Colombo, May 29: With the death of Arumugan Thondaman, leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), it is as if the curtains have come down on a remarkable era in the history of the Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka.
Beginning with the dawn of independence in 1948, the era was marked by a series of crises, the most devastating of which was the denial of citizenship and franchise to almost a million Indian origin Tamils, leading to decades of Statelessness.
The Indian origin Tamils were also subjected to attacks by the majority Sinhalese during the periodic anti-Tamil riots which took place in response to the North-Eastern Tamils’ agitations for regional autonomy first and total independence later.
But the community emerged from these crises successfully due in no small measure to the prescience, forethought, sagacity, planning and courage of its leaders like Savumiamoorthy Tondaman and his grandson and successor Arumugan Thondaman.
Perhaps it was S. Thondaman’s father, Karuppiah, who showed him how to overcome adversity. Hailing from a dispossessed family of notables in Tamil Nadu, Karuppiah came to Sri Lanka to eke out a living in a tea plantation as a humble labor supervisor. Using his sharp business sense and daring, Karuppiah soon bought an estate (Wavendon) in Ramboda in Nuwara Eliya to become the first Tamil estate employee to be an estate owner. Interactions with the workers in the estate instilled in young S. Thondaman a deep interest in the issues faced by Indian Tamil workers in the plantations. He plunged into trade union work in the 1930s, but came into his own in 1950 after the formation of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) by Peri Sundaram and G.R.Motha. Its main mission became getting rid of the scourge of “Statelessness” inflicted by the citizenship acts of 1948 and 1949 and India’s refusal to absorb the Indian origin Tamils.
However, through decades of intense but peaceful and sustained struggle, utilization of numerical strength, exploitation of emerging political opportunities, and gifted with an uncanny talent for negotiation, Thondaman (and later his grandson Arumugan) secured Sri Lankan citizenship for nearly one million Indian origin Tamil estate workers by 2003.
The Soulbury constitution, which prevailed in 1947, allowed British subjects residing in Sri Lanka for five years or more, to vote. Under this, the plantation Tamils were able to elect seven members to Parliament in the 1947 elections. But on gaining independence from the British in 1948, the first thing that Lanka’s parliament did was to enact the Ceylon Citizenship Act, No. 18 of 1948. It introduced two categories, citizenship by descent and citizenship by registration. But the conditions were very stringent. Due to their shorter history in Sri Lanka, lack of proof of ancestors’ birth and other documentation-related challenges, the estate Tamil community of nearly one million were deprived of citizenship.
This was followed by the Ceylon Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Act, No. 48 of 1949, which made citizenship a prerequisite for voting in elections. Close to a million estate were disenfranchised under this. And when India refused to take them, they were rendered Stateless.
It was in 1960 that there was light at the end of the tunnel when S. Thondaman was nominated to parliament by Sirima Bandaranaike ostensibly to safeguard ‘Ceylon Indian’ interests. But Thondaman soon realized that he was not even a proverbial ‘voice in the wilderness’. In fact, he was not consulted on matters that vitally affected the lives and future of plantation Tamils. When he met Indian Prime Minister Nehru in 1963 in New Delhi, he brought to the latter’s notice that the Sirima government was planning to enter into an agreement with India to get the plantation Tamils repatriated to India. Nehru said that it was a “nonsensical idea” and agreed with Thondaman’s credo: “Plantation Tamils were born in Sri Lanka and would die in Sri Lanka.”
In 1954, Nehru had agreed to grant Indian citizenship to Indian origin Tamils who wanted Indian citizenship ( Nehru-Kotelawala Pact) but he had refused to give Indian citizenship to everybody. However, after Nehru died in 1964, his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, agreed to divide the Indian origin Tamils then numbering 975,000, into two groups – 525,000 to be given Indian citizenship and repatriated to India and 300,000 to be given Lankan citizenship. The fate of 150,000 was left undecided.
But Thondaman was not permitted to participate in the Shastri-Sirimavo talks or even present his case in Delhi. As he said later, the plantation Tamils were seen by the two countries to be a sack of potatoes to be divided among them, without any regard for individual preferences or human considerations. In 1965, when Thondaman was nominated to parliament, he used his relations with Prime Minister D.S.Sennayake, to delay repatriation to India.
Sure enough, out of 525,000 earmarked for India, only 80,000 registered for Indian citizenship and only a few were repatriated by the 1970s. A frustrated Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, declared that the grant of Lankan citizenship would depend on the number being repatriated. At Sirima’s insistence, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi entered into a second agreement in 1974, according which, India and Lanka were to divide the residue of 150,000 equally. Thondaman’s plea to treat plantation Tamils as humans again went unheeded.
In 1974, due to nationalization, the estates were in a bad way with many workers out of job and even dying of starvation. If they went out looking for work, they would be bundled into lorries and sent back to the estates. Again, Thondaman’s plea to let them work outside the estates fell on deaf ears. Plantation workers were dubbed Kalla Thonis (illegal immigrants) and arrested. Attacks on Tamil plantation workers continued into the 1980s and stopped only when the CWC replied in kind.
In the mid-seventies, Thondaman dallied with the North-Eastern Tamils’ Eelam movement but opted out soon enough as he felt that the destiny of the plantation workers in Central and South Sri Lanka lay with the Sinhalese majority as they shared the same habitat.
Thondaman joined the government of J.R. Jayewardene in 1978. The new constitution of 1978 removed the distinction between citizens of descent and citizens by registration. That put an end to many problems faced by Indian Tamils. As minister for Rural Industrial Development, Thondaman was able to foster dairy projects and small industries among the Indian Tamil people, observed D.B.S.Jeyaraj.
In 1982, India abrogated the Sirima-Shastri Pact. In 1986, the 94,000 persons who were to be offered Indian citizenship under previous agreements and had not applied for such citizenship, and had applied for Lankan citizenship instead were granted Lankan citizenship by registration. In 1988, those who had applied for Indian Citizenship also got Lankan citizenship. In 2003 parliament passed a law to give Lankan citizenship to all persons of Indian origin who had been living in Sri Lanka since 1964. Their descendants were also included.
According to Jeyeraj, the rise of violence in the North Eastern Sri Lanka and India’s pushy interventions on the Tamil question in the 1980s, forced Lankan governments to re-think on the plantation Tamils. Thondaman also assiduously cultivated top Sinhala leaders, entering into deals with them to benefit his people.
After being a cabinet minister in various governments for 21 years, Thondaman died in 1999. His grandson Arumugan Thondaman who succeeded him carried forward his policies and got benefits for the plantation workers with his aggressive and yet accommodative brand of politics. He gave the plantation workers a sense of power which thwarted attempts by the majority Sinhala community to impose their will on them. Arumugan also maintained his leadership of the CWC and its pre-eminence in the plantation politics.
Due to the efforts of Arumugan and others from rival organizations, social conditions have improved in the estates. The Lankan government has built 20,000 houses and the Indian government is to build 14,000. Since 2016, estate settlements are designated as villages and are eligible for government welfare schemes. But the daily wage of Rs.700 is too low, and the estate population is still the most backward in Sri Lanka.
(The picture at the top shows Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, ministers and former MPs wheeling Arumugan’s coffin into parliament)