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.
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.