At Election Season’s End, Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees Forgotten Again

PUZHAL, India — As Tamil civilians were increasingly caught in the crossfire between the Indian Peace Keeping Force and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the 1980s, Sasitharan and his parents followed the exodus from the Tamil-majority northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka.

As a 9-year-old in 1990, Mr. Sasitharan, who uses only one name, was taken by his parents across the Palk Strait by boat, the mode of transport favored by thousands of refugees before them. Mr. Sasitharan, who grew up in the sunny and windswept harbor city of Trincomalee, has few memories of his early years in Sri Lanka.

In India, his family settled near Bengaluru, where Mr. Sasitharan studied at a school for Sri Lankan refugees. Unlike most of the refugees who arrived in India, Mr. Sasitharan attended college, but a lack of money forced him to drop out before he could graduate.

What followed was a reverse journey in social mobility. Mr. Sasitharan, who is fluent in English, got a job as a bank salesman in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. His employers fired him after they discovered he was not an Indian citizen. “The moment I spoke in Tamil, they realized I had a Sri Lankan accent,” he said.

Despite being skilled and fluent in the English language, a valuable asset in India’s modern economy, Mr. Sasitharan, now 32, works as a petty laborer in the country’s informal sector, lifting heavy loads for a subsistence wage.

For the past decade, Mr. Sasitharan has been living at the Kangaravai camp in Puzhal, an hour north of Chennai and one of 110 such camps for Sri Lankan refugees across the state of Tamil Nadu. According to 2013 figures by the Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation, Mr. Sasitharan is one of 66,286 Sri Lankan refugees who currently reside in India.

For the most part, political leaders in Tamil Nadu, and the rest of India, pay little attention to the refugees’ dire living conditions. But every time an election season approaches in Tamil Nadu, parties frantically compete to portray themselves as champions of the Sri Lankan Tamils, an issue that still has some emotional resonance in the state.

In February, Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, declared that her government would release the convicted assassins of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Mr. Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 was plotted and executed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Ms. Jayaram’s decision to free Mr. Gandhi’s assassins was announced shortly after an emergency cabinet meeting that followed the Supreme Court’s commuting of the death sentences of Mr. Gandhi’s assassins to life imprisonment, leaving their fate in the hands of the state government.

Ms. Jayaram’s move was seen by political observers as an attempt to position herself as the leader most sympathetic to the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils, who share ethnicity and language with the Tamils of India. With this move, Ms. Jayaram, previously a bitter critic of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also inaugurated the election-season chest-beating over the issue.

M. Karunanidhi, the 89-year-old leader of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, accused Ms. Jayaram of hypocrisy and opportunism. At an election rally in Chennai in April, Mr. Karunanidhi, who has devoted a large portion of his speeches to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue throughout the campaign, said “Jayalalithaa is shedding crocodile tears for Sri Lankan Tamils.”

Priyadarshini Ravichandran
refugee-camp-IndiaInk-blog480The entrance to the refugee camp in Puzhal, Tamil Nadu. 

Yet this periodic frenzy has achieved little for thousands of refugees like Mr. Sasitharan, who exist in limbo in Tamil Nadu’s squalid camps. “It’s a lot of gimmicks and fake posturing,” said Rohini Mohan, an Indian journalist whose book on the Sri Lankan civil war will appear this year. “It’s an emotive issue, but there is nothing to be gained from the betterment of Sri Lankan refugees, especially as the refugees themselves can’t vote.”

In Puzhal, where Mr. Sasitharan has lived for the past decade, conditions of perilous sanitation prevail. Amid the open sewage, tiny, unventilated brick houses covered by tin roofs bake in Tamil Nadu’s scorching summer, creating living conditions that are anything but hospitable.

Most refugees are given a meager allowance by the Tamil Nadu government. The eldest male of the family receives $16 a month, while other members of the family above the age of 12 get $13. Children below 12 are given $7 a month each. Families of refugees supplement this income with menial jobs, as house painters and day laborers in areas neighboring the camps.

Sri Lankan refugees in India live under constant surveillance by state intelligence and are restricted in their movement. Deepak, 27, who lives at the Kangavarai camp in Puzhal, said residents could not even buy SIM cards for their mobile phones. “We need to sign every time we enter or leave,” he said. “And if the prime minister ever visits Tamil Nadu, we are all locked up inside the camp.”

There is evidence to suggest that the heated political discourse generated in Tamil Nadu over the Sri Lankan Tamil issue may be exacerbating the situation. Smaller parties like the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which wants an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka, make it harder for refugees in India who would like to return home.

“Extreme positions in Tamil Nadu make reconciliation difficult,” said S.C. Chandrahasan, founder and head of the Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation. “We would like all parties to take moderate positions and not put emphasis on the breaking up of Sri Lanka. Hate speeches do us a lot of harm.”

Mr. Chandrahasan believes the repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees in India remains the only permanent solution to the problem.

That may not be an option for refugees like Mr. Sasitharan, too scarred by the past to ever return. Mr. Sasitharan had hoped to get Indian citizenship, but since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, there is no structured route to citizenship for those who seek asylum.

Despite the promise of a less uncertain legal existence in Sri Lanka, Mr. Sasitharan said he would stay in India. “We are safe here,” he said. “We are not safe in Sri Lanka.”

Yet the odds remain stacked against refugees like Mr. Sasitharan. Since the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, international attention has mostly drifted away from the refugees in India, focusing instead on the plight of Tamils within Sri Lanka.

And Tamil parties across the spectrum, having whipped up the refugees’ cause during election season, which ended in Tamil Nadu on April 24, have once again moved on.