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Book Review: In the Service of Indian Tamils in Tea Plantations in Ceylon

| by Prof. V. Suryanarayan

Sharada Nayak, The Raj Agent in Ceylon, 1936-1940 (Published by the Author, D 41, Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi, 110003) Pages 132, Price Rs. 300/-

( August 19, 2014, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the early phase of Indian national movement, the Indian Civil Service (ICS), manned mainly by British officials, was the chief instrument through which the British imperialists ruled India with an iron hand. Naturally the ICS earned the wrath and criticism of Indian nationalist leaders. In his book, The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru described the Indian Civil Service as neither Indian, nor civil nor a service. But as the ICS got Indianised and leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhai Patel came in intimate contact with civil servants like Girija Shankar Bajpai, KPS Menon senior, YD Gundevia and AV Pai their perception of the members of ICS underwent a transformation. They influenced and, what is more, were influenced by these civil servants of unimpeachable integrity. In his annual confidential report on AV Pai, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote, “I have come in intimate contact with Shri AV Pai during the past year or so as he functioned as my Principal Private Secretary. As such he had to deal with a wide variety of problems and he kept up a high standard of efficiency. He is man of integrity with capacity for hard work. He does not complain and maintains his affability and friendliness under strain, which is rather unusual. He has given me every satisfaction and I have liked the quiet and efficient way in which he has dealt with difficult problems “(p 121).

Discussing the contributions made by civil servants, the reviewer cannot resist the temptation to mention one incident which brought about basic change in the concept of Indian citizenship. When the Constituent Assembly was debating citizenship provisions, Dr Ambedkar wanted that Indian citizenship should go strictly by domicile. YD Gundevia, the distinguished ICS officer, was Indian Ambassador in Burma at that time. Burma was part of India until 1937, when it was separated from British India under the provisions of the Government of India Act of 1935. Large number of Indians had moved over to Burma under British rule, they migrated from one Indian province to another province. YD Gundevia felt that these people of Indian origin should be given the option to take Indian citizenship. He approached Jawaharlal Nehru and pleaded the case of people of Indian origin in Burma. Nehru told him that Dr. Ambedkar was adamant on the issue of domicile and the only person who could influence Ambedkar in these matters was Pandit Hridaynath Kunzru. YD Gundevia approached Pandit Hridaynath Kunzru and convinced him about the righteousness of the cause. Kunzru pleaded for these people in Constituent Assembly and as a result Article 8 was introduced which provided for citizenship to the people of Indian origin living outside India. It may be recalled that the Madras Presidency had a brilliant contingent in the Constituent Assembly consisting of eminent persons like Rajagopalachari, Prakasam, Gopalaswamy Iyengar. TT Krishnamachari and Sanjiva Reddy, but all of them were silent on the subject which had serious implications for Tamil speaking people living outside India.

The Raj Agent in Ceylon, 1936-1940 deals with one significant phase in the professional life of Vithal Pai. He was Indian Agent in Ceylon for nearly four years, he came into contact with poor Tamil plantation workers, he took up their cause with British officials in Ceylon and naturally had to deal with the Sinhalese nationalists who wanted to exploit these workers, but, at the same time, were unwilling to give them a sense of dignity and fair wages. SWRD Bandaranaike, President of the Sinhala Maha Sabha, made the famous statement, “nothing will please me more than to see the last Indian leaving the shores of Ceylon…then I shall die a happy man” (p. 116).

The agony and suffering undergone by the Indian coolies under the British Raj and the Planters Raj are innumerable. The verdant carpet of green in the central parts of Sri Lanka, which has made the island the veritable “island paradise”, was due to the sweat and agony of Indian plantation workers. I would like to give two vignettes of the contrasting lives of the planters and the workers. While teaching in the Peradenoiya University, few years ago, I came across the Memoirs of Philip Crowe, the US Ambassador to Ceylon in the 1950’s entitled Diversions of a Diplomat in Ceylon. To quote Philip Crowe: “The estate bungalows are roomy, surrounded by lovely gardens. Servants are plentiful and relatively cheap. Social life is mainly limited to the local club consisting of a tennis court and a bar. There at weekends the planters gather for bridge, gossip, drink, billiards and tennis. Somerset Maughm might not find the making of a great novel immediately, but the pleasures of life in the small tea communities in Ceylon are apparent”.

C V Velu Pillai, the sensitive Indian Tamil writer and political activist, has described the workers lives as follows: “Here is but a row of tin roofed lines; the very warehouse where selfdom thrives; with a scant space of ten by twelve, there is the hearth, home drenched in soot and smoke, to eat and sleep, to incubate and breed, to meet the master’s greed”.

The period that AV Pai spent in Ceylon was a significant period in the history of India and Sri Lanka. The period followed the years of depression, the beginning of the Second World War and the years leading to the independence of both countries. As soon as he settled down in Kandy AV Pai became friendly with PT Rajan, who did yeoman service for the education of plantation children. Rajan describes the conditions of the Tamil plantation workers as follows:”This was a period of darkness in the annals of the hill country. The Tamils then were mostly coolies on estates and the line rooms in which they lived were shackles of bondage. To spot one educated man among them was like finding a needle in a haystack. There was none to guide and inspire them. To make matters worse the canker of caste and prejudice was eating into their vitals and the schools in the district were reluctant to admit their children” (p. 21).

Though, in the beginning, the Indian workers were “birds of passage” gradually they began to take roots and became permanent settlers in the island. In 1928 the Donoughmore Commissioners estimated that forty to fifty per cent of the Indian workers had permanently settled in the island. In 1939, the Jackson Report estimated the permanent residents to be about 60 per cent. The Soulbury Report estimated that the degree of permanent settlement was in the region of eighty per cent. Though out the British period, the British maintained that Indian workers had the same legal rights as the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka, for all were British subjects. From this point of view they argued that the Indian workers should be given the right of permanent settlement and voting rights. The Sri Lankan nationalists did not subscribe to this point of view. According to them Indian workers were Indian nationals. Colombo wanted to absorb only a small fraction of them as Sri Lankan nationals and the rest was the responsibility of India. They wanted to prescribe rigid tests to prove the permanent abiding interest of the Indian workers. Herein lays the seeds of the absorbable minimum put forward by successive Sri Lankan Governments. Girija Shankar Bajpai summed up the apparent contradiction: “The Indian who has worked in Ceylon is to be thrown back to India as a squeezed lemon”.

Blinded by anti- Indian hysteria, the Sinhalese nationalists argued that the Indian Tamil workers were undercutting wages and depriving Sinhalese of work and repatriating large sums of money to India. C. Rajagopalachari, then Prime Minister of Madras Presidency, wanted to find out whether there was truth in these allegations; he wrote to Government of India for figures of money sent home by the Indians. New Delhi, in turn, requested the Indian Agent to probe into the matter. Through the post offices the figure of remittances by the Indians through money orders was found out. It was about Rs. 1,500.000/- per year which included the money sent by the Kanganis as well as estate labour. “On an average it was not more than Rs. 10/- per person for it was hardly likely that estate worker would have savings to send home, when he was in deep debt to the Kanganis and the shop keeper” (p.36).

It was in this heightened atmosphere that some daily rated workers of Indian origin were retrenched by the Colombo Municipal Corporation. The Congress party deputed Jawaharlal Nehru to Ceylon for an on the spot study of the problem. In Kandy Nehru, who was accompanied by his sister Krishna Hutheesingh, were the guests of TV Pai. Nehru came to realize the ramifications of the problem and, what is more, the adamant and unresponsive attitude of the Sinhalese leaders. It was as a result of discussion with Pai that the Government of India decided to terminate the recruitment of Indian Labour done by the Ceylon planters in the Madras Presidency. Despite his frustration with Sinhalese leaders, Nehru took a long term view of India-Sri Lanka relations. To quote Nehru: “Ceylon cannot forget that India and Ceylon are close and that India by her size is like a giant. It is easy enough to raise psychological barriers and ill will, but not so easy to remove or control them. I cannot conceive of any hostile action on the part of India towards a country like Ceylon if it does not threaten her freedom”. In his report to the Congress President after his return to India, Nehru wrote: “When the British Empire fades away, where will Ceylon go? She must associate herself economically at least with larger groups and India is obviously indicated. Because of this, it is unfortunate that many of the leaders of Ceylon should help in creating barriers between India and Ceylon. They do not seem to realize that while India can do well without Ceylon, in the future to come; Ceylon may not be able to do without India”.

Nehru’s visit to Ceylon turned out to be a momentous event in India-Sri Lanka relations. The basic principles which governed India’s relations with Sri Lanka in the post independence period could be discerned in Nehru’s speeches and wirings during this period. What is more, an abiding friendship developed between the two great sons of India – Nehru and Pai. Naturally the services of Pai were utilized by the Government of India in various departments.

Sharada in this book brings out the qualities of the head and heart of her father – his deep love and attachment for the Malaiha Tamils (hill country Tamils), unassuming disposition, courteous and charming manners, ever alert, tolerant of different points of view, dignified in official dealings and the kindness of heart even to a fault. What is more, the book is written in a lucid style. I completed reading it in one stretch. If I may use an Indianism, the book is uputdownable. The book should be translated into Tamil and widely circulated among the hill country Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The Pais – Vithal and Tara -were a devoted and fortunate couple. They had three daughters – Kanaka, Sharada and Shanti – wealth, knowledge and peace – what more do you want for success in life?

I will be failing in my duty if I do not put on record my difference of opinion with Sharada on one important agreement which New Delhi signed with Colombo in 1964 – the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact. The Agreement was signed between the two governments in the name of good neighbourly relations. What is more, the agreement which had a bearing on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people was signed without ascertaining the wishes of the people concerned. Though one Minister from Tamil Nadu government was included in the Indian delegation, he kept silent throughout the talks. All important leaders of Tamil Nadu – C Rajagopalachari, Kamaraj Nadar, VK Krishna Menon, CN Annadurai and P Ramamurthy – in addition to newspapers like The Hindu. opposed the agreement. What is more, it was bad precedent as far as India’s policy towards Indian Overseas was concerned. If AV Pai was consulted, I am sure, he would have upheld the Nehruvian principles and would not have recommended the signing of the agreement. And, above all, the agreement did not fulfill its objective of ending statelessness in Sri Lanka. It continued for a long time. It was as a result of sustained struggles – both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary - that citizenship was conferred on the stateless people in 1988.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan was Senior Professor and Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.)

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