IT'S the story of a people who have been twice displaced. A story of half a million Tamils whose forefathers had been uprooted from Tamil Nadu circa 1823 because the British wanted them to clear Sri Lanka's forests in the upcountry and set up tea estates; and who were forced to look for a new home after the Sri Lankan government stripped them of their citizenship once it gained independence in 1948.
In the sylvan surroundings of the Nilgiris, a small poster screams: "An agonising appeal from a forgotten section of humanity to all the political parties." It is an appeal from the half a million Tamils who were forced to come back to India.
In October 1964, Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri signed a pact with his Sri Lankan counterpart Sirimavo Bandaranayake agreeing to take back a huge chunk of Tamils of Indian origin. The only concession the Lankan government made was that, of the 8.25 lakh Tamils identified to be of Indian origin, it agreed to absorb 3 lakh as its own. In 1974, another bilateral agreement was signed under which India would absorb another 75,000 people and Lanka an additional 75,000 as its nationals so that the ratio would read: for every seven Tamils repatriated to India, Sri Lanka would grant citizenship to four. The entire process was expected to be completed by October 1981. The repatriation which began in 1968 continued till 1983, when the ferry service between Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and Rameswaram in India was suspended due to the militancy in northern Sri Lanka.
Says V. Suryanarayan, director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras: "To the ruling elite in New Delhi and Colombo, these people represent a statistic; to the estate management, docile cheap labour to be exploited to the hilt; to the Sri Lankan Tamils a group readily available for communal propaganda and to the fanatics among the Sinhalese the easiest and defenceless victims in times of communal conflict."
Indeed, the travails of S. Shanmugham, a repatriate from Sri Lanka, are representative of half a million people: "My return journey to India was more gruesome them my great-grandfather's trip a century ago to Sri Lanka to work in the tea estates. He was not given any promise of a good life, sheer poverty and caste discrimination forced him out of Tamil Nadu. But, in my case, the Indian High Commission told me that I am an Indian and that I should come back as a good rehabilitation scheme awaits me. I got my Indian passport and accepted the travel concessions and reached Rameswaram in 1981. At Rameswaram, the Indian official greeted me with abuse for not knowing clearly about what I wanted to do in India. I said I want to work in plantation as that is the only job I know. He retorted, 'Then you should have stayed in Ceylon.'"
According to a policy note issued by the Tamil Nadu government, 4,59,410 persons have been repatriated to India. Of these 3,33,843 are covered by the agreements and the balance represent a natural increase. Another 60,000 people have come in through the air route since then. The fate of this nearly half a million people is pathetic. They were called Indians in Sri Lanka and are referred to as Sri Lankans in India. The Indian government had promised a decent and secure life and a proper rehabilitation programme. But all the grandiose schemes failed due to bureaucratic negligence and unimaginative ways adopted by the state machinery. India has spent around Rs 2,000 crore so far on rehabilitation. But, still a very large number of them remain unsettled.
Rehabilitation is planned on a family basis. As soon as the Indian government recognises them as Indians and issues passports, the repatriates are required to apply to the Indian High Commission for a family card, which gives the details of the family, the type of occupation to which they are assigned, the grants to which they are entitled, their place of employment in India, etc. Says R.R. Sivalingam, president, National Conference of Repatriates: "The repatriates' trail of misery begins right at the stage they get their family card because they hardly realise that their fate in India would be determined only by the entries in the card. They fail to identify the right job, the right place and further, as there is no caste-based reservation in Sri Lanka, they fail to mention that they are all Dalits from Tamil Nadu. They are deprived of the benefits meant for SCs and OBCs because their card does not contain this information."
The main hurdle faced by the repatriates was the shift from mono-occupational structure in Sri Lanka to the diversified occupation in Tamil Nadu. More than 70 per cent of the repatriates were reduced to wandering from village to village, district to district, office to office, until abandoning the plains, they trekked their ways to the hills, where they were thrilled to see plantations and felt the breeze across their faces and chose to pitch their tents here. This is how, except the repatriates employed in the cooperative spinning and weaving mills, all the other wended their way, regardless of the results, to Kodaikanal, Yercaud and the Nilgiris. In order to accommodate most of the repatriates the state government opened 3,000 hectares of virgin forest land as rehabilitation tea plantations called Tantea. However, Tantea was able to provide employment to only 6,000 people. The rest are living in abject penury. More than 83 per cent of the repatriates were given credit-based schemes through which each family was given Rs 5,000 to start a business of their own. In the new country they squandered the money in less than five months and became paupers. Since they have already opted for a rehabilitation programme they are not entitled to any other scheme. All these people are now working as casual labourers in Nilgiris or Kodaikanal earning a pittance.
In the scale of priorities before the Union government, Tamil repatriates lag way behind. The maximum subsidies and the more tolerable rehabilitation schemes are earmarked for Tibetan refugees followed by Bangladesh refugees. This despite the fact that only the repatriation of Tamils was precipitated by the Indian government.
Alienated everywhere, repatriates are wondering why are they here? Shanmugham offers an answer: "To provide a full meal to the planters with our hard work, to give the politicians in opposition a reason to criticise the ones in power and to offer a journalist like you a chance to write a poignant report."