Before I could begin talking to him, Perumal Chandrasekaran had a question for me: “Do you know that we exist?” he asked matter-of-factly.
A 38-year-old Tamil of Indian origin, Mr. Chandrasekaran was waiting at a lawyer’s chamber near the Magistrate Court complex in Kandy for consultations on a land issue facing plantation Tamils. “We are among the most neglected sections here [in Sri Lanka]. India or Tamil Nadu has done nothing to help us,” he said.
Unlike the Sri Lankan Tamils living largely in the North and Eastern Provinces of the country, the Tamils in Sri Lanka’s Central Province — often referred to as Hill country or Upcountry — have more recent links with India. In the early 19th century the British, who had colonised Sri Lanka, brought them from south India as workforce for the plantations, mostly tea.
The ethnic war in the northern parts of the country put the spotlight on Tamils in and around Jaffna, Mullaitivu, and Kilinochchi. But plantation Tamils — constituting about five per cent of Sri Lanka’s population — get little attention.
“Despite our ties with south India, all your Tamil Nadu politicians speak up only for the northern Tamils and don’t even acknowledge our community,” said Mr. Chandrasekaran, who works in the construction sector. “My parents were plantation workers. I know the horrible lives they led, they were virtually slaves. I did not want to work there.”
He has now taken up a legal battle for the people of his community who, he said, had no land or ownership rights till date.
The compact, Line Rooms in Watawala, Nuwara Eliya district, may seem a fine addition to the scenic environs of the hill country, only if you don’t happen to live in one of those.
It was hard to imagine that the line room where Nallakaruppan Muthiah and his wife stayed amid one of the plantations could be anymore than 10-feet-by-six-feet in area.
Within that is a fraction demarcated as kitchen space. A set of thin, steel sheets held themselves together as the home’s roof, crowning the pale walls that have borne incessant rains for many decades.
“These are very basic homes, built by the British for our ancestors,” said Mr. Muthiah.
Mr. Muthiah (63) retired as a plantation worker and his wife Subramanian Pushparani is the sole breadwinner in his family of five. The women get paid a basic daily wage of Sri Lankan Rs. 450 (approximately Rs.210) plus allowances depending on her productivity, for about nine hours’ work with a short lunch break.
“You can’t be assured of work for more than three days a week in this weather. These are hard times and we are helpless,” she said, peeping out of the “kitchen”.
With worker unions having become highly politicised, people like her have little hope of a better life. The Ceylon Workers’ Congress had traditionally worked with the community, but workers who chose to stay apolitical are rather agnostic about the party’s intentions now.
“India is lending a lot of support to the north. Can’t they do anything for us?” Mr. Muthiah asked in a tone that stood out in its earnestness.
The High Commission of India in Sri Lanka has been offering some assistance to the community, but it is dwarfed by their basic needs in regard to livelihood and living conditions.
Many workers speak of their links with India, often suggesting that India could still help if it wanted to. “Many of our relatives are in Madurai, Pudukottai, Erode and the Nilgiris, you know,” he said. The relatives were among those who earlier worked in “Ceylon” as Sri Lanka was known then, and returned to India in the 1960s, following the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964.
The agreement — signed by former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her Indian counterpart Lal Bahadur Shastri — sought to repatriate over five lakh Tamils of Indian origin, and grant Sri Lankan citizenship to about three lakh. The remaining Tamils left in the central province gradually obtained citizenship in the 1980s.
On the one hand they are citizens of Sri Lanka, at least going by the books. On the other, with most basic facilities out of reach, the plantation community has little reason to feel citizen enough.
India, for many in their sixties like Mr. Muthiah, continues to symbolise a remote sense of “home”. Not that the younger generation feels distant — one of the homes had an A.R. Rahman song playing; and another, a poster of actor Vijay on the wall.
But Jayarani’s living room had something more unexpected — Gandhi and Nehru framed together, with an Indian flag in between. “It has been here from the time I got married…that was about 18 years ago. My parents-in-law must have put it up, I don’t know. We tell the children this is Gandhi, and this is Nehru,” she said pointing to the picture. “And the picture has just stayed on the wall.”