Midweek Review
Indian Tamils and Malays in Sri Lanka

by Kamalika Pieris
Indian Tamils and Malays were brought into Sri Lanka by the Dutch and the British.

Indian estate labour first came into Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to work on the coffee plantations which commenced in the 1830s. Thereafter, they worked on the tea estates which replaced coffee. They also came in to work on the roads and railways built by the British from the 1850s. In the 19th century arrivals were about 40,000 per year. The numbers increased thereafter, but the supply dried up in the 1950s, when India refused to send any more. Therefore Indian Tamils have been in Sri Lanka only for about 120 years.

The British stated that Indian labour was needed for the plantations because the Sinhalese were ‘lazy’. That is incorrect. The Sinhalese were not prepared to work on the estates because the wages and work conditions were very poor. Labour was available in South India. In the Madras Presidency, the British had improverished the Tamil agricultural labour through their system of land settlement. Traditional handicraft were displaced by the introduction of cheaper British imports. Thus a surplus of agricultural labour living in chronic poverty was created. They were inarticulate, illiterate poor. This surplus, improverisied, landless agricultural labour was distributed to a series of British colonies in West India, Mauritius, East Africa, South Africa, Fiji and Ceylon (D. Wesumperuma. Indian immigrant plantation workers in Sri Lanka 1880-1910 p. 16-22).

Estate labour came from the labour castes of Pariah, Palla, Kallar and Sakkili (p. 87). They brought with them the deadly diseases of cholera, small pox and plague. These diseases were not endemic to the island (p. 42). The labour force was organised on the kangany system. The kangany, himself an Indian Tamil, was paid to recruit the labour from South India, and thereafter manage them on the estate. Each estate had a head kangany and sub kanganies. Very often the group under the sub kangany consisted for family members and close relatives. Family migration was the backbone of the system. Tea estates had work for female/and children (p. 63, 89-90).

Estate Tamils were cruelly exploited by the British. They were given nothing free. The had to finance their own arrival. They entered Ceylon at Mannar and had to walk about 150 miles to Matale. From Matale, those who had funds went by train, while the rest walked to the estates. Most died on the way and the mortality rate of incoming labour was considerable (p 44). It was only reluctantly that the British government provided medical stations on the ‘cooly route’.

At the start they were not paid monthly wages. They were paid four times a year, with the employer retaining three months wages. Wages were paid to the kangany, not direct to the labourer. At one point part of the wages was paid in rice, because that was more profitable for the planters. The wages paid were always low, well below the average wage labour in the island. Because of the low wages, the estate Tamils were eternally in debt, to the kangany, the shopkeeper and eventually to the estates because of salary advances (p 165,181-194).

The conditions were terrible. Housing was appalling. There were no latrines. They lived in the ‘coolie lines’ in rooms about twelve feet by ten feet. They worked from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. without a meal break. Mortality rate was far higher than for the rest of the island. Most died from bowel diseases, generally regarded as preventable. There was inadequate medical care, under nourishment, and exposure to wet and cold (p 22, 228, 230, 233, 235).

The European planters and the British government were reluctant to spend any money for the welfare of the estate labour. They fussed over every cent. When medical care was provided with money input from the planters, they grumbled at every turn. Education was minimal. The planters did not care and the missionary effort failed. The estates needed subservient, depressed class of workers, who would be satisfied with a pittance.

The Indian Tamils were migrant labour with no continuous residence in Ceylon. They were barred by the British government from taking permanent employment in the island. They were a floating population. In 1923 it was pointed out that Indian labour regularly went in and out of Ceylon, visiting relatives in India (The Island 27.6.99 p. 8). They were not integrated into the broader society either. The tea estates were enclaves, separated from the surrounding villages.

The term ‘Indian Tamil’ was first used in the 1911 Census. It has been fraudulently suggested that in 1948, after Independence, Indian Tamils were ‘disenfranchised’. This is incorrect. Indian Tamils were never citizens of Ceylon. The question had come up when Ceylon was agitating for independence. From 1940 onwards, D. S. Senanayake and others had several discussions with India regarding the matter. Nehru did not want to take back the Indian Tamils because that would have created a precedent for the rest of the Indian expatriates scattered throughout the world by the British. India and Ceylon worked out a joint report in 1941 and the citizenship decisions were based on this.

Under the Citizenship Act of 1948, it was decided to award citizenship to those Indian Tamils who could show two generations residence in Ceylon. Only 5000 out of about 800,000 estate labour were able to qualify. (Gamini Iriyagolle, The Island 15.8.99 p 14) H. L. de Silva has pointed out that the provisions of the 1948 Act were just and acceptable. It was the right of a country to decide who its citizens are (The Island 18.6.02 p. 9). Then came the Indian and Pakistani Residents Citizenship Act of 1949 where they only had to show seven to ten years residence in Ceylon. Even then only 134,000 were able to qualify out of the original 800,000. The notion that all Indian estate labour were Ceylon born or were second or third generation immigrants was false. Very few had been here even for ten years. Iriyagolle pointed out that few countries had made such generous laws for the benefit of immigrants. The Indian Tamils had only to register their names at the Indian High Commission, Colombo. However, there was obstruction and sabotage by the Indian High Commission and the Indian Tamil union leaders. The Indian government thereafter declared that all those who were not on their register were not Indian citizens, either. So they became stateless’ (Iriyagolle, p 14).

Then came the Indo-Ceylon agreement of 1954 (Nehru-Kotelawala Pact) Stateless Indian Tamils would be placed on a separate electoral register for 10 years so that they can learn Sinhala. The Indo-Ceylon Agreement of 1964 (Sirima-Shastri Pact) discussed the 975,000 stateless Indian Tamils then in Ceylon. Ceylon argued that they were actually Indian citizens according to Section 8 of the Indian Constitution. India agreed to take back 525,000 with 300,000 absorbed by Ceylon. The 1954 and 1964 agreements indicated official acceptance that India was responsible for over 50 per cent of the Indian nationals in Sri Lanka. However, the Indian bureaucracy obstructed the return of Indian Tamils under the 1964 Pact, as well (The Island 22.8.02 p. 8). Lastly there was the Sirima Indira Pact of 1974, where India and Sri Lanka agreed to take 75,000 each of the 150,000 left. The final tally of all this was to be 600,000 repatriated to India with 514,000 staying back in Ceylon. (Iriyagolle, p 14).

Repatriation proceeded satisfactorily until UNP rule of 1970/77. Repatriation was stopped under President Jayawardene. In a secret agreement with Thondaman, 94,000 were absorbed into Sri Lanka. Further 83,000 who were getting ready to leave for India were given fresh employment on the orders of President Jayawardene (Iriyagolle, p. 14). Then came the Citizenship by Affidavit Act no 39 of 1988. By this Act anybody could become a citizen of Sri Lanka by signing an affidavit. This has been virulently criticised as ‘shocking’. H. L. de Silva pointed out that this group were not entitled to citizenship. By this Act 469,000 persons of Indian origin who would not otherwise have been qualified for citizenship, had managed to get in (The Island 18.6.02 p 9) Iriyagolle stated that the figure given in 1986 for estate Tamils as 469,000 was false. Only about 233,000 had registered. "Citizen D" declared that about 30,000 bogus affidavits were submitted and non-existent persons have become citizens (Iriyagolle p. 14. The Island 14.10.98 p 4) The final result as pointed out by K. H. J. Wijedasa was that India would have taken back only about 435,000 if at all and Sri Lanka has been saddled with 634,000 (Wijedasa, The Island, 14.8.97 p. 10).

Lastly there is the issue of the illicit immigrant or "Kallathoni". Illicit immigration from South India was a permanent feature from about 1940s. Several lakhs of illicit immigrants who arrived between 1950 and 1970 were planted in the Wanni region. The Anti-Illicit Immigration Task Force was disbanded after 1977 (The Island 14.10.98 p. 4).

Because of citizenship, things improved for the Indian Tamils. They got better social benefits. They have better schools, and opportunities outside the estates. Birth rates and malnutrition status now compares favourably with the rest of the population. Some have acquired property and others have qualified as professionals. However, there is a school drop-out rate of 13% and there is indebtedness and alcoholism (Daily News 21.12.2000 p. 7).

The Malay community of Sri Lanka is descended from four Indonesian groups sent to the island by the Dutch. These include slaves from the Moluccas and Sunda islands, and secondly other deportees including convicts. Thirdly, the soldiers sent to man the Dutch garrisons. These were Amboinese, Balinese and Javanese. They brought their womenfolk with them, but in addition married local women, preferring Muslims (B.A. Husseinmiya ‘Princes and soldiers’ published in ‘Muslims of Sri Lanka’ edited by M. A. M. Shukri p. 290-295). The fourth group consisted of political exiles. These were the rebellious rulers, princes, chiefs, and dignitaries of the Indonesian islands who opposed Dutch rule. They came with their families and lived in the Dutch controlled areas of Colombo, Galle, Trincomalee and Jaffna. They had financial difficulties since the Dutch allowances were low. They interacted with each other, and contracted marriages. Most died here. These groups of immigrants were from different Indonesian Islands originally. But since these groups were present in Batavia (Java) it is suggested that they all came direct from Batavia and not from a series of islands (Husseinmiya, p. 299).

Husseinmiya states that there was a considerable literary contribution from the Sri Lankan Malays since there was a ‘sophisticated Javanese colony of aristocratic exiles’. Colombo is now ‘elevated as one of the great 19th century centres of Malay culture next only to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta’ In other countries, the Malays sent by the Dutch lost their identity. This group were accepted by the local Muslims, who converted the non-Muslims among them and gave them a sound training in Islam. The Malays maintained a separate identity as a minority within a minority (Husseimiya, p.290, 301). There was a considerable segment of Malays in the Dutch army. Malays were used by the British to quell the Sinhala rebellion of 1848. Malays were prominent in the Police and in the Ceylon rifle Regiment. There was a permanent Malay regiment in Kurunegala, during British occupation.

The Malay community has several outstanding persons, notably Dr. T. B. Jayah. He held positions in the State Council, and in Parliament. He was a cabinet minister and was Sri Lanka’s first High Commissioner in Pakistan. He was an outstanding Muslim educationist and was responsible for bringing Zahira College, Colombo to a high standard.

Husseinmiya states that the Malays progressively lost their cultural practices and absorbed the ’moorish’ practices of the larger Muslim community in Ceylon. Malay customs, traditions are hardly followed now. Food, dress and other lifestyles have also lost their Malay character (Husseinmiya, p. 279-280). The 2nd Malay World Symposium held in Colombo in 1985 created an interest in Sri Lankan Malay culture. The Malays started to revive their culture (Daily News 8.4.2002 p. 19) The Malays themselves admit that the culture is disappearing. This includes Malay food like Pastol and Bole, the Planthong verses sung at Malay weddings, the Malay dress ends Malay dances. Rupavahini has the ‘Salamat’ programme which features Malay dress, dances and songs (Daily News 5.4.2000 p. 17). There is also the Suara Melaya programme where Malay groups express their views. There was a Malay programme to celebrate the recent Ramazan festival. The Sri Lanka Malay Association issued a Sri Lanka Malay cookbook ‘Makanan Malayu" and held a Malay food festival (Daily News 5.4.2000 p. 17, Sunday Observer 25.2.01 p. 32).

Another area is the Malay language. Sri Lankan Malay speech seems to have originated from a colloquial dialect spoken in the coastal areas of Java, known as Batavian Malay. This has no resemblance to the Malay spoken in Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei (Vinni Vitharana, Daily News 8.9.2000 p. 10) Husseinmiya described it as a ‘creolised language’ heavily infused with Sinhala and Tamil (Husseinmiya, p. 280). The Malay associations are now trying to revive their language. B. K. Saldin has written ‘Guide to Malay’ and wishes to encourage Malays to read, write and speak Malay. There are 13 Malay associations at present. This includes national associations like Sri Lanka Malay Association and regional ones in Kandy, Mabole and Hambantota. In January 2000 there was a joint rally of all these associations in Colombo, for social purposes only. These associations help needy Malays, as in the Fitra distribution.