ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Repatriates and Refugees in Tamil Nadu

Learning to Live in the Colonies and Camps

Involuntary migration of Tamil repatriates and refugees from Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu began in the late 1960s and continued for several decades. The relief and rehabilitation offered to them by the Government of India was far from adequate, and life in the camps and colonies was hard and often unbearable. The unsuitable living conditions forced the migrants to learn how to deal with adversity and to assert agency in the midst of despair and hopelessness. Although life in the camps and colonies was difficult, migrants managed to carve out a space for themselves.

Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates and refugees came to Tamil Nadu involuntarily between 1968 and 2009. Each family has its own complex migration history, and their motives and sufferings cannot be studied in the context of a uniform narrative. They struggled for survival, and in the best cases, tried to build a new life in unfamiliar lands and under extremely adverse conditions. The Indian state offered funds, but state actors involved in relief and rehabilitation were largely absent from relief and assistance for these groups. Although repatriates and refugees constitute two distinct categories, they were confounded in coffee-table conversations, in the press, and even in the district collectors’ accounts and similar official reports.

This paper is based on the fieldwork conducted by the authors at intervals over three decades. Frank Heidemann conducted anthropological fieldwork in Tamil Nadu (participant observations, narrative interviews, and visual documentation) from 1982 to 1984, followed by restudies in the Nilgiris district in the 1990s, and in Madurai and the Andaman Islands in 2013 (Heidemann 1989, 1992, 1997, 2006, 2016). Abhijit Dasgupta (2016) conducted fieldwork with Sri Lankan refugees in four different sites in Tamil Nadu. Inferences made from this combined body of fieldwork have been signposted throughout the paper with “field observation.”

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Updated On : 22nd Feb, 2018
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