Home » Indian Citizenship Law’s Exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils

Indian Citizenship Law’s Exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils


The debate on which refugees qualify for Indian citizenship has intensified with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government enacting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019 and notifying the rules in March this year.

The CAA 2019 amended the Citizenship Act of 1955. It uses religion to determine whose citizenship can be fast-tracked. The legislation provides for expediting citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan i.e. Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains and Christians who entered India on or before December 31, 2014. The law excludes Muslims, who are a majority in the three countries.

The new legislation has been hailed by supporters as a humanitarian gesture that seeks to put an end to the suffering of non-Muslim minorities, who have been subjected to discrimination, persecution, and torture in predominately Muslim countries in India’s neighborhood.

Justifying its decision to exclude Muslims from the CAA, the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Islam has been enshrined as the state religion by the constitutions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Religious minorities in these countries are subjected to persecution, prompting many to seek refuge in India.

However, Muslims in these countries, such as Hazaras in Afghanistan or Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan, are also being persecuted.

Critics are drawing attention to the CAA’s communal predispositions. It gives preference to some persecuted communities over others. The law is less of a humanitarian gesture on the part of the government supposedly fulfilling its moral duty as a benevolent rising power and more of a carefully considered strategy to project Islam as a persecutor religion. The Indian government is trying to project a narrative that religious minorities living in predominately Muslim countries face exclusion, stigmatization, and persecution. The inclusion of Christians appears to be an afterthought, perhaps to push back against possible criticism from Western countries.

Another criticism is the exclusion of refugee groups like the Tamils in Sri Lanka both the Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils who have been subjected to different forms of violence by the Sinhala-Buddhist state during varying periods of the country’s post-colonial history.

Although the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact of October 1964 sought to resolve the citizenship issue of Indian Tamils these are Tamils who were taken as indentured labor during colonial rule to work on Sri Lanka’s plantations by providing Sri Lankan citizenship to 375,000 and voluntarily repatriating 600,000 to India, New Delhi has yet to honor its obligations of granting them citizenship rights.

As for the Sri Lankan Tamils, they were severely impacted by the civil war (1983-2009). Around 100,000 of them were killed in that war and over a million were internally and externally displaced. Those who were better off migrated to the West, but most fled to India, mainly to the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Around 100,000 remain in India even after the end of the civil war.

Sri Lankan Tamils escaping the fighting on the island were welcomed in Tamil Nadu during the 1980s. That changed following the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by LTTE militants in 1991. Public sympathy disappeared and the state government transferred the non-camp refugees to the camps, closed educational institutions, and kept them under constant surveillance. This continues to date. The lack of job opportunities, difficult weather conditions, and restrictions on their freedom of movement have made life difficult for those in these camps.

The Tamil Nadu government has been receptive to the requests of the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees for citizenship rights, and both regional parties, the Dravida Munetra Kazahagam (DMK) and the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK), have requested the central government to adopt a proactive approach in supporting them.

The exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from the CAA has come in for criticism from several quarters. Extending them citizenship rights is a complex issue that involves politics, security concerns, and the state agenda.

It is alleged that some Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are involved in criminal and separatist activities. There are concerns that sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and Tamil nationalists in India are trying to revive the LTTE movement and the Tamil Eelam project.

Some countries with a large Sri Lankan Tamil refugee population, such as Canada, have kept a close watch on the LTTE’s activities within its territory, and investigated its alleged fundraising and money laundering activities. Are India’s security concerns in this regard reasonable or exaggerated?

Some Indian leaders who have called for citizenship rights for Sri Lankan Tamils say that security concerns could be addressed by putting those who are found to have any allegiance to the LTTE “behind bars.” Sri Lankan Tamil refugees have been arrested from time to time for their alleged involvement in the smuggling of weapons and drugs to revive the LTTE.

Although some sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, and by extension refugees, may continue to espouse Tamil nationalist sentiments, distinctions should be made between liberal democratic nationalism and separatist nationalism that condones extremism.

The exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees from the CAA does not bode well either for the community or for India.

According to Romeo Alfred Roy, a lawyer representing the community, 90 percent of Tamil refugees in India are seeking citizenship. Many do not desire to return to their place of origin in Sri Lanka due to job insecurity, loss of lives, painful memories, and general uncertainty. While the younger generation is completely detached from its place of origin, the middle-aged have some attachment that they are slowly losing.

The inclusion of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in the CAA would bestow the community with a set of political, economic, and civil rights to leave the camps, secure proper jobs, and contribute to India’s development. Instead, the state continues to bear the financial and economic burden of providing basic needs to the community.

Although Sri Lankan Tamils have received some benefits from India, they continue to lack fundamental rights coupled with constant state surveillance.

It is unclear how the Indian government would deport illegal migrants who do not qualify under the CAA, given that there is no deportation agreement with some neighboring states. Illegal migrants who are pushed out of the porous border usually end up returning, perpetuating a cycle of expulsion and return.

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