Indian Tamils of Sri Lanka - Politics - Disenfranchisement


Main article: Ceylon Citizenship Act See also: Soulbury Commission and Donoughmore Commission

The first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake of the conservative United National Party reacting to the possibilities of losing power to leftist political parties, commenced the task of weakening the leftist parties and their associate organizations. Indian Tamil labor had overwhelmingly supported these organizations. According opposition parties he was also influenced by segments of the majority Sinhalese population who felt their voting strength was diluted due to Indian Tamils. He introduced the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948, the Indian-Pakistani Citizenship act of 1949 and amended the parliamentary elections act and disfranchised the Indian Tamils along with many persons of Indian and Pakistani ancestry. As they had no means of electing any one to the Parliament they ceased to be the concern of parliamentary politicians. The plantation workers were thus forgotten from 1948 - 1964. They were unable to profit by any progressive legislation. The housing, health and education of the plantation workers were neglected. Infant mortality was highest in the country. Although since the introduction of universal franchise in 1931, strong traditions of social welfare in Sri Lanka have given the island very high indicators of physical well-being. Impressive national statistics tended to hide the existence of deprived pockets within the population and the most deprived population group has been the plantation labor, which had been economically, politically and socially deprived.

Donoughmore Commission

The Donoughmore Commission of 1928 recommended universal franchise, and this was also meant to include the plantation workers as well. Page 57 of the report proposed

"In the first place we consider it very desirable that a qualification of five years residence in the Island (allowing the temporary absence not exceeding eight months in all during the five years period) should be introduced in order that the privilege of voting should be confined to those who have an abiding interest in the country or who may be regarded as permanently settled in the Island.... this condition will be of particular importance in its application to the Indian immigrant population. Secondly, we consider that the registration of voters should not be compulsory or automatic but should be restricted to those who apply for it...".

However, the very concept of Universal Franchise was anathema to most of the political leaders of that era. Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a highly respected leader, opposed universal franchise as he felt that the caste system was an integral part of the Hindu way of life(, p16), and led a delegation to London seeking to legally enshrine the caste hierarchy, and dethrone universal franchise. The Kandyan Sinhalese also objected to the enfranchisement of the Indian estate workers as they feared that their electoral base would be diluted by a large influx of Indian Tamil votes. They also argued that the Tea estates were land plundered by the British, and that the Kandyan peasants have been driven from their traditional lands and those injustices would be compounded if the Indian workers were legitimized. Governor Stanley, by an order in Council introduced restrictions on the citizenship of Indian workers to make the Donoughmore proposals acceptable to the Ceylonese leaders. Thus the first state council of 1931, which consisted of many Tamil and Sinhalese members, agreed to not to enfranchise the majority of the Indian estate workers. (p 36 ),

Soulbury Commission

A decade later, the Soulbury Commission, which paved the way for the independence of Ceylon recognized the

"anxieties arising out of the likelihood of large-scale enfranchisement of the Indian immigrants"

, The Commission, therefore, left the existing basis of franchise in Sri Lanka undisturbed( p. 217).D. S. Senanayake had led the 1941 talks with Sir G. S. Bajpai of India and had reach agreement on modalities of repatriation and citizenship, although they were finally not ratified by Indian prime minister Nehru. D. S. Senanayake had expressed the wish to

"embrace all Indian workers who integrate into the country as members of the Ceylonese nation"

, and had been relatively sympathetic, as early as 1928, and as late as 1941,to the granting of citizenship to Indian workers who wished to become permanent residents of the Island.

The Soulbury constitution came into effect in 1946. In trying to cobble an all-party cabinet inclusive of the Tamils, led by G. G. Ponnambalam, the Sinhalese nationalist groups led by S. W. R. D Bandaranaike, the Kandyan Sinhalese, Senanayake had to find a compromise formula. The 1947 elections had returned 6 representatives from the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC), based on the votes of the franchised Indian workers and hill-country Tamils. Although this worried the Kandyans, the main reason for Senanayake and others to review their attitude to Indian workers was the growing threat of Marxist infiltration into estate trade unions. In this he had won the concurrence of G. G. Ponnambalam for the second citizenship act, which required ten years of residence in the Island as a condition for becoming citizens of the new nation. Senanayake, who had been very favorable to easy citizenship to the Indian workers had increasingly modified his views in the face of Marxist trade union activity. The Bracegirdle affaire ( p539) was regarded as the harbinger of such dangers. The fear of left-wing politics began to grow in the minds of Sri Lankan politicians of the era. The Colonial government responded to the agitation of the Leftists by imprisoning N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva and other Left leaders. Anti Marxist feelings were shared by the main-stream Sinhalese and Tamil leaders alike. (, Ch. 36). The criticism in the house was leveled by Tamil members of the upper chamber (senate), like Senator Natesan, who pointed out that Senanayake had supported the franchise of the Indian Tamils till recently, and had "caved in" more recently.

Parliamentary acts

As the first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake, leader of the United national Party (UNP), feared the strong possibilities of Marxist disruption of government and commenced the task of weakening the Marxist parties and their associate organizations. Thus the newly independent first cabinet introduced the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948, the Indian-Pakistani Citizenship act of 1949 and amended the parliamentary elections act. The requirements of ten years of residence for married persons, and seven years for unmarried persons, stipulated in the 1949 act were in line with the legislation used by European nations at the time. It also allowed citizenship to “a person born in Ceylon prior to the date of the Act coming into force, of a father born in Ceylon”. However, this was in effect a continuation of the older, somewhat harsher status quo of the Indian workers in the 1930s, prior to the Donoughmore constitution, which called for only five years' residence.

Opposition views

However, Ponnambalam and Senanayake were strongly criticized by the Marxist groups as well as by the pro-Sri Lankan Tamil Federal Party (Sri Lanka), it branded Ponnambalam a "traitor", and Senanayake a "Sinhala extremist.". S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of the Tamil Arasu Kachchi, contested the citizenship act before the Supreme Court, and then in the Privy council in England, on grounds of discrimination towards minorities but the decision concluded that the citizenship act stipulated conditions well in line with those of European states. As the President of the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC), S. Thondaman had contested the Nuwara Eliya seat at the 1947 general election and won. His party put forward seven candidates in the plantation electorates and six of them were returned. Thus Thondaman became the spokesperson of the plantation workers. The CIC sat with the opposition, which included the Marxist parties. He opposed the 1948 citizenship act. Mr.Thondaman supported the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)in the 1960 elections; after the victory of the SLFP he was appointed to the House of Representative as a nominated Member of Parliament. However, he opposed the 1964 Sirima-Shastri Indo-Ceylon citizenship act. After the victory of the UNP in 1965, S.Thondaman was named as appointed Member of Parliament by the UNP.

Final rectification

The J.R.Jayawardene government that came to power in 1977 rectified the existing shortcomings of the Indian citizenship act and granted citizenship to all Indian Estate workers (see below). Even at that time, Thondaman was the leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, the party of the Hill-country Tamils, and had become a skillful player of minority-party politics. He had avoided joining with the Tamil United Liberation Front TULF resolutions of 1974, which had continued with the policies of the ITAK. Thus the hill-country Tamils have successfully charted a course of cooperating with successive Sri Lankan governments.

Read more about this topic:  Indian Tamils Of Sri Lanka, Politics