By G. Varghese
Relations between India and Sri Lanka appear to be cordial, according to reports in the media and other sources, with the leadership of both countries being liberal in outlook. This being so, the problem referred to below can be solved, if approached in the correct perspective.
A section of the Sri Lankan population is collectively referred to as of Indian origin, though they are Sri Lankan citizens at least on paper. In addition, there are also some who reside here after expiry of their Indian emergency certificate/India-Ceylon pass/Indian passport holders integrated into Lankan citizenry by various methods, legal or otherwise. There are also some persons covered by the Nehru-Kotelawala Pact of 1954 still living on renewable residence visas.
All of them together form part of the Lankan Indian community, or to be more precise, persons of recent Indian origin, but still officially described collectively as Indian Tamils, whether they are Tamil, Malayalam, Telungu, Hindi or Punjabi speaking. It therefore follows that they come under the general description of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Ceylon Citizenship Act No. 18 of 1948 came into force on 15/11/1948 and the Immigrants and Emigrants Act No. 20 of 1948 came into force on 06/10/1948. And from this period onwards the Indian community (till then called Indians) were referred to as Indian Tamils and subject to the said two Acts. India took up the position that those Indians who were not in India or who did not posses Indian travel documents on 26/01/1950 or so, ceased to be Indians. Thus started the saga of statelessness and the Indian community were classified as stateless persons of Indian origin. The said two Acts and the harsh implementation thereof caused immense hardship to the community. Although they were living as an underprivileged community till then, their condition worsened by the “ruthless implementation” of the two Acts. Space does not permit the writer to detail herein even a fraction of the hardships.
The civil conflict in Lanka has complicated the position and the condition of the community has deteriorated further. It is a known fact that the civil conflict does not arise from any demands by the community who does not give any sort of material support to either of the two parties to the conflict. This being the position, it is not known why the members of the Indian community should be subject to the harsh treatment when enforcing laws which are by no means fair to the innocent persons affected. Details of the harsh treatment are given below.
The law enforcement authorities conduct cordon and search operations from time to time, more particularly after an incident. Those detained include persons of Indian origin. It is true that the detained are released by the arresting authorities or by courts when there is no evidence. One must go through these routines to know the actual sufferings. Except for an insignificant few, persons of Indian origin are not involved.
This practice has been going on for sometime and the Indian community feels that some intervention is required to stop the practice of their members being detained in the absence of evidence of crime. The political/trade union leadership of the Indian community has no time to attend to these grievances. Even if they did, it is doubtful whether any satisfactory result would be forthcoming.
There is widespread criticism among the community about India’s attitude towards them. It is true that these are Lankan citizens and as such it is the problem of the Government of Lanka, but it should not be forgotten that these people were Indians till 26/01/1950 (or the issues of such Indians) and that they were bartered away by India to Lanka by entering into an unequal treaty between the two countries called the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964 and also subsequent discussions, understandings and correspondence between the two governments. This being the position, India has a responsibility of at least “watching the interests” of the community, if not on moral obligation at least on sympathetic and humanitarian grounds. The Indian community, particularly the enlighten segment thereof, feels that India has failed to discharge its responsibility.
The leaders of the Indian Independence movement and the founding fathers of independent India treated the Lankan Indian as the apple of their eyes. The change for the present situation arose after I.K. Gujaral became Prime Minister. The time has come for India to take a fresh look and change the present attitude of India’s own role of being disinterested of the well-being of this country and it’s diverse people.
If the writer’s recollection is correct, Motilal Nehru, Gandhi, Nehru, etc. visited Ceylon and showed continued interest in the well-being of the Indians here. A large staff was maintained at the Indian High Commission to look after interest of the community.
Today, the staff is also being used for some security related work, the importance of which cannot be minimized, but does such work justify sacrificing the interests of millions of persons of Indian origin, who very much need India’s assistance, like the local Muslims who look forward to Arab Muslim countries, though connected to those countries by religion only?
The purpose of this article is to bring to the notice of the Governments of Lanka and India the plight of the Indian community during cordon and search operations. If the said action is not based on evidence but a sort of screening policy, the High Commissioner is justified in intervening. It may not be possible to prevent arrests in the present circumstances, but some arrangement has to be made to produce those of Indian origin arrested before an officer or officers of the Indian High Commission made available at all times.
To achieve the purpose of minimizing hardships and dislocation of family life of those innocent persons of Indian origin arrested without proper evidence, they have to be seen by the High Commission within a short time of one to two hours in order to determine their culpability/innocence or prima facie. If it is found that the arrested is a person of Indian origin and there is no evidence to substantiate arrest, he/she must be released forthwith.
Some similar arrangement existed in 1950 onwards. Early in 1950 there were immigrants who came illegally to Lanka from India as they were not permitted to return to rejoin their workplace because of the imposition of the 1948 Immigrants and Emigrants Act.
Similarly there were some visa over-stayers too. Making this as an excuse, the Lankan authorities commenced arresting Indians and deporting/removing them to India via Thalaimannar by ship. By this means a substantial number of stateless persons legally residing here too were sent away and there was a hue and cry about the indiscriminate arrest and deportation.
India was forced to take preventive action to stop this inhuman practice and the result was that those arrested had to be produced before the Indian High Commission to ascertain whether they were in fact illegal residents/visa over stayers. This changed system worked smoothly, although there were some abuses. It is the wish of the Indian community that the government of India should make representation to the government of Sri Lanka and obtain relief for the people of India origin living here, at least in respect of arrests and detentions merely on suspicion.
The Sri Lanka Government led by the liberal thinking President is not likely to refuse the reasonable request of the Indian community if the High Commissioner for India makes representations in the correct perspective. The Indian community, specially the poor section thereof, will be grateful to the leaders for any relief granted on this particular subject, as well as other humanitarian issues.
In referring to this matter, the writer is not unaware of the fact that the subject involves issues between sovereign countries and have to be carefully dealt with, which can be done without causing any frictions. It is with the best of intentions and the noblest of inner feeling this article is written in the hope that same will bring some relief to the community, which is already under tremendous pressure due to circumstances beyond their control.
[A letter to the Editor, in dailymirror.lk]