When the histories of certain communities are silenced and their identities suppressed that is often a sign of devastating oppression. Tens of thousands of Hill Country Tamils – indentured labour brought over by the British to work first in the coffee plantations and then in tea plantations – were displaced to the North from the 1960s to the 1980s. Denial of their citizenship, the original sin of our country soon after Independence, followed by the forced return to India of a large section of this population, and periodic pogroms attacking these people in the South were the conditions that pushed many of them to seek refuge in the North.
Their life in the North was as appalling if not worse than their past. They were exploited as bonded labour in the farms in Vanni, settled in border villages as a buffer to meet the violence of the armed conflict and their children used as cannon fodder by the LTTE during the civil war. To this day they form the mass of landless, condemned to gruelling exploitation and pauperisation.
While the histories and conditions of the Hill Country Tamils in the plantations have been emerging through their long struggles, trade unions and political movements, academic writings, engaging films and research, the predicament of those displaced to the North, remains for the most part silenced. The courageous voices and initiatives of some Hill Country Tamil actors in the North, have challenged some of us to research their situation. I record here some of the preliminary ideas that have emerged from conversations with these resolute advocates; who despite being pressured by powerful actors to remain silent, are vocalising the concerns of their community.
History of violence
The social life of Hill Country Tamils displaced to the North can only be understood as a history of violence. The structural violence of exploiting their labour and social exclusion from state services as well as their physical sufferings including deaths from the war and starvation, are an irredeemable blot on the North and the country as a whole. That tragic context is combined with a violation of their history, where their voices and narratives are silenced in the cause of projecting a Tamil nationalist politics of hollow unity. Furthermore, state and donor efforts to portray post-war normalcy and development in the country deny the reality of pauperisation ravaging the community.
"Community leaders claim that half the population of the Kilinochchi District is of Hill Country Tamil origin although there are no official records, in part due to the suppression of their identity"
The older folk of the Hill Country Tamils narrate their past of displacement, but in cracking voices of resignation, as they hesitate and flounder, finding it hard to talk about their dreadful lives: of toiling in farms for a pittance incapable of feeding themselves and their families, of clearing jungles amidst grave dangers to build huts to live in, and then to be displaced again and again with the war, as even their little accumulation from their tremendous labour was destroyed.
The under-populated large mass of land in the Vanni is denied to them by the local officials as they are kept as latent labour to be used in the farms. Over a decade after the war, landlessness of Hill Country Tamils remains a serious problem to this day.
Identity and livelihoods
Why is it that this dreadful predicament of Hill Country Tamils in the North not raised as a policy issue? While the conditions of those living and working in the plantations are also quite dire, there is public discussion of their wage struggles and the educational challenges of their children. While those living in the estates are captive labour exploited for over a century and a half, the emergence of trade unions and political parties in concentrated geographical areas have engendered organising and mobilising, and created avenues to challenge state policies.
In the North, displacement and settlements came through processes of disarray that have dismembered the community and undermined their capacity to even raise their concerns as Hill Country Tamils. This is where the suppression of their identity is also of serious concern. Tamil nationalists with their politics of not dividing “Tamil aspirations”– despite great differences in lived realities and inequalities along regional, caste, gender and other ethnic minoritarian identities as with the Northern Muslims– undermine possibilities of progressive changes for subaltern communities while entrenching the hegemony of the Jaffna Tamil elite.
The Kilinochchi District is peppered with villages of Hill Country Tamils: Ambalkulam, Krishnapuram, Malayalapuram, Shanthapuram, Skanthapuram and Unionkulam are some of those villages I have visited for research. A consistent feature in most of these villages are the lack of agricultural land for its residents, and when they have land there is no irrigation. In fact, irrigation channels arising from ponds adjacent to some of these villages themselves by-pass them. The more vocal advocates of these villages continue to highlight their land concerns where they claim the state and its local officials actively exclude them in processes of land grants and fail to redress their demands to provide land deeds even for their housing land.
"That tragic context is combined with a violation of their history, where their voices and narratives are silenced in the cause of projecting a Tamil nationalist politics of hollow unity"
In the post-war context, with the increasing monetisation of the rural economy, where subsistence becomes harder and rural livelihoods are undermined by the mechanisation of agriculture, indebtedness has been rising. In fact, many people claim that what keeps the Hill Country Tamils afloat economically are the militarised Civil Security Department (CSD) farms, the dangerous mine clearance operations and the precarious garment sector. Such income streams from their younger generation’s labour, even though, many community leaders are aware of the limitations of such employment – area transitory economic lifeline. Mainstream Tamil politics and its intellectuals, while waxing eloquently about Tamil aspirations have not even articulated an alternative for this community’s economic predicament.
Movements and alternatives
Considerable organising by local activists in some villages has led to advancement in gaining some land and control over social institutions such as Rural Development Societies, Community Centres and Co-operatives. However, their efforts are still lagging in organising the large mass of people. Community leaders claim that half the population of the Kilinochchi District is of Hill Country Tamil origin although there are no official records, in part due to the suppression of their identity.
In this context, there is a real need for social and political movements to emerge out of the disparate struggles for land and livelihoods. In the local government elections of 2018 such tremors were felt with the gains made by representatives from the community. The issues for progressive movements are numerous from land, water, employment, educational advancement and women’s livelihoods, which all require resources, redistribution and the community’s leadership. In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to write on some of these issues. The silence of the Hill Country Tamils in the North is breaking, but are we listening?