Hidden realities behind the problems of upcountry Tamils

By: Megala Shanmugam

    This is the first part of a two part series on the problems faced by Upcountry Tamils in Sri Lanka. The community is doubly affected, due to its identity as well as economic deprivation. The article appeared in Beyond the Wall, the quarterly journal of the Home for Human Rights.

Everyone born into this world has the right to a life that transcends distinctions based on nationality, language, gender, colour or religion. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights guarantees this. Though our country too has ratified this declaration, one community on our soil is unable to enjoy the rights that should be guaranteed by the declaration. This is the community of upcountry Tamils.

Many of you might ponder as to who these people called ‘up-country’ Tamils are. This is due to a lack of understanding among Sri Lankans about this downtrodden community consisting of more than two million people. Since the scales of justice are never held evenly the injustices caused to innocent people are never brought out and the community suffers in silence.

Sri Lanka has close connections with the Indian sub-continent in every way. History reveals this. During very ancient times there was direct connection by land between Sri Lanka and India facilitating a movement of people between the two countries, which, due to geological causes became separated. Whatever it may be, there was movement of people between India and Sri Lanka even at later periods.

The advent of the foreigners who dominated India for commercial exploitation influenced Sri Lanka as well. During Dutch rule about 10, 000 or more Indian Tamils came over to Sri Lanka to work on the cinnamon estates. But it was during British rule that a larger number of upcountry Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka to work in the estate sector. Apart from the estate sector, the departments of railways and public works employed them. There is evidence that some of them worked as senior officials and soldiers in the British army. It is their descendants who are now known as ‘upcountry Tamils.’

These people live not only in the hill country of Sri Lanka but everywhere, in all the provinces of the country. They contribute their share in all spheres of activity including trade.

TAMILS EMPLOYED IN ESTATE SECTOR

YEAR

NUMBER EMPLOYED

1871

1.09,444

1901

4.36,622

1911

4,40,285

1921

4,93,944

1931

6,92,540

1946

6,65,853

1953

8,09,084

1963

9,43,793

1971

9,51,785

 

TAMILS EMPLOYED IN RAILWAY SECTOR

YEAR

NUMBER EMPLOYED

1903

2,804

1905

1,941

1906

4,274

1907

1,873

 

TAMILS EMPLOYED AT PUBLIC WORKS DEPARTMENT

YEAR

1901

1902

1903

1904

1905

1906

1907

Central Province

4,648

12,470

6,750

7,398

12,368

20,175

21,651

Uva Province

45

362

941

533

1,149

2,664

2,643

Sabaragamuwa Province

 

86

 

86

 

156

 

3,640

 

86

 

1,568

 

3,126

Western Province

 

75

 

 

 

21

 

PROVINCIAL COMMUNITIES OF SRI LANKA

YEAR

SINHALESE

CEYLON TAMILS

TAMILS OF INDIAN ORIGIN

MUSLIMS

1901

65.4%

26.7%

 

6.4%

1946

69.2%

11.0%

11.7%

5.6%

1953

69.3%

10.9%

12.0%

5.7%

1963

71.2%

11 %

10.6%

6.3%

1971

71.9%

11%

9.4%

6.5%

1981

73.98%

12.6%

5.56%

7.12%

The table above illustrates that through upcountry Tamil workers have recently come to be defined as ‘Tamils of Indian origin’ in the laws and Constitution of Sri Lank, they were regarded as part and parcel of ‘Ceylon Tamils’ up to 1946, and in 1953 was numerically the largest minority in Sri Lanka.

According to the census, reasons for pushing upcountry Tamils from first to third place among the minorities are as follows:

    1) The Citizenship Act (1948)
    2) Extradition laws between India and Sri Lanka forced several upcountry Tamils to leave for India against their will
    3) The violence that was unleashed against the Tamil-speaking community
    4) Those who migrated from the hill country identified themselves as Ceylon Tamils.
    5) The family planning measures adopted with incentives in the estate sector
    6) Census gathering ignores them

The root cause for this deplorable state of affairs among the hill country Tamils is the consequence of having been deprived of citizenship rights. Article 15 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states, (1) Every person has a right to belong to a nationality. (2) No person shall be deprived of his nationality or denied the right to change his nationality.

However, there seems to be no possibility of correcting errors of the past. People who migrated from south India have now become assimilated into larger Sri Lankan society. It is by their untiring efforts that virgin land was converted into high-yielding tea and rubber estates. They toiled hard to uplift the economy of the country, getting in return only paltry sums as wages. They were subjected to all sorts of humiliation. These people have natural endowments that qualify them to share equally the heritage of our country. They ought to live on this soil enjoying a separate identity and self-respect. Attempts by element to oust them from this position are therefore contrary to Article 15 clause 2 of the Declaration.

It is an undeniable fact that every community or society has right to live as equal citizen with its counterparts. There should be, absolutely, no room for any discrimination whatsoever. It is the bounden duty of both the governments of India and Sri Lanka to set up the necessary legal framework towards this end. It is not possible for a community to suffer endlessly. The younger generation among the upcountry country Tamils are not in favour of the idea of being branded as “people of Indian origin” any more.

These people still suffer from wounds created both by the government of India and of Sri Lanka on the question of citizenship. The wishes of the people were not consulted and their objections went unheeded. On the contrary, agreements were signed for repatriating hundreds of thousands of people from Sri Lanka to India against their will. Among those who remained, the Government of Sri Lanka accepted a specified number while those who were left out, or the residue, and their progeny, became known as “stateless persons.” These people live in the midst of misery and suppression. There are about 200, 000 people who are stateless. This problem exists like a cancer that cannot be cured.

Even those who were promised absorption by the Government of India are unable to go to India due to the political environment prevailing there, even though they have obtained Indian passports. In the case of some of those who were originally categorised as ‘stateless’ persons but are now deceased, their descendants continue to live here. But their future is at stake. The younger generation shows a willingness to live in this country. But they question as to how agreements that were concluded between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments without obtaining the consent of their ancestors, could bind their descendents now.

However, according to the agreement concluded without consent of the people, both the governments agreed to grant Indian citizenship to 600, 000 persons, and Ceylon citizenship to 375, 000 persons. Accordingly, 9,75,000 persons were considered citizens. The balance however were rendered ‘stateless persons.’

Citizenship laws

The citizenship Act No. 18 of 1948 was enacted and passed. It is this regressive step that rendered Tamils of the upcountry ‘stateless persons.’ Following this, several laws was enacted and agreements entered into. A small number of persons were recognized as ‘citizen by registration.’ These persons were second-class citizens and were not given all the freedoms and rights like other citizens of the country.

The following five laws were enacted on the subject of citizenship:

    Citizenship Act, No. 40 of 1948
    Indo–Pakistan Act No. 3 of 1949
    Indo Ceylon Act, No. 14 of 1967
    Grant of citizenship to stateless persons Act No. 5 of 1986
    Grant of citizenship to stateless person (Special Provisions) Act 39 of 1988

In accordance with this acts, those who were granted citizenship as Registered Citizens had to carry with them the certificate signifying citizenship by registration whenever they had to transact business anywhere. Furthermore, since officials at state organisations were not fully conversant with the category of ‘citizens by registration,’ those who were classified thus, encountered several hardships while transacting business. An attendant problem is that many have lost their identity documents during bouts of ethnic violence.

Tamils of the hill country, being backward in education, do not have the capacity to understand the laws under which they are registered. Furthermore, since the administrative authorities belong to the majority community, Tamils from the upcountry are unable to assert rights whenever they go to transact official business. It may be mentioned here that they are subjected to all sorts of inconveniences when they apply for registration as voters. Hence many people are deprived of the right to franchise and thereby denied proper political participation.

According to the laws of Sri Lanka, any citizen above the age of 18 may be registered as a voter. But among upcountry Tamils there are many persons above the age of 18 who are not registered. This is because their parents were granted citizenship by the Indian government as they came within that quota. The parents however chose to remain in Sri Lanka without agreeing to repatriation.

Since they had become Indian citizens, the Sri Lanka government did not grant them citizenship. It was however their children who suffered. They were not Indian citizens because their parents had chosen to remain in Sri Lanka despite being granted Indian citizenship. But just because they were born in Sri Lanka to Indian citizens they were not granted Ceylon citizenship either. Therefore, even though the parents have citizenship rights and voting rights, these rights were denied to children.

These people are not in a position to assert their rights. An employee though denied his legal rights is forced to remain silent. He has no other way. Even though Tamil Grama Sevakas were appointed, the GSs were not given full powers. And there have been unwritten instructions issued from ‘above’ not to register more than a particular number of persons every year. But the victims cannot fight against these injustices.

Therefore, what a cunningly planned plot took away was repeated in the guise of registration. Step-motherly treatment has led to frustration among upcountry Tamils. In ancient times, it was compulsory that all citizens must be treated alike. These people must be given full freedom to choose their identity according to their own liking.

Upcountry Tamils were originally classified as follows: Estate workers, Railway workers PWD workers and as Persons engaged in business (trade). But today, they may be classified as: Estate workers, Persons connected with state institutions, Persons who do not belong to the estate sector, Persons connected with NGOs, Persons engaged in business, Persons who are employed abroad and Persons engaged in garment and the private sector.

Among these, with the exception of those who do not belong to the estate sector, others are doing relatively well. But those who linger in the estate lines remain an unfortunate lot.

(To be continued)

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