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The Endless Wait - Bhavani Kuchi - The Sunday Indian
 
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Monday, October 23, 2017
 
 

TAMIL REFUGEE

The Endless Wait

 

134 camps spread across Tamil Nadu; more than a lakh Sri Lankan Tamil refugees... Is there a plan at all to repatriate them safely? Though treated well in India, the Tamil refugees long for freedom and a sense of belonging – for Sri Lanka is their home. Bhavani Kuchi reports from Tamil Nadu
BHAVANI KUCHI | Issue Dated: December 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Rajiv Gandhi | LTTE | Sri Lanka | AIADMK | J Jayalalithaa |
 

Tamil Nadu continues to live with the blot of being the theatre of assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi; but not to forget, on the contrary, its professional police force crushed Tamil and Islamic militancy  and has ensured that the state is peaceful and free of terrorist violence. The seacoast is huge and vulnerable too, admits a former CBI director and security expert who advocates extra vigil against any infiltration attempts (read this issue's TSI Cover Story). He would like the state government to get more professional help from central agencies or retired top officials, so that they can give valuable inputs to the police force.

Depending solely on police may not be a terribly good idea, officers like Raghavan maintain, and just because nothing has happened in Tamil Nadu does not mean that nothing will happen. The guard must always be up, and given the vast seacoast line, it is easy for anyone to penetrate and enter. Given all this, the police and coastguards are doing a wonderful job.

And the LTTE threat, if at all there was one, got neutralized, especially after its decimation during the final push of the Rajapakse government against the armed rebels – in which all the LTTE bigwigs including its chief Prabhakaran were killed mercilessly.

Sri Lankan Tamils and those who support them, allege that it was nothing less than genocide when the Sri Lankan army carried out mass mayhem and turned Northern Sri Lanka into hell. Thousands of innocents were brutally killed, among those children and women who had nothing to do with the armed cadres of the LTTE.

Already victims of ethnic violence since the eighties, the final push was the last straw and refugees came to India in hundreds.

But much water has flown under the bridge since then.

The LTTE has been stamped out and there are no armed rebels out there at all in Sri Lanka. Even the new government there is trying its best to accommodate the Tamil sentiments and is promising a protected life. And those who have returned home are sending encouraging messages to their counterpart refugees in India, most of them in refugee camps in different parts of Tamil Nadu – there are some 134 camps in the state, housing over 1 lakh refugees.

But the refugees are returning: going back to Northern Sri Lanka. There are a few going every now and then, but then, for most of the refugees, the cost of flying is prohibitive. But more important is that they develop a sense of trust and faith that the situation indeed is conducive back home.

On this front, SC Chandrahasan, general secretary, Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OFERR), who has been working with the refugees for three decades, said his organization was working with its counterpart in Sri Lanka that helps out all returnees, with everything they need. There is even a welcome committee that welcomes those returning and helps them settle down. Volunteers are on hand to facilitate restoration of property too.

Now, there is a batch of some 2500 refugees, scattered across the 134 camps in Tamil Nadu who want to return home in northern Sri Lanka. All they want is a safe passage in a ship, as they can carry most of their belongings – hard earned household items – back home along with them. Slowly but surely, many refugees are trying to return to their motherland as they find the situation improving and civil war has become a thing of past.

Back home, there is surprisingly an extremely sympathetic government that is awaiting the returnees. If the refugees have valid documents to prove ownership, they get the properties back. In cases where there are no papers, efforts are made to ascertain their claims with the help of the locals. And if nothing is possible, then they might be given a small piece of land to build a home.

The Modi government, in a pragmatic diplomatic move, is befriending Sri Lanka more as China has begun to back the island nation and is helping the reconstruction of Northern Sri Lanka and in rehabilitating the Sri Lankan refugees and those affected by the protracted ethnic strife.

The Modi government knows that it can ill-afford to antagonize Sri Lanka at this stage, when China has moved in with help – it is building a new port in Colombo. Which is why, the government wants to step up its engagement with Sri Lanka and has resisted all attempts by the Tamil Nadu government headed by AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa to take a tough line against the island nation, whether it was on the Tamil fishermen who are routinely picked up and their boats confiscated by Sri Lankan Naval authorities or on punishment to Rajapakse and trying him as a war criminal.

The Tamil Nadu government had passed a resolution asking the Central Government to impose economic sanctions against Sri Lanka to put pressure on it to sort out the Tamil fishermen issue once and for all. Former president Rajapakse must be tried for war crimes, is the war cry of the pro-Tamil political groups as also political parties in general, given the traction the issue gains during any election. However, over the years, the issue is losing its appeal among the voters, but still, it is large enough that no political party dares to keep quiet about it.

But given the country’s interests to maintain friendly relations and close ties with Sri Lanka, every Central Government has taken a different and pragmatic policy vis-à-vis the island nation. Also, the Indian government had, during the final push of 1989 by the Sri Lankan army against LTTE, supported the action, and for that reason there are several elements who hold the then Indian government guilty too of aiding and abetting the genocide of innocent Tamils.

But regardless, the Indian humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka to rebuild war-ravaged Northern Sri Lanka and to rehabilitate the Tamils there, is as immense as taking care of the over one lakh Sri Lankan Tamil refugees who fled the country since ethnic strife began in the early 80s till the final push.

The Tamil language binds the Sri Lankan Tamils and the people of Tamil Nadu and in general there is huge sympathy for the suffering Tamils there. Almost every election, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue gets heated up and many pro-Tamil voices spring up in defence of the refugees, arguing for their welfare.

It was after the gory assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi by LTTE cadres, using a lady suicide bomber, that the heat turned on the refugees from Sri Lanka, as some cadres also slipped in and mingled with the rest... which is why, the Indian and Tamil Nadu government viewed these refugees with suspicion.

Top retired officials like Raghavan would want to err on the side of caution and maintain guard at all times, given the fact that the LTTE cadres had fled and have their sympathizers across the globe – in UK, Europe and USA as well.

They get very active just when a case is coming up at UNHCR and lobby with Tamil politicians here to insist on Rajapakse being tried for war crimes, for carrying out the alleged genocide of innocent Tamils during the 1989 army action against LTTE cadres in Northern Sri Lanka.

Incidentally, while the police has crushed the militant elements, it still maintains a strict watch over the inmates at the different refugee camps. Life is disciplined there in the camps, with strict restrictions on their freedom of movement. Each inmate can leave at 6 a.m. and must return at 6 p.m. Those flouting these rules, besides others, are given punishment – a cut in free rations and other benefits.

But once the agencies clear an inmate, he or she is entitled to government support in the camps – free rice, Rs 1000 per month in cash and other benefits. The sheds they live in have electricity and they get free education for children. Many have completed higher education too and a few have also got into professional courses like engineering. Medicine is a tough nut to crack, purely as the refugees cannot afford to spend the kind of money that is needed to get into private medical colleges.

Says a  50-year-old inmate at Gummidipundi refugee camp on the outskirts of Chennai, "We have been treated well. Of course it is not like home, as there are restrictions and strict rules that we have to follow. If we want a ration card or driving license, there is a problem. We do not have any rights and there is the question of self-respect and dignity. Which is why, we want to return back to our place.”

If it had been left to political parties in Tamil Nadu, the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees would have got citizenship long time ago.

Occasionally, reports from the different refugee camps emerge about the living conditions there and police brutalities that are promptly taken up by scores of politicians. Earlier in March, an inmate at Uchampatti refugee camp near the temple town Madurai committed suicide by holding onto an overhead high tension electricity cable. MDMK general secretary Vaiko and PMK chief S Ramadoss condemned the incident and said the young man took his life only after intimidation crossed all limits. "It is only in India that the refugees are treated like extremists and terrorists and threatened and intimidated,” Vaiko said, echoing the sentiments of similar Pro Tamil political leaders. Clearly, such statements are made to play to the gallery, given the effort the local government is taking to ensure the well being of refugees; the last mile is now to decide on the best way to send them back.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017