Indian Premier Narendra Modi’s visit to the country last week drew attention to the wider political dimensions sandwiched in the so-called Plantation Tamils’ issue. Current Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran has been at great pains to drive home his several ‘justifications’ to demand a merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces by citing the Muslims in that province as being ‘Tamil Speaking People.’

Just a fortnight ago we heard Ceylon Workers Congress President MP Muthu Sivalingam make reference to plantation Tamils settled in the Vanni District, mainly Vavuniya, who are said to be facing all sorts of discrimination, whose votes have been assiduously, and hitherto unsuccessfully, sought by the TNA. The discrimination might be stemming from that as a lever to persuade them to vote directly for the TNA, the next time around. That populations grow rapidly, thus increasing the number of voters in that population segment is natural.

Sivalingam has said that ‘the mindset of politicians in that area should change and they should begin to think equally that plantation Tamils are also Tamils’. This would suggest that it is other “Tamils” who are guilty of the discriminations against the plantation Tamils settled there.

Modi’s visit can swing the increasing outflow of plantation Tamils from the hill country to several other parts of the country back to the plantations.

This would seem to be a factor behind the initiative to invite Modi to the Vesak celebrations and the unusual show in Dickoya. The promise of massive development aid from Modi for housing can be a powerful incentive even should they migrate to other parts of the country in search of better education and employment. Sivalingam added that the plantation Tamil youth must realize that ‘whether we work in the estates or not, this is our home and our village.’ Should an increasingly large number of plantation youth be ‘encouraged’ or even financed to secure employment outside the “village”, marry and seek permanent residence elsewhere, their votes would also move out of the plantations and whittle down the voter base of the plantation district Tamil politicians such as Sivalingam.

“In 1948, at Independence, the Tamils had 33% of the voting power in the Legislature. Upon the disenfranchisement of the estate Tamils (in 1950), however, this proportion dropped to 20%. The Sinhalese obtained more than a 2/3 majority in Parliament, making it impossible for the Tamils to exercise an effective opposition to Sinhalese policies affecting them…” said Virginia Leary in Ethnic Conflict and Violence in Sri Lanka – Report of a Mission to Sri Lanka on behalf of the International Commission of Jurists, July/August 1981.

Robert Kilroy-Silk, MP and Roger Sims, MP United Kingdom Parliamentary Human Rights Group Report, in February 1985 further noted that:

“We do not accept… that there is any justification for denying civic and political rights to the million or so Tamils of Indian descent who work on the tea plantations.”

A note in the Abdul Aziz Felicitation Volume, 1986, observes that “When the Ceylon Citizenship Act was passed in 1948, C. Suntharalingam, who was a Minister in the (UNP) Government of D.S. Senanayake, voted for the Citizenship Act, while G.G. Ponnambalam (Snr.), who was then, the leader of the Tamil Congress, voted against the Act, and so did Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress Party (that then represented the plantation Tamils’ issues too). But, by 1949, G.G. Ponnambalam joined the Sinhala dominated Government of D.S. Senanayake.

On the issue of the Indian and Pakistani (Residents) Citizenship Bill, there was a split between the Tamil Members of the then Parliament. G.G. Ponnambalam, despite the pledge he had signed with the party representing the Plantation Tamil interests (i.e. the Ceylon Indian Congress as it was then known) in respect of Citizenship for the persons of Indian origin, voted for the Bill, while C. Suntharalingam voted against the Bill, and resigned his portfolio.

The Tamil Congress broke into two and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, with his supporters formed the Federal Party….That means the estate Tamils have been exploited on all sides when political expediency indicated the ‘need’.

There is good reason for the government and Modi coming together on this unusual jaunt in Dickoya. Better still that the estate Tamils as we fondly refer to them will be getting the benefit of some 300 Indian teachers and that technical colleges and other educational initiatives are to be taken with Indian aid to meet the demands of the younger generation of plantation youth who want higher education and better jobs, a better future.

The battle for their votes continues. It could be that Plantation Tamils are being enticed to migrate to northern Tamil areas and change the demographic and voting patterns. This could be one factor that has been causing much difficulty for the Delimitation Committee to finalize its report. It’s a testing time for Plantation Tamil political leaders and Colombo alike.

Modi played a stellar role to solve this emerging crisis.

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