Changing Identities of the Plantation Community in Ceylon
Challenging the legacies of slavery, nationalist politics, class and ethnic discrimination
The 19th century plantations in Ceylon initially relied on migrant labour from the Tamil Districts South India to meet the needs of production. The spread of plantations and the increased demand for more and perennial workforce led to a more settled Indian community in the Island. This paper analyses how the legacies of slavery and the struggles against class, ethnic and political discrimination shaped the identities of this community in Ceylon. Using the concepts of political articulation, appellation and framing, it analyses how the Ceylon planters, with the support of the colonial state, recruited migrant workers from the Tamil districts of the Madras Presidency in South India from the 1830s, and incorporated them into a form of production that retained the labour controls and the ‘enclave’ nature of the slave plantation, and complemented these through debt bondage and new forms of legal coercion to ‘enslave’ workers. The spread of plantations in Ceylon led to a permanent and settled population of Tamil workers by the beginning of the 20th century. The paper shows how trade unionism and franchise rights from the 1930s resulted in the awareness of their identities as part of the working class and as stakeholders in local politics, while links with the Indian national movement also reinforced their identity as part of the Indian Diaspora. The post-Independence government enacted laws in 1948 and 1949 that rendered the vast majority of the population stateless and without franchise. Four decades of struggles and negotiations, as well as strategic intervention in the prevailing civil war were necessary to gain significant labour and full citizenship rights for all members of the community. In the process, they also challenged the prevailing discourse and frames of identification, and claimed their identity as a separate, distinct and regionally-based ethnic minority in the country.
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