Upcountry Tamils, the ‘Vanishing People’?

| by N. Sathiya Moorthy

( January 6, 2013, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Lies, damn lies and statistics – so goes the adage. The Census staff in Sri Lanka has to be congratulated for making the decennial national head-count a serious job, particularly post-war, yes. But the figures that they have thrown up in the process have raised more questions than answers. Or, so it would seem.

.............. Summery : play the video ....................

Census 2011 was noted for more reasons than one. It was for the first time since 1981 that the headcount was a nationwide affair, after the intervening years of war, consequent deaths and migration, the latter both within the country and outside. Today, the population figures and growth-rates have mostly been confirmed, for the Government to chalk out developmental schemes that address the underlying absence of the same in particular communities and for specific ethnicities.

Post-war polls, particularly in the worst-hit Tamil-majority Northern Province, had presented skewed figures for voting percentages, calculated on the basis of old population figures and voters’ list. The Election Commission has since reworked figures. Census 2011 should now be confirming those figures as closely as humanly possible. Hence elected representation would have a relative back up of population, too, to boast.

It is in this background that figures raise as many questions as they provide the answers for. Considering that they relate to a traditional ‘generational gap’ of 30 years and relate also to the first signs of post-war indicators to stabilisation of the population and migration, they tell tales that need to be noted for what they have to say – and, for what they do not say.

It is thus that media reports, citing Census figures, come up with ‘revelations’. Throughout the past years and decades, it had been widely acknowledged that the Muslim population in the country was growing at levels much higher than those of the Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils and the Upcountry Tamils. It is a trend often noticed in other communities and countries with a multi-religious, multi-ethnic population. Sri Lanka is no different, so to say.
It is not unlikely that in the coming years and decades, projections would be made and arguments put forth that the Muslim population would outnumber the current Sinhala majority in so many years or decades. It has happened in other multi-ethnic societies like India. It does not say anything, mean anything. Sri Lanka should not fall into that rut, which is as dangerous as it is preposterous.

Population Growth Rates

Going by the official figures, over the 30-year period between 1981 and 2011, the Muslim population in the country grew by a very high 76.4 per cent – from 1,046,900 to 1,869,800. This compares with the 38 percent increase in the Sinhalese population, from 10,979,400 to 15,873,800. As coincidence would have it the Muslim population in the country is growing at double the rate of the Sinhala majority population.

If anything urbanisation does not seem to have affected the Muslim population growth rate in the national Capital of Colombo. It is here that the Government and Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian politicos have often argued that the multiple minorities have a majority in terms of numbers for any national capital in the world. That need not be wholly true but there may be a point, nonetheless.
The causes are many, as elsewhere, too. It is more so in the case of Sri Lanka and Colombo, the latter being the main job-provider in the country. It could well be argued then that the Sinhala-Buddhist majority is better off in their immediate circumstances that the pressures for internal migration, in search of better education and jobs have not visited them as much as it has done in the case of the other three major minority groups in the country.

Capital Figures!

Accordingly, the Sinhalese population in Colombo went up by 34.3 percent in 30 years, as against a high 73.7 per cent for the Muslims, 35.5 percent for the Sri Lankan Tamils (necessitated by the war in the North and the East) and 37.7 percent for Upcountry Tamils, or Indian Origin Tamils (IOT). It is another matter that the Government, in the course of its demography-based arguments for a political solution to the ethnic problem has been pointing out how there are more Sri Lankan Tamils outside of the one-time ‘war zone’ than inside.

Apart from the Muslims and the Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan Tamil population that had suffered deaths and displacement, including external migration with permanency to boot, too grew by a relatively substantial 20.3 per cent. The headcount for the community during the 30-year period went up from 1,886,900 to 2,270,900). The war may have affected the population growth-rate, but not actual numbers, it would seem.

Jaffna, the citadel of Sri Lankan Tamil culture and central to community-driven politics, continues to be among the high-density population-centres in the country (though it has slipped from the coveted second position after Colombo in 1981), other war-ravaged districts in the Northern Province have among the lowest density of population. It could remain that way for decades, if not centuries, to come.

The deepening mystery

Yet, it is in the case of the Upcountry Tamils that the mystery deepens. In a 30-year period their population has grown by a woefully small 2.8 percent. The figure is nearly 10 times less than that for the war-affected Sri Lankan Tamils, who have suffered in every which way, in terms of death and displacement (to overseas destinations), particularly of men and women in the reproductive age-group.

The Upcountry population thus grew from 812,700 to 842,300 in three decades. True, the community lost a lot in numbers in officially-sanctioned migration to India under the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964, named after the then Prime Ministers of the two nations. Many more remained ‘non-citizens’ under the post-Independence legislation of the late Forties for decades. Yet, the Governments of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa took up initiatives for a ‘more inclusive community’ in terms of conferring citizenship to these hapless people.

Need for Sociological Studies

The question is this: does the figure for ‘Indian Tamils’ (as mentioned in Census documents) still reflect the reality on the ground? If so how? If not, why?  The answers could be more complicated as the questions are simple. It is here statistics may not be able to provide all the answers. In quantifiable terms as migration for education and employment, there are figures and they should be treated as fair and accurate. Where the Census figures cannot provide ready answers, sociological studies alone would help. It needs to be pursued.
If not for the present, at least in the post-Statelessness state of the Indian Tamils in the Fifties, it was believed that many had enrolled themselves as ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’, if only to avoid deportation to India, the motherland of their forebears but alien still for the existing and younger generations of those days.

Social perceptions attaching mainly to their Upcountry Tamil identity, in terms of caste and educational standards in particular were also believed to have influenced many to declare themselves as anything but what they were. It used to be borrowing the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ identity in Colombo and other ‘Tamil areas’. It was believed to be a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ identity thus, though possibly in smaller numbers. Marriage and migration too helped/facilitated the process, particularly in the latter case.

It may not end there, though. Since the inception of ‘Statelessness’ and disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamils as a State scheme since Independence, some had resettled in what once used to be the thinly-populated Vanni area in the Northern Province away from their main habitat in the highlands of the Central Province. The anti-Tamil riots, which did not spare them, too caused their large-scale migration to the Vanni in the subsequent decades.
It is still unclear as yet, how many from among the resettled Upcountry Tamils lost their lives in the last battles of the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ that were fought in the Vanni. They seem to be shying away from accepting their true identities or consequent toll. The ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ too do not seem wanting to acknowledge the same. If one went by Government figures, it should be next to nil. If the unsubstantiated figures of INGOs are the ones to go by, they have restricted themselves to a total toll, not denominational figures.

Fighting for Survival, not Rights

When the Sri Lankan Tamils were fighting for their rights through and through, also in the name of many among them who had no means, ways or possible needs to exercise those rights in the first place, the Indian Tamils were fighting for survival. They were fighting for their survival, first as human beings, then as Sri Lankan citizens. It is said that they are still at it. They have not given up, but that does not mean anything either in the case of their education and enlightenment of the non-evangelistic kind.

If education and consequent ‘enlightenment’ are among the forces to factor in for countries and communities to adopt the ‘small family’ norm, then the Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka have all of it. Or, that is the ‘norm’ that Governments have been made to believe. That is what Governments have made their people believe. And that is what the Census figures of 2012 also tell us.

The reality is otherwise, when it comes to the educational standards of Upcountry Tamils. Among them now are many knowledgeable youth, degree-holding men and women. That does not mean or say anything. Time used to be when the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the one-time monolith organisation representing the Upcountry Tamil in polity and as a society, used to have office(s) in the North, too, but today it is no more a monolith nor a representative as it once used to be.

Successive Governments too have not taken them and their needs for good and effective governance seriously. There are fewer Divisional Secretary level offices in the Upcountry Tamil areas with thrice as many heads for them to serve in those difficult terrains with minimal travel and communication facilities than elsewhere in the country. Their politicos too have done little more than fighting over their personal egos, pelf and positions, particularly so after the time of the late Saumyamurthy Thondaman.

The figures still tell a tale, thus. They hide more than what they may say. They say more than what they may hide.

The writer is Director and Senior Research Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, ORF, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@hotmail.com

 Subscribe Us