"Their history deserves to be known in every other country where one can expect to be served a cup of Ceylon tea", Norwegian anthropologist Haakon Aasprong writes in his thesis Making a Home Away from Home: On Up-country Tamil identity and social complexity at a Sri Lankan university that now is available online.
He has conducted field work among Up Country Tamils at the University of Peradeniya from January to August 2006. Up-country Tamils are descendents from workers sent from South India to Sri Lanka in the 19th and 20th centuries to work in coffee, tea and rubber plantations.
There are a number of reasons why Up-country Tamils deserve anthropological attention. The people itself is a young one and an idea of a unique ethnic identity is still in the process of articulation. Their immigration to the island [Sri Lanka] began as late as in the 1830’s at which time they arrived as labour immigrants from South India.
Today, they are in many ways a “diaspora next-door” (Bass 2004:375) and in a difficult situation vis-à-vis their Sri Lankan contemporaries, who have tended to be suspicious of their true loyalties and treated them as tools of Indian imperialism. Their employment as plantation labour in the up- and midcountry has to a large degree isolated them from mainstream society and while they enjoyed citizenship and limited voting rights under British rule, they were, following Independence, disenfranchised and rendered stateless.
Confined to conditions of semi-slavery in the plantation sector, the Up-country Tamils have been lagging behind the national averages with regard to indicators of quality of life. They are, moreover, as the Pastor of the Peradeniya campus church explained to me, “a voiceless community,” or in anthropological terms “a muted group”, and have been largely ignored when not suspected of disloyalty.
The 15 CG Up-country Tamils I have followed are all among the first in their communities to obtain a university education. They are, in other words, treading new ground, relying on each other and their own decisions, in a place which is conceptually, if not physically, far removed from their home communities. It is their task to make of campus a home away from home.
UPDATE: Just found that Haakon Aasprong has been blogging on Globen Cafe
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