After having run into difficulties with the Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East over issues of devolution of power, alleged human rights violations during Eelam War IV, and post-war economic development, the government of India is now turning its attention away from the North-East Tamils to the Tamils of Indian Origin in the plantation areas of Central Sri Lanka
It is therefore very significant that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not only inaugurating the 100-bed India-built modern hospital in Dikoya but also meeting the Indian Origin Tamil leaders and addressing a gathering of Indian Origin people.
Modi will be the first Indian Prime Minster to visit see the Indian Origin Tamil plantation labor in situ, though the government of India has had a long history of involvement with their lives.
India was involved with the plantation workers of Indian origin since the early 1900s after the sending of Indian labor to the British colonies became politically controversial in India because of ill-treatment by the planters and the colonial governments.
In Si Lanka ,the government of India posted an Agent General at Kandy to look after the welfare of the workers. Subsequently this became an Assistant High Commission which is functioning till date.
In 1948, India protested when the first independent Ceylon government denied franchise to about one million Indians most of whom were plantation labor. Colombo’s idea was to make them go back to India. But India said that they were Ceylonese and should stay put. They were not taken back.
In the 1960s, the then Ceylonese Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike proposed repatriation of the bulk of them and citizenship for some. Through bilateral talks a formula was devised but it did not work as most decided to stay back even as Stateless people. However, overtime, the Ceylon Workers Congress leader S.Thondaman worked out an arrangement with Colombo which gave citizenship to all.
By then, India had turned its attention to the beleaguered Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East and was involved with their rights movement till Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991. After the end of the war in May 2009, India resumed its interest in the post-war issue of devolution of power and economic development of the Sri Lankan Tamils, but advised them to give priority to economic development as economic empowerment will lead to political empowerment.
However, the Sri Lankan Tamils would not budge an inch from the position that a political solution must precede economic development and spurned Indian economic development schemes and ideas.
Contrary to this, the Indian Origin Tamils had started looking to India for help to improve their lives. India reciprocated by building 4,000 houses and a hospital. India is willing to enhance its development schemes for the plantation workers.
However, the leaders of the plantation workers are looking to India to help them get political rights also. They want several electoral constituencies to be redrawn to give them greater representation. They will doubtless take up this issue when they meet Modi this time. But as in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils, it is unlikely that India would be able to do anything on the political issues. Modi is expected to advice them to seize the economic opportunities provided by India and Sri Lanka to empower themselves politically.