Feature Article

Stateless Tamils’ long struggle bears fruit

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 07 October 2003, 16:59 GMT]
A bill to grant citizenship to 168,141 stateless Tamils in Sri Lanka descended from people who settled in the hill districts of the island in the 19th century was passed Tuesday without opposition in Sri Lanka’s Parliament. Speaking on the bill, Mr. Arumugan Thondman MP, leader of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, the largest Tamil political party in the hill districts, said: “These people have contributed so much to this country but were denied all their rights and had to struggle for 55 years to achieve the rights they had prior to 1948. This is symbolic of the ethnic divide in this country.”

All 172 MPs who were present in the 225 seat Parliament voted for the bill to amend the citizenship act.

Sri Lanka signed two treaties with India in 1964 and 1974 in terms of which Delhi agreed to naturalise thousands of Tamils from the island’s tea and rubber plantations to the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

thondaman_arumugam.jpgMore than eighty four thousand Tamils who had been granted Indian citizenship under the 64’ and 74’ agreements and their offspring, however, remained in Sri Lanka due to calamites and displacements caused by anti Tamil pogroms, family ties, poverty etc.

These persons and their natural increase have lived for almost three decades without any of the rights enjoyed by Sri Lankan citizens.

Speaking on the bill, Mr. Thondaman, who is also Minister for Housing, high-lighted the role of his party, the CWC, in the history of his people’s struggle to achieve equal rights as citizens in Sri Lanka.

The CWC’s critics, however, accuse the party of nepotism and corruption, which, according to them, have been systematically exploited by governments in Colombo to deny basic rights to Tamil workers in the hill districts of the island.

The following are excerpts of Mr. Arumugan Thondaman’s speech in Parliament Tuesday:

My people are called the people of recent Indian origin reminding that all people of Sri Lanka at some time had their origin in India. They came to this country beginning in 1830 brought by the British colonialists to work in plantations that earned the wealth of this country. These people have contributed so much to this country but were denied all their rights and had to struggle for 55 years to achieve the rights they had prior to 1948. This is symbolic of the ethnic divide in this country.

The legislative council of 1920 had the first Indian representation with Mr. Natesa Iyer being nominated. In 1924 the legislative council provided for two members to be nominated from the Indian community. Franchise was restricted to the elite and the total electoral college was 205,000 and the Indian Tamils were 12900. Again Natesa Iyer and I. X Pereira entered the council.

In 1931 when universal adult franchise was introduced to Sri Lanka under the Donoughmore Constitution they were treated equal to all other residents and granted franchise. Mr. S. P Vythilingam and Mr. Peri Sundaram were elected. In this period the role of the Indians in the labour market in Sri Lanka was under challenge. The need of the Indian origin people to unite for their political survival was noticed. Though discussions took place unity was not achieved. Two important events that took place in 1939 jolted the Indians Tamils to realise that the time had come to unite. A resolution was moved by A. E Gunasinha (a Sinhala nationalist labour leader) in the State Council calling for the deportation of 15000 Indians. A second resolution moved by D. S Senanayake (independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister) to deport all Indians appointed to government service after 1934 and to discontinue the service of all those with less than ten years experience. This prompted Mahatma Gandhi to send Jawaharlal Nehru as a special emissary to sort out issues.

It was in 1939 with the arrival of Jawaharlal Nehru on the advice of Mahatma Gandhi that concrete steps were taken to unite all the groups. While speaking to the government Jawaharlal Nehru separately urged the Indian origin leaders to come together under one banner and thus emerged the Ceylon Indian Congress.

The years following the inauguration of the Ceylon Indian Congress were the most challenging with calls for deportation, denial of cost of living allowances and other difficulties initiated by the State Council. The 1947 election brought great political strength to the Indian Tamil community with the election of seven out of the 95 member Parliament. This was equal to the seven Tamil members elected from the North East. The Ceylon Indian Congress led by Savumiamoorthy Thondaman sat in the opposition. This made Prime Minister D. S Senanayake to sense the emergence of a leftist government in the future. The Ceylon Citizenship Act was a result of this fear.

The Ceylon Citizenship Act, though providing the qualifications to be a citizen, was designed to disqualify persons of Indian origin. The provision said that “only a person born in Ceylon prior to the date of the Act coming into force, of a father born in Ceylon could be recognised as a citizen”. This decitizenized all persons of Indian origin since proof of birth of two generations was necessary. This was followed by discussions that led to the Indian and Pakistani (Residents) Citizenship Bill. It laid down qualifications for citizenship as registered citizens (sic). The qualifications inherent I the bill were designed to deny citizenship. The procedures too were a hindrance. The Ceylon Indian Congress opposed the bill and urged that none should apply under the Act.

The Tamil Congress was split on the issue with S. J. V Chelvanayagam quitting the party to form the Federal Party. The people having been deprived of their citizenship, the elections of 1952 saw the end of political representation for persons of Indian origin. A Satyagraha campaign was launched to protest on (sic) the deprivation of representation. The non- violent demonstrations were broken and none bothered to redress the problem.

The Ceylon Indian Congress in 1952 decided to apply for citizenship under the Indian and Pakistani (Residents) Citizenship Act, taking upon itself the task of filling the forms. But very few were granted citizenship due to administrative procedures adopted by the government to deny citizenship to as many as possible.

The 1956 elections too proved negative to the Indian origin people since they had no strength to field candidates. In 1960 the government of Mrs. Banadranaike created a nominated representation for the people of Indian origin and appointed Savumiamoorthy Thondaman to Parliament. Similarly in 1965 the UNP government too nominated Savumiamoorthy Thondaman to Parliament in return for his support to defeat the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike in 1964.

In 1964 Mrs. Bandaranaike moved to solve the citizenship problem in keeping with the Sinhala thinking that persons of Indian origin should return to India.

India, then led by Lal Bahadur Shastri agreed to this move by agreeing to accept 525, 000 back to India. Sri Lanka had agreed to grant citizenship to 300,000 persons leaving the future of 150,000 people to be settled later.

This whole episode was like a barter trade agreement, throwing people from one country to another without consideration of their feelings. The Ceylon Workers’ Congress was angered by this incident and this soured the relationship with the SLFP.

In 1974, a further bartering was done under the Sirima (sic) Indira Gandhi agreement, dividing the balance people between the two countries.

The process of granting citizenship under these agreements was slow due to the link with repatriation of those who applied for Indian citizenship.

In 1977, Savumiamoorthy Thondaman, my grandfather contested the Nuwara Eliya – Maskeliya multi member seat and was elected to Parliament as the third member. After thirty years since 1947 a member was elected to parliament by the people of Indian origin. During the period 1978 to 1988 he (Thondaman) made several representations for the expeditious grant of citizenship under the two Indo Ceylon Agreements. He also urged that persons who were left out of the two agreements be granted Sri Lankan citizenship. Only 506, 000 persons applied for Indian citizenship out of the 600,000 envisaged under the agreements.

In 1986 the CWC conducted a Satyagraha campaign. A special Provision Bill was passed to de-link the grant citizenship to repatriation and to expedite the grant citizenship. However, citizenship was still a problem for the people of Indian origin. In 1988 prior to the Presidential election Minister Savumiamoorthy Thondaman moved to achieve his goal of citizenship for all those who opted to become citizens of Sri Lanka under the Indo-Ceylon Agreements. Prime Minister R. Premadasa who was the presidential candidate moved swiftly, supporting Thondaman and persuaded the government to agree to the granting of citizenship to all those except the 506,000 persons who had applied to be repatriated to India.

Grant of Citizenship to Stateless Persons (Special Provisions) Act No. 39 of 1988 was thus presented to Parliament by Premadasa and passed. This was opposed by the SLFP who voted against it. The people of Indian origin who were until then deprived of the rights flowing from citizenship were overwhelmed by their achieving their long dreamed goal. They had been denied the basic rights such as right to own property, right to state employment, right to hold a national identity card, right to obtain a passport and travel abroad and the right to vote. With the grant of citizenship they changed their attitude towards living in this country.

The struggle of the people of Indian origin did not end with achieving citizenship. They had to struggle further to obtain the rights of citizenship envisaged and this struggle goes on. But even today we still have to go a long way to achieve equal status in this country.

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