Book Review
Memories and past controversies: Immigrant Indians in Sri Lanka
'Indo - Lanka Problem: The Politics of Immigrant Labour'
by W. T. Jayasinghe

By Prof. K. M. de Silva

For 60 years or more, i.e., from 1928 to 1988, the status of resident Indians in Sri Lanka was one of the most controversial issues in the island’s politics; controversial within the island, and controversial outside it. Yet there have been surprisingly few books and monographs on the problem by Sri Lankan authors; monographs on the problem by Indian authors have been fewer still. W T Jayasinghe's 'The Indo-Ceylon Problem. The Politics of Immigrant Labour', published in June 2002 is thus a most welcome addition to the meagre volume of material we have on this theme.

This monograph is a senior civil servant's scholarly contribution to the study of this controversial issue. Over 500 pages in length, solidly based on hitherto unexamined documentary material and the memories of a man who was involved in drafting position papers on the subject over a long period of time, it easily establishes itself as an outstanding contribution to the study of this complex problem. Among the strengths of this volume is that it provides a very welcome introduction to the 'considerations and reservations that guided each side [i.e., Sri Lanka and India] and the roadblocks that occurred in the course of the negotiations that took place over several decades, [material] hidden away in the minutes of discussions and records maintained by the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs and the Department of Immigration and Emigration.' Previous studies of this subject have identified these '"considerations and reservations', but the authors of those books and articles have not had access to these "minutes and records."

As Controller of Immigration and Emigration from 1960 to 1972, and as Secretary, Ministry of Defence and External Affairs, and later as Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1972 to 1989, the author has had a privileged insider’s knowledge of the intricacies of this vexed problem. In putting together his memories of this complex issue, and combining these with references to official documents and records that few others have seen so far he has written a volume that is as much a sophisticated analysis of a crucially important topic, as it is also an indispensable source book.

Migration of Indians to other parts of the British Empire in the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth centuries has created problems in many former British colonies. Host societies ranging from Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, to Myanmar in South East Asia, and Fiji in the South West Pacific and Uganda in East Africa have had great difficulties with the demographic changes that followed the entry of large numbers of Indians that British planters and officials introduced. Sri Lanka’s experience with recent migrants from India is the South Asian version of this. The migrant Indian population in Sri Lanka did not transform the demography of the country as comprehensively as had happened in Fiji, or Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago but the Indian population became a dominant presence in parts of the central highlands of Sri Lanka.

Moreover, the close proximity to India made the resolution of the problems posed by the immigrant Indian population much more different because of political pressure from that country; other parts of the former British Empire to which these Indians went or were sent had similar or more different problems but the distance from India made pressures on them less compelling. Indian political pressure on behalf of migrant Indians first became a serious problem in late 19th century and the early part of the 20th century in South Africa. It is a facet of the early career of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Purely in terms of chronology Sri Lanka followed South Africa as the next country in which pressure from the Viceroy, the India Office in London, and Indian officials and politicians was used in persistent but unsuccessful efforts to change the island’s policies on the status of migrant Indians.

The Indian problem in Sri Lanka first emerged in the wake of the landmark recommendation of the Donoughmore Commission in 1928 on the introduction of universal suffrage to the island. Universal suffrage was introduced in 1931, sixteen years before Sri Lanka’s independence. In the late 1920s and thereafter, once universal suffrage was a challenging reality the vast majority of Sri Lankan politicians refused to accept the position that all migrant Indians in the island were entitled to votes on the same terms set out in the Donoughmore report for the indigenous population. D S Senanayake gained national prominence for the role he played in the successful exercise of pressure on this occasion, pressure from Sri Lankan politicians in the Legislative Council in 1928. The Colonial Office was compelled to lay down special terms for the Indians resident in the island before they could be regarded as citizens entitled to the vote.

Controversies over this issue persisted for two decades before independence, largely because of the manner in which these restrictions were implemented by British civil servants. When senior Sri Lankan politicians protested at the distortions this led to in the late 1930s, the Colonial Office mandarinate supported them against the interpretations of these rules by British civil servants. Throughout this period of 60 years from 1928 the political arithmetic of how many Indians should be granted citizenship rights was one of the principal issues in the island's political debates. At the time the debate began (i.e., in 1928) the Indians in Sri Lanka numbered 11% of the island's population, almost as many Indian Tamils as indigenous Tamils, perhaps more. By the time the problems were resolved between 1964 and 1988, the number of Indians granted citizenship had been reduced to 5% of the total population in the island. Throughout this period this question of numbers 'how many Indians would qualify as citizens of Sri Lanka' was a matter of acute controversy between Sri Lankan politicians and Indian officials prior to independence, and thereafter between Sri Lankan politicians and the political leadership in India.

Between 1939 and 1942 two attempts were made to resolve these issues through discussions between representatives of the two governments, India and Sri Lanka. The most prominent Sri Lankan politicians of the day including D S Senanayake and S W R D Bandaranaike—more particularly D S Senanayake—were participants at these discussions. After much haggling an agreement was reached in September 1941. However, the opportunity to reach a settlement was missed because the Indian government, under pressure from the leadership of the Indians resident in Sri Lanka refused, or failed, to ratify the agreement which representatives of the Indian government had already initialled in Colombo.

It was in 1939 that Nehru entered the picture and began his own controversial contribution to making a resolution of this problem more difficult than it need have been. From the mid-1940s to the time of his death in 1964 his hard-line approach thwarted the efforts of those who were inclined to reach a compromise settlement. Just prior to Sri Lanka’s independence he and D S Senanayake engaged in a round of negotiations on this issue. These talks, brokered by the Colonial Office on the eve of Sri Lanka’s independence, collapsed even though the terms offered by D S Senanayake were more generous to the Indians than those he had agreed to in 1941. Professor Hugh Tinker, a British expert on the subject of Indians living in the empire, and a person whose sympathies were clearly with the Indian communities, had little hesitation in blaming Nehru for the breakdown of the negotiations with D S Senanayake in 1947. The crucially important fact that the collapse of these talks forms the essential background to the controversial citizenship legislation of 1948-49 is forgotten or ignored by its numerous critics, political and academic. The legislation of 1948-49 was not a permanent solution to the problem and attempts to resolve the matter came up for discussion again in 1953 after D S Senanayake's death.

The talks between the two Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Dudley Senanayake, were more important for the formula that the latter introduced on that occasion than for any success achieved in reaching on agreement on it. The formula recognised three categories of Indian residents in Sri Lanka; firstly, those who qualified for Sri Lanka citizenship under the prevailing citizenship laws; secondly those who did not qualify for citizenship but subject to future review would be granted permanent residence on work permits; and the third, Indian citizens who would be gradually compulsory repatriated to India.

Once more, as in 1947, there was agreement, in principle, on the formula of three categories, but once more the talks collapsed in regard to the details in implementation. W T Jayasinghe points out how the problem acquired a new dimension in April 1953 when "India resiled from its position that these immigrants were Indian nationals... They had to apply for, and obtain registration as Indian nationals. The Indo [Sri Lanka] problem then became intractable and defied the attempts of successive governments to reach a solution. The Dudley Senanayake-Nehru discussions in 1953; the discussions between Sir John Kotelawala and Nehru in January and October 1954 in New Delhi failed to reach an agreement."

The details on how an agreement was reached in 1964, and then consolidated in 1974 form the core of W T Jayasinghe’s magisterial volume. Every strand in the complex negotiations that took place under Mrs Bandaranaike in the early 1960s, and early 1970s is identified, and analysed with great skill. In doing so he has made full use of the material gathered together in departments and ministries in which he worked, and used them with a thoroughness that an academic would admire. The chapters of this book are essential reading for anyone, in any part of the world, studying how Sri Lanka handled the problem of absorbing a large portion of a massive migrant population and did so peacefully and without the sort of problems one saw in Guyana, Fiji and to a lesser extent in Trinidad and Tobago. This is not to mention Myanmar and Uganda.

The Sri Lankan experience in handling the issue of its Indian population is unique for many reasons. One of these is the fact is that India under Nehru generally refused to accept the repatriation of people of Indian origin from former colonial territories to India. Only in the case of Sri Lanka was this accepted. Significantly this was made in the 1940s, but it was only in the early 1960s after Nehru’s death, and the defeat India had suffered at the hands of China in 1962 that repatriation became a reality. Preparations for an agreement on the problem had begun in Sri Lanka and India when Nehru was alive. They were completed after his death. The essence of the agreement reached in 1964 with Mrs Bandaranaike as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister and Lal Bahadur Shastri as Nehru’s successor, and its local political implications have been reviewed by previous writers on the subject, but W T Jayasinghe’s "blow-by-blow" account of how the agreement was reached provides an essential third dimension which previous authors had been unable to do.

As against the author’s belief that Mrs Bandaranaike and her team should be given the credit for a major achievement, it could be argued that Nehru's death and India's discomfiture at the border war with China in 1962 had more to do with the success of the negotiations of 1964 than the negotiating skills of the Sri Lankan delegation. In addition, Lal Bahadur Shastri had a more modest vision of India's position than Nehru's lofty aspiration to the role of the conscience of the world, or at least the third world. More to the point he was willing to make the sort of compromises Nehru had been reluctant to do in regard to crafting a resolution of Sri Lanka’s Indian problem. The author shows how the Indian bureaucracy sought to stall the negotiating process in the final stages. Against the background of what had happened in the past, they may have had much greater success if Nehru had been alive.

The negotiations of 1964 on which the author provides a wealth of new data were a real turning point in the resolution of this problem. When Mrs Bandaranaike began a second set of negotiations in 1974 with Mrs Gandhi, the breakthrough made in 1964 was consolidated. As with the agreement reached in 1964, so too with that of 1974, W T Jayasinghe has succeeded admirably in his task of providing a full and accurate picture of the issues involved and the nature of the resolution attempted. His own role in these negotiations is admirably underplayed and quite appropriately the focus is on the main political figures but the contents of his study show how the senior officials were, by no means, the minor players the rules of the same expected them to be.

There are, of course, shortcomings in his study. These are not many, but scholars will regret the lack of footnotes throughout this large volume. In combination with the lack of a bibliography the absence of footnotes makes the task of assessing the value of the analyses in this fascinating volume rather more difficult than it should be. However, despite the lack of footnotes and bibliography, this book will remain the standard work on this subject for years to come.

( K M de Silva is Executive Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka and formerly Professor of Sri Lanka History, University of Peradeniya, Peradeniya, Sri Lanka.)