Jane Russell, 13 September 2012
This lengthy comment was inserted by Jane Russell in response to Nalliah Thayabharan’s lengthy diatribe against the oppressions of the caste system in the Jaffna Peninsula in the mid-20th century. I believe Russell’s little essay deserves greater prominence and used my prerogative to present it as an article in its own right in thuppahi. Clarification of the background is provided at the end of this post. Web Editor.
There are elements of fascism in every society — the class system in the UK, although ameliorated by a welfare state, still bears a strong resemblance to the brutal Victorian class structure which condemned millions to poverty, misery and death 150 years ago: the underclass in the USA today live in conditions akin to outcastes in Asian societies: in Africa, south and central America, China and Russia, there are millions of victims of proto-fascist social structures –everywhere human beings are divided, either by class or race or religion, and this enables one powerful group to abuse less powerful groups and to justify this abuse on the grounds that members of other groups are less human and deserving. If you want to find an example of modern social fascism, look no further than the gun lobby in the US… but there are so many examples..…..the treatment of homosexuals in certain African states, the mistreatment of Shia by Sunnis in Bahrain, the systematic murder of tribal peoples in central America……… the list is endless and endlessly enduring.
Jaffna in the 1970′s condoned old women from certain castes to go around in public without a jacket. I was amazed and ashamed for my fellow humans when I first saw such a woman on a bus in Jaffna ….just as I realised that certain castes were not permitted by custom to take a seat in the bus but had to sit on the floor. The first time I cycled through the deserted area at the top of the peninsula where a village of the outcastes was situated and realised that they would never appear inside any constituency boundary and that the children had no school to go to nor bus route to take them out of their ignorance, I did not know whether to laugh in triumph that I had discovered them (I was assured by many Jaffnese that outcastes were a thing of the past) or grit my teeth against the overwhelming feeling of shame that they really did exist.
The Sinhalese are fond of gloating about their less brutal caste system but look at the youth insurrections they have fostered in the past 40 years and the means they have used to put them down…severed heads placed so carefully around the lotus pond in Peradeniya University; young mens’ bodies squashed under road- rollers – treatment justified on the grounds of serving as an ‘example’ to frighten others. Is this the result of 2500 years of Buddhist civilisation? The British are pompously proud of the Elizabethan Age which produced Shakespeare but that same age saw the decimation of the Catholic population of Britain and justified the later, virtual extermination of the Catholic population of Ireland.
The bitterness that arises in the victims of social and political fascism is understandable, but violence as the response to such violations can never be the answer — something Gandhi profoundly understood and practised. He saw how the cycle of violence can only be ended by passive resistance. Note how the Israeli state treats its Palestinians neighbours –in the same brutalising fashion as the Jews were treated by the Nazis. It is similar to the way an abused child grows up to abuse its own child in turn. Is there any educated child on this planet who has not heard of Gandhi and his ideas – yet how many people know the name of his assassin or his motivation?
Peaceful resistance, the insistence on reform over time, is a slow painful process, but it is the only sure way of arriving at a more socially evolved plane. It requires that everyone loses in the present but that society as a whole gains in the future. Patience to play the long game is the key. Immediate gratification is the enemy….. that burst of delight at having inflicted revenge is inevitably followed by further misery as the act of revenge is avenged. The deep Christian and Hindu faith of the leaders of the Jaffna Youth Congress (their Gandhian ideals) sustained them through their years in the political wilderness and the knowledge of an unremarked passing: Handy Perinpanayagam was serene in his old age despite his life appearing to be a failure. He knew he had acted correctly (in the Buddhist sense of “right action”) and that time would bear this out.
Today the whole of mankind faces this dilemma in regard to saving the planet’s present eco-system – a system which has been so hospitable to the evolution of our species – from man-made destruction: either we start curbing our myopic greed and ruthlessness or this Earthy homeland will reject homo sapiens as a healthy body rejects a virus. It is apt that the Gaia thesis is named after a Hindu Goddess…Gandhi would have nodded in approval. A man who lived on lentils, rice and fruit, regularly fasted one day a week and also practised non-speaking every Wednesday is the best antidote role-model for today’s consumerist and media-obsessed excesses. “Homo Sapiens” means the “Wise Man” — but how few in our species achieve that human wisdom? Gandhi did and his followers in Jaffna in the JYC in the 30′s and 40′s also achieved that: they lived out the remainder of their lives in obscure semi-poverty, teaching, reflecting, being wise.
I wrote a poem in a small pamphlet called Ganga published in Colombo in 1978: it was aimed at the boasting men of violence everywhere –the Warriors of Terror whom in the guise of Freedom Fighters were inflicting further violence on already violated communities:
To Aloysius-Ludovico (The Terrorist)
I am tired of hearing you sing
the anthems of Freedom and War…
How joyously you crack the whip
and bellow out the tune above the drums!
But the faces of my friends haunt me
in the mornings when I see Death’s Armada
With its pirate’s flag of torture trailing….
what does it matter, your Freedom?
They are dying, my friends and their children…
Nalliah Thayabharan, thank you for reminding me of this poem written in despair in Colombo 30+ years ago. A whole generation has grown up since then, but the same (better) poem is probably being written today in Syria by some unknown idealist…..as the song goes “When will we ever learn?”
Web Editor’s Memo: Jane Russell pursued postgrad studies in the Dept. of History at the University of Peradeniya in the 1970s under the supervision of KM de Silva when I was teaching there. This eventually led to her book Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution (Colombo, 1982). She spent a considerable amount of time in the Jaffna Peninsula in researching this work and it is this experience that is central to her present essay. Some of the information that she conveyed to me was influential in leading me to a pessimistic evaluation of the political scene. It also encouraged some of the organisers of the Ceylon Studies Seminar to organise a seminar on “The Sinhala Tamil Problem” in Colombo in October 1973 (in the teeth of opposition form colleagues at Peradeniya who affirmed that there was no such issue).
Russell’s present intervention arises from the article on “Handy Perinpanayagam and the Jaffna Youth Congress” by Rajan Philips taken from the Sunday Island of 27 February 2012 and presented in thuppahi. Since Russell had several discourses with Handy Perinpanayagam in the 1970s, she participated in the blog discussion that followed (in what was to me a welcome emergence from hibernation vis a vis Sri Lankan affairs).
This discussion also attracted comments from Robert Siddharthan Perinpanayagam, Handy’s son and a sociologist with considerable expertise in the field of Tamil culture and society derived from both ethnographic study and nourishment therein. This series of comments ceased.
But, suddenly, out of the blue Thayabaran has recently inserted a passionate criticism of the Vellalar hegemony and the murderous regime instituted by Velupillai Pirapāharan (Karaiyar) as part of his general castigation of the “Jaffna Tamil leadership” for what they have done to the Tamil peoples of Sri Lanka. While this ‘incursion’ is not directly related to the content of the article by Phillips, it would seem that Thayabaran had a weight to get off his chest. It has also induced Jane Russell to pen thoughts that the world should hear.
Also see http://thuppahis.com/2011/04/22/“murali-is-not-a-tamil”-says-a-tamil-doctor-during-a-world-cup-encounter/ and, perhaps more vitally. Michael Roberts, “Caste in Modern Ceylon Politics,” 23 February 2010, in http://thuppahis.com/2010/02/23/caste-in-modern-sri-lankan-politics/