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November 9, 2023 @ 7:00 am - 11:30 pm


The bicentenary of Tamil indentured labourers’ arrival in Sri Lanka not only marks a historical milestone but also exposes a significant yet under-discussed aspect of the island-nation’s colonial past. The journey of these labourers, their struggles, and the consequential impacts have led to crucial conversations regarding Sri Lanka’s unfinished nation-building endeavours.

Unearthing a Forgotten History

The year 2023 marks the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Tamil indentured labourers in Sri Lanka, a milestone that was recently commemorated in Colombo at an event named “Naam 200.”

The occasion provides an opportunity to delve into a lesser-known aspect of colonial history that remains inadequately discussed and understood.

While history may belong to the past, comprehending it remains a crucial duty of the present. Millions of Indians and Sri Lankans, who still remember and lament the British Empire’s actions in their respective countries, emphasize the significance of acknowledging this shared history.

Imperial Exploitation and Its Consequences

The British imperial project, at its inception, was driven by exploitative practices in service of raw capitalism. Colonies, including India, were systematically drained of their resources, economic vitality, and political autonomy, leading them towards poverty and desolation.

In India, the British dismantled thriving textile industries, leaving millions unemployed, and seized Indian farmers’ lands for opium cultivation, resulting in widespread destitution and hunger.

The British, paradoxically, abolished slavery in their colonies and replaced it with a different form of bonded servitude known as “indentured labour.”

Indentured Labour: A New Form of Bondage

Despite international developments against slavery, British colonies witnessed a transition from slavery to indentured labour. The demand for workers in plantations and infrastructure projects surged, with Indians primarily from South India being recruited for these roles.

Indentured labourers, misled about the nature of their work, wages, living conditions, and even their destination country, endured perilous sea voyages and arrived in far-off lands heavily indebted, as they were required to pay for their exorbitant fares.

Once in these unfamiliar territories, they were subjected to grueling plantation work and dire living conditions, devoid of proper sanitation, clean water, healthcare, or educational facilities. Hugh Tinker aptly termed this system “a new kind of slavery.”

Sri Lankan Tea and the Indian Tamil

Sri Lanka, today a significant tea producer and exporter, initially cultivated coffee. However, a fungal blight led to the decline of coffee and the rise of tea plantations, which required more intensive and permanent field labor.

This labor crisis and the aftermath of slavery’s abolition fueled a massive transfer of Indian Tamils to Sri Lanka to meet the labor demands.

Challenges and Discrimination

While Tamil migrants had been coming to the island nation for centuries, the Plantation Tamils faced distinct discrimination by the British. They were subjected to discrimination and treated as “foreigners,” rendering them stateless.

Despite their efforts to assimilate into Sri Lankan society and carve out a distinct identity, colonial policies prevented their full integration.

Resilience and Struggle

Plantation Tamils, despite numerous challenges, persevered and embraced their linguistic and cultural heritage. They identified more with regional and linguistic affiliations than with a broader Indian nationality or religion.

Over generations, they made strides toward greater integration into Sri Lankan society, although the Citizenship Act of 1948 rendered them stateless.

Decolonization for a Brighter Future

As post-colonial nations strive for economic and social revival and the integration of all communities, decolonization should be at the forefront.

For Sri Lanka to embark on the journey of true nation-building, it is vital to forge an inclusive post-colonial identity for all its citizens.


The legacy of Tamil indentured labourers in Sri Lanka, with its trials and triumphs, is a testament to human resilience and the enduring quest for justice and equality. Recognizing this shared history and embracing decolonization as a guiding principle will contribute to a more inclusive and equitable future for all Sri Lankans. The unfulfilled task of nation-building in Sri Lanka requires addressing the historical injustices and forging a united, post-colonial identity that reflects the diversity and strength of the nation.

Mains Question:

  1. Discuss the significance of the 200th anniversary of Tamil indentured labourers’ arrival in Sri Lanka in 2023 and its implications for Sri Lanka’s nation-building efforts. How does the historical narrative of indentured labourers shape the country’s post-colonial identity and underscore the imperative of decolonization for an inclusive and equitable future? (150 Words) 10M


November 9, 2023
7:00 am - 11:30 pm
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