COLOMBO: The way Ceylonese politicians handled the Indian Tamil issue in the two decades prior to Ceylon’s independence, set the tone for the country’s post-independence political history marked by majoritarianism, says human rights activist, Dr.Rajan Hoole.
In a paper read out at a function to mark the 85th.anniversary of the Donoughmore constitution here late last month, Dr.Hoole said that Sinhalese members of the Legislative Council, Francis Molamure and D.S.Senanayake, defeated the principle of universal suffrage by introducing the criteria of domicile and literacy with a view to deny the vote to the Indian Tamil estate labor. This laid the foundation for ethnic and other forms of discrimination in post-independence Sri Lankan politics, he argues.
By the time of the Donoughmore proposals (1928-29), an estimated 70 to 80 per cent of the Indian Tamil population were born in Ceylon and would have, in time, qualified for domicile. And their right to be treated as equal British subjects in Ceylon was part of the 1923 treaty with India governing migration of labour.
In February 1940, Home Member SWRD Bandaranaike wanted the new Legal Secretary, Robert Drayton, to move legislation requiring “inquisitorial conditions” for registration, such as the registrant should be owning a business here for ten or fifteen years and married and settled down here. But Drayton declined.
But Bandaranaike’s truculence was rewarded when Governor Andrew Caldecott cited ‘growing unrest’ to postpone the January 1941 election by two years, Dr.Hoole observes.
Bandaranaike had earlier told the House: “Nothing will please me more than to see the last Indian leaving the shores of Ceylon…[in which event], I will die a happy man.”
What Bandaranaike actually wanted was Indian labour without rights. “I love the fruits of Indian labour without the Indians,” he said.
Indian labour, as Bandaranaike stated again during the 1948 debate on the Citizenship Bill, was “cheap, efficient and docile.”
Here there was a consensus between British planter interests and Ceylonese legislators, several of whom were also planters using Indian labour. Indian labour was essential and therefore, the legislature routinely approved permits for their import. It was when Indian Tamils were set to vote under the Donoughmore reforms, that members of the Sinhalese Establishment got alarmed.
When Nehru’s visit to Ceylon in 1939 resulted in India banning the export of labour, Sinhalese leaders were dismayed, Dr.Hoole points out.
“After all they came cheap. The Public Works Department hired them at 40 cents a day when local labour was hard to obtain for a rupee a day. It was almost slave labour, and when the Citizenship Bill was before Parliament, Senanayake and Bandaranaike graciously pledged the continued employment of the Indian labour, but with no civic rights.” .
It was when Sinhalese leaders proposed an Immigration Bill in March 1941 that the British Governor, Andrew Caldecott, for the first time, advised the House comprehensively of Ceylon’s treaty obligation from before 1923. The Governor cited a leaflet of 1930 with translations in Telugu and Tamil issued by the Government of Ceylon with India’s approval, which stated: “Indians in Ceylon have the same legal rights as the local population.”