D. S. Senanayake and the Indian Tamil question

In his recent work on D. S. Senanayake, K. M. de Silva explores certain controversial aspects of Ceylon’s lurch into independent statehood. Among these is the issue of the fate of the country’s Indian Tamils. Brought to the island from South India amidst conditions of famine and mass starvation in the early part of the 19th century, Indian Tamil workers replaced Sinhalese and resident Tamil labour in the island. Governed by a semifeudal set-up that shut them out from the world outside, Indian Tamil labour grew up in a world of their own. It was their tragic fate that while the colonial government feigned little interest in their welfare, their lives lay in the hands of that government.

De Silva ends his account of Senanayake with the following ultimatum:

“Sixty five years after his death today, D. S. clearly ranks as the greatest Sri Lankan political figure of the twentieth century, the one individual in Sri Lanka’s political leadership over the past 60 years who cannot be held responsible, in any substantial way, for Sri Lanka’s recent violent ethnic conflict and its associated political crises.”

What we see here, shorn of all grandiloquent rhetoric, is an attempt at absolution. De Silva posits that at the time of independence, Sri Lanka encountered two forms of nationalism: Ceylonese and Sinhala Buddhist. The one was inclusive, the other not so. De Silva suggests that D. S. Senanayake exemplified the former tendency: in his refusal to mix state politics with religion and his pursuit of a multi-ethnic and multicultural polity, the historian suggests that Senanayake envisioned a stable, and orderly, future for the country. At the same time, pragmatist that he was, he accepted — “in a decidedly low profiled way” — the government’s “special responsibility for the fostering of Buddhism.”

Senanayake’s contradictory attitude to Buddhism was well known. He oversaw the restoration of a number of culturally significant sites, including the Mahiyangana Dagaba, and, as Minister of Agriculture and Lands, organised ambitious resettlement schemes which favoured a Sinhala agrarian population. At the same time, he was wary of Buddhist monks, particularly Buddhist monks harbouring radical Marxist tendencies, involving themselves in politics. De Silva traces this to his pragmatism, which could supposedly balance the historical roots of a Buddhist civilisation with the needs of a modern, secular polity. My aim here is to assess this view on the basis of Senanayake’s, and the Ceylon National Congress’s, response to the question of statehood for Indian Tamil or estate Tamil labour.

Kumari Jayawardena has described plantation workers as “the largest concentration of resident labour” in British Ceylon. From 1825, there was a continuous recruitment of Indian workers to the island, organised under a Pioneer Force to undertake the construction and repair of public works. The opening up of coffee and tea plantations diverted them to the hill country, where they gradually replaced Sinhalese labour.

The need to ensure a steady supply of labour at home led the Indian government, in 1839, to impose restrictions, if not complete bans, on the emigration of Indian workers to other colonies. Hector Abhayavardhana has noted that the embargo was imposed on the grounds of “unsatisfactory conditions” in countries like Ceylon. Eight years later the ban was lifted on the assurance that working conditions for workers would improve. From then on, there was a sustained campaign, from the Indian government’s side, against the Ceylonese colonial government’s moves towards restricting the rights of Indian labour.

A number of factors led the comprador Sinhalese bourgeoisie to call for the curtailment of those rights. Any hopes for a coalition of Sinhalese and Tamil bourgeoisies had ended in 1921 with Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s departure from the Ceylon National Congress. Yet, despite this, the Sinhala and Tamil communities were still seen as constituting a majority in the country. This extended to Indian Tamils as well. In 1927 the CNC rejected a resolution against the granting of the franchise to their population. The following year it rejected all proposals to restrict their right to vote. The depression of the 1930s changed all that: 10 years after the CNC rejected resolutions to restrict the rights of Indian Tamils, it passed an amendment that excluded them from the country’s Village Committees.

In 1934 A. E. Goonesinghe proposed that preference be extended to Ceylonese in employment at government departments. This was passed and endorsed by the State Council. The Indian government responded bitterly, in effect halting Indian migration to Ceylonese plantations. Hector Abhayavardhana has observed that the labour shortage which resulted from this led to rather heated debates between the two countries over the granting of the franchise to Indian Tamils at the Village Committee level. It is here, he notes, that the Indo-Ceylon problem, as it came to be known later, originated.

K. M. de Silva has argued that the decision to restrict Indian Tamils from Village Committees was taken on the grounds that Indian Tamils “never formed an integral part of the village community served by such committees and could not possibly benefit from the social objectives these councils were designed to serve.” He also points out that Indian officials did not object to the measure, which had actually been passed in 1889 and, in its original draft, had excluded Burghers and Europeans as well, until 1937. That year the Minister of Local Government, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, oversaw a more comprehensive amendment that achieved the worst of both worlds: Burghers and Europeans were allowed to vote at Village Councils, but the exclusion of Indian Tamils remained in place.

De Silva also notes other factors, such as G. G. Ponnambalam’s intervention in the matter, and Kandyan demands for administrative autonomy, as having exacerbated Sinhala fears of Indian Tamil domination and pushed them to endorse further restrictions. Accurate as this is, it ignores two points: Ponnambalam’s volte-face over the question of Indian Tamil rights between 1945 and 1948, and the decision taken in 1940 by the Chief Secretary of Ceylon to restrict employment at government departments to Ceylonese locals.

The latter decision compelled Jawaharlal Nehru to travel to Ceylon, amidst much debate in India, and try to reach an agreement with the Sinhalese leadership. Having failed to achieve such an agreement, Nehru, despite the pleas of the LSSP, which had garnered the support of Indian Tamils, greenlit the formation of the Ceylon Indian Congress.

The decision to establish an Indian Congress Party for plantation Tamils in Ceylon held certain implications for not just Indo-Lanka, but also Sinhalese-Tamil relations. During the depression years, popular hatred of the colonial regime had extended to moneylenders and merchants, all of whom hailed from minority and foreign communities and were more or less seen as beneficiaries of colonial largesse. In setting up a party for themselves, Indian Tamils became linked to that network of moneylenders and merchants. This had the effect of reinforcing communal fears against them, while fanning communalism among their ranks. The LSSP’s critique of the Ceylon Congress Party, hence, was that its formation pre-empted a joint alliance of estate Tamils and other deprived classes.

These developments drew a wedge between the Indian and Ceylonese leadership. Each side was determined not to surrender to the other. While the Ceylon National Congress and the UNP, under D. S. Senanayake, proposed one restriction after another on plantation Tamils and their desire for Ceylonese statehood, the Indian Congress Party, and Nehru, called for a relaxation of qualifications for nationality. These restrictions centred on three principles or tests: residence, means, and compliance with the laws of Ceylon.

More than a difference in personality determined the course of disagreements between the two leaders over these principles. While Nehru put a negative construction on the means test for citizenship, Senanayake defined it more positively, with conditions like “an assured income of a reasonable amount” that betrayed a rather patriarchal attitude to the question of statehood for a deprived community. This could only end in a stalemate.

In all fairness, it must be pointed out that Senanayake’s hardening stance on the question of citizenship for Indian Tamils could be ascribed, at least in part, to the decision of two Indian Tamil State Council officials to oppose the Ceylon Independence Bill. That, however, does not explain his views on the Indian Tamil question before 1945.

In any case, Senanayake’s dithering over these issues did not do him any favours in the long run. He and Nehru held a series of talks that ended in a stalemate, from which Indo-Ceylon relations never fully recovered. In passing a series of Acts designed to restrict, if not exclude, an entire community from the franchise, moreover, he demonstrated his unwillingness to continue these discussions or build upon them. For their part the British government kept itself out of these developments. That was to be expected: they preferred the UNP in power in Ceylon, and were wary of Nehru’s leadership.

Is K. M. de Silva’s assessment of Senanayake and his involvement in the Indian Tamil controversy fair, in that sense? Without in any way condoning the Indian leadership’s intervention, which exacerbated the issue, I suggest that Senanayake, and the bulk of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie, did contribute much to the problem.

The depression years proved that a comprador and Westernised bourgeoisie, as well as the leadership of the Labour movement, could turn chauvinist. It was left to the LSSP, which identified the limitations of the Labour movement and sought to transcend them, to try and bring together an alliance of deprived communities, cutting across ethnic lines. This included Indian Tamils. Tragically for the country, however, the intrigues of the comprador elite, and of the Indian political leadership, put an end to hopes of such an alliance.

The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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