Making a strong pitch for the inclusion of Sri Lankan Hindus under the amended Citizenship Act, Jaffna-based rights’ activist and former United Nations advisor Dr Maravanpulavu Sachithananthan told India TV in an exclusive interview that New Delhi must either create pathways for citizenship for Sri Lankan Hindus or negotiate their rehabilitation in Sri Lanka with Colombo.
He also heads an outfit, Siva Senai, involved in fighting “coercive conversion” of Sri Lankan Hindus to other religions, including Christianity and Islam. He was in New Delhi for a two-day visit last week, during which he caught up with India TV's Dhairya Maheshwari.
Why should Sri Lankan Tamil refugees be included in the ambit of the Citizenship Amendment Act? The Sri Lankan government says that efforts are on to rehabilitate the war refugees, mostly Tamilian Hindus, in the wake of the Sri Lankan Civil War.
The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 is a great boon to the refugee Hindus. Hindus from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where there have been reports of persecution of minorities, will finally have a state to call their own.
In the case of Sri Lankan refugees, approximately 1.5 million refugees, mostly Tamilian Hindus, have migrated to 40 different countries. More than a lakh Tamilian refugees in India have been living in refugee camps for almost 35 years now. Besides India, all the other Sri Lankan refugees who have gone to these 40 countries are in a state to exercise their rights as citizens, or permanent residents, of their respective countries. They even have the facilities to travel back to Sri Lanka. They have become ministers. They have become mayors. They have become members of parliament in their new homelands.
Sadly, in the case of Sri Lankan refugees in India, they have failed to realise their full potential because of their inability to hold full-time jobs. They do not even have permission to travel around India freely. Even in Sri Lanka after the end of the Civil War in 2009, refugees were eventually released from the confinement of camps and rehabilitated into the mainstream.
But the refugees in India are stuck in limbo. They can’t apply for government jobs. They can’t apply at universities. About 20 per cent of those refugees were born here. They don’t even know anything about Sri Lanka.
While the Indian government’s consistent position has been that all these Sri Lankan refugees must return to Sri Lanka one day, the fact remains that the political, emotional, economic and educational climate for their return is not conducive enough. New Delhi has been unable to push the Sri Lankan government to accept the provisions of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, which called granting more autonomy to the provinces.
In this backdrop, New Delhi must either grant citizenship to Sri Lankan refugees under the CAA or facilitate their return to Sri Lanka. I would like to reiterate that Sri Lankan refugees could only return to their homeland if the 1987 Accord is implemented in letter and spirit. At present, we are faced with a situation where the traditional homeland of Sri Lankan Tamils has been split.
However, they can’t stay here as stateless people as well. A solution, therefore, must be arrived at soon.
Overall, how receptive has India been to these concerns of Sri Lankan Hindus?
Well, there is no other country that the Sri Lankan Hindus look up to for support other than India. India is involved in a significant way, politically and economically, in re-developing the war-ravaged northern region of Sri Lanka. Most of the commitments made to Sri Lankan Tamils during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Jaffna in 2015 have or are being fulfilled.
The Indian government also believes that there has to be a pathway for citizenship for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees currently residing in camps.
India is like a big brother and it will continue to remain so for the Sri Lankan Hindus.
How would you characterise the current situation of Sri Lankan Tamils living in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka?
Sri Lankan Hindus are in a state of despair. While the war is no more, the post-war situation is traumatic, to say the least. Lakhs of them have been displaced. Our schools are in shambles. The health system is in a state of disrepair. The overall infrastructure is broken. The push to resettle the war refugees is not happening as planned, which is mainly because the 1987 Rajiv Gandhi-Junius Jayewardene is not being implemented fully by the Sri Lankan government.
Unfortunately for the Sri Lankan Hindus, Christian missionaries and Islamic preachers are taking advantage of the deplorable situation since the war ended back in 2009. They are poor. They are displaced. So, the money from overseas, mainly channelled from the Gulf region and the West, is being used to lure them towards these religions. At present, there are some 560 Christian missionary groups in Sri Lanka who are converting the Sri Lankan Hindus to Christianity. The constitution of Christians as part of overall population has increased from six to eight per cent. Muslims now make approximately 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, up from seven per cent. On the other hand, the number of Sri Lankan Tamils have come down from 25 per cent of overall population to just 12.5 per cent at present.
Could you also throw some light on the impact that the Easter Bombings of April 2019 have had on the overall political landscape of Sri Lanka?
Let me state one thing from the outset. The radical Islamist groups were armed by the Sri Lankan government during the Civil War. They were provided with all sorts of assistance so they could help the Sri Lankan armed forces in fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
So, after the war ended, these radical Islamist groups emerged so strong that they started asserting themselves, politically as well as through other ways, in the northern and eastern provinces, which had been the traditional homelands for Sri Lankan Tamils.
The effects of this policy of helping the Islamist groups has resulted in the Muslim population in the Eastern province of Sri Lanka registering a steep rise, from just three to four per cent in 1901 to over 40 per cent at present.
What’s the purpose of your current visit to Delhi?
I am here to appeal to the Indian government to resume the ferry service from the northern part of Sri Lanka to the southern part of India. The ferry service from the Talamanier pier of Sri Lanka was shelved a few years ago but efforts have been on to resume the services. I met several Indian lawmakers and appealed to them to begin the service, which would help in building people-to-people ties between people of Sri Lanka and India.