In July, under pressure after months of street protests against soaring prices and crippling shortages of essentials, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country. Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected in his place – even though he remains widely unpopular.

Inflation hit a record high of 54.6% in August, while food inflation rose to 81%. Petrol, medicine and foodgrain are in short supply.

Sri Lanka has been battered by this economic crisis even as it was recovering from the devastating after-effects of the civil war between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil community that lasted 26 years starting from 1983.

Despite the elation at having forced Rajapaksha out of office, Sri Lanka would do well to learn the lessons from its past. Over the past century, majoritarianism, exclusionary politics and recurring ethnic conflicts have obstructed the construction of a stronger pluralistic, democratic and inclusive polity in the country.

There is a significant possibility of Lankan politicians reverting to heavy-handed imposition of policies favouring the Sinhala majority to appease and regain the confidence in the dominant ethnic group. This could have devastating consequences. A long shot for a short victory, this could lead to another major crisis in the making.

Colonialism, Indian migrants

Similar economic disruptions in Sri Lanka set off by the Great Depression of 1929 offer a cautionary tale. The period marked the beginning of xenophobic, ethnocentric politics in which Indians in Ceylon – Tamils and Malayalis – suffered heavily.

The main aim was to gather mass support for the anti-colonial movement and assertion of Sri Lankan Independence. Because Indian migrants had been brought to Sri Lanka because of British colonialism, they became soft targets of Sinhalese propaganda.

The current economic crisis can be seen as a long-term consequence of colonial and post-colonial majoritarian politics and policies, the seeds of which were sown with the economic recession of the 1930s. It helped Sinhalese politicians and power groups gain power and grow corrupt without the fear of punitive action.

Understanding this history of exclusion is crucial to uncover current complexities.

In the 1930s, as crisis gripped the global economy, Sri Lanka or colonial Ceylon was no exception. British-ruled Ceylon was one of the leading producers of tea and rubber. The bulk of the tea and rubber was imported by the UK and re-exported to cater to the European and American markets. The economic depression witnessed a drastic fall in global demand: prices of tea and rubber fell by more than 40% and exports by more than 50%.

The plantations that produced these commodities employed large numbers of workers from across the Palk Straits in India. Between 1850-1939, Ceylon, after Burma, was the largest recipient of Indian migrations, recording a total of nearly 9.5 million journeys from British India.

Throughout the 1930s, Indian migrant workers’ wages kept falling, which severely hurt their standards of living, work regime, and migratory patterns. The reduction of rubber and tea production, of course, led to a progressive decline in demand for estate workers.

Militant Buddhist monks, supporters of the leftwing Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, or People's Liberation Front, march through the streets of Colombo in May 1997. Credit: Reuters.

Colonial statistics reveal a significant increase in workers returning home and a decrease in Indian emigration to Ceylon. The net migration figures were high negatives. While plantation workers wanted to return because of lower wages and irregular days of work, an important reason for the return of non-estate labourers, settled mainly in Colombo and comprising nearly half of the migrant workers, was the growing hostility of “natives” towards them.

Between 1931 and 1935, the Ceylon colonial government introduced several schemes to repatriate tea and rubber estate labourers “unsatisfied” or “unwilling” to work at the new reduced wage rate or those discharged from estates. Between 1924 and 1940, 129,506 Indian migrant labourers were repatriated under government schemes.

Since the beginning of the 1930s economic recession, Sinhalese, the dominant ethnic group and best represented in the Legislative Council of Ceylon, wanted the retrenchment of Indian migrants from various workspaces.

In urban spaces, the rising economic competition and hostility between migrants and native workers soon escalated into open conflict. Those mostly targeted were the Malayalis, who formed an essential part of the non-estate labouring population.

The Times, July 11, 1939. Credit: British Library, UK.

Nationalists blamed the rising unemployment among Sinhalese on the Malayalis’s “unrivalled proficiency as cheap and efficient domestic workers.” Labour Party leader AE Goonersinghe stated that Malayalees were the reason for “men of country’s unemployment, starvation and death.”

For estate work, on which Ceylonese had looked down, Sinhalese politicians with the support of the colonial state formulated various measures to replace the Indian migrants with the natives through free housing, higher wages, free medical aid and so on. Still, the attempts were largely unsuccessful.

Thus, during the period of economic recovery in the mid-1930s, Sinhalese, supported by colonial rule, fearing economic losses, changed their stance and asserted that Indian migrants were required for plantation works.

The protests against the non-estate Indian immigration, however, increased. A municipal Councillor described “Indians as the curse of this land”. The press, public speeches, sloganeering, anti-Indian pamphlets, and street songs during processions further whipped up popular antagonism against Indian migrants.

Exclusion of Indians

Policies to exclude Indians from Ceylon civil services, municipal, medical, port administration and others, were being practised since 1923. By the 1930s it became more explicit and pronounced.

The Ceylon government called for the dismissal of all non-Ceylonese (those not born in Ceylon) employed after 1934 on daily pay from government departments with a month’s notice, free repatriation, and a retirement bonus. These exclusionary policies were strongly resisted by the Indian nationalists. They politicised the migrant labour conditions as it helped gather mass support for the anti-colonial politics in India.

Given the developments and increasing tensions on both sides of the coast, and the world at the brink of war, the British government imposed a complete ban on the emigration of unskilled Indian labourers to the Island in August 1939. It was the declaration of World War II and the promulgation of defence regulations following the ban on Indian migrations that marked an end to the aggressive boycott of Indians engaged in various services and workspaces.

However, the primary struggle of the Indian migrants (largely Tamils at plantations) continued throughout the 20th century mainly for the rights of citizenship, franchise, and equality amid Sinhala-dominated Ceylonese politics.

It was ultimately through the Stateless Person Act of 1988 and Act No. 35 of 2003 Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin Act that Sri Lankan citizenship was granted to all people of Indian origin residing in Sri Lanka since October 1964 and their descendants.

The 842,323 Indian Tamils in Ceylon today remain locked in poverty for generations and deprived of equal access to economic resources and political engagement of the nation. They still work on the tea, coffee, and rubber plantations in the central and southern hill, often surrounded and dominated by Sinhala majority areas.

Living on plantations in nearly slave-like conditions, they were among the hardest hit by state neglect and derision of Tamils. The plantation Tamils experienced “double expropriation” – first displaced and exploited by the colonial regime, they were doubly marginalised and othered by post-colonial successors.

Sinhalese nationalism, LTTE

The decimation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 marked an end to the terror of the prolonged civil war in Sri Lanka. However, large-scale displacements, disappearances, killings, and arbitrary arrests of ethnic minorities remain a prominent feature of post-war Sri Lanka. The parliamentary structure dominated by Sinhalas continues to remain rooted in Sinhalese nationalism.

The Rajapaksa family played a major role in Sri Lanka’s civil war and their victory in the war along with divisional tactics based on religion and ethnicity helped them rise to supreme power. They continue to strongly hold that stand. In fact, President Mahinda Rajapakse (2005-2015) labelled the ethnic insurgencies for equality and autonomy as terrorist and fascist in nature.

If social unrest rises as a consequence of the economic and political uncertainty, the marginalised groups who have been previously excluded from various schemes and policies are likely to be at the forefront of being victimised.

As Nilanthan, a political activist based in Jaffna asserted: “All ethnic and social groups are equally affected by the ongoing crisis, but protesting it is a luxury that many Tamils do not enjoy asserted…If Sinhalese agitate, they deal with the police. But here, we would have to deal with the military.”

The developments of 1930s Ceylon thereby serve as an important vantage point to understand post-colonial and contemporary politics concerning minorities and migrants in the region as well as a cautionary tale for a state undergoing crisis. However, if Sri Lankan politicians dare to look at the past and learn from it, the 2020s need not be another 1930s in the making.

In order to escape this continuum or loop of crisis, and for the state to come out with strength and stability, it must frame policies favouring the fair inclusion and representation of the minorities, who have long been ignored.

Ritesh Kumar Jaiswal is SNSF Fellow at the University of Zürich, Switzerland.