Karnataka Election: Lankan Tamil Repatriates Want Homes For Votes

In 1974, over five lakh Sri Lankan Tamils were repatriated to India. Some of them were sent to Karnataka. 

5 min read
In 1974, over five lakh Sri Lankan Tamils were repatriated to India. Some of them were sent to Karnataka. 

As a child, Chandralingam called a little village outside Colombo his home. He was born in Sri Lanka to parents who were labourers on a tea estate, and even learnt Sinhalese in school. But at the age of 14, he was told that Sri Lanka was not his home, and they were returning to their homeland.

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Chandralingam was among the five lakh Sri Lankan Tamils who were repatriated to India between 1964 to 1974, following the Bandaranaike-Shastri Pact, between New Delhi and Colombo to bring back Sri Lankan Tamils.

For 988 Tamil families among them, their new home was not in Tamil Nadu, but in Sullia, a town in Karnataka, located 89 km from Mangaluru. The town, with different food and language, was an alien land for Chandralingam.

A Long Way from Home

Several Tamils were recruited during the British era to work in plantations in then Ceylon. By 1936, Tamils accounted for 15 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. By 1962, the number of Tamils in Sri Lanka was close to nine lakhs. While Sri Lanka termed them Indian nationals, for India, they were stateless.

As the opposition grew among Sinhalese nationalists, an agreement was signed in 1964 between Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. As per the deal, around three lakh Tamil people would be given Sri Lankan citizenship, and around five lakh Tamils would be repatriated to India.

Chandralingam was among the many Sri Lankans who moved to Karnataka in 1974
Chandralingam was among the many Sri Lankans who moved to Karnataka in 1974
Photo: Arun Dev/ The Quint

Chandralingam is 58-years-old now, and he is as Kannadiga as anyone else in the town. Ahead of the Karnataka polls, Chandralingam and his comrades are mobilising the community, which has close to 10,000 voters.

Around 100 km away, Tibetan refugees settled in Bylakuppe have a land of their own. But these repatriate Tamils, who are ethnically Indians, are still fighting for a piece of land in their names.

For their votes, they are demanding ownership of the roofs over their heads.

The Resettlement, Plantation and Row Houses

One of the homes of the Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates. 
One of the homes of the Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates. 
Photo: Arun Dev/ The Quint

A brown passport is a priceless possession of the first generation of repatriates. The passport, one of the few reminders of their past in Sri Lanka, has an entry –rehabilitated in Sullia, on 19 July 1974.

Starting a life from scratch in a new, unknown town was tough for many. But the promise of employment and homes gave them hope. Before they were sent to India, the Indian assistant commission in Sri Lanka had given a letter to these repatriates stating they will be provided jobs in Sullia Rubber Plantation Project.

Passport indicating the rehabilitation 
Passport indicating the rehabilitation 
Photo: Arun Dev/The Quint

Around 4,443 acres of land was set aside to set up Karnataka Forest Development Corporation Limited (KFDC), which was meant to provide jobs to these Tamils. As per the promise of the Indian government, two members from each repatriate family were given jobs, and families of the employees were provided for by the corporation.

The document sent by Indian government official assuring Sri Lankan Tamils jobs 
The document sent by Indian government official assuring Sri Lankan Tamils jobs 
Photo: The Quint

The houses were spread across three divisions – Ivernadu, Konegiri and Kadaba. Across these divisions, 45 colonies with row houses were set up. The total number of repatriates living in these houses, according to the community, is around 25,000 to 30,000. However, these houses don’t belong to the repatriates, but to the plantation.

First Signs of Friction

As decades passed by, the first generation of repatriates, who were employed at the plantation in 70’s, reached their retirement age. Soon the corporation asked them to vacate the “company quarters”.

The situation boiled over in 2012, when a team of policemen, along with the plantation officials, arrived at the house of Doreraj, a first-generation repatriate Tamil. Doreraj, who had retired from the corporation, was asked to vacate the company house as he was no longer an employee. The community came together and forced the plantation to stop the eviction.

Since then, they have been putting out a sustained campaign to ensure no more evictions take place. However, the sword of the eviction hangs over their head until the government agrees to a handover.

“The plantation and housing colony was started to help the Sri Lankan Tamils, but over the years, it has become all about profits. They are not giving jobs to the third generation Tamils, that is fine. But how can they ask a rehabilitated community to leave the housing provided to them by the government,” said Lokanathan, a second-generation repatriate.

A senior KFDC official, however, rebutted that the government of India had only promised jobs for the repatriates, and the homes were not part of the deal. The official added that the any further decision on the houses has to be taken by the government.

Homes for Votes

Ahead of the elections, the community is consolidating themselves to use their numbers to their advantage. The constituency has around 1.4 lakh voters, and the Tamil repatriate community alone has close to 10,000 votes.

We will give our votes to whoever promises to get us our homes. During our struggles to get caste certificates, the Congress government had helped us, and if they help us retain our houses, we will vote for them.

Part of the Coastal Karnataka region, the Hindutva heartland of Karnataka, BJP holds sway over the Sullia constituency. Since 1994, BJP’s S Angara has been elected from the constituency, and he still continues to be in a strong position in the town.

Neither the Congress nor the BJP have approached them with the promise of homes. But whoever makes the promise, according to the community, will get their vote.

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