Turning Tamil swords into Oriya ploughshares


One is a member of the Malkangiri District Cricket Association and custodian of its cricket kit. Another, a minor contractor in a public works project. A third runs a tiny shop. They’re all pretty rooted in Malkangiri. Not very different from any other small town group. Except that this one consists of a bunch of former Sri Lankan Tamil warriors settled in deep rural Orissa in one of the country’s poorest districts where they’ve been nearly 20 years.

Many speak fluent Oriya and Hindi and can converse or understand English well. When they came here in 1990, Tamil was about all they spoke in a land completely alien to them in language, culture and geography. "They’re more or less locals now, more or less independent, more or less on their own," says Malkangiri Collector Nitin Bhanudas Jawale. (He is the president of the district cricket association.) Some have married locals and their children go to school here. There were close to a couple of thousand of them when they came here in 1990, belonging to several anti-LTTE Tamil groups. Now there’s less than a hundred left, most of them erstwhile trained fighters of the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF).

"We are glad to be in Orissa," says S. Prabhakaran, their leader here and a former ENDLF commander. "And particularly in Malkangiri. These are a gentle and accommodating people. There are many languages spoken in this town and ours is accepted as one more. We do not feel like strangers. We have more friends here than anywhere else." This wasn’t always so.

In 1993, I stumbled across this group accidentally, intrigued by the sound of Tamil voices in interior Orissa. That too, in this overwhelmingly tribal district. They were in a refugee camp full of awful tin-roofed structures that were beyond endurance in a region where summer temperatures can cross 45{+0} C. Dismal conditions even saw the Tamils stage protest hunger strikes. All in all, they were in a bad state. But how did a bunch of Tamil fighters from Sri Lanka end up in rural Orissa? The withdrawal of the IPKF saw the LTTE decimate the leadership and top cadres of other Tamil groups in Sri Lanka. Many left the war-ravaged nation, including these fighters who were evacuated aboard the vessel Tipu Sultan by Indian forces.

They would have landed at Chennai but were denied permission by the then Karunanidhi government. So they were finally off-loaded at Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. After which a generous gesture by then Orissa Chief Minister Biju Patnaik saw them get sanctuary in Malkangiri. Biju Patnaik remains their hero. "He saved us," says S. Prabhakaran whose entire family was massacred in the anti-Tamil violence of 1984 in Sri Lanka when he was just 16.

The state of their camp was pretty dismal for the first few years. Many dropped out, some of the other groups went back to Lanka after striking deals with Colombo and some left for other places in India. Now there are just about 65 people left here and maybe a few more in other parts of the district. Almost all of them originally from Trincomallee.

"We had problems of food, language and communication. Those days, there were no cell phones. We had to take a bus to go somewhere and find an STD booth. Worst thing was the climate." Unused to dry heat and often lethal temperatures, cooped into sheds with tin roofs and sides, and getting no more than Rs. 150 a month per person, they had a hard time of it. Nor were they trained to do anything other than fight a war. "All we could do here was work as labourers," says S. Bala, now busy in the District Cricket Association. (He is also an active footballer and goalkeeper with a local side). Some also worked as drivers, fruit sellers or petty vendors.

Over years, many acquired new skills. Like Sounder Rajan who "came here when I was 32 and learned carpentry in Malkangiri." Many of the other fighters were in their teens or early 20s and so have spent almost half their lives here. Bala is now a supervisor at the operations of a local contractor. Others like Yoganathan worked as labourers (he married an Oriya woman and their child goes to an Oriya medium school.) Today, they live in small but decent houses and are fully a part of Malkangiri town. (Some park their cycles and motorcycles in the old sheds they once lived in.) "They’re really integrated into the community," says Collector Nitin Jawale. "They’ve married locals and created livelihoods for themselves." Some of their children go to school here, some to Bangalore where their leaders have established one for all Sri Lankan Tamil children in India.

They’ve even built a small temple here by themselves. "And this one could well be the first Ganesh temple in the whole Koraput region," says Gopi Krishna Patnaik, Malkangiri reporter for the Oriya daily Samaj. "Everybody uses it," smiles Prabhakaran as he shows us around the temple. "Oriyas, Telugus, and others, too."

The once-young fighters are now mostly family men and entrenched in Malkangiri town. A part of them, though, tugs towards another home, another time. They live here happily but find the idea of endless exile upsetting. They were opposed to the LTTE but are obviously very worried about the fate of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka today. The more so as they see no one standing between their people and the Sri Lankan army. Will they ever think of going back? "We are here now and we love Malkangiri where everybody, people and officials have been so very good to us. But we will wait for the word of our leader Gnana Rajan (based in Bangalore and Chennai) on what to do. We will do as our leader says."

The way the one-time, once-brash warriors have turned their swords into ploughshares and woven themselves into the community is touching. They are at home here. But, as Prabhakaran says: "you do dream of the other home. The motherland is always the motherland."

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