Two hundred years ago, the first groups of women and men were brought from southern India by the British colonial rulers to Sri Lanka to work in the hill country plantations. They landed in Mannar and embarked on a dangerous trek on foot to Matale. Over the years, thousands of others were forced to make the journey. They endured serious diseases, hacked through jungles and confronted wild animals, with as many as 40 percent in some groups dying along the way and being buried on the trails.
Members of the community, along with activists, started a march to commemorate the journeys of their ancestors on July 28 from Mannar that will end in Matale on August 12, covering a distance of 240 kms. The purpose is to trace their roots and win their rights. Along the way, the marchers met local communities, shared their stories and raised awareness of the challenges facing the Malaiyaha Tamil people. They held protests and demonstrations, demanding that the government to recognise their identity and to grant them equal rights.
Although the community was the second largest ethnic group when independence was granted, the people were deprived of citizenship in violation of the provision for the protection for minorities found in Section 29(2) of the Independence Constitution of Ceylon. Many were forcibly repatriated to India.
Through bilateral agreements with India, including the Sirima-Shastri pact (1964), and Sirima-Indira pact (1974), tens of thousands were sent to India and many more were made stateless. “This caused immense anguish among the members of this community, many of whom were separated from their kin. It took several decades of struggle to resolve the statelessness issue and to grant formal citizenship to members of this community. But progress on many other political, administrative and socio economic areas remain slow and limited,” a statement from the Maanbumigu Malaiyaha Collective, a coalition of organisations and individuals that organised the march, said.
“The current status of the Malaiyaha Tamil Community, including over 500,000 living in plantations as residents, has been a result of a history of involuntary expatriation, imposed statelessness, uncertainty around citizenship, and a lack of franchise. This has impacted on the community’s socio-economic wellbeing. The most affected segment has been those living and working in the plantation estates. They have become the most marginalized group in the country, registering lower measures on almost all human development indices, compared to every other community in the country. This has seriously impaired their transition from workers – tied to, and dependent on their plantation employers – to full-fledged citizens of Sri Lanka, with equal rights as others,” the statement said.
“The community struggle for recognition and equality continues, as discrimination rooted in colonialism and slavery and inter-generational marginalization still affect their lives today. The Malaiyaha community and its leaders have consistently called for the recognition of their contribution, acknowledgment of historical and ongoing systemic discrimination and violations, affirmative action on access to services and a living wage. They also call for secure land tenure for housing and livelihood, language rights, an equitable and inclusive electoral system, and meaningful political participation alongside recognition and protection of their culture and identity,” a statement of support from Amnesty International, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development and Civicus said.
In a tweet Tomoya Obokata, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, urged the government to take immediate actions to end ongoing systemic discrimination against the community and ensure their access to education, decent work, adequate housing, land and public services as well as the right to take part in public affairs in order to prevent their exploitation in contemporary forms of slavery.
I joined the march for a few days and I was moved by the stories I heard and the passion of the people that I met. One woman told me how her family was forcibly displaced from their land during the civil war and how they have been struggling to rebuild their lives since then. Another man told me that he had been denied a job because of his ethnicity.
But despite the hardships it has faced, the community has shown resilience and determination. The Malaiyaha Tamil march was a powerful demonstration of unity and a sign of hope for the future. The marchers were committed to continuing to fight for their rights and were confident that they would eventually achieve justice. In a show of solidarity, people from different ethnic and religious communities came together to show their support for the community.
Some of the participants suggested ways to promote ethnic harmony. They said children should be taught about the importance of tolerance and understanding. This should be done in schools and in the home. The media should report positive stories about people of different ethnic groups; it was important to avoid reporting stories that could foster hatred or division. They said that the government must enact laws that protect the rights of all ethnic groups and that it should be seen as impartial and fair. Civil society organisations could organise events and activities that brought people of different ethnic groups together and educate the public about the importance of tolerance and understanding.
Many Malaiyaha Tamils do not have land ownership, which makes it difficult to earn a living. They are forced to live in slums or on the outskirts of towns and cities. Their children have to attend separate schools and receive a lower quality of education. This discrimination in education makes it difficult for them to get good jobs and to improve their socioeconomic status. Malaiyaha Tamils are discriminated against in employment; they are less likely to be hired for jobs and they are paid lower wages. They are politically marginalised and have little representation in the government.
The suffering of the Malaiyaha Tamils is a reminder of the importance of fighting for equality and justice for all. They need the support of the government and the international community to achieve the full realisation of their rights. The march was just the beginning of the Malaiyaha Tamils’ struggle for equality. They will need to continue to fight for their rights but they are now in a stronger position to do so. They have the support of the international community and they have shown the world that they are resilient and determined.
Photos by Ama Koralage