised the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils. Since 1947, at different times, the Indian government led by different parties has given citizenship to Sri Lankan nationals. First 4.6 lakh people were given, later 94,000 families were given. 1.5 lakh people went back out of which 75,000 people and around 2 lakh people have also gone back to Sri Lanka. But I have said this before also, that the question of injustice does not arise. This government does not aim to be unjust to anyone. When Sri Lankan citizens were given, these people were not given,” he said.
‘Didn’t intend to live here forever’
However, the men and women who were forced to abandon their homes and lives in the genocide, point out that they never meant to live here forever.
“We didn't set foot here to live permanently. When we came, we came as refugees. We have come to Tamil Nadu, India just as refugees all over the world enter a country. We came here with the intention of going back to Sri Lanka. We wanted to go after the situation became peaceful. We have stayed here for 30 years, our children are all grown up, our parents (who we came with) have passed away. Tomorrow, if we send our children to Sri Lanka, how will they live? What do they know about Sri Lanka? Either they should give us citizenship here or send our children to Sri Lanka when we are alive so we can show them how to live. After that, even if something happens to us, we can be confident that our kids will manage,” says Siva.
Sri Lanka and India should discuss and come to an agreement about our lives, say some like Siva. Others, however, maintain that they are stigmatised to varying degrees in both countries over their identities and that they should be given Indian citizenship.