A major part of Ceylon’s history in the first half of the 20th Century before independence, was the struggle of Sinhalese nationalists to limit the immigration of plantation workers from India.
According W.T.Jayasinghe, former Sri Lankan Foreign and Defence Secretary, the coming of Indian labour to work in the island’s coffee, rubber and tea plantations in mid-19th century, was epoch making. “No other event in the island’s recent history has had such an impact on the polity of Sri Lanka,” he says in his 2002 book: “The Indo-Ceylon Problem: The Politics of Indian Immigrant Labour.”
When the British turned Ceylon into a major coffee and tea producer, they needed a high volume of labour. But that amount of labour was not available locally. Besides, as Jayasinghe notes, most British Governors and planters dubbed the indigenous Sinhalese as being “innately prone to laziness.”
But Jayasinghe’s argues that the British were unfair in their description of the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese peasant’s status as an independent cultivator, and his self-esteem, prevented him from taking up wage labour, he points out. A. E. Goonesinghe, a leading trade unionist of the 1930s and 1940s, pointed out that no Sinhalese would work for the pittance that the Indian estate labourer was paid. Even in the 1930s, the wage was only half a Ceylonese Rupee per day. The British were also looking for a pliant and captive labour force, and the indigenous Sinhalese were not pliant, as the 1848 rebellion showed.
Rapid influx triggers resentment
The first batch of Indian labourers comprising 2,719 persons from what is now Tamil Nadu, came in 1839. By 1910, number had ballooned to 409,914. This ultimately swelled to 900,000 by 1939-40.
According to Jayasinghe, the first signs of a conflict with the indigenous Sinhalese appeared in 1848. A British parliamentary committee, which went into the 1848 Sinhalese rebellion, reported: “The introduction of Malabar (Tamil) labourers has given the Kandyan much offence.”
By the 1920s, Sinhalese nationalism had come to the fore in Ceylonese politics. Budding Sinhalese politicians started opposing the continuous import of Indian labour, though export of tea was the primary source of foreign exchange. In 1925, D.S. Senanayake of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) alleged that Indian immigrant labour was being pampered while the indigenous Sinhalese were jobless. In 1929-30, crop failures in the Sinhalese hinterland led to increased tension between the Sinhalese and the Indian immigrants.
Nationalists pointed out that only 5% of the immigrant Indian labour was permanently settled in the island and that these were essentially birds of passage with no feeling for Ceylon.
However, the Donoughmore Commission of 1928, said that 40 to 50% of the estate population was permanently settled in the island. The Planters’ Association put it even higher at 70 to 80%. The Planters Association also felt that in case there was no restriction on production, Ceylon would need 800,000 workers. There was therefore a potential shortage of Indian labour, it pointed out.
The E. Jackson Commission which went into the issue, reported that 400,000 might be considered to be permanently settled, and that this was half the maximum requirement of labour for the plantation sector. Jackson’s conclusion was: “The time is certainly not yet in sight when immigration will have produced a permanently settled population of estate workers sufficient to supply all needs for labour on estates and when immigration for that purpose can accordingly cease.”
Unlike the Sinhalese nationalists, Jackson did not consider Indian labour as a burden on Ceylon because they tended to come into the island when work was available, and leave if there was no work. He also underlined the fact that Indian immigrant labour contributed to Ceylon’s prosperity. But Sinhalese nationalists trashed the Jackson report.
Not against permanent settlers
Jayasinghe’s book makes one thing clear: This is that the Sinhalese nationalists were never against “permanent settlers of Indian or any other foreign origin.” They were only against the transient population which ran into lakhs.
In 1931, the State Council laid down the criteria for voting rights, but these were not put into effect because of the opposition of the British rulers. According to the 1931 proposal, to qualify as a voter, an immigrant should have a Domicile of Origin or Choice, or have a Certificate of Permanent Settlement or have the required literacy and property qualifications.
It said that Indians already resident in Ceylon would be considered as having a Domicile of Origin in Ceylon if they were born in Ceylon and either of their parents were also born here. It was proposed that a child born outside Ceylon would have the same status if the mother had been born in Sri Lanka and the birth took place during the temporary absence of the mother.
“This took care of the fact that often, the wife of the estate labourer would go to her home in India for the first confinement,” Jayasinghe notes. About acquisition of a Domicile of Choice, it was proposed that an immigrant, after five years of residence, should make an application to a Court of Law which would be guided by English law in this respect.
However, the qualification for the obtaining a Certificate of Permanent Settlement was made more stringent. The period of residence for being eligible for this certificate was to be increased from five to seven years in the case of married persons and ten years in the case of others. And married persons should have their wives and children ordinarily resident with them in Ceylon. Continuous absence for more than one year would constitute a break in the required period of residence. Importantly, there was to be no discrimination between those with a Domicile or a Permanent Settlement Certificate and the indigenous people.
SWRD Bandaranaike, raised the issue of Indian labour again in the State Council of 1933 and 1934 as Minister for Local Government. He expressed concern that the Indian labour population had grown from 10,000 in 1827 to 651,000 in 1932.
He quoted KPS Menon, the Government of India’s Agent in Ceylon, to say that between 1921 and 1931, the Indian immigrant population grew by 38.94% while the all-island increase was only 17.94%. In 1936, the total population of Ceylon was 5,738,000. In which the Indian immigrant population was 659,000 on the estates and between 190,000 and 230,000 outside the estates. Indian labour was one fifth of the total population of Ceylon.
In 1933, due to SWRD’s efforts, the State Council passed a motion saying: “In view of the serious and increasing unemployment among Ceylonese workers, steps should be taken for the restriction and effective control of immigration into Ceylon of workers of other countries.”
Non-estate immigrant workers
Jayasinghe quotes, H.W Amarasuriya, a planter politician, to say that the number of non-estate worker immigrants had grown from 39,579 in 1911 to 118,465 in 1935. Indians were a sizeable chunk among employees in the Public Works Department (PWD), Railways and the municipalities. Most of them were unskilled workers. Out of the 230,000 non-estate immigrants, 184,000 were labourers.
In 1934, the State Council unanimously passed a resolution that in employment, preference should be given to Ceylonese and that outsiders should be recruited only when qualified Ceylonese were not available. It was pointed out there were 30,000 registered unemployed in Colombo alone.
Indo-Ceylon row - 1939-40
In 1939, a political storm arose when 800 non-Ceylonese daily wage labour in Colombo Port and the Railways were sacked by the government. The Government of India which had an interest in the India immigrants demanded talks on the issue, even as it refused to have bilateral talks on trade. India also stopped all immigration to Ceylon, perhaps with the intention of hitting the money spinning plantation industry.
In 1939, Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru came to Ceylon and said that the Ceylon government should have consulted India prior to the retrenchment. Nehru said that the Indian labour had contributed to the wealth of Ceylon which made John Kotelawala retort: “ What is the net result of having that wealth produced? You have driven the people of this country, who occupied those lands, away from those lands.”
In 1940, JR Jayewardene started a dialogue with the Indian National Congress on this issue. He submitted a memorandum to the INC at the latter’s plenary in Ramgarh in 1940. This was perhaps the last bid before independence, to settle the matter through negotiations.