Members of Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha Tamil community Complete Symbolic March from Thalaimannar to Matale: walked over 250 km in a fortnight to mark 200 years since their ancestors’ arrival from South India in Sri Lanka


Meera Srinivasan

Some in the group had walked over 200 kilometres, before they reached Matale last weekend. Their feet were visibly sore, but their spirit was intact. They sang, danced, and chanted slogans, as they converged at the Muthumariamman Temple in the hilly town, where their ancestors arrived 200 years ago.

While some members covered the entire walk, spanning 16 days and about 250 kilometres, others joined the group for select stretches. The church and various civil society groups supported the march along the way, apart from local communities that lined up along road margins to welcome the group with snacks and beverages.

Through the long march — from Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province to Matale in the Central Province —members of the Malaiyaha [Hill country] Tamil community sought to symbolically retrace their south Indian ancestors’ arduous journey, when the British brought them to Sri Lanka’s northern borders by sea, to work in coffee, tea, rubber, and coconut plantations in the central and southern parts of the island.

For Arunachalam Shanmugavadivu, a teacher, the march was “personal”. “I have heard from our elders about how our people came here. They had to clear the forests to chart their path. They were attacked by wild animals along the way, and many died even before they made it to the destination,” she said.

“The Malaiyaha people bear the burden of the country’s economy on their backs, but they don’t have basic rights,” she said, flagging the community’s enduring reality for two centuries. Different groups, including political parties, have been holding events this year to mark 200 years since the arrival of the first batches of women and men from south India.

Painful history

The history of Sri Lanka’s hill country Tamils is a tale of violent discrimination by the state — which refused to recognise them as citizens for decades — and unrelenting exploitation by plantation companies that have helmed the country’s tea production for three decades.

Over one lakh Malaiyaha Tamils, mostly women, work in Sri Lanka’s scenic tea estates, still struggling for a fair wage for their backbreaking labour, that brings crucial foreign exchange into the country. The rest, belonging to the community of over a million people, are engaged in a variety of jobs, with a growing number entering the business and professional sectors.

However, Malaiyaha Tamils remain among Sri Lanka’s most marginalised groups, with thousands of families living in abject poverty, without land or basic housing. In 2021, U.N. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery Tomoya Obokata who visited Sri Lanka said Malaiyaha Tamils were living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions, while noting that “contemporary forms of slavery have an ethnic dimension.” Over the years, the plight of Malaiyaha Tamils, especially those living on the estates, is better known but they have mostly remained objects of pity.

‘Building solidarity’

“In addition to tracing our roots through this walk, we wanted to have conversations with fellow citizens and say we need to go beyond sympathy and build solidarity. After all, winning our rights requires the collective effort of all communities,” said B. Gowthaman, a Malaiyaha Tamil activist.

His call for such concerted action comes against the backdrop of the community’s painful past and challenges that persist till date. While the Malaiyaha Tamil people continued struggling for citizenship until 2003, their demand to be treated as equal citizens remains loud and clear 20 years since. During the last leg of the march, a participating women’s group sang “Samathuvam, samathuvam”, adapting their chant for equality to the tune of the popular Sinhalese baila number ‘Surangani, Surangani’, with vibrant drumbeats.

Further, organisers launched the ‘Matale declaration’ on August 12, that in essence underscored the need to remember the Malaiyaha Tamils’ history, struggle, and contribution, while seeking affirmative action in education and health, a fair living wage, land rights, secure housing, and a meaningful role in governance.

On the same day, Jeevan Thondaman, Minister for Water Supply & Estate Infrastructure said on the X social network (formerly Twitter) that he discussed with President Ranil Wickremesinghe the need for better housing, a land ownership mechanism and better education opportunities for plantation communities. “The President will establish a Task Force to address the multifaceted challenges faced by plantation communities,” he said, pledging to adopt a “consensus-driven” approach.

Having braved structural exclusion for decades, the Malaiyaha Tamils will likely welcome necessary policy interventions, but their chants and demands made clear that they are looking for a decisive and comprehensive shift in their reality. “Our forefathers suffered so much. It is our people who cleared the forests and created the [first] plantations of this country. It is time we assert and celebrate our Malaiyaha Tamil identity and win our rights,” Ms. Shanmugavadivu told the large gathering in Matale after completing her long march. Her passionate message, received with thundering applause, indicated that the Malaiyaha Tamils’ long march for justice will continue until their demands are met.

Courtesy: The Hindu