Sri Lanka Politics 
Sri Lanka's Malaiyaha Tamils & Story of a Postage Stamp Release by BJP's Nadda

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN/An Awaaz South Asia special | 04/01/2024

Courtesy: Jyoti Malhotra

Text Size:  

On December 29, 2023, BJP President J P Nadda released a postage stamp in New Delhi to commemorate 200 years of the arrival of “Indian Origin Tamils” in Sri Lanka. At the release, Nadda was flanked by Tamil Nadu BJP head K Annamalai as well as the Governor of Sri Lanka's eastern province and head of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Senthil Thondaman, who had flown in specially for the occasion.

The overture by India's ruling party to an ethnic group in Sri Lanka is significant. The BJP is clearly throwing everything it can into gaining more than a toehold in Tamil Nadu, and the increasing engagement of the Modi government and the BJP with the Indian Origin Tamils (IOT) of Sri Lanka is likely part of that project. But the outreach is bound to leave a mark on Sri Lankan politics and the community's place in it, as well on India-Sri Lanka relations.

The Malaiyaha Tamil -- as the IOTs now prefer to be identified -- are a distinct Tamil community in Sri Lanka, different from the Sri Lankan Tamil community of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. The latter group led the demand for Tamil political rights and a Tamil homeland in the North-East that later turned into a full blown civil war. The Malaiyaha Tamil live mainly in “up country” Sri Lanka, in the central hills, and date their presence in the island-nation from about two centuries ago. Their struggle for over half a century after Sri Lanka's independence was more basic, for citizenship, but unlike the Sri Lankan Tamil, they did not resort to militancy.

They arrived in the 1820s in what was then Ceylon, shipped over from the southern districts of Tamil Nadu by British colonial planters to work on the newly planted tea gardens of Sri Lanka. Even today, most Malaiyaha Tamil are employed in Sri Lanka's plantation sector. When they arrived, they were bonded labour, indebted to middlemen who had recruited them on behalf of British masters. Unused to the wintry climate and hilly terrrain, they worked in extremely tough conditions. They were paid less than subsistence wages and their living quarters, called “lines”, were overcrowded, unsanitary spaces where infectious diseases spread fast. Thousands died. But still the men and women adjusted and soldiered on, making the plantations their new home. Women continue to be the backbone of this workforce, as their nimble fingers are adept at plucking the small tea leaves.

In the years before independence, in response to workers organising themselves to demand better wages and living conditions, plantation owners made small concessions. But overall, the lives of the Malaiyaha Tamil saw little improvement.

When Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, the first two pieces of legislation enacted by the post-colonial government centred on citizenship and franchise -- both aimed at the exclusion of the Malaiyaha Tamil. The leftist Lanka Sama Samaja Party had by now made inroads into the plantation sector and workers were getting unionised. And then the workers were Tamil, with links to India.


Moreover, the community numbered nearly 1 million in 1946, more than the population of Sri Lankan Tamils who primarily lived in the North-East, and had lived in Sri Lanka for at least three generations. Overnight, as the two laws kicked in, they were rendered stateless.

The matter snowballed into a source of early friction between India and Sri Lanka. It led to the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact of 1964 and the follow-on Sirimavo-Indira Pact of 1974. Under the first agreement, India agreed to take back 500,000 Indian Origin Tamils, and Sri Lanka agreed to give citizenship to 350,000. Of the remaining 150,000, the two countries agreed to split the difference equally.

At least for another decade, things remained much the same. In the 1980s, as the Tamil militancy in northern Jaffna took on a life of its own and India began to push for devolution in the North and East, Sri Lanka for the first time began accepting its share of IOTs as citizens. Perhaps there was the realisation that Sri Lanka could ill afford to have two aggrieved Tamil communities joining hands across the island.

By this time, Senthil Thondaman's great-grandfather, Sauvimiyamoorthy Thondaman, a shrewd political player who had set up the Ceylon Workers Congress as a trade union in the 1930s -- then called the Ceylon Indian Congress -- to represent the demands of the IOT community, had become a powerful kingmaker. Back in 1960, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had a majority in Parliament, Thondaman Sr was appointed “Member” representing “stateless” Tamils, and inducted into her Cabinet.

By 1964, angered by the pact with India, he helped pull down Bandaranaike's government and jumped ship to join the Opposition United National Party government and took power as a Cabinet minister. He continued to be a trade union boss and thought little of bringing the plantation sector to a standstill whenever he wanted his voice heard. The citizenship question was fully resolved only in 2003.

The political and social exclusion of the Malaiyaha Tamil is the dark underbelly of Sri Lanka's much-vaunted success story of human development. The community's economic and social backwardness stands out in stark contrast to the national average, and continues to this day. They were the worst affected by the economic downturn during the pandemic and the economic crisis that followed soon after. Even today, Malaiyaha Tamils do not have the right to own land for housing or agriculture.

In Tamil Nadu, which expressed much political and public solidarity with the Tamils of Sri Lanka's North and East during the 1980s, peaking with India's 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord and the sending of of the Indian Peace Keeping Force, there is little awareness of the history of the Malaiyaha Tamil, who mostly came from the Dalit communities of Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Tiruchi, Thanjavur and Madurai.

To its credit, Delhi kept up the engagement, giving the Malaiyaha youth scholarships to study in India, besides helping in other ways. Today, the largest number of OCI card holders are from Sri Lanka. Last year, India announced it was extending its house-building project in Sri Lanka (under which some 46,000 houses have been constructed in the North and East) to build 10,000 dwellings in up-country plantations.

While the community grabbed the 200th anniversary as an opportunity to initiate more conversations about itself both in Sri Lanka and in India, the Modi government and the BJP now appear to be making a conscious attempt to woo the Malaiyaha Tamil. Among those in President Ranil Wickremesinghe's delegation to New Delhi last August was Jeevan Thondaman, another great-grandson of the CWC founder, and a cabinet minister. Before that, Senthil Thondaman met External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar in June.

As for the BJP, this is perhaps the first time after the patronage in the1980s by Dravidian parties to Tamil militant groups that an Indian political party is openly courting an ethnic community in Sri Lanka, that too one with strong links to India. In November 2023, the Tamil Nadu BJP's aforesaid Annamalai travelled to Colombo to participate in a “Naam 200” ("We are 200 years old") event. Earlier, led by Annamalai, the BJP in Tamil Nadu held a protest in the Nilgiris to protest the plan to shut down a tea factory set up for the rehabilitation of Malaiyaha Tamil who returned to India under the agreements with Sri Lanka.


The Sangh Parivar's project of giving Hindutva cross-strait wings was inaugurated much before the BJP took office in Delhi. Now that the party is in the saddle, this has become easier. The Ramayana trail, part of Sri Lanka's tourism promotion gambit to lure the Indian religious tourism sector, located at the centre of the central hill areas, has paved the way.

These days in Jaffna, a small political organisation calling itself SivaSena is trying to make its presence felt. It has made a noise against cow slaughter, and launched a tirade against Muslim women in Tricncomalee wearing the abaya. Its leader, M. Satchithananthan sports an orange scarf, and was at hand to receive Annamalai on his visit to Jaffna last year. There is an attempt to project the "hijacking" of the Tamil cause by Christians. A massive Hanuman statue has come up in Chunakkam, close to Palaly airport. But Hindutva is not finding many takers in the northern peninsula of the tear drop island.

The Sri Lankan Tamil movement and Tamil militancy had never identified itself by religion. Even though a majority of Sri Lankan Tamils are Hindus, both Christians and Muslim youth were as much part of the militancy. Prabhakaran, a Hindu, named his eldest child Charles Antony, after his close aide. Even after the LTTE turned against the Muslims and created a religious divide, the Tamil struggle was about ethnicity rather than religion. But the Malaiyaha Tamil may be more amenable than the Tamils of the North and East. The CWC, the largest Malaiyaha Tamil party with two Thondamans as important functionaries in the Ranil Wickremsinghe government, is seen as a favoured interlocutor of the BJP.

Some may even be inclined to see in the BJP's specific outreach to the Malaiyaha Tamil a bid by Delhi to make a geopolitical incursion into a strategic sector of the Sri Lankan economy, the island-nation's only large-scale commodity export and its most stable source of foreign earnings.

Certainly, the Malaiyaha Tamil have for decades seen India as their security umbrella in a country that is their home but where they have been despised and viewed with hatred and contempt by Sinhalese nationalists. But now younger generations of the community have pushed for changing the community's identification from Indian Origin Tamils to Malaiyaha Tamils, a move to shed the “Indian” tag used to exclude and target the group.

Gowthaman Balachandran, a civil society activist and an organiser of the 200th year Malaiyaha anniversary events last August told AwaazSouthAsia that the change signalled the community's rootedness in Sri Lanka. “No one can deny that all of us are from India, that we were brought to Sri Lanka, that there are very clear records of our Indian origin. But the issue is about identifying the community and predominantly plantation workers. People in Nuwara Eliya, Badulla and [other up country areas] want to identify ourselves as Malaiyaha Tamil community because that gives us a much closer rootedness to Sri Lanka,” he said.

He added that while the embrace of the Indian government has always been welcome, the activism of Hindutva “religious formations” and regular visits by BJP leaders who do not hold any official positions in government may backfire on the community. Balachandran fears such political engagement with an Indian political party would be fodder for those who want to paint the community in bad light. “So we need to be very wary of that." Moreover, Balachandran said, “it might preclude some of the Malayaha Tamil political formations from making common cause with the broadest spectrum of oppressed or marginalized groups in this country, which is where our real struggle lies.”

Pankaj Tripathi

2024-01-06 18:44:11

Absolutely brilliant… compelling, in-delth, very informative on the subject, and analytical.