A promise of identity

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe hints at measures to end the problems of 1.5 lakh stateless Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka.

in Kandy

AS the Sri Lankan peace process aimed at solving the decades-old separatist crisis chugs along, a deeper, long-standing problem, one faced by the island's Indian Tamils, who officially constitute 5.08 per cent of its population, has now come centre stage.

Nearly 1.5 lakh Indian Tamils are stateless. An assurance from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe - that a draft Bill was getting ready to grant citizenship to these disenfranchised people - has given scope for optimism that at long last the stateless Tamils will regain their long-lost identity. The Prime Minister's promise came at the 33rd biennial convention of the Ceylon Workers Congress in Kandy, which was held between February 14 and 16. The broad endorsement from speakers belonging to all political parties of the need to solve the issue of statelessness has provided reason for added optimism.

The forefathers of the Indian Tamils trekked through hostile terrain to the island's plantations. The estate workers are today recognised as being the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy, largely dependent as it is on plantation crops, especially tea.

The public spotlight has been away from the island's one-million-strong estate Tamils, as it was focussed on the ethnic trouble in the North and East during the past two decades. But their difficulties pre-date the separatist call from Sri Lankan Tamil organisations. To begin with, there are two figures on the number of Indian Tamils: the census figure of 8.5 lakhs and the estimated figure of 1.5 lakh stateless persons. These two together could take the Indian Tamil population beyond the one-million mark.

The story of the disenfranchised Tamils starts during colonial rule. Soon after Sri Lanka was granted Independence in 1948, two acts - the Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949 - disenfranchised almost all upcountry Tamils.

Subsequent pacts between the then Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka and India, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964) and Sirimavo and Indira Gandhi (1974) resulted in 3.75 lakh Tamils becoming Sri Lankan citizens (six lakh were to become Indians). The present problem relates to the residue of those who did not opt to become Indians and chose to stay on in the island. According to estimates made in 1988, around 95,000 people had chosen Sri Lanka as their home land. If one adds the natural increase to this figure since then, a total of 1.5 lakh Tamils are stateless in Sri Lanka.

Wickremasinghe's assurance raised hopes in the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), a key coalition partner of his party, that the problem will be solved once and for all.

The disenfranchisement episode is reflective of the impact minority votes have on the island's democratic process. If one were to set aside the simplistic view of Sri Lankan identity politics through a binary view of Sinhala-Tamil relationship and look into the real differences, the plight of the estate Tamils will become even more evident.

The Indian Tamils are concentrated in Central Sri Lanka, with the highest presence in Nuwara Eliya, where they constitute 51.3 per cent of the district's population. They also have a visible presence in Badulla (18.2 per cent), Kandy (8.4 per cent), Ratnapura (7.8 per cent) and Kegalle (5.9 per cent).

The issue of disenfranchisement was directly related to perceptions among the majority that a large Indian Tamil presence would sway the voter-base and thereby determine parliamentary electoral outcome. Scholars described this as a coalition of the elite. However, Sri Lanka's politics since the emergence of the CWC, particularly since the 1970s, bears ample evidence that the tilting power to determine the final parliamentary configuration depended on the minority parties.

For instance, the late Saumiyamurthy Thondaman, former president of the CWC, was in all cabinets since the 1970s, carrying with him CWC parliamentarians to emerge as the kingmaker of his time. The fact that the CWC provided the final numbers to help the major parties form governments reflects the success of the political strategy of alignment adopted by Thondaman.

Since 1977, after the Vadukkottai resolution was passed calling for a separate linguistic state, Thondaman opted to differ on the issue of secession. This started a new trend in Sri Lanka's politics, which was later adopted by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.

While this has avoided the Indian Tamils from taking to armed conflict to win their rights, much remains to be done in terms of socio-economic improvement. The basic problems relating to education, healthcare and housing remain to be addressed. On the social front, an overwhelming majority of them continue to work in plantations, with little evidence of any outward movement. When it comes to housing, the British line system of cramped houses continues to be the predominant mode.

The politics of the Indian Tamils suffered a major jolt with the demise of S. Thondaman in 1999. His grandson, Arumugan Thondaman, was named the successor, but differences of opinion over this continue to persist. A rival group, the Upcountry People's Front, shares political power with the CWC in the United National Front Government. Though this political rivalry is relatively nascent, it cannot be ignored. In this context, it is important to note that the early history of the politics of the Sri Lankan Tamil parties bears ample evidence that competitive promise-making, matched by the reluctance of the majoritarian parties to keep the promises made, was one of the causes of the growth of militant politics.

The Kandy convention unanimously elected Arumugan Thondaman, president and the general secretary of the party. It was a statement, made in its own symbolic way, that the internal political consolidation phase had moved a step further for the young leader.

INDIAN support for this ethnic community has not been lacking. The Ceylon Estate Workers Education Trust, which has been offering scholarships for the past five decades, hopes to increase its assistance.

As a signal of continued backing, Indian High Commissioner Nirupam Sen told the CWC convention that support would be extended in the areas of healthcare, education and vocational training. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs will help establishes a modern district hospital in Hatton, in central Sri Lanka. This would have mobile units and help in providing better medical facilities, Sen said.

Discussions were also on with the political leadership of the CWC to explore the possibility of the public sector HMT setting up a vocational training centre, which would provide assistance in a wide-range of activities. Arumugan Thondaman wants to focus on issues such as education, health and housing. He is also of the view that the ethnic community has to keep itself up-to-date with the contemporary developments and emerge as a socially mobile group.

Speaking to Frontline, Arumugan Thondaman said he was confident that the issue of citizenship would be solved. Last year, when the UNF came to power, the CWC stressed that the citizenship problem must be sorted out, he said, adding that the Prime Minister wanted one year to focus on the peace process and the ceasefire. "We took it up a couple of weeks back and he assured us that by March he would sort out this citizenship matter", he said.

Pointing out that the CWC had suggested an amendment, he said, "Now all forces have agreed to it. The only thing is to put our amendment through. I think that should not be a problem. It is not important as to who claims credit as long as our problem is solved. I am 100 per cent confident that it will be solved." He was also confident that the majority parties "feel that all should be equal and that all must have their franchise".

On what has been achieved by the CWC since 1977, Arumugan Thondaman is of the view that in terms of living conditions and parliamentary representation, there has been improvement since 1977. "I agree it is not fully developed. At least we have taken one or two steps up the ladder."

For the future, his focus will be mainly on two issues: "We will stand by the CWC policy (of the past) and focus on the uplift of all members. The CWC includes Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils. We have a mixed membership. Though the Indian origin is more visible, there are others also. The CWC now has to be more broad-based." The second area of focus would be on the contribution of the CWC to the mainstream. "The CWC should take a bigger role and go on the mainstream on issues such as the peace process and the economy. Yes, there will be small ups and downs, but we should be able to cross all that," he said, emphasising that the party would not make matters difficult.

One of the resolutions made at the Kandy convention sought better representation according to the ethnic ratio. The CWC, he said, had stressed that all minorities must be properly represented in government services and other openings. "Ethnic representation may have been one of the causes of the conflict. Now that the Prime Minister has taken the initiative to bring the 20-year-long war to an end, why not, at the end of the day, make it very clear that the ethnic representation is also being implemented."

He was particularly happy at the Indian assistance for his community. "The High Commissioner told us of the support for the Tamils of Indian origin and for the peace process. I think there should not be any doubt raised on the concerns." On the approach to improve the socio-economic conditions, he feels that "instead of putting all eggs in one basket" it is better to take up the main issues, that is, education and health. "If these two improve, automatically the living style improves. As he is in charge of Housing, he is hopeful that matters will improve. However, shortage of teachers is a problem that the community will have to overcome. "We have now a shortage of 4,500 teachers. We cannot fill that shortage overnight. Our youngsters have to update their skills according to the world of today. As we enter the new era, we have to update ourselves. We have even asked India to send personnel to train these people."

While an overwhelming majority of Indian Tamils are engaged in plantation work, Arumugan Thondaman sees an eagerness among them for social mobility: "That eagerness is there but we have to provide proper infrastructure and vocational training. In the days to come I think there will be a lot of movement from the plantations to the other sectors".

Given the sharp political divides in Sri Lanka, Arumugan Thondaman is was also of the view that all political leaders of the Indian Tamils should come together. All political leaders of the community, he said, should "try to think in one line and not to cut each other's throat for political benefit".

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