Event ReportsPublished on Jul 28, 2017
Need to pay more attention to Tamil diaspora

The Tamil Diaspora is a largely poor and forgotten group of people of Indian origin living overseas. Tamils abroad number around five million and constitute 25 percent of Indians living abroad, yet not enough attention has been paid to them or their welfare, according to Dr. V. Suryanarayan, former Director of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.

Initiating an interaction on the topic “Tamil Diaspora” at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai, on 22 July, Dr. Suryanarayan said there is also no major written work on the Tamil Diaspora as such. He recalled how in the 1790s, the first batch of Tamil labour went to Sri Lanka to build roads. In context, he narrated the background and context of Tamil migrations from India to other nations under the common British colonial rule — both in the Asian and African continents.

To be a Tamil outside India presents two complex facets, he said. One is the retention of Tamil culture in the place of residence and two is the adaptation to the local culture and norms. Although some resistance and inhibition was on display on occasions, largely overseas Tamils absorbed overseas these facets into their daily lives scrupulously. He also noted that Tamils who have taken up citizenship overseas do not find it prudent to return to India.

Dual citizenship

Dr. Suryanarayan observed that it was difficult to distinguish between overseas Indians and overseas Tamils. Complexities arise as to the ethnicity of children born to an Indian-origin parent and a foreigner. On the growing clamour for legitimisation of dual citizenship, he stated that as External Affairs Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao opposed dual citizenship as he felt it promoted dual loyalty. In case of a conflict with other countries, the loyalty of Indians who would hold citizenship could come under intense scrutiny and could become a genuine reason to suspect their loyalty to India.

However, Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the BJP to which the latter belonged, were in favour of granting dual citizenship. The idea did not fructify but it did lead to the Government of India’s acceptance of the concept of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI). The 1955 Citizenship Act which is to be amended soon would provide for persecuted Hindus from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other neighbouring countries to seek refuge in India and citizenship, subsequently, he pointed out.

However, Dr. Suryanarayan observed that the proposed policy suffered from two drawbacks. One, instead of addressing the needs of all ‘persecuted minorities’ of Indian origin in the neighbourhood, the use of the term ‘persecuted Hindus’ could mean that only a certain section of Indian origin people would stand to benefit. Two, it excludes Tamil-speaking people from Sri Lanka who came in as refugees since the ethnic war broke out in that country in the Eighties. They seek Indian citizenship and do not want to go back. The speaker strongly felt that this issue must be addressed, and must not be allowed to become a lost cause.

Dr. Suryanarayan noted that problems of Indians overseas differed from country to country. In some cases, local leaders were outright hostile to their Indian populations.  As free India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru conceded in Parliament that he couldn’t do much to help overseas Indians in Commonwealth countries. Dr. Suryanarayan observed that incumbent External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had won a lot of praise, including from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for her pro-active role in addressing the needs of Indians overseas.

Tamils in Sri Lanka

According to Dr. Suryanarayan, overseas Tamils took Nehru’s statement seriously and took steps on their own to address their needs. In context, he referred to Tamils in Sri Lanka. There are two categories of Tamils in in that country, namely Indian Origin Tamils (IOT) and Sri Lankan Tamils. Tamil is one of the national and official languages in Sri Lanka. At the time of Independence, Indian Tamils were more in number than the other.

Dr. Suryanarayan also noted that Sri Lankan Tamils do not associate themselves with Indian Tamils. As such they do not participate in the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), an annual festival organised by the Government of India to celebrate the contributions of overseas Indians to their motherland. Similarly they aren’t accorded OCI status. However, the IOT, locally known as Upcountry Tamils, share a strong association with India. When Nehru went to Sri Lanka pre-Independence, many Tamil labourers would wait for hours to see him.

After the end of the Sirima-Shastri Pact, riots were engineered in Tamil plantations to evict Indians from Sri Lanka. Though the Indian missions in Colombo and Kandy did their best to help them out, the Tamil Nadu Government, then with the late M.G. Ramachandran as Chief Minister, was completely disinterested in extending support. Nobody in India is even speaking for the Upcountry Tamils because they are poor and are mostly Dalits. In these times of India-Sri Lanka bonhomie, Dr. Suryanarayanan stated that Indian diplomats can step up and do more for their wellbeing.

Boosting political image

Dr. Suryanarayan said that Tamil was one of the four official languages of Singapore, with seven per cent of the city-State’s population being Indian. Singapore-Tamils as a whole are doing well and do not expect anything from the Indian Government. However they do face some problems, which have to be sorted out by themselves.

In Malaysia, primary school education is permitted in Tamil, but for higher classes, it is in the local Malay language. About nine percent of the Malaysian population is Indian, and of them 75 percent are Tamils.  The plantations in Malaysia disintegrated and became condominiums, golf courses and the Tamil labour who worked there were not compensated. Riots between Malays and Indians broke out in 2002 but there was no concern in India about this.

Dr. Suryanarayan also opined that many Tamils go to Malaysia as tourists and overstay there as illegal workers, and get caught. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak stated that the status of 33,000 Tamils who came to Malaysia as tourists is unknown. Malaysia also does not recognise degrees from many universities India. This creates additional problems for Tamils who go/seek work opportunities there.

In this context, Dr. Suryanarayan recalled how Malaysian Prime Minister Razak called on Tamil cinema’s superstar Rajnikanth during a recent visit to India/Chennai, and said that it was aimed at boosting his own political image with the local Tamil constituency back home. As may be recalled, Rajnikanth’s recent film Kabaali centred on the travails of Indian Tamil estate labour community, and was also shot mostly in that country. Many Malaysians like Hindi and Tamil films and actors.

Cultural assimilation

Dr. Suryanarayan said Myanmar adopted cultural assimilation as a Government policy. When a Tamil student is admitted to a Myanmarese school, he has to change his name to an acceptable version in the local society. He referred to the flood of Indians, mostly Tamil refugees returning home under duress from the local government in the Sixties. They had started what is known as the busy ‘Burma Bazaar’ marketplace in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai, he recalled.

He recalled how before Indians were thrown out by the Myanmarese junta in the Sixties, Tamils and other Indians used to populate and prosper in the national capital of Rangoon. There were also many Indian academics in the University of Rangoon. Later on, a new law barred Indian students from university admission. This led to substantial reduction in the number of professors and students from India.

In context, Dr. Suryanarayan also stated that Tamil Muslims played an important role in the Islamisation of Indonesia.

Comparative study

Overall Southeast Asia is an interesting laboratory for a comparative study of overseas Indians and Chinese. Chettiars, the wealthy business community from southern Tamil Nadu, brought back profits from investments in these countries and developed Chettinad while the Chinese who invested in these countries developed local stakes in such investments.

Dr. Suryanarayan opined that Gujaratis and Punjabis were the most successful among Indians overseas while Tamils mostly lagged far behind. In conclusion, Dr. Suryanarayan stated that the interest in Tamil Nadu on the welfare of Tamil Diaspora was and continues to be very low. The study of Tamil Diaspora needs further research as it is an interesting and fascinating subject, not wholly understood and appreciated.

This report is prepared by Arjun Sundar, Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.