‘Indian Tamils’ of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Tamils: Here is the difference

PM Narendra Modi addressed a gathering of 'Indian Tamils' in Dickoya in Sri Lanka. Who are 'Indian Tamils' and what is their connection with India and Sri Lanka respectively?

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi | Updated: May 16, 2017 1:23 pm
tamil identity, indian origin tamil in sri lanka, tamil community sri lanka PM Narendra Modi made a stop at Dickoya in the central hills, home to many Tamil people of Indian origin, known as the ‘Indian Tamils’ by the Lankan state. PTI image.

During his recent visit to Sri Lanka for UN Vesak Day celebrations, PM Narendra Modi made a stop at Dickoya in the central hills, home to many Tamil people of Indian origin, known as the ‘Indian Tamils’ by the Lankan state. In his address to the large gathering there, Modi said, “You kept your bonds with India alive, (I) assure you that India will support Sri Lanka’s efforts towards your socio-economic development.” But what community is this and what sets it apart from the Sri Lankan Tamils who until a decade ago were caught in the bloody vortex of a civil war with the Sri Lankan state?

The ‘Indian Tamils’, also called Estate Tamils or Upcountry Tamils, are the descendants of the indentured workers brought by the British to Ceylon from the erstwhile Madras Presidency (present day state of Tamil Nadu) between 1820s and 1930s to work on the central hill plantations of tea, coffee and rubber, frequently under inhuman conditions. By contrast, the Sri Lankan Tamils, also referred to as Eelam Tamils, are said to be the descendants of Tamils of the old Jaffna Kingdom and east coast chieftaincies called Vannamials.

The extent of their similarity is generally their shared language, and to some extent, their religion — most of Tamil speaking people are Hindus.

Historically speaking

Divisive and discriminatory ethno-chauvinism has characterised Sri Lankan politics from its inception as a newly independent state, as a result of the same ‘divide and conquer’ policy of the British colonisers that the whole Indian subcontinent is painfully familiar with. In case of Sri Lanka, ethnic tensions between the “Buddhist” Sinhalese and the “Hindu” Tamil people were fed and exploited. The Tamil minority had been disproportionately favoured by the British, which continually fuelled the ire of the majority Sinhalese, who assumed command after independence and successively implemented anti-Tamil policies. When Ceylon became independent in 1948, these Indian-origin Tamils formed slightly over half of Sri Lanka’s Tamil population.

Under the charge of Sinhalese controlled national government, the Indian-origin Tamils were classified as “non-Sri Lankans” in 1948 and stripped of Sri Lankan citizenship, followed by retraction of voting rights in the country where most of the families had spent a number of generations. Once the voting rights were taken away, the already destitute community lost political representation and were economically ignored by the Sinhalese state’s development initiatives. Living on plantations in nearly slave like conditions, they were among the hardest hit from state neglect and derision of Tamils.

Sirimavo-Shastri Pact for a “stateless” people

The next blow came in 1964 in the form of the pact signed between Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri, then Sri Lankan and Indian Prime Ministers respectively, to settle the issue of the nearly 9,75,000 upcountry Tamils in Sri Lanka (considered a “stateless people” by India and “Indian nationals” by Sri Lanka) by repatriating about 5,25,000 back to India and granting Sri Lankan citizenship to 3,00,000. The remaining ones were to be “equally divided” at a later stage. This poorly implemented pact for quite unpopular among the community itself whose own wishes were never a part of the consideration. By 1981 it is estimated that only about 2,80,000 were repatriated to India and about 1,60,000 were granted Sri Lankan citizenship. India had been slow to provide citizenship at its end and refused to take any more persons after the 15-year period after the pact expired in 1982. The remaining people remained without citizenship in Sri Lanka.

Caught in crossfire and doubly disadvantaged

Norwegian anthropologist Oddvar Hollup observed in the early nineties: “The Estate Tamils, living in the central highlands, have a different involvement in the ethnic conflict and are often denied a separate identity which distinguish them from the rather self-conscious, indigenous Sri Lankan Tamils who live in the northern and eastern provinces”.

Tamils in Sri Lanka have hardly been a uniform or united group in spite of the shared language. ‘Indian Tamils’ living in central and southern Sri Lanka, often inhabited, surrounded and dominated by Sinhala majority areas, were at a geographical distance and separate in origin from the Eelam Tamils of northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Perceived as low-caste outsiders, most of the upcountry Tamils found themselves at the lowest rung in the social hierarchy. The caste situation has not improved much.

Unlike the Eelam Tamils, their upcountry counterparts had not been direct participants in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict and generally did not subscribe to the separatist vision of an independent state for the Tamils. Instead, the community preferred to imagine a future in a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka. This distinction notwithstanding, they were victims of state and structural violence — often implicated in the backlash violence against LTTE.

In Sinhalese-dominant areas, it [was] the Estate Tamils who represent the recognizable ‘the other’ to the Sinhalese”, Hollup wrote. During the many Anti-Tamil riots in the early 80s, thousands of upcountry Tamils were mercilessly attacked by the state forces and uprooted from their historical homes under the state’s ethno-racist policies.

A long overdue Sri Lankan identity

For the longest time, the point of view of the Upcountry Tamils got little understanding and recognition amidst an assumed binary of Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Although now a segment of upcountry Tamils have urban jobs, a majority of them still live around and work in underpaid plantations jobs. Many continue to be poorly educated. After a prolonged struggle, the Sri Lankan Parliament in 2003 unanimously passed Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin Act No.35 of 2003 which granted Sri Lankan citizenship to the remaining “Indian Tamils” in the central highlands, still numbering 168,141 at the time.

The group has long rejected this historical baggage-ridden nomenclature of “Indian Tamils”, slapped on them by the state, and prefer to call themselves ‘Malaiyaka Tamil’ (upcountry Tamils), as a reference to the central highlands of Sri Lanka (instead of their country of origin) where they settled and belong to in Sri Lanka.

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  1. B
    Billy the billy
    May 16, 2017 at 11:02 pm
    wow so much misinformation ..for a fact indian tamils didn't lose any voting rights, where as they never had such rights in the first place to begin with, also the same act which defined who were eligible to get lankan citizenship was voted in favor by the sri lankan tamils as well.
    Reply
    1. S
      Siva
      May 17, 2017 at 9:48 am
      Neither did the Sinhalese and the others but you got it and denied them. They were not eligible for anything despite earning most of Sri Lanka's foreign exchange just because they were still Hindus and retained their Tamil iden y but around 50 of the present day so called Sinhalese whose ancestors only arrived from South India( Tamil Nadu and some from Kerala) a century or two before and now have become Sinhalese Buddhists and Christians, may even your ancestors, were eligible for everything just because they now called themselves Sinhalese. Many of the Sinhalese politicians and aristocrats who were and are still beating the anti Tamil drum are of recent Indian Tamil ancestry. EG. SWRD Bandaranaicke, JR Jayawardene, Srimavo Bandaranaicke. When the Kandyan Convention was signed in 1815 giving the so called Sinhalese/Tamil Kingdom to the British, half the so called Sinhalese Kandyan Chiefs signed it in Tamil, including the ancestor of Mrs. Bandaranaike,.
      Reply
      1. S
        Siva
        May 17, 2017 at 9:54 am
        The last king of Kandy was a Tamil and he and his queen, as well as his children are now buried in m Tamil Nadu . None of the ancient kings in the island ever called themselves Sinhalese or Aryans as they were neither. They were Hindu or Buddhist Dravidian Tamil Nagas or from South Indian dynasties. These ancient kings were common to both the Sinhalese and Eelam Tamils. It was only after the 12Th century , when a separate Sinhalese iden y definitely came into effect that Sinhalese and Tamil kingdoms came into effect. Even then the so called Sinhalese dynasties had a Tamil south Indian origin
    2. P
      Prakash
      May 15, 2017 at 3:59 pm
      Tamils in jaffnna were discriminated by sinhalese and gave them veey low castes untouchable status. Thats wjy they startes the war
      Reply
      1. R
        Raj A
        May 14, 2017 at 4:26 pm
        Successive Sri-Lankan regimes have been taking India for a ride for 40 years! India needs to realize that the Sri-Lankan regimes have worked with the enemies of India and continue to do so. For example, during the Indo- stan War in 1971, stani aircrafts refuelled at the Bandaranaike airport in Colombo. In June 2011, stani High Commissioner to Sri-Lanka, Seema Ilahi Baloch thanked Sri-Lanka for all the help it provided Islamabad during the 1971 war against India. The current Indian government will again be conned by the regime in Colombo! Regime such as the one in Colombo will not respond to anything other than clear ultimatums backed up by sanctions and the use of force.
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        1. R
          Raj A
          May 14, 2017 at 4:25 pm
          All Tamil people have originated from India, regardless of where they live. Therefore, it is India’s responsibility to act decisively when they are in danger. Tamils have been massacred in large numbers by the Sinhalese for decades and India has done very little to protect them! Does India have anything to show for its investment (blood, sweat and money) in Sri-Lanka over the last 40 years? Indo-Lanka Accord was signed in 1987. The Sri-Lankan government has not even implemented the limited devolution proposed in the accord yet! It is asking for more time!
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          1. S
            sach
            May 15, 2017 at 8:55 am
            Exactly all Tamil people originated in India. Tell that to tamils in Sri Lanka. Because they reject it. Tell them. then all problems of Sri Lanka will vanish.
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            1. C
              Carsan
              May 17, 2017 at 5:37 am
              Sinhalese people originated from Bangladesh. Stuf. Tamils and Sinhalese reach the Islands around the same period. It's probably Tamils first considering how close Tamil Nadu is to Elam. You are where you are right now. If Sir Lanka treated all it's people with respect and dignity there would have been no civil war.
          2. R
            Raj A
            May 14, 2017 at 4:15 pm
            Where did the Sinhalese come from? Prince Vijaya, the first Sinhalese King of Sri Lanka, was kicked out of East India for criminal behaviour! Prince Vijaya and his followers indulged in evil conduct. King Sinhabahu (Vijaya's father) had half their heads shaved (a sign of disgrace) and exiled Vijaya with his followers, their wives and children, from the kingdom. After resting in several places in India, the wayward prince and his ociates eventually arrived in Sri-Lanka.
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            1. S
              sach
              May 15, 2017 at 8:56 am
              Sinhalese did not come from anywhere. Sinhala civilisation was originated in Sri Lanka
              Reply
              1. P
                Prakash
                May 15, 2017 at 4:02 pm
                Sinhalese e kings made tamils low caste untoucjables and push them to jaffna. Are you denying this
                1. C
                  Carsan
                  May 17, 2017 at 5:47 am
                  Here are some things to read up on before u start making claims. Everyone came from somewhere, at the very start from Africa. Please take a look at these, and when u want to make such absurd arguments think about where u are getting your facts from. : indianexpress /article/research/yes-the-sinhalese-have-their-origins-in-bengal-odisha/ s: en.wikipedia /wiki/Genetic_studies_on_Sri_Lankan_Tamils checkout the footnotes in the Wikipedia page for the studies.
                  1. S
                    Siva
                    May 17, 2017 at 7:26 am
                    Sach is a Sinhalese extremist you will see him commenting at various Sri Lankan and other sites espousing Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy. The ancient population of Sri Lanka are the Yakka, Naga, and the Veddah, all ancient spill over from south India when there was a land bridge. The Yakka and Naga are Dravidian and spoke a simple semi Tamil Dravidian language called Elu. This is how the Tamil word Eelam/Eezham the name for the island comes from. The Eezhavas of Kerala migrated to the Tamil Chera kingdom from Eezham. Elu Prakrit Hela basically old Sinhalese. Old Sinhalese ,as well as Elu which was more or less the same as the Vedda language is very close to proper Tamil than modern Sinhalese, Most of the ancestors of the present day Sinhalese migrated from Tamil Nadu. The Sinhalese have a 70 Indian Tamil DNA and 25 Bengali DNA. Sri Lankan Tamil 17 Indian Tamil DNA 30 Bengali DNA and the rest common with original Sinhalese. Proving both people originated from one stock.
                2. s
                  s. vijesandiran
                  May 14, 2017 at 11:40 am
                  very Nicely written. But even the Tamils in Tamil Nadu and their political and community leaders do not aware about the Indian origin Tamils in Sri Lankan compared to what they know about North east Tamils. Even we have nearly 200 years history in Sri Lanka and sharing more than 7 of the Total population of Sri Lanka, until the recent years Indian leaders were not given due place to the issues related to this community. after the Indian Prime Mnister Narendra Modi, the all India turned their sight to us, THANKS to PM and we hope that The India and our Mother Land Bharatha will give due concern regarding political, cultural, economic and social Upliftment of the Indian origin in Sri Lanka especially for their security and earn equal status with other communities. Sangaran Vijesandiran, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka
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                  1. S
                    Siva
                    May 17, 2017 at 7:36 am
                    Contd The closest relatives to the indigenous Eelam Tamils from the north and east are the Sinhalese, the original as many of the present day Sinhalese are purely descended from Indian tails who were imported into the island as indentured labour by the Portuguese and Dutch. The history of Tamil and Saivaism is far more older and predates Buddhism. This is the reason you find the five ancient Siva Ishwarams and Kathirkamam dedicated to Tamil god Muruga the Sinhalese war god. The father if the king who converted to Buddhism was King Mutta Sivan. This is a pure Tamil name. Meaning the great or venerated Siva Mootha Sivan MuttaSivan. When the population in the south converted to Buddhism 2300 years ago, they gradually corrupted their Tamil dialect with the Pali and Sanskrit of Buddhism and a new language gradually emerged in these regions by the 8Th century called Sinhalala from another ancient Tamil name for the island. alam meaning land of red or copper
                    Reply
                    1. S
                      Siva
                      May 17, 2017 at 7:45 am
                      Cntd Chepu/Chemp or Chikkapu in Tamil means red. Alam means a sliver of land. Like Keralam/Cheralam. Chembu means copper. Chepu/Chembu Alam alam . and the semi Tamil Elu speaking population in the island were either called Eelavar/Eezhavar or Chingkalavar. Other Tami names for the island was Cheran theevu ( the island of the Tamil Cheras) that became Serendip . Eelam got corrupted to Ceylon. The population in the north and east remained Saivite or converted to Buddhism and reconverted back to Hinduism like the rest of India, therefore here they retained their ancient Tamil iden y. Close proximity to South India and constant invasions enforced this Tamil iden y in these regions. Also they ruled their own lands until the British joined them with the Sinhalese lands down south. When the Sinhalese iden y formed down south they allam became Sinhala in Pali and had nothing to with a lion. In the Tamil parts they kept the other Tamil name Eelam and their land Tamil Eelam.
                  2. K
                    Kaliyug
                    May 14, 2017 at 12:29 am
                    What the FK. The same article was published a few hours ago in the name of Jayaram. Scoundrels are at it again.
                    Reply
                    1. S
                      Suraj
                      May 14, 2017 at 1:44 am
                      That was different article written by someone else. You obviously didn't bother to read it as it does not suit your agenda.
                      Reply
                    2. V
                      vijay
                      May 14, 2017 at 12:00 am
                      Some body in aidmk has given Mody information that is not quite true about Late MGR (mannath gangadharan Ramachandran) who was actually born in a small country town called vadavannur in palghat district,kerala state. He ran away from home at an early age and joined drama troupe and slowly worked his way up to get where ever he got. He was my hero as well. M.N Nambiar, a great actor in his own right has worked with MGR in very many films. One can actually see the place where the Mannath house stood. I don't think mr Ramachandran pla any part in his rebirth as a sri lankan. May be his friend late Amma might have decided that sri lankan born sound more exotic than the nearby Palghat. No harm done. May be MGR might have chuckled quietly at Mr.Modi's reference.Since both of then are performers he would have taken it as the performer's licence..
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                      1. D
                        Danny prakash
                        May 13, 2017 at 11:08 pm
                        The problm s nt just the sri lankan dogs, but our so called tamil well wishers lik karuna & foreigners lik sonia, india was generous in acceptin the tibetians, bengali muslims, but not the hindu tamilians, indian govt shd show som spine in dealin wit the sri lankan dogs,
                        Reply
                        1. C
                          Critical
                          May 13, 2017 at 10:54 pm
                          Well done Modiji, your trips abroad are not just foreign flights, but genuinely supportive of even forgotten Indians dis d all over the globe by the Britishers for their personal gains.
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                          1. G
                            G. Munendran
                            May 13, 2017 at 9:58 pm
                            Author of this article dwelt very little on the plight of entire Tamil population and restricted to Malayaka Tamils only which too is inadequate and not in tune with the headlines. True picture of state of affairs as reflected by UN Human Rights Group is totally missing except the b er of Ndia in 1964 pact.
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                            1. C
                              Critical
                              May 13, 2017 at 10:50 pm
                              Well Munendran, On the contrary there is someone for the first time focussed on the Malayaka Tamils of whom not much was known and perhaps unfairly treated by Srimao Sashtri and the Sri Lankan Government. I would say a good job Nandini Rathi, your article is new and informative.
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                              1. R
                                Rohan
                                May 17, 2017 at 3:07 pm
                                Yes, it is true , at least these people have India as a fall back and if things go wrong have a choice to return to India and India will have to accept them, This is what all Sinhalese governments were doing to them, as they are of Indian heritage. However the plight of the indigenous Eelam Tamil from the north and east is even more precarious, they are not of Indian origin or heritage, and have no where to run but sit and fight for their land, that after independence, is now being systematically and deliberately being stolen by the Sinhalese and Muslims, with the help of all Sri Lankan governments. When they arrived in India claiming refuge they were treated very badly, compared to Tibetans, Bangladeshis and others. Prior to 1948 the Sinhalese had no peep or control of these ancient Eelam Tamil lands in the north and east of the island, until the British united their lands with the Sinhalese lands in 1833 to create a new colony called Ceylon and handed the reigns to the Sinhalese
                            2. A
                              ASHOK KUMAR
                              May 13, 2017 at 9:54 pm
                              During a press conference in Colombo. one reporter asked Modiji, while you talk of Swamy Vivekananda and Budha, but you befooled 125 crore Indians during 2014 Lok Sabha elections by promising them 15 lakhs each in heir accounts. That way, your actions do not match with your deeds. Modi simply said, ........Shut up..........your mouth.
                              Reply
                              1. K
                                kishore
                                May 13, 2017 at 10:13 pm
                                किस दुनिया में रहते हैं श्रीमान ?
                                Reply
                                1. I
                                  Indian
                                  May 13, 2017 at 10:49 pm
                                  Another Sonia's slave!
                                2. g
                                  guru592006
                                  May 13, 2017 at 10:40 pm
                                  Please share the video where modi said about putting 15 lakhs in your account
                                  Reply
                                  1. V
                                    vijay
                                    May 14, 2017 at 12:14 am
                                    Your stupidity is only eclipsed by your idiocy. By the look of ,you and your ic friend back slapped each other at your journalistic brilliances and must have had a beer or two in some seedy joints in colombo. What you failed to realise when you were ecstatic about your once in a life time coup, is that crittens like you are just pimples in the of an elephant as far as Mr.Modi is concerned. He moves in such a high plane that your a.;s will be frozen stiff if you try to rise to that level.
                                    Reply
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