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Keeping count

world Updated: Sep 23, 2008 23:23 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

By definition, census is an official population count taken at set intervals. A count that that is taken of the entire population, and not of any community.

But last Sunday, a census with an uneasy difference was carried out in Colombo and parts of the western province. It was to count the number of those Sri Lankans who had migrated to the western province from specifically the five districts where the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) either fought or are fighting the army. The cut off time was five years.

In other, and unsaid, words it meant that thousands of Tamil men, women and children who have lived in and around Colombo since 2003 and were from the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Vavuniya, Mannar and Mullaitivu had to register their identities on a piece of bureaucratic paper.

More than 3,6000 queued up in front of police stations, schools and temples to diligently submit personal details with their heads down, whispering sour nothings to each other like “racial profiling, unfair and illegal.’’

Even if the census made them feel insecure, nobody told the government.

Bhavani Fonseka, lawyer with the city-based Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), said the census was both ‘ambiguous and arbitrary.’’ She asked: “what would the government do with the information collected?’’

The government is yet to answer that but has instead forwarded a rationale that the good and the bad had to be separated before the LTTE could begin manipulating innocent Tamilians, using them to attack civilians.

The defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said nearly 7,000 “outsiders’’ had made Colombo their home in August alone. “This is not normal. This is an abnormal thing. It causes a lot of problems. Among other things it causes a lot of security risks,’’ he said.

But the census would have raised left over fears of eviction from last year.

In June 2007, nearly 400 Tamils were picked up in midnight raids in Colombo, dumped in buses and dispatched to their native towns. The eviction order was withdrawn following a Supreme Court directive in response to a case filed by CPA.

On Sunday, the government only picked up names, addresses and telephone numbers. Those who stood in the long, nervous queues will hope that it’s not their turn next.