Eelam Tamils, Plantation Tamils and Sri Lanka -the genesis of a conflict
As a schoolboy, teacher, accountancy student and accountant, octogenarian author Suppiramaniam Makenthiran has had the experience of observing Plantation Tamils in the tea estates of Sri Lanka and possesses intimate knowledge of the squalor, economy and political conditions in which they have lived. In continuation of its series on the rights of Eelam Tamils, this first-person report which was first published in by WSN in February 2008, is still relevant and provides a genesis of the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.
Living in the central hill part of Sri Lanka, Plantation Tamils, as they are generally called and mocked at as ‘Indian Tamils’, this community has been oppressed as chattel by successive Sinhalese governments since the independence of the country in 1948.
In Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, there are three major communities – the majority Sinhalese, the minority Tamils and Muslims. In 1948, the population was about 8 million, of which Sinhalese were 66%, Tamils 26% and Muslims 7%. Tamils were from two regions – the Eelam Tamils of the coastal Northeast Province, and Upcountry Tamils from the central highlands of Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces.
The Northeast Tamils were the original inhabitants of Ceylon (Eelam or Ilankai, as known earlier) descending from the great king Ravanan or Ravaneswaran, the Lord of Lanka. The Sinhalese came to Ceylon in 6th century B.C, when Prince Vijaya and a few hundred members of his men, having been banished from North East India, were stranded on the high seas and landed in Puttalam.
The Northeast Tamils were the original inhabitants of Ceylon (Eelam or Ilankai, as known earlier) descending from the great king Ravanan or Ravaneswaran, the Lord of Lanka.
As history would have it, they became powerful and gradually pushed the Tamils to the Northeast coast. They married local Tamil women and formed the Sinhala race. The Tamils of Northeast and Central Plantations speak the same Tamil language and are mostly Hindus. However, they are two separate communities due to historical factors.
Immigration in the nineteenth century: Plantation Tamils, also known as Upcountry Tamils were brought by the British at the beginning of the 19th century from South India to work on plantations. They are different from Eelam Tamils by virtue of their origin but they share ethnicity with them. Similarly, other people of Indian origin, taken by the British as indentured labourers are found in South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore, Guyana, Fiji, West Indies and other places.
The first batch of Tamil labourers came around 1823 from Tamil Nadu, which was then called Madras Presidency. They have completed close to two centuries of habitation in Sri Lanka. They have toiled on the tea, rubber and coconut plantations.
Appalling living conditions: Tamil workers migrated as part of an indenture –an agreement to serve the master, which condemned them to slavery, first of the British and then of the Sinhalese. They lived in labour lines like the slave rows in the United States. Each family was given a room and large families of ten or twelve children were crammed in one room. They had to use a common toilet and a common tap. Men and women had to bathe in the open. This continued even after independence.
Health and educational facilities were also deficient. There were dispensaries but no doctors. Unqualified dispensers were attending to the sick. Schools were only up to the fifth standard. The vast majority lived in abject poverty and ignorance, though the sons of some of them were better off.
Conditions under colonialism: In 1931, the Donoughmore constitution introduced universal adult franchise and the Plantation Tamils were also granted the right to vote.
In the thirties, the Sinhalese led by D.S. Senanayake, agitated in the Legislative Council to send back Indians and to discontinue and deport Indians in government service. In 1939 Jawaharlal Nehru (who later became the first Prime Minister of Independent India) arrived to look into the problems faced by people of Indian origin. Soon after, the Ceylon Indian Congress was formed to lead the Upcountry Tamils. It later emerged as a powerful political party and trade union.
Saumiyamoorthy Thondaiman emerges as a leader of Upcountry Tamils: Born in Tamil Nadu in 1913, Saumiyamoorthy Thondaiman, came to Ceylon in 1924 at the age of 11. His father had migrated to Ceylon as a kangany and through hard work and enterprise; he became the owner of an estate. He became a planter and so did many members of his extended family. In 1940 he entered politics as Chairman of the Reception Committee of the Gampola Branch of the Ceylon Indian Congress. He led his people through thick and thin for nearly six decades.
Developments after independence: The Ceylon Indian Congress led by Thondaiman secured 8 seats in the first Parliament out of a total of 101. Thondaiman was elected from the Nuwara Eliya seat. Upcountry Tamil votes influenced 12 other electorates in favour of the left parties. Then like a bolt from the blue, came the terrible betrayal of the Tamils by Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake and the U.N.P. In the very year of independence, Upcountry Tamils who numbered over a million were rendered stateless.
Can you believe this? In a blatant act of perfidy, Senanayake passed the Ceylon Citizenship Act, depriving citizenship to Upcountry Tamils-almost over half the Tamil population, who had lived in Ceylon for many generations. It was followed in the next year by the Ceylon Elections Amendment Act depriving voting rights to Estate Tamils, who constituted nearly 13% of the population. As a result, in the next elections in 1952, not a single Tamil member was elected from the Upcountry, where half the Tamils in Ceylon lived.
In a blatant act of perfidy, Senanayake passed the Ceylon Citizenship Act, depriving citizenship to Upcountry Tamils-almost over half the Tamil population, who had lived in Ceylon for many generations. It was followed in the next year by the Ceylon Elections Amendment Act depriving voting rights to Estate Tamils, who constituted nearly 13% of the population. As a result, in the next elections in 1952, not a single Tamil member was elected from the Upcountry, where half the Tamils in Ceylon lived.
Tamil fraternity fails to unite: Even in such perilous times, the Tamils failed to unite. To their dismay, G. G. Ponnambalam who posed as the champion of the Tamils and minorities, voted in support of these discriminatory acts against fellow Tamils to enable him to continue in the cabinet. The Plantation Tamils, who were already living in pathetic conditions, were left without a political voice.
Tamil honour was partly salvaged by S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, who voted against those despicable Acts of discrimination and broke away from the Tamil Congress Party of G.G. Ponnambalam. In 1949 S. J. V. Chelvanayagam formed the Federal Party to agitate for a federal constitution to safeguard Tamil rights. He was the first Tamil leader to alert the Tamils to the dangers of Unitarianism and Sinhalese hegemony.
The Upcountry Tamil leader Thondaiman and his party, the Ceylon Workers Congress carried on a hopeless and ineffective Satyagraha against unjust laws. Unfortunately, during those trying times, the Tamils failed to unite.
Having seen the conditions in which these poor Tamils lived in Ceylon’s Hill country and how the Tamils lived in apartheid-ridden South Africa, I can safely say that the Tamils in Ceylon estates were treated more shabbily. The Tamils in South Africa were also denied political rights, but they were economically much better-off than the Estate Tamils of Ceylon’s Hill country.
On the social front, the Sinhalese disparagingly refer to Upcountry Tamils as ‘kallathonis’ -illicit boat people and the Northeast Tamils as ‘para damalos’ -pariahs.
On the social front, the Sinhalese disparagingly refer to Upcountry Tamils as ‘kallathonis’ -illicit boat people and the Northeast Tamils as ‘para damalos’ -pariahs. How deep-rooted is this prejudice can be gauged from the fact that just a few months back during the course of a high-level meeting, the brother of the present President of Sri Lanka, Mr Basil Rajapakse, publicly lashed out at a delegation of Plantation Tamils, saying, “Para Demalo get out” –Pariah Tamils get out.
Renaming of Ceylon Workers Congress: In 1950, the name of Ceylon Indian Congress was changed to Ceylon Workers Congress and it became a powerful force as it controlled a large and strong trade union. This was done as the nomenclature ‘Indian’ was misleading and mischievous.
Eviction of estate Tamils under the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact: Without any consultations, Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri colluded with the Sinhalese leadership by agreeing to the repatriation of 600,000 of the one million Upcountry Tamils to India under the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact of October 1964. The Northeast and Upcountry Tamils had by then been alerted to the danger of Sinhalese racism and were against mass deportation. Under the agreement, 375,000 Upcountry Tamils were to be given Ceylon citizenship, which was done at a snail’s pace.
The Srimavo government was brazenly racist and evicted the estate Tamils under one pretext or the other. They nationalised the estates and uprooted the Tamils. During repeated anti-Tamil riots, they were chased out of their homes. Consequently, some of them sought refuge in the Northeast. The Tamil refugees from the estates were trying to make a living in the remote areas of Northeast, but many were again mercilessly attacked and uprooted by the Sinhalese army. The Sinhalese population was resettled in occupied lands.
Common suffering of Northeast and Upcountry Tamils: The Tamils of both Northeast and the Upcountry were bound by the common suffering at the hands of the Sinhala state and pre-meditated mob terror. They were made refugees in their own homeland. This common suffering united the Tamils.
The Tamils of both Northeast and the Upcountry were bound by the common suffering at the hands of the Sinhala state and pre-meditated mob terror. They were made refugees in their own homeland. This common suffering united the Tamils.
The triumvirate of TULF leaders: The Federal Party, the Ceylon Tamil Congress and the Ceylon Workers Congress were united into the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1976 and Thondaiman along with G. G. Ponnambalam and Chelvanayagam were elected as leaders. In the same year, at a TULF convention in Vaddukkoddai, presided over by Thanthai Chelva, a historic resolution calling for the formation of a separate state of Tamil Eelam covering the Northern and Eastern provinces was passed. However, when TULF decided to agitate for separation, Thondaiman chose a different path that he thought would help his own estate community.
Thondaiman’s Re-entry into Parliament: In 1960 and 1965 Thondaiman was appointed Member of Parliament to represent the stateless Tamils as they had been earlier disenfranchised. Constitutionally, it was possible to appoint members from unrepresented peoples. When the number of Tamils registered as citizens increased, their influence in elections was felt. In 1971, after 30 years, he again won an election through Tamil votes in Nuwara Eliya. In 1978 he was appointed as cabinet minister of Rural Industries. From then on, he invariably held a ministerial post till his death. He used his ministerial position to uplift the economic position of the estate people and to regain lost rights. In 1994 the CWC secured nine seats in Parliament and became a force to reckon with.
Anti-Tamil hostility: In the ethnic violence of 1977 and 1980, plantation Tamils were again the worst affected. As a result of recurring ethnic violence, many plantation Tamils had taken refuge in the Northeast and settled down there as farm hands. During the 1983 massacre of the Tamils, many fled to India and the Tamil homeland of Northeast Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese politicians used the armed forces to uproot them. The Gandhiyam Movement which was looking after their welfare was crushed and organizers like Dr Rajasundaram and Architect David were arrested.
Thondaiman extracts concessions: Thondaiman used his political and ministerial position to win back some of the rights of his oppressed people. They were successful in extracting their civic rights. Wages were also increased due to trade union action. Thondaiman succeeded because he was a master strategist and used his cabinet position to obtain concessions. He used the strength of the CWC trade unions to pressurize the government and estate employers. He used the Tamil vote bank in local, parliamentary and presidential elections. He used the voting power of the CWC in Parliament to influence the formation of governments. He came to be regarded as a kingmaker, much to the chagrin of die-hard Sinhalese leaders.
In 1988 the UNP government of Premadasa passed an Act to grant citizenship to Upcountry Tamils, who had been rendered stateless, after their mass deportation under the infamous Srimavo-Shastri Pact.
Northeast rebellion helps Upcountry Tamils: Significantly, the Sinhalese government’s fear of the armed resistance in Northeast helped Thondaiman. As the estate Tamils were isolated in the central highlands, the Sinhalese would have continued to suppress them. Thondaiman used his influence to prevent the Upcountry Tamil youth from joining the armed rebellion. Such a revolt would have had far-reaching consequences. Nevertheless, the estate youth settled in the Northeast could not be prevented from throwing in their lot with the Eelam Tamils. Many fought and died. However, there is no denying the truth that all strategies of Thondaiman and strength of Upcountry Tamils, would have not yielded any result but for the armed threat of Northeast Tamils.
Death and succession: Thondaiman died at the age of 86 in 1999, while he was still a cabinet minister. He was given a well-attended state funeral, perhaps the only Tamil to be given such an honour. Over a hundred thousand people attended his funeral. Saumiyamoorthy Thondaiman was a dynamic leader of the Upcountry Tamils and was invariably labelled an “uncrowned king.” Even before his death, Arumugam Thondaiman –his grandson was recognized as his successor. Young Arumugam became the President of the Ceylon Workers Congress and continues to lead the Upcountry Tamils.
Remnants of Upcountry Tamils granted citizenship: Forced sterilization, expatriation to India, detentions and killings, mob violence and economic disparity effectively dissipated the Upcountry Tamils. In 2003, the Parliament unanimously decided to grant citizenship to the remnants of the Tamils left in the Upcountry numbering 168,141.
It is estimated that there are about 1.2 million Plantation Tamils mainly in the Central Highlands but also spread out in the Western and Northeast Provinces. In 1948, they were 12 % of the total population, but now they are estimated to be at only about 5.5 % to 6 %.
Sri Lanka is not a safe place to live as residents have to live with a daily dose of extrajudicial killings, abductions, ransoms and rapes. While the Northeast Tamils are fighting for a separate homeland, the Plantation Tamils are struggling only for economic survival.
Suppiramaniam Makenthiran is a graduate of the University of Ceylon, Colombo and a Fellow of the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants of UK. He has served in Sri Lanka and different countries in Africa including Zambia, Malawi and Botswana. He was a World Bank Project Finance Officer, before immigrating to Canada.