For Colombo, disenfranchising and derecognising the Indian-origin Tamils was a prelude to marginalising the lankan Tamils. This was done by colonising Tamil lands by Sinhala settlers, thereby changing the demographic profile of Tamil provinces
As India approached the United Nations Human Rights Council’s vote on Sri lanka ditheringly, there was a barrage of warnings against intervening in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Those who had wanted India to refrain from voting argued, inter alia, that Sri lanka had always been a friendly nation. And India’s diplomatic intervention would antagonise the island nation.
The proposition is historically unfounded. The commentators are apparently unaware that since 1930s the Sinhala leaders pursued a campaign to oust immigrant Indians from Sri lanka (then called Ceylon). The situation deteriorated to such an extent that Indian National Congress had to intervene diplomatically. Jawaharlal Nehru, deputed by the Congress, toured the island between July 15 and 25, 1939, but returned empty-handed.
A majority of those immigrants were Tamil plantation labourers. They had migrated to Ceylon since 1830s to work in coffee (subsequently abandoned), tea and rubber estates. They, like lankan Tamils, had accorded welcome to Swami Vivekananda in Kandy when the monk visited the island in January, 1897. Enumerated as ‘Indian Tamils’ in Census data, they numbered eight lakh (0.8 million) in 1931 — a cut above the lankan Tamils. They had been perceived as an asset to the agro-economy of Ceylon. But the situation altered dramatically after Donoughmore Commission (1927-1930) recommended universal franchise in British Ceylon. Under Donoughmore Constitution, the Sinhala majority asserted itself in the state council. The first state council (July 7, 1931-December 7, 1935) and the second state council (March 17, 1935-June 4, 1947) provided a pinhole view into the shape of things to come in independent Ceylon. The lankan Tamils boycotted the 1931 election to protest Donoughmore recommendations.
Apprehensive that Indian vote would undercut Sinhala dominance, the Sinhalese leader began a campaign to oust them. In 1939, AE Goonesinghe, a labour union leader-turned-Sinhala supremacist, got the state council to pass a resolution to deport 15,000 Indians despite strong objection from the Tamils. This was followed by another resolution moved by DS Senanayake, to deport all Indians appointed in Ceylon Government service after April 1, 1934, and discontinue those with less than 10 years of service.
Nehru observed, in his message to Natal Indian Congress on June 5, 1939: “Our own cousins in Burma and Ceylon have turned against them and are pursuing an ill-conceived and narrow minded policy which is sowing the seeds of bitterness between them and India”. Indian National Congress chose to depute Nehru to visit Ceylon. He toured the island between July 15 and 25, 1939, hoping to forge a diplomatic solution. But during the visit Sinhalas raised a bogey that Indians wanted to dominate and exploit Ceylon. Nehru had a tough time in issuing disclaimers that India had no intention to dominate or exploit Ceylon. On returning to Madras on July 25, Nehru despaired, “I hope that here, in this province, you will face these problems….and will prepare yourselves to face the great crisis that is bound to come in the near future.”
In February, 1940 SWRD Bandaranaike said “nothing will please me more than to see the last Indian leaving the shores of Ceylon. I say deliberately. When the last Indian leaves these shores I shall die a happy man because I know what is going on in this country”. What a proof of friendliness towards India!
Shortly after Sri lanka’s independence (1948), the DS Senanayake Government brought two legislations — Ceylon Citizenship Act, 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani (Residents) Citizenship Act, 1949. These twin legislations were aimed at turning 8,00,000 people of Indian origin non-citizens of Ceylon. People of Indian origin could not become Ceylonese citizens naturally. They would have to apply for it. The precondition was so stringent, and procedure so exacting, that many illiterate Tamil plantation labourers were only expected to be left out.
The Indian Tamil question became a bugbear after Nehru became the Prime Minister. Two agreements were entered into by India with Sri lanka in 1954 — January 18 and October 10 — to address the crisis. But everything went in vain. On September 30, 1954 Nehru was constrained to observe in lok Sabha: “Normally speaking, people are not driven out of any country, even if they are nationals of another country. Individuals may be sent out if they misbehave, but whole crowds of people, tens and hundreds of thousands, are not sent out. Such a thing is unknown, except under very abnormal conditions such as prevailed under Hitler.”
A question in Rajya Sabha by Maheswar Naik and NM lingam on September 18, 1958, fetched the reply that Indian Tamils desirous of Ceylonese citizenship had filed 2,37,034 application covering 8,29,619 persons. Ceylon had accepted only 24,127 applications covering 94,824 persons. A total of 1,95,842 applications covering 6,75,464 persons had been rejected. The Indian Government merely insisted they were citizens of Ceylon.
The issue of stateless Indian-origin Tamils in Sri lanka remained unresolved over the following three decades. On November 19, 1988, Sri lanka finally granted citizenship to Indian-origin Tamils. But it was clearly not as a result of any friendship towards India. It was a result of, first, a clout the Indian-origin Tamils had developed under their leader S Thondaman, and, second, Colombo’s compulsion to counterbalance the lankan Tamils who have begun full-fledged war under the The liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for sovereign Tamil Eelam.
Until the late 1970s, the only Tamil problem in Sri lanka that India knew of was the issue of plantation Tamils. It was only when the Civil War began in 1983 that Indians (outside Tamil Nadu) realised there were indigenous Tamils in Sri lanka. For Colombo, disenfranchising and de-recognising the Indian-origin Tamils was prelude to marginalisation of the lankan Tamils. This was done through a slew of measures like colonisation of Tamil lands by Sinhala settlers thereby changing the demographic profile of Tamil provinces, pushing Sinhala-only policy, excluding Tamils in education institutions through quota system etc.
At first even the lankan Tamil leaders like Arunachal Mahadev and GG Ponnambalam failed to realise the game plan. It was Samuel James Vellupillai Chelvanayakam who saw through Colombo’s sinister designs. He raised the demand for federal polity in unitary Ceylon in 1951. In every election from 1956 to 1970, lankan Tamils voted for ‘Federation’. In 1977, they voted overwhelmingly for an independent Tamil Eelam.