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Mainstream, VOL LX No 23, New Delhi, May 28, 2022

Exodus from Sri Lanka to India | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 27 May 2022, by Apratim Mukarji


The searing and prolonged economic-political crisis in Sri Lanka has now expectedly turned into a refugee exodus from the island-nation to India, whch is the traditional haven for Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka.

The failure of the Sri Lankan government to tackle the economic crisis even two years after the first rumblings of deep discontent were heard has now gulvanised Sri Lankan society---consisting of all the three main religions, Sinhalese Buddhists, Hindu Tamils, and Muslims, and Christians too---into a determined public wall to stop the Rajapaksas and other political parties from playing around with their lives and give an account of what has gone wrong.

Caught in this new vortex, poor Tamils living in northern and eastern Sri Lanka appear to have chosen to fall back upon their traditional shelter, India. The total number of such refugees, according to the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs, stood at 19,000 family units comprising 58,822 individuals and including 10,000 children. They are living at 108 refugee camps set up in Tamil Nadu, and another 34,087 refugees possessing refugee certificates are living outside the camps.
Not being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees 1951 or its sequel the 1967 Protocol which broadens the scope of the Convention, India does not have a refugee law which facilities the processing and identification and categorisation of migrants from abroad into a country. All signatories to the U.N. Convention are obliged to protect any asylum-seeker; and countries like India do not like to be caught in such a situation. The absence of a refugee law allowed India to extradite Rohingya refugees from its soil sometime back.

The objectives of the Convention are to identify refugees and by dint of its non-refoulement principle, it asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face dangders to their lives or to their freedoms. The 1967 Protocol has broadened the scoipe of the Convention beyond geographical and time limits that were part of the Convention.

India has had both economic and political Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka in different periods of their bilateral relationship. The political refugees came to be recognised as such since 1982-83 when the first pogroms against Tamils began in the island-nation. When the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was sent by the Indian government to help the Sri Lankn army fight Tamils guerrillas better, Tamil refugees were subjected to stringent checks in India. Many of them were suspected to be militants fighting the Sri Lankan army; and towards the end of the civil war, several of them were arrested and deported to Sri Lanka when demanded by the latter’s government. There was also a time when, under the Indira Gandhi government, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were armed, trained and looked after in the Indian territory.

Tamil Nadu has always acted as an magnet for Tamil refugees from across the sea because of its proximity, barely 30 km. From Lankan shore, and the ethnic and cultural affinity with the inhabitants of the Indian state. Sri Lankan Tamils have also traditionally found welcoming local inhabitants; and a big help has been the politicl parties in Tamil Nadu who have helped resettlemnt of new refugees from Sri Lnka. The assassination of Indian opposition leader Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 was the first major jolt to this traditional atmosphere of bonhomie between the Tamil communities. Since then, India has been much strict in screening Sri lankan Tamil refugees.

Sri Lanka’s recent economic crisis followed the collapse of the island’s tourism industry, one of its mainstays of economy and revenue, which coincided with the world-wide Covid-19 pandemic, devastating the economy. Sri Lanka had traditionally been import-dependant, and as foreign excgange reserves depleted fast, the government soon found itself unable to pay the bills for food items, fuels, and sundry other things like medicine. At one time in early may, the total foreign exchange reserves stood at US $50 million.

When the people had lost their patience, and began to agitate publicly but always non-violently against the obvious misrule of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government, the unrelenting cry of Go-Gota-gama (Gotabaya go home) rent the air, and eventually the president sacrificed his entire family and even his elder brother Mahinda who was his prime save his own throne. The use of the word ‘throne’ to mean his office is no exaggeration. Reports have it that his office displays a throne-like chair which is placed well above his visitors;, giving the impression that he feels like a king presiding over his subjects.

His behaviour since the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the installation of his arch-enemy Ranil Wickremasinghe in the prime minister’s chair has at best been erratic. In less than two weeks, he has reshuffled his cabinet five times. He seems to have picked up his new ministers abruptly and droipped then in the next move and then recycle them in the still later move. But, even in this merry-g-round of politics, he hasn’t found a person who can fit the bill of a finance minister.

He has similarly played around with the adoption of the proposed 21st. Amendment to the Constitution which seeks to divest the president of all his executive powers.
The proposal, which is aimed at neutralising the president extraordinary executive powers, if promoted into an act of Parliament, shall reduce Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the status of a figure-head. With his personal history open to anyone interested, it is difficult, rather impossible to imagine him agreeing to be so while he will have to live under the people’s watch and mercy.

And if his intentions are above board, why is he delaying the Cabinet’s approval of the bill?

It might be profitable at this juncture to recall why the 19th. Amendment to the 1978 J.R. Jayawardene-led Constitution was brought in by an overwhelming majority in Parliament (with just one vote in opposition). the 19th. Amendment provides that the President shall not dissolve Parliament until the expiration of a period not less than four years and six months from the date of appointment for its first meeting unless Parliament requests the President to do so by a resolution passed by not less than two-thirds by the total number of members (including those present) in its favour.

Of course, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the present Parliament under his thumb but the second largest party, Sajith Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Welavegaya, Maithripala Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and the Independent Group from President Rajapaksa;’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna remain staunchly opposed to the continuing functioning of the Ranil Wickremasinghe government, labelling it as ‘unlawful’.

In this dire situation, it is not even a moot point that Sri Lanka will pay any attention to the outward flow of Tamil refugees. This enlarges India’s burdensome task of striking the right policy to the economic refugees from Sri Lanka, the number of whom may rise in the coming days as the economy may take much longer time than being anticipated, which is six months.

(Author: Apratim Mukarji is a veteran Sri Lnka-watcher. He is available at mukarjiapratim[at]

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