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Nehru's balanced approach to Ceylon

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

india Updated: Jun 26, 2006 17:25 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 independent 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.

Problem posed by residual category

There was no difference of opinion between the Indian and Ceylon governments on those who had taken Indian nationality or intended to do so, or those Indians who had been given Ceylonese nationality.

Where they differed was in the matter of those Indian settlers who wanted Ceylon nationality on the basis of long years of residence, but who were denied that.

The Ceylon government assumed that India would consider these as Indian nationals and take them back. But Nehru said that no such assumption was warranted.

Speaking in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, on September 6, 1955, Nehru said that the when India said that they were not Indian nationals, it meant that these settlers would not be accepted in India.

"The question basically is between the Ceylon government and these people. We come in because we are interested in these people. They are not our citizens. This we must remember."

They were residents and inhabitants of Sri Lanka and had been so "for generations" and, therefore, their status was a matter between them and the Ceylon government.

"We suggested to the Ceylon government in our recent messages that we should be glad if they dealt with them directly," Nehru said in conclusion.

The Ceylonese view (as expressed by administrator/author WT Jayasinghe) is that it was India's refusal to take this residual category, which created a class of "stateless" Indians in Ceylon, who numbered about a million at one stage.

Retrenchment of Indian workers 

Prior to the controversy over citizenship, there was the controversial retrenchment of 1,400 Indian daily wage employees in Ceylon government service, particularly in Colombo port, in 1939.

Nehru went to Ceylon to sort out this issue as a leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), which had fraternal relations with the premier Ceylonese nationalist and Indian settler organisations.

The Indian nationalists, Nehru and the INC felt that since many of these workers had been living in Ceylon for 10, 15, 20 years or more, they should not be dismissed abruptly.

There was a scheme for voluntary repatriation paid for by the government, but the catch was that if this was not availed of now, they would be retrenched next year, without bonus.

Speaking in Madras on July 25, 1939, about his talks in Ceylon, Nehru said: "I did not ask the Ceylon government not to give preference to the Ceylonese in the matter of employment. But the question is the dismissal of those who are already there. I would expect any government to have labour laws to prevent it."

Though the numbers were small, Nehru saw the larger picture, a larger threat. He saw in the issue, a lurking threat to the whole Indian population in Ceylon.

"To me it is a question of the whole future of the Indian population. It is a question of the future relations between India and Ceylon," he said.

Nehru was so angry that he had rejected an invitation from some leaders of Ceylon to visit the island to sort out the problem.

Writing to his daughter Indira on July 3, 1939, he said: " Two weeks ago I had an indirect and informal invitation from some ministers of the Ceylon government to go there. I sent a disdainful reply."

"If Indians were not good enough for Ceylon, Ceylon was not good enough for me," he emphasised.

But he did go, eventually, having been asked by the Congress Working Committee to do so.

Nehru believed in the theory that local problems often stemmed from international developments and currents.

He felt that one could not solve local problems only by looking at them from a local angle.

He told the Sinhala Mahasabha in Kandy, that the problem of unemployment in Ceylon had to be looked at deeply and holistically and not merely as a problem created by Indian labourers. In seeking a remedy, they should not think and act like "quacks" he urged.

Deprecates tendency to cut off links with India

Nehru felt that Ceylonese leaders were not sufficiently international in outlook unlike those in India, Burma and Indonesia.

Alluding to this in a letter to the Chief Ministers of Indian states dated April 26, 1954, he said: " Ceylon is rather new to these (international issues) and has really not faced them or given much thought to them."

"It has lived an isolated existence thus far, interested chiefly in its own changing economy and in world prices of rubber and tea and in the problem of the people of Indian descent."

"For the rest, it has been largely tied up with the United Kingdom and has not changed materially since it became independent, though the outer symbols and trappings have changed."

"Because of its practical isolation in this way, local problems like that of the people of Indian descent, loom large."

"Behind this is a certain fear of the great land of India somehow overwhelming Ceylon, not by military might but by very numbers." 

"Hence the excessive importance they attach to limiting the people of Indian descent or Indian sympathies."

Need to accommodate Ceylonese sensitivities

Though a strong advocate of the cause of people of Indian descent, Nehru was acutely aware of the dangers of alienating the Ceylonese, particularly, the Sinhala majority.

In a letter to the Chief Ministers of Indian states dated July 5, 1952, Nehru said: " The Sinhalese look up to India as their holy land because of the Buddha.

But they are a little afraid of this great big giant of a country overlooking them and fear always leads to wrong action."

"If we threaten them we only increase their fear."

"Therefore, I have avoided speaking the language of threats and have tried to be friendly to them even when they have acted in an improper way."

In his letter to the Chief Ministers dated April 26, 1954, Nehru said: "We have always to remember this fear of the Ceylonese.

Any so called pressure tactics on our part tend to increase this fear, and therefore, make the solution a little more difficult."

"They begin to look away from India in matters of trade etc. and rely on some distant country like England or, it may be, even Australia rather than India."

"And yet, every interest of theirs, including their basic cultural outlook, draws them to India, if but this  fear was absent."

"Hence it is necessary for us not to say or do anything which adds to this fear complex."

PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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