There was a time when the Sri Lankan Muslims were officially called Ceylon Moors in English and Lanka Marakkala or Lanka Yonaka in Sinhala. The nationality of many elder Muslims is still mentioned in their Birth Certificates as Ceylon Moors or Lanka Marakkala.
However, the younger generation of those Muslims, prefers to call its nationality in official documents as Sri Lankan Muslims.
A similar change of mind can be seen within the Tamil people living in the hill-country plantation areas.
According to a report published in our sister paper the Tamil Mirror yesterday, several groups representing the plantation Tamils, commonly known as the People of Indian Origin (PIO) had proposed during a session conducted by the committee to seek public opinion on constitutional reforms at the Nuwara Eliya District Secretariat on Saturday that their community should not be officially called as “People of Indian Origin”; Rather be identified as Malaiyaga Makkal (Hill-country People).
It is interesting to note that these groups have not preferred to be called Tamils either, according to the report.
It is ironic that these people are still called People of Indian Origin in many official documents, even three decades after they had been politically absorbed into the Sri Lankan body politic, through two Constitutional Amendments adopted on the eve of the 1988 Presidential Election, which provided for the granting of citizenship and franchise for those who had been left out as Stateless people following the Sirima-Shasthri Pact of 1964 and the Sirima-Indira Pact of 1974.
In fact the descendants of the Tamil people, who had been brought by the British from Tamil Nadu in the 19th century to employ in their Coffee estates and later in tea and rubber estates had been politically assimilated into Sri Lankan society with the passage of time, before the Independence, but were alienated back from the mainstream by the infamous Ceylon Citizenship Act No. 18 of 1948, which was passed just six months after Independence.
These people had been living in Sri Lanka for nearly two centuries helping the country earn its largest revenue through tea, rubber and coconut plantations, until the open economy was introduced in 1978 after which the foreign employment and garment industry eclipsed the traditional plantation sector.
Though this community had been the main income source for the Governments for more than one and a half centuries, it is ironic and pathetic that it is the plantation sector that represents the lowest social indicators in the country.
Comparatively the highest malnutrition, the highest maternal and infant mortality, the lowest literacy and the highest consumption of liquor can be found in the estate or plantation areas, as they are commonly known in Sri Lanka.
Citing a World Bank report, which had quoted S. Chandrasekaran, Professor Emeritus of Education and himself a member of the ethnic group, the Chennai based The Hindu said yesterday “It is well known that the present-day youth regard working in the Sri Lankan plantations as inferior to their social status and they prefer to take up any work in urban areas.”
However, the report also points out the plight of those come out of the estates in search of other jobs.
It said “They are also facing ‘stigmatisation and discrimination due to their Indian Tamil ethnicity and estate worker identity, both of which constitute a barrier in accessing non-estate job opportunities.’
Consequently, the youth accept lower level job openings -domestic workers, shop assistants or construction workers-and relatively a few are able to secure jobs as semi-skilled workers, such as drivers or mechanics” the report added.
The suggestion by several groups to call them “Hill-country people” instead “People of Indian Origin” can be seen as an extension of this identity crisis faced by a major community of Sri Lanka and the other communities have to help them to be fully integrated and assimilated into the Sri Lankan society.