That situation has not changed even today. Nandini was born in Arachalur refugee camp in Erode district of Tamil Nadu where her parents from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka took refuge in 1990 to escape from the ethnic war raging in the island nation. She completed her higher secondary examination with distinction, scoring 1,170 marks out of 1,200. She sought admission to Kilpauk Medical College in Chennai for MBBS course as she had the qualifying marks but was denied a seat as she is a refugee child. The External Affairs Ministry wrote to the Union Home Ministry on 8 May 2015 saying the Human Resources Development Ministry offers some MBBS seats to foreign students from friendly countries, including Sri Lanka. However, children of refugees are not entitled for admission under this scheme. Nandini is a child of registered Sri Lankan refugees. She was born and educated in Tamil Nadu.
The exodus of Tamils from war-ravaged Sri Lanka began in 1983 and India offered them shelter. More than 20,000 children were born to Sri Lankan refugee parents in Tamil Nadu and are in danger of being classified as “stateless” unless their births are registered under Section 5 (2) of the Sri Lanka Citizenship Act or India offers them citizenship. In order to register children born in refugee camps with the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai, parents are required to produce their marriage certificates. Refugees fleeing the country neither had the time nor the foresight to collect such documents.
As far back as 9 September 2013 the Resettlement Ministry of Sri Lanka announced that “The repatriation of over 100,000 Sri Lankan refugees from India would feature at the next meeting of the India-Sri Lanka Joint Commission early next year.” There was jubilation in the refugee camps that they could expect their return to homeland to start in early 2014. The Chennai headquartered Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR), run by the refugees for the benefit of the refugees, began the process of counseling the refugees in the camps in Tamil Nadu not to attempt perilous voyages to Australia or other countries, but to concentrate on preparing themselves to return to their homeland. The process needed a well-planned and structured return programme. OfERR played a pivotal role by going from house to house in the refugee camps enlightening parents of refugee children born in India on the provision of gaining Sri Lankan citizenship. The process is slow.
Meanwhile, the First Bench of the Madras High Court comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice TS Sivagnanam raised the issue of denial of admission to MBBS course to “stateless” Nandini solely on the ground that she is a Sri Lankan refugee, to the Union government. Additional Solicitor-General of India G Rajagopal sought time to obtain clear instructions from the Union HRD Ministry whether it was inclined to make any provision regarding admission of Sri Lankan refugee children to professional courses.
Since the beginning of the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka in July 1983, 334,797 Tamils crossed over to India as refugees. Of them, about 212,000 have either returned to their homeland after the end of the civil war on 19 May 2009 or migrated to other countries in search of pastures new. Lured by unscrupulous agents with the promise of illegal entry into Australia, a few hundred refugees, including women and children, drowned in the high seas. Out of the remaining 102,000 refugees, 65,218 refugees live in 110 camps across 25 districts of Tamil Nadu. Barring a few thousand ‘Indian Tamils,’ also known as hill country Tamils who are descendants of labourers transported to Sri Lanka by the British in the 19th century to work in plantations there, who prefer to stay back in Tamil Nadu, most of the refugees in camps are waiting for safe and dignified repatriation. Article 8 of the Indian Constitution entitles the hill country Tamil refugees to Indian citizenship. They should not be denied this facility under the pretext they are Sri Lankan refugees.
Since the BJP government has decided to grant Indian citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus who are unable to put up with religious discrimination in their country, the same facility should also be extended to Sri Lankan Tamils, the majority of whom are Hindus. Though fighting has ended six years ago, conditions are far from normal in the traditional Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka comprising the Northern and the Eastern Provinces. The Northern Province has been turned into a virtual garrison of the Sri Lankan armed forces. Every fifth person in the Province belongs to the armed forces made up of ethnic Sinhala Buddhists. Hindu temples are being replaced by Buddhist shrines.
Both India and Sri Lanka have witnessed regime change in the last 12 months. In both nations expectations of the people are rather high, but on the ground nothing has changed and the situation has gone from bad to worse in many areas. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who paid an official visit to India in February, assured Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka agreement, would be implemented in its entirety. He has also agreed to release lands of Internally Displaced Persons occupied by the Army and resettle remaining IDPs on it. India sought removal of police powers granted to the Army and wanted them kept out of interfering in civil matters, besides supplementing police strength with local recruits ensuring access to the common man. Dispersal of Army divisions from the North-East and redistributing them evenly across the nation was another demand to build confidence among the residual refugees living in camps in Tamil Nadu before they volunteer to return to their homeland.
That only 8,155 refugees returned after the war ended is a reflection that conditions are far from normal in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka. The process of return of refugees can be speeded up if the governments of India and Sri Lanka jointly put up a comprehensive package. India cannot afford to bear the burden of supporting the refugees living in camps indefinitely. The time has now come for precise political action backed by a policy and well-considered economic package.
There should be more clarity on India&’s Sri Lanka policy. Describing Modi&’s visit to Sri Lanka as “path-breaking” with nothing concrete to show other than the thundering speeches made by the Prime Minister on foreign soil, is deluding ourselves that the NDA government, unlike the UPA government, is action-oriented. It has been high on promises but lacking sorely on action. Equally distressing is the lack of concern of Tamil Nadu politicians, from M Karunanidhi of the DMK to J Jayalalitha of the AIADMK, to the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the State. The protracted refugee crisis is a complex one and requires a humanitarian approach to end their homeless and stateless status.