Peace for the World

Peace for the World
First democratic leader of Justice the Godfather of the Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle: Honourable Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam

Friday, April 28, 2017

Part 2: Indian Plantation Workers Overseas – Ceylon

Colombo Telegraph
By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan –April 29, 2017
Prof. Charles Sarvan
The descendants of Indians brought to Ceylon (since 1972, Sri Lanka) are particularly unfortunate because the attainment of independence has worsened their plight, bringing disenfranchisement, “race” riots (and the accompanying humiliation and terror; assault, rape and murder) and expatriation. Though these “wretched of the earth” have left little literary testimony (for reasons already explained), C.V. Velupillai has tried to ensure that their lives and experiences are not entirely forgotten. Velupillai, a “coolie” who joined the trade union movement and then entered parliament, participated in satyagraha (non-violent protest, on the model of that practised by Mahatma Gandhi) against the racially discriminatory policies of the government, was arrested and briefly imprisoned. Born in Ceylon, he never visited India. I have been able to trace only two of his works: In Ceylon’Tea Garden (1957) and Born to Labour (1970). The stories and songs by and of a people exploited and discarded are simply told but are all the more effective for it:
They lie dust under dust
Beneath the tea
No wild weed flowers
Or memories token
Tributes rise
Over their humble mound
(Velupillai 1957, 2).
The first group of “coolies” was brought to Ceylon as early as 1817 to build the road from Colombo to Kandy (Daniel 31). Later, many more came to work on the coffee plantations (1830-1880) and, when that crop crashed, to labour on tea estates. When reading statements that the government of India came to an agreement with the government of Ceylon (or with that of any other imperial territory) over the export of labour, it must be borne in mind that India was then under British rule. The agreement was between British officials, and the natives played no part in the decision, though they were affected by the consequences. In the early years, except for the short sea crossing from India to Ceylon, coolies, both men and women, literally walked from the north of Ceylon where they were landed, through the jungles of the North-Central province to the central hill country. The coolies were a miserable lot, ill-fed, ill-clothed, travelling through jungle, sometimes without a drop of water, sometimes knee-deep in swamps (Tinker 93). Food being scarce, survival depended on a speedy completion of the journey, and anyone unable to keep up was abandoned, left in the deep recesses of the forest amid wild beasts, serpents and insects, with a handful of rice and a shell of water to meet death all alone (Tinker 173.) Britain gave land free of charge to would-be British planters – a foreign power gifting that was not its own to its own. Later, land was sold at the nominal rate of a few shillings per acre. All land for which there was no proof of ownership – in the form and manner recognised by British law – was regarded as waste or Crown land, and expropriated (Thondaman 1987, 7). The people of the hill country deeply resented this intrusion but, unfortunately, their resentment and hatred were directed not at the rulers and the plantation companies, but at the hapless plantation workers, the miserable victims of a rapacious commercial enterprise
(Fries and Bibin 13).
The coolie found himself a bonded serf, burdened with a debt he could never redeem, however long and hard he worked (Thondaman 1987, 78) As on plantation in other countries, a breach of a labour agreement was “tantamount to a penal breach of the law … a criminal offence” (Thondaman 1987, 79). The employer was judge supreme against whom there was no appeal, no redress. The workers were, and are, segregated in their “lines”, shrouded in their daily work, a grey existence in the vast panorama of lush, green, rolling hills (Velupillai 1970, 1). “A family unit of father, mother, two children and a grown up daughter” occupy a line room, a living space of ten feet by twelve (Velupillai 1970, 1). A survey found that over seventy percent of plantation-children were severely malnourished (Gillard 14): hospitals can offer no cure for arduous and long hours of work, poverty, debt, malnutrition, and unhygienic living conditions. The experience on plantations in other territories was no different: in Old Dam (Guyana), the worker lived on a mudflat without drains, walked barefoot in the sticky mud when it rained, and the logies were choked with large families (Shineboume 32). On the plantations, the superintendent (the dorai) was a king, a planter Raj, and in his presence, the coolie cringed, and stepped off the estate path into the drains: