Citizenship and Related Issues

Case of Citizenship to Stateless Indian origin Tamils


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: CAA

Mains level: Indian origin tamils, Debate over granting citizenship


  • The Supreme Court of India has now posted the 232 petitions challenging the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) to be heard on December 6, 2022. However, there is another issue linked to the subject, i.e., the unresolved status of Indian origin Tamils who repatriated from Sri Lanka.

Present status of Sri Lankan refugees in India

  • For over four decades, Indian origin Tamils have been classified as stateless persons, based on technicalities. Nations High Commission for Refugees, “Comprehensive Solutions Strategy for Sri Lankan Refugees”, there are around 29,500 Indian origin Tamils currently living in India.

CitizenshipHistorical background of citizenship to Indian origin Tamils

  • As Indentured plantation workers: Indian origin Tamils were brought in as indentured labourers to work in plantations. They remained mostly legally undocumented and socially isolated from the native Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhalese communities due to the policies of the British.
  • Denied citizenship led to stateless population: After 1947, Sri Lanka witnessed rising Sinhalese nationalism, leaving no room for their political and civil participation. They were denied citizenship rights and existed as a ‘stateless’ population, numbering close to 10 lakhs by 1960.
  • Bilateral pacts granted citizenship: As an ethnolinguistic minority without voting rights, this resulted in a double disadvantage till the two national governments addressed this issue. Subsequently, under the bilateral Sirimavo-Shastri Pact (1964) and the Sirimavo-Gandhi Pact (1974), six lakh people along with their natural increase would be granted Indian citizenship upon their repatriation.
  • Civil wars forcing to seek asylum in India: The Sri Lankan civil war resulted in a spike in Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian origin Tamils together seeking asylum in India. This resulted in a Union Ministry of Home Affairs directive to stop the grant of citizenship to those who arrived in India after July 1983.
  • Focus on Refugee welfare and rehabilitation: The focus of the Indian and Tamil Nadu governments shifted to refugee welfare and rehabilitation. The legal destiny of Indian origin Tamils has been largely intertwined with that of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, and both cohorts have been relegated to ‘refugee’ status.
  • Classified as Illegal migrants as per the CAA 2003: Indian origin Tamils who arrived after 1983 came through unauthorized channels or without proper documentation and came to be classified as ‘illegal migrants’ as per the CAA 2003. This classification has resulted in their statelessness and blocking of potential legal pathways to citizenship.

How to overcome the problem of statelessness?

  • While constitutional courts have not had an occasion to deal with the question of statelessness, there have been two recent judgments (Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, Justice G.R. Swaminathan), taking these issues head on.
  • Judgment on P. Ulaganathan vs Government of India (2019): The status of citizenship of Indian origin Tamils at the Kottapattu and Mandapam camps came up for consideration. The court recognized the distinction between Indian origin Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils and held that a continuous period of statelessness of Indian origin Tamils offends their fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The court further held that the Union Government has implied powers to grant relaxation in conferring citizenship and prescribed that a humanitarian approach, shorn of the rigors of law, should be adopted.
  • Abirami S. vs The Union of India 2022: Statelessness is something to be avoided. The court further held that the principles of the CAA, 2019, which relaxes the conditions for citizenship for Hindus from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, would also apply to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. As such, these judgments have provided categorial judicial guidance to the Union of India on how to utilize an expanded and liberal interpretation of the CAA, 2019 to overcome statelessness.
  • Supreme Court (Committee for C.R. of C.A.P. and Ors. vs State of Arunachal Pradesh 2015): An undertaking made by the Government of India with respect to grant of citizenship inheres a right in the stateless or refugee population. As such, India has made repeated undertakings, through the 1964 and 1974 pacts, which have created a legitimate expectation among the Indian origin Tamils and would entitle them to be granted citizenship.
  • Obligatory International customary law: The situation of statelessness of Indian origin Tamils is ‘de jure’, created from the failure in implementing the 1964 and 1974 pacts. De jure statelessness is recognized in international customary law. Therefore, India has an obligation to remedy the situation.

How other nations deals with statelessness situation?

  • United States: Remedying statelessness is not a novel process in law. While dealing with a similar situation, in 1994, the United States enacted the Immigration and the Nationality Technical Corrections Act to retroactively grant citizenship to all children born to an alien father and citizen mother.
  • Brazil: Through the Constitutional Amendment No. 54 of 2007 retroactively, Brazil granted citizenship to children under jus sanguinis, which was earlier stripped by an earlier amendment, i.e., Constitutional Amendment No. 3 of 1994.


What India can do?

  • Any corrective legislative action by the Government of India to eliminate statelessness should necessarily include retroactive citizenship for Indian origin Tamils.


  • India has provided the one of largest refuge to people in the world including Tibetan, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi. Despite not being a signatory to UN refugee convention. any decision of granting citizenship has to be based on national interest rather than emotional connect.

Mains Question

Q. What are rules for granting the citizenship to foreigner in India? What are the hurdles in Tamil Sri Lankan getting their citizenship? How can Sri Lankan Tamil get citizenship by applying the rule of intelligible differentia under article 14?

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