The case of “up-country Tamils” of Sri Lanka, highlighted in a recent article in The Hindu by V. Suryanarayan of the University of Madras, suggests some interesting possible parallels with the case of the Lhotshampa Nepali-speaking refugees of Bhutan. Essentially, it is a story of how governments find—or may find—it convenient to sweep a problem away due to larger geopolitical considerations.
Up-country Tamils are quite different from “Sri Lankan Tamils” of the North and East of the country in that they are descendants of Tamil labourers brought to colonial Ceylon to work on coffee, tea, rubber and coconut plantations. At the time of Independence, these up-country Tamils actually numbered more than Sri Lankan Tamils, who make up about 12 percent of the population.
The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani Residents Act of 1949 together served to disenfranchise the up-country Tamils and render them stateless. The question of these stateless Tamils remained a major issue in Indo-Lankan affairs, with Colombo making the implicit assumption that those who failed to qualify for citizenship “were unquestionably Indian nationals and that New Delhi should regard them as such”, while New Delhi´s policy was to discourage overseas Indians from from applying for Indian citizenship. “Jawaharlal Nehru emphatically maintained that except for those who voluntarily opted for Indian citizenship, the Indian settlers and their descendants were the responsibility of Ceylon,” writes Mr Suryanarayan.
Nehru´s principled position was reversed by his successor Lai Bahadur Shastri, who reasoned that India could easily absorb a million Tamils from Sri Lanka. It is a tragedy of India-Sri Lanka relations, says Mr Suryanarayan, that this Indo-Lankan agreement was finalised without taking into consideration the feelings and views of the up-country Tamils themselves. As prominent Sri Lankan trade unionist and politician Mr Thondaman put it, the people of Indian origin were reduced to the status of “merchandise”, to be divided equally between the two countries in the name of good neighbourly relations.
Turn, now, to the refugee camps of Southeast Nepal, where nearly a hundred thousand refugees crowd in camps set up to house these Lhotshampa, or Nepali-speaking ´Southerners´ of Bhutan. While the case of the up-country Tamils is a past tragedy, and that of these ´low-country´ Bhutanese is very much current, both problems have potentially similar underpinnings : the uncertainty facing colonising populations who migrated upon express invitation, citizenship and naturalisation laws which rendered individuals stateless, the media´s disinterest, and, finally, a people´s interest sacrificed (or to be sacrificed) on the altar of good-neighbourliness.
In the case of the Lhotshampa, it was a clearheaded Thimphu administration, made up of the Northwestern Ngalongs, that set out to correct a perceived “demographic imbalance” which, it feared, would lead to an ultimate takeover by the Nepali-speaking population of the south. So, through a carefully modulated state policy of intimidation buttressed by the finest diplomatic public relations South Asia has seen, over a hundred thousand Lhotshampa, comprising a seventh of the country´s population, were made to flee the country, most of them during 1989-1992.
Bhutan claims that the refugees, even if some of them might have been originally Bhutanese, have forfeited their citizenship by voluntarily leaving the country with the intention to migrate. Thimphu officials point to the Citizenship Act of 1985 which does contain such a provision, even though it might not stand to international judicial scrutiny.
The Nepali government claims it is an interested party in the matter only to the extent that the refugee camps are in Nepal. But the Lhotshampa are clearly a matter of low priority for Kathmandu politicians. New Delhi, as the only entity with the clout to prod Bhutan towards repatriation—and which helped direct the emerging Lhotshampa through Indian territory into Nepal in the first place—prefers to support Bhutan by its very inaction.
If Bhutan´s contention is accepted, then we have a stateless population in our hands. Given the present unequal state of Indo-Nepal relations, the weak government of Sher Bahadur Deuba, and the continuing diplomatic offensive by Thimphu, the situation is ripe for a ´realpolitik´ solution to emerge. Under which Nepal would be persuaded to accept a large section of the refugees as its own, given that—to use Lai Bahadur Shastri´s argument in the other instance—a few thousand more would not make much of a difference in a country of 20 million. Bhutan would magnanimously offer to take back a few thousand, and India would pick up the balance. Who are these Nepali-speakers, anyway, to muddy the waters of South Asian amity?