Colombo, October 6 Thanks to the end of the war in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province in 2009, and the subsequent restoration of democracy there in 2013, depressed Tamil communities, including the Indian Origin Tamils,are becoming conscious of their constitutional and human rights and have begun to voice them, writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express.
The Indian Origin Tamils, also called Malayaha or Hill Country Tamils, number around 150,000, according to M.P.Nataraj, co-ordinator of the Vada-Kizhakku Vaazh Malayaha Tamil Makkal Onriyam (Union of Hill Country Tamils living in the North and East).
The saga of the Malayaha Tamils in the Northern Province began with the periodic anti-Tamil riots in South Sri Lanka in the post-independence period. Being the poorest of the poor workers in the tea and rubber plantations, the Indian Origin or Malayaha Tamils were the softest targets for Sinhalese mobs during riots.
Thousands of these defenseless people fled to the Tamil-majority Northern districts of Sri Lanka from the second half of the 1970s.
They did get the expected security in the North, and some NGOs like Gandhiyam helped them resettle in colonies. But re-location did not improve their economic or social status. They continued to be discriminated against.
They continued to be “coolies” or manual laborers in the farms of the upper caste Sri Lankan Tamils. They were routinely derided as “Thotta Kattaan” or uncivilized people from the tea gardens or as “Vadakaththiyaan” or from the North, that is India. Among the Sri Lankan Tamils, “Vadakaththiiyaan” is a pejorative term.
D.Siddharthan, leader of the Peoples’ Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) once told this writer that the upper caste leaders of the Tamils deliberately settled Malayaha refugees on the border between the Tamil and Sinhalese areas so that they would face the initial thrust of any armed action by the Sri Lanka security forces coming from the South.
North East Malayaha Tamil activists M.P.Nataraj and P.Muttulingam said that the then leaders of the Northern Tamils and the district administrations dominated by them deliberately gave Malayaha Tamils lands in areas which could not be provided with irrigation.
“Though some of them got lands, they could not cultivate with profit and had to take work as laborers in others’ irrigated lands,” Nataraj said.
Given an unfriendly and unsympathetic district bureaucracy and an uncaring political leadership, the Malayaha Tamils faced difficulties in obtaining “land permits.”
In other words, even if they were actually cultivating lands, they had no legal rights over them.
“But Sri Lankan Tamils (usually of an upper caste) would get permits if they bought permitless lands from the Malayaha Tamils. For example, if a Malayaha Tamil had 5 acres without a permit, and he sold 2 acres to a Sri Lankan Tamil, the latter would get a proper land permit for the 2 acres he bought, but the Malayaha Tamil would be without a permit for the 3 acres he still holds,” Nataraj pointed out.
According to Muttulingam, the most critical issue for the Malayaha Tamils of the North is land ownership because the community is still basically agricultural and is tied to land for both income and social standing.
“Many of those who stayed put in the refugee camps after the war, were landless Malayaha Tamils because they had nothing to return to,” he said.
Land ownership is necessary to get loans and to be part of housing schemes. The community is desperately in need of help to become independent entrepreneurs because white collar government jobs are scarce in the under-developed North.
However, the community has moved ahead in education and a few have become doctors and clerks. Girls are venturing out to take jobs in super markets in the South.
But despite their contributions to the economy and the struggles of the Northern Province, they remain a denigrated community.
Muttulingam and Nataraj claim that there were 12,500 Malayaha Tamils in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
It was even said that LTTE Supremo Prabhakaran trusted Malayaha Tamils so much that he preferred to have them as his body guards.
“Thirty to 40% of the people caught in Mulliwaikkal, the last battle zone, were Malayaha Tamils,” Muttulingam said.
It is these people who faced the brunt of the final Sri Lankan army assault.
Despite this, the community’s contribution to the struggle is being nonchalantly dismissed as a mere “bid to gain social status,” they pointed out.
Muttulingam and Nataraj also pointed out to some recent publications in which it is said that poverty is driving some Malayaha Tamil women into prostitution. The Malayaha Tamils consider this to be a gross distortion born of an acute ethnic bias.
“Prostitution is a major problem in post-war Jaffna too. No community can be singled out for mention,” they said.
The Malayaha Tamils have only now started taking up these issues.
“We have met the Provincial Governor, Chief Minister Wigneswaran and other political leaders. The Chief Minister is particularly concerned about us,” Muttulingam said.
Both Nataraj and Muttulingam pointed to lack of political representation for the Malayaha Tamils in the North and said that it ought to be enhanced.
Northern Tamil politics and political institutions continue to be dominated by the Vellalas, the highest and wealthiest caste among Sri Lankan Tamils.
(The featured image at the top show Malayaha Tamil tea garden workers)