Written by S Venkatanarayanan and Cheran Rudhramoorthy
The resettled Indian-origin Tamils from Sri Lanka in the remote Katchal Islands in Andaman and Nicobar began an indefinite relay hunger strike on November 21, 2020, demanding proper resettlement and basic livelihood facilities, which were denied to them for the past five decades. Largely unnoticed or unreported by the media in India, Sri Lanka and among the Tamil diaspora, the strike has continued for over two months, without any response from the Andaman and Nicobar administration.
The British colonisers — to support their plantation economy in Sri Lanka — took Tamil people from India as indentured labourers during the 19th century. The migration process entailed huge suffering and many lives were lost. Their travails continue. The rigorous provisions of 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act denied citizenship to a majority of Indian-origin Tamils in Sri Lanka — only 17 per cent of them were given citizenship – rendering many stateless. The Sirimavo-Shastri Pact in 1964 repatriated around 5.25 lakh Indian-origin Tamils from Sri Lanka, and the Indira Gandhi-Sirimavo Bhandarnaike agreement in 1974 repatriated another 1,50,000. Those repatriated were settled in various plantations in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were prioritised in Indian resettlement policy. From 1949 until 1952, partition refugees for West Bengal were settled in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In 1952, the government came out with a colonisation scheme based on the Shivdasani report (titled “Possibilities of Colonisation and Development of the Andaman and the Nicobar Islands”). By the time Tamils were repatriated to India, the resettlement plan was already in force along with a special area development plan for underdeveloped areas. Based on the above scheme, around 48 Tamil families (229 members) were settled on the tribal Island of Katchal in 1975, and given half an acre of land, accommodation and employment at rubber plantations. According to a recent survey, the resettled Tamil population has reached around 1,000 in Katchal.
Katchal, being declared Aboriginal Tribal Reserve Area (ATRA) under the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956 meant to protect indigenous Nicobari tribes from economic exploitation by outsiders, is still accessed by outsiders only through a special tribal pass. Without much forethought, Tamils were resettled here and were denied many basic rights to sustain themselves. Due to the failure of rubber plantations, the livelihood of the resettled population is at stake without much support system from the government. Further, the Andaman and Nicobar (Tribal Council) Regulation, 2009, protects Tribal political institutions, denying the resettled population any form of representative politics and access to many government schemes. The restrictions associated with an ATRA deny the settler population the opportunity to possess land holdings and engage in any commercial activities. With limited facilities for transport, education and health, the Tamil settler population faces stagnation. The Tribal Development Council of the A & N Islands is also demanding that the administration shift the resettled population to non-tribal areas, they see them as a threat to their traditional life and culture.
Though a policy decision was taken by the Lt Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2003 to shift the resettled Tamil population out of the Tribal Reserve Area, there has been no initiative taken regarding this. This, even after the High Court directed the administration to resettle the Tamil settlers in a non-tribal area. Further, with the Rubber Board Corporation (RBC) being closed down in November 2017, the resettled population is facing an existential crisis. The houses provided to the settlers are in a dilapidated condition and the RBC has warned the administration of the possibilities of untoward incidents if these are not repaired. The misery of Tamils, from the time of colonial migration, continues without any meaningful solution.
Venkatanarayanan teaches at Christ University, Bengaluru. He earlier taught at Andaman Law College, Port Blair. Rudhramoorthy is a professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology, University of Windsor, Canada