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Ceylon and the Indian immigrants

A part of Sri Lanka's modern history is about its struggle against the Indian settlers, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2006 19:12 IST
PK Balachandran
PK Balachandran

A substantial part of Sri Lanka's modern history is about its struggle against Indian immigrants.

This was, in part, against British rule, and in part against India.

At times, India appeared in the form of the Imperial British Raj  and at other times as Indian nationalism.

The fascinating story of this struggle spanning over a century, has been brought out in a most engaging way by WT Jayasinghe in his book The Indo-Ceylon Problem:The Politics of Indian Immigrant Labour (Stamford Lake Publications, Pannipitiya, Sri Lanka, 2002).

A former Sri Lankan Foreign and Defence Secretary, Jayasinghe says that the coming of Indian labour to work in the island's coffee and tea plantations in mid-19th century, was an epoch making event.

"No other event in the island's recent history has had such an impact on the polity of Sri Lanka," he says.

When the British turned Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was called before 1972) into a major coffee and tea producer in the 19th century, they needed a high volume of labour.

But the kind of labour sought was not available locally.

Most British Governors and planters had dubbed the indigenous Sinhalese as being "innately prone to laziness" and imported labour from neighboring South India, mostly from what is now Tamil Nadu.

But Jayasinghe says that the British were unfair in their description of the Sinhalese.

The Sinhalese peasant's status as an independent cultivator, and his self-esteem, prevented him from taking up wage labour, he argues.

As AE Goonesinghe, the famous trade unionist of the 1930s and 1940s put it, no Sinhalese would work for the pittance that the Indian estate labourer was paid.

Even in the 1930s, the wage was only half a Ceylonese Rupee a day.

The British were also looking for a pliant labour force and the indigenous Sinhalese were not going to be pliant, as the 1848 rebellion showed.

"The British, after the (Sinhalese) rebellion of 1848, thought that a foreign labour force, ensconced in the hill country, would help to keep the region firmly subjugated.

The planters also found an immigrant labour force was more amenable, and as a captive force entirely dependent on them," Jayasinghe says.

High rate of influx

It all began in 1839 with 2,719 Indians coming in. And by 1910, the total Indian immigrant plantation workers' population was 409, 914.

This ultimately swelled to 900,000 by 1939-40.

Signs of a contradiction with the indigenous Sinhalese began to be discerned as early as 1848, when the Sinhalese rose against the British, notes Jayasinghe.

"The introduction of Malabar (Tamil) labourers has given the Kandyan much offense," a British parliamentary committee, which went into the 1848 rebellion, had reported.

However it was not until the 1920s that a major challenge emerged.

Sinhalese nationalism had come to the fore. Budding Sinhalese politicians started taking up the cudgels against the import of Indian labour.

The island's Tamil politicians, however, took a pro-Indian labour and a pro-Indian line on this issue.

This dichotomy existed right though the struggle on the Indian issue. 

In  1925, Don Stephen Senanayake of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) who later became independent Ceylon's first Prime Minister, argued that Indian immigrant labour was being pampered while the indigenous Sinhalese were going without jobs.

He quoted statistics on the to and fro movement of Indian labour to show that most of them were temporary residents who had no commitment to the interests of Ceylon. 

The nationalists said that only 5 per cent of the immigrant Indian labour was permanently settled in the island.

The Depression of 1929-30, which also saw crop failures in the Sinhalese hinterland, increased the tension between the Sinhalese and the Indian immigrants.

Floating and permanent Indian population

It must be stressed that the Sinhalese nationalists were never against permanent settlers of Indian or any other foreign origin.

They were only against the floating population whose interest in Ceylon was transient.

But they saw most of the immigrant Indian population as being temporary.

The State Council had laid down the criteria for voting rights in 1931 itself.

But these did not become law as the British still had the final say.

But the State Council's resolution remained a benchmark, a proposal, throughout the struggle till the Citizenship Act was passed in 1949, a year after Ceylon became independent.

According to the 1931 proposal, to qualify as a voter, an immigrant should have a domicile of origin or choice, or have a Certificate of Permanent Settlement or have the required literacy and property qualifications.

It said that Indians already resident in Ceylon would be considered as having a domicile of origin in Ceylon if they were born in Ceylon and either of their parents were also born here.

It was proposed that a child born outside Ceylon would have the same status if the mother had been born in Sri Lanka and the birth took place during the temporary absence of the mother.

"This took care of the fact that often the wife of the estate labourer would go to her home in India for the first confinement," Jayasinghe comments.

About acquisition of a domicile of choice, it was proposed that an immigrant, after five years of residence, should make an application to a court of law.

The court would be guided by English law in this respect.

The qualification for the obtaining a Certificate of Permanent Settlement was made more stringent.

The period of residence for being eligible was to be increased from five to seven years in the case of married persons and ten years in the case of others.

And married persons should have their wives and children ordinarily resident with them in Ceylon.

Continuous absence for more than one year would constitute a break in the required period of residence.

It was also proposed that there would be no discrimination between those with domicile or permanent settlement certificates and the indigenous population.

Bandaranaike's role

SWRD Bandaranaike, another Prime Minister-to-be, raised the issue of Indian labour in the State Council of 1933 and 1934 as Minister for Local Government.

Bandaranaike pointed out that Indian labour had grown from 10,000 in 1827 to 651,000 in 1932.

He quoted KPS Menon, the Government of India's Agent in Ceylon, to say that between 1921 and 1931, the Indian immigrant population grew by 38.94 per cent while the all island increase was only 17.94 per cent.

Due to his efforts, a 1933 State Council motion said: "That in view of the serious and increasing unemployment among Ceylonese workers, steps should be taken for the restriction and effective control of immigration into Ceylon of workers of other countries."

In 1936, the total population of Ceylon was 5,738,000.And the Indian immigrant population was 659,000 on the estates and between 190,000 to 230,000 outside the estates.

Indian labour was one fifth of the total population of Ceylon, and the total number of foreign workers was equivalent to the entire adult population of the island!

Issue of non-estate immigrant workers

HW Amarasuriya, a planter politician, took up the issue of "miscellaneous immigrants" or non-estate worker immigrants, whose numbers had grown from 39,579 in 1911 to 118,465 in 1935.

Indians were a sizeable chunk among employees in the Public Works Department (PWD), Railways and the municipalities.

Most of them were unskilled workers. Out of the 230,000 non-estate immigrants, 184,000 were workers.

Amarasuriya described the Indian trader as a "real menace" to the well being of the Ceylonese.

He charged that the miscellaneous Indian immigrants brought diseases like plague and VD. He said that 10 or 20 of them would get together and have one woman because, among them, the ratio was one female for seven males.

In 1934, the State Council unanimously passed a resolution that in employment, preference should be given to Ceylonese and that outsiders should be recruited only when qualified Ceylonese were not available.

It was pointed out there were 30,000 registered unemployed in Colombo alone

Jackson Report

Given the Sinhalese nationalist opposition to Indian immigration on the one hand, and the planters anxiety to have a ready and plentiful supply of labour from India on the other, the Ceylon government in 1936 asked Sir Edward Jackson to study of the problem.

Jackson confirmed the Sinhala nationalists' contention that the Indian immigrant kept going in and out of the island depending on the economic conditions on both sides of the Palk Strait.

But according to the Donoughmore Commission of 1928, 40 to 50 per cent of the estate population was permanently settled in the island. The Planters' Association put it even higher at 70 to 80 per cent.

The Planters Association also felt that in case there was no restriction on production, Ceylon would need 800,000 workers. There was therefore a potential shortage of Indian labour.

Jackson, reported that 400,000 might be considered to be permanently settled, and that this was half the maximum requirement.

His conclusion was: "The time is certainly not yet in sight when immigration will have produced a permanently settled population of estate workers sufficient to supply all needs for labour on estates and when immigration for that purpose can accordingly cease."

Unlike the Sinhalese nationalists, Jackson did not consider Indian labour as a burden on Ceylon because they tended to come into the island when work was available, and leave if there was no work.

He also said that Indian immigrant labour had contributed to Ceylon's prosperity.

But as expected, the Sinhalese nationalists trashed the Jackson report.

Indo-Ceylon row of 1939-40

In 1939, a political storm arose when 800 non-Ceylonese daily wage labour in Colombo port and the Railways were sacked by the government.

Though the number of workers involved was small, the sack order became a major issue between India and Ceylon.

New Delhi demanded talks on the issue, but at the same time said that it cold not have bilateral trade talks, which were due.

India also stopped all immigration to Ceylon, perhaps with the intention of hitting the tea and rubber plantations, which even then, relied on a steady supply of labour from lndia.

In  1939, the Indian National Congress (INC) leader Jawaharlal Nehru came to Sri Lanka and said that the Ceylon government should have consulted India prior to the retrenchment.

Quoting an ILO report he said that immigrant labour could not be deported.

Nehru and the Ceylonese leaders looked upon the Indian estate labour very differently.

Nehru said that the Indian labour had contributed to the wealth of Ceylon but John Kotelawala asked: " What is the net result of having that wealth produced? You have driven the people of this country, who occupied those lands, away from those lands."

In 1940, JR Jayewardene, who also became Prime Minister later, started a dialogue with the Indian National Congress on this issue.

He submitted a memorandum to the INC at the latter's plenary in Ramgarh in 1940.

"Informal" New Delhi conference 1940

The Nehru visit was followed by an informal Indo-Ceylon conference in New Delhi in 1940.

At the conclave, SWRD Bandaranaike said: "I think even Indians who were settled in Ceylon for generations actually consider India to be their real home. There is no question whatever about that."

Pointing out the danger in absorbing the Indian immigrant population, he said: "This absorption does not merely mean the extension of certain rights to the Indians in question; it really means the creation of a further minority with all the problems."

DS Senanayake quoted from the Banking Commission's report to press his case against the Indian Cheittiars, who he said were having a strangle hold on the coconut growers in the island.

Of the 1.2 million acres, 500,000 were in Indian hands, the balance 700,000 was mortgaged, he said.

But the Government of India's delegates were unmoved.

Sir GS Bajpai, the leader, said that those immigrants who wanted to be absorbed should be absorbed, and those not wanting to be absorbed should be allowed to go.

"There should be no discrimination or pressure."

In other words, India wanted all the 900,000 estate workers to be given the choice to be in Ceylon or leave.

Senanayake-Bajpai talks 1941

However in the 1941 formal talks between DS.Senanayake and Sir GS Bajpai in Colombo, India took a conciliatory stand.

Bajpai proposed that the Ceylon Minister in charge of immigrants should be advised by an Immigration Board, which should have Indian representatives.

Any proposals for quotas for employment should have the approval of the board and should also be referred to the Government of India for comment before implementation.

A person allowed entry should be able to bring his wife and children.

According to Jayasinghe, the Ceylonese delegation had no difficulty in accepting these conditions.

"On the overreaching political issue of the day, the franchise, the criteria adopted by the Ceylon (State Council Elections) Order in Council of 1931 was confirmed," he adds. 

The 1941 formal talks ended on a note of satisfaction for Ceylon. The Joint Report said that India agreed that Ceylon's immigration rules could not be withheld on the grounds that the Government of India objected to its provisions.

The same applied to legislation on employment quotas. India also said that it would resume negotiations on trade.

New Delhi dithers, Nehru rejects report

But while Ceylon ratified the Joint Report, New Delhi dithered, saying that the Congress party had to consulted. But the Congress was then in the midst of the "Quit India" movement and the war was at India's doorstep.

"India declined to ratify the Joint Report. What is more lamentable is that Nehru went a step further and rejected the Report," Jayasinghe comments.

Ceylon had to wait until it gained independence in 1948 to draft its citizenship and franchise rules in 1949.

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

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