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Maitrayee Guha asked: Is there any distinction between Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils in Sri Lanka? Does the government there have different policies for them?

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  • Gulbin Sultana replies: The Tamil community in Sri Lanka is divided into two distinct categories: Sri Lankan Tamils and Indian/upcountry Tamils. Sri Lankan Tamils comprise 11.14 per cent and Indian Tamils 4.12 per cent of the total population.

    Tamils from southern India arrived in Sri Lanka at various times beginning from 4th century A.D. During 4th to 8th century, several kings from southern India ruled over Jaffna either independently or under the kings of Anuradhapura. Cholas briefly ruled over the northern shores of Sri Lanka in the 9th century. In the 13th century, the Pandyan Empire in South India established the Jaffna Kingdom and continued to rule till the 16th century. The descendents of the inhabitants of these Tamil kingdoms in northern and eastern Sri Lanka are known as Sri Lankan Tamils.

    Indian Tamils on the other hand are the descendents of the labourers from Tamil Nadu, brought by the British for tea plantations in the Kandyan high land region in the 19th and early 20th century. The illiterate and poor Indian Tamil labourers were not allowed to mingle with the local inhabitants. Caste differences also prevented assimilation between the Sri Lankan and the Indian Tamils. Hence, Indian Tamils were mostly considered as foreigners even though they enjoyed similar political rights like other communities under the British.
    However, the Indian Tamils lost their citizenship rights after the country got independence, due to the adoption of citizenship law by the newly formed Sri Lankan Government. While the citizenship law disenfranchised lakhs of Indian Tamils, Sri Lankan Tamils remained unaffected by the said law. Until 2003, many of the Indian Tamils remained stateless people. As a result, when the Sri Lankan Tamils raised their voice against government’s discriminatory educational and language policy and demanded a separate homeland for the north and east, the Indian Tamils’ demands remained focussed on grant of citizenship rights and better living and working conditions.

    Even though the two communities often showed solidarity towards each other’s problems and grievances, the Indian Tamils, except a few, did not participate in the Eelam war. Similarly, barring a couple of occasions, Sri Lankan Tamils never joined the Indian Tamils in their non-violent protests on the issue of citizenship and betterment of living standards. 

    In 2003, government decided to grant citizenship to all the stateless population. Since then, Indian Tamils unlike Sri Lankan Tamils took a conscious decision to work with the government. Today, politically, the Indian Tamils are in an advantageous position, even holding ministerial positions in the cabinet, compared to the Sri Lankan Tamils. However, their socio-economic condition still remains poor.

    There are government programmes to uplift the two communities such as providing housing and other facilities, but they are done under different schemes as the requirements of the two communities are different. Large scale reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation programme for the Sri Lankan Tamils are required in the war torn North and East. The Central Province where Indian Tamils are largely settled mostly remained unaffected by the war.

    Posted on June 18, 2019