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Daily-current-affairs / 08 Nov 2023

Plight of Tamil Indentured Laborers in Sri Lanka : Daily News Analysis


Date : 09/11/2023

Relevance – GS Paper 2 – International Relations

Keywords –Naam 200, British Colonialism, LTTE, PTA


In November 2023, Sri Lanka commemorates the bicentenary of the arrival of Tamil indentured laborers in the country, a historic event often overlooked in the broader narrative of colonial history. The commemorative event, "Naam 200", served as a platform to shed light on this forgotten chapter. The legacy of British colonialism, marked by exploitation and oppression, continues to reverberate in the memories of millions of Indians and Sri Lankans.

The Tamil Issue in Sri Lanka: A Historical Overview

1. Background:

Sri Lanka comprises 74.9% Sinhalese and 11.2% Sri Lankan Tamils, with significant linguistic and religious divisions between them. Historical accounts suggest tensions between these communities rooted in power disputes rather than cultural differences. Tamils are believed to have arrived in Sri Lanka as invaders and traders from India's Chola Kingdom.

2. Pre-Civil War Era:

During British rule, Tamil favoritism led to Sinhalese feelings of isolation and oppression. After British independence in 1948, Sinhalese gained power and enacted acts that disenfranchised Tamils, ultimately giving rise to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976. Inspired by Che Guevara, LTTE utilized guerilla warfare tactics, leading to a civil war in 1983, accompanied by anti-Tamil riots in Colombo.

3. Civil War and Its Aftermath:

The civil war lasted nearly three decades until 2009 when the Sri Lankan government announced the killing of the LTTE leader. Post-civil war, despite partial improvements, a significant Tamil population remains displaced. Issues such as torture, enforced disappearances, and the government's Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) disproportionately affecting Tamils persist. Additionally, the process of "Sinhalization" has eroded Tamil cultural heritage, replacing it with Sinhalese elements in predominantly Tamil areas, impacting historical narratives and cultural practices.

Concerns for India in India-Sri Lanka Relations

1. Rehabilitation of Refugees:

India faces challenges in rehabilitating Sri Lankan Tamils who fled the civil war in 2009, as they fear returning due to the possibility of being targeted again.

2. Sentiments of Indian Tamils:

The Indian government has received criticism for allegedly neglecting the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils to maintain good relations with Sri Lanka, leading to protests and discontent among Indian Tamils.

3. Strategic Interests vs Tamil Question:

India often grapples with balancing the rights of the Tamilian minority against strategic considerations, making trade-offs to protect its economic interests and counter Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region.

Other Issues in India-Sri Lanka Relations

1. Killing of Fishermen:

The ongoing issue of Indian fishermen being killed by the Sri Lankan Navy remains a contentious point of conflict between the two nations. In recent years, a significant number of Indian fishermen have been arrested, and their boats confiscated by Sri Lankan authorities.

2. East Coast Terminal Project:

Sri Lanka's cancellation of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed with India and Japan for the East Coast Terminal project in 2021 has strained bilateral relations, leading to uncertainties in collaborative infrastructure ventures.

3. Influence of China:

The expanding economic and political influence of China in Sri Lanka poses a challenge to India-Sri Lanka relations. China's significant investments make it the largest foreign investor in Sri Lanka, creating geopolitical tensions in the region.

4. 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution:

The implementation of the 13th Amendment, aimed at devolving powers to provincial councils and addressing the demands of the Tamil people for equality, justice, and peace within a united Sri Lanka, remains a contentious issue, impacting the relationship between India and Sri Lanka.

Indentured Labor: A New Form of Slavery

The British Empire, under the guise of progress and development, engaged in a heinous practice: indentured labor. Despite the abolition of slavery, this system perpetuated bonded servitude, leading to the transportation of destitute Indians to distant lands, including Sri Lanka. These laborers, misled about their work conditions and wages, arrived burdened with debt, only to find themselves confined to harsh living conditions on plantations and construction sites. Indentured labor, as aptly described by historian Hugh Tinker, was nothing short of a "new kind of slavery."

The Impact on Sri Lanka's Economy

Sri Lanka, primarily known for its tea industry today, witnessed a shift from coffee to tea plantations in the late 19th century. The demand for intensive, perennial field labor led to a significant influx of Indian Tamils to work on these estates. Despite their contributions, the colonial authorities systematically marginalized and discriminated against these laborers, labeling them as "foreigners" and denying them basic rights and services. The Plantation Tamils, as they were called, struggled to assimilate into Sri Lankan society due to discriminatory colonial policies, further exacerbated by exploitative labor recruitment practices.

Exploitation and Discrimination

The exploitation faced by Plantation Tamils was multifaceted. The introduction of sub-contractors called kanganies intensified their plight. These intermediaries controlled every aspect of the laborers' lives, from recruitment to work conditions, trapping them in a cycle of debt and powerlessness. The Plantation Tamils' inability to own land or build homes further deepened their vulnerability, rendering them dispossessed and disenfranchised.

Struggle for Identity and Integration

Despite adversities, Plantation Tamils resiliently forged an identity rooted in their Tamil linguistic and literary heritage. Over generations, they sought integration into Sri Lankan society, overcoming obstacles such as the Citizenship Act of 1948, which rendered them stateless. With determination and the support of democratic movements like the Ceylon Workers' Congress, they eventually gained citizenship and the right to vote. Efforts to divide plantations and empower workers are underway, reflecting a positive shift towards social justice and economic equality.

Decolonization and Nation-Building

The legacy of colonialism continues to cast a shadow over post-colonial nations. To achieve true nation-building, it is imperative to decolonize societies from the remnants of imperial rule. Sri Lanka's journey toward economic and social revival necessitates a commitment to decolonization. This process involves dismantling oppressive systems and fostering an inclusive identity for all citizens, regardless of their historical origins.


The bicentenary commemoration of Tamil indentured laborers in Sri Lanka serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring impact of colonial exploitation. The stories of resilience, identity formation, and integration among Plantation Tamils highlight the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. As Sri Lanka navigates its path to a brighter future, it must prioritize decolonization and inclusivity, ensuring that the lessons of history inform a just and equal society for all its people.

Probable Questions for UPSC Mains Exam –

  1. 1. Explain the socio-economic impact of British colonialism on Sri Lanka, focusing on the exploitation and discrimination faced by Tamil indentured laborers. Analyze the long-term consequences of indentured labor on Sri Lankan society and the challenges in achieving decolonization and inclusive nation-building. (10 marks, 150 words)
  2. 2. Assess the complexities of India-Sri Lanka relations in the post-civil war era, considering factors such as the rehabilitation of Tamil refugees, the influence of China, and the balance between strategic interests and minority rights. Discuss the diplomatic challenges India faces in promoting regional stability while addressing the concerns of its Tamilian population. (15 marks, 250 words)

Source – The Hindu