The Sunday Leader

Sinhala-Plantation Tamil Friendship – A Study For Reconciliation

Thai Pongal will be celebrated on Tuesday with sanctity and gusto particularly by the workers of ‘recent’ Indian origin in the plantations.

Sri Lanka’s commitment to a multi racial, multi religious community is evident from the fact that most days of significance to different religions and communities were declared public or mercantile holidays from the commencement of Independence. This is a fact overlooked by our monitors of racial and religious proprieties who find it much more engaging to go on nit-picking into our recorded history millennia ago.

To those who want to study racial and religious integration in Sri Lanka, the co-existence of Tamils of recent Indian origin – often called Indian Tamils – with the majority Sinhala community would be an excellent subject.

It will be recalled that the main domestic and foreign issue facing Sri Lanka at Independence and even before that was the ‘Indo- Ceylon problem’.

The supposedly benign British masters ruling Lanka found a wonderful solution to the starving, impoverished South Indians and the shortage of labour to work their plantations in Ceylon. The solution was simple: dump them in Ceylon because those stupid Kandyan peasants were refusing to work in British owned plantations. This was the obvious strategy to meet the demand of British plantations in their far flung empire from the Windies to the South Seas.

Fears of Sri Lankan leaders like D. S. Senanayake about the influx of Indian labour into Sri Lanka were great. And confidential texts reveal that despite their reverence to Mahatma Gandhi and regard for Jawaharlal Nehru, they could not completely trust India’s motives. That was the reason for the Defence Agreement with Britain on gaining Independence.

The Sinhalese feared South Indian influx into the plantations. Kandyan inhabitants were pocketed in small villages between the plantations where the immigrant population was fast growing. Even after the British quit, the influx of Indian labour was continuing and even in the sixties there was TAFFI – Task Force Anti Illicit Immigration – set up by governments of all political hues.

Yet it is to the credit, most of all to Sri Lankan leaders and a little to Indian leaders that the looming threat was not permitted to go out of control. The Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes managed the growing threat well and J. R. Jayewardene finally ended it all by granting citizenship to all ‘stateless’ Indians. Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi (before her dreams as an Indian empress) all contributed significantly to ease the problem.

How the Indo-Sri Lanka problem ended and the two different peoples learnt peaceful co-existence  is an example to those who are now attempting reconciliation between Tamils of the North and East and the Sinhalese.

The Indo-Ceylon problem was settled by leaders of the two countries who eschewed communal rhetoric and established mutual trust. There were confidence building measures such as Indira Gandhi conceding ownership to the disputed Kachchativu Island to Ceylon. Quite in contrast the voluptuous Jeyalalitha now  re-claiming the island!

Mutual trust and confidence and the spirit of give and take was the basis of reconciliation.

That is what Sinhala and Tamil leaders should try to emulate if the attempted reconciliation of the two communities are their objective.

The two most contentious issues stalling the reconciliation process and are powers to distribute land and police powers to local administrations.

Regarding ownership of land it would be recalled that the Kandyans too had an abiding desire to recover their land which the British had bought for a song and were occupied by Indian workers who were living off the land. Land reform, which resulted in the plantation ownership being transferred to state owned companies, diffused Sinhala sentiments even though they did not get an iota of compensation. But the plantation workers got residence and jobs on the plantations.

Tamil leaders should  realise that  the status  of ownership of land in Jaffna that prevailed in the pre-Prabhakaran days cannot continue. They can’t have the right to buy land anywhere in Sri Lanka but not let non-Tamils buy land in the North and the East. Reconciliation demands flexibility which leaders like Chief Minister of the Northern Province Wigneswaran and TNA leader Sampanthan should well realise.

The basis of reconciliation should be trust among leaders. Once that is established this trust will permeate downwards. Saumyamoorthi Thondaman, a giant among men, was not only considered a messiah by his people but had built up trust and deep and abiding friendship among influential Sinhala people.

Sinhala leaders, being in the majority and at the levers of power, have to be magnanimous in their offers of friendship and not think of the Sinhala vote bank at the same time.

1 Comment for “Sinhala-Plantation Tamil Friendship – A Study For Reconciliation”

  1. Athula Bowatte

    ” Stupid Kandiyans”
    Most of them were self sufficient and therefore there was no necessity to work.They were a proud lot.

    “Tamils of recent Indian Origin.”
    They are Sri Lankan Citizens working in the Plantations.

    They have got a very fair deal in the Upcountry Areas in
    , some instances dominating many Pradesheeya Sabas.

    After 1986 many schools were built in these areas and it would be interesting to find the Number who have entered Universities and other Higher Educational Institutions.

    Good leadership by all concerned especially their leaders kept them away from
    joining forces with others.We must be thankful for that.

    The writer spent almost 37 years 27 of which as a Planter and 10 years as Regional Director of The Plantation Human Development Trust and served in Hatton,NE and Badulla.

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