Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> Malaysia > Social and Political Ferment in the Malayan Indian Community 1945 to 1955 - S.Arasaratnam

Tamils - a Nation without a State

Malaysia - மலேசியா
- an estimated 1,060,000 Tamils live in Malaysia -

Social and Political Ferment in the Malayan Indian Community
1945 - 1955 

Sinnappah Arasaratnam
paper presented at First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 1964

"...(the) political and social changes broadly outlined here follow the pattern of similar changes that have taken place in India and Ceylon in post-war years. As long as the English educated middle class was the only articulate and opinion-forming group in a community, its political and social activity was centred round wider and more universal loyalties, and divisive factors played down. When other layers of leadership emerge, which do not share this common experience and values of westernisation, there takes place a certain degree of centrifugalism of political and social forces. In Ceylon we have seen the polarisation of politics into a Sinhalese and a Tamil nationalism cutting into whatever common ground there was of a Ceylonese nation. In India, the nation is rather dangerously poised on top of a number of separate and sometimes conflicting linguistic nationalisms. 

It is such a development that we have seen in a smaller scale within the Malayan Indian community. The emergence of different layers of leadership alienated from the westernised middle class made it impossible to make Indian nationalism the sole and all-embracing loyalty. Tamil nationalism which had asserted itself so forcefully in India where Tamils constituted a small minority group must necessarily come more strongly to the fore in a situation where they were an overwhelming majority. The fact that this did not happen sooner is only due to the divisions within the Tamil community and the weakness and apathy of a large part of it. The infusing of Tamil consciousness and the achievement of Tamil unity by emphasising Tamil separateness and identity was the aim of the new category of leaders who arose to challenge those already established..."

Early Years...
Visit of Ramasami Naicker in 1929
Second World War & Subhas Chandra Bose
Established Leadership
Challenge to established leadership after 1945
Cultural revivalism - and the emphasis on Tamil
Manifestation of Dravidianism among Malayan Tamils
Visit of Ramasami Naicker  in 1954


The Indians of Malaysia and Singapore, the third largest community in these two states, are a recognised national minority. They function as a community in these two multi-communal states and enjoy certain rights and privileges as a distinct community. The process by which this recognition and cohesion was achieved forms an interesting study. It is largely a post-war achievement and was helped by certain factors that were inherent in the situation. By far the most significant of these was the particular historical circumstance that led to the immigration and settlement of a large number of Indians in the Malay Peninsula. This resulted in a particular constitution of the immigrant community which in turn gave a basis for the welding of these people into one united communal group.

This point becomes clear if we were to make a linguistic breakdown of the Indians of this country in the last four decades: (1)


























Other South Indian




Other Indian 












The important fact that emerges is that the Tamil element constitutes a great majority of the Malayan Indian population, its proportion varying from 88% in 1921 to 91% in 1931 and 79% in 1947 and 1957. In the state of Singapore it makes up 63% of Indians. The next two numerically large groups are Malayalees in Malaya and Singapore, and Telugus in Malaya. In the category, other Indians are a mixed bag of Punjabis. Gujeratis, Bengalees. Mahrattis and others, none of which singly approach the strength of the Malayalees or Telugus. Thus an overwhelming majority of Indians belong to the Dravidian languages group as opposed to the Indo-Aryan groups inhabiting the northern half of India. The language, social customs and religious practices of Malayan Indians owe their origin to Dravidian India. This has been the most important cohesive factor in the Indian community.

The Census of 1957 also confirms statistically the well-known fact that the majority of Indians are employed as plantation labour and a small minority forms the professional middle class. Out of 312,956 Indians of both sexes who are economically active, 170,026 are engaged in plantation agriculture, 32,781 in commerce, mainly in retail trade, and 48,113 in the various services both governmental and private. The proportion of Indians living in large urban concentrations (of over 10,000 population) was 25.8% in 1947 and 30.6% in 1957. These figures show the Indians in post-war years as still primarily a plantation working class, though decreasingly so, and the plantations continue to be the primary source of income for a majority of Indians.

Early Years...

In the early years of Indian settlement in this country, for obvious reasons, there was very little collective activity of a political or even social character. Before 1931 the Indian population consisted almost exclusively of plantation and urban workers. The middle class element was infinitesimal and scattered in many towns lacking any common basis or opportunities for coming together. The earliest organisations of these were caste federations or regional associations which were a con�tinuation of the relationships of immigrant groups from their places of origin. Caste societies for every important caste group that came to Malaya - Nattukottai Chettiar, Yadhavar, Vanniyar, Adhi Thiravidar, Thevar and Nadar - cropped up all over, some of them federating themselves on a countrywide basis. Similarly those who came from one district, such as Salem, Ramnad or Tanjore, would continue their connections in their adopted country by a regional association. The primary function of these bodies was to welcome newcomers, look after their destitute members and especially to arrange for cremation of their deceased with due rites.

The first modernised form of group activity was seen among the urban middle class when it had grown in sufficient numbers to make such activity feasible. It coincided and was partially influenced by the intensive nationalistic fervour in India, in the thirties. Yet these associations were regional, sometimes communally restrictive, formed for particular social and recreational purposes. When Nehru visited Malaya in 1937 he commented on the apathy of the Indian social conscience. He was particularly interested in the possibilities presented for organizing plantation labour and improving their living standards by collective action. (2

Many of these middle class Indian associations came together in 1937 to form the Central Indian Association of Malaya which now could have some semblance of a claim to speak for the Indian community in Malaya. The Government did treat it as such and gave heed to its views as the voice of the articulate section of the Indian minority. This is not to be blind to its limited and loose character. It brought together a number of Indian associations of varied types in many towns of Malaya. These were all typically middle class societies, dominated by professional men and with limited membership. They made no pretence at grass roots organisation into the lower rungs of Indian society. Their activities were centred in the city or town where they were established and never went beyond, certainly not to the sprawling plantation country which was the home of the vast majority of the Indians of Malaya.

The position before the war was thus that there was no idea of an identity of Indian interests or of the possibility of collective action. The mass of the Indians as plantation and governmental labour was Unorganised and inarticulate. The stirrings of public opinion, as voiced by the Indian press and the Indian associations, were sectional and originated from the English-educated intelligentsia. Every now and then members were selected from this class by the Government and appointed to various Councils to act as spokesmen for Indian interests. Some of them did occasionally raise a voice for much-needed reforms in the interests of the inarticulate majority. 

Visit of Ramasami Naicker in 1929

There was also the very infrequent stirring of interest by some special incident. One such was the visit in 1929 of E. V. Ramasami Naicker, then fresh from his split with the Indian National Congress and steeped in his campaign for �self-respect� which was later to widen into a movement for Dravidianism and a call for a Dravida Nad. He toured estate villages and propagated his ideas of social reform which were just beginning to take shape. In the wake of his visit an All Malaya Tamil Conference was held in Ipoh and many Tamil Reform Societies were formed with more grass roots connections than the other existing organisations. Especially noteworthy is the one at Singapore which was to become the agent of many items of reform. Some of the activities sporadically engaged in by these bodies were the campaign to eradicate toddy drinking and to effect temple entry of depressed castes.(3)

In these years the influence of Gandhiji�s great movement in India towards these ends was also felt. With more fruitful results a co-operative movement was started among estate labourers in 1926 and by 1936 there were 228 societies and three unions with a paid up capital of 768,624 Malayan Dollars.(4)

Second World War & Subhas Chandra Bose

The second World War was the greatest single influence in moulding the political and social conscience of Indians in Malaya. The baptism of fire undergone by the labouring classes made them tough and hardy, and shook them from the relative placidity and contentment with life in the estates. For the Indian community as a whole, and especially its middle class leadership, the coincidental circumstance of the use of Malaya, as a base for Subash Chandra Bose�s movement for Indian independence was a great experience. 

It brought into their midst the Indian nationalist struggle which was given official Japanese encouragement and united them in a way that had never happened before. Indians of all linguistic groups and classes joined the movement, enrolled as volunteers with the Indian National Army and underwent some military training. In the Provisional Government of Free India formed under Bose, some Malayan Indians were given office. This intense participation and involvement in the Indian nationalist struggle was a very potent factor in infusing unity among the numerous groups and classes of Malayan Indians. It continued as a guiding factor in the political and social behaviour of this community for many years after the war.

In this way, during the war, Malayan Indians who had so far been isolated from the important movements going on in India, were again drawn into the vortex of Indian political and social struggles. In the wake of this involvement and concern with the nationalist movement came influences of the many other consequential and conflicting tenden�cies that the nationalist awakening in India had released. 

The movements of reform of society and religion that were either all-India wide or limited to the southern country from which most of the immigrants came soon found their way into Malaya. Even these movements which were away from the main stream of nationalist India polity and were even contradictory and in conflict with it gradually made their way into the Indian society of Malaya. Thus tensions in the body politic of India were reproduced on a smaller scale in Malayan Indian politics. 

All these factors converged to disturb the quiescent nature of Malayan Indian society and created a tremendous ferment in post-war years. Very interesting social and political conflicts took place. The outcome of these conflicts was to determine the future of Indians in Malaya, their political status in the country and their relationship to other Malayan communities.

The direct contact with, and active participation in, Indian nationalism was heady wine to the Malayan Indian middle class. It served to throw up a leadership among them who shed their particularist and separatist tendencies and exhibited a unity and pride in their common Indian heritage. This middle class found it easy to emphasise its Indian-ness and submerge any individualist cultural traits of a subsidiary nature. It was divorced sufficiently from the roots of its own traditional culture, was generally not very proficient in its own mother tongue and was westernised in varying degrees. 

The Malayan Indian nationalism of this period is strongly reminiscent of the liberal nationalism of the Gokhale type that dominated the Indian National Congress till the early years of the 20th Century. It was secular, expressed itself in the English language, and was distrustful of any grass roots connec�tions with Indian tradition. In the context of Malayan politics, this middle class leadership sought to rally around it all sections of Indians in this country and to work with nationalist minded Malay leaders for independence. The formal organisation which resulted, the Malayan Indian Congress, was modelled closely on and looked up to the Indian National Congress. Its orientation was to the central organs of the Congress and after India�s independence it looked up to Delhi rather than to any of the provincial capitals.

The platform and the appeal of Indian nationalism was as good as any to rally the disparate groups of Indians in this country. There is no doubt that it served its purpose in the immediate post-war years. Especially with Indian independence, national pride was fed by the feeling of being one with a people who were now free. It also engendered a sense of security, especially among those badly off, and encouraged a feeling, false as it turned out, that India would look after their interests. So great was the commitment to Indian nationalism that the MIC had on its programme the dissemination of Hindi among Indians in Malaya and actually organised classes to teach this language. (5) Similarly in Singapore, some Indian educational bodies taught Hindi together with other languages prevalent among Indians there. It is worthy of note here that no section of Indians settled in this country were native speakers of Hindi. The only motivating factor was its adoption as the official language of India.

Established Leadership

If one looks at the leadership of this period, one sees that at the highest levels it was largely drawn from groups that formed a tiny minority within Malayan Indians. Leaders arose from the northern Indian communities and Brahmin groups of south India. To the extent that non-Brahmin Tamils participated, they were excessively westernised or �sanskritised� (i.e. adopting and practising customs and holding beliefs that were northern in orientation) or at least were disposed, in the interests of a wider loyalty to a national Indian personality, to tone down their particularist cultural traditions. This is even more true for Singapore than for Peninsular Malaya. In Singapore the prosperous section of the Indian business groups was largely north Indian (Gujeratis, Sindhis, Punjabis and Marwaris) and it was they who held the top layers of leadership in Indian affairs. 

When representation was extended in the Singapore Legislative Council in 1947 the various Chambers of Commerce were entitled to elect members to the Council on a com�munal basis. The electorate thus formed for Indian commerce was restricted to the Indian Chamber of Commerce, a body dominated by north Indian interests. The South Indian Chambers of Commerce and the Nattukottai Chettiar�s Chamber of Commerce, representing Tamil mercantile interests, were left out of the franchise. This was considered by them a major grievance against their north Indian compatriots.(6)

One of the consequences of this pattern of leadership was the neglect of some serious, practical and urgent issues facing the majority of Indians in this country. Such a tendency usually results from similar movements which go for the universal ignoring the particular. The ideal of infusing consciousness of belonging to a wider entity was a high one provided that it also took into account in its path the plight of the various constituents of this Indian entity. 

The working class sector of Indians, both plantation and urban, was economically facing a most trying period after the war. As a community, Indians registered the most serious absolute decline in population from the census of 1937 to that that of 1947. This is only partially explained by net emigration to India. To a large extent it also reflected high mortality rates and a generally hard life during the war. Their bargaining power in relation to their employers was virtually nil. 

Organising themselves was imperative before any advancement in their living and working conditions could be hoped for. There were other social issues which cried for reform. Education of working class children was sadly neglected. Before the war very little was done for Tamil education. Even the mild legislation passed existed more on paper than in practical implementation. There were some enlightened reforms in Hinduism that had already been initiated in India and had to be introduced among Malayan Hindus. If the educated middle class did not give the lead in these matters but went on conducting affairs in a manner unintelligible and largely irrelevant to a greater part of the people, then a different category of leadership had to be thrown up so that the social advancement of the people may be effected.

Challenge to established leadership after 1945

The emergence of this new layer of leadership with new ideas and their struggle with the established leaders and their ideas takes place from 1945 and occupies about a decade. The challenge to the established leadership came from a number of directions. It caused a tremendous social and political ferment in the Indian community. From 1946 there is seen a mounting criticism of those people and parties that had set themselves up as leaders and spokesmen of the Indian community in representative bodies both in Singapore and in the Federation. This criticism is generally voiced in the Tamil language journals and in such bodies as Tamil Teachers Associations and combinations of labouring classes. 

Among English press controlled by Indians, the Indian Daily Mail stood out consistently against the highest level leadership and voiced the grievances of the unrepresented masses. Their case against the leadership as it was then constituted was that it was unrepresentative of a great majority of Indians of the labouring groups. It was un�representative of the Tamil element in the Malayan Indian population, an element which accounted for about 80% of Indians in the country.

They held that neither the MIC nor the Singapore Regional Indian Congress were voicing enough concern about estate labour (in Peninsular Malaya) or municipal and government workers (in Singapore). 

The problems of illiteracy, low standards of social conduct, complete absence of cultural interests and preoccupations among them - these were not at all the concern of these leaders. The Indian Associations and Clubs were social caucuses of the wealthy classes. While they had no roots in the Indian masses, they were held in the eyes of the Government and the other communities as speaking for Indians as a whole, as their natural leaders to whose care the welfare of the Indians may be entrusted. In March 1949 an issue of great concern to Indian estate labour came up. It was suggested by the Labour Department of the Federation of Malaya that the Indian Immigration Fund, so far set apart for the welfare of Indian labour on the plantations, be used to recruit indigenous labour. This was naturally resented by the labourers and their then modest leadership but they had no access to the major organs of propaganda to make their strong views felt. It was alleged that on such a major issue the MIC was content to make a solitary statement of protest through its President.(7)

 The jibe of the discontented that the existing Indian Associations only propagated sports and Hindi was not without its justification.

It was then not surprising that different forms of radicalism permeated to the poorer sectors of Indian society. Its most extreme and destructive form was the spread of communism and ideas of violent revolution as an easy solution to the present plight of the labour classes. From 1946 to 1948 such ideas had seeped quite extensively into the estate labour population from whose ranks recruits were drawn to pro�communist front organisations and even to the Malayan Communist Party. When the MCP moved over to terrorism and violence as its main political weapon it seems to have lost much Indian support. There is an interesting observation made by the Labour Department in its Report of 1948 that the violent death of Mahatma Gandhi has had the effect on the Indian worker of making him more prone towards non�violence and eschew the violent activities of the terrorists.(8)  It is difficult to confirm this hypothesis on any independent evidence. 

Whatever the case may be, it is obvious that the middle class leadership was concerned with this alienation of the working class sector. A resolution of the MIC in June 1947 declared pompously that the Indian working class was being torn away from the main body of politics of the Indian community and being exploited by extraneous forces. They must be brought back into the fold of the community by Congress action.(9) For a long time this remained a pious resolution. It was only after radical changes that took place in the leadership of the MIC in 1954 that it was able to spread itself like a protective umbrella over the entire Indian community.

There were other, more constructive, pursuits and movements directed at this submerged sector of people. One of the most fruitful of these was in the field of education. Aided by the Ramakrishna Mission. which in some way stands above the conflict we are now examining, various groups arose in many parts of the country which came forward to improve the very poor facilities for Tamil education. Singapore showed the lead in this respect. The well organised Government and Municipal Labour Union, to which belonged the bulk of the Indian working class of Singapore, started quite early setting up and managing Tamil primary schools for their children. By July 1947, they were running 3 out of the 9 Tamil schools in Singapore.(10) The Union also submitted a memorandum to the Carr-Saunders University Commission asking that a chair in Tamil Studies be set up in the proposed University. In June 1948 a Tamil Education Society was formed to centralise the management of the many Tamil schools that had been set up privately.(11) Peninsular Malaya lagged behind somewhat in this respect, relying more on legislation which put the onus of establishing schools on the plantation management. Apart from the Ramakrishna Mission and isolated cases of individual philanthropy, joint private effort towards education developed much later.

Cultural revivalism - and the emphasis on Tamil

Cultural revivalism was one of the strongest bases of this new ferment. It was here that the idealist concept of an all-Indian personality broke down. When the revivalist movement got started, it was natural that it should have a Tamil emphasis. The revived presentation of the great classics of Tamil literature, spotlight on the great Kingdoms and Empires of Tamil Nad and their achievements in architecture and sculpture, revival of classical Indian dancing and music which were only preserved in the southern country in the form of Barathanatiyam and Carnatic music - these were the main features of a growingly intense cultural activity from 1948 onwards. This activity is reflected in the birth of some new cultural associations and the revivification of old and somewhat dormant societies. 

The Malaya Tamil Pannai held a three-day cultural festival in Kuala Lumpur in August 1949, hailed as the first of its kind in Malaya. The programme of the festival shows that the revival of Tamil culture was its pervading theme.(12) The Tamil Pannai went from strength to strength and has played a major role as the vehicle of the Tamil cultural movement in Malaya. An older body, the Sangitha Apiviruthi Sabha (Society for the Promotion of Music), begins to function intensively from 1949 onwards as the chief agent for the propagation of Tamil classical dance forms and music. All this interest leads to the idea of an annual Tamil Festival of Arts. A number of Tamil associations came together in Singapore early in 1952 and decided to celebrate annually an elaborate Tamil cultural festival at about the time of Thai Pongal. It was to be a secular festival of arts to symbolise the unity of the Tamil-speaking people of all religions, castes and classes. (13) The idea spread to Peninsular Malaya and in two years time Tamil Festivals were being celebrated in January of each year in every city and town of Malaya where Tamils were assembled in some numbers. These festivals included essay, oratorical and drama competitions, and public lectures by men of learning and embraced all classes of Tamil society.

Hinduism was one factor that could have unified Indian people of all groups but it was significant that at this time no such all-embracing Hindu organisation emerged. There was the separation between north Indian forms of worship and festivities and those of the southerners. The former were mainly Vaishnavites and ardent devotees of the Vishnu avatars of Rama and Krishna and all festivals connected with that worship. The latter were mainly Saivites and worshippers of deities connected to Siva such as Subramanya and Ganesh. The labouring people of the estates as well as towns worshipped rural gods and god�desses popular in South Indian villages. It was only in the main festivities such as Thai Pusam that all these groups met and worshipped together. 

The reforming zeal soon made itself felt in the reform of popular Hinduism. It began with a campaign to secure entry into temples for all depressed caste groups. A temple entry conference was held in November 1946 to which delegates from all leading temples of Malaya were sent. Resolutions were passed against discrimination in temples and burial grounds. (14) Attention was next centred on doing away with blood sacrifice in temples and various forms of self-immola�tion in public worship. Here the Tamil Reform Association of Singapore took a~ lead but found public opinion divided. The Association favoured legislation to achieve these objects but this did not find general favour with influential Hindu opinion. (15) Though many favoured the proposed reforms they did not like to see state interference with religious practices. 

Followed by the lead of the Mahamariamman Temple of Singapore in July 1948 individual temples on the decision of their management committees announced the banning of blood sacrifice.(16) This movement spread to many parts of Malaya. The Subramaniam Temple at Tank Road, Singapore, followed this up with a ban on public self-immolation in its festivals or the carrying of Alagu Kavadi (an intense form of penance in which the carrier�s body is pierced with innumerable hooks and spears).(17) This was not successful for public opinion was not ready for such reform. Both in Singapore and in Malaya this was a very popular form of penance and the trustees ot this temple found that they had to lift the ban in the following year in response to popular request. (18) This agitation illustrates the activities of the Tamil Reform Association which took every opportunity for social and religious reform and carried on propaganda towards these ends among the Tamil community. Some low status ritual duties of depressed castes received the attention of the reform movement. Here the Government and Municipal Labour Union was active as it counted in its members many who belonged to these castes. Beating the tom-tom at temple festivities and funerals of upper castes was an obligatory service of members of the Parava caste. So also was the duty of serving as messengers to announce the death of people of higher castes. Both these had been carried over to Malaya but were done away with by the action of this reform movement and the leaders of these castes.

Manifestation of Dravidianism among Malayan Tamils

Yet another and far more serious challenge to the position and policies of the established Indian leadership at this time was the manifestation of Dravidianism among Malayan Tamils. The Dravidian movement started in South India in the 1920�s and in the course of its growth has assumed various forms. Beginning as the Justice Party with limited, fundamentally liberal, objectives it broadened into the self�respect movement and Dravida Kalagam of E. V. Ramasami Naicker with a more ambitious programme of social reform, cultural revival and anti-Brahmanism. From the time of EVR�s first visit to Malaya in 1929 the movement has had its supporters in Malaya but in the pre-war conditions they were not active or articulate in any substantial way. After the war, the Dravida Kalagam established itself as a mass political force in Madras state and undertook campaigns against the introduction of Hindi, the performance of Brahmanical rituals and the economic exploitation of Tamil Nad by North Indians. 

EVR emerged as the father figure of this movement, loved and worshipped by his followers, feared and hated by adversaries. Followers of EVR�s movement in Malaya wrote to him soon after the war seeking his advice on how they could popularise the movement in Malaya. He advised them to form Dravida Kalagams in all parts of the country and carry on propaganda through them and maintain close liaison with the parent body in Madras. (19

This was the signal for the formation of these Kalagams first in Singapore and Ipoh in 1946 and later in all other towns where there were many Tamils. In 1947 these were all centralised into an All Malaya Central Dravida Kalagam which had an active existence for the next seven or eight years. The movement ran a weekly Tamil journal called Ina Mani from December 1947 published by the Malayan central body and a monthly called Dravida Murasu from January 1948 published by the Singapore Dravida Kalagam. Though for a greater part of their life both these journals seem to have existed on a shoe-string, yet there is no doubt of the impact they must have had on the Tamil reading public of the lower middle class and working class groups. 

The contributors seem to have been drawn mainly from Tamil school teachers, trade union leaders and other incipient leaders of local �little communities�. A good proportion of contributions and support came from the Tamil Muslim community among whom the movement seems to have been quite popular. Letters to the editor were mostly posted from estates and small neighbouring towns. These were elements not reflected in the big national dailies, the Indian newspapers in Tamil and English, which were essentially the organs of the professional and business communities.

While the orientation of the established leadership of this time was towards an all-India nationalism centred in Delhi, this movement looked exclusively to Tamil Nad and was based on a separate Dravidianisrn as against Indian nationalism. While the celebrities of the former were Gandhi, Nehru and Rajagopalachari, the latter had Dravidian movement personalities such as EVR, Annathurai and its literary figures such as Bharathidasan as their mentors. The upper class elite would celebrate the birthdays of Gandhi and Nehru very lavishly. Sponsors of this movement and their supporters would celebrate the anniversaries of specifically Tamil worthies - the poets Bharathi and Bharathidasan, Tamil nationalist leader V. O. Chidambaram Pillai, Dravidian movement leader EVR and Tamil labour leader Singaravelanar. These birthday festivals were occasions for propagandist talks drawing attention to the present position of Tamils in Malaya interspersed with cultural items of a revivalist character. They were outspoken in their attacks on the north Indian element in the Indian leadership of Malaya and their dominance over representative and influential positions in Government and non-official bodies. They also attacked the �Aryanised� Tamils who, as they had it, aped the northerners and were a tool in their hands. 

They extended to Malaya the concept of a separate Dravidian nation and questioned the existence of an Indian nationalism. 

Though in practice what they meant by a Dravidian nation was a Tamil nation, the term Dravidian kept open the appeal to the few Malayalees and Telugus and shut out the Tamil Brahm ins whom they looked upon as belonging to the Aryan north.

The emphasis of their propaganda was on the unity of the Tamils in Malaya. They were opposed to the appeal to Indian nationalism to unite the Indians of Malaya for they felt that this was only a cloak for the predominance of north Indian interests over those of the Tamils.

 According to the analysis of their propagandists the Tamil community of Malaya was divisible into three groups - labour (plantation and urban), professional and business (petty traders, textile merchants and bankers, brokers and agents). The first group had strength in numbers, the second had education and leadership ability and the third economic wherewithal.

Each group needed the help of the others if it was to function effectively in this country. The two upper classes could not afford to ignore the labouring class for their political positions and prestige in the country were dependent on the numerical strength and economic functions of this group. The present distressed social and economic condition of Indian labour was a challenge to these two upper level groups. They should therefore use their abilities and wealth for the upliftment of these people and make them a respected group in the country. The appeal was one of Tamil nationalism, similar to what Dravidian groups and even the Tamil Nad Congress were playing upon in South India. The idea was to make social reform a communal responsibility by making backwardness of any part of it a communal stigma. (20)

Their journals also spread propaganda against Brahmanical influences in the religious practices of the Tamils. They did not conduct a frontal attack on Hinduism as did some of their leaders in Madras. But they took up specific issues and attempted to reform these. One such was their campaign against the Deepavali festival and the attempt to get Thai Pongal recognised as the chief Indian festival in Malaya. The secular and cosmopolitan attractions of Deepavali proved too strong and its celebration, fortified by a public holiday, continues to this day as a feature of Indian life. But Pongal was also increasingly popularised among Tamils and the movement certainly contributed to the extension of the Pongal into the Tamilar Vila to symbolise Tamil unity.

Somewhat more successful was their effort to do away with Brahmanical marriage ritual and substitute the simple and highly secularised �reformed marriage�. This was an important aspect of reform undertaken by the Dravida Kalagam and later the Dravida Munnetra Kalagam in Tamil Nad as a means of eradicating Brahmin influence in Tamil society. 

The Indo-Aryan marriage ceremony performed by Brahmins with sacred incantations in Sanskrit had over the ages become popular in all classes of Tamil society. It was one of the factors that gave the Brahmin a special status in society as the person who sanctified marital union.

Under the influence of the Dravidian movement large sections of society began to do away with this ritual. For it was substituted with a simple ceremony presided over by a respected leader of the community before whom the couple exchanged garlands or rings and were pronounced married. From 1947 onwards such marriages became increasingly evident in Malaya. They seem to have been specially popular in the estates where it was difficult and expensive to enact the Brahmanical ceremony. Generally such �reformed marriages� were presided over by leaders of the Dravidian movement in Malaya or by trade unionists and they became occasions of propa�ganda where orations were delivered by many speakers praising such marriages and generally espousing reform along Dravidian lines. 

On one such occasion a young lady of the Tamil Muslim community is reported to have made an impassioned plea for women�s rights and equal status, especially decrying the backwardness of women in her own community and urged them to emancipate themselves.(21) Such marriages were reported in the Dravidian organs and sometimes in the organs of trade unions and usually the couple made a donation to the Dravida Kalagam.

It was natural that, with the growing activity of the Dravidian movement, it should also attract the hostility and opposition of those who violently disagreed with its views. The established leaders of the community would now and then criticise these views in their English periodicals and warn the people against their communal extremism and attempt to divide the Indian community. The Dravidian attack of orthodox religion came under heavy fire from many sides. Some Tamil leaders who sympathised with the Tamil revivalist activities of the movement shied away from their radical views on Hinduism. 

Visit of Ramasami Naicker  in 1954

When EVR visited Malaya in December 1954 the religious leaders of the community seem to have made representations to the Government conveying their anxiety at his known anti-religious views. It is said that an assurance was secured from him on this point by the authorities. But it was impossible to restrain EVR on this matter and loud shouts of protest were raised after every one of this speeches, including a strong statement by the secretary of the Mahamariamman Temple of Kuala Lumpur warning people against disaffection and disunity created by his speeches.(22) This is not to ignore the enthusiasm with which he was greeted by very many others who were in substantial agreement with what he said.

About two years after EVR�s visit to Malaya, officers of the Labour Department reported that, in the estates in Selangor, Dravidianism was a very potent influence among the workers. They attributed the rash of sudden and impulsive strikes in the area to this phenomenon. The leaders were mostly of the younger generation who had imbibed Dravi�dian ideas and been very much alienated from their elders.(23) They were against the estate temple, in keeping with the views of the movement, and opposed the levy of contributions and expenditure towards temple festivals and fetes. The growth of these ideas saw a gradual decline of the role of the temple in the social life of the estate and of the temple panchayat in its activities, or at least of the participation in them of the younger generation.(24) Dravidian propagandists stressed the importance of labour organisations. In the early stage of trade unionism, the unions were mainly communal in character and could go hand in hand with Dravidianism. They were the people active as local union organisers and clashed with the traditional and hierarchical leader�ship offered by the kanganys and subordinate estate staff. They looked for security to the union rather than to the temple and accepted the radical social views of Dravidianism.

Besides the deliberate propaganda indulged in by partisans of the Dravidian movement, there were other indirect avenues for the transmission of these ideas to labour groups. 

The most potent of these was the cinema. From about 1950 there is a change in the tone and content of the Tamil cinema. In Madras the Dravidian movement had set to work among groups connected with the cinema industry. While earlier the Tamil film was centred round the production of Puranic and Epic religious stories or the doings of courts and royalty, now more and more the southern Indian rural and middle class life, with its many emotional and social problems, is portrayed. In the cities of Malaya, up to 1950 a majority of Indian films imported and screened were Hindustani films. With the growing popular appeal of Tamil films, there is a greater clamour for them and importers are beginning to respond to this demand. In many of the larger and more prosperous estates, arrangements were made for showing these Tamil films regularly to labourers. Some of these films were quite openly propagandist for social reform and social justice and their appeal was simple, direct and emotional. There seems no doubt that they had a deep effect on the thinking of young men and women in the plantations.

 The production of plays was a recreational function carried on in many estates by groups of young men and women. It appears that for a long time themes chosen were exclusively religious stories from the Mahabharata or Ramayana or from the Puranas. Now, just as in the cinemas, there is a shift to secular social themes and plays with a message of social reform. These were all avenues for the seepage of radical ideas and supplemented the propaganda of the Dravidian movement.


These political and social changes broadly outlined here follow the pattern of similar changes that have taken place in India and Ceylon in post-war years. As long as the English educated middle class was the only articulate and opinion-forming group in a, community, its political and social activity was centred round wider and more universal loyalties, and divisive factors played down. When other layers of leadership emerge, which do not share this common experience and values of westernisation, there takes place a certain degree of centrifugalism of political and social forces. 

In Ceylon we have seen the polarisation of politics into a Sinhalese and a, Tamil nationalism cutting into whatever common ground there was of a Ceylonese nation. 

In India, the nation is rather dangerously poised on top of a number of separate and sometimes conflicting linguistic nationalisms. 

It is such a development that we have seen in a smaller scale within the Malayan Indian community. The emergence of different layers of leadership alienated from the westernised middle class made it impossible to make Indian nationalism the sole and all-embracing loyalty.

Tamil nationalism which had asserted itself so forcefully in India where Tamils constituted a small minority group must necessarily come more strongly to the fore in a situation where they were an overwhelming majority. The fact that this did not happen sooner is only due to the divisions within the Tamil community and the weakness and apathy of a large part of it. The infusing of Tamil consciousness and the achievement of Tamil unity by emphasising Tamil separateness and identity was the aim of the new category of leaders who arose to challenge those already established. The Editor of an influential Tamil daily, the Tamil Nesan, said on retiring from his position that the policy of his paper during his time had been to secure the unity of the Tamils on the basis of language and culture as the only means for the unity of the Indian community in Malaya. (25) Towards this a number of factors, both as organised groups and as unseen and indirect forces, helped. Once a reasonable degree of Tamil unity was achieved, it was obvious that the politics of the Malayan Indian community had to become �Tamilised�. Appropriate changes soon followed in all representative organs of the Indian community.


(1) Figures for 1921 and 1931 include Straits Settlements, Federated Malay States and Unfederated Malay States, including Brunei. Figures for 1947 are for Federation of Malaya and Colony of Singapore.
(2) Quoted in C.Gamba: Origins of Trade Unionism in Malaya (Singapore 1962) p. 12.
(3) For example, untouchables were admitted to the opening of the Mariamman Temple in Penang (see Annual Report of Labour Department 1935, p. 49).
(4) Reprint of Report on the Conditions of India, Labour  by V. S. Srinivasa Sastri (Kuala Lumpur 1937).
(5) Indian Daily Mail 10th June, 1947.
(6) Indian Daily Mail, 29th September, 1947.
(7) Indian Daily Mail 29th March, 1949.
(8) Report of the Labour Department, 1948 (R.G.O. Houhton.
(9) Indian Daily Mail 10th June, 1947.
(10) Indian Daily Mail 9th July, 1947. 
(11) Indian Daily Mail 14th June, 1948.
(12) lndian Daily Mail 21st August, 1949.
(13) Indian Daily Mail 7th January, 1952.
(14) Indian Daily Mail 10th June, 1947.
(15) Straits Times 12th May, 1949, 10th June, 1949, 14th March, 1950.
(16) Straits Times 20th July 1949.
(17) Straits Times 9th April 1950.
(18) Straits Times 29th December, 1950.
(19) Ina Mani (Tamil) 14th August, 1948.
(20) These and subsequent points are based on the issues of Ina Mani and Dravida Murasu; a very clear expression of these views is seen in an article �The state of Dravidians in Malaya� by Musisu in Dravida Murasu 1st March, 1948.
(21) Ina Mani 10th April, 1948.
(22) Thamil Nesan 28th December, 1954. Also see letters to the Editor in issues of 22nd December to 30th December, 1954.
(23) Monthly Report of Labour Department, June 1956, p. 13.
(24) Gamba, op.cit., pp. 282-4, 307-9.
(25) Thamil Nesan 16th December, 1954.



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