Ee­lam Tamils, Plan­ta­tion Tamils and Sri Lanka -the gen­e­sis of a con­flict

Ee­lam Tamils, Plan­ta­tion Tamils and Sri Lanka -the gen­e­sis of a con­flict

 SUP­PI­RA­MA­NIAM MAK­EN­THI­RAN


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.

 Read also On 10th Re­mem­brance day, time to salute Ee­lam Tamils killed by Sri Lanka

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.

 Read also On 10th Re­mem­brance day, time to salute Ee­lam Tamils killed by Sri Lanka

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.

Thondaman

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. 

Eelam Tamils, Plantation Tamils and Sri Lanka -the genesis of a conflict (theworldsikhnews.com)

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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