Devika Krishnan keeps a dual identity these days. To friends on her Coimbatore college campus, she’s Sri Lankan. But to the people she meets on the streets, who raise eyebrows at her distinct accent, the engineering student born and raised in Colombo adds a word to her introduction.
“I tell them I’m a Sri Lankan Tamil,” she said. “It’s sad, but right now I feel safer that way.”
In Chennai, almost 500 km away, Sinhala student Rangana Dissanayake can’t fall back on even that identity. For the past five days, Dissanayake has just stayed in his hostel room. His parents gave him just one other option -- to fly back home.
Krishnan and Dissanayake are among at least 1500 Sri Lankan students – both Tamil and Sinhala -- in India who are now caught in the middle of rising tensions – especially in Tamil Nadu – over Thursday’s United Nations vote on alleged human rights violations against innocent Tamils by Sri Lankan forces in their war against the rebel LTTE.
The Sri Lankan government has cautioned its citizens visiting Tamil Nadu, after attacks on two Sri Lankan Buddhist monks over the past week. Though no other major instances of violence have been reported, the tensions have left Sri Lankan students worried, and forced some into switching between identities while in India. At a time when India is aggressively targeting the island’s student market, the tensions have also left colleges with large Sri Lankan student populations tense.
Surrounded by hills, Sona College of Technology in the steel city of Salem has 51 Sri Lankan students on its rolls right now, according to its website. The college has arranged for separate security, special food, and round-the-clock campus monitoring at hostels, where the Sri Lankan students are living, M Manikandan, the institute’s director of international admissions and relations said. The college is affiliated to the state government’s Anna University that has stopped classes indefinitely while the protests build up.
“I personally called and discussed concerns with parents of many of these students, especially those in their first year here,” Manikandan said. “I was even ready to send the girls back home for the time being, but parents were convinced about the measures we have taken.”
Each time Tamil Nadu breaks into protests over Sri Lanka, the tensions ironically end up hurting the state’s higher education institutions. Over the past three years for instance, no new Sinhala student has taken admission at Sona.
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) offers scholarships to Sri Lankan students. But of the 29 Sri Lankan ICCR scholars currently studying in Tamil Nadu, 28 are Tamil-speaking, and only one Sinhala, K Ayyanar, the council’s Chennai head told HT.
And at a meeting he attended with prospective students in northern Sri Lanka recently, Manikandan said he heard a Sri Lankan official caution the students that Tamil Nadu may not be the best destination for them.
But safety isn’t the only concern that troubles Sri Lankan students.
Ranjith Ram, a Tamil Sri Lankan student in Chennai, has relatives in Tamil Nadu and frequently visited the state when he was growing up. He doesn’t feel worried about his safety in the state.
“But at times like these, being here forces me to re-evaluate my identity,” Ram said. “Yes I’m Tamil, and yes, there are problems when it comes to the community’s interests in Sri Lanka. But we don’t need India or anyone else to tell us what to do. That’s Sri Lanka’s problem to solve -- ourselves.”
The tensions in Tamil Nadu come at a time when India is eying a bigger chunk of the foreign-bound Sri Lankan student market. From about 1500 at present, India wants to increase the number of Sri Lankan students coming to India to at least 5000, displacing Australia, the current favourite destination for foreign education in the island. About 12,000 Sri Lankan students in all go abroad to study each year.
In January 2012, the Indian government increased scholarships for undergraduate and postgraduate Sri Lankan students coming to India, from 113 to 270. It also introduced a series of new scholarships as a part of the India Sri Lanka knowledge initiative signed in 2010 between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse. India has also started holding annual education fairs in Sri Lanka to pitch its universities and colleges to students there – including one just earlier this month.
But the ongoing tension in Tamil Nadu may affect the impact of these efforts.
Dissanayake, the Sinhala student in Chennai, had just finished classes last Friday when he saw animated protests break out in front of his college.
Protesters held up posters accusing Rajapakse of mass murder, as some shouted slogans demanding that India proactively push for a United Nations resolution seeking an international probe into allegations of war crimes.
The student of English was planning to head to a nearby shopping centre to buy a new pair of shoes. Instead, the protests against his country made him rush to a grocery shop. He bought large packets of chips instant noodles, and cola drinks, before returning to his hostel room – where he has since stayed put.
Two years back, when he was first applying to college in India, many of his friends and some in his family advised him against picking an institution in Tamil Nadu. “I laughed at their concerns then. I never thought I needed to worry,” Dissanayake said. “Now I’m not as sure what I would say.”