In Ceylon, there was no tryst with democracy: Rajan Hoole

‘Being an island, migration and assimilation from India and colonial slavery was high’, he points out

February 17, 2023 11:46 pm | Updated February 18, 2023 08:05 am IST - Colombo

Rajan Hoole, Jaffna-based mathematician, human rights activist, and author.

Rajan Hoole, Jaffna-based mathematician, human rights activist, and author. | Photo Credit: Meera Srinivasan

Sri Lanka’s crisis last year was unprecedented on many accounts. But, it was not entirely unrelated to the country’s tumultuous past, marked by discriminatory laws and policy targeting the island nation’s minorities, especially the Malaiyaha Tamils, according to Rajan Hoole, Jaffna-based mathematician, best known for his human rights activism during the civil war years.

In an email interview with The Hindu, he speaks about his latest book Democracy Stillborn, co-authored with Kirupaimalar Hoole, a retired librarian from the University of Jaffna. Published by the Colombo-based Sailfish, it focuses on Sri Lanka’s treatment of the Malaiyaha Tamil community, brought down from India by the British to work in the plantations in the island’s central and southern regions, and links the persisting exploitation and discrimination of the community’s labouring classes to the country’s larger pursuit of democracy.  

After your early years of activism as part of the University Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna [UTHR-J], when you wrote the Broken Palmyra with your colleagues, and subsequent works, including on the Easter Sunday Bombings of 2019, what was your motivation for writing Democracy Stillborn?

Rajan Hoole: Democracy Stillborn was motivated by the squalor, ignorance, and humiliation to which the Plantation Tamils alone had been juridically subject, which I have seen since youth. The denial of the vote, aided by the Tamil Congress’s opportunism, took away the community’s critical means of defence, leave alone advancement.

The Broken Palmyra grappled with the question in 1987. Coming from left persuasions, co-authors Rajani Thiranagama, Kopalasingham Sritharan [and Daya Somasundaram] were most sensitive to the political underpinnings. Rajani wrote, “The majority of left-leaning intellectuals amongst Tamils were also with the Communist Party (Peking). It was also the first left party to build up a solid base among the Plantation Tamils. Despite all this, it was also not totally immune to Sinhalese chauvinism. It failed to comprehend the primacy of the national question in the politics of the island and left the fighting for the rights of the Tamils in the hands of the Tamil bourgeois parties. It had no coherent line linking class struggle with the national question.”

It was applicable to the entire Left. A stay in Hatton, when we had to adopt a low profile, led to our report The Sullen Hills, The Saga of Up Country Tamils of January 1993 (UTHR Sp. Rep. 4).  

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Sri Lanka is celebrating its 75th anniversary of Independence this year, and the Malaiyaha Tamils, whose ancestors were brought down from British India, are marking 200 years since their arrival in Sri Lanka. Your book spans nearly a century, attempting to tie the island’s current challenges to its history of treating indentured Indian labourers. How do you look at the status of Malaiyaha Tamils today?

Being an island, migration and assimilation from India and colonial slavery was high. Indians were brought in by the British for civil works, road building, and opening estates. Their regimentation and isolation for profit in Sinhalese surroundings ensured they remained a bloc of Tamil speakers. Under the impact of the universal adult franchise, a beneficent introduction by the British in 1929, the Ceylon National Congress was hijacked by a group that forged Sinhalese nationalism based on hazy ancient history and modern-day market capitalism. Identifying Plantation workers as the excludable opposition, the Sinhalese leaders in 1949 succeeded in their 20-year quest to deny their existence. Agreements between the colonial governments of India and Ceylon based on the Indian emigration Act of 1922, coupled with the universal franchise, ensured that the population growth and death rates of Plantation Tamils were at independence on par with the Kandyan Sinhalese they lived among. Rendered voteless in 1949, the figures diverged, and in the disastrous 1970s in which many Indian Tamils were repatriated, their population growth was negative. This was slavery. Even if the Government boasts today that everyone has the vote, this community has been drastically retarded by nearly 40 years of denial.

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While you speak of the political realities then and now, your book places considerable emphasis on the judiciary. You talk about how key rulings have shaped the country’s political landscape. How do you evaluate Sri Lanka’s current legal system in terms of protecting rights, especially those of the minorities?

The author of Ceylon’s independence constitution of 1948, Ivor Jennings’s omission of the qualification of a privilege or disadvantage by ‘directly or indirectly’ from Article 5(1) of the 1920 Northern Ireland Act, weakened the Ceylon’s fundamental rights protection (Article 29) for the minorities. This omission enabled the Ceylon Government to indirectly deny the Plantation Tamils their vote. Six months into independence, the Citizenship Act negatived the Plantation Tamils’ vote by a simple majority, 53 against 35. The independence of the judiciary was traduced by official meddling in the appointment of the chief justice. No Supreme court since independence has called the Citizenship Act, a piece of foul play. In fact, the Privy Council to which the court’s ruling went on appeal called it wrong on the grounds it was indirect, and principally because it allowed just what the law was designed to prevent. But then it let go, deeming the Parliament supreme. However, Sinhala Only was disallowed by O.L. de Kretzer in 1964 as violating the fundamental rights protection in Article 29. The Supreme Court dodged this challenge, allowing Mrs. Bandaranaike’s 1972 republican constitution to consolidate contested laws. We are still under its spell. There was no legal remedy against such supremacy of Parliament.    

Given the current political and economic challenges facing the country, what course must human rights activism take in your view?

Despite the war’s end, the total failure to address accountability issues will be the focus of international pressure. The economic meltdown exposed the futility of relying on ethnic or religious mobilization to secure power. It made possible the ‘Aragalaya’ mass movement that overthrew the Rajapaksa regime. The absence of a serious transformative process enabled the present regime to snap up the vacancy and use the dictatorial Prevention of Terrorism Act to suppress dissent and move towards authoritarianism and austerity. Hence the primary task of the human rights community is to integrate strategies to take up the socio-economic rights of the marginalized communities, who will bear the brunt, and to sustain the democratic space, which is inseparable with combating religious and ethnic chauvinism.

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More broadly, what are your reflections on Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history, and tryst with democracy?

The tradition of lawlessness induced by the Citizenship Act is so deep that anyone advocating press freedom could be detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act on the vague charge of inciting communal disharmony and detained for as long as it takes the Police to conduct inquiries. The Citizenship Act of August 1948 required proof of the father being born in Ceylon, which most residents could not satisfy, but only Plantation Tamils who were administratively decitizenized were singled out in the Franchise Act of 1949 to prove the father’s birth in Ceylon. They were decitizenized indirectly by a retroactive requirement of proof for a father born in Ceylon, administratively applied to Indian Tamils alone. The British Privy Council did not accept this but quizzically showed (above) that in Britain the law was an ass, by allowing it. The UN Human Rights Declaration protected them by declaring that every person would have a nationality. But the Ceylon Government without reason said they were nationals of India. By failing to challenge it India opened itself to blackmail, leading to the shameful Sirimavo-Shastri Pact. There was in Ceylon no tryst with democracy.

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