Engaging Issues of Caste in India and Sri Lanka

Devanesan Nesiah, courtesy of The Island, 19 May 2014

Caste is observed by the overwhelming majority of Sinhalese and Tamils but the subject remains virtually taboo in public discussions. If it is mentioned in public, it is often either to hurl abuse or to negotiate a marriage. The latter is because for many of us caste is the most important factor in marriage. The former is because caste is yet widely accepted as a measure of social status; the latter because for many caste is the most important factor in marriage, even more important than character. I am not suggesting that the individuals should be identified by caste but I do think that the subject should be freely discussed as is done in India, although caste oppression there is much more severe than in Sri Lanka.

Representatives of every identified caste (and tribe) participated in the framing of the Indian Constitution and detailed provisions were made for reservations for untouchable castes and tribals in recruitment to the Public services and in elections to political institutions, notably in the National Assemblies at the Union and State levels. All this was steered through by the chair and in elections to political institutions, notably represetnatives that the individual Chair of the drafting committee appointed by the ruling Indian National Congress, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the leader of the Dalits (Untouchables). In due course, reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) were also provided for. To limit the multiplication of reservations, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the total of all reservations should be less than 50%. The current position is 15% for Dalits, 7 ½ % for Tribals (Scheduled Tribes) and 27% for OBCs, adding up to 49 ½ % reservations.

Indian Hindus can cite their scriptures, especially the Manu Smrithi (Laws of Manu) codified two millennia ago to legitimate caste and gender oppression. We in Sri Lanka have absolutely no Scriptural justifications to observe caste. There is no caste in Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. Even Hindus in Sri Lanka, whatever their ancestry, have lost their high caste status by moving outside the boundaries specified in the Manu Smrithi. These boundaries are virtually those of India. In practice, losing caste on account of travel outside India is virtually defunct. When Gandhi went to England for his Barrister’s course in the 19th Century and returned to India, he had to go through an elaborate religious ritual to regain his caste status as a Vaisya. But when he went out again in the 20th Century he had lost his belief in the caste system and opted against observing that ritual.

Today, with frequent international travel undertaken by those of high caste resident in India, and with very large numbers of high caste Hindus permanently resident outside India, that practice has been virtually abandoned; so too several other sections of Manu Smrithi, but the scripture as a whole has not been formally repudiated by the orthodox Hindu leaders. It remains available for selective / opportunistic citation and observance.

Scriptural justification apart, a fundamental difference between the caste structures in India and Sri Lanka is the contrast in numerical proportions. In India the three high caste categories (Brahmin, Kshathriya and Vaisya) together total 17.6% of the entire Indian population, the Dalits constitute 15.8% and the Scheduled Tribes 7.8 percent (1981 Census). Pre independence, the political leadership of India was exclusively high caste, primarily Brahmin and Kshathriya. But India achieved universal adult franchise roughly about the same time as Sri Lanka (1931). Thus, despite the continuing deep seated caste prejudice, Brahmin-Kshathriya political dominance was not viable. In recent decades India has had Muslim and Dalit Presidents. It appears that the next Prime Minister may be a Shudra. In contrast in Sri Lanka both among the Sinhalese and Tamils, those who claim to be high caste (Govigama among the Sinhalese and Vellala among the Tamils) are also the most numerous. Both among the Sinhalese and the Tamils Govigama and Vellala elected political dominance has continued and remains difficult to dislodge. The one exception is, as many claim to be, the exception that proves the rule. He was from a caste that was so insignificant as to be dependent on Govigama backing and non-threatening to Govigama domination.

Soon after I assumed duties as Government Agent and District Secretary of Jaffna in 1981, I was met by a delegation from the most depressed of castes in Jaffna (Valluvar, also referred to as Parayah). The head of the delegation was a school teacher who was and remains a family friend through successive generations. The delegation claimed that 30% of the population of Jaffna is of “untouchable” castes, but there proportion in the public service is negligible on account of discrimination in admissions to good schools and in recruitment to the public services. Even if future recruitments is unbiased, progress may be painfully slow. They wanted quotas in recruitment to the public services.

I informed them that while I agree with the facts as set off by them the remedy they wanted was outside my authority. Moreover, the remedy would carry serious ill-effects. First, a district-wide caste census would be required to establish the appropriate caste proportions. This will involve the caste identification of every person in Jaffna and the issuance of caste specified ID cards. Second, every advertisement to recruitment to the public services would need to specify the caste composition of the recruitment. Third, every applicant would need to reveal his or her caste identity backed by the caste specific ID card. Fourth, every personal file in every office would need to specify the caste identity of the person concerned. All this would reinforce caste consciousness and also generate a backlash from non-beneficiaries of the quotas. For the untouchables the net impact may be negative.

I suggested an alternative – a succession of socio-economic development projects targeted to benefit those from specified “untouchable” castes. I secured the approval of the District minister and the Chairman DDC for such a course. Socio-economic upward mobility will gradually undermine caste prejudice and disabilities. The caste group targeted in the first year would be the Valluvars, and the projects selected for them was silk weaving in a village populated exclusively by those of that caste. I secured the cooperation and funding from the Chairman of the Export Development Secretariat, Mr. Santhiapillai, to get down a silk weaving expert from India. He explored Jaffna and selected village of Madduvil on grounds of both caste and weaving expertise. Since Jaffna’s climate is unsuitable for mulberry plantations, arrangements were made to get down silk yarn from the South. This arrangement had the further advantage of involving North-South cooperation. The project was an instant success. At the wedding of my cousin Prof. Jeevan Hoole soon afterwards, he and many of the guests were dressed exclusively in high quality Madduvil silk. Unfortunately the interruption of yarn supply on account of the 1983 pogrom terminated the project. It needs to be re-established.

The ‘untouchable’ caste group selected for the project following year were tree climbers and the project was a Palmyra arrack distillery of substantial size located in Thikkam. Since there was no other distillery of that kind anywhere, I secured the help of my cousin, Wim Gunasegaram (a mechanical engineer) and a few coconut arrack distillers from the South. All this was offered free of charge. Again, there was good North-South cooperation. Earlier, during the height of the Palmyra toddy season prices dropped very low, undermining the income of the tappers. The new distillery at the village of Thikkam worked overtime during that season and helped to sustain toddy prices and income levels. The quality of the output was adequate for the local market, and the arrack sold out quickly. I made an attempt over a decade later to secure the help of a major liquor firm to both upgrade the arrack to gain an international market and also to produce an array of other products (various liquors) but I did not receive the co-operation of senior officials. This project too needs to be upgraded to internationally accepted levels.

The third year’s project, to be located in Vathiry near Point Pedro, was to benefit another major ‘untouchable’ group, leather workers. Again Mr. Santhiapillai, Chairman Export Development Corporation initiated arrangements, the plan was to get down a leather expert from Italy to train local leather workers to turn out a range of footwear and other leather products of international quality for the local market as well for export. Unfortunately, the 1983 pogrom intervened and the project had to be abandoned. Since Vathiry has very many leather workers and a very long tradition in this field this project has much promise and needs to be revived. I had several other projects in mind, some of them caste related and the others related to the local expertise and comparative advantage that Jaffna enjoyed (e.g. the cultivation, marketing and processing of fruits) but I am no longer in a position to help beyond making some suggestions.

Before I conclude I will digress to refer to the well-established similarity between race and caste prejudice and the respective codes, by quoting from my book, Discrimination With Reason?, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp 18 & 19.

The system that replaced slavery had the essential features of a caste system, including something close to the concept of “untouchability”. Many occupations were assigned to one ethnic group or the other. Members of the ‘lower’ ethnic group were excluded from college education. There was enforced segregation in public and private life, with some provisions for members of the ‘inferior’ ethnic group to function as domestic servants in the households of the other. Punishment for breach of the rules governing segregation was asymmetric with respect to the two groups.

Miscegenation was a serious offence for which punishment was asymmetric in respect of both race and gender. There was some laxity in respect of sexual relationship between ‘high caste’ (White) men with ‘low caste’ (Black) women. In contrast, sexual relationships between ‘high caste’ (White) women and ‘low caste’ (Black) men often resulted in the lynching of the latter and some kind of ‘excommunication’ of the former. Even the slightest proportion of ‘inferior’ group blood was sufficiently contaminating for that person to be relegated to the ‘inferior’ category.

‘Nigger’ was a widely used term of abuse, comparable to the use of the term ‘pariah’, the name of a ‘Dalit’ caste in Tamil Nadu. If a White person was likened to a Black, legal consequences could follow. Calling a White person a Negro was an actionable defamation in the South; placing a White person in a negro railroad car was an actionable ‘humiliation’ (Black 1960; 426-7; Magnum 1940) in law and in practice the two groups were separate and thoroughly unequal’.

Finally, I never had illusions that any or all of the projects that I had in mind would significantly undermine the caste system in the near future. The system had developed over the millennia and had been sustained by Hindu scriptures and traditions. It has also deeply penetrated in to the Buddhist and Christian traditions in Sri Lanka. For example, the clergy of the two premier Buddhist chapters are exclusively Govigama and, in the absence of vigorous protests from among the Buddhist clergy and laity, this situation seems likely to continue. The top political Sinhalese/Tamil leadership is also predominantly, and seemingly durably, Govigama/ Vellala. Even among the Christians, caste has been and perhaps continues to be a significant factor even in the election and appointment of Bishops. What caste subversive socioeconomic development projects can do is to decrease the correlation between caste and economic status. It has been well established that upward socio-economic mobility over a long period can raise caste/race status and eventually weaken caste/race hierarchy. My objective was more to help to change attitudes leading to long term impact on caste oppression than to seek to close disparities in the short run.



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One response to “Engaging Issues of Caste in India and Sri Lanka

  1. chandre DW

    Mr. Nesiah’s discussion of “engaging” on caste issues begins with the opening remark:
    Caste is observed by the overwhelming majority of Sinhalese and Tamils but the subject remains virtually taboo in public discussions. If it is mentioned in public, it is often either to hurl abuse or to negotiate a marriages “ . This is absolutely correct and especially so for communal politics since the time of Arunachalam Ponnambalam and Ponnambalam Ramanathan.

    Here there is a stark contrast with the south.

    What is often not realized is that the same click of Colombo-based lawyer-Landed aristocracy, and their descendents, have ruled the Tamil-speaking community since the 19th century. The 2013 election of Wigneswaran, Sampanthan, Sumanthiran and others to the NPC is merely a continuation of the same “unchanged leadership”. Unfortunately, this has not been realized by Western observers (see for instance, the observations of the top diplomats in the Canadian Foreign ministry, that I have examined in:
    They have regarded the return of the TNA as a “historic reaffirmation” of Tamil political will. How far is this “will” guided from above, and what is the role of caste hegemony in deciding Tamil politics?
    These questions are not included in Nesiah’s contribution. Many political writers supporting Tamil or Sinhala nationalism discuss the issue ideologically but ignore caste structure. The Marxist intellectuals (and there are many in our chattering classes) prefer to discuss Antonio Gramasci or Louis Althusser and other irrelevant writers, without facing ground realities. This is perhaps partly because there are virtually no “low-caste tamil” intellectuals who would have felt the bite of casteism in their own experience. They see no reason to look inside their own ethnic communities.

    This is in contrast to the writings of Indian Marxist intellectuals who have often identified the caste issue as fundamental to the “National question”. We can go to Namboodripad’s study of the Kerala question that I think predated Kosambi’s Marxist analysis of Indian History.

    In recent times, only Sebastian Rasalingam has raised a strident voice, stating that the Tamil push to separatism is merely an attempt to maintain hegemony over land and labour that the Colombo landed aristocracy had always had (and threatened forever since universal franchise). Land-based separatism is the escape route of the landed aristocracy from the consequences of Universal franchise in unitary Lanka.

    I have attempted to gather at least some of Rasalingam’s scattered writing in one place, viz., http://dh-web.org/place.names/rasalingam/
    Rasalingam’s thesis may be a great simplification of issues – but its significance was set out more clearly (prior to Rasalingam’s writings) in Dr. Jane Russell’s book on Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constittution 1931-1947. It is clear that the post-1948 Communal politics is a simple continuation of the previous politics, but interrupted by the adroit but unsustainable politics of D. S. Senanayake who tried to foster the “Ceylonese identity” within an artificial anglophone and anglophile Ceylon.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Nesiah has not ventured into a discussion of the political role of the hierarchic system in tamil society, and its role in the ease of ascendency of a figure like Prabhakaran in demanding unquestioning obedience, as is required from the lower castes, and from women. Furthermore, we should not forget that during the Eelam wars, when “low-caste” villagers who were affected by army-LTTE cross-fire ran into “upper-caste” Tamil villages for refuge, they were brutally turned away (such issues have been studied by Fransesca Bremner in Recasting Caste: War, Displacement and Transformations Francesca Bremner, international Journal of Ethnic & Social Studies , Vol. II, No. 1, June 2013)

    The “inverted pyramid” of the caste system in Sinhalese and Tamil society has been mentioned by many writers. Its contrast with Dravidian society can be simply explained if we begin with the hypothesis that the North of Sri Lanka was populated by a Sinhala-speaking, largely Buddhist agrarian society, (with small Dravidian communities as well). When the North became fully Tamilized (e.g., during Sankili’s times when he ejected many Japananaya/Yalpanam Sinhalese into the Vanni), the govias simply became kovias etc, and the caste-structure of Sinhala agrarian society remained intact, in Tamil garb. This seems to be also the case with the many place names in the North which are most easily understood to be tamilized versions of Sinhala place names. This is a thesis already advocated by Fr. Rasanayagam, Velu Pillai, Horsburg, Indrapala and others. I have made a more full compendium of such studies at

    These place names also show the vital role of caste in the village social organization. So, if IDPs were “resettled” in their “old homes”, you would be re-creating old-style caste-segregated Tamil societies that we need to get away from. So, land nationalization followed by re-settlement on a non-caste basis is a possible “top-directed” approach to democratizing the North. But the TNA is against any such reforms.

    In practice, any forced “social engineering” will bring untold pain to poor people, and the approach advocated by Mr. Nesiah, using education, trade, (as well as infra-structure development designed to intermingle people), music, drama and games (cricket !) are the best options.

    Chandre Dharmawardana

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