In search of a new identity

Print edition : August 04, 2001

A passionate debate is on among the 'Indian Tamils' in Sri Lanka about the need for the community to assert its separate identity and to achieve for itself a respectable place as an integral part of Sri Lankan society.

INTERPRETING the complex social mosaics and cultural diversities of South Asia in general and Sri Lanka in particular is a difficult task. Within each space and linguistic group a complex set of social relations bring together a number of people who do not want to be submerged within the dominant group, people who seek their own unique identity. In such situations, a unidimensional approach is not only inadequate but could also lead to social turmoil. Identity formation is not just a response and a reaction to a centralised state's efforts to impose a monolithic culture; it is also a response to the denial of separate identity to smaller groups by dominant minority groups.

In the wider ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state, the interests and aspirations of smaller groups, such as Indian Tamils and Muslims, are generally ignored. In the propaganda war that was unleashed after the communal holocaust of July 1983, the two sides, for their own reasons, clubbed together all Tamil-speaking peoples as one homogeneous entity. In order to justify the privileged position enjoyed by the Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan government argue, with the help of statistics, that the Tamil minority enjoyed a privileged position under British rule, that the achievement-oriented Tamils dominated the field of education and the bureaucracy, and that they had considerable influence in the country's economic life. The government said that it was only trying to redress the relative deprivation of the majority group. The Indian Tamils, however, point out that this reality was applicable only to Sri Lankan Tamils; as far as they are concerned, even after 53 years of Independence they are at the bottom of the ladder in every sector of life, they say. In order to mobilise international, especially Indian, support for the Tamils' cause, the leaders of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and various militant organisations portrayed Sri Lanka's Tamil population as a homogenous group subjected to severe discrimination by successive Sinhalese-dominated governments. They deliberately glossed over the fact that the Tamils in Sri Lanka do not form a homogeneous group; in fact they are divided into Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils and Muslims. Their grievances and aspirations as also the solutions they seek and the methods of their struggle are all different. What is more, even among Sri Lankan Tamils, there are differences among Jaffna Tamils, Batticaloa Tamils and Colombo Tamils.

In a Jaffna street. The people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka are in the throes of a great change.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

After interacting with a cross-section of Indian Tamils - political leaders, trade unionists, academicians and workers in the plantations - this writer has become conscious of the fact that the people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka are in the throes of a great change. A lively debate is under way in the community regarding their identity and their future role in the island nation.

THE Indian Tamils - also called people of Indian origin, estate Tamils and up-country Tamils - are the descendants of Indian labourers who were brought to the island by the British colonialists as labourers in the tea, rubber and coconut plantations. They formed the bulk of the labour force that turned the malaria-infested forests of Sri Lanka into rich plantations, which sustains the Sri Lankan economy.

Unfortunately, after Independence, the Indian Tamils were reduced to the status of merchandise to be divided between Colombo and New Delhi in the name of "good neighbourly relations". For the ruling elite in New Delhi and Colombo, they were an agonising and embarrassing set of statistics; for the estate management, they constituted cheap, docile labour to be exploited; and for the fanatics among the Sinhalese, they were defenceless victims in times of communal conflict. By the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, 1964, and the Sirimavo-Indira Gandhi Pact 1974, New Delhi agreed to confer citizenship on 600,000 of them (plus the natural increase in this figure), whereas Colombo agreed to confer citizenship on 400,000 (plus their natural increase).

CENSUS operations started in Sri Lanka in 1871. The Census of 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901 had lumped together Ceylon Tamils and Indian Tamils. Since 1911, Indian Tamils have been shown as a separate category. The population statistics are revealing. In 1911, Indian Tamils constituted 12.9 per cent of the population, whereas Sri Lankan Tamils formed 12.8 per cent; in 1921, 13.4 per cent and 11.5 per cent; in 1931, 15.2 and 11.3; in 1946, 11.7 and 11.0; in 1953, 12.0 and 10.9; in 1963, 10.6 and 11.0; in 1971, 11.6 and 11.2; and in 1981, 5.5 per cent and 12.7 per cent respectively.

The statistics reveal a more than 50 per cent fall in the Indian Tamil population between 1971 and 1981. The main reason for the fall was the repatriation of Indian citizens to India. Lesser known, but equally relevant, is the fact that many Indian Tamils, after acquiring Sri Lankan citizenship, declared themselves as Sri Lankan Tamils. Some Tamils who migrated to urban areas and also to the North and the East also followed this same example. The recent appeal made by various Indian organisations that all people of Indian origin should declare themselves as Indian Tamils in the 2001 Census has to be viewed in this background.

The Indian Tamils do share the common bonds of the Hindu religion and the Tamil language with the Sri Lankan Tamils. Even then, they consider themselves as a separate ethnic group. The explanation has to be sought in their geographical location, political aspirations, social divisions and conflicting interests. Unlike the Sri Lankan Tamil settlements in the Jaffna peninsula, the plantations are located in the heartland of the Sinhalese people. This fact has made them realise that their present and future are closely intertwined with the Sinhalese population. They must co-exist with the Sinhalese. In other words, Tamil Eelam, even if it comes about, will not lead to their salvation.

It is the tragedy of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka that leaders of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils have failed to take a common stand on many crucial issues that affect the two ethnic groups. Except for a brief interlude in the early 1970s, when the Federal Party, the Tamil Congress and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) formed a United Front to oppose the 1972 Constitution, the two political streams have taken parallel and occasionally even contradictory courses. In May 1976, when the TULF raised the demand for a separate State of Tamil Eelam, the CWC dissociated itself from what it considered was an unrealistic slogan. Attempts made by the TULF and militant groups such as the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) and the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS) to get a foothold in the plantation areas did not make much headway.

The Indian Tamils also point out that sections of the Sri Lankan Tamils in the Tamil Congress under G.G. Ponnambalam were hand in glove with the D.S. Senanayake government in rendering the Indian Tamils stateless. In his book Outside the Archives, Y.D. Gundevia, former Commonwealth Secretary, writes about Sir Kanthaya Vaidyanathan, Foreign Secretary to D.S. Senanayake's first United National Party (UNP) government, "arguing with us Ceylon's case against the Indian Tamil in the estates of his country". The Indian Tamils also question the sincerity of the Sri Lankan Tamils, moderates and extremists alike, who participated in the Thimpu talks. Among the four principles put forward by the Tamils was "the right of full citizenship and other fundamental democratic rights of all the Tamils, who look upon the island as their home". If the problem of statelessness was finally resolved, it was owing to sustained struggles, parliamentary and non-parliamentary, under the leadership of the late S. Thondaman, supported by all trade unions in the plantation areas.

Although the Indian Tamils do not subscribe to the demand for a Tamil Eelam, they are conscious of the fact that their future is intertwined with the manner in which the ethnic conflict will be finally resolved. Although their votes went to the UNP or the People's Alliance (P.A.) in successive elections since 1977, they were subjected to vicious and savage attacks in 1977, 1981 and 1983. The unprecedented killings in the Bindunuwewa Rehabilitation Centre and the subsequent violence in the plantation areas in October 2000 (Frontline, November 24, 2000) sent shock waves through the hill country. Thondaman's attempts to bring about reconciliation between Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were an expression of the Indian Tamil community's conviction that its future in Sri Lanka would be safe only when ethnic harmony was restored.

Compounding the situation had been the wide social disparities between the Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil groups. The Hindu revivalist movement in the second half of the 19th century strengthened the orthodox elements and, simultaneously, the dominance of the Vellalas, who were also the largest segment among the Sri Lankan Tamils. The Vellalas were also the main beneficiaries of the educational and economic advancement that came under the British. On the other hand, the majority of the Indian Tamils had been plantation workers and they belonged to the lower castes of Hindu society. Adi Dravida caste groups such as Pallan, Paraiyan and Chakkiliyan constitute nearly half of the up-country Tamils, and Vellalans, Kallans, Ambalakkarans, Agamudiyan and other non-Brahmin caste groups the other half. Linguistic affinities have proved inadequate to overcome the divisive effects of the caste system; the Vellala pride and self-righteousness on the one hand and contempt for the lower castes on the other have created a wide chasm between the two groups. The older generation in the plantations still recalls the indignities to which they were subjected by the upper-caste Vellalas; the up-country Tamil was referred to as Kallatoni (illegal immigrant) and Thottakattan (barbarian from the tea estate).

ONE aspect of the educational system in Sri Lanka has caused this writer considerable anguish. Religion is a compulsory subject in the school curriculum. The Hinduism that is taught in Sri Lankan schools, as Prof. Valentine Daniel has pointed out, "is the Saiva Siddhanta, which Jaffna Tamils claimed to have preserved and nurtured in pristine purity". Even the subject is called not Hinduism but Saiva Neri (Saiva Marga). The colourful folk religion, which has added zest and variety to the Hindu religion and which is practised in the hill country, does not get adequately reflected in the course content. Are the boys and girls in the hill country "children of a lesser god"? Will they not develop a feeling of alienation and an inferiority complex if their religious practices do not find a mention in the school curriculum? The authorities must take remedial measures: they must reconstitute the textbooks committee and get the lessons rewritten so that all aspects of Hinduism get reflected in the textbooks. If Hinduism has withstood the test of time, it is because the religion is, as the Indian philosopher-statesman Dr. S. Radhakrishnan has pointed out, a "way of life".

Equally interesting is the contrasting approaches adopted by successive Sri Lankan governments towards the two communities. With the rise of militancy among Sri Lankan Tamils, the dominant Sinhalese view was, and still is, that the Sri Lankan Tamils are an integral part of the Sri Lankan nation. However, the Indian Tamils were told that they were not Sri Lankans; they should be repatriated to India as Indian citizens, at a time when they were striving to become an integral part of the country.

The Indian Tamils, as Valentine Daniel has pointed out, "are different from the Jaffna Tamils, they also have come to be different from the Tamils of the mainland whom they left fifty to a hundred and fifty years ago". These and other realities have spurred a lively debate within the community regarding their emerging identity and also the name by which they should call themselves. Ilanchezhian and the late R.R. Sivalingam were the pioneers to use the term Children of Malaiham. The term Malaiham (hill country) is an expression of righteous indignation and also of self-assertion. It is a way of challenging and setting right the indignities to which the community was subjected for several decades. Interestingly, a few educated people have started to reconstruct the great history and heritage of the community. C.V. Velupillai, the Indian Tamil poet, in his conversations with Valentine Daniel, has given vignettes of Malaiha Tamizharin Puranam (epic of the Hill Country Tamils).

Another factor deserves mention here. The Cinderella treatment accorded to the Indian community was in a way linked to the name "Indian Tamils". Since they have acquired Sri Lankan citizenship and have become a permanent feature of the demographic profile of the island, they want to assert their Sri Lankan identity by discarding the prefix "Indian". Their day-to-day life was, and is, moulded by the hills, and they want to call themselves Malaiha Tamils.

The Indian Tamils living in Colombo and other urban areas are not happy with the term Malaiham. They argue that they live outside the hill country. It is true that they live in urban areas, but at the same time their roots are in the hill country. This healthy and vibrant debate among the Malaiha Tamils about their changing identity in independent Sri Lanka is to be welcomed. Once a consensus is reached, the government can be requested to adopt the new nomenclature in its records.

Professor V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor