“I can live here only. I don't have any other place to go to. I'm alone,” says Manonmani Muniyandi, a 64-year-old woman, settled in Gavi in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district. Manonmani, who has partial hearing impairment, was reacting to a rather insensitive and unnerving question – which is your country, India or Sri Lanka?
The aged, unmarried woman is one of the many Sri Lankan-Tamils settled in the scenic forest region. She is among the first generation Lankan-Tamils brought to Gavi in the late 1970s as part of a rehabilitation pact signed between India and Sri Lanka during the civil war in the island nation.
“I was 23 or 24 when I was brought here along with my family. When we came here, this place was a thick forest. We cleared it and started farming,” Manonmani said.
This correspondent met Manonmani and her ilk recently after knowing about their concerns about the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). The old woman and others of her age had no clue about the law or the raging protests against it. The younger generation, on the other hand, is a bit anxious.
“Our forefathers went to Sri Lanka for jobs. We didn't have voting rights there. We were around 5.25 lakh people there. Of them, around 3.25 lakh came back to India as per an agreement between the two countries,” said Rajendran Karuppayya, a supervisor at the cardamom plantation run by the Kerala Forest Development Corporation (KFDC).
Most of the Lankan-Tamils in Gavi work either in the plantation or in the Gavi eco tourism project.
Several youngsters, who work as guides and watchers in the tourism project, refused to comment on the issue fearing trouble.
However, they hope the new rules will not affect them as they have all valid documents to prove their citizenship.
“We have identity card, Aadhaar card, family card and ration card. Earlier, there were some problems to get our caste certificates. Now, it has been sorted out,” Rajendran said.
Rajendran, who follows all the CAA-related news, revealed that some of them are anxious about the new developments.
“We are anxious. But we are Indians. We have voting rights. We came here as part of a the agreement. Our forefathers had migrated to Sri Lanka in search of jobs. We came back to our homeland. This is our country,” an emotional Rajendran said.
Their worries stem from mainly two facts – refugees from Sri Lanka are not included in the list of people eligible for citizenship as per the CAA.
The CAA is meant to give citizenship to the religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who have sought refuge in India due to their persecution in their own land. However, they can still get citizenship either through refugee route or the naturalisation process.
Those opposing the bill had asked, among many other criticisms, why Tamils in Sri Lanka were not included in the law despite them being victims of civil war and political persecution.
Also, lack of clarity as to the documents to prove citizenship once the NRC is implemented across the country has also raised concerns among them.
As of now, the CPM-led Left Democratic Front government in Kerala has firmly said that the state would not implement the NRC, a decision supported by the opposition Congress-led UDF.
'Lankan-Tamils need not worry'
Authorities, including district administration officials, have not been able to give a proper answer as to the fate of the Lankan-Tamils in Gavi.
The officials, however, said that they wouldn't have to worry since they have all documents.
“They don't have to face any problem as of now since Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said that NRC won't be implemented. However, they are anxious about the documents to be produced. Then they may face issues that other people in Kerala also would face,” Konni MLA Janeish Kumar told Onmanorama.
Gavi is part of Seethathodu gram panchayat in Konni taluk. Interestingly, Gavi ward is represented by CPM's Kumar, whose parents came from Sri Lanka.
Kumar also echoed MLA's views. According to Kumar, there are around 150 families of Sri lankan-Tamils living in Gavi now. “Many have shifted to Kulathoopuzha in Kollam district in the past 20 years. They work at the Rehabilitation Plantation Limited (RPL) there,” he said.
Kind to refugees
Rehabilitation Plantation Limited (RPL) in Kulathoopuzha near Punalur and KFDC in Gavi are widely hailed for the way they treat refugees from Sri Lanka. The companies were formed to accommodate the Lankan-Tamils after they were repatriated to India as per the 1964 agreement.
The RPL was started as a government rubber plantation scheme in 1972 for the settlement of Sri Lankan repatriates which was necessitated by Sirimao-Shastri Agreement of 1964.
“The Company has settled 700 repatriate families from Sri Lanka. Two members from each family are provided with employment in the company. At present the company employs to 1300 workers, 185 staff members and 32 officers in the company,” RPL's website says.
India in the 1970s not only accommodated the refugees from Lanka but also ensured a means of livelihood for them by providing them jobs and shelter. Many cite this attitude of acceptance as an antithesis to the present day hostility towards migrants and refugees.