Plantation Tamils – The Oppressed People of Sri Lanka

By S. Makenthiran, B.A., FCCA

Immigration in the nineteenth century

In Sri Lanka live one of the most oppressed communities in the world. They are the plantation Tamils living in the central hill country. This unfortunate community has been treated like sub-humans by the successive Sinhalese governments that have been in power since independence in 1948.

In Sri Lanka, formerly called Ceylon, there are three major communities – the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils and Muslims. At the time of independence, there was a population of about 8 million, of which the Sinhalese composed of 66%, the Tamils 26% and Muslims 7%.

The Tamils of Ceylon are of two categories - the Eelam Tamils of the coastal NorthEast Province, and the Upcountry Tamils of the central highlands of Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. The Eelam Tamils have lived on the island for milennia.

The Upcountry Tamils were brought by the British at the beginning of the 19th century from South India to work on the British plantations. The first batch of Tamil labourers came around 1823 from Tamil Nadu, then called the Madras Presidency. In two more decades, the Indian Tamils will complete two centuries of habitation in Sri Lanka.. They have toiled on the Tea, rubber and coconut plantations to make Ceylon prosperous under grueling, and inhuman conditions.

When Ceylon was unilaterally granted independence by the British in 1948, there were about one million Eelam Tamils and a little more that one million Upcountry Tamils, out of a total population of about eight million. The Eelam Tamils were in general well off, but the Upcountry Tamils lived in poverty and squalor.

As a school boy, teacher, accountancy student, and accountant, I had the experience of seeing the Tamils in the estates and possess intimate knowledge of the terrible conditions in which they lived.

Appalling living conditions

These Tamils from Tamil Nadu were brought to Ceylon as indentured labourers.  ‘Indenture’ is a sealed agreement binding servant to master.  The poverty-stricken, ignorant and illiterate Tamils of South India were subjected to the terms of indenture and brought to Ceylon to work on plantations.  These unfortunate Tamils were condemned to virtual slavery under the British, and, after independence, to the Sinhalese masters.

The gangs of estate labourers are supervised by Kanganies, who come under the overall supervision of a Head Kangany.  The manager in charge of the estate is called an Estate Superintendent.  Under him, the administration comes under an Assistant Superintendent, Head Clerk and clerks.  The tea factory is supervised by a Tea Maker and his staff.  The Tamil women do the tea plucking and are paid according to the weight of tea plucked.  Other labourers are paid at an hourly rate.

The living conditions of the plantation Tamils is appalling.  They live in labour lines like the slave rows in the United States.  Each family is given a room and large families of ten or twelve children are crammed up in a room.  They have to use common toilets, and a common tap.  Men and women have to bathe from the common tap in the open.  After independence, while the Sinhala-dominated government went all out to improve the quality of life of the Sinhalese, the Tamils were neglected. The plantation Tamils were the worst off.

The health and educational facilities made available to this unfortunate community have been deplorable.  There are dispensaries in the estates but no doctors.  Unqualified dispensers attend to the sick.  Schools are only up to 4th or 5th standard.  The objective is to discourage Tamils from improving in education to make sure that they remained labourers.

Among the plantation Tamils, there were a handful who are economically better off as clerks, tea makers, and head kanganies.  The sons of these few plantation Tamils, who are better off do get some chance to progress, but the vast majority live in abject poverty and ignorance.

These Upcountry or Plantation Tamils are wrongly referred to as Indian Tamils.  Sinhalese who claim to have come from India are not referred to as Indian Sinhalese.  In fact, many Indians, who immigrated after the Upcountry Tamils, merged with the Sinhalese and conveniently call themselves Sinhalese.

Conditions under colonialism

Under the British rule, though the Plantation Tamils were suffering under atrocious living conditions, as British subjects they were equal in the eyes of the law.  In the nineteen twenties Tamils of recent Indian origin were nominated to the legislative council.  In 1931 under the Donoughmore constitution, when universal adult franchise was introduced, the Plantation Tamils were granted the right to vote like all other Ceylonese.

In the thirties, the Sinhalese, spearheaded by D.S. Senanayake, agitated in the Legislative Council to send back some Indians and to discontinue and deport Indians in government service.  In 1939 Jawaharlal Nehru (who later became the first Prime Minister of independent India) arrived to look into the problems faced by people of Indian origin.  Soon after, the Ceylon Indian Congress was formed to lead the Upcountry Tamils.  It was later to emerge as a powerful political party and trade union.

Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, the Upcountry Tamil leader

It was about this time that Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman entered politics and ultimately became the uncrowned king of the Upcountry Tamils.  He led his people through thick and thin for six decades.  Born in Tamil Nadu in 1913, he came to Ceylon in 1924 at the age of 11.  His father had migrated to Ceylon as a kangany and by hard work and enterprise become the owner of an estate.  Young Thondaman became a planter and so did many members of his extended family later.  In 1940 he entered politics as Chairman of the Reception Committee of the Gampola Branch of the Ceylon Indian Congress.

Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman


Developments after independence

The granting of independence to Ceylon was a tragedy for the Tamils. The Ceylon government dominated by the Sinhalese gave them step-motherly treatment.  The Upcountry Tamils were living in extremely difficult conditions, but the Sinhala-dominated government completely neglected them.

The Ceylon Indian Congress led by Thondaman secured 8 seats in the first Parliament out of a total of 101.  Thondaman was elected to the Nuwara Eliya seat.  The block Upcountry Tamil votes influenced 12 other electorates in favour of leftist parties.

Then, like a bolt from the blue, came the terrible betrayal of the Tamils by Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake and the U.N.P.  In the very year of independence, the Upcountry Tamils, who numbered over a million, were rendered stateless.  In a blatant act of perfidy, D.S. Senanayake passed the Ceylon Citizenship Act ,depriving citizenship to the Upcountry Tamils (over half the Tamil population) who had lived in Ceylon for several generations.  This loss of citizenship was followed in the next year by the Ceylon Elections Amendment Act depriving voting rights to those Estate Tamils, who constituted about 13% of the population.  As a result, in the next elections in 1952, not a single Tamil member was elected from the Upcountry, where half the Tamils in Ceylon lived.

Ceylon Tamils fail to support Upcountry Tamil brethren

This was the first blow to the Tamils in Ceylon, and was to be followed by numerous serious acts of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority against the Tamils by successive governments creating a permanent division between the two communities.  D.S. Senanayake who started these anti-Tamil policies can be called the father of Sinhala racism.  The Tamils, even in this time of peril, failed to take united action.  To the dismay of the Tamils, G.G. Ponnambalam who posed as the champion of the Tamils and minorities, voted in support of these discriminatory acts against fellow Tamils to enable him to continue in the cabinet.  The Plantation Tamils, who were already living in sub-human conditions, were left without any political voice.

The honour of the Tamils was partly salvaged by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, who voted against those despicable Acts of discrimination and broke away from the Tamil Congress Party of G.G. Ponnambalam over this issue.  In 1949 S.J.V. Chelvanayagam formed the Federal Party to agitate for a federal constitution to safeguard Tamil rights.  He was the first Tamil leader to alert the Tamils to the dangers of unitarianism and Sinhalese hegemony.  At that stage he only agitated for a federal form of government and did not ask for a separate state for the Tamil minority.

The Upcountry Tamil leader S. Thondaiman, and his party, the Ceylon Workers Congress, carried on a hopeless and ineffective Satyagraha against the unjust laws.  It was our misfortune that the Tamils failed to unite at this desperate hour for the Upcountry Tamils, who were suffering under the Sinhalese government and thugs.  Having seen the conditions in which these poor Tamils lived in Ceylon’s hill country and how the Tamils lived in Apartheid South Africa, I can say that the Tamils in the Ceylon estates were treated very much worse.  The Tamils in Apartheid South Africa were also denied political rights, but they were economically prosperous and much better off than the Estate Tamils of Ceylon‘s Hill Country.

The Upcountry Tamils were not only handicapped economically, socially, and in education.  Now they were without any political leverage and no seat in Parliament.  It was infuriating to hear the Sinhalese refer disparagingly to the Upcountry Tamils as ‘kallathonis’ (illicit boat people) and the NorthEast Tamils as ‘para damalos’.  The Sinhalese were under the illusion that they could perpetually continue any injustices against the Tamils with impunity, as the latter were a powerless minority.

Renaming the Ceylon Indian Congress

In 1950, the name of the Ceylon Indian Congress was changed to Ceylon Workers Congress, and it became a powerful force as it controlled a large and strong trade union.  The word ‘Indian’ is misleading and should not be used in referring to Upcountry Tamils.

Sirimavo-Shastri Pact

In a glaring case of betrayal, the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri agreed to the repatriation of 600,000 of the one million Upcountry Tamils to India.  This was done against the wishes of the Tamils of Ceylon by signing the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact in October 1964.  The NorthEast and Upcountry Tamils had by then been alerted to the danger of Sinhalese racism and were against the mass deportation.  Under the agreement, 375,000 Upcountry Tamils were to be given Ceylon citizenship.  However, this was done at a slow pace by the Sinhalese administration.

The worm turns

Thondaman became the champion of the orphaned and oppressed estate underdogs.  It is a sad fact that the Sinhalese thugs treated them like sub-human beings.  It was depressing to see the Tamil estate labourers manhandled by the Sinhalese when they had to go to town.  The Upcountry Tamil leaders gradually roused their alertness and they began to assert themselves.  The estate Tamils began to defend themselves and give it back when provoked.  This oppressed Tamil community was gradually becoming a powerful force.

Tamil Women Tea Pluckers of Upcountry Sri Lanka


Eviction of estate Tamils

The Srimavo government was severely racist and evicted the estate Tamils by various ruses.  They nationalised the estates and uprooted the Tamils to settle Sinhalese.  During the repeated anti-Tamil riots by the Sinhalese, estate Tamils like the NorthEast Tamils were chased out of their homes.  Consequently, some of them sought refuge in the NorthEast.  The Tamil refugees from the estates were trying to make a living in the remote areas of the NorthEast, but many were again mercilessly attacked and uprooted by the Sinhalese army.

Common suffering of NorthEast and Upcountry Tamils

The Tamils of both the NorthEast and the Upcountry were bound by the common suffering at the hands of the Sinhala state and mob terror.  They were all made refugees, victimised and uprooted from their homes.  In the sixties and seventies 600,000 Upcountry Tamils were forcibly deported.  In the eighties and nineties 600,000 or more NorthEast Tamils were forced to flee the country as a result of Sinhalese terror.  The common suffering united the Tamils of all communities.  The ethnic cleansing of Tamils was effectively executed by the Sinhalese state and mob terror.

Triumvirate of TULF leaders

When the Tamil United Liberation Front was formed in 1976, Thondaman was elected to the triumvirate of leaders along with G.G. Ponnambalam and Chelvanayagam.  The Tamil United Liberation Front was formed by uniting the Federal Party, the Ceylon Tamil Congress and the Ceylon Workers Congress.  The TULF, at a convention held in Vaddukkoddai presided over by Thanthai Chelva, passed a historic resolution calling for the formation of a separate state of Tamil Eelam covering the Northern and Eastern provinces.  When the TULF decided to agitate for separation, Thondaman chose a different path that he thought would help his own estate community.

Re-entry into Parliament

In 1960 and 1965 Thondaman was made an appointed Member of Parliament to represent the stateless Tamils.  When the number of Tamils registered as citizens increased, their influence in elections began to be felt.  In 1971, after 30 years of working for his people, Thondaman won an election based on the Tamil votes in Nuwara Eliya.  In 1978 he was appointed to the cabinet as Minister of Rural Industries.  From then on, he almost continuously held a ministerial post under different governments till his death.  He used his ministerial position to uplift the economic position of the estate people and to regain part of the lost rights.  In 1994 the CWC secured nine seats in Parliament and became a force to be reckoned with in Sri Lankan politics.

Anti-Tamil hostility

In the ethnic violence of 1977 and 1980, the plantation Tamils were the worst affected.  As a result of the recurring ethnic violence against Tamils, many plantation Tamils took refuge in the NorthEast and settled down there as farm hands.  In the 1983 massacre of the Tamils by the Sinhalese, the estate Tamils also suffered and many fled to India and the Tamil homeland of NorthEast Sri Lanka.  The Sinhalese politicians used the armed forces to uproot them.  They were forcibly put into buses and taken back to the plantations and dumped there.  The Gandhiyam Movement which was looking after their welfare in NorthEast settlements was crushed and the organizers, Dr. Rajasundaram and architect David, were arrested and treated like common criminals.

Thondaman extracts concessions

Thondaman used his political and ministerial position to win back some of the rights of his oppressed people.  Most of the Tamil Upcountry peope fought and regained their civic rights.  Wages also were increased due to trade union action.  Thondaman succeeded due to various factors.  He was a master strategist and used his cabinet position to obtain concessions.  He used the strength of the CWC trade unions to pressurise the government and estate employers.  He used the block Tamil vote in parliamentary, local and presidential elections.  He used the voting power of the CWC in Parliament to influence the formation of governments.  He came to be regarded as king-maker, much to the resentment of Sinhala racists.

In 1988 the UNP government of Premadasa passed an Act to grant citizenship to the Tamils of the Upcountry, who had been made stateless, but still remained after the mass deportation under the infamous Srimavo-Shastri Pact.  The Bill was opposed by the SLFP.

NorthEast rebellion helps Upcountry Tamils

Most of all, Thondaman was greatly helped by the fear the Sinhalese government had of the armed resistance in NorthEast.  As the estate Tamils were isolated in the central highlands, the Sinhalese would have suppressed them without that armed resistance.  With the LTTE hammering the SL armed forces in the NorthEast, the government did not want a revolt in the Highlands.  Thondaman used his influence with his people to prevent the Upcountry Tamil youth from joining the armed rebellion.  Such a revolt would have had far reaching consequences.  Nevertheless, the estate youth settled in the NorthEast could not be prevented from throwing in their lot with their bothers and sisters of the NorthEast.  Many fought and died, shoulder to shoulder with the brave youth of the NorthEast against the Sinhalese forces.  The truth is that, despite all the strategies of Thondaman and the strength of the Upcountry Tamils, they would have been kept down by the Sinhalese, if the NorthEast Tamils had not posed a serious armed threat.

Death and succession.

When Thondaman died at the age of 86 in 1999, he was still active as a cabinet minister.  He was given a well-attended state funeral, and he was the only Tamil ever to be given that honour.  Over 100,000 people attended his funeral.  His people cried.  Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman can be considered the greatest of all Upcountry Tamils and his contributions were unique.  He was regarded as the uncrowned king of the Upcountry Tamils and a king-maker in Sri Lankan politics..

So great was his influence with his people, that his grandson Arumugam Thondaman was recognized as his successor even before his death.  Arumugam Thondaman became the President of the CWC and now leads the Upcountry Tamils.  Periyasamy Chandrasekeran is the leader of the Upcountry Peoples Front, another party representing the oppressed Plantation Tamils.  He is in favour of forging a united front of the Tamils of the Upcountry and the NorthEast to secure their rights.  Both Arumugam Thondaman and Chandrsekeran have held posts in the Sri Lankan government.

Upcountry Tamils dissipated

As part of the Sinhalese policy of ethnic cleansing, the Sri Lankan state carried out forced strerilisation of Plantation Tamils to reduce their numbers.  Half of them have been expatriated to India.  Many were killed in the series of anti-Tamil pogroms and many fled to the Tamil homeland in the NorthEast.  Their death rate is high due to lack of facilities.  Because of abject poverty, 230,000 Tamil children are estimated to be employed in Sinhalese homes as domestic servants and exposed to abuse.  The rate of unemployment and/or underemployment among Estate Tamils is high.

Remnants of Upcountry Tamils granted citizenship

In 2003, the Parliament unanimously decided to grant citizenship to the remnants of the Tamils left in the Upcountry numbering 168,141.  It was a long and protracted, but finally successful struggle against Sinhalese oppression for Upcountry Tamil rights. 

The struggle for economic survival of this battered community continues, however. The frustrated Tamil youth are restless, and resent the miserable conditions that their parents and ancestors endured.


Posted November 21, 2004