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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka

View Group Chronology

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 factor that increases the likelihood of persistent future protest: significant political restrictions. Since 2003, the group has been granted citizenship in Sri Lanka. However, it remains to be seen whether this move will result in the betterment of living conditions for the community. To this day, Indian Tamils continue to be discriminated against both economically and politically. Factors limiting future protest by the Indian Tamils include Sri Lanka's tradition of democratic rule, no significant support from kindred in neighboring India, and despite one instance in 2004, no significant recent repression by the government.


Analytic Summary

Most of the Indian Tamils reside on tea or rubber plantations located in the interior hill region of Sri Lanka (GROUPCON = 2). They are also referred to as the Estate or Plantation 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 religious, and cultural ties with the Sri Lankan Tamils but the two are considered distinct groups. Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils also share a common language (Tamil), whereas the country's dominant group, the Sinhalese, speak Sinhala (LANG = 2). The Sinhalese are primarily Buddhist while the Estate Tamils, who are physically distinguishable (RACE = 1), are Hindus (BELIEF = 2).

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. However, 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 betterment of the community, which has significantly 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 (POLDIS03-06 = 3, ECDIS03-06 = 3). While Indian Tamils have been granted citizenship, remedial measures might be necessary to compensate for the historical exclusion they faced. The Canadian International Development Agency funded a program, beginning in 2005, to counteract discrimination Indian Tamils face in the process of obtaining citizenship by aiding in the completion of citizenship forms. Since the citizenship forms are written in the majority language of Sinhalese, the Indian Tamils are unable to complete them without assistance (STASUP05-06 = 1).

Greater political representation and equal civil rights for the stateless Tamils are among the key concerns of the Indian Tamils (POLGR06 = 1). 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 (ECGR06 = 1). 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 (GOJPA06 = 2). The main organization, the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC) represents most of the Indian Tamil plantation workers. 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 2006 these rivalries have not led to intragroup violence (INTRACON01-06 = 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 several shops. Four people died when the police opened fire. In 2004, a road accident sparked a clash between Indian Tamils and a few Sinhalese resulting in a mob setting fire to shops and police vehicles. Two Indian Tamils were killed in addition to several soldiers and police injured as a result of attempts to control the mob. (CCGROUPSEV104 = 5). Since 2001, Indian Tamils have not engaged in any protests (PROT01-06 = 0).



LexisNexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006

Little, David. 1994. Sri Lanka: The Invention of Enmity. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Liyarachchi, Champika. 12/9/2003. "Indian Tamils get rights in Sri Lanka."

Ross, Russell R. and Andrea Matles Savada 1988. Sri Lanka: A Country Study. Library of Congress.

World University Service of Canada. "Sri Lanka: Improving Life in Plantation Communities."


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Information current as of December 31, 2006