The Political Travails of the Indian Tamils in the State Council Era 1931-48

Uditha Devapriya, in  The Island, 21 May 2022,  where the title runs thus “DS Senanayake and the Indian Tamil Question”

In his recent work on D. S. Senanayake, K. M. de Silva explores certain controversial aspects of Ceylon’s lurch into independent statehood. Among these is the issue of the fate of the country’s Indian Tamils. Brought to the island from South India amidst conditions of famine and mass starvation in the early part of the 19th century, Indian Tamil workers replaced Sinhalese and resident Tamil labour in the island. Governed by a semifeudal set-up that shut them out from the world outside, Indian Tamil labour grew up in a world of their own. It was their tragic fate that while the colonial government feigned little interest in their welfare, their lives lay in the hands of that government.

De Silva ends his account of Senanayake with the following ultimatum: “Sixty five years after his death today, D. S. clearly ranks as the greatest Sri Lankan political figure of the twentieth century, the one individual in Sri Lanka’s political leadership over the past 60 years who cannot be held responsible, in any substantial way, for Sri Lanka’s recent violent ethnic conflict and its associated political crises.”

What we see here, shorn of all grandiloquent rhetoric, is an attempt at absolution. De Silva posits that at the time of independence, Sri Lanka encountered two forms of nationalism: Ceylonese and Sinhala Buddhist. The one was inclusive, the other not so. De Silva suggests that D. S. Senanayake exemplified the former tendency: in his refusal to mix state politics with religion and his pursuit of a multi-ethnic and multicultural polity, the historian suggests that Senanayake envisioned a stable, and orderly, future for the country. At the same time, pragmatist that he was, he accepted – “in a decidedly low profiled way” – the government’s “special responsibility for the fostering of Buddhism.”

Senanayake’s contradictory attitude to Buddhism was well known. He oversaw the restoration of a number of culturally significant sites, including the Mahiyangana Dagaba, and, as Minister of Agriculture and Lands, organised ambitious resettlement schemes which favoured a Sinhala agrarian population. At the same time, he was wary of Buddhist monks, particularly Buddhist monks harbouring radical Marxist tendencies, involving themselves in politics. De Silva traces this to his pragmatism, which could supposedly balance the historical roots of a Buddhist civilisation with the needs of a modern, secular polity. My aim here is to assess this view on the basis of Senanayake’s, and the Ceylon National Congress’s, response to the question of statehood for Indian Tamil or estate Tamil labour.

Kumari Jayawardena has described plantation workers as “the largest concentration of resident labour” in British Ceylon. From 1825, there was a continuous recruitment of Indian workers to the island, organised under a Pioneer Force to undertake the construction and repair of public works. The opening up of coffee and tea plantations diverted them to the hill country, where they gradually replaced Sinhalese labour.

The need to ensure a steady supply of labour at home led the Indian government, in 1839, to impose restrictions, if not complete bans, on the emigration of Indian workers to other colonies. Hector Abhayavardhana has noted that the embargo was imposed on the grounds of “unsatisfactory conditions” in countries like Ceylon. Eight years later the ban was lifted on the assurance that working conditions for workers would improve. From then on, there was a sustained campaign, from the Indian government’s side, against the Ceylonese colonial government’s moves towards restricting the rights of Indian labour.

A number of factors led the comprador Sinhalese bourgeoisie to call for the curtailment of those rights. Any hopes for a coalition of Sinhalese and Tamil bourgeoisies had ended in 1921 with Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s departure from the Ceylon National Congress. Yet, despite this, the Sinhala and Tamil communities were still seen as constituting a majority in the country. This extended to Indian Tamils as well. In 1927 the CNC rejected a resolution against the granting of the franchise to their population. The following year it rejected all proposals to restrict their right to vote. The depression of the 1930s changed all that: 10 years after the CNC rejected resolutions to restrict the rights of Indian Tamils, it passed an amendment that excluded them from the country’s Village Committees.

In 1934 A. E. Goonesinghe proposed that preference be extended to Ceylonese in employment at government departments. This was passed and endorsed by the State Council. The Indian government responded bitterly, in effect halting Indian migration to Ceylonese plantations. Hector Abhayavardhana has observed that the labour shortage which resulted from this led to rather heated debates between the two countries over the granting of the franchise to Indian Tamils at the Village Committee level. It is here, he notes, that the Indo-Ceylon problem, as it came to be known later, originated.

KM de Silva has argued that the decision in 1937  to restrict Indian Tamils from Village Committees was taken on the grounds that Indian Tamils “never formed an integral part of the village community served by such committees and could not possibly benefit from the social objectives these councils were designed to serve.”He also points out that Indian officials did not object to the measure, which had actually been passed in 1889 and, in its original draft, had excluded Burghers and Europeans as well, until 1937. That year the Minister of Local Government, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, oversaw a more comprehensive amendment that achieved the worst of both worlds: Burghers and Europeans were allowed to vote at Village Councils, but the exclusion of Indian Tamils remained in place.

De Silva also notes other factors, such as G. G. Ponnambalam’s intervention in the matter, and Kandyan demands for administrative autonomy, as having exacerbated Sinhala fears of Indian Tamil domination and pushed them to endorse further restrictions. Accurate as this is, it ignores two points: Ponnambalam’s volte-face over the question of Indian Tamil rights between 1945 and 1948, and the decision taken in 1940 by the Chief Secretary of Ceylon to restrict employment at government departments to Ceylonese locals.

The latter decision compelled Jawaharlal Nehru to travel to Ceylon, amidst much debate in India, and try to reach an agreement with the Sinhalese leadership. Having failed to achieve such an agreement, Nehru, despite the pleas of the LSSP, which had garnered the support of Indian Tamils, greenlit the formation of the Ceylon Indian Congress.

The decision to establish an Indian Congress Party for plantation Tamils in Ceylon held certain implications for not just Indo-Lanka, but also Sinhalese-Tamil relations. During the depression years, popular hatred of the colonial regime had extended to moneylenders and merchants, all of whom hailed from minority and foreign communities and were more or less seen as beneficiaries of colonial largesse. In setting up a party for themselves, Indian Tamils became linked to that network of moneylenders and merchants. This had the effect of reinforcing communal fears against them, while fanning communalism among their ranks. The LSSP’s critique of the Ceylon Congress Party, hence, was that its formation pre-empted a joint alliance of estate Tamils and other deprived classes.

These developments drew a wedge between the Indian and Ceylonese leadership. Each side was determined not to surrender to the other. While the Ceylon National Congress and the UNP, under D. S. Senanayake, proposed one restriction after another on plantation Tamils and their desire for Ceylonese statehood, the Indian Congress Party, and Nehru, called for a relaxation of qualifications for nationality. These restrictions centred on three principles or tests: residence, means, and compliance with the laws of Ceylon.

More than a difference in personality determined the course of disagreements between the two leaders over these principles. While Nehru put a negative construction on the means test for citizenship, Senanayake defined it more positively, with conditions like “an assured income of a reasonable amount” that betrayed a rather patriarchal attitude to the question of statehood for a deprived community. This could only end in a stalemate.

In all fairness, it must be pointed out that Senanayake’s hardening stance on the question of citizenship for Indian Tamils could be ascribed, at least in part, to the decision of two Indian Tamil State Council officials to oppose the Ceylon Independence Bill. That, however, does not explain his views on the Indian Tamil question before 1945.

In any case, Senanayake’s dithering over these issues did not do him any favours in the long run. He and Nehru held a series of talks that ended in a stalemate, from which Indo-Ceylon relations never fully recovered. In passing a series of Acts designed to restrict, if not exclude, an entire community from the franchise, moreover, he demonstrated his unwillingness to continue these discussions or build upon them. For their part the British government kept itself out of these developments. That was to be expected: they preferred the UNP in power in Ceylon, and were wary of Nehru’s leadership.

Is K. M. de Silva’s assessment of Senanayake and his involvement in the Indian Tamil controversy fair, in that sense? Without in any way condoning the Indian leadership’s intervention, which exacerbated the issue, I suggest that Senanayake, and the bulk of the Sinhalese bourgeoisie, did contribute much to the problem.

The depression years proved that a comprador and Westernised bourgeoisie, as well as the leadership of the Labour movement, could turn chauvinist. It was left to the LSSP, which identified the limitations of the Labour movement and sought to transcend them, to try and bring together an alliance of deprived communities, cutting across ethnic lines. This included Indian Tamils. Tragically for the country, however, the intrigues of the comprador elite, and of the Indian political leadership, put an end to hopes of such an alliance.


Hector Abhayavardhana: Selected Writings (2001), Social Scientists Association
K. M. de Silva: D. S.: The Life of D. S. Senanayake, Sri Lanka’s First Prime Minister (1884-1952) – A Political Biography (2016), International Centre for Ethnic Studies
Kumari Jayawardena: The Rise of the Labor Movement in Ceylon (2004), Social Scientists Association

The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at

A COMMENT by Michael Roberts, Editor, Thuppahi: 

AE  Goonesinha’s emergence as a radical spokesman for labour was in the 1920s — based largely on the port and transport workers in metropolitan Colombo. The early advent of universal franchise in  1931 could be said to have weakened his political clout. This also sparked a measure of chauvinism.

Devapriya should also consider the demographic spread of “Indian Tamils” and attend to (A) their considerable presence as labourers in the municpal arena of Colombo as port workers, scavengers  and menials and (B) the presence of wealthy Indian Tamil capitalists in Colombo (especially in the Pettah) as well as plantation towns.


Filed under accountability, British colonialism, chauvinism, communal relations, demography, discrimination, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, foreign policy, governance, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, Left politics, life stories, nationalism, plantations, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, social justice, sri lankan society, Tamil migration, welfare & philanthophy, working class conditions, world events & processes

2 responses to “The Political Travails of the Indian Tamils in the State Council Era 1931-48

  1. chandre+DW

    It is surprising that many historians fail to note the importance of several matters that affected the citizenship act in regard to Indian Workers:

    (a) The Bracegirdle affair that hardened the minds of Ceylonese Politicians against easily giving citizenship to the Estate Tamils. The Marxists at that time seriously called for a bloody revolution copying the Bolshevik takeover, by organizing the workers into action. They were essentially looked upon as the Zaharans and Jihadists of today, except that their ideology was couched in more plausible secular terms. When Jihadists bring their fire-breathing Mullahs to preach in Madrassas, today’s politicians take strong steps. Bracegirdle was similarly looked upon as a dangerous instigator-teacher brought in to “saw dissension” in the plantation sector. The Marxists always dreamed of tapping them and making them the vanguard of their revolution. After Bracegirdle, Ceylonese leaders became distinctly cool to giving citizenship or franchise to the Indian tamils. This was not mere fear of Bolsheivism, but also the fear that the plantation sector which was the nation’s source of income would be destroyed by worker revolts organized by the revolutionaries.

    (b) The strong antipathy, especially among Ceylonese tamils towards estate Tamils who were regarded as impure beings of such low caste that they could not possible be in the same room with them, or have an equal vote with them, let alone come forward against one of them in an election. The Sinhalese Kandyans may have been more discreet than, say Peri Sundar the upper-caste Tamil state Councillor, but their casteism was equally entrenched. They all opposed any kind of citizenship. It should be remembered that some time earlier Ponnambalam Ramanathan had gone on delegation to London to request that the Hindu Caste system and the Manu Dharma should be incorporated into the Ceylon constitution.

    (c) Nevertheless, when Senanayake came up with his formula of granting citizenship to any Indian Tamil who could show continuous residency in the country (for I think seven years), we should compare this with the type of legislation that existed in other countries for migrant workers or subjugated indigenous populations that were made to work for the colonials. In Canada, the native populations restricted to “reserves” had to wait some two decades more to get a franchise. The Chinese workers who were brought to Canada to build railroads had no access to citizenship. When did the aboriginal populations in Australia get their franchise? Even today, Hispanics who work in the USA with work permits may not get citizenship even after toiling for a life time. So, while modern writers (especially those who look at Senanayake with an eye to make him a Sinhala Chauvinist) attempt to say that DS Senanayake “dis-enfrancised the Indian Tamils, a more valid statement would be that he was one of the earliest among statesmen in the world to treat migrant workers with some fairness and enfranchize them. These historians fail to ask how the other British Colonies dealt with the Indian Malabars who had been taken as indented workers to those lands. Furthermore, DS the so-called Sinhala Chauvinist is said to have left the drafting of the legislation in the hands of Sir Kandiah Vithiyalingam and GGPOnnambalam. It was the Tamil civil servants who were even more severaly against the Indian Tamils!

    Uditha Desbapriya writes that Senanayake the Minister of Agriculture and Lands, organised ambitious resettlement schemes which favoured a Sinhala agrarian population. He is nonchalantly accusing D.S. Senanayake of Sinhala Chauvinism. The facts are quite the contrary. That the Sinhalese population of some 75%, were the descendants of many Kandyans thrown out of their lands by the British Raj, and also shattered by the Uva Welassa region needed redress is ignored by these writers. The descendants of the displaced Kandiyans in the Uva could not go back to their lands, now occupied by Tea estates. Similarly, the Muslims persecuted by the Portuguese and the Dutch had also been settled in the Uva Province by King Senerat sacrificing Sinhalese villages. In contrast, there was little demographic pressure in the sparsely populated “Traditional Tamil areas” north of Vavuniya, or in the Tamillian East.

    The land settlements and development projects (e.g., the Galoya project) were managed by civil servants and engineers chosen for their merit, and NOT on the basis of ethnicity, and it is THEY who formulated the settlement allocations in such a way as to alleviate the most pressing demographic tensions. Those officials had highly respected non-Sinhala agronomist and social scientists like B. H. Farmer as advisors. So, what Uditha Devapriya has written, hinting that Senanayake “favoured the Sinhalese”, is mere uncritically parroting possibly influenced by the propaganda of the Eelamist lobby who hold that D. S. Senanayake discreetly practiced Genocide against the Tamils. In my view, KM De Silva’s assessment of DS Senanayake is likely to be correct and has a strong chance of withstanding the assault of other writers.

  2. Chitra

    Chandre DW should bear in mind that Uditha nowhere accuses DS of being chauvinist. What he does, obliquely, is to point out that DS served the Planter Raj. Chandre DW in fact underlines the subservience of the DS and the “Ceylonese Leadership” by his comparison of the Left with Zahran et al. The LSSP was calling for independence from Britain, something that the CNC did not do until 1943, and which DS refused to do until his dying day – he preferred the comfortable position of official brown-noser in a Dominion Realm. The attack on the estate Tamils was on the basis of their class, not their ethnicity.

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