Nation Cast Out Of Paradise Reemerges
By Jehan Perera –
A little publicized march wended its way from Talaimannar in the north-west coast to Matale in the central hills. The march retraced the jungle track of 200 years ago that brought a flow of men and women in the tens of thousands from the south of India to work on the newly established tea plantations of Sri Lanka. The symbolic reenactment of that journey took place over the past fortnight. But only a handful could cope with the rigours of the long march and kept going from Talaimannar to Matale. Tens of thousands had perished in the previous centuries along the way. In some groups, as many as 40 percent died along the way. Those who trod the same route in the modern era were mindful that the ground they walked upon contained the graves of missing people of another era. The hundreds who joined the march at various points along the trail had all the modern amenities of paved roads, shops and eating places on the roadside and hygienic facilities to sleep and refresh themselves. They were treated with tolerance by most and with empathy by many.
The current economic crisis has most severely affected the people who continue to work on the plantations in support of whom the march took place. Their struggle for a paltry wage of Rs 1000 per day commenced before the Covid pandemic weakened the national economy. However, the work on tea plantations continued as the government curfews that sought to restrict the spread of the virus was not applied to the agricultural sector. When the plantation workers finally got the Rs 1000 per day wage in 2021 after more than five years of struggle it real value was devalued by inflation. In addition, various conditions were attached to it, such as working for a minimum number of days and plucking a minimum number of kilos of tea in order to get the full amount. The position of the plantation companies is that they cannot run their enterprises profitably except by imposing such conditions and keeping wages low.
The colonial system of bonded labour that kept them separate from the mainstream in the country and which made the estate administration their overlord needs to be completely dismantled and modern forms of ownership and production need to be brought in. Today, the Rs 1000 wage that the plantation workers fought for so long has become the equivalent of Rs 500 per day which is clearly impossible to live on regardless of the number from a family who work on the plantations. This is borne out by World Bank surveys that show the plantation sector to be the most badly affected one in the country with a poverty level reaching 50 percent of the population. In this desperate situation it is not surprising that few of them could take a leave of absence from their work to join the march and forego the Rs 1000 per day that requires working a minimum number of days. Many of those who symbolically represented the plantation community on the two weeks long trek came from civil society organisations.
The National Christian Council together with several civil society organisations supported the initiative which went under the name of Collective for Maanbumigu Malaiyaha Makkal. The statement issued by the collective had this to say. “The demands articulated by the Malaiyaha Tamil people since independence have included their recognition as full fledged citizens on par with Sri Lanka’s other communities. The demands have consistently been for equality, non-discrimination, security and political and administrative arrangements that safeguard the interests and identity of the community. These demands were made so that the community would have the requisite voice and power to lie with dignity, self respect, peace and security and manage the affairs of its people who live in a concentrated manner in the Nuwara Eliya district and in a dispersed manner in several other parts of Sri Lanka.”
“The current status of the Malaiyaha Tamil community, including over 500,000 living in plantations as residents, has been a result of a history of involuntary expatriation, imposed statelessness, uncertainty around citizenship and a lack of franchise. This has impacted on the community’s socio-economic well being. The most affected segment has been those living and working in the plantation estates. They have become the most marginalized group in the country, registering lower measures on almost all human development indices, compared to every other community in the country. This has seriously impaired their transition from workers tied to, and dependent on their plantation employers to full fledged citizens of Sri Lanka, with equal rights as others.
The national anthem refers to those who inhabit the land as children of one mother. The words of the national anthem are so much valued that even the inadvertent mispronunciation of its words are liable to draw a furious response and demand for punishment. However, the spirit of the national anthem was violated at the birth of the country as an independent nation. One of its children was cast out of paradise. The much acclaimed free education policy of Kannangara did not include children of poor plantation workers. Their education was left in the hands of the estate management until 1980, following joint trade union action the government was compelled to grant opportunities for their education. Unfortunately, opportunities for quality education are still lacking in comparison to schools elsewhere. There are religious teachings of people being cast out of paradise for committing sin. However, the Tamil people who worked on the plantations had committed no sin. Instead, by their toil on the plantations they had succeeded in making the country one of the most prosperous in Asia at the time of independence and able to support free education. The departing British likened the country to being the Switzerland of the East. They too need to be held accountable for failing to live up to the values they upheld and continue to uphold.
In 1948, in one of its first decisions, the government of independent Sri Lanka denied the Tamils of recent Indian origin the right to live in the country as citizens. At that time, they were the largest ethnic minority population in the country, exceeding the Sri Lanka Tamil population. Tragically, virtually all sections of the Sri Lankan nation were complicit in a cruel decision that stripped over a million people of their right to citizenship and with their right to vote and other basic human rights. The constitution did not provide them with protection nor did the rule of law. Even the acclaimed British system of justice failed them, as the Privy Council in London, which was the last court of appeal under the then prevailing Soulbury Constitution failed to apply the law justly. The Privy Council acquiesced in the verdict of the Sri Lankan supreme court at that time, and glossed over and denied the applicability of Section 29 of the constitution which laid down that no community could be subjected to any disability that was not similarly applied to the others. According to international law, the accountability for crimes against humanity is universal and knows no national boundaries.
In their statement the Collective for Maanbumigu Malaiyaha Makkal made several demands. These included the acknowledgement of their history, struggle and contribution, and recognition of the community as a constituent people of post-independent Sri Lanka with a distinct identity on par with the other main communities. In the context of the present realities this means affirmative action on education, health and social security to ensure parity with the national average, power sharing that would give them a meaningful role in governance at all tiers of government and reparations in some form or the other. In Naula, during one of the many wayside discussions on the road to Matala, this shift in thinking to that of a community entitled to justice, reparations and a share of decision-making power became evident. Those who spoke on behalf of the Malaiyaha Tamils affirmed the point that what they needed was not sympathy or assistance, but an assertion of their rights as equal citizens in which benefits extended to one community should not be withheld from another.
One of the government’s recent proposals has been to establish a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (truth commission) for which the draft legislation has already been prepared. The mandate of this truth commission is overly narrow, covering only a part of the war that the country experienced during the period 1983 to 2009. The country needs a larger reckoning with the truth if it is to overcome the past and forge ahead in unity. The disenfranchisement and denial of citizenship rights to the Malaiyaha Tamils set the stage for governance without accountability that has finally brought the country to the sorry situation it is currently in. The broader truth commission needs to include the trail of death from Talaimannar to Matale, the virtual imprisonment of a vast population as indentured labour for over 200 years, the denial of their citizenship rights 75 years ago and the need for accountability, reparations and institutional reforms to rectify the wrongs of the past, including the colonial period.