SRI LANKA: Remembering RR Sivalingam And Thiruchanduran of the Indian Tamil Community


By V. Suryanarayan

Speaking on the occasion of the sixty third anniversary of Sri Lankan independence, Amb. Vadivel Krishnamurthy, Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner to South India, referred to two of his great teachers – RR Sivalingam and Thiruchanduran – in the Island College in Hatton (in Sri Lanka schools are referred to as colleges) who moulded his life in a big way. Amb Vadivel Krishnamurthy is the first Indian Tamil to be recruited to the Sri Lankan Foreign Service and also the first professional foreign service officer from the Indian Tamil community to rise to the ambassador ranks. Undoubtedly it is a great achievement for some one belonging to the Indian Tamil community – considered to be the most disadvantaged ethnic group in Sri Lanka.

The Indian Tamils or hill country Tamils are the poorest of the poor in Sri Lanka. Apply any yardstick – educational attainments, status of women, socio-economic indicators, professional attainments – they are at the bottom of the ladder. For many years since independence, their main objective was to remove the stigma of statelessness, which they accomplished few years ago after a series of struggles – parliamentary and extra parliamentary alike. It is only now that they have embarked upon the long journey to catch up with other ethnic groups in Sri Lanka – the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamil speaking Moslems.

The poet of Malaiham (hill country) Kurunji Nathan, has portrayed the cruelty and injustice suffered by the hill country Tamils who had to leave for India as Indian citizens, under the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, as follows:

Tilling hill and dale we worked laboriously. We bore anguish with
no rest to body and soul. Turned out of our homeland, we leave
these shores. We go helpless, destitute.

For many a crore’s worth in gold we produced. Worry and suffering
was all our lot. How little we saved, and of that too we were disposed
to the south country we go, helpless, destitute.

Stateless were we branded and stigmatized … as outcaste vagabonds at
the bottom we remain, with shattered and bleeding hearts we leave, like
dumb cattle benumbed we go

With honour we lived our lives, scarcity riddled.. heart and soul battered and
crushed by labour… maimed and disabled we set forth, where is justice?

Banished from our home and we go … parents and children and our own
generations we live .. them we leave… ready fodder for the gulping earth
Our feet drag and tears flow as we leave – huddled in a ship to an unseen land we go.

RR Sivalingam was the principal of the Island College, Hatton and Thiruchanduran was his junior colleague. Imbued with a missionary zeal and committed to the upliftment of their community, these two teachers profoundly influenced the lives of several plantation children and ensured that they came up in life. Like Amb Krishnamurthy, there are others who remember these two teachers with pride and gratitude. I want to mention two other shining examples. V. Vamadevan, who was associated with the Planning Commission and the Peoples Bank for several years, always used to refer to Sivalingam as his role model. Vamadevan joined the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram for his M Phil course and after returning to Sri Lanka rose high in the service of the government. Equally illustrious is the career of Dr. Chandra Bose. After completing his Masters Degree from Peradeniya University, Chandra Bose came to India having been awarded the Government of India scholarship, joined the Centre for the Study of Regional Development in Jawaharlal Nehru University, from where he obtained his M Phil and PhD degrees. Chandra Bose is the first plantation boy to secure a PhD degree. Bose was the classmate of Vadivel Krishnamurthy in the Island College. He also came under the spell and influence of Thiruchanduran and Sivalingam. Chandra Bose is now associated with the Open University in Colombo as an Associate Professor.

Amb Krishnamurthy referred to the student days of Sivalingam and Thiruchanduran in India. Sivalingam had his higher education in the Madras Christian College, Tambaram, where he not only excelled in studies but also came into contact with progressive intellectuals in the left movement. Thiruchanduran studied in Pachiappas College, Chennai and in Benares Hindu University. The two were committed to the advancement of the Indian Tamil community and they were convinced that this goal could be accomplished only through education. In he final phase, Sivalingam and Thirchanduran returned to India and devoted their lives for the advancement of the Sri Lankan repatriates in Kotagiri, who were, with great difficulty, eking out their living. They started the Island Trust to sensitise the repatriates about their rights. The Author was associated with the Island Trust for few years which provided an opportunity to come in close contact with both Sivlingam and Thiruchanduran. The bureaucrats in Kotagiri did not like the repatriates being sensitized to their rights as Indian citizens and Sivalingam had to pay a heavy price. Sivalingam was detained for few months, but later he was released on the orders of higher ups in New Delhi. The author also recalls that in 2004, when he was working in the Peradeniya University as a Visiting Professor, Vamadevan invited him to deliver the Sivalingam Memorial lecture in Colombo.

While paying tribute to Sivalingam and Thiruchanduran for moulding the lives of a whole generation of plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka, I would like to refer to their thinking on few subjects. As is well known the Indian Tamils are different from the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese; they have also come to be different from the Tamils in Tamil Nadu whom they left more than hundred years ago. These and other realities made people like Sivalingam and Thiruchanduran to start an interesting debate within the community regarding their emerging identity and the name by which the community should call itself. C V Velupillai, Sivalingam and Ilanchezhian were the pioneers to use the term Malaiham. In fact the organization which Sivalingam started in Kotagiri was called Malaiha Makkal Maruvazhvu Manram (Organisation for the Rehabilitation of Children of Malaiham).

It is interesting to note that during the long years of their existence in the tea plantations in the island, identity of these workers was determined by others. To the British they were coolies, docile, cheap labour to be exploited to the hilt. When I was teaching in the Peradeniya University, I came across the 4th edition of a book, published in 1927, entitled Coolie Tamil, written by WGB Bells. According to this book, any person of Indian origin is a coolie. Belonging to the lower castes of the Hindu Society, doing menial jobs, worshipping village Gods and living in a far away country, there was not much interaction between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Tamils of Indian Origin. The few Sri Lankan Tamils who came in touch with them were working in the plantations at the supervisor’s level, who were doing the bidding of the British planters. They had contempt for the Indian workers and called them as Thottakattan and Kattumirandi (barbarians). How did the indigenous Sinhalese view them? According to the Sinhala Commission Report, “The sight of so many unclean and sickly men, wandering aimlessly instilled in the minds of the people that they were the carriers of infectious diseases”.

In this context the term Malaiham is not only an expression of righteous indignation, it is also an assertion of self respect. It is a way of challenging and setting right the indignities and injustices to which the community was subjected to for several years. To Sivalingam should go the credit of starting this fascinating debate. Once a consensus is reached within the community about the nomenclature, the Government could be approached to change the name of the community for official purposes.

The Indian Tamil community deserves sympathetic understanding and greater care from the Sri Lankan government. There had been, during recent years, some improvement in their standard of living, but they have a long way to go before they become equal partners with other ethnic groups. As afar as employment opportunities for the minorities are concerned, the Sri Lankan Tamils (12.7 per cent) have 5. 0 per cent in the state sector, 7.1 per cent in the provincial services and 8.2 per cent in the semi-government services. The Muslims (7.37 per cent) have 2.0 per cent in the state sector, 4.6 per cent in the provincial services and 1.0 per cent in the semi-government services. The Indian Tamils (5.5 per cent) has 0.1 per cent in the state services, 0.2 per cent in the provincial services and 0.5 per cent in the semi-government services.

The role of education in the overall development of the community needs hardly any mention. The Education Commission appointed by the Government of India few years ago has highlighted: “In a world based on science and technology, it is education that determines the level of prosperity, welfare and security of the people. On the quality and number of persons passing out of our schools and colleges will depend our success in the great enterprise of national reconstruction, the principal objective of which is to raise the standard of living of our people”. VN Kothari and Panchamukhi, two well known Social Scientists, have pointed out, “Education alters the attitude to work, consumption preferences, saving propensities, economic rationality, adaptability, innovativeness, flexibility, attitude towards family size and various social attitudes relevant from the economic point of view”.

Since the attainment of independence, Sri Lanka has made tremendous strides in the field of education, but the fruits of education have not percolated to the children of the hill country Tamils. When I was associated with the Peradeniya University, I was keen to find out the Indian Tamil representation in the faculty and students. The statistics given below pertains to 1998, but according to informed sources, not much change has taken place in the overall situation. In 1998, the total student intake in the Peradeniya Univerity – agriculture, arts, dental sciences, engineering, medicine, science, veterinary science and medicine – was 9,382; in 1999, it went up to 9,410. In 1998, the number of up country Tamil students was only 71; in 1999 the number dropped to 67. In 1999, the total number of faculty members – including permanent, temporary and contract – was 1627. This includes academic, academic support and non-academic staff for specific projects. The strength of the up country Tamil origin staff members was 17 – 8 in Faculty of Arts, 1 in Medicine, 6 in Sciences and 2 in Engineering. In 1998 the number of faculty members from up country Tamils was 13 – Arts-7, Medicine – 1, Science – 4 and Assistant Librarian – 1.

In the course of my conversations with Sivalingam, Thiruchanduran and several other Indian Tamil leaders, I used to argue the only way by which the Indian Tamil community could be brought up is to persuade the Government to consider the community as a disadvantaged group and provide for reservations to them in education and employment as is being done in India. I used to tell them about the famous judgement delivered by Chief Justice AN Ray in the famous case State of Kerala v NM Thomas. The learned justice said: “Equality of opportunity for unequals can only mean aggravation of inequality. Equality of opportunity admits discrimination “with reason”. In countries where there are vast social and economic differences among various ethnic groups, attempts are being made to reduce imbalances through preferential policies. In the United States, this policy is called affirmative action. In Malaysia it is referred to as Bhumiputra policy and in India it is popularly known as reservation”.

Coming as I do from Tamil Nadu where thanks to reservation a revolution of gigantic proportions – social, economic, political and cultural – is taking place, may I make this point.. I am deeply conscious of the fact that the voice of the troubled outsider cannot meet that of enraged victim, a point made brilliantly and succinctly by DR Nagaraj in his collection of essays titled Flaming Feet. A good case can be made out for reservation to the Indian Tamil community keeping in mind their social and economic backwardness, compensation for past injustice, protection of the weak, proportional equality and social injustice. The educated among the Indian Tamil community should open a dialogue with like minded individuals in other ethnic groups and create an awareness that constitutional amendments should be introduced to provide for reservations to the Indian Tamil community. I quoted the ringing words of Dr. Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly on 25 January, 1950 in my Sivalingam Memorial Lecture in Colombo few years ago, “On 26 January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we have equality and in social and economic life, we have inequality. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment, or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up”.

(Prof. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. He was the founding Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He was also a member of the National Security Advisory Board, Government of India. His e mail address: [email protected])


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.

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