The two most discriminated groups in post-19th century Sri Lanka were not minorities engaged in trade, but rather Kandyan peasants and estate Tamils.
The wage labour that scholars today accuse the Sinhalese peasants of avoiding, due to an “innate laziness”, in fact hardly resembled wage labour under conditions of capitalism. Yet these same peasants were initially eager to seek employment at plantation enclaves, even outside their traditional activities. Dispatches by officials make it clear that the main if not the only reason why they rejected work at those enclaves later on were the low wages being offered – or delayed and forfeited, as was often the case – by their overseers.
When locals discovered that their wages were being denied to them and intermediaries, especially the kanganies whose hold over migrant Tamils have been recorded by scholars, negotiated on their behalf while lending to them sums of money which they would deduct from those wages, they refused to leave their land. A questionnaire put to the peasants of Walapane in the early 19th century, for instance, revealed that while they remained landless and seemed to be going “[n]owhere in particular”, they did not want to labour at the estates because, as they put it, “we never get anything for our work.”
Thus the burden of the position of the most discriminated community in the country fell eventually on the shoulders of migrant Indian Tamils. Forced to seek employment owing to a never-ending series of famines which swept across South India throughout the late 19th century, they came to comprise more than 70% of the plantation population in Sri Lanka; one account in 1998 records no fewer than 300,000 migrant Tamils working at tea estates, alongside a mere 50,000 Sinhalese, Moors, AND Malays.
Incidentally, it wasn’t only the Sinhalese peasants who shied away from employment: wage differentials between Jaffna and migrant Tamils in the Eastern Province, where both groups had been recruited to repair irrigation tanks, encouraged officials to hire more of the latter, releasing the former to other fields of activity, in particular agriculture. The difference, of course, was that land in Jaffna was never as fragmented and encroached upon by the British as land in the Kandyan provinces had been; thus could hardworking Tamils eke out a living in an otherwise barren north and east.
In any case, migrant Tamils whether in the northeast or the upcountry found themselves in a position, as with the blacks of America, that of neither indentured servants nor wage labourers. They were quasi-wage labourers: the blacks of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese absorbed as captives in the estates soon became as culturally delinked as them; as Shanmugaratnam observed, “they began to speak Tamil and to their children it became the first language”, while their children “spoke their own language with a Tamil accent.”
Meanwhile the Kandyan Sinhalese sought restitution for the loss of their livelihoods. It is notable that the first attempt at drawing up a federal administrative structure in Sri Lanka was made in the 1920s by Kandyan (not Tamil) representatives in the Legislative Council.
The harsh truth is that by this point, the Sinhalese peasantry in the hill country had become a backward community; devolution, they thought, would address their grievances. This had nothing to do with their innate laziness, as rightwing and “Marxist” intellectuals see it, but rather the state of degradation a century of colonialism had led them to.
To sum it all up then, when Sinhalese peasants refused to work at plantations the State turned to migrant Tamils. The latter, not Colombo’s trading class, formed Sri Lanka’s real minority, though even by independence their deprived status had not been compensated for.
Far from attempting compensation, in fact, the ruling party proceeded to disenfranchise them for the sin of being a Left vote bank, and stripped them of their citizenship. Such actions amply proved, quoting Dayan Jayatilleka in Long War, Cold Peace, that “we never had a Nehru.” One could just as easily quip, given how our founding fathers schemed to condemn an entire minority into slavery in pursuit of political self-aggrandizement, that we never had an Abraham Lincoln either. But that’s another story.
In the final analysis, any attempt at comparing African-Americans with Sri Lanka must take into account the status of a dispossessed minority, reduced to quasi-wage slavery, detached from the rest of the country, denied the most basic amenities, and supervised under a semi-feudal setup. In Sri Lanka this position would be occupied by the plantation migrant Tamils. For a while the Sinhalese peasant fitted in, but as in Malaya, the colonial State preferred to replace them with a poverty-stricken community from elsewhere.
If we are to repudiate certain “Orientalist” views of our history, as we must, we should thus repudiate arguments, such as George Beckford’s, which imply the British Crown took over native land without disrupting local agricultural and social patterns.
We should also reject notions, entertained by “Marxist” academics, that the British, by disrupting those patterns, paved the way for the destruction of feudalism and the flowering of capitalism. For capitalism, as its most perceptive critic Marx realised, involves more than enclave colonialism, which is what plantations amounted to; it involves the reinvestment of profits in industry, rather than their repatriation to an overseas metropolitan centre.
Pre-capitalist, semi-feudal, and primitive, the plantations of Sri Lanka thrived on the dispossession of the peasantry and the erasure of entire ways of life. Contrary to the views of “Marxist” scholars and activists, then, the colonial government did not and could not lay the foundation for a modern State (which nationalist leaders later supposedly “feudalised”). To assume such a thing is to insult the legacy, not just of the Kandyan Sinhalese who lost their livelihoods (and lives), but also of Indian Tamils “recruited” – a word which conceals the quasi-militarised setup under which they arrived here – to replace them.