In the heated debate relating to ethnic conflict between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese-dominated government, the problems and aspirations of Malaiha Tamils (hill country Tamils of Indian origin) do not find any mention. This subject is of vital importance, because Sri Lankan Tamils, mainly the diaspora, are keen to mobilise the support of 80 million Tamils spread across the globe. At the same time, they are reluctant to make common cause with their Tamil brethren in the hill country.
The official nomenclature for the Malaiha Tamils is Indian Tamils. All of them have become citizens of Sri Lanka and the intelligentsia among them does not want to use the label Indian. They prefer to call themselves Malaiha Tamils.
On the eve of independence, Malaiha Tamils outnumbered Sri Lankan Tamils. However, their number declined as a result of the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact of 1964 and subsequent Sirimavo-Indira Gandhi Agreement of 1974, under which many who were conferred Indian citizenship were repatriated to India. Today, they number 5.5 per cent of the population. According to informed observers the figure is an underestimate because some Malaiha Tamils have declared themselves as Sri Lankan Tamils during census enumeration.
In a recent lecture on the national question, delivered in the Bernard Soysa Centenary Commemoration chief minister of the Northern Province C V Wigneswaran pointed out that the Tamils, especially those living in the northern and eastern provinces, are a “nation without a state”. They have all attributes that qualify them to be a nation—a long history which goes back to pre-Buddhist times: a language, probably the oldest living language in the world, which binds them all and distinct cultural attributes. What is striking about the lecture is the fact that Wigneswaran, like other Sri Lankan Tamil leaders, deliberately chose to turn a Nelson’s eye to Malaiha Tamils.
Tea is the backbone of the Lankan economy. The verdant carpet of green in the central parts, which has made Sri Lanka an island paradise, is due to the sweat and toil of Indian workers. Their wages are the lowest, both in terms of cost of living and in comparison to daily wages in other sectors. What’s more, the plantation worker does not get employment on all days. There are regional differences. A recent study undertaken by the Human Development Organisation, Kandy, points out that a female worker gets employment for 18.65 days in a month, whereas a male worker gets employment for 10.80 days.
Apply any yardstick—poverty level, rate of literacy, educational attainments, health, status of women—Malaiha Tamils occupy the lowest rung of the ladder. The deplorable status of the community should be a matter of concern both for Colombo and New Delhi. But the two governments did not do much for them to improve their status. In fact, in the early years of independence, they were reduced to a merchandise to be divided between the two nations in the name of good neighbourly relations. To the ruling elite in New Delhi and Colombo, they were an embarrassing set of statistics; to the estate management cheap, docile labour to be exploited to the hilt; to Sri Lankan Tamils, a group readily available for communal propaganda and to Sinhalese fanatics, the easiest and defenceless victims in times of communal strife.
Tamils rightly point out that discrimination against them started soon after independence when the people of Indian origin were disfranchised by the government. As a result, they were ostracised from the political mainstream. While sections of Sri Lankan Tamils led by Selvanayagam vehemently opposed the legislation, Tamil Congress leader G G Ponnambalam was hand in glove with prime minister D S Senanayake. In Outside the Archives, former Commonwealth secretary Y D Gundevia refers to Sir Kandiah Vaidyanathan, cabinet secretary in Colombo, “arguing with us the Ceylonese case against Indian Tamils in the tea estates of the country”.
What about social interaction? The Tamil Vellalas generally look down on the Malaiha Tamils, as they were drawn from the lowest and the most depressed caste groups in Madras Presidency—Pallan, Paraiyan and Chakkiliyan. Prof. Valentine Daniel, distinguished anthropologist, has written that Sri Lankan Tamils refer to Malaiha Tamils as Thottakattan and Kattumirandi, which means barbarian from the plantations. While inter-marriages between Tamil Vellala and Sinhalese Goigama do take place, as in Wigneswaan’s family, inter-marriages between Tamil Vellala and Malaiha Tamil are very rare. During the years of Tiger dominance, caste was taboo in the north and the east; it went underground. But, the Vellala pride and self-righteousness on the one hand and contempt for the lower castes continue to create a chasm between the two communities.
Unlike Sri Lankan Tamil settlements, the plantations are surrounded by Sinhalese villages. It made the Malaiha Tamils realise that their present and future is intimately intertwined with the Sinhalese population. Except briefly in the early ’70s when the Ceylon Workers Congress made common cause with the Federal Party to oppose the 1972 Constitution, the two political streams have taken parallel and occasionally even contradictory courses. Disassociation from the Tamil Eelam didn’t ensure Malaiha Tamils physical security. There was savage and large-scale violence in the plantation areas in 1977, 1981 and 1983.
Attempts made by outfits like the Gandhiyam and Tamil Refugee Rehabilitation Organisation to bring together the two communities were counterproductive. So also efforts made by Tamil militant leaders like Balakumar of EROS and Padmanabha of EPRLF. The Malaiha Tamils, who migrated to Vavuniya as part of the integrated living programme, were soon caught between Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan armed forces. They became refugees in their own country. I visited the IDP camps in Vavuniya in 2004 and was shocked to find that over 60 per cent of the displaced were Malaiha Tamils.
The political scene in the hill country today presents a dismal picture. Arumugam Thondaman, the leader of the CWC, does not have the political acumen of his grandfather. There is no meaningful debate on how their manifold problems could be solved and how they could become partners in progress in their country.
Equally deplorable, political leaders in Tamil Nadu—Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa, Vaiko and Nedumaran—do not refer to the challenges facing the Malaiha Tamils. Is it because the Malaiha Tamils are, to use Frantz Fanon’s phrase, the Wretched of the Earth?
The writer is former senior professor, the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. Email:email@example.com