Treatment of Indian Tamil issue set the tone for post-independence Sri Lankan political culture

The way Ceylonese politicians handled the Indian Tamil issue in the two decades prior to Ceylon’s independence, set the tone for the country’s post-independence political history.

Published: 03rd December 2016 10:09 PM  |   Last Updated: 03rd December 2016 10:09 PM   |  A+A-


Indian Tamil plantation labor in Colombo.

By Express News Service

COLOMBO: The way Ceylonese politicians handled the Indian Tamil issue in the two decades prior to Ceylon’s independence, set the tone for the country’s post-independence political history marked by majoritarianism, says human rights activist, Dr.Rajan Hoole. 

In a paper read out at a function to mark the 85th.anniversary of the Donoughmore constitution here late last month, Dr.Hoole said that Sinhalese members of the Legislative Council, Francis Molamure and D.S.Senanayake, defeated the principle of universal suffrage by introducing the criteria of domicile and literacy with a view to deny the vote to the Indian Tamil estate labor. This laid the foundation for ethnic and other forms of discrimination in post-independence Sri Lankan politics, he argues.              

By the time of the Donoughmore proposals (1928-29), an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the Indian Tamil population were born in Ceylon, and would have, in time, qualified for domicile. And their right to be treated as equal British subjects in Ceylon was part of the 1923 treaty with India governing migration of labour. 

In February 1940, Home Member SWRD Bandaranaike wanted the new Legal Secretary, Robert Drayton, to move legislation requiring “inquisitorial conditions” for registration, such as, the registrant should be  owning a business here for ten or fifteen years and married and settled down here. But Drayton declined. 

But Bandaranaike’s truculence was rewarded when Governor Andrew Caldecott cited ‘growing unrest’ to postpone the January 1941 election by two years, Dr.Hoole observes. 

Bandaranaike had earlier told the House: “Nothing will please me more than to see the last Indian leaving the shores of Ceylon...[in which event], I will die a happy man.”

What Bandaranaike actually wanted was Indian labor without rights. “I love the fruits of Indian labour without the Indians,” he said.

Indian labour, as Bandaranaike stated again during the 1948 debate on the Citizenship Bill, was “cheap, efficient and docile.”

Here there was a consensus between British planter interests and Ceylonese legislators, several of whom were also planters using Indian labor. Indian labor was essential and therefore, the legislature routinely approved permits for their import. It was when Indian Tamils were set to vote under the Donoughmore reforms,  that members of the Sinhalese Establishment got alarmed.

When Nehru’s visit to Ceylon in 1939 resulted in India banning the export of labour, Sinhalese leaders  were dismayed, Dr.Hoole points out. 

“After all they came cheap. The Public Works department hired them at 40 cents a day, when local labour was hard to obtain for a rupee a day. It was almost slave labour, and when the Citizenship Bill was before Parliament, Senanayake and Bandaranaike graciously pledged the continued employment of the Indian labour, but with no civic rights.” .

It was when Sinhalese leaders proposed an Immigration Bill in March 1941 that the British Governor, Andrew Caldecott ,for the first time, advised the House comprehensively of Ceylon’s treaty obligation from before 1923. The Governor cited a leaflet of 1930 with translations in Telugu and Tamil issued by the Government of Ceylon with India’s approval, which stated: “Indians in Ceylon have the same legal rights as the local population.”  

This had been the accepted basis on which the House had continually granted licences to import Indian labour. 

Opposing this ,Bandaranaike said that several Kandyan electorates would elect “low caste Sinhalese socialists” on the “Indian vote.” Nationalist leaders feared the emerging social disposition of representation consequent to the enfranchisement of Indian labour, and the rise of an organised Left in the Lanka Sama Samaja Party from 1935. 

By 1943, with the war on the way to being won, Britain was preparing to ditch the Indian immigrant population. Its Declaration of 1943 the British invited Ceylon’s ministers to prepare a draft constitution in anticipation of Dominion Status. 

The Soulbury Commission, in its report of August 1945, largely rubber-stamped the Ceylonese Ministers’ draft; and crucially left the migrants’ citizenship and franchise matters for the Government of Ceylon, in the disingenuous hope that “the Ceylon Government has the ability and desire to assimilate the Indian community and make it part of a single nation”.  

When the Soulbury constitution was adopted in November 1945  by the State Council, many councillors were uncomfortable. A superannuated Council, not empowered to pass even minor finance bills, was adopting a new constitution.

In 1948 the Government as a priority, moved a Citizenship Bill, not to affirm civic rights of the native born as in India and Britain, but to take away those of Indian labour. The Bill was passed 53 to 35. 

Legal Secretary Drayton told the Council: “May I suggest…that the disfranchisement of a category of persons in any country is a serious step for anybody to take? Once having given the vote or at least, or once having established the theoretical position of persons being able to prove their right to vote, it is taking a very serious step to withdraw that right under the law.”

“After the 1949 Franchise Act, our leaders simply deleted from the electoral register persons presumed to be of Indian descent and placed on them the burden of proof to get back on to the list.” 

 “To distinguish between the rights of two persons born in Lanka, the Act entailed going into ancestry, which is unpleasant and an uncertain business, and manifests, besides, a racial principle. Then the question, how many generations? A cut-off date of birth, necessary for exclusion to work, led to cases of the elder sibling becoming a citizen and the younger, stateless. So crass was the idea that the Federation of Malaya Agreement of January 1948 did not venture into denial of citizenship,” Dr.Hoole points out.

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