Book Review: Sharada Nayak’s ‘Raj Agent in Ceylon(1936-40)’

by Sydney Xavier

Book cover
The Raj Agent in Ceylon, 1936-1940 by Sharada Nayak (July 2015) ISBN 978-93-5196-423-0

The book’s title and cover page denoting the French nautical map of Ceylon and the Malabar and Coromandel coasts hint at a James Bond type spy story rooted in the British Raj! But this is the story of Vittal Pai OBE CIE and the sad plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil plantation workers about 10 years before the independence of Ceylon.

 

The book has a foreword by former Indian Ambassador Mr. G. Parthasarathy (I F S Retired) who was posted by the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Sri Lanka to sort out issues pertaining to the IPKF between 1987 and 1989 during the LTTE uprising.  He focuses on the soured Sinhalese-Sri Lanka Tamil relations as well as the suffering of Indian Tamils at the time.

 

This is a remarkable work by Sharada Nayak about her father Vittal Pai and it is written with much affection and her deep appreciation of her father’s dedicated work as a member of the Indian Civil Service. His picture on page 10 reveals a handsome mid-career government servant who was asked to report to the Madras Government HQ at Fort St George prior to being posted to work in Ceylon as the Agent of the Government of India to deal with the so-called estate labour issue there. His title as the Raj Agent, was one responsibility among many in his career, which included being a private secretary to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad.

 

The burning issue concerned Indian Tamils, also known as Plantation Tamils, whom the British rulers of Ceylon brought into the country from the Madras Presidency to work on coffee and later tea plantations.   After the abolition of slavery in the West, there was an indentured labour system that saw people move away from their homes to work mainly on plantations.   Attempts to enfranchise them through Village Committees (similar to the Indian Panchayats where they would have some voice at a local level) failed.  Attempts at organizing them through trade unions were also blocked by European planters backed by Sinhala politicians.

 

It is an appalling story of deliberate discrimination, neglect and serious lack of care towards workers. One concerned activist at that time wrote a book called Citizen or Outcast to highlight the rights of Indian Tamils.  The details therein reappear in Sharada Nayak’s book thanks to her father’s papers and letters that were found in a trunk in his apartment in 1989 as well as research conducted at the Indian National Archives.  The Quit India campaign and other independence struggles surely overshadowed many issues facing Indians but the Raj Agent makes it clear that the Congress Party leaders were highly concerned about the condition of Indian Tamils in Ceylon.

 

The story begins with Vittal Pai’s posting as ‘The Raj Agent’ to Kandy in April 1936. He travels with his wife Tara and three daughters Kanaka, Sharada (later the author of this beautiful book) and Shanthi. The author was then four years old.  She recalls travelling via train to Rameshwaram and on to Kurunagala in South Ceylon.  From there it is a journey by car through winding roads to Kandy, where the designated family bungalow called “Orchard” was located.

 

They had followed the same route taken by Indian labourers who usually went by train to Mandapam Camp and then by ferry and train to Kurunagala. The family travelled First Class of course.  Soon, bedevilled by health problems, all three girls were sent back to Madras to live with their relatives,    but returning to visit Ceylon during their school holidays when they were able to enjoy Kandyan life and the’ perehara’ associated with the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth.  Their parents made new friends in Kandy of different ethnicities as well as from diplomatic circles.  They also interacted with militant activists and some ‘hostile’ politicians who wanted to get rid of Indian Tamils working in the estates and the government public sector in order to give their jobs to local Sinhalese.

 

The author has done her homework and researched many papers from Indian government departments, such as the Departments of Education, Health and Land and also looked into the reports from the Madras Presidency protests to the Viceroy’s Executive Council in New Delhi. There are also Sinhalese perspectives, which add balance to the account. In particular, her summary of the Political History from 1833 to 1947 on pages 36 and 37 is excellent. To complete the larger picture she also gives a resume of the two pacts signed between Indian and Ceylonese politicians after independence in both countries, such as the Nehru-Kotelawala Pact (1954) and Sirima-Shastri Pact (1964), which affected almost a million “stateless persons” (Indian Tamils). This is the enduring legacy of post-colonial Ceylon.

 

The author cites key documents and all are neatly set out in Chapter 7 for discerning readers and case historians. They include a transcript of an interview with Justin Kotelawala – sent by Pai to Nehru. He was the brother of Sir John Kotelawala, who was Director of the Ceylon Insurance Company, an influential businessman and a wealthy planter. Written questions to Nehru during his visit to Ceylon and Nehru’s well considered answers designed to clear prevailing prejudice, misinformation and propaganda against the poor Indian Tamils are also included.

 

Amidst the correspondence between Pai and Nehru is the typical Nehruvian response, “Generally I feel that our line should be to treat Ceylon as a somewhat spoilt and wayward child, not behaving properly. We should not be too hard and should appeal to its better nature to assert itself. That there is better nature, I have no doubt”.

 

The leading players in the Ceylon Government were Sir Andrew Caldecott, the Governor General, Minister for Agriculture D. S. Senanayake ( a tea planter ),and the Minister of Local Administration and also President of Sinhala Mahasabha, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who is quoted as saying  “nothing will please me more than to see the last Indian leaving the shores of Ceylon… when I shall die a happy man.”(p 116). Yet another Sinhala planter politician, H W Amarasuriya, referred to the Indian labourers as a “real menace” (p 49).  It appears that voting rights of Indian labourers, i.e. full enfranchisement, is what seems to have sent Sinhala politicians into a tail spin.

 

Altogether the Raj Agent served four years in Ceylon. He returned to work in other Indian government departments and even had a short assignment in Moscow. Vittal Pai died in January 1989 at the age of 87.  Sadly there is no autobiography by him, which absence makes this book by his daughter a very timely and important historical record.

 

This is ultimately a book about a husband, father, and civil servant who went about his duty without making a fuss. As his daughter, the author, says of him: “He was the consummate Indian civil servant in discussions, but as a humanist his heart reached out to the Tamil labourer whose small voice was barely heard” (p 124).

 

Readers in the UK should approach Tamil Information Centre, Kingston, to purchase copies of the book for £10 excl. postage and package. The book is also available from Educational Resources Centre Trust, D41 Sujan Singh Park, New Delhi 110003, India. e: eduresource@gmail.com or author at nayak1000@gmail.com

SydneySydney Xavier is a retired civil servant and civil engineer living in UK. He was born in Sri Lanka and had his university education in England and Scotland.

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