The Sri Lankan government is all set to give citizenship to 28,500 Tamils of Indian origin now living in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu without any documents to prove their nationality.
Following consistent efforts by NGOs, officials and political leaders in Sri Lanka and India, the Sri Lankan cabinet has approved a proposal by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to grant citizenship to these "stateless" people, who had fled the island because of ethnic riots and war since 1977.
Many had left Sri Lanka with no documents of any kind to show that they were Sri Lankans.
At the initiative of the JVP, a parliamentary select committee was set up to supervise the implementation of the cabinet decision.
The lone Tamil MP from the JVP, Ramalingam Chandraekharan, of Indian origin, was made the chairman of the committee. He had visited Tamil Nadu and studied the problem of the refugees. He had come back convinced that the refugees would come back to Sri Lanka if only the legal hurdles were removed.
Earlier, the Sri Lankan Law Commission had suggested some amendments to the citizenship law to allow grant of citizenship to the people who did not have the right documents to prove that they had been continually resident in Sri Lanka from 1964 onwards - a basic requirement for citizenship by registration in the case of Indians.
Chandrasekharan said that in the second meeting of the select committee in January next year, officials from the Emigration and Immigration Department would be asked to state their requirements and say how best the government decision could be implemented.
"If all goes well, it should be enough to show a certificate from the Tamil Nadu government saying that one had landed on the shores of Tamil Nadu from Sri Lanka on a particular day," S.C. Chandrahasan, the head of Sri Lankan NGO, Offer, told IANS over phone from Chennai.
According to Chandrahasan, out of the 80,000 Sri Lankan Tamils living in the refugee camps in Tamil Nadu, 35,000 are Tamils of Indian Origin.
"They were originally from the tea plantations in central Sri Lanka and Colombo. But anti-Tamil riots from 1977 onwards had pushed them to the Tamil-speaking north and east of the island. Here they became poorly paid labourers in farms owned by Sri Lankan (indigenous) Tamils.
"When the war between government forces and the Tamil militants began in 1983, the Indian Tamils fled again - this time to India. But many of them had no documents to show that they were Sri Lankans," Chandrahansan said.
Sri Lanka had more than a million "stateless" Tamils of Indian origin at the time of independence in 1948, as neither Sri Lanka nor India would give accept them.
In the mid 1960s, a few hundred thousand were given Sri Lankan or Indian citizenship through bilateral agreements. But it was not until 1988 that most of the stateless in Sri Lanka were given citizenship through a political and electoral deal between the then president R. Premadasa and the Indian Tamil leader S. Thondaman.
In the meanwhile, and especially since 1983, war and anti-Tamil riots had driven thousands of the stateless away to India.
"We have been working on the citizenship matter since 2003 and had submitted suggestions backed by research. But things began to move only when the JVP took up the case and Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake followed suit," said Chandrahasan.
Political observers say that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government had to accept the JVP's suggestion, as it is dependent on the JVP for survival in parliament.