On the evening of May 26, news trickled in that Arumugam Thondaman, the leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress had passed away. The name Thondman is synonymous with the sufferings, plight and subsequent semi-redemption of the most exploited community in this country –the Tea Estate Workers and their struggle to gain basics.
Lured from the drought-stricken blazing hot pIains of South India, these workers were strangers to the chilly climatic conditions in the hill country. Yet on arrival, they were frog-marched from the point of landing to the hill country. By day they hacked and cleared the way to what was going to be the future tea estates.
There was no shelter awaiting the incoming workers. They were forced to sleep in the open during the first days of their arrival. The late Rev. Paul Caspersz who researched the background of the community, states the sudden exposure to the cold climatic conditions and malaria, killed off hundreds of these miserable workers. For these workers there was no respite or escape from their places of work, where they were kept in slave-like conditions. Two or more families often forced to live in a single dwelling of 10 x 12 sans toilets or water facilities. They could not escape the estates, as the peasantry looked on them as enemies. The Kandyan peasants whose lands were robbed by the British, and hemmed into land-holdings described by the Kandyan Peasantry Commission as being the size of a postage stamp, looked on the Indian workers as persons who occupied their lands.
They looked on the estate workers as their enemies.
By 1931, there were around 700,000 Tamil plantation workers, who had formed their own trade union. In the same year these workers were also granted the franchise. Following Indian leader, Nehru’s advice to the Indian workers to form their own political party, the Ceylon Indian Congress was born, which morphed into the CWC to contest the first general election.
Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman was its first president. At the election, the CWC won all seats it contested. The then prime minister claimed the Kandyan peasantry were discriminated because their interests were not represented in parliament, as a result of the overwhelming numbers of Indian Tamils in those areas. He brought in the Ceylon Citizenship Act, which effectively disfranchised the Upcountry Tamils. India claimed the estate workers were Sri Lankan citizens and not India’s responsibility. A majority of estate workers became ‘stateless ‘lost representation in parliament and became unimportant in local electoral politics. All mainstream political parties soon forgot this section of the population.
It was left to Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman (Arumugam’s grandfather) and the CWC to single-handedly take up the cause of the estate Tamils – their pitiful housing, the slave-labour work conditions, education of plantation children etc. At that time, while the whole country enjoyed free health services, estate management was forced to make payment if workers had entered government hospitals! In addition to this work-place related discrimination, opportunistic politicians portrayed the estate Tamil community as a fifth column of India. Those backing their cause were looked upon as traitors. Even other trade unions ignored their plight.
However, despite a lack of parliamentary representation and support from fellow trade unionists, using his position as head of the single largest TU in the estates, slowly but surely Thondaman successfully began negotiating better conditions for his constituency. Not surprisingly, Thondaman became by default, the undisputed leader of the Estate Tamil community. The manner in which he won the citizenship rights back for his community was epic. With no government attempting to solve the issue of statelessness, Thondaman called on all Estate Tamils to down tools on a particular day and pray for the restoration of their citizenship rights.
On a single day, all plantation workers, led by Thondaman downed tools and prayed. The country’s economy came to a standstill. President Jayawardene signed legislation granting citizenship rights to the estate community.
However, since the death of Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman in 1999, and the appointment of his grandson to lead the CWC, the estate community has made no significant gain either economically or socially. Even their demand for a daily wage to be raised to a paltry Rs. 1,000/- per day has not become a reality yet. Resultantly, rival TUs have sprung up in the estate sector. The appointment of yet another relative, not closely involved in the struggles of the community may lead to more fissures and leadership struggles. We may therefore be witnessing not only the end of a TU dynasty, but a weakening of the estate trade union movement.