Tuesday, April 1, 2008

"The need for building bridges": Another view

by Neville Ladduwahetty

In an article titled "The need for building bridges", Shanie (Notebook of a Nobody, The Island, March 8, 2008), attempts "to place in perspective the measures that disenfranchised the hill country Tamils", and refers to the legislation associated with this issue as being "pernicious". The issue of the franchise of the Indian Tamils cannot be "placed in perspective" in a few paragraphs because of its complexity. Given below is a PART of a fairly comprehensive account gathered from sources at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, USA. The original article ran into 17 pages and was serialized in The Island in June 1999.

I leave it to the reader to judge whether the legislation associated with this issue was in fact "pernicious", and which of the parties responsible for the issue acted irresponsibly. I need not emphasize that "building bridges" requires painstaking inquiry.


The sequence of events that culminated in the Citizenship and Franchise Acts of independent Sri Lanka presented below, is based on the following and other sources: C. Kondapai, "Indians Overseas", 1951; Lalit Kumar, "India and Sri Lanka", 1977; H. Chattopadhyaya, "Indians in Sri Lanka", 1979; B.K.Jain, "The Problem of Citizenship Rights of Persons of Indian Origin in Ceylon", Indian Journal of Political Science Vol.24, No. 1, 1963; J.S.Bains, "India's International Disputes", 1962.

The first batch of emigrants from India to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) came in 1837. This was followed by successive batches over the next nearly 100 years, until 1939, when the Government of India banned the movement of unskilled labour to Ceylon. In the 1920s, Franchise Rights were based on a residence of six months and certain property qualifications. Due mainly to property qualifications, the total number of registered voters in Sri Lanka in 1924 "was 204,997 or 4 percent of the total population of five million" (Donoughmore Commission Report, 1928, p. 82). However, "At the time of emigration, until 1947 there was no dispute as to the status of persons of Indian origin, because, at that time India and Ceylon were parts of the British Empire, and, consequently, persons born and living in the territory of India and Ceylon had identical status, namely, British subjects" (Jain, 1963, p.66).

It was under these circumstances that the Donoughmore Commission in its report of 1928 (p.87) stated that "we have decided to recommend the adoption of manhood suffrage. On this basis according to the figures supplied to us, the possible voting strength of the electorate will be increased to 1,200,000. We desire however to make two reservations. In the first place we consider it very desirable that a qualification of five years residence in the Island (allowing the temporary absence not exceeding eight months in all during the five years period) should be introduced in order that the privilege of voting should be confined to those who have an abiding interest in the country or who may be regarded as permanently settled in the Island.... this condition will be of particular importance in its application to the Indian immigrant population. Secondly, we consider that the registration of voters should not be compulsory or automatic but should be restricted to those who apply for it......".

The Political leadership in Sri Lanka was very apprehensive about giving a large numbers of Indians voting rights as recommended by the Donoughmore Commission in 1928. From their point of view it would have "meant: (a) a dilution of the electoral strength of the Kandyan Sinhalese in most of the constituencies in the Kandyan areas; (b) the possibility of the Indian Tamils being returned as representatives of Kandyan Sinhalese constituencies in the event of the splitting of Kandyan Sinhalese vote between rival candidates; (c) the likelihood,... of British planters, and/or Indian estate Kanganies (overseers) herding the Indian vote in favour of the candidate of their choice" (Kumar, 1977, p. 14).

These misgivings were conveyed to Governor Sir Herbert Stanley, and modifications were accordingly made to the Donoughmore Commission recommendations by the Colonial Secretary. He incorporated them in the Order in Council, 1931. As a result of this Order in Council "the number of Indians registered as electors in that year (1931) was about 100,000, as compared with 12,438 registered in the Indian electorate under the old Constitution - an increase of over 700 per cent"... in 1936 the figure was estimated at 145,000 and by 1938, out of a total population of 670,000 Indian estate workers and their dependents, more than 170,000 had been registered as electors, in 1939 this figure exceeded 225,000" (Soulbury Commission Report, 1928, p. 58).

"In 1940, the procedure on revision of the registers was altered in regard to the qualification of domicile of choice and instruction were given that ... no one was to be registered who was not orally examined... From 1940 onwards the figures of registration of these Indians declined and the number in 1943 amounted to about 168,000 .... in spite of the tightening up procedure, substantial numbers ... have acquired the franchise in virtue of domicile" (Ibid, pp. 58, 59).

Economic pressures brought on by the Depression of the 1930s exacerbated the issues relating to the presence of the Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka. Due to the gravity of the circumstances, the leadership in Sri Lanka wanted emigration restricted, to the extent of even replacing Indian labour with local labour. The Colonial government on the other hand, wanted to retain them. These circumstances resulted in two conferences between Sri Lanka and India. The Indo-Ceylon Relations Exploratory Conference of November 1940 was inconclusive. This was followed by the Indo-Ceylon Relations Conference of September 1941 at which "...the two delegations reached agreement on all points, including inter alia, the Immigration Bill and the question of franchise..." (Ibid, p. 61; Bains, "India's International Disputes", 1962, p. 89). A Joint Report was signed on 21st September, 1941.

The India/Ceylon Joint Report in regard to Franchise stated: "It was agreed that those Indians who could not claim domicile of origin or of choice, or a literacy and property qualification could vote only if they possessed certificates of permanent settlement which would be granted on the following conditions" (Kumar,1977, p. 28). In respect of residence the recommendation was "7 years for married and 10 years for unmarried persons...provided that continuous absence of more than one year prior to application constitutes a break in the qualifying period of residence"(Ibid). However, although it was a Joint Report the Central Legislative Assembly of India did not ratify the Report, and in January 1943, repudiated it altogether.

The Sri Lankan attitude to the issue was greatly influenced by two factors. Firstly, the economic depression of the 1930s caused severe unemployment, and Indian labour was seen as competitors who deprived the indigenous labour of gainful employment. Secondly, the transient nature of the Indian labour between India and Sri Lanka on the question of domicile became a critical issue in order to assure an "abiding interest" in the country and a desire to settle "permanently". The Donoughmore Commission, the Soulbury Commission and even the Privy Council, all recognized that commitment to domicile was directly relevant to issues of Citizenship and Franchise.

The Soulbury Commission, appointed in 1944, was aware of the "...anxieties arising out of the likelihood of large-scale enfranchisement of the Indian immigrants, and despite strong representations from the Ceylon Tamil and Indian Tamil organisations, decided that the Indian Question was an internal matter to be disposed of by the future legislature. The Commission, therefore, left the existing basis of franchise in Sri Lanka undisturbed" (Chattopadhyaya, 1979, p. 217). The Soulbury Commission Report also stated that "... if the qualifications of these Indian immigrants for the franchise had depended solely on the condition of 5 years residence in the island, as recommended by the Donoughmore Commission, the constitution of 1931 would not have been accepted by the Legislative Council".

Continued tomorrow