Unfurling the national flag from the ramparts of Fort St. George on August 15, 1991, Chief Minister Jayalalaitha called upon the people of the State to take a pledge to retrieve the Island of Kachchatheevu ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974. According to the prognosis of her government, the root cause of the misery and suffering of Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Bay region was the “gifting away” of the island to Sri Lanka. In subsequent statements she asserted that she was willing to argue the case with the Centre and “if necessary, even prepared to fight on the issue”. It was pointed out by discerning critics that abrogation of international boundary agreements, however unjust they might have been, can not be a viable option. In his speeches and writings Prof. Suryanarayan, one of the authors of this essay, argued that India had signed maritime boundary agreements with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives. There is a certain amount of sanctity about international agreements. If India abrogates any of these agreements unilaterally, its image in the comity of the nations will take a nose dive. Keeping this reality in mind Prof. Suryanarayan suggested two courses of action. The first was to get the island of Kachchatheevu and surrounding seas in “lease in perpetuity” (Tin Bigha in reverse) and an agreement by which licensed Indian fishermen would be permitted to fish in Sri Lankan waters up to five nautical miles (following the precedent of the 1976 Agreement by which Sri Lankan fishermen were permitted to fish in the Wadge Bank). Jayalalitha modified her stance, accepted these two suggestions and has, on number of occasions, written to New Delhi to put forward these proposals to Colombo. But in the present context, where the Indian fishermen go deep into Sri Lankan waters and pose a threat to the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen, fresh thinking is called for. Prof. Suryanarayan, along with former civil servant R. Swaminathan, has pointed out that a permanent solution can be found only if the interests of fishermen of both countries are kept in focus. Dialogue among fishermen of two countries is the need of the hour. What is more, it is necessary to look upon the Palk Bay not as a contested territory, but as a common heritage. Historically, the Palk Bay was not a barrier it was a link between the two countries. Keeping in mind the livelihood of fishermen and the necessity to maintain marine ecology, solutions have to be found. Prof. Suryanarayan and R Swaminathan have reflected on this subject and have given some constructive suggestions in the occasional paper entitled Contested Territory or Common Heritage: Thinking Out of the Box, published by the Center for Asia Studies. . The Authors hope that these suggestions will receive due consideration from the governments in Chennai, New Delhi and Colombo alike. Chief Minister Jayalalitha deserves kudos for the welcome initiatives mentioned in the Governor’s address relating to the plight of 73,450 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in 115 camps scattered throughout the State. It is necessary to remind ourselves that these refugees have come from a poor country to a poorer country. It’s not roses, roses all the way in Tamil Nadu, but what makes Tamil Nadu attractive for the Sri Lankan Tamils is the fact that there is no insecurity in the State. There are no midnight knocks by the Sri Lankan armed forces nor are their children forcibly recruited into the baby brigade of the LTTE. In addition to the financial doles, the refugees are also permitted to work, which enables them to supplement their income. The refugees also have fully utilized the educational opportunities available in the State and many of them have qualified in professional courses like medicine, engineering, agriculture and computer science. The assurance that efforts will be made to improve the living conditions is welcome, because in many camps there is insufficient drinking water. Sanitation is also very poor. The refugees will welcome these initiatives, because in her earlier dispensation, following the dastardly assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, many refugees had to return to Sri Lanka much against their wishes. Human Rights organizations like the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch complained that India was violating the principle of non-refoulement, which is the cardinal principle of international refugee law. It may be recalled that the Narasimha Rao Government permitted the UNHCR to open an office in Chennai with the limited mandate of finding out whether the repatriation was voluntary or involuntary. The UNHCR in Chennai has been doing commendable service in this direction. Our historical experience will further strengthen the case for vocational training to the refugees. It may be recalled that following the signing of the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, 1964 large number of Tamils of Indian origin were granted Indian citizenship and repatriated to India. The repatriation started only in 1968 and proceeded slowly till July 1983. The intervening years between the grant of Indian citizenship and repatriation to India could have been utilized by the Government of India to provide vocational training to these people. Unfortunately most of the repatriates were sanctioned business loans (78.8 per cent), these people did not have any business acumen and the petty business that they started after coming to Tamil Nadu soon failed. Except the fortunate few (5.3 per cent) who were able to get jobs in tea plantations, for the overwhelming majority of repatriates it was bitter home coming. Subjected to untold suffering, few repatriates ended as bonded labourers in Kodaikanal and others eked out a subsistence living in Kotagiri. Many repatriates understandably were bitter about the policies of the Government of Tamil Nadu. Muniamma, an old repatriate lady, whom Prof. Suryanarayan interviewed in a squatter colony in Kotagiri, exclaimed, “Idu Tai Nada, Nai Nada!” (Is it mother country or country of the dogs?). If we do not learn from past mistakes, we will naturally stand condemned. As TS Eliot had written in the Four Quartets, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning”.Equally noteworthy is the reference in the Governor’s address to the plight of the internally displaced persons (IDPs), who are “leading a pathetic life of subjugation in their homeland”. The address adds that the Central Government should impress upon Colombo to undertake “immediate measures” to rehabilitate the Tamils in their homeland. It may be recalled that soon after the end of the conflict, 3, 00,000 hapless Tamils were huddled in Mainik Farm. The International Crisis Group has documented their pathetic life, without food and drinking water, privacy and proper shelter. There were cases of disappearances and the Government has not so far given the details. Many of them are suspected to have been killed. There are allegations of women being subjected to sexual attacks. Since the non-governmental organizations were kept out of the scene, we do not exactly know what happened during those days of subjugation and terror. The Sri Lankan Government claims that the process of rehabilitation of the IDPs has been successfully completed and there is no more internally displaced in the Tamil areas. But according to informed Tamil sources, those who have been rehabilitated continue to live not in their original homes, but among relatives and friends. It may also be mentioned that nearly 70,000 among the IDPs are people of Indian origin, who moved to the Northern Province following the ethnic clashes in the plantation areas in 1977. Some of them do not have even citizenship papers or proper identity cards. Improvement of their living conditions should receive the immediate attention of the Government of India.
Posted by Sri Lanka Guardian
on 2:46:00 PM.