Sri Lanka: Upcountry Tamils Recede Into Shadows – Analysis


Dr Kumar David

Though unnoticed, commentaries on the Upcountry Tamils (UcT) or Mallai-naatu Thamilar, also referred to as Indian Tamils or Tamils of recent Indian origin, have been sparse in both media and scholarly periodicals in the recent decades. Focus on the war has hogged headlines and pushed everything else out of view; but this is not the only reason. Changes in the socio-economic fabric and the political landscape have contributed to the eclipse of the UcTs from the limelight. This essay will explore how an introversion of the Sinhalese political psyche induced by war and war victory, demographic changes, the very fact of some economic advancement in the 1980s and 1990s, and declining Indian interest, have worked to relegate the upcountry Tamils to the sidelines.

The nadir was the decade and a half following the Sirima-Shastri pact wherein India bartered away their birthright for foreign policy gains. India’s northern borders were then seen as hostile and the appalling defeat in the mountains to the Chinese bred fear. Previously India had statesmen of stature who declined this trade in human flesh and stood by the UcT cry for full Ceylonese citizenship. Latter day leaders were more tinsel (now they are of an even baser 2G silicon material) so the Indian state foisted upon the UCTs, without consultation, an exodus into Babylonian captivity. And for what; for false stability, more honoured in the breach than observance under Jayewardene and Rajapakse.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

The pact allocated 525,000 to India, 300,000 to Lanka, and the 150,000 were shared equally by the later Sirima-Indira Gandhi deal of 1974. Repatriation progressed slowly and stopped after 1983. In 1988, all estate Tamils who had not applied for Indian citizenship (430,000) were given the opportunity to become citizens by signing an affidavit (Grant of Citizenship to Stateless Persons Act). In 2003 the Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin Act granted 160,000 UcTs Lankan citizenship (including those granted Indian citizenship) who had been residing in Lanka since October 1964. Credit for these two achievements goes to CWC leader Savumiamoorthy Thondaman.

The closing in of the Sinhalese universe

It had been taken as gospel that after proportional representation neither major Sinhalese party would be able to form a government without minority support. It warmed the hearts of minorities who exulted in the thought that it threw a bargaining chip their way. This was true even in 2005 when Mr Rajapskse claimed the presidency with perverted blessing from Prabaharan who by prohibiting N-E Tamils from voting gifted a slim majority to him. The Sinhalese are a little over 70% of the country, so if a losing Sinhalese party garners a decent share of this vote, the winner needs minority support to cobble together a working parliamentary majority. As recently as after the 2004 elections the UPFA had to entice the Muslims, and seduce the CWC away from the UNP to which it had been betrothed during the campaign, to stabilise a working majority.

However, things had begun to change gradually with the unravelling of the 2002 peace accord between the Lankan State and the Tigers, and swiftly after full fledged war. War victory completed a reprocessing of the mind-set of the Sinhalese electorate which thereafter rallied behind Rajapakse. I have estimated that nearly two-thirds of the Sinhalese electorate voted for him in the January 2010 presidential election (nationally Rajapakse polled 58%) and a similar proportion for the UPFA in the April 2010 parliamentary elections. When the Sinhalese electorate consolidates sufficiently behind a Sinhalese party it does not need minority support to secure power and all national minorities lose political clout. The partition of political power between communities in Sri Lanka began to change gear in the early part of this century and reached its apogee in the aftermath of war victory.


The last reliable census of in the war affected North-East was 1981. This may not make a large dent in the size of the UcT population but did have some effect because a number went into the Vannie lands in the desperate 1970s. Land reform, which inter alia nationalised the large upcountry tea estates, was horrific for Tamil plantation workers. Many were driven out, homes broken into and employment withdrawn when estates were restructured. In mid-country tea and rubber plantations Tamil workers were replaced by Sinhalese labour.

The results of the 2011 census when released will come as a shock to the Ceylon Tamils. The shock will be two-fold; their numbers will be seen to have declined considerably – more than half a million have migrated after 1983 (year of the great pogrom) – and secondly the number that has fled the war affected north-east and settled in Colombo and the Western Province is large. There are as many Ceylon Tamils domiciled outside the north-east as live there. The phenomenon of in-country out-migration is prevalent among the UcTs as well. They have been pushed out by land reform and declining employment opportunities, while the lure of the city has drawn many.

Mano Ganesan, a prominent politician of UcT origin estimates that but for repatriation there would have been 30 to 35 UcT MPs in parliament instead of the usual 6 to 10. In 1970 there was one nominated and in 1977 one elected member from the community. Thondaman was in Jayawardene’s cabinet by 1983 and later in Premadasa’s, and Chandrika Bandaranaike’s cabinets. There are three persons of UcT origin currently in Rajapakse’s bloated cabinet. The bottom line is this; for both Ceylon Tamils and UcTs, demographic changes in the last thirty years have contributed to a decline in numbers, political influence, social position and economic power. Sri Lanka has become a markedly more Sinhala Buddhist nation than it was at independence.

Defeat, a pillar of success

Forced repatriation marks the nadir but things have improved since. As more UcTs became enfranchised the CWC and its leader Savumiamoorthy Thondaman grew in importance and used their position intelligently to advance the community. Thondaman was a skilled, persistent and experienced negotiator on behalf of plantation labour. Sinhala parties found it useful to form alliances since minority swing votes counted. Furthermore, the take-over of plantations, though detrimental to Tamil workers, led to government driven reforms to improve living and working conditions partly because of rising numbers of (Kandyan) Sinhalese in the ranks of plantation labour. Finally, thanks to a more modern social outlook, and significant input by NGOs and international aid donors, wages, living conditions and education improved. Small plots for home farming have been provided in some areas.

There is a caveat though; the lot of plantation Tamils has improved in the economic domain but their political empowerment has made little progress. There were jealous remarks from chauvinists in the late 1990s that it was the Sinhala peasant not the Tamil plantation worker who was the worst off in the country. Actually this allegation predates this period. Up to the 1970s when plantation labour was almost exclusively Tamils of Indian origin, the political right, not just Sinhalese, claimed that they had security of employment, free housing and medical care, all of which may have been of poor quality, but compared with the peasantry, the former were better off.

Today wages are the key issue and UcT demands for a minimum wage of Rs 500 per day has been blocked. Present wages Rs 285 per day + Rs 90 attendance bonus (for attendance more than 75%) + Rs 30 productivity payment (rarely paid) sums to Rs. 405. This was agreed to by the CWC on Rajapakse’s pressure and imposed on the other unions. The advantages of high tea prices are not shared with workers. (One $ = 110 SL rupees and one Indian rupee = 2.3 SL rupees).

Education, a less insular outlook and new opportunities facilitated out-migration from the estates. As more young men and women went into towns and now even in the Middle East, they accessed better wages, some which fed back to plantation families creating an economic cycle. Out-migration which has reduced the proportion of the community in plantation areas also dilutes voting strength, vis a vis the Kandyan Sinhalese who show an increasing presence in the estates. In the urban areas where out-emigrants settle, like the Sri Lanka Tamils before them, UcTs have reduced electoral impact due to density loss effects.

India’s other love life

Delhi has taken its eye off the UcT ball and turned to new affections. It now ardently courts fair Colombo and the heat of passion for her affections is ignited by tussle with a Han rival. Methinks Delhi protests too much, the callow versus the yellow! Or maybe Delhi just loves being taken for a ride by Colombo. The Sirima-Shastri pact was plain unnecessary if the motive was to secure the southern flank. So too, pampering Colombo now, war crimes and all, is also quite unnecessary to keep the Han hordes at bay. It’s plain poppycock to suggest that sampans will turn up in the Bay of Bengal and alter the balance of power in the Indian Ocean. I don’t know what it will be like in 50 years, but for the next two decades China cannot project military power beyond the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, nor is she interested in so doing, nor will she court wrestling with the Seventh Fleet two thousand miles from home. Is there some asinine corner of the Indian intelligence establishment that spins fairy tales of terrifying security challenges in the Indian Ocean and Palk Straits to political leaders?

Otherwise could it be business and commercial rivalry? A little more likely because with these goodies go real benefits. The truth however is that the rivals play in different ball parks; China mainly in the state-to-state infrastructure (she does not have a large private investor business class seeking foreign fields) while India straddles this field and also seeks pastures for an abundant class of small, medium and large business investors. Therefore fears of economic rivalry too are also an act of Indian self-flagellation.

The topic of this essay is not that matters in the two previous paragraphs, but the relevance is that the fortunes of the UcT people are now less important to India. This is good to the extent that it reflects reduced needs for Indian succor thanks to the economic improvements recounted previously, but for balance I will in a moment quote a counter argument. It also reflects greater Indian interest in “solving” the Ceylon Tamil problem (another ride Colombo has perennially entertained Delhi with!) and the business opportunities opening in NE reconstruction. Whatever the causes, India is now much distracted from UcT matters

Finally the counter-point I promised. It’s from Mano Ganesan again and I have strung together portions extracted from an e-mail I invited from him in preparation for this paper. This is what the well known leader of the community has to say:

“We are not happy. The Indian Tamil plantation worker community is the most underdeveloped in this country. Their socio-cultural level is much lower than the national level, be it education, housing, health; everywhere they are at the bottom. The national poverty rate is 14%; it is 32% in the plantation sector. Studies have revealed that over 50,000 under aged plantation Tamil boys and girls are working as domestics in the urban sector. The plantation community needs a massive affirmative action plan similar to the system in India for backward and scheduled castes and tribes. This is the only way to bring plantation Tamils up; at the current rate it will take another 100 years for them to reach the national level”.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

4 thoughts on “Sri Lanka: Upcountry Tamils Recede Into Shadows – Analysis

  • May 9, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Upcountry Tamils were brought by British and left as sateless people when they left.
    You have to acknowledge the way the majority community has accomodated them.
    Tamils always hail their Masters the white man
    and forget and distort the truth.

  • May 10, 2011 at 12:11 am

    I am not sure why always anti-sinhalese get to write to all these international media! Clearly the Sri Lankan government is heading against the western interests and that has lead to appraoval of media abuse against Sinahlese!

    The British you plnated all the trouble are not treated as a culprit but are leading the western groups that point fingure at Sri Lanka! What an irony! British brough in Indian Tamils to work in the estates stolen from Sinhalese. Under the Sinhalese monarchy the land ownership was verbal – no documents were present to prove the landownership. When they captured Sri Lanka, British requested the Sinhala farmers for documents to prove land ownership. In absence of such documents they claimed all the lands and ask those former land owners to be slaves of their own lands! Their refusal to do this led British to look for other alternatives and easiest was South Indian Tamils.

    Brish left Sri Lanka after sucking its resources close to two centuries. They ignitited racism in Sri Lanka as part of devide and rule strategy. They left Indian Tamils now fighting for resources in Sri Lanka. British never paid those damages back to Sri Lanka. HOw can they pay over 70,000 lost lives?

  • May 10, 2011 at 2:09 am

    Please may I know the average daily wage outside the plantation sector? Thanks.

  • May 10, 2011 at 2:26 am


    Please ask the Sri Lankan President to release the reports submitted by APRC and Udalagama Commission to him in 2009.

    Please ask him to publish the set of preliminary recommendations submitted by LLRC to him several weeks ago.


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