While Muralitharan gets feted in Sri Lanka

LAST week, Sri Lanka's world record breaking bowler Muttiah Muralitharan was everyone's property. The whole country was proud of him. The front page picture on the state-run newspapers showed President Mahinda Rajapaksa presenting him with a Peugeot 407 car. The car was not bought from state funds or Rajapaksa's personal wealth. The President simply hijacked a cricket board ceremony using or abusing his powers and held the ceremony at his residence.

By Ameen Izzadeen

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Tue 11 Dec 2007, 9:13 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:08 AM

The ceremony, the euphoria and the great admiration for Murali for breaking Shane Warne's record made sports journalists here and around the world trace the path the ace Sri Lankan spinner trekked. They wrote about the challenges, slurs and humiliation Murali faced on his way to the top. But only a few, if any, ventured to go beyond the glory and take a glance at the community to which Murali belongs — the Tamils of Indian origin.

Though today everyone is scurrying to own him up, Tamils of Indian origin had been an oppressed lot. India disowned them and Sri Lanka despised them.

Has the situation improved today? Yes, only marginally. As the champion bowler was feted at the presidential party, hundreds of Tamils were rounded up, locked up like cattle in crowded cells in police stations — men and women together in some cases, according to some human rights activists — before they were grilled and freed or sent to a notorious detention centre.

Among them were hundreds of estate-Tamils. That's how Tamils of Indian origin are called.

When Murali broke the record, the sports editor of a newspaper described him as the true son of Sri Lanka. Thousands of posters put up by so-called patriotic groups also hailed him as a son of the soil. Aren't we inferring that Tamils could be true sons or daughters of Sri Lanka only if they break a record or do something to make the country proud?

They came to Sri Lanka, like many of us, from India. Sri Lanka's first king was an Indian; most Sinhalese were Indians and the forefathers of Tamils who live in the north and the east were from India. Some Muslims whom the British erroneously and for administrative convenience's sake called Moors, were from India. A majority of us are people of Indian origin, in one sense or another. The problem with estate-Tamils is that they came last. And they came in the 19th century not as rulers, soldiers or wealthy merchants, but as low-caste labourers to work in Sri Lanka's coffee, tea and rubber plantations run by the British.

Many Sinhala politicians feared that Tamils of Indian origin would be a formidable force and one of the first actions Independent Sri Lanka's first government took was to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of estate-Tamils. Our governments held countless rounds of talks with Indian prime ministers — Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi -- to persuade India to take at least half of them. Sri Lanka did not want to send all of them. Please note that we wanted to deport only half of them, not all of them. Since the Sinhalese and others refused to work on estates or do menial jobs, Tamils of Indian origin had a great economic value. If they all had gone, Sri Lanka's economy would have collapsed. And Sri Lanka would be stinking.

India had maintained that the immigrant workers were not Indians but had now become Sri Lankans. One reason the talks did not lead to fruition was that Sri Lankan leaders feared that listening to India would not find favour with the Sinhalese who viewed the neighbouring giant as a monster waiting to devour their country.

It was only after JR Jayewardene won the 1977 general elections with a steamroller majority that the Sinhala political elite developed the courage needed to sort out the citizenship problem.

All Tamils of Indian origin are Sri Lankans today. But they remain the most oppressed community in Sri Lanka. Underpaid by estate employers, they continue to live in 'line houses' which are tin-shacks, with limited access to education and proper health facilities. The paradox is that they can survive only if they suffer. Children go to school but they drop out before the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level examination.

They were a source of cheap labour and they have to remain so. Many estate women, even girls as young as 12, work in Colombo houses as domestic aides for a paltry sum.

Not many international humanitarian groups have visited them or are seen to be working to uplift their living standards, while leaders of estate trade unions which are also registered political parties continue to exploit them.

A few weeks ago, Tamils of Indian origin in Malaysia held a massive demonstration, seeking justice from Britain and highlighting their problems. Malaysia broke up the protests with tough police action and slapped sedition charges on the leaders of Malaysia's Tamil community. Some of them were even accused of having links with Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers.

The estate-Tamils in Sri Lanka also faced similar charges from racist elements. Though they have proved that they are noT supporters of Tamil Tigers, the racists keep on attacking them. Two months ago, for the first time in Sri Lanka's 28-year television history, a Tamil channel, Shakthi, showed a series of talk shows held in the very impoverished areas where these people live. They expressed their anger, fear and sadness.

In 1936, Mark Bracegirdle, a British planter, gave up his job to fight for the cause of the oppressed estate-Tamils at a time when many trade unions shunned them, while Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, founder of the Ceylon (Indian) Workers' Congress, had to face several challenges, like our champion cricketer Murali, to push the living standards of his people up by a few notches.

Murali's father is a few lucky ones to break free from the shackles and establish themselves. But a majority of the plantation Tamils are still living like serfs in plantation manors, waiting for freedom and empowerment.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

More news from