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Kerala is new sanctuary for fleeing Lankan Tamils

P Jayaram in Colombo

More and more Sri Lankan Tamils, fleeing their homes in the civil war ravaged Jaffna peninsula, are heading for a new haven overseas, the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Over 1,500 Jaffna Tamils have already bought property in different parts of the state, particularly in Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode and Palakkad districts and settled there permanently.

Only about 40 per cent of them have bought real estate legally, taking advantage of the government's loose definition of a non-resident Indian, or NRI. The definition includes all people of Indian origin.

But a majority of the migrants have bought property with forged certificates like that of birth and marriage.

''My aunt said she had to spend Rs 25,000 as bribes to officials to get these documents and there was no problem,'' said one Tamil.

Kerala's natural beauty, its high literacy rate and the Malayali's close cultural affinity to the Jaffna Tamils, despite their language difference, have all made the state an attractive destination for the Sri Lankan Tamils.

With the Lanka's conflict showing no sign of ending, the influx would continue, they added.

Earlier, Tamil Nadu was the main destination for the island's Tamils. Hundreds of thousands fled the state in the wake of the worst anti-Tamil riots in Lanka in July 1983.

However, the outpouring of sympathy and goodwill for the refugees did not last long and public mood in the state took an about turn following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam suicide bomber.

''The people in Tamil Nadu feel that we are all Tigers, the police and the intelligence agencies have also been harassing those settled in the state,'' said one source.

The movement to Kerala started around 1990. Though earlier attempts by various Tamil militant groups to enlist the support of the Malayalis for their separatist campaign received hardly any support, many Sri Lankan Tamils found the state ideal for living.

Some Tamil leaders, like assassinated Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front leader K Padmanabha, had taken up residence in Kerala for security reasons and also because they felt vulnerable to attacks by the LTTE in Tamil Nadu due to the political patronage the Tigers enjoyed there.

In fact, Padmanabha and about 20 of his associates were massacred in Madras while he was on his way back to Thiruvananthapuram from Delhi to join his family.

Padmanabha's successor, K Premachandran, has also lived in Kerala with his family. ''We very much liked the place. Compared to Madras, Thiruvananthapuram is smaller and cleaner. Apart from the language, the food, social customs, culture, everything is like ours,'' he said.

The social interaction between the Jaffna Tamils and the Keralites has already resulted in matrimonial alliances.

With most of the Jaffna families having one or more members in the Western countries, mostly as refugees, the high land prices in Kerala have not dissuaded them from moving into the state.

''The Jaffna Tamils call themselves Elavar, probably a corruption of the term Ezhava, an important caste in Kerala,'' one source said, adding that ''We are re-discovering our old links.''


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