A cautionary tale from Indian Tamils in Ceylon - Hindustan Times

A cautionary tale from Indian Tamils in Ceylon

Nov 11, 2023 10:53 PM IST

The stories of exile, exclusion and expulsion of indentured labourers from Tamil Nadu in Sri Lanka’s plantations hold lessons for us today

More people have heard of the fast-bowling Sri Lankan wizard of a spinner Muttiah Muralitharan than of the great community of “Indian Tamils” in Sri Lanka or the tea plantation workers on the Emerald Isle’s Hill Country, to which he belongs. No surprises there! Someone who sends the ball drilling the sky, matched with a terrifying and much-photographed scowl, has to grasp our attention more than ethnography.

The saga of Sri Lanka's Indian Tamils suggests lessons to be learnt not for their sakes but ours(Getty Images) PREMIUM
The saga of Sri Lanka's Indian Tamils suggests lessons to be learnt not for their sakes but ours(Getty Images)

This year, which marks the 200th year of the arrival of those exceptional people in Ceylon as it was called then, gives us the chance to cast a gaze at their life story. And that makes it so apposite that our finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman was in Sri Lanka at the anniversary celebrations.

It would be instructive, first, to glimpse the demographics. The latest figure (Census of 2012) gives us the following break-up of Sri Lanka’s population: Sinhalese 74.9%, Sri Lankan Tamil 11.2%, Sri Lankan Moors 9.2%, Indian Tamil 4.2%, others 0.5% (“Moors” being a very Lankan way of describing the island’s Islamic population). That makes Muttiah Muralitharan one of the 4.2% of Sri Lanka’s “Indian Tamils”.

To move now to the history line. Men and women from the drought-ravaged and poor districts in southern Madras started doing 200 years ago what humans have done everywhere — seek a better life, a secure wage, without debts chasing them. Did they get it? Alas, no. The saga of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa, in Fiji, and elsewhere, repeated itself in Ceylon. Colonialism chooses its tools coolly. Imperial commerce wanted commercial crops raised by cheap labour. Sinhala peasants in the area were not preferred for reasons that are well-known. Drought and debts made Tamil peasants in India ideal recruits. “Take it or leave it” was the word that was passed around by the “kanganis” as the recruiters were called. The plantations spread like billiard tabletops across the hill country and the island’s export earnings from the plantations grew as well.

Not surprisingly, the Indian Tamils’ numbers grew too. And a dark cloud formed over the gardens on which they toiled. It was called Statelessness. Were these men and women Ceylonese or Indian? The women, men and children spoke only Tamil. And most of them were Hindu, forming a religious enclave within a Sinhala Buddhist countryside. Sinhala farmers who had been displaced by the plantations grew understandably resentful and found Sinhala political patronage. Send the Indians back became a Ceylonese demand that reverberated in India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told India’s Parliament on April 9, 1958: “They are or should be citizens of Ceylon.” He had in mind the fact that three or four years’ residence in a foreign land can give an immigrant residence rights. He also had the moral authority to say what he did, given India’s record in the matter of affirmative action.

But with Nehru dying in 1964, two agreements reversed his position. The Sirimavo-Shastri Agreement of 1964 and the Sirimavo-Indira Agreement of 1974 began a translocation of a large number of Indian Tamils to India. A large number, I have just said. Please ponder the word “number”. We cannot fault Ceylon for the Agreement was signed by both countries. Both governments spoke of so many thousand to stay, so many thousand to leave. Two parchments were signed in bilateral cordiality but without any real thought about the human cost of the pact.

Between 1978 and 1982, I had the (for me) defining experience of working in the High Commission of India’s office in Kandy, as a first secretary “dealing” with the rehabilitation of the repatriating Indian Tamils. I worked under two high commissioners of India — Gurbachan Singh who, as a refugee from West Punjab, knew what becoming and being displaced meant, and Thomas Abraham whose DNA as a Syrian Christian had the trauma of exodus programmed into it.

I learnt from them that the women, men and children who were obliged to queue up for Indian passports under the terms of the agreements were not numbers, not digits, but human beings, daughters, wives, mothers and householders, victims of circumstance, descended from ancestors who had been tossed into Ceylon and were now being tossed back and that we, Indian diplomats and administrators (I was the latter) had to ensure that they left in dignity.

I could never get myself to blame the Sinhala peasantry for resenting Indian Tamil plantation workers who, thanks to unionisation and global standardisations in plantation mores, were better off than them. But something makes a labourer repatriating to India and a tourist (including an Indian tourist) travelling to India two different species and we were to not let that difference hurt the repatriate. A tall aim! There was no war on, but riots could and did occur and when they did, the panic was added to the repatriating Indians’ travails, tattering “dignity” and shredding self-respect. And many had to move to camps. When that happened we were looking at nothing less than India’s honour, for each of these prospective repatriates was as much Indian citizens as we were.

But thanks to India’s consistent advocacy and Sri Lanka’s responsiveness, the Statelessness that loomed over Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka’s plantations has ended. And Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka like Murali himself — the 4.2 % — are now citizens of that country with the same rights as any Lankan, including voting rights.

So, does the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Indian Tamils in Ceylon become a roseate “The End” to the saga? History does not permit such charming endings. The saga of Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka suggests lessons to be learnt not for their sakes but ours. For theirs is a tale that has something to say to us, in India.

We have done right in marking the anniversary of their arrival in Ceylon. But who will mark the dates and the trauma of the return of thousands upon thousands of Indian Tamils from Sri Lanka to India? Their ancestors went from India to Ceylon looking for work. They have had to return to India, looking for work.

The saga of Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka tells us to look at displacement, dislocation and dispossession within our country caused by socio-economic and technological ravagings, as well as our own “native” brands of ethnic intolerance.

Indians imperilled by wars in Europe and now, in the Gaza-Israel theatre have been brought home with admirable speed and finesse. But Indians immiserated by internal turmoils are in no less need of help. Questions on citizenship affected Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka, creating a category of the Stateless. Our own “internal” migrants are a kind of stateless people in themselves. And we know the state of mind which makes many of us feel like strangers in our own country. And with no Gurbachan Singh or Thomas Abraham saying to them: “We are your guardians, be not afraid.”

“Prospective repatriates” in Sri Lanka had their Indian passports on them – an extraordinary document of identity. Those who feel estranged or are dislocated within the country need an identity-guarantor to cling to. We cannot be refugees in our own country, our home cannot be a camp.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is the author of Refuge, a novel about indentured Tamils in Sri Lanka. The views expressed are personal

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    Gopalkrishna Gandhi read English Literature at St Stephen’s College, Delhi. A civil servant and diplomat, he was Governor of West Bengal, 2004-2009. He is currently Distinguished Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University

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