Debating Tales of Caste Oppression in the North

Michael Roberts

Sebastian Rasalingam and Thomas Johnpulle have been frequent essayists on Sri Lankan and Tamil politics. They seem to be elder statesman of sorts, apparently residing in Canada. The name “Johnpulle” could be Colombo Chetty or Sri Lankan Tamil. While the article by Rasalingam which drew my attention suggested an Indian Tamil background in one spot, elsewhere it seemed that his family had been at the severe end of caste discrimination in the Jaffna heartland. After some detective work Chandre Dharmawardana in Canada has clarified matters on this latter score in his site

“Mr. Sebastian Rasalingam has declined our attempts to meet with him. He has communicated with us by e-mail and sometimes sent us his articles (that we had missed) by e-mail. He has stated that Prof. Hoole, and many other distinguished Tamil academics have also communicated with him, and that he is in no position to meet with anyone, especially because of his advanced age.
It is believed that he lives with his children who have immigrated to Ontario, Canada. Based on his writings, we surmise that, unlike most Tamil-speaking writers, he is an educated, vocal “low-caste” Tamil. He seems to have grown up in the Donoughmore era (1930s), lived in Jaffna, Mannar and Hatton. We discern his wife to be an “Indian Tamil” from Hatton. Their arrival in Colombo is said to have opened him the possibility of further self-education in night schools etc., unhindered by the caste restrictions and threats that he had faced in previous locations.”

The claims presented by Rasalingam about the discrimination encountered on trains taking Indian Tamil peoples to India via the Mannar rail route struck me as questionable and I decided to draw on Victor Melder’s long and loving experience with the Ceylon Government Railway[1] to test one facet of Rasalingam’s tale. Likewise my initial readings of both articles suggested a measure of stridency and overkill in their assertions.

For the latter reason alone I felt that I should draw on other knowledgeable evaluations, especially from Tamils nourished up north in the Jaffna Peninsula. I also thought it would be neat to stir the pot for the benefit of THUPPAHI. I sent an invitation seeking COMMENTS to

  • Twenty (20) Sri Lankan Tamil acquaintances
  • Three (03) Tamils from an Indian background with familiarity with Sri Lankan affairs
  • One (01) Plantation Tamil scholar
  • One (01) Tamil-speaking American scholar
  • Two (02) Sinhalese with experience in Tamil areas
  • A British scholar Jane Russell who had ethnographic experience of Jaffna society in 1973.

The invitation was sent in mid-April 2015 and couched in a provocative way. I am afraid it did NOT incite many responses, though PK Balachandran provided a set of comments immediately.[2] Now that Jane Russell has sent an article detailing her experiences in the Jaffna Peninsula while yet encompassing thoughts on subsequent developments, it is feasible for me to set the ball rolling…. Though I consider it disappointing that apart from a quick note from a young Tamil friend, all the northern Tamils have maintained a resounding silence.

II. My Invitation entitled “CHALLENGING ISSUES


Please study these articles by two Tamil speakers. Highly controversial –including facets I do not have much information about and some claims that seem dubious amidst other contentions seemingly acceptable.

I would appreciate it if you pen a Memo reviewing the articles, or parts thereof, for the benefit of the public.


III. A Note from Victor Melder, 22 April 2015, re Specific Claims by Rasanayagam on the Oppression of Indian Tamils by Northern Tamil people on the rail route[3]

Thanks, I believe this is anecdotal information gone corrupt!!

There was no need for anyone travelling from Ceylon to India to go as far as Vavuniya, leave alone the Vanni. The train to Talaimannar Pier, where the ferry left for India every other day, branches off at Medawachchiya and proceeds to Talaimannar Pier, passing stations such as Madhu Road and Mannar.

The day train from upcountry to Polgahawela and then the connecting train to Talaimannar Pier had a reserved carriage for those estate folk travelling/returning to India. Once Independence was received and the government began repatriating stateless persons back to India in numbers, two carriages were reserved for these people.

As a youngster at Nawalapitiya I saw many shed copious tears before entraining, as they did not want to return to India.

Trust this is useful. Blessings


IV. P.K. Balachandran on Rasanayagam’s article, April 2015

Rasanayagam’s article is very informative. The plight of the Indian Origin Tamil estate workers’ journey through the Northern Province shows the fascist face of the northern Tamil upper castes.

While it is a good idea to mix the population in the villages, it may not be a practicable proposition now as Jaffna Tamil society is still very very conservative.

Unfortunately, Sri Lankan Tamil society did not have the rationalist movement started by Periyar E.V.Ramaswamy Naicker in Tamil Nadu. Although this movement did not go beyond anti-Brahminism, it did sow the seeds of anti-caste feelings at least to an extent. At least, Brahmin hegemony was destroyed.

However, sadly, due to competitive politics, Tamil Nadu is now back to casteism. Caste sentiments have become stronger and stronger with each passing year because of the need to establish social, political and economic identities so that these could be exploited to attain modern, secular, and rational goals. Caste has been woven into the fabric of modern society in Tamil Nadu. No wonder then, political parties take the cue from this and pander to caste sentiments.

Conversion to Christianity has brought no change in the social conditions whether in Sri Lanka or India. Christian societies are as casteist as the surrounding Hindu society.

Tamil Diasporas, whether from Tamil Nadu or North Sri Lanka, are strongly casteist. Marriage with a White is seen in a favorable light but not marriage with a fellow Tamil of a lower caste.

Rasanayagam hopes that the Indian Origin Tamils from the plantation areas will show the way out of the present oppressive set up. But the Indian origin Tamils of Sri Lanka are as socially conservative as the Sri Lankan Tamils. Economic progress has given them a higher standard of living and an education. But socio-culturally they are still in the 1930s.

V. P.K. Balachandran on Johnpulle’s article, April 2015

Although there are some inaccuracies in John Pulle’s article, I agree that caste interests may have played a significant role in the rise of the Tamil separatist and militant movement.

His thesis about Colombo’s anti-caste discrimination legislation triggering anti Sri Lankan agitations in the Tamil areas is very interesting but will have to be empirically tested. I am not sure about this aspect, though there is every likelihood that Johnpulle is right given the legendary manipulative skills of the Jaffna Tamil Vellala community.

I do agree with the view that the EPDP (and also the EPRLF) did not get political legitimacy because it was associated with the non-Vellala castes. The EPDP’s chief, Douglas Devananda, is not a Vellala but a Koviar (said to be Govis from the Sinhalese area admitted to Tamil society but placed below the Vellalars).

Significantly, in recent times, it is the EPDP which has been taking the fishermen’s issue, and not the TNA, which is dominated by the ITAK, a Vellalar outfit. It is only recently that the TNA started talking about the fishermen’ problems vis-a-vis Indian intruders.

It is also said that Varadarajaperumal, the EPRF leader and former CM of the amalgamated North Eastern Province, was unacceptable to the Vellalars because he was believed to be an Indian origin person, perhaps of a lower caste too.

When the TULF was controlling Jaffna Municipality, the leftist minded TULF chief V.Anandasangaree had nominated a man of sweeper caste as the Mayoral candidate. The Vellalars, both in the LTTE and outside, vehemently opposed it. The LTTE even threatened that a “river of blood” will flow in Jaffna if this man was appointed.

The case of Karuna is well known. Of  Mukkuvar caste, he was not given his due in the LTTE partly because of his caste. It is said that Pottu Amman was against him partly because Pottu Amman alias Sivasankaran, was a Vellala.

Prabhakaran was a Karayar (a fisherman) but he largely went along with the values of Sri Lankan Tamil society regarding caste, though some of his trusted people were from the lower castes — for example, S.P.Tamilselvan, who was of the barber caste.

The Tamil struggle against standardization was the result of clever manipulation by the dominant Jaffna Vellalars. The latter had misinterpreted standardization as an anti-Tamil move while in fact it was not. It was against the dominance of certain districts like Colombo and Jaffna which had a lion’s share of seats in the institutions of higher learning.

I have heard it said that the Vellalar leaders of the Tamils in the North welcomed Indian origin Tamils from the upcountry to take shelter in the North following the anti-Tamil riots, because they wanted to use them as a protective barrier against a possible Sinhalese military inroad into the North. It is said that these refugees were settled in the Northern Province’s border areas with a view to using them as the first line defense.

However, if despite caste discrimination and prejudices, the Tamils united against the Sinhala dominated state it was because the Sinhalese state typically did not see Tamil society as a differentiated society but as an undifferentiated one. All Tamils were lumped together. Even the distinction between the North Eastern Tamils and the up country Tamils of Indian origin was not recognized. With the Sinhala state and polity lumping them together and treating all of them badly, the Tamils began to see themselves as “Tamils” a unified entity vis-a-vis the Sinhala dominated state.

As for inaccuracies in John Pulle’s article:

  1. The TNA is a conglomerate. The ITAK is only a constituent, albeit the dominant one.
  2. The term “Arasu” in Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi means “Rule” and not Kingdom.
  3. The demand for 50:50 representation for the Sinhalese and the Minorities was G.G.Ponnambalam’s idea and not Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s if my information is correct. However, it remains to be seen if, actually, it was Arunachalam who had articulated the demand first. END


[1] Victor Melder’s first love is railways … and so too his third and fourth loves (the second being his wife!). After migrating to Melbourne Victor Melder expressed his devotion to this trade by running a journal named The Rhythm of the Wheels. He has another overarching love: Ceylon alias Sri Lanka.

[2] P.K.Balachandran is an Indian journalist who has been in Sri Lanka since 1997, first as correspondent of the New Delhi-based The Hindustan Times and then as correspondent of the Chennai-based The New Indian Express. After obtaining a Masters in Sociology from Delhi University, Balachandran has worked in a number of Indian newspapers and has contributed to The Economist,The Guardian and The Observer News Service of the UK.

[3] Victor: Given your railway experience I wonder if you have heard this sort of story before? … Michael = “I explained to my grand daughters, born in Canada, that their grandmother’s elders came from India to work in Ceylon, and also returned to India with their savings, walking through the snake-infested, malarial forests of the Vanni. They could not even comprehend it. “Why wouldn’t they take the train, or something like the Greyhound bus”? Till almost the end of the 1940s, many estate workers did not dare to take the train, even if they had the money. If they managed to procure a ticket, they would only stay in the train till about Vavuniya or before. Once the train enters the “Tamil areas”, they knew that they could be beaten and thrown out of the moving train, with truly tragic results. Even in walking through the Vanni, they had to follow designated paths, avoiding high-caste villages, camp for the night and take water only from designated locations. Such locations could be suddenly torched and “cleansed” by zealous upper-caste Tamils who may even be Christians. Or, the walkers may have to do some work for a Periya-dorei, free of charge, to secure right of passage. Even in more recent times, low-caste train passengers going beyond Vavuniya knew the perils. Amazingly, no social scientists or “human-rights” researchers have bothered about delving into such matters.” [Rasanayagam, ].

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  • Neville Jayaweera: Jaffna. Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision,



Filed under caste issues, cultural transmission, discrimination, legal issues, life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, the imaginary and the real, transport and communications, welfare & philanthophy, world affairs

2 responses to “Debating Tales of Caste Oppression in the North

  1. Let me correct a few minor errors before I add my comment.
    The name “Rasanayagam” used by Victor, and by Balachandran should be corrected to Rasalingam.
    My name appears as “Chandre Dharmagunawardena” in Michael R’s write up, and should be read as
    Chandre Dharmawardana.

    Balachandran suggests that “Arasu” means “rule” and not “kingdom”. I think he is partially correct as that too is a common meaning. But I think Johnpulle and others are equally correct, as even the etymology of the word shows clearly its “Raj” meaning. The Sanskrit word “Raashta” means kingdom, and this taken in the “Tamilized form” raasu”, needs to be normalized according to the rules given in the classical Tamil Grammar Tolkaapium தொல்காப்பியம் dating back to the Cankam period. This requires that a vowel, e.g., “a”, be added in front of the “r” sound. This gives us precisely “arasu”.

    In any case, the 1952 election handouts in Tamil by the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi iare supposed to have left no doubt about the separatist “sovereignist” agenda of the ITAK, although they were more circumspect in their English writings. However, Mr. V. Navaratnam, the ITAK theoretician left no doubt about this even in his English writings, producing an influential pamphlet titled the Irreconcilability of the Sinhalese and the Tamils, published in the 1950s.

    Victor points out an error about Vavniya and Madavachchiya in Rasalingam’s writings. However, it is quite possible that the old man was confused, and that is in my view no serious error. Also, the recounting of Indian workers coming and going from India by foot seems to refer to an era even prior to that of Rasalingam, i.e., perhaps pre-1930. This is surely much earlier than Victor’s times. This may indeed be an interesting lead that we can check, by delving into the chronicles of the early 20th century.

    It is once again great pleasure to read Jane Russell’s personal experiences, and have it on record. I think I may have heard some of it from her some years ago. The analysis of the conflict of the south and the north has not taken account of the caste exploitation of Northern society by a land-owning elitist kabal. Within that optic, the origins of Tamil militancy are considered as an attempt to keep hold of the rights and powers of a land-owning elite who also controlled the “lower castes” who were in effect their cheap labour. Universal franchise was going to undo all that; tellingly, Sir Arunachalam Ramanathan wanted the caste system included as part of the constitution of Ceylon as an inalienable right stemming from Hindu belief. The concept of being “polluted” by the mere presence or sight of a “low caste” person is deeply rooted in the psyche of those who grow up in such an ambiance.

    The caste issue does not surface in political discussions because almost all the Tamil journalists and “intellectuals” belong to the privileged caste who alone had access to a good education. They have no taste for opening a taboo subject. Also, the political climate has nver been right for that sort of thing.

    The more recent “NGO-funded” writings as well as the political discourse have followed the political interpretation of the funding groups. Unlike Indian Marxists who looked more frankly at the question, the Sri lankan Marxists have ignored caste divisions and generally supported “self-determination” for the Tamils, based on a specific interpretation of Lenin’s writngs..

    However, occasionally, an independent scholar reveals the level of internal discrimination and exploitation that exists in the North and the East which some how remained isolated from the currents of change and secularization that have swept through the Southern polity much more effectively. An interesting report of how injured, famished, starving low-caste Tamil refugees were turned away during the Eelam war by a high-caste Tamil village has been given in:
    Recasting Caste: War, Displacement and Transformations Francesca Bremner, international Journal of Ethnic & Social Studies , Vol. II, No. 1, June 2013 Francesca Bremner article in the Colombo. Telegraph.
    It has also been stated that upper caste Colombo Tamils strongly resented having to be in the same camps as other “lower caste” Tamils during the emergency arrangements following the terrible 1983 Pogrom.

    On this issue my views are as follows.
    The first religious leader who made his view clear – 2,600 years ago – was the Buddha.
    When the caste system was – and sadly even today in most Asian countries – highly prevalent in India,
    the Buddha preached:
    “Birth makes not a man an outcast,
    Birth makes not a man a brahmin;
    Action makes a man an outcast,
    Action makes a man a brahmin.”

    (Sutta-nipâta, 142)

    Sadly even SOME monks do not adhere to the teachings of the Buddha.

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