VS Naipaul on Colonialism and Indian Migrant Labour in the Colonies

Take in Naipaul’s 40 minute Nobel Prize Lecture of 2001 …..  Sir V. S. Naipaul delivered his Nobel Lecture in Börssalen at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, 7 December 2001. He was introduced by Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy. Credits: Ladda Productions AB (camera) … http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=899


A Note by Michael Roberts

This video was brought to my attention by Tissa Wellappili of UK, then a person unknown. His brief note of clarification is inserted below. The themes from Caribbean history covered by Naipaul evoke comparative reflections with the story of Sri Lanka. They are apposite today I when set in context with the recent writings of Daniel Bass (see bibliographical note below) on the plantation labour force of Sri Lanka based on ethnographic researches in recent times.
Further contextualisation is provided by the recent figures garnered by the Census of 2011. The enumeration stuck to the old nomenclature “Indian Tamils’ rather than the term “Malaiyaha Tamils” that is favoured by t some activists from the community. They now amount to 4.2 % of the Sri Lankan population as opposed to 74.9% Sinhalese, 11.2% SL Tamil and 9.2% Sri Lankan Moor. But, critically, they amount 53.2 per cent of Nuwara Eliya District and 18.4% of Badulla District; while making up 6.3 % in Puttalam.

Those defined as “Indian Tamil” in 1981 constituted the following numbers in the three districts of Mullaitivu, Mannar and Vavuniya as then constituted: 11,215 in Mullaitivu; 13,850  in Mannar and 18,714 in Vavuniya. However, in the latest census of 2011 the Indian Tamils in Mullaitivu only amounted to 2,182 persons, being 2.4 per cent of the total population in that district. This is a radical decline from 19.2% in 1981.

Some allowance may have to be made for the fact that the resettlement of the IDPS was still in progress in 2011 and that some were still residing at Menik Farm. But the proportions are monumental. They are therefore significant.

When I was briefly at Kilinochchi in November 2004 for Māvīrar Nal the guesthouse caretaker was an Indian Tamil from the Kandy area and had a home-shrine for his son, a māvīrar. He also affirmed to Joe Ariyaratnam that he would be ready to fight for the LTTE if required. We also know that the agricultural labouring and fishing peoples provided many of the recruits to the LTTE; and that depressed caste personnel were probably represented in their fighting ranks in considerable numbers.

Set against such a backdrop, a hypothesis develops from the census data: many “Indian Tamils” in the Vanni in years past are now defining themselves as SL Tamil. This is presented here with question marks for those familiar with Tamil society in the northern Vanni to comment.

Corollary questions are attached to this inquiry. (A) have the older inhabitants of the northern Vanni begun to intermarry with the newer migrants from the plantation areas who have been domiciled there? (B) have caste distinctions in the northern Vanni loosened because of the war conditions and displacements?

Responses are welcome.

Note from Gerald H. Peiris, Professor of Geography, Peradeniya University, 10 January 2013

Michael, This is a comment on your note on the “Indian Tamils”, based on information I obtained some years ago from the Director of Census and Statistics.

 The ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’ (SLT) and ‘Indian Tamil’ (IT) dichotomy lost its meaning from a census data perspective in 1981. This was because the census enumerators were either not given proper instructions or did not follow the instructions given in a uniform manner, for recording ethnicity information on the SLTs and ITs, resulting in certain enumerators (not all) recording Indian Tamils who had been given citizenship in Sri Lanka as SLTs. I have explained this in my Development and Change in Sri Lanka (Macmillan, 1996).
Although we do not know whether this error has been perpetuated in later census enumerations, what we can be definite about is that the SLT and IT data for 1981 cannot be used as the base for estimating subsequent changes in the population of these two groups.
You are no doubt aware that the Land Reforms of 1972-75 resulted in a fairly large number of Tamils in the plantation areas migrating to the Vanni districts of the north and that some of these migrants (or their descendants) became members of the Tiger army. This has also probably served to blur the SLT/IT distinction. In any case, it is understandable if, at the census enumeration of 2011/12, the ITs, especially those in the North, preferred to identify themselves as SLTs.
What puzzles me about the tabulations in the Census reports as shown in the websites you have sent me (Many thanks) is that, while the general title of all its documents read as ‘Census of Population and Housing, 2011’, the Table titles (those on ethnicity and religion) read as ‘……. 2012’.  How could a census conducted in 2011 contain data pertaining to 2012? These buggers are quite careless, as usual!.

Tissa Wellappili to Roberts, December 2012

I consider Naipau[ to be one of the truly great writers with rare gifts to make a comedy out of human situation be it ambitious politicians, as in ‘Mimic Men’ or the Indian family scenes in ‘House of Mr Biswas’,  the decaying parts of former empires in ‘Half a Life’  or Imperial Times in Trinidad – ‘El Dorado’.  [Naipaul’s novels and reflections] have many parallels with post-colonial Sri Lanka — human beings being much the same.

I recall listening to Dr Arumugam our respected Professor one time at Peradeniya, but then at the City University, London in 1984 after the dreadful tragic events in Sri Lanka in the year previous. Among other things he mentioned that up to that point the relationships among the ethnic groups [had been]  harmonious, as reflected in the many hues in the cricket team, Alvin Kallicharan et al. occupying respect and esteem.  I thought he is stating a undeniable fact, I could not recall a similar hero coming from the Tea plantation districts of Sri Lanka occupying a position in the national scene.

At the time Dr Arumugam was doing an incredibly valuable service, organising relief for those who fled from Sri Lanka for Madras.

Here listening to VS Naipaul I realise that deploying the comparison of Sri Lanka to Trinidad in order to shame the majority race in Sri Lanka is not entirely correct.  Both Africans and Indians are newcomers to the scene, and the original inhabitants had been wiped out by the Western incursions to the scene.  A fate I fear that might have befallen Sri Lankans too, if not for the work by Buddhist Monks, the Panadura Debate, Col. Henry Steel Olcott ,etc as the researches  Prof Kumari Jayawardena, Richard Gombrich,  etc have unearthed.


Daniel Bass: Landscapes of Malaiyaha Tamil Identity, Colombo: Marga Monograph Series on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, 2000-01

 Daniel Bass: “Paper Tigers on the Prowl: Rumors, Violence and Agency in the Up-Country of Sri Lanka,” article reprinted in http://thuppahis.com/2012/11/30/paper-tigers-on-the-prowl-rumors-violence-and-agency-in-the-up-country-of-sri-lanka/

 Daniel Bass: Everyday Ethnicity in Sri Lanka. Up-country Tamil Identity Politics, Routledge, 2012, 978-0-415-52624-1

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