A heaving north-easterly is sweeping in from the Bay of Bengal across the Pamban Bridge on India’s southern peninsula, and pilgrims are pouring into Rameswaram Island, one of the subcontinent’s holiest places. The Ramayana, a 24,000-verse epic dear to Hindu nationalists from the north of the country, has it that Lord Rama’s monkey army built a bridge here to rescue his wife Sita from Ravana, the king of Lanka (a hero to Tamils in the south). If ever it was a land corridor across the Palk Strait, Rama Setu, also known as Adam’s Bridge, is now just a chain of limestone shoals and sand bars stretching from Dhanushkodi (“Land’s End”) at the east of Rameswaram to Mannar in north-eastern Sri Lanka.
The series of islets has been a lifeline for Sri Lankan Tamils fleeing violence in their homeland. For three decades, beginning in 1983, more than 300,000 sought refuge in Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state, as the Tamil national liberation war raged. Ten years after the Sri Lankan armed forces emerged victorious, 100,000 of the island’s Tamil-speaking minority remain here. By law they are considered “illegal migrants” and are denied citizenship. The Indian Foreigners Act gives the government extraordinary powers to regulate their movement.
Tamil refugees, perhaps a third of whom are “Hill Country” or “Up-Country” Tamils – descendants of Indians transported in the 19th century by the British as indentured labour for Sri Lankan tea plantations – are tolerated, but they have few rights. And without a passport, it is illegal to leave the country. The majority, about 60,000, reside in more than 100 refugee camps, where they are under the surveillance of Q Branch – the intelligence wing of the Tamil Nadu police, originally founded to deal with the Naxalite movement and later refashioned to tackle Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups operating in the state.
Mandapam on the mainland side of the Pamban Bridge is the most secure refugee camp in Tamil Nadu. It serves as a transit camp and quarantine station. Near the gate are two nervous parents. They have been stateless for three decades and now their 25-year-old son Siva* – who, like 15,000 others, was born here yet also remains without citizenship – has been incarcerated in the “special camp” at Trichy, four hours away. “Q Branch came to look for my son and told us that he was planning to leave the country with a fake passport”, the mother says. “He tried to go three years ago but he gave up that plan. I told them that.”
“Special camp” is special lingo; an invention creating categories of people who can be imprisoned after being bailed by a court and of penitentiaries that are no longer prisons, but institutions in which refugees (and foreigners) can nevertheless be made to “reside” indefinitely. It is the legacy of a formally ended war still being waged against a defeated population. “The inmates of these camps exist under a cloak of invisibility due to their unique status, with even the basic rights enjoyed by the ordinary prisoners in other detention facilities denied to them”, Sreekumar Panicker Kodiyath and Sheethal Padathu Veettil wrote in a 2017 Refugee Survey Quarterly piece. “Despite their refugee status, they are kept insulated from the outside world through extraordinary security measures with inspection or visits to such camps generally denied to everyone, including members of human rights institutions or organizations.”
Despite the high security, we were granted entry to Trichy in the new year. South of town, a dirt road leads to the central prison, of which the special camp is basically a sub-jail. A high grey wall rises from the ground at its perimeter. Outside the large blue iron door at the entrance, a booth is staffed by guards, police and, today, some sort of government administrator. Inside, beyond more security screenings, are a yard and several rows of concrete units housing the prisoners. Their physical and mental health is poor and deteriorating. Each has an allowance of just 100 rupees (two Australian dollars) per day – they pool the money and give it to a prison-appointed liaison to get supplies from local traders. But it’s not enough even for the necessities. While they have relative freedom of movement behind the walls, the uncertainty of their situation, the monotony of the passing months and the weakness in their bodies weigh on their minds. So too does the knowledge that their families are struggling without them.
For eight months, Siva has been incarcerated. “We don’t have proper food. We have to cook, but most days we never eat breakfast”, he says through a translator. “We cook lunch and we save that up for dinner as well. Our family members don’t have any proper income either.” Siva thought about getting out of the country several years ago after befriending a Tamil from France who encouraged him to flee if he were to secure a good life. But he says he was ripped off by an agent who promised him a passport.
“I paid initial instalments to an agent, but the agent never did the work”, Siva says. “That was three years ago. The agent said he’d give it back. But he never did. In May , he called me and said he’d give me the money, but he didn’t show up – only Q Branch showed up. They investigated me at the Q Branch office for two days. Then they put me in Puzhal jail [Chennai] for two months. Since then I’ve been here in Trichy.”
One of his few consolations is listening to the compositions of decorated Chennai music director A.R. Rahman. But the monotony of life and the stress placed on his family are eating away at him.
Sonny is another locked up for allegedly conspiring to leave the country without valid travel documents. He has been here for six years. In 2014, he was part of a group arrested for contemplating sailing to Australia. They were kept in Puzhal jail for three months before receiving bail and being released. “As soon as we walked out of the court, Q Branch put us in a police van and took us to the special camp”, he says. “The case is still running – under the Passport Act. They didn’t catch us on the high seas. They caught us in a temple, alleging that we were planning to leave the country and charged us with planning to travel without a valid passport. We only thought about going, but never executed the plan.
“Mentally, I’m a dead person. I can’t describe it in words. Sometimes I miss my mother. Sometimes I am lonely. My mother is in Tenkasi camp [in the west of the state]. She has no one to look after her. She has leg issues and can’t walk properly. I save half of my allowance and send it to her so that she can look after herself. I skip two meals a day most of the time to save money. I cook one meal a day and I get food from my friends. It’s been two years since I saw my mother. Her financial and health situation means that she can’t come and see me.”
When Ceylon gained independence from British colonial rule in 1948, attempts to articulate a new multi-ethnic national identity foundered in the face of an increasingly confident Buddhist revivalism among a politically organised section of the island’s majority Sinhalese population. In the newly-established democracy, the nation would not be composed of all citizens, but rather would be constituted by one ethno-religious group elevated to the first rank. Over the next 25 years, “national development” increasingly excluded of other groups from national life, constitutionally affirming the privileged place of the Sinhala language and the Buddhist religion, while marginalising the Tamil-speaking minority, who are predominantly Hindu, with smaller Catholic and Muslim communities.
Like Hindutva in India or Zionism in Palestine, Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism concocted a fantastic narrative about a chosen land for a chosen people; a beleaguered island in sea of hostile forces; a national destiny fulfilled through combatting fifth columns and cleansing the land of infiltrators. Up to one million Hill Country Tamils were disenfranchised under the 1949 Citizenship Act and several hundred thousand “repatriated” to India. Discrimination in education and state employment became the norm, as did the colonisation of Eelam Tamil lands (in the north and east of Sri Lanka). Pogroms were organised by the cadres of the Sinhala political parties and with police and military support – or at least the authorities’ blind eye. Sinhala was made the sole language of government administration. Fostering Buddhism became a goal of the state.
In the first quarter of a century after independence, all attempts failed on the part of Tamil parliamentary representatives to achieve a federated state or equal rights. In the early 1970s, young Tamils began to abandon the Gandhian-inspired “ahimsa” (non-violent) movement; those in the northern and eastern homelands (where Tamils are a large majority of the population) concluded that their security and prosperity could be guaranteed only through a separate state of their own: Tamil Eelam. Teenagers began launching attacks against police as an incipient guerrilla struggle developed. Armed organisations proliferated.
Then came 1983’s Black July – to that point the most brutal outburst of discriminating violence in the island’s history. Beginning in Colombo and spreading to other parts of the country, state-sponsored riots of Sinhalese Buddhists killed up to 3,000 Tamils, destroyed thousands of Tamil businesses and left 100-150,000 homeless and internally displaced. This wasn’t just an assault on flesh and property. It was violence against any vestiges left of the idea that multi-ethnic social cohesion on the island could be achieved through reasonable means. The orgy of brutality marked the opening of the Tamil national liberation war, as thousands rushed to take up arms in self-defence.
India and Tamil Nadu cast a shadow over the conflict in more ways than hosting refugees. During the early stages of Tamil militancy, Tamil Nadu politicians and the central government of Indira Gandhi aided Eelam Tamil armed groups operating out of southern India – in part because of local sympathies, in part because, while India had been moving closer to the Soviet Union in foreign policy, the Sri Lankan government after 1977 shifted decisively to the US, which generated anxieties in New Delhi about encroachments into its perceived sphere of influence. If Colombo was becoming a thorn in New Delhi’s shoe, India repaid the discomfort in kind. The Research and Analysis Wing, India’s primary espionage agency, encouraged, trained and armed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam cadres from the 1970s.
The Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, the Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front and the Tigers all opened training camps on Indian soil and cultivated patrons among different political parties in the south. The Tigers ultimately gained supremacy among the armed factions and built a vast supply network across Tamil Nadu to support the war effort at home. It was one of the most well-organised political operations in the state. “After Black July, Tigers and their sympathisers must have travelled to every village in Tamil Nadu”, a local activist says, relating a memory from his childhood in a small village near the western border with Kerala. “They brought with them photos of the riots and stories of the massacres and generated a huge amount of support”.
After Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her own bodyguards in 1984, her son Rajiv distanced the government from the Tamil militants and attempted to play a brokering role in Sri Lanka. Under duress, Sri Lankan president J. R. Jayewardene soon agreed to lift the siege, signing the Indo-Sri-Lankan accord in July, withdrawing the army from the Tamil homelands and handing control to an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). But the accord was doomed from the outset. In heavying both warring parties into reluctant acceptance, Gandhi overplayed his hand. Eelam War One was over, but the Tigers’ refusal to accommodate the occupying forces’ demand for disarmament led the so-called peacekeepers into a counterinsurgency operation in which they gravely underestimated the tenacity and fighting power of the LTTE. Tamil Eelam became India’s Vietnam. By the time they were forced into a humiliating retreat and withdrawal starting in late 1989, the occupiers had lost more than 1,000 troops. Up to 10,000 Eelam Tamils had been killed and stories of rapes, massacres and disappearances by the “peacekeepers” spread throughout both Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu.
The Tigers’ position in India was now precarious. “In 1989, when the IPKF was withdrawing, Tamil militant groups who supported the intervention were withdrawing with them.” Kanan, a former member of the Tigers political wing and a special camp prisoner for six years is sitting in a bare room in southern Chennai recounting the time. “The government here distrusted the militants arriving in Tamil Nadu”, he says through a translator. “They didn’t know who was who, so they decided to detain them. Five camps were set up – this in a way was the first step to the special camps. In the initial stages the camps were more like prisons, but the authorities screened people and gradually let them out. At the same time, they started searching out members of the Tigers across the state and began detaining them separately.”
The LTTE still received support and was popular in south India. But the central government turned decisively against the group. In January 1991, New Delhi dismissed Muthuvel Karunanidhi’s Dravida Munetra Kazhagam Tamil Nadu state government because of its inability, or unwillingness, to dismantle the Tiger network. For its part, the Tiger leadership never forgave Gandhi. An LTTE suicide bomber assassinated the former prime minister in Tamil Nadu in May 1991 during the national general election campaign. This shifted the scales of support in the south and led to the group being proscribed as a terrorist organisation.
“Speaking in May 1991, the newly elected Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa said, ‘I appeal, rather demand, that the centre [New Delhi] should take immediate action so that all Sri Lankan Tamils are sent back’”, noted Demelza Jones in a 2012 piece for the journal Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. “Child refugees’ access to education was rescinded, international NGOs were barred from accessing the refugee camps, high-security ‘special camps’ (de facto prisons where human rights abuses were allegedly rife) were introduced for those refugees suspected of militant involvement, and a large-scale repatriation program was initiated.” The Tiger network was systematically dismantled and refugees now found life more difficult under sweeping surveillance, with greater restrictions on their activities and amid a deterioration of camp living conditions as the state government “encouraged” or coerced more than 50,000 refugees to return to Sri Lanka over the next five years.
“After Gandhi’s death, they created Chengalpattu sub-jail”, Kannan says, the shrapnel wounds across his torso and arms still noticeable. To break the LTTE’s network, more than 2,000 people identified as Tigers were detained. After 1991, Kanan says, the Tigers shut down operations for about five years, before resuming smuggling, primarily in medicines. They could no longer operate openly. At the peak of the special camp detainments, thousands were locked up. A report by the Refugee Council in London claimed that more than 4,000 militants and their families – from the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front – were held in one camp alone in 1999. Those numbers have dwindled since the military defeat of the Tigers. “Over time, in the special camps, they started bringing in non-LTTE people for passport offences”, says Kanan. “Post-2009, a lot were brought in for trying to leave the country.”
Pugalenthi is rifling through files bundled in manila folders tied with string and shoelaces in an upstairs office near the Madras High Court in Chennai. The cramped room is ramshackle, full to the brim, but the legal advocate seems to know exactly where things are. On the wall above his desk are pictures of Babasaheb Ambedkar, an anti-caste campaigner and chief architect of the Indian constitution, and Singaravelar, who formed India’s first trade union in 1918 and was a founding member of the Communist Party of India seven years later. Between them are portraits of Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara and Mao Zedong.
Pugalenthi says Trichy remains open only to justify the ban on the Tigers. There are now only about 60 people held in the last of the operational camps. More than a dozen are not Tamils, but inmates from other parts of the world. However, by keeping Trichy operational, the government can still claim to be finding militants and processing them, which gives weight to the case to extend the Tigers’ proscription. Why does India want the ban continually extended? “To keep the Eelam Tamils and Tamil Nadu Tamils in a controlled state”, Pugalenthi says. As in so many places around the world, the bogey of terrorism justifies the machinery of state repression that is used more broadly on the rest of the population. Siva’s mother agrees. “The Q Branch here – for them we’re a gift for meeting their targets. Whenever they need cases, they come target our people”, she says. “No one can raise their voice. Otherwise they threaten them with the special camp. After Siva was arrested, some people didn’t want to talk to us out of fear they would be targeted.”
In the special camp, the men do their best to resist. “We have asked the authorities to let us out and told them that we will fight the case – but let us out. We have protested. We have tried to take our own lives. But the authorities don’t take our plight seriously”, says Sonny. “At least once every three months we have held a protest action. Once, we decided to go on hunger strike and we did that for 22 days straight – about three years ago. After we all started fainting, they took us to the hospital and gave us glucose. There were no negotiations; our demands were not met. The last attempt was two months ago, when 20 of us tried to take our own lives by swallowing sleeping tablets. The sad part was that we all fainted, and the police weren’t even prepared to come in to rescue us, they were so slow.”
The Tamil inmates connect their situation to the broader struggle for Tamil rights and a Tamil homeland. They say that they are at breaking point and are planning an indefinite hunger strike. In a letter to the authorities demanding to be released, they write: “We will either get out of this place, or we will die here”.
* Some names have been changed in this story.