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THE British colonial empire was at its zenith in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Historians have discussed how capital was mobile in this great empire as it moved from the metropolis of London to its colonies all over the world. With land available for the setting up of plantations, it was only labour that was required to be moved. Labour was recruited from British India by a system of indenture contracts, which required recruits to commit to work for a certain number of years on plantations in British colonies far away from home. People of Indian origin in Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Fiji, for example, are descendants of these labourers.

In a similar way, although not termed as “indenture”, Tamil labourers from south India were also recruited from the middle of the 19th century to work on plantations in Sri Lanka and in Crown Colonies in South-East Asia. Patrick Peebles, a historian at the University of Missouri, writes that even though the labourers recruited from south India to work in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known until 1972) were technically “free” and not bound by contracts of indenture, they were obligated to their plantations by indebtedness and loyalties to kanganies (recruiters and supervisors) and through various legislative measures (Patrick Peebles’ book is called The Plantation Tamils of Ceylon). By 1891, there were 235,000 resident Indian Tamil workers in the Sri Lankan plantations, and they gradually became permanent residents of Sri Lanka. Peebles argues that the “plantation Tamils” should have been considered a Ceylonese community well before the 20th century, but they were always treated as a distinct community. They had a unique identity that was distinct also from Sri Lankan Tamils.

According to Rani S. Pillai, a research scholar at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kerala, the post-colonial dispensation in Sri Lanka was not in favour of granting citizenship to the plantation Tamils and passed the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 [“Indo-Sri Lankan Pact of 1964 and the Problem of Statelessness—A Critique” (Afro Asian Journal of Social Sciences, 2012)]. Their lives were in a state of limbo for the next 16 years until the Sirimavo (Bandaranaike)-(Lal Bahadur) Shastri Pact of 1964. The pact consisted of an exchange of letters between the two Prime Ministers, paving the way for these stateless Tamils (approximately 975,000, according to the pact) to become citizens of either India or Sri Lanka.

Numbers and divisions

The third point of the 1964 pact states: “300,000 of these persons together with the natural increase in that number will be granted Ceylon citizenship by the Government of Ceylon. The Government of India will accept repatriation to India of 525,000 of those persons together with the natural increase in that number. The Government of India will confer citizenship of these persons.” A careful reader would have noted that the status of only 825,000 of these stateless people was settled in the pact of 1964. To deal with the remaining 150,000 people, India and Sri Lanka signed a second agreement in 1974 in which it was decided that the remainder would be split evenly between India and Sri Lanka.

Resettlement in India

Over the next 23 years after the 1964 pact, this group of plantation Tamils was resettled in various parts of southern India, but only 55 per cent were actually repatriated. This fact is borne out in data from the Rehabilitation Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs which show that only 333,953 of 600,000 have actually been repatriated. Rani S. Pillai adds: “Even the persons already repatriated have not been resettled with contentment. Social disabilities, physical hardship and mental agony have been undertaken by them for no fault of their own.” She argues that the unfairness and injustice meted out to the Indian workers from Sri Lanka was ingrained in the Pact itself as there was resentment against the repatriation in Tamil Nadu right from the beginning as it would have to absorb the largest number of repatriates.

Indefinite criteria

Another major problem was that the criteria on which people were chosen to be repatriated were never clarified. When applications were called in from the plantation workers as to who would choose to be repatriated, the majority, over 700,000, opted to stay in Sri Lanka itself. But since that country could retain only 300,000, almost 400,000 were to be forcefully repatriated. The plantation Tamils were lured by India by offers of employment in government tea/rubber/cinchona plantations, employment in government spinning mills and transport corporations. These illiterate or semi-literate labourers had no one to advise them about the actual conditions, problems and prospects in India and their rights as repatriated citizens. This provides the background to the plantation Tamils’ move to India. While many chose to come here, a few were lured by false promises and the attraction of returning to the motherland. The ad hoc process resulted in families being separated and must count as one of the least known large-scale migrations in the history of modern India.

Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed