People of Malaiham (Hill Country) in Sri Lanka are celebrating the birth centenary of C V Velu Pillai (1914-1984) who has left his imprint on all aspects of their lives. A popular teacher, distinguished man of letters, committed trade unionist, progressive politician and, above all, a great humanist, Velu Pillai’s memory is cherished by people of Indian origin. He triggered the imagination of a whole generation of Indian Tamil youth—R R Sivalingam, Thiruchanduran, Saral Nathan, M Vamadevan, Anthony Jeeva, Joseph, Muralitharan, Sivakumaran, Muthulingam, Kandiah, Perumal and Ayyathurai. Through his writings, both in Tamil and in English, Velu Pillai portrayed the lives of Indian Tamil plantation labourers—their ways of life, customs and manners, joys and sorrows, longings and aspirations. As Anthony Jeeva, progressive poet of the hill country, told me a few years ago, “Out of dust, Velu Pillai tried to make us men.”
Born on September 14, 1914 in Medacombara estate in Nuwara Eliya district, Velu Pillai had his early education at Methodist School in Hatton and later in Nalanda College, Colombo. Beginning his professional career as a teacher, he later became a trade unionist. Following Jawaharlal Nehru’s appeal to Indian Tamils in 1939 to sink their differences and unite under one banner, Velu Pillai joined the Ceylon Indian Congress (later to become Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC)). He got elected to Parliament in 1947 as a CIC candidate. He could not put up with the authoritarian manner in which the CWC was run and became a leader of the Democratic Workers Congress (DWC). He left the DWC and joined hands with V K Vellayan to form the National Union of Workers (NUW) and was its adviser till the end of his life.
Velu Pillai was moulded and inspired by the writings of several distinguished men of letters. Initially, he came under the spell of Rabindranath Tagore. Later, he absorbed the literary grace of Tennyson, Keats and Shelley. He kept abreast of the cross currents of Tamil literature across the Palk Strait and was familiar with the writings of the literary group—Manikodi—writers like Pudumai Pithan, Ka Na Subramaniam, Chitti Sundarrajan, Janaki Raman and C S Chellappa. In later life, he absorbed the revolutionary zeal of literary giants like Spanish poet Garcia Lorca and Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda.
The hill country represented two contrasting socio-economic systems. While to the capitalist class it was a pleasant retreat during weekends, where labour was plentiful and cheap, where they could gather for bridge, gossip, drinks, billiards and tennis, for the vast majority of Tamil labourers it was a living hell. Velu Pillai articulated their sufferings. In Ceylon’s Tea Garden, Velu Pillai wrote: “From time to time from the highway I shall strike upon my harp and sing my song …I sing of Lanka’s men born of the paddy field, the patnas, the tea and rubber land, yes, the men I love.” The planters did not even provide for burial grounds. Velu Pillai wrote thus: “My men, they lie dust under dust, beneath the tea, No wild weed flowers or memories token, tributes raise over the father’s biers! O shame what man ever gave them a grave! Only God in His Grace covered them with his grass.”
I met Velu Pillai in January 1983. He exuded optimism and held out the hope that if the plantation workers get sensitised, they could become the forerunners in the island’s transformation into a socialist society. He took out a paper and pen and drew the Vel, Lord Muruga’s spear, and added a few strokes which transformed the drawing into a sickle in the midst of which remained the two leaves and a bud. Speaking on India’s role, he remarked that New Delhi’s commitment to their welfare vanished with the demise of Jawaharlal Nehru. Within six months, the infamous Sirimavo-Shastri Pact was signed which converted the Indian labourers into a merchandise to be divided between the two countries in the name of good neighbourly relations.
Velu Pillai was deeply sensitive to the fact that Tamils in Sri Lanka are not homogenous. They are divided into Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims. Over the years, the Indian Tamils are developing an identity of their own, very different from Sri Lankan Tamils and the Tamils of India. This reality has spurred a debate within Indian Tamil community regarding their identity and the name in which they should be known. A broad consensus has emerged that the community should be known as Malaiha Makkal—children of Malaiham. Velu Pillai played a catalytic role in the growth of this thinking. In his conversation with Prof. Valentine Daniel, Velu Pillai has given vignettes of the Malaiha Tamizharin Puranam—epic of the Hill Country Tamils.
In the communal holocaust which took place in July 1983, the hill country Tamils were subjected to vicious attacks by lumpen sections of the Sinhalese population. Their utter helplessness could be understood from the statement made by Sellasamy, then vice-president of the CWC. On a visit to Madras, Sellasamy appealed that every village in Tamil Nadu should adopt a family from the hill country, so that all of them could return to the safety of their motherland.
On Vijayadasamy day in October 1983, Kandiah, Perumal and Ayyadurai—three leaders of the NUW—landed in Madras airport, telephoned me and requested my help. They felt that the peculiar problems of the hill country Tamils have not attracted the attention of Indian opinionmakers. Through the good offices of the late Lakshmi Krishnamurthy, I put them in touch with leaders of various political parties and media personnel. I also arranged a talk by them in Madras University, where they graphically described how their problems and aspirations were different from that of Sri Lankan Tamils. Three days later, Yogeshwaran, MP from Jaffna, telephoned and asked me why I am creating divisions within Tamil society. I responded that they are people of Indian origin and India, given its Gandhi-Nehru legacy, has a special responsibility towards them.
The tragedy of Sri Lanka is self-evident. While many literary and political groups in the hill country have chalked out an imaginative programme to commemorate the memory of Velu Pillai in the birth centenary year, the Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims have, by and large, kept out of the celebrations. The writing on the wall is clear. If there is no unity among Tamils, the Sinhalese ruling elite will continue their game of divide and rule and perpetuate Sinhalese dominance.