My Investigative Project on Mandapam Camp

Posted in General by Karthick RM on August 31, 2009

Submitted as a part of coursework at Asian College of Journalism


The activity on the street was dull. There were some shops on both sides of the road, albeit without many customers. Vendors were squatting on the road, selling fruits and vegetables, though there were not many takers. An old woman had her cart parked in a shade and was swatting away her customers of the day – flies that were hovering over her fruits. Only the tea shop was a bit crowded. Yet, the people there spoke in low voices, as if they were under close scrutiny. The aura of pathos in the whole locality was unmistakable, it hit you in your face. Welcome to the Mandapam refugee camp.

The Mandapam refugee camp, which is at a distance of about 25 km from the temple town of Rameswaram, was originally built to accommodate Indian Tamils from Sri Lanka who were repatriated to India after the island country gained independence. After the civil war erupted in Sri Lanka, the Mandapam camp served as a transit camp for Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. In his book Between Fear and Hope, Dr. Suryanarayan states that “geographical contiguity, easy availability of boats and ethnic affinities made Tamil Nadu a natural choice when large sections of Sri Lankan Tamils were forced to leave their country.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 1967 Protocol pertaining to refugee law defines a refugee as a person “who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” The protocol also has regulations for the treatment of refugees by the host country. However, with India not being a signatory to the UN convention on refugee law, there are no concrete law for refugees as such in India. The only instances where the UNHCR could intervene was in cases of forced repatriation. Thus, as far as the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are concerned, they are almost entirely at the mercy of the Indian state.

The Mandapam refugee camp is strictly off limits to the media and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). The constant patrolling of the police and the omnipresence of the Q branch make it almost impossible for outsiders to enter the camp without being noticed. Photography or videography anywhere near the locality is frowned upon. “The tight vigilance is mainly due to security reasons,” said A. Arunachalam, Assistant District Collector, Mandapam, “This is the government policy towards all camps and this one is no exception.” However, he admitted that the security in camps hosting Sri Lankan Tamils was tighter owing to a strong fear by the government of possible militant infiltration. Dr. V. Suresh of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties alleged that the government was not willing to allow NGOs or the press or even human rights organizations into the camps because the conditions prevailing in the camps were so pathetic that it would provoke a scandal. A policeman who did not want to named said that post-Rajiv Gandhi assassination, there has been considerable paranoia among the state authorities about a possible presence of Tamil Tigers among the refugees and hence, there are restrictions on people entering the camp.

After the refugees arrive in Rameswaram, they are taken to the collector’s office and registered. Meanwhile, the intelligence and the Q branch do a background check of the person. If the person is suspected to have militant links, he or she is sent to the special “camp” for militants at Chengalpet. The Mandapam camp then serves as a transit camp. Most of the refugees, after a brief period of stay, are sent to camps across the state. There are currently 117 camps across the state which are home to over 78000 refugees. The Organization for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR) plays an important role in coordinating the process of settlement of refugees in these camps. Even after the refugees are transferred to the various camps, they are under constant scrutiny and are routinely subjected to checks.

The most closely monitored camp, of course, is the Mandapam camp. This camp is currently home to over 3200 refugees. When Dr. Abdul Kalam visited Rameswaram on the 2 October, 2008, each and every house at the camp was checked and the police were on rounds the entire day. This routine is repeated every time a celebrity visits the city.

Sukumar*, a native of Jaffna, said that it was only because conditions back home were far worse that he put up with difficulties here. “It is impossible to live with honour here, but at least, we get to live,” he said. He accused the officials of high-handedness and rude behaviour while dealing with the refugees. “I have seen cattle treated better,” he said.

42-year old Sukumar, who is married with 3 children, ran a trading business back in Jaffna with a decent income. He fled Sri Lanka for India in November 2006, after the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers began worsening. He spent a sum of 5 lakhs to get to Rameswaram. “I lost all my property,” he said, “I have now been reduced to a status of a beggar.” He then added, with unconcealed pride in his voice, that there are no beggars in Jaffna.

Housing is a chief problem for the refugees. While the houses are barely sufficient to accommodate the refugees, most of them are in poor condition. These houses, most of which are 40 to 50 years old, have feeble walls and improper roofs, making them all the more miserable during the rainy season. Sanitation is yet another problem. The camp does not have adequate toilets. Sudhakaran*, a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee who works at the ADC’s office, said that long queues outside the toilets every morning has become a hallmark of the camp. The most affected by the absence of adequate toilets are the women, who find it most difficult to relieve themselves anywhere else.

The financial problem compounds all other problems faced by the refugees. There are about 980 families in the camp. The head of the family is allotted a sum of Rs. 400 while every other adult is allotted a sum of Rs. 288. The first child is provided a sum of Rs. 180 and other children are provided a sum of Rs. 90 each. 12 kg of rice and 5 litres of oil are provided to every family. But many refugees allege that it is hardly sufficient to meet daily expenses. The refugees are allowed to go to nearby locations to earn their wages, after registering the details of their work with the authorities concerned. Most of the people working in the stalls and as vendors on the street leading to the camp are Sri Lankan Tamils. Many also find employment as helpers in fisheries nearby, as housemaids or as daily wage labourers. They have to return to the camp by 8 PM.

Wilson* (35), a merchant from Vavuniya, lamented that the basic amenities provided in the camp were hopeless. “The rice that is provided is so bad that some people actually sell it outside to buy better rice.” While telling that he and his family were not used this kind of “cheap food,” he added ruefully that even dogs get better rice back in Eelam. He said that the authorities were reluctant to let outsiders inside the camp because it would bring out the government’s failures to light. “When people like Vaiko and Nedumaran were not allowed entry, how can journalists get in?” he asked.

Wilson also accused the authorities in the camp of corrupt practices. “We do not get the amount of oil that is due. Most often, we get a litre less.” Sukumar, who agreed with Wilson’s allegation, said that the sentries at the gate frequently extorted money from those who had gone out to earn. “They know who is working where and get a commission accordingly. They don’t even spare the fruit vendors,” he said. Wilson remarked that “Back home, we try to give to the needy even if we have less. Over here, the politics and society has become so morally corrupt that people steal even from the poorest of poor, even if they have enough.” He also said that back home, “Annan” would have had the corrupt shot.

The admiration that Wilson and Sukumar had for “Annan” – Velupillai Prabhakaran – was evident from the deferential manner in which they referred to him. Both held the Tamil Tigers in high regard. “It is sad that they had to resort to violence, but what other option is there?” asked Wilson. He also said that many “valiant freedom fighters” had given up their lives for the sake of the Tamil society and that it was impossible to think of a future for the Eelam Tamils without taking the Tigers into consideration. Sukumar said that most of the refugees supported the Tamil Tigers heart of hearts and wanted Prabhakaran to emerge victorious in the conflict. They were afraid to come out in the open for that would lead to interrogation and possible detention by the authorities. When asked whether the refugees were not aware of the fact that the Tamil Tigers were an organization that received less support even among Tamil Nadu’s political parties, Sukumar replied sarcastically “Where did these political parties go when our houses were bombed?”

It is hard for the refugees to not have such leanings. According to Dr. Suryanarayan, “Every refugee is a tale of human suffering. Every refugee is an illustration of man’s inhumanity to man.” He contends that the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are a product of a particular political process and it would be naïve to expect them not to possess strong political opinions. Their resentment against the state that has offered them succour is credited to the fact that they are currently leading lives that are far below the standards they once enjoyed.

K.K. Mathivathanam, Co-ordinator of the OfERR centre at the Mandapam camp, had a more charitable view of the Indian government. “Despite India not being a signatory to any refugee law, the fact that it is allowing sanctuary the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees speaks volumes about its magnanimity,” he said. Claiming that the refugees ought to be grateful to India, he said that some of the grievances were overplayed. “While it is true that the sudden change of standards is difficult for many to adapt to, we should realise that we have come from a poor country to a poorer country. We cannot expect to be served biryani in a country where there is no rice for many of its own citizens.” He pointed out that there were no starvation deaths in any of the camps while there were many cases across the country and that while water supply was a problem in many parts of the state, it was never a problem in the camps.

Accepting that sanitation and housing was a problem, he said that OfERR was taking all efforts possible to find a solution. “We are also conducting coaching classes, right from the primary level to the graduate level. We facilitate self-help groups and promote adult literacy. OfERR also offers counselling and various medical and health programmes.” Claiming that there were not many instances of harassment by authorities, he said that it would be immature to expect the state to allow a free run of militants.

Mathivathanam felt that it would be great if the refugees were allowed to apply for Indian citizenship. “After all, despite all inadequacies, one can find peace here. We can be sure that houses wont be bombed, that our women and children are safe. We can sleep knowing that we will wake up to the next day. We can say that we are Tamils without fear.”

A young girl, probably in her late teens, walked out of the gate of the camp. Wearing a red churidar, with a wheatish complexion and her waist length hair let loose, she was strikingly pretty. She smiled at the old woman with the cart, but it was a lifeless smile. Her brown eyes revealed something else. They revealed tragedy.

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