Did India treat “Ceylon” as a Plantation Colony before China war: Not as a Frontline neighbour?
Posted on March 10th, 2014

By Bandu de Silva

The question raised in the title of this article may encapsulate the essence of Indo-Ceylon relations from the inception of independence of the two countries nearly 66 years ago until 1962 India’s border war with China and later Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism set India on a different course. The two countries started their relationship after independence not with a positive note as over two millennia of recorded history and other living evidence would expect one to see, evolving from such a situation, but with a “problem”.

The problem has gone down in history as the “Indo-Ceylon Problem”. It is not a problem created by either country except that poverty in South India compelled millions of people to migrate to other countries as plantation and other service sector labour, but a relic of British colonialism, to which independent India also made its own contribution. The numbers of indentured labour in Sri Lanka which the British had recruited in South India, mostly in Tamil Nadu, to work in coffee plantations in the latter end of the first half of the 19th century had progressed  to over one million at the time of independence. That was nearly one sixth of the population of the island at that time and was too great a burden for the young nation to bear, Premier Jawaharlal Nehru’s insistence that they should be given citizenship of countries of domicile, notwithstanding.

 The way that the leadership of independent India, especially  Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of Indian foreign policy, an “Edwardian style agnostic and Socialist from Harrow and Cambridge”, as Ian Stephen, the former Director of Information of British India and later the Editor of Statesman of Calcutta/New Delhi saw him, (Ian Stephens: Pakistan, 1963, p.24)  and a militarist to the core, who was adjusting foreign policy to respond to popular emotional wave, if one were to infer from what US Ambassador John K. Galbraith wrote  about him after the Chinese responded militarily at Indian build up at the North-Eastern border, (Bulletin of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, jan.1965,pp2-3) looked at the island at the southern tip of India. That was when Nehru was  handling the Indo-Ceylon Problem. It showed that any influence of the old relationship, which even the 3rd century BCE Indian ruler, Asoka Maurya, demonstrated by sharing his knowledge and experience through the conquest by peace (dhamma Vijaya) with his Sri Lankan counterpart, had failed to impress the new Indian leadership to guide India’s relations with the southern neighbor.

 It was not that such thoughts of sharing experience as Asoka did, was out of Indian mind in modern day when it came to relations with bigger powers as India’s relationship with former USSR reveal,(Sen Gupta: The Fulcrum of Asia, 1969, Pegasus, NY), but that to India, Sri Lanka, then Ceylon as it was known, was simply no more important than British owned plantations like Seychelles, Fiji, Mauritius, Malaysia and Guyana, to which as Nehru conceived, the Indians who had migrated should be absorbed by these colonies as their citizens, particularly, as they had contributed to their economic development. This was the position that Nehru held at the London Talks with Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake following the discussions his father, D.S. Senanayake had with the Indian leader in London in 1953.  (W.T.Jayasinghe, 2002, Indo-Ceylon Problem, Colombo, p. 172).

Even discussing this vital issue had become an affair taken up only on the side-line at the meeting of Commonwealth leaders in London, not on India’s bidding but at Sri Lanka’s request. The Indian Prime Minister later showed that he had a different memory of the discussions for Prime Minster Dudley Senanayake to tell the Parliament winding up the debate on the amendment to the Indian and Pakstani Regstration (Ctzenshp) Act : “The Prime Minister of India has gone to the extent of telling us what was in his mind, but he has gone further and said what was in the mind of the late Prime Minster of Ceylon [(DS Senanayake]…. When it comes to telling what was in the mind of the late Prime Minister of Ceylon, we have as much or greater right to tell the members of the House what was in the mind of the late Prime Minster, for we were the government that considered those amendments.’ (Jayasnghe: p.161).

 This shows to what low depths trust building by India with her southern neighbor had reached. Nehru’s stand was that there cannot be compulsory repatriation and India introduced the 1954 Constitution soon after which deprived millions of Indians overseas of citizenship rights but in Burma India was facing a situation where hundreds of thousands of Indians were thrown out of the country without compensation for loss of business and without any room for transfer of assets. This shows how hegemonic considerations came to be applied in the case of the small country in the neghbourhood.    

No human Rights

There were no human rights considerations for these migrants on the part of India, when she took up this position using the principle that Nehru was advocating. Even if the present day concept of human rights had not evolved to the new proportions to be used as a weapon for neo-colonialism, a country which passed legislation debarring people of [recent] Indian origin in other lands for their rights to Indian citizenship (new Constitution of 1954) must be regarded as having lost its moral compunctions to speak of human rights anywhere or at any space of time.

For India that interest in human rights had  to await another near half a century when her  new strategic interest began to coincide with those of US and the former colonial West whose schemes India had been denouncing earlier as late as early 1980s, as was demonstrated by Premier Indira Gandhi through her statement in Lok Sabaha. That was to ignore that India was looking for a strategic relationship with US following the border war with China in 1962, and received modest assistance in the form of air and transport support for the beleaguered armed forces in the North-East border.

India’s new interest in human right  in Sri Lanka began to manifest itself during JR Jayewardene administration from the end of the 1970s when Sri Lanka was seen kowtowing with US interests, that despite Nehru seeking US military and air cover n the border war with China. The US warned Nehru through the Ambassador that China was not waging an ordinary conventional war as Indian armed forces had been used to but an advanced war based on military intelligence. The Ambassador saw the dangers for India arising from an escalation.

From the end of 1960s India’s US policy had undergone changes largely under the influence of the Soviets who had become India’s strategic partners. This change which continued under Rajv Gandhi, which gave reason for India to intervene directly and militarily in Sri Lanka, (Harkirat Singh) has now manifested, by a twist of fortune, in the form of India’s support for US’s Geneva Resolution against Sri Lanka demanding inquiry on the last phase of the War against LTTE terrorism. 

            That points to India’s wavering foreign policy directions followed towards the southern neighbor in the last half a century and more despite all claims for consistency in following a non-aligned foreign policy. Soon after the border war with China in 1962 and its humiliating consequences which could be seen as the turning point in this foreign policy, the visiting Soviet leadership to New Delhi, Kosygin, Bulganin and Khrushchev had to make great effort to ensure that India stayed in course sticking to her policy of non-alignment and did not move away towards US upsetting the power balance in the Indian Ocean area. The Soviet Union intervened in a big way to stop this India-US axis developing by pouring in massive economic and military aid. (Sen Gupta:p.178).

This Soviet orientation saw India’s non-aligned stature becoming diluted to a pro-Soviet instance as India’s support for Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was to prove, while Sri Lanka under Mrs.Bandaranaike fervently opposed the Soviet move.      

Sri Lanka viewed as a plantation Colony

Nehru’s treatment of the island as British plantation colony during the first one and half decade of India’s independence then summed up India’s relationship with Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was not brought into the new Asian and later Afro-Asian vortex she was building up. Even in 1956, when India strongly backed the Afro-Asian Conference in Djakarta, there had been no consultations with her immediate southern neighbor. Premier Nehru found his Sri Lankan counterpart was peddling a pro-US line only after Sir John Kotelawala had finished his statement. That points to the absence of consultations between neigbours and goes to support my view that India kept Sri Lanka out of frontline policy she was developing. The ‘plantation colony’ mentality towards the island nation was continuing. The little brat was showing her resentment about the way India was treating her overall. The Asian Minister’s Conference called by Premier Nehru in New Delhi in 1949 over Dutch intervention in Indonesia and the 1957 Conference in New Delhi over Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, in which Sri Lanka participated were not b-lateral situations. In both cases Sri Lanka had taken certain early initiatives. Sri Lanka’s position over the Korean War remained ambivalent while India had voted against US n the UN General Assembly branding China as aggressor n Korea and was active to bring about a settlement.

  Even on the issue of Sri Lanka’s admission to the membership of UN, records at the UN show, it was a country like Syria which made a passionate plea year after year, on behalf of the island nation, more than the neighbouring big Asian country.

  India’s low key relationship of working together with Sri Lanka on international issues changed only after India suffered a humiliating defeat in the hands of the Chinese in the border war in the North-East of India. By then, Sri Lanka, by its own steam, and without any overt help from India, had steered herself into the ranks of a leading non-aligned country in the world.

            After the humiliation  India was looking for friends in the neighbourhood to support her. Sri Lanka was much in view for her rising international stature. Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike was in no mood to denounce the Chinese action. Whether or not she was influenced by growing evidence that India herself was to be blamed for the Chinese military response is not clear. But such views on India’s responsibility were expressed by people like US Ambassador Jon K. Galbraith and even by K.M.Panikkar who was India’s Ambassador to Moscow and later Defence Minister. How far Mrs.Banadaranike was being influenced by her own Ambassador to Moscow, T.B.Subasinghe, who was very pro-China has not entered into the political analysis but this is an aspect which cannot be left out altogether. However, it is fact that Mrs. Bandaranaike, to a no lesser degree than the Soviets, was concerned about US gaining a foothold in India, though not sharing the Soviet view that China was the aggressor. (Prime Minster Dudley Senanayake told Parliament in 1967 that the previous regime had refused to name China as the aggressor). This is where I see Subasinghe’s role coming into play.  (This is personal knowledge I possess as one who had been interacting with Mr.Subasinghe from my young days in our village where he was a frequent visitor).

As the leader of a non-aligned country having good relations with both parties, Mrs. Bandaranaike offered to mediate in the dispute. Her offer was accepted by premier Zhou-en-lai, who had declined the earlier offer by President Nasser of Egypt, whom the Chinese considered, was pro-Indian. What made the Chinese to accept the Sri Lankan offer besides its fairness , was her decade-old relationship as trade partner, a country which had withstood US pressure including suffering sanctions under the Kem Amendment of 1950 and the Battle Act of 1951, and recognition of the fact that there was dissatisfaction in the island over the hegemonic treatment by India over the issue of Indians in Sri Lanka. The very night Chou-en-lai received Mrs Bandaranaike’s letter, China announced a ceasefire on the border. This may have been a sheer coincidence but it is on record. US Ambassador Galbraith advised Nehru to accept the ceasefire offer though he had declared that India would fight back however arduous the task was, however long it might take. India’ pride was shaken if not shattered altogether.

Back to Lanka’s India Policy

              The above discourse is a prelude to the details which I propose to discuss below in detail in continuation of my last article entitled “Why Question  Lanka’s India Policy:  Why not Look the Other Way Around?” However, an examination of India’s relations with all her neighbours is not its objective but it would examine briefly, as space permits, how relations with Sri Lanka went through different phases since the independence of the two countries and what and who were responsible for the variables which can be observed. Discussions of India’s bi-lateral relations with other neigbouring countries would be marginal to this main concern and will be confined to matters which have a bearing on understanding India’s relations with Sri Lanka.

 What went into the formulation of India’s neighbourhood policy?

                  India’s deficit relationship with her immediate neighbour Pakistan, with whom India once shared land borders on both sides, a relationship which began from the moment of independence of the two countries, could, no doubt, be seen hanging, like the proverbial mill stone, round necks of both countries. The mill-stone is more on India’s neck if one considers what followed the initial carnage leading to the present situation in Jammu and Kashmir which  has become a bone of contention between the two countries in respect of which territory, India has stubbornly refused to abide by UNGA decision to hold a plebiscite.

                  India’s relationship with Pakistan then might give a somewhat distorted impression that India as the bigger country in the region, is one that cannot follow a peaceful and friendly relationship towards her immediate neighbors. One need not judge India’s relations with neigbouring countries all the way on this analogy which has its own complexities. That almost hostile relationship with Pakistan arose from historical reasons, which had more to do with  unresolved issues left behind by the former colonial British Raj and the trauma of partition which the British decided on as the solution to Hindu-Muslim differences.

 Peace and friendship

                   Basically, India initially followed a policy based on peace and friendship and peaceful solution of problems if any existed with her other neighbours, though one may see even there a ‘self-interest’ element guiding Indian policy ”a  Kautilyan perspective, as some see. We have our own local variation of it in “Kapanta beri atha simbimi”(kissing the hand that cannot be severed) adage. To apply these perspectives alone might be to over simplify matters regarding India’s neighbourhood policy. 

As briefly mentioned in the previous article, to start with, this policy paradigm of ‘peace and friendship’ was seen in the way the general policy followed under India’s first architect of independent Indian policy, Premier, Jawaharlal Nehru in relations with her other immediate neighbor, Burma. That policy was cemented by “commitment to Non-alignment and independence of mind, anti-colonialism and anti-racial convictions” moulded the attitudes of India towards this immediate neighbours to the east of the country. (Prof.V.P.Dutt).

Burma came into focus because that country, with its uniquely independent mind, not only deviated from the path followed by other former British colonies in that she cut off her political links with Britain completely before she later settled down a nation engrossed in hermitical isolation, but was important to India as a country sharing borders with her and to preserve the territorial integrity in her north eastern states of Assam and Nagaland which were linked with the rest of India only by a narrow neck vulnerable to East Pakistan’s  intervention on one side and Chinese intervention in the other direction.

.           Next, India brought new China, a greater neighbor with whom she shared common borders, over which country much doubts existed in early Asian minds, into the emerging Asian vortex which led the two countries to solemnly declare the mutually agreed  Panacha Seela doctrine as the guide to future bi-lateral relations. India’s colonial legacy of disputed borders with China could not have been without having had a bearing on India’s option for  pacific relationship with China. Bandung was a landmark development in this process. Situations in Indo-China, Malaya and even Burma, fuelled by Western strategic propaganda  had given room for concerns to Asian countries over China.

Sri Lanka, a low priority state

In contrast to Burma, Sri Lanka did not occupy a high rating in India’s diplomatic priorities ” as my Indian diplomatic colleagues informed me Colombo was rated in the Indian scheme as a “Grade III station” in diplomatic status though popular among them because of the opportunity the place provided for them to rise in the diplomatic service, with the role of a Whisky ”fond small media circle and an amenable subaltern level officials in key departments not to be discounted in that ‘success.’.

At the time of independence, the small island nation had no proud record of ‘an independent mind’ as the Burmese displayed, for India to take cognizance of. Any vestiges of the pride the islanders had of keeping invading forces from the neighbourhood and Western colonizing powers at bay for long centuries remained only a distant memory. Sri Lanka’s spirit as a proud nation had been killed by successive British colonial cruelties like the way the two Kandyan rebellions were suppressed, and later the Sri Lankan (read Sinhalese here) leadership was incarcerated under Martial Law in 1914 and other acts of disabilities o placed on the practice of their religion.  

Independent Ceylon was then seen as a docile former British colony still looking Westwards, not only for her exports but for political leadership. (that was also a charge that the Soviets leveled at India initially under Nehru). The country was more or less, isolated from the emerging Asia. Despite an early manifestation of support for Indonesia’s Republican regime by the closure of the islands ports and airports for Dutch troop movement to suppress the rebellion, she was supporting Britain’s military operations in Malaya against the Communist insurgency by permitting the use of Katunayake airbase to UK under the Defence agreement; supported French troop movement to Indo-China though Katunayake and airlifting operation of US  troops to Vietnam during Sir John Kotelawala’s Premiership.     

Premier Nehru’s disposition towards the issue of Indians in Sri Lanka does not disclose anything positive about the island nation. This “Edwardian-style agnostic and Social reformist from Harrow and Cambridge, though in origin Hindu and Brahmin”, (Ian Stephens: Pakistan, 1963, p.24) saw the small country to the southern tip of India, not as a new partner in an emerging Asia worthy of being recognized for its historic record as an independent political entity which had existed despite numerous political pressures from the subcontinent and elsewhere, and later from Western colonial powers, but as a plantation colony where he considered that the “Indians who migrated to the British colonies for employment in British plantations should be absorbed by these colonies as their citizens, particularly as they had contributed their economic development.” (W.T.Jayasinghe: 2002, Indo-Ceylon Problem, p.172). [Ian Stephens even accuses Nehru of “doctrinaire arrogance”, or of [possessing] the world-wide totalitarian trends of last twenty years (Pre WW II and War years); or of “the average persons’ natural pleasure at the thought of bossing over others.” (Stephen, p.82)].     

  Could Nehru have been serious when he wrote about the picture of the Samadhi Buddha at Anuradhapura in his moment of adversary in the prison? Yes, but that reference in his “Discovery of India” while it might have helped him to concentrate and keep his mental balance, need not have filtered down to remind him of the age old link with the island.  Nothing of that cultural bond which gave rise to the proto-historical and historical island nation immediately to the south of India, to which Dr.N.M Perera referred, and which I wrote, could have used by India to develop a model neighbourly relationship, when Nehru classed the island nation as another British plantation colony like Fiji, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Guyana.

[End of Part 1]

8 Responses to “Did India treat “Ceylon” as a Plantation Colony before China war: Not as a Frontline neighbour?”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    As long as Tamil is a national language or an official language Tamils from TN will creep into SL.

    It will be like Crimea. Russia colonized eastern parts of Ukraine with Russians over the century. Now Russia uses them to EXPAND Russian territory.

    This is EXACTLY what Endia is doing to SL.

    Endia SUCCEEDED doing this same strategy for Mauritius. REAL inhabitants were OUTNUMBERED by Endians. Now Endians in Mauritius have aligned with Endia. Same thing in ANDAMAN and NICOBAR islands. Now these are part of Endian territory!!!

    COLONIZE WITH ENDIANS ——–> CAPTURE POWER ———-> GRAB TERRITORY

    Turkey tried the same trick for Cypress. But failed thanks to Russia.

  2. Marco Says:

    Hmm..
    Interesting i wonder who controls Northern Cyprus then…

  3. Nanda Says:

    It is imperative to OPENLY EXPOSE INDIAN crime towards Sri Lanka. This will make Sri Lanka much stronger.
    OUR FOOLS still not doing it.
    Look at FUJI. Military man ask Australia and New Zealand to get lost. Now they have stopped all the trouble making.
    OUR BUGGERS HAVE NO BACKBONE. This is our problem. War was won by our youth, they cannot win this cold war against India. OUR BUGGERS somehow MUST do it NOW.

  4. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    Problem with Nehru’s approach that Indians recruited to foreign nations should be given citizenship follows the Colonial mentality. I doubt if Nehru would feel the same way if the British imported Africans from her African colonies into India to do the same indentured labor. If so that would make his demands hypocritical and invalid as far as Sri Lanka is concerned. It also demonstrates his imperial nature in dictating what other nations’ immigration policy should be when it came to Indians.

    Nehru’s approach of making citizens of Indians working in foreign lands completely falls apart regarding the Middle East where there is a large Indian expat population and they are not only refused any citizenship but face daily discrimination by the Muslim hosts. If anything has put to rest Nehru’s notion of citizenship through occupation it is the Middle East. One must also keep in mind that Sri Lanka has a large presence in the Middle East and like her Indian counterparts face daily discrimination.

    Thankfully his opinion had little bearing on Sri Lanka. a large number of expat Indian tea pickers have already returned to India. Considering they are Tamils and Sri Lanka’s biggest problem for the last 30 years was a war against Tamil terrorism, it would behoove Sri Lanka to seek labor from other tea producing nations if the local population is unable or unskilled to do the job. China jumps to mind to replace the remaining Indian Tamil Tea pickers and by that strengthen ties with China. To date the presence of the Indian Tamil Tea pickers has not produced and friendship between their home state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.

    A recent contention is the island of Katchacheevu which under the British Raj was a disputed island claimed by both India and Sri Lanka. In 1974 India agreed that the island of Katchacheevu is part of Sri Lanka and in 1976 Sri Lanka officially incorporated the island as part of Sri Lanka. During this process the DMK and the AIDMK said nothing. But after the war against Tamil terrorism ended in Sri Lanka in 2009, the island of Katchacheevu suddenly entered the Tamil Nadu political stage. The current Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and the former Chief minister Karunanidhi both petitioned New Delhi that giving “part of India’ requires a vote from the parliament. But the Indian courts dismissed their claim by stating non of India’s lands were given to Sri Lanka since the island of Katchacheevu was never part of India. Yet Jayalalithaa continues her campaign to rest Katchacheevu from Sri Lanka. In addition she has promised that Eelam will be created. Talk about rubbing salt into old wounds. Karunanidhi on the other hand has resurrected TESO (Tamil Eelam Supporters Organization) and TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization). This is like resurrecting the organizations that support the Taliban and yet New Delhi allows this while joining Tamil Nadu and the US in forming yet another human rights resolution against Sri Lanka. India cannot do both. She will have to stop the pro Eelam movement in her land in order to take the moral high ground against Sri Lanka or continue to foster such forces and withdraw from her charade of aligning with the UNHRC to condemn Sri Lanka of human rights violations.

    India’s relationship with her neighbors took a nose dive under Indira Gandhi. Sikkim was annexed. Pakistan was divided and India entered into a protracted proxy war with Colombo with a bid to form Eelam by training and supporting the most lethal terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers. The scope of India’s support can be witnessed by the creation of a functioning air force and a navy equipped with submarines that the Tamil Tigers had as part of their arsenal. In the case of Pakistan by dividing her Bangladesh has become an immigration nightmare where millions of Bangladeshi now call India home and has triggered secessionist movements in that region. The Indian military has responded in a heavy hand where thousands of lives have been lost due to it.

    Another problem that has risen from the division of Pakistan is the Kashmiri problem. The radical Muslim elements of Kashmir have purged that state of the Hindu Kashmiri population and made them refugees within India. The massive military presence in Kashmir has only fed into the demand for autonomy supported by Pakistan. who a few years ago gave a portion of Azad Kashmir or as India calls it “Pakistan occupied Kashmir” or POK to China who gladly has incorporated that portion as part of her nation. China continues to claim Ladakh which borders China, part of Kashmir and is Buddhist.

    India’s relationship with China continues down the same path where New Delhi sees a growing power and with the support of the US is trying to contain her. India made an official visit to Japan for that explicit purpose. India’s alliance with the US at a time when Russia has taken over the Crimea without firing a shot and has the power to match any sanctions placed on her by the US and NATO and at a time when the US is being turned down to build military bases in the Indian ocean when she is simultaneously cutting her military budget drastically and the US lease on her most important military base, the Diego Garcia base is about to run out in 20167 will end up in a geopolitical crisis for India.

  5. Christie Says:

    Nehru hated Sir John Kotalawela one of the greatest sons of Ceylon. India, Indian merchants and Trade unions of Indian colonial parasites funded and provided policy frame work for SWRD.

  6. Lorenzo Says:

    Tamills have held a MASSIVE rally in Geneva demanding war crimes BS, genocide, etc.

    Tamils have the EDGE in this type of things. Not us.

    ALL 47 UNHRC member representatives are in Geneva now.

    This is why I said demonstrations, meeting ambassadors, etc. NOW by us achieve nothing for us now.

    Govt. should approach ALL UNHRC member countries and come to DEALS with anyone willing.

    e.g. Australia

    GOSL’s deal with Australia is a WIN WIN for both countries.

    SL STOPS Tamil boats AT SOURCE as much as possible and Australia supports SL in international forums. DEAL.

    Now GOSL should approach Malaysia and come to a deal to fight terrorism TOGETHER. In return get Malaysia’s support.

    DEALS are what matters to SL not propaganda.

    This is NOT about human rights. This is about DEALS. You scratch my arse, I scratch yours.

  7. Christie Says:

    About 4000 Indian colonial parasites and vermi were demontrating and the polce had to pepper spray them. They were demontrating againat lack of support for them that is the weakness of the US motion. India is getting what it deserve. Congress will definitely loose the forthcoming eletion.

  8. Fran Diaz Says:

    Actually, Tamil folk arrived in the largest numbers in Sri Lanka during Colonial British & Dutch rule times to work in their tea and tobacco sectors. One and half million Tamil folk were BROUGHT INTO LANKA, from British held India. Of course, they would have come fairly willingly to get away from the Caste/poverty bind of Tamil Nadu.

    After that, the Catholic church has brought in large numbers of Tamils via the Mannar route, presumably for Labor purposes, among other intentions.

    All these activities have created an imbalance in the ethnic proportions in Lanka.

    Indian Dalits flee from India due to Caste/poverty bind.

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