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Nehru's balanced approach to Ceylon

He fought hard to protect the interests of the people of Indian origin living in Ceylon, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2006 17:34 IST

Both as a freedom fighter and as Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru advocated a balanced approach to Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known in his time.

Even as he fought hard to protect the interests of the people of Indian origin living in the island, he did not want to alienate the Ceylonese, especially the majority Sinhala community, which feared domination by the Big Brother across the Palk Strait.

Over a period of about 30 years, Nehru had to do a lot of tight rope walking in dealing with Ceylon.

This was a very difficult task given the high expectations from his nationalistic constituency in India; the people of Indian origin in Ceylon; and the Ceylonese themselves, who also regarded him as a freedom fighter and a liberator worthy of emulation.

In some measure, Nehru did achieve his objectives in relation to the people of Indian origin.

But he did so without losing the love and respect of the Ceylonese, including the majority Sinhala community.

Nehru's thoughts and actions relating to Ceylon have been brought out vividly and comprehensively by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former High Commissioner for India in Sri Lanka, in his book, Nehru and Sri Lanka  (Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha Publication, Ratmalana, Sri Lanka, 2002).

Denial of citizenship to Indian estate workers

Nehru was pained, and at times angry, when he saw the hostility with which Ceylonese politicians of the period between the 1930s and the 1950s looked at Indian immigrant labour, completely disregarding the latter's vital contribution to the prosperity of the island.

He was in an angry mood when he sent a message to the fraternal Natal Indian Congress in South Africa on June 5,1939.

Delineating the way Indian settlers and workers were being treated in various parts of the British Empire he said: "Our cousins in Burma and Ceylon have turned against them and are pursuing an ill-conceived and narrow-minded policy which is sowing seeds of bitterness between them and India."

As per a report in The Ceylon Observer of June 22,1939, Nehru told a meeting organised by the Sinhala Maha Sabha in Kandy, that while it would be "absurd humbug" to say that Indians came to Ceylon purely out of goodwill, it could not be denied that they did "certain useful work and generally helped the processes of modern business to develop."

He said that "large numbers" of them were required for the economy of Ceylon.

The point that he wished to urge was that if changes had to be made, they should be made in a spirit of friendship and cooperation.

From the point of view of self interest alone, it was dangerous to upset the existing state of things without finding an equivalent for them and without creating a sense of injury, the paper quoted him as saying.

He wanted Ceylonese leaders to realise that Ceylon might not be necessary for India, but India was necessary for Ceylon. 

Pledging eternal support for the persecuted people of Indian origin the world over, Nehru said in a letter to the Natal Indian Congress: " India is weak today and cannot do much for her children abroad, but she does not forget them, and every insult to them is humiliation and sorrow for her."

Sounding a note of warning at the end, he said: " And a day will come when her long arm will shelter and protect them. Even today, in her weakness, the will of her people cannot be ultimately ignored."

In a speech at the Indian Parliament on September 6, 1955, Nehru lauded the signal contribution the Indian estate labourer had made to the Ceylonese economy over nearly a hundred years.

Though the Ceylonese leaders were itching to throw the Indian estate labourers out, the people of Ceylon knew their worth, Nehru felt.

"A day would come when the people in Ceylon would put up a monument to the tea estate labourers who had come from India and who had done so much for Ceylon," he said.

Following the bitter 13-year tussle with the Ceylon government over the issue of citizenship to people of Indian origin who had been living in the island for generations, Nehru said in 1954: "Unfortunately, certain politicians and some groups in Ceylon neither speak nor act wisely, and repeatedly come in the way of friendly settlement."

"Even the last Indo-Ceylonese Agreement had some rough treatment in Ceylon and I am not sure how far it will be carried out."

"It is not so much what is being done in Ceylon in regard to it, but the manner of doing it and the spirit behind it all, that has troubled me and that has irritated greatly the large numbers of people of Indian descent there," Nehru said in a letter to the Chief Ministers of Indian states dated April 26, 1954.

"If these people lose all hope of fair treatment in Ceylon, then they may well take to wrong courses."

"They will suffer no doubt if they do that, but they can give a great deal of trouble to the Government of Ceylon," he warned.

"Because of this, apart from other reasons, the only wise course for the Government of Ceylon is to come to reasonable terms with them and with us (India)," he advised.

Citizenship issue

In an explanatory note, author of Nehru and Sri Lanka Gopalkrishna Gandhi says that in 1949, when the citizenship law was enacted, 659,0000 Indian settlers had applied for citizenship, but only 8,500 of them were included in the 1950 electoral register.

In the previous register, there were 165,000 of them.

Judgments of the Ceylon Supreme Court and the Privy Council had given 40,000 Indian settlers the right to Ceylon citizenship.

But an amendment to the 1949 law on citizenship made in 1952, said that only those families living in Ceylon since 1939 could be admitted.

This affected thousands of Indians. About 900,000 Indian settlers, mostly estate and urban workers, had been denied Ceylonese citizenship and voting rights with the stroke of a pen.

There was a series of negotiations between the Indian and Ceylonese governments between 1941 and 1948, in which some broad principles were agreed upon.

These included a residence qualification; a means test; and compliance with Sri Lankan laws. Dual citizenship was ruled out.

But the two sides differed in interpretation, and this made the agreement a dead letter, points out Dr John Gunaratne, in his book A Decade of Confrontation (Stamford Lake, Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka, 2000).

While Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister, preferred a "liberal" interpretation, DS Senanayake, the Ceylonese Prime Minister, preferred a "stricter" one, Gunaratne says.

And in an interesting observation he says that the number of permanent Indian settlers had increased because Indian labourers could not move between Ceylon and India following the ban on emigration to Ceylon proposed by the Indian National Congress and imposed by the Indian government in 1939.

However, the Indian side, whether the British Raj or the post independence Nehru government, continuously maintained, and largely correctly, that a very substantial number of estate labourers and other workers in the towns, had little to do with India for decades, if not generations.

Perhaps many of the traders had active links with India, but not the labourers, especially the tea garden workers.