Nuwara-Eliya District Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) MP Mylvaganam Tilakaraj in an interview with the Daily Mirror highlights issues confronting plantation-based Tamil minority and their aspirations. He shared the following:-
Q As a politician from upcountry, how do you see the current political situation of the country?
Visibly, people are not satisfied. Ordinary people expect physical appearance of development in terms of bridges, roads etc. There is a lack of development. I must tell you the truth. However, expectations of people before two years ago were something different. There were bridges, roads, harbours and all. But, there was no democracy. Now there is democracy in terms of media freedom, proper use of executive and parliamentary powers etc. Those days, there was less work in Parliament. Everything was decided by the President’s Office. At present, a lot of activities take place in Parliament.
Q What have you delivered to people to ensure better living conditions during the period?
By enacting the 19th Amendment, some powers of the executive were vested with Parliament. I am only an MP. But, I have the chance to discuss matters with the secretaries of various ministers at oversight committee meetings. There was no democracy for MPs to discuss during the previous regime. Another important thing is the enactment of the Right to Information Act. Information has to be declared to people. No room is left for behind-the-scenes activities. Apart from this, the Constitution making process is underway. We have the experience in this regard. In 1972 and 1978, only groups of individuals were making the Constitutions. Now, we have expanded the process to the general public. First, the Public Representation Committee was appointed. Then, Parliament was converted into a Constitutional Assembly.
Q As a politician representing the plantation-based minority, how hopeful are you of a power devolution package for them in the Constitution making process?
This is a very good question. I was mentioning the processes in 1972 and 1978. In those days, there were Devolutions of Constitutions. During that time, we were deprived of our rights, including the right to vote. Now, we are in a position – not only to vote, but also to determine what we want. So, we have formed an experts committee. We had a lot of discussions in this committee formed by our Tamil Progressive Party (TPP). We are now trying to ensure our rights in the Constitution.
Q What do you mean by “Our rights”?
We cannot deny the fact that we are people of Indian origin. If you look at history, all our ancestors had been of Indian origin. But, in our case, in the census report, we are registered as ‘Indian Tamils’, not even as ‘Indian origin Tamils’. We hate that form. Certainly I do not like to be called as an ‘Indian Tamil’ because I was born and raised here. We have lived here for more than 200 years. If you migrate to a European country and live there for five years, you will be granted with a permanent citizenship. But in Sri Lanka it is the other way round! We have been living here for more than two centuries and are still called as ‘Indian Tamils’! We have to establish our Sri Lankan nationality first. This is an important issue that need to be resolved first.
Q So, you wished to be identified as ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’?
Yes. Some people ask for the difference between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the ‘Malayaga Tamils’ outside the north and the east. I would say whatever the positions they are holding now, they were fighting for separation. They wanted self-determination. They wanted to part ways from Sri Lanka as a separate nation. In our case, we are still fighting for our Sri Lankan identity. The difference is pretty clear.
Q Have you submitted any proposals to that effect?
Yes, we have. We made proposals seeking constitutional recognition as ‘Sri Lankan citizens’ even though we are of Indian origin. We are called Malayaga Tamils. People in the north and the east are known as Sri Lankan Tamils. If our people do that so, we will be mixed up with them. We are located in the central hills and in the Uva. So, we are known as Malayaga Tamils or hill country Tamils. We are the pillars of the export economy here compared with those in the north and the east, we have a different cultural set up. We are living with the majority Sinhalese. We can communicate with them. We have a mixed culture with the majority. My name is Tilakaraj, but I am known to many as Tilak, which is a very common name among the Sinhalese.
Q However, in upcountry we see the Tamil Nadu culture has made its impact. They watch TV channels relayed from TN. Then, how important is it for you to develop the traditional Sri Lankan culture there?
In our case, the Sri Lankan Tamil literature is identified in two aspects. One is produced by us while the other by the Tamils in the north and east. It has developed based on our working community. When you consider our drama, folk-tales etc, we have identical ones. Anybody can sing in our community because we have the folk culture. We have Tamil films that portray our working community. In fact, our leader Mano Ganeshan’s father V.P. Ganeshan was a film producer. He was known as the Sri Lankan MGR. The movie was about the upcountry Tamils, their lives and culture.
Q Apart from being recognised as ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’, what are the other areas that need attention?
We were ruled by the British and located within the estates. We made representations to Parliament in 1947. We had seven members under Soulbury System. Population wise, we were in the second slot according to the 1961 census report. When the country gained Independence in 1948, we did not get it. It was because we were deprived of our voting franchise. In 1964, our people were repatriated to India under the Sirima-Shasthri Pact. Then, in 1972, the British rule expanded its control not only over the estates but also over our society. We were differentiated from the government’s mechanism. Even now, the plantation health sector is not linked with the national body. Doctors are called ‘Estate Medical Assistants’. The government provides only medicine. All the entire system is run by the private sector. I have debated this with the Health Minister too. In the education sector, still there is a division called the ‘plantation sector’ at the Education Department. Though we are taken to the government schools, the plantation education system is existent. Plantation education was introduced by the colonial rulers. Housing is another issue. People still live in line rooms with 20’ x 10’ floor space with no adequate ventillation.
I was born and raised in a similar atmosphere. My parents were plantation workers. I have given the address of this house as mine to the parliamentary authorities. From such a predicament, I studied and graduated from a Colombo University. I am the fourth MP from that particular estate. People have the aptitude to gain knowledge. But, they are being treated in a different manner. The other main issue is administration. If you take a Grama Niladhari, the ratio is 1000:1 (families) in other parts of the country. In some cases, you would find 120:1 (families) too. But in our case, the ratio is 3,000:1 (families)! There is no proper administration for us. We have to ensure that the administrative power is shared with our people.
Q How happy are the plantation population with the present rule?
They are happy. Nationally as I said, it portrays a different picture. We have won the land rights for housing. We are building houses. We have developed 25 schools for education in the science stream. We have set the trend.
Q How do you look at the political power sharing?
When you think about power devolution, you must think of administrative power and political power. In the north and east, they are fighting for political power. We also need political power sharing. In our case, we are even without administrative power. Without it, how can we get political power? We have to mark our administrative areas.
Q Does it mean that you are seeking a separate administrative zone for your people?
Actually, we are suggesting the system that is existent in India. They have a system in New Delhi. We mean our non-contiguous areas. In Kalutara also, our people live. We have to combine all these non-contiguous areas. We have to be treated equally with other nationalities in terms of administration. When it comes to power devolution, we have to identify the administrative location and that zone only should be given political power.
Q There is a perception that the TPA was formed at the behest of India. Your comments on that…..
No, actually we were together under Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC). It was formed in 1937. CIC later became Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC). The CWC flag reflects the features of the Indian flag. The CWC was running all the politics. From 1960s onwards, one leader from the CWC defected from the CWC and formed Democratic Workers Congress (DWC). It has now become a Democratic People’s Front led by Minister Mano Ganeshan. In 1955, the National Workers Congress defected from the CWC. It is now under the leadership of Minister Palani Digambaram. In 1985, late MP Chandrasekaran bowed out of CWC and formed the Upcountry People’s Front. What TPA now is the unification of all these three under one banner. We have a long culture of forming alliances.
Q What is the kind of political relationship you have with India at the moment?
It is very good. We are not responsible for coming here. I mentioned it to the British Foreign Office as well. We have been living here for over 200 years. The British only brought us here to work as labourers in the plantation sector. India had sent these people to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) without any consideration. Our people started living in a new country as Indian Tamils. There is accountability to India to look after our political aspirations.
We were asking for help from India. They provided us educational scholarships. I was also a beneficiary. We told them this should not be the way. We asked them to look at our living condition. Then only they agreed to give us 4,000 houses. We have been able to implement this project since our TPA became an ally of the government.
Q How do you look at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit?
We are in the transitional period of political culture of this country, especially due to the proposal to making of new Constitution. The Tamil people who are living in the central and southern part of Sri Lanka were deprived of their citizenship during the previous Constitutional Reforms.
PM Modi’s visit indicated and ensured that the Indian origin plantation minority also must be included in the Constitution and introduced a mechanism to solve the ethnic conflict. Moreover, PM Modi addressed our people in the presence of our President and the PM. He said that even though these people belong to Indian origin, they are Sri Lankans. This is a great recognition. It gives the plantation minority Tamils ‘Sri Lankan’ identity. (Daily Mirror)