Modern Indian History-Events and Personalities

An under-discussed facet of colonial history


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Kangani System

Mains level : Decolonization

Central idea

The article explores the historical exploitation of indentured labor, particularly focusing on the plight of Plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka. Shashi Tharoor emphasizes the challenges, discrimination, and struggles faced by this community, calling for a post-colonial, inclusive identity and highlighting the importance of decolonization in shaping a more equitable future for nations with colonial histories.

What is indentured labour?

  • Definition: Indentured labor is a historical practice where individuals, often from impoverished backgrounds, enter a contract (indenture) with an employer.
  • Terms: In exchange for their service, laborers receive passage, accommodation, and sometimes wages, binding them to work for a specified number of years (typically 4 to 7).
  • Purpose: Common during the 17th to 20th centuries, indentured labor served as a substitute for slavery, especially in regions where slavery had been abolished.

Key Highlights:

  • Bicentenary Commemoration: The article discusses the recent commemoration of the bicentenary of Tamil indentured laborers’ arrival in Sri Lanka, emphasizing the historical significance of this event.
  • Impact of British Empire: Shashi Tharoor highlights the detrimental impact of the British Empire’s policies, including the exploitation of colonies, draining of resources, and the introduction of indentured labor as a form of bonded servitude.
  • Plight of Plantation Tamils: The article sheds light on the challenges faced by Plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka, detailing their exploitation, discrimination, and struggles for basic rights, identity, and integration.
  • Identity and Integration: Despite adversities, Plantation Tamils forged an identity rooted in Tamil traditions and values. The article acknowledges their journey towards integration and efforts to reclaim their heritage as equal citizens of Sri Lanka.

Challenges faced by these labors :

  • Indentured Labor Exploitation: The article highlights the exploitative nature of indentured labor, depicting the harsh conditions, misinformation, and economic hardships faced by laborers brought to distant lands.
  • Discrimination and Statelessness: Plantation Tamils faced discrimination by colonial practices, being labeled “foreigners” and rendered stateless. Discriminatory laws, like the Citizenship Act of 1948, further marginalized them.
  • Kangani System: The detrimental role of the sub-contractor system, known as kanganies, is discussed, emphasizing the abuse of power and exploitation faced by Indian laborers even after the indenture period.
Highly important term from prelims perspective


Kangani System:


Role: Kangani was like a boss who hired and supervised workers.

Function: Managed laborers on plantations, overseeing their work.

Abuse of Power: Kangani could be unfair, exploiting workers and causing them to be in debt.

After Work Ended: Unlike other workers, Plantation Tamils had no escape from the kangani system even after their work time was over.

Restrictions: Workers couldn’t ask to go home or buy land because of unclear contracts with the kangani.

Key Phrases:

  • Licensed Looting: Describes the initial phase of the British imperial project as a form of licensed looting in service of crude capitalism.
  • Indentured Labour: Refers to the replacement of slavery with bonded servitude, termed “indentured labor,” as a consequence of the abolition of slavery.
  • New Kind of Slavery: Hugh Tinker’s characterization of indentured labor, highlighting its exploitative and degrading nature.
  • Decolonization: Stresses the importance of post-colonial countries breaking free from oppressive practices and attitudes inherited from their imperial rulers.

Analysis: Tharoor critically analyzes the historical exploitation by the British Empire, juxtaposing the wave of liberal humanism in Europe with the continued oppression in the colonies. He underscores the challenges faced by Plantation Tamils, portraying their struggle for identity and integration as a valorous subaltern endeavor.

Key Data/Facts:

  • Bicentenary: Marks the 200th anniversary of Tamil indentured laborers’ arrival in Sri Lanka in November 1823.
  • Citizenship Act of 1948: The legislation rendered Plantation Tamils stateless, hindering their assimilation into Sri Lankan society.
  • Economic Shift to Tea: The shift from coffee to tea plantations in Sri Lanka resulted in a massive transfer of Indian Tamils due to increased demand for labor.

Way Forward:

  • Decolonization: Tharoor emphasizes the need for post-colonial countries like Sri Lanka to actively decolonize themselves from oppressive practices inherited from imperial rulers.
  • Inclusive Identity: The article suggests that forging an inclusive, post-colonial identity for all people in Sri Lanka should be central to the nation-building process.
  • Land Ownership: The government’s potential plan to divide plantations, making workers owners of the land they work on, is seen as a positive step, representing a potential way forward.

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