Sri Lanka: The history behind anti-Indian hysteria and rhetoric
The hatred towards India, following New Delhi’s support to the US sponsored resolution in the Human Rights Council, is expressing itself in several ways. In Batticaloa, in the Eastern Province, miscreants decapitated the statues of Mahatma Gandhi and Robert Baden Powell (the founder of international scouts movement). Elsewhere in the town, miscreants damaged the statues of two great Tamil scholars Swami Vipulananda and Periyathambi Pillai.
This is not the first time the statue of Mahatma Gandhi has been targeted. Few years ago, I asked Yogeshwaran, the popular TULF Member of Parliament, why the Sinhalese hoodlums are attacking Mahatma Gandhi. After all, Gandhiji was the apostle of non-violence; he was also a Gujarati Bania. Yogeswaran responded, many Sinhalese think that Gandhi was a Tamil.
If we dispassionately analyse the Geneva resolution, the Government of Sri Lanka should be grateful to New Delhi. It was New Delhi’s behind the scenes diplomacy which made the resolution “non-intrusive” into the domestic affairs of Sri Lanka. But gratitude, needless to say, is not a virtue in international relations. To cite an illustration, the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), following the India-Sri Lanka Accord, on the specific invitation of President Jayewardene, had two beneficial results. With heavy cost of men and materials, the IPKF forced the LTTE guerrillas to retreat into the jungles. It enabled the Sri Lankan Army to withdraw its forces from the north and the east and concentrate itself in tackling the armed revolt launched by the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP). In the normal course, this Indian gesture should have earned for New Delhi the eternal gratitude of the Sinhalese. On the contrary, it was explained as an illustration of India’s expansionist designs towards its southern neighbour. Not only that, in their blind hatred of New Delhi, Prabhakaran and Premadasa came together. The Government of Sri Lanka provided considerable arms and money to the LTTE. Finally Premadasa and Prabhakaran had to pay the wages of sin. Premadasa was assassinated by the suicide squad of the LTTE and Prabhakaran was brutally massacred and killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces.
To keen students of India-Sri Lanka relations, the paranoia against India, which exhibits itself at regular intervals, should not be a matter of surprise. The intense dislike of India dates back to pre-independence years. Jawaharlal Nehru became conscious of the blind hatred of the Sinhalese leaders eight years before Indian independence. An important incident in the Indian nationalist movement relating to Ceylon would be of great interest and relevance today.
In order to put the incident in proper perspective, it is necessary to highlight the problems faced by the Indian Tamils in the Island. The Indian Tamils are the descendants of the Tamil labourers, who were taken to the Island by the British colonialists to provide the much needed labour in the coffee, tea, rubber and coconut plantations, and also in many public works in different parts of the island. They formed the bulk of labour which turned the malaria-infested forests of Ceylon into highly productive plantations, earning precious foreign exchange, and which sustains the Sri Lankan economy even today. The agony and suffering undergone by the Indian coolies under the British and Planters Raj are immense. The following quotation is a telling commentary: “The miserable gang of coolies of 1843 and 1845, one or two women to fifty or hundred men, strangers in a strange land; ill-fed, ill-clothed, eating any garbage they came across raveling over jungle paths, sometimes with scarcely a drop of water to be found anywhere for miles and, at other times, knee deep greater part of the day in water, with the country all around a swamp, working on estates just reclaimed from the jungle or in jungle about to be converted into estates, badly housed and little understood by the employer”. The verdant carpet of green in the central part of the island, which has made Sri Lanka a veritable “island paradise” was due to the sweat and agony of the Indian Tamils.
The Indian workers went to Ceylon under the protective umbrella of the British. What is more, the Sinhalese leaders actively encouraged the import of cheap labour from India. The State Council allotted funds every year to subsidise immigration. In the 1920’s when the British Government in India threatened to stop immigration into Ceylon, a delegation of prominent Ceylonese went to New Delhi and successfully persuaded the British not to impose such a ban. When the ban was finally imposed, it was due to sustained nationalist pressure on the British Government. The ban was the immediate fallout of Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Ceylon in 1939.
The captive labour situation, the hierarchical social structure among the Indian Tamils and their isolation in “estate enclaves” all combined to influence the Sinhalese perception of the former. The Kandyan Sinhalese began to resent the presence of large number of Tamil workers in their midst. When the plantation economy was imposed on those areas, the indigenous land tenure system was destroyed, and lands owned by the peasants were confiscated by the Government. The mounting unemployment during the depression further fanned anti-India feelings. The growing Sinhala sub-nationalism further aggravated the situation. The Sinhalese began to project the Indian Tamils as “a potential fifth column, a strategically placed Indian bridge-head in the centre of the island”. They would join hands with the Tamils in the north and, then together with the Tamils in South India, would threaten the Sinhalese.
As long as British rule continued in Ceylon, the Indian Tamils enjoyed the same status as the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils, because all of them were British subjects. It must be highlighted that the British Government insisted and allowed the emigration of Indians on the express stipulation of perfect equality with the rest of indigenous population. But with the introduction of constitutional reforms and along with it the right of franchise, the Indian question became a live problem. Colombo wanted to absorb only a small quantum of Indians. They argued that it is necessary to prescribe some rigid test for proving the permanent abiding interest of Indians in Ceylon. Herein lies the seeds of “absorbable minimum” put forward by successive Prime Ministers after independence. Their aim was not to deny the right of franchise to the Indians, but to restrict it to the minimum. The inherent discrimination in these provisions was pointed out by Sir G.S. Bajpai as follows: “The Indian who has worked in Ceylon is to be thrown back to India as a squeezed lemon”.
Since the Tamil plantation workers were isolated from the political mainstream, the rapid changes taking place among the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils did not affect them much. But slowly thanks to the initiative taken by urban, secular, middle class leaders like N. Natesa Iyer, a breakthrough in the plantation areas was made. As Kumari Jayewardene has pointed out, the spark might have developed “into a serious conflagration, but for the economic depression”. The incipient trade union movement in the plantation areas gradually disintegrated. It was only after 1939 (after Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit), taking advantage of the new political and economic situation, the plantation workers finally asserted themselves.
The Ceylon Government’s dismissal of daily paid Indian employees in the Colombo Muncipal Corporation was the culmination of the process of Ceylonisation which had its origins in the late 1920’s. Sinhalese political and trade union leaders like DS Senanayake and AE Goonesinha were demanding employment of Ceylonese in areas where hitherto Indians had the monopoly. The economic depression provided further fuel to the chauvinist fire. In 1933, the Chief Secretary notified all Government Departments that no non-Ceylonese should be employed in public services, where Ceylonese are available. It is interesting to note that in 1936 Indians constituted 26 per cent of the labour force in all Government departments; it dropped to 19 per cent in 1939 and 12 per cent in 1941. In March 1939, John Kotelawala suggested that all daily non-Ceylonese workers in government departments should be repatriated to the country of their birth, with gratuity and fare paid to them, and stringent measures be imposed to prevent them from returning to Ceylon for employment. In June 1939, the Ministry of Communications and Works terminated the services of as many as 2,077 (out of the total of 6,624) Indian daily paid workers in Government Departments.
Naturally there was considerable indignation among the Indian community in Ceylon. They got in touch with the Indian nationalist leadership. On 24 June 1939, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) expressed its anxiety over the conditions of Indian workers and directed Jawaharlal Nehru “to proceed to Ceylon and to try to help them in finding a just and honourable settlement of the problems affecting Indians there”. Nehru held discussions with a cross-section of political leaders and government officials, besides addressing large number of public meetings.
It is interesting to note that Jawaharlal Nehru did not want to go to Ceylon. Astounded by the “extra-ordinary behaviour of the Ceylon Government”, he lamented that if the Ceylon Government “considers the Indians are not good enough for Ceylon, then I am afraid Ceylon is not good enough for me”. He was extremely unhappy that the Ceylon Government did not agree to Dr. Pattabhi Sitaramayya visiting Ceylon on the plea that he was a Tamil, conveniently overlooking the fact that he was a Telugu. Nehru was also surprised that the Government of Ceylon, in the event of his visit, required that he should not mix with the representatives of the leftist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Nehru said, “During a fairly long public career, no Government in any part of the world or group or individual has had the presumption to tell me whom I should meet and whom I should avoid. This is for me to decide and no one else has the slightest business to interfere with me”. He only relented when Mahatma Gandhi requested him to go to Ceylon, followed by an appeal by the Congress Working Committee (CWC) and an AICC resolution to this effect.
Jawaharlal Nehru pointed out that his being sent to Ceylon “was proof of the importance attached by the Congress to the status and conditions of Indians abroad. The question refers not only to Ceylon, but to South and East Africa and elsewhere, and it is of paramount importance as the honour of India is involved in it”. In his farewell message from Allahabad, he further elucidated this point: “Every Indian abroad carries a bit of India with him and he has a right to look to his motherland for help and protection in case of need. Today we may not be in a position to give that help fully or to protect him as we should. But we recognize our obligation and will give full effect in times to come”.
Soon after his arrival, Nehru realized that the action taken by the Ceylon Government was two fold. Non-Ceylonese wage earners, who were engaged by the Government after 31 March 1934, were to be discharged. In case they agreed to return to India, they were to be given free ticket and an incentive of one month’s pay. The other category of non-Ceylonese wage earners, who had put in more than five years service under the Government, were offered a scheme of voluntary repatriation, free tickets and gratuities. The offer was coupled with a threat of termination without the said benefits if it was not taken advantage of by a certain date. It was made clear that retrenchment was inevitable in the near future and, when it took place, the non-Ceylonese would go first.
Though the Government order referred to non-Ceylonese, it was apparent that they applied only to Indians. As Jawaharlal Nehru rightly pointed out, “Ceylon Government had decided on a general anti-India policy”. The steps taken by the Ceylon Government were unilateral and what made them still more vindictive was the fact that the matter was not postponed, in spite of a request made to that effect by the Government of India. People of India, therefore, felt that this was a deliberate policy to squeeze Indians out of Ceylon. Indian opinion and sentiments were treated with contempt. Nehru also felt that the question raised a moral issue. He compared the Ceylon Government to an employer initially dismissing his employee and trying to find out the reasons thereafter. It had no parallel anywhere in the world, except in fascist states where Governments had behaved in a similar fashion. The action of the Ceylon Government, moreover, was a violation of accepted canons regarding immigration of labour laid down by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). According to the ILO, an immigrant worker, with more than five years service, cannot and should not be discharged. The Ceylon Government’s action, Nehru commented, was not only “ridiculous and undignified”, but would also “hurt the dignity of any Government”.
Nehru found the “Board of Ministers and officials of the Ceylon Government to be adamant and unresponsive to Indian sensitivities. The main thrust of their argument was that no racial discrimination had been or was intended”, but, owing to deteriorating economic situation and consequent unemployment on a large scale, they were forced to take steps to find employment for Ceylonese people. At one stage, Nehru too, in his eagerness to promote India-Ceylon understanding, was inclined to consider a new offer which was put unofficially to him. Under these new proposals, the scheme of repatriating Indians, who had joined Government service before 1934, was given up. Regarding those who were employed after 31 March 1934, certain exceptions were laid down, e.g. marriage to a Ceylonese woman, previous service, if any, and those labourers who had no home in India. Nehru, to his utter dismay, found later that the proposal did not have the backing of the Board of Ministers. The net result of his visit was that he could make no satisfactory progress in finding an amicable solution to the problems of daily paid Indian workers.
Despite his frustration and disenchantment, Nehru was opposed to any retaliatory action, which would result in a “cycle of conflict and mutual injury” and pave the way “for bitterness and ill will between the two countries”. He was unhappy to note that State of Travancore had increased the duty on Jaffna tobacco leading to immense suffering to Jaffna Tamils, who, in no way, were responsible for the decisions of the Ceylon Government. He suggested to C Rajagopalachari, the Prime Minister of Madras Presidency and AV Pai, Agent of India in Ceylon, that “emigration of labour from India should be stopped immediately”. As a result, the Government of India decided to terminate from August 1, 1939, the employment of Indians engaged in unskilled labour work in Ceylon and authorized the Madras Government to issue orders in cases of exemption. In his report to Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Indian National Congress, Nehru also suggested a scheme of voluntary repatriation of surplus estate labour from Ceylon. He felt such a step would increase the value of Indian labour in Ceylon and “all talk of pushing Indians would cease”. The Congress Working Committee, however, did not accept the suggestion as it would lead to practical difficulties. Nehru also felt that the functioning of the Mandapam Emigration Depot, in control of the Government of Ceylon, was an anachronism. The depot was consequently closed down.
A momentous fallout of Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Ceylon was the forging of unity among the Indian community. Until the end of 1930’s, the community was split up in numerous mutually antagonistic groups. Nehru exhorted them to unite under one organization so that they could face the grave challenges, co-operate in all matters affecting the community, and work with the Sinhalese for the freedom of Ceylon. The inaugural session of the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC) was held in January 1940. It was attended by VV Giri and Sathyamoorthy as the emissaries of the Indian National Congress. The CIC, during the early years, was inspired by the policies and programmes of the Indian National Congress.
Jawaharlal Nehru never lost sight of centuries old historical and cultural links between the two countries and stressed the necessity to put the bilateral relations on a secure footing, based on mutual trust and confidence. He repeatedly called for greater co-operation and understanding. In his interview to the press in Madras, on the eve of his departure to Ceylon, he pointed out that “no Indian can desire to exploit Ceylon or do injury to her people. No Ceylonese can wish ill to Indians or to India”. In a public speech in Colombo on 18 July 1939, Nehru said, “I do not know what the future will bring; but my own advice to the people of India is that if the people of Ceylon really do wrong, let us reason with them”. He underlined the geo-political realities in these words: “Ceylon cannot forget that India and Ceylon are close and that India, by her size, is like a giant. It is easy enough to create psychological barriers and ill will, but not so easy to remove them or control them. I cannot conceive of any hostile action on the part of India towards a country like Ceylon if it does not threaten her freedom”.
Nehru regretted that few Sinhalese leaders, in their short-sightedness, were trying to strain the relations between two countries. In his report to the Congress President, Nehru remarked, “When the British Empire fades away, where will Ceylon go? She must associate herself, economically at least, with larger groups and India is obviously indicated. Because of this, it is unfortunate that many of the leaders of Ceylon should help in creating barriers between India and Ceylon. They do not seem to realize that India can do well without Ceylon in the future to come, Ceylon may not be able to do without India”.