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Assessment for Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Sri Lanka Facts
Area:    65,610 sq. km.
Capital:    Columbo
Total Population:    1,136,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Indian Tamils have only one of the factors that increases the likelihood of persistent future protest: significant political restrictions. Since 2003, the group has been granted citizenship in Sri Lanka. It remains to be seen whether this move will result in the betterment of living conditions for the community. Factors which could limit future protest include Sri Lanka's tradition of democratic rule, no significant support from kindred in neighboring India, and no significant repression by the government.

Analytic Summary

Most of the Indian Tamils reside on tea or rubber plantations that are located in the interior hill region of Sri Lanka. They are also referred to as the Estate Tamils as most are estate laborers. The Indian Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka from southern India in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the British who needed a cheap supply of labor for the plantations.

The Indian Tamils share linguistic, religious, and cultural ties with the Sri Lankan Tamils but the two are considered distinct groups. The Indian Tamils share a common language (Tamil), but the country's dominant group, the Sinhalese, speak Sinhala. The Sinhalese are primarily Buddhist while the Estate Tamils, who are physically distinguishable, are Hindus (CULDIFXX = 3).

When Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was formerly known, was granted its independence in 1948, the Indian Tamils were denied citizenship rights. They have generally been perceived as an alien population by the majority community. Various efforts have been made by India and Sri Lanka to address the citizenship issue including the 1964 Bandaranaike-Shastri agreement and the 1974 Bandaranaike-Gandhi agreement. By the late 1980s, more than 500,000 Indian Tamils had been repatriated to India.

While the majority of Indian Tamils have been granted Sri Lankan citizenship, there are some 200,000 who remain stateless. In 2000, the government offered to grant them citizenship as part of a package of constitutional changes; however, the changes were not brought before Parliament due to disputes between the country's two main political parties. In 2003, the group was finally granted Sri Lankan citizenship. Most experts believe that much more has to be done for the economic and social upliftment of the community, which has significant lower income and literacy levels than the national average.

The Indian Tamils suffer from demographic stress due to low income and poor working conditions. They are also subject to political and economic discrimination which is primarily due to prevailing social practices by the dominant group (POLDIS03 = 3, ECDIS03 = 3). While Indian Tamils have been granted citizenship, remedial measures might be necessary to compensate for the historical exclusion faced by them.

Greater political representation and equal civil rights for the stateless Tamils are among the key concerns of the Indian Tamils. In the economic arena, improved working conditions, especially better wages, and greater educational and occupational opportunities are viewed as vital to the group's future. As most Indian Tamils are estate laborers, the privatization of the country's tea plantations in the mid-1990s has resulted in some short-term costs. Social and cultural concerns include the ability to use Tamil in dealings with the government, freedom of religious belief, and protection against attacks by the dominant community.

Group interests are represented by conventional organizations (GOJPA03 = 2). The main organization, the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC) represents most of the Indian Tamil plantation workers (COHESX9 = 5). A splinter of the CWC, the Up-Country Peoples' Front, was formed in 1995, and it appears to have limited support from group members. Since the 1970s, the CWC's longtime leader, S. Thondaman, had held various ministerial posts in successive governments. His death in October 1999 brought divisions within the group to the forefront but as of 2000 these rivalries have not led to intragroup violence (INTRACON01-03 = 0).

The Indian Tamils have not participated in the Sri Lankan Tamil campaign for independence; however, violence between the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese has occasionally spilled over to impact the Estate Tamils. In October 2000, 29 surrendered Sri Lankan Tamil rebels were killed by Sinhalese villagers in the tea plantation region. During the funeral procession, some Indian Tamils attacked the police forces and burnt some shops. Four people died when the police opened fire. In 2001-2003, there were no reports of rebellion or protest. There were some reports that LTTE leader Prabhakaran was making overtures towards Indian Tamils in an effort to garner greater political legitimacy.


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