Citizenship and Related Issues

Indian Origin Tamils and Sri Lanka’s Citizenship Law


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : IOT

Mains level : Citizenship issues of Indian origin Tamils in Sri Lanka

Recently an MHA spokesperson wrote on Twitter that about 4.61 lakh Tamils of Indian origin were given Indian citizenship during 1964-2008. The reference was to the Indian Origin Tamils (IOTs) of Sri Lanka, and the Lal Bahadur Shastri-Sirimavo Bandaranaike Pact of 1964.

The Indian Origin Tamils

  • Different from Sri Lankan Tamils who live predominantly in the North and East, the IoTs are descendants of indentured Tamil workers.
  • The British had shipped them to the island in the mid 19th century to work on tea estates in the five hill districts of the Central and Uva provinces.
  • These people now call themselves Malayaha (hill country) Tamils — because of the historical stigma attached to being “Indian” Tamils.
  • At the time of Sri Lanka’s independence, the IOTs numbered around 800,000.
  • They were the backbone of the tea industry, politically active, and keen to ensure their rights in independent Sri Lanka through strategic alliances with unions and left parties.
  • Determined to blunt their political rights, the ruling parties described IOTs as “birds of passage” with no loyalty to the country, as India’s fifth column in Sri Lanka, and as people who stole the locals’ jobs.

SL’s 1948 Citizenship Act

  • Sri Lanka’s Nov. 1948 Citizenship Act was the first in a series of divisive moves by the Sinhala rulers to consolidate their political base in the majority Sinhalese (Buddhist and Christian) community.
  • It was aimed at excluding IOTs — then as now, the predominant workforce in the upcountry tea estates — whose numbers and growing association with leftist parties were proving to be politically inconvenient.
  • The IOTs that India accepted through the 1964 agreement were not “fleeing” Sri Lanka.
  • Most were, in fact, reluctant to leave the country in which they had lived for three generations or longer.
  • Those that remained, were stateless in Sri Lanka for decades until their status as citizens was settled ironically because the ruling party now wanted their votes.

What did the Act provide?

  • Under the Act, citizenship could be only by patrilineal descent or registration.
  • For citizenship by registration, umarried persons had to show 10 years of uninterrupted stay in Sri Lanka from the date of application; married persons had to show 7 years.
  • Most IOTs were unlettered and poor, with no documents. Effectively an entire community was rendered stateless.
  • Soon afterward came the Indian & Pakistani Residents’ Act of 1949, which opened a window for those above a certain income level.
  • Only 1,40,000 had been granted citizenship under the Indian & Pakistani Residents’ Act, and 2,50,000 were accepted by India as its citizens.
  • Finally, the 1949 Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Amendment was passed, under which only citizens could vote.
  • The IOTs were stripped of voting rights, and the fallout was immediate: in 1947, there were 7 Indian Tamils in the legislature; in 1952, there were none.

Issues with the Act

  • This Act sharply delineated ethnic differences, and distorted the political system to weight it in favour the Sinhalese majority.
  • This created an intractable dynamic of ethnic outbidding between the two major Sinhalese-dominated parties to attract Sinhalese voters at the expense of the Sri Lankan Tamil minority.
  • This directly contributed to the latter’s alienation, support for secessionism, and the outbreak of ethnic violence and civil war in the 1970s and 1980s.

India’s response

  • The treatment of Indian Tamils had cast a shadow on India-Sri Lanka relations even before independence; post-independence, the citizenship laws became a major irritant.
  • They were denounced in India, and the Madras legislature passed a resolution against them.
  • In 1947, PM Nehru had tried unsuccessfully to persuade Senanayake to give citizenship to all Indian Tamils who had lived in the country for 7 years prior to January 1, 1948.
  • The two countries corresponded on this issue until Nehru’s death in 1964.
  • Nehru rejected the Sri Lankan position that the “stateless” IOTs were automatically Indian citizens, and would have to be shipped to India.

Repatriation of IOTs

  • After the 1962 war with China, PM Shastri was eager to mend fences with Sri Lanka. He gave in to Bandaranaike’s demands, and it was agreed that Sri Lanka would accept 3,00,000 IOTs and their natural increase, while India would accept 5,25,000 IOTs and their natural increase.
  • The status of the balance 1,50,000 IOTs was to be decided later.
  • Some 4,00,000 reluctantly applied for citizenship of India; 6,30,000 applied for Sri Lanka’s.
  • By the time the window agreed upon in 1964 closed, only 1,62,000 IOTs had been given Sri Lankan citizenship. In the same period, India gave citizenship to over 3,50,000.
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