Considering Sri Lanka’s battle-scarred history, provoked in good measure by the politics of language, news of a Telugu-speaking candidate contesting polls would seem unlikely. However, a careful look at the past shows us the layers within the Sri Lankan society that seldom get captured in the Sinhalese-Tamil ethnic binary that the country is often portrayed in.
A new political outfit — Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) — formed by the supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has nominated a Telugu-speaking candidate from Anuradhapura for the local polls scheduled for February. An ancient capital city with heritage sites, Anuradhapura is now an important district in the North Central Province, sandwiched between the Tamil-majority north and the Sinhala-majority south.
According to a 2017 government report, Sri Lanka has nearly 4,000 gypsies scattered across the island. Many of their origins can be traced to south India. While almost all of them are now Sinhala speakers, variants of Telugu can be heard among a few within the community, it notes. There are at least two kinds of Telugu ancestries that made their way into Sri Lanka — one of royalty and the other of a marginalised caste group — according to P. Muthulingam, executive director of the Kandy-based Institute of Social Development.
The Nayakas or 18th century rulers of the Kandyan kingdom, in central Sri Lanka, were said to be a Tamil-speaking community with Telugu ancestry. The renowned Sri Lankan anthropologist, Gananath Obeyesekere, in his recent book The Doomed King: A Requiem for Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, writes that the Nayakas were a warrior class from Andhra Pradesh who established themselves as overlords in Tamil Nadu, in places like Thanjavur and Madurai, from where many of the Kandyan queens hailed. “Unfortunately, most Sinhala people were ignorant of Telugu and simply called the Nayakas Tamil...” he notes.
While there has been a fair amount of research on the Kandyan Kingdom and scholarly debates on the history around it, little is known about the more recent ‘Telugu-speaking’ migrants. The British brought down thousands of them from south India to Sri Lanka. While some worked in the plantations, others were manual scavengers. “That is why you find the community concentrated around cities like Colombo, Kandy and Anuradhapura, where their labour is used by urban councils or municipalities. Even in Tamil Nadu, you will find that many conservancy workers are from a Telugu-speaking community,” Mr. Muthulingam points out. It is this community that the government statistics call “gypsies”. In addition to conservancy labour, some in the community work as snake charmers.
“After long-term neglect, younger people from the community are keen on accessing better education and they aspire for good jobs, though they earlier did conservancy work mostly,” says Channa Jayasumana, a Professor of Pharmacology at the Rajarata University in Anuradhapura and a supporter of the SLPP. “Our candidate Muniyandi Dharme is 28 years old and a very committed social worker in the area.” The electoral logic behind the move is that four wards in Anuradhapura have a sizeable Telugu-speaking population and the SLPP believes fielding one of them could help pull in more votes. “They are not like northern Tamils, they share the culture and language of the Sinhalese,” Prof. Jayasumana says, apparently trying to fit them into the well-known binary.
Meera srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo