Reflections on Caste Disabilities in the Jaffna Peninsula in 1973 and Movements towards the Present

Jane Russell  …. Memo to Michael Roberts re Articles to Sri Lanka Guardian from Sebastian Rasalingam (Toronto) and Thomas Johnpulle (London) on the topic of caste in Jaffna and its effect on politics and culture in Sri Lanka

When I first lived and studied in Jaffna in late 1973, there were elderly women who went around the villages, streets and markets with no upper covering over their breasts. I had come from a UK where young women occasionally went bare-breasted as an extreme commitment to feminism. This was different.. yet somehow also the same…these women appeared to have no embarrassment nor shame about their nakedness..their sagging breasts were blatantly exposed to all..I wondered whether Gloria Steinem might even have approved? But also I instinctively felt that Simone de Beauvoir would have immediately recognised an abuse…..of birth, of poverty, of gender which those women had internalised to the point where it didn’t matter to them anymore.

But when they were young? Imagine the society in which these sixty year old women had entered puberty and grown to adulthood in the 1930’s….where their nudity was demanded by upper caste men and (presumably) the wives, sisters and daughters of upper caste men: possibly these upper caste women felt relief that they were excused this dishonouring custom by the Victorian prudery adopted by the English educated class of which they were part.

When the Chilean author, Pablo Neruda, was resident in Colombo as Chile’s Charge d’Affaires, (because of Chile’s pecuniary situation and the relative irrelevance of British Ceylon to the South American republic), he lived in a small house in Dehiwela. In the 30’s, most streets in Dehiwela did not have main drainage or even localised cesspits. Instead, women, recruited from the Indian ‘scheduled’ castes, went around the streets collecting the daily waste from houses and taking it to a central point. These “coolies” had a special door by which they could enter the toilet and bathroom areas of a house (dhobies also used those doors to collect washing… you can still see these doors very clearly in some old buildings – the Old Resthouse at Bandarawela, now a hotel, is a particularly good example).

The young Indian Tamil woman who took away Neruda’s daily waste was strikingly beautiful. Pablo was a young, amorous, chivalrous hidalgo, and he propositioned this tall, slender, dark and wonderfully structured woman, thinking she would be flattered to be the object of the sexual attentions of a handsome bachelor diplomat. He was surprised and slightly irritated to find that she deigned barely to notice him and looked on his offer of sex with the disdain that he later realised it deserved.

In the early 70’s, men of lower castes in Jaffna sat on the floor on CTB buses. When I offered an old, frail man with a large gunny of vegetables my seat, he refused to accept it, waving away my offer with some irritation, although I’m sure he had paid the same fare as everyone else.

Reading about the equal seating campaign and the Youth Congress movement of the 1930’s in Jaffna, which I realised had been barely reported in the Colombo press of that period but dominated news in the Northern Province, I began to understand the context in which ladies went about without tops and men never sat on seats in public transport. I also vaguely started to understand the chequer board structure of village demographics in the peninsula and the further chequer board of hamlets within villages.

I had started my residency in Jaffna sharing a house with a couple of British male VSO’s: they lived in the upper caste area of a village close to one of the “stripey temples”, the name we irreverent Britishers gave to brahmin-staffed (ie high caste) hindu temples. On Sundays, on this side of the village, you could listen to girls learn carnatic singing from a male teacher in an upper room of a nearby high house: the teacher singing the seemingly impossibly long line of quavering notes, followed by a teenage female voice often accurate to a quaver. Many of these houses had a meda midula (a central courtyard surrounded by an internal verandah) where most domestic life went on and all houses and gardens were fenced tightly in by palmyrah fences so no-one could be viewed by neighbours. After a few weeks, out of the blue, a young man approached one of the male VSO’s and offered him (and me) a house rent free in another part of the village. Our new landlord was tall, good looking and had worked for a while in the Madras film industry: his incredibly beautiful wife whom he had brought back with him from Tamil Nadu, would visit me some evenings with a cup of milky nescafe and pour out her misery in torrents of Tamil of which I barely understood a word, although her loneliness and misery was plain to see. It was in this house on certain nights that I heard the screams of goats being slaughtered in a small temple hidden among the tobacco fields…..

And when I cycled the eight to ten miles daily to Jaffna College and back to work in the archives of their excellent library, I took the shortest route, across the top of the peninsula along a scarred, pitted and sometimes almost disappearing tarmac road that had almost no traffic; the odd speeding car of a smuggler going about his business or a few aged male cyclists shirtless in verti or sarong – but neither buses nor taxis. Five or six miles along this road, there was an isolated village where the younger children did not seem to have a school to go to: they would scream with delight when they saw me cycle into view each morning and evening and run like mad things alongside my wheels for a hundred yards or more. I remember thinking to myself : “I bet this village doesn’t appear on voting maps” as there was apparently no school, no bus stand, no clinic, no library, no reading room, no shops; in fact no public nor commercial buildings whatsoever and the land was dry, stony and infertile.

It was near the exit from this road to the main road that led to my ‘home’ village that I was once flagged down by a couple of barbers who had seen me pass by day after day and were intrigued by the sight of a young white woman cycling furiously back and forth. They had a portrait of the fuzzy haired Sai Baba on the wall of their saloon and they pointed out how much I looked like him. It was true, I had to agree. I had grown and backcombed my curly Celtic hair to look as much like the American black feminist Angela Davis as possible and, by chance and quite without intent, I had hit upon a likeness of Sai Baba. This was difficult to explain but the two friendly barbers bought me a cream soda from a nearby boutique and we chatted for half an hour about Jaffna and Sri Lankan politics and history and political personalities (SWRD, GG Ponnambalam, Mrs B. etc ).

Near the Tellippalai crossroads, there is a “stripey” temple. One morning as I rode alongside the red and white striped outer wall , I was pulled off my bike and dumped in the ditch by two teenage brahmin boys, bare-chested, with cords falling down to their vertis and gleaming, oiled hair coiled in top-knots. They spoke to me fiercely in Tamil, which I didn’t understand. But I gave them a lecture about Gandhian values of tolerance and non-violence in my best Oxford English in return, so we were quits when I picked up my bike and continued my journey, although I probably felt the more justifiably aggrieved.

On a visit two years later with Mahen Vaithianathan, son of Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan, we were staying in the broken-down ruin of a holiday bungalow on the beach at KKS belonging to one of his Colombo- based cousins who still owned property in the peninsula. We paid a visit to the acre or so at Manipay owned by the said cousin where chillies, onions and tobacco were grown on a remnant of ancestral land. The superintendent-cum-watcher, a poor relation , said he needed a shotgun and could he ask his cousin to supply him with one? “Why do you want a gun?” asked Mahen. “To keep the low caste buggers down! To show ’em who’s boss: they’re getting too uppity these days!” Mahen had dissembled some reply. Later he told us that he had been horrified : that it had sounded like something you might expect to hear in the American deep south.

The last of my memories of caste discrimination in Jaffna is an indelible recollection of the goatherd boy from Vaddukoddai. I had made a preliminary visit to Jaffna College on my bike. I had met the Principal, Vice Principal and most importantly Mr Thambiah, the Librarian. I had been given permission to undertake research within their newspaper archives. In celebration, I turned right towards the sea to find some solitude and to rest before setting off to ride back across the peninsula under a hot noonday sun. A few hundred yards from the playing fields of the ‘premier boys school in the NP’ was a scrubby area of bushes and low trees where a herd of goats nibbled at short grass with goat mothers and kids bleating back and forth. The kids were charming, jumping sideways with brio and gambolling up to lick my hand in search of sweet meats. Among them stood a small boy, maybe nine or ten. He had a flute and a scrap of sarong and that was all. My Tamil was almost non-existent and he had no English, but we were able to communicate in some fashion. We exchanged names and I indicated that I was studying at the College. He didn’t go to school it seemed: his school was the wind, the sun and the goats. Compared to the stress imposed on Jaffna College boys in their starched snowy shirts and navy drill shorts or white ‘longs’, heads down among the books, or standing in long lines in the sun for roll call, it was almost possible to envy him–although I knew that in the forcing hothouse of academic excellence of Jaffna, not being able to read and write would condemn him to a lifetime of poverty and low status.

Which brings me to the excellent articles by Messrs Rasalingam and Johnpulle. Against the context of my Jaffna experiences and my reading of the Jaffna newspapers from 1931-1956 plus several visits since, (most recently in January this year), I judge their arguments to be wholly valid and authentic. However, they are Sri Lankan Tamils exiled from their birthplace. Although they speak truth with freedom and passion, they are outsiders……like me.

I recommend they look with care at the book by T. Shanaathanan, Professor of Fine Art, Jaffna University, published this year, which captures the loss of place, memory and identity that living through an unending civil war and ruthless terrorist movement brings….and then reconsider their remarks . Jaffna has changed. And even if it is true that the more things change, the more they stay the same, they stay the same in a completely different way. Because things have changed immeasurably in Jaffna in the last forty years, the same way they have changed in the rest of the world. The demands of the global capitalist -market economy means that most countries can no longer afford to leave out -or permanently alienate by coercion – any section of their potentially productive, working population. Only the oil rich, population poor, states of the middle east are sufficiently insulated from the global economy that they can afford to compel their women to stay out of gainful employment. But with the withering away of the oil economy, this too will change….

As China starts to squeeze the comparative economic advantage of white supremacist America, the USA powerhouse will be forced by economic necessity to allow blacks to compete on an equal playing field in education and employment with whites in order to maximise the productivity of its entire population. Any backlash against this drift to full equality between black and white is just the swansong of slavers. Likewise, the monocultural – (hegemonically so in the case of China) – states of China and Japan will be forced to re- evaluate their population and immigration policies if they are to maintain their lead in the global world economy. South American republics have already started to include the residents of barrios slums in their social and economic calculations. India too is beginning to loosen its attitudes towards its ‘lower’ castes. The elevation of Premier Modi is a sign of change in this area.

So just as in south Sri Lanka, where beautiful teenage rodiya girls were photographed nude from their cloth upwards by camera-toting Britishers in the late Victorian era, the semi-nudity of women from certain castes was no longer tolerated in Jaffna after 1975 with the beginning of the Tiger movement, just as it ceased to be acceptable in the Kandyan hills in the wake of the 1st world war.

In south Sri Lanka, misceganation (what a word for sharing a bed!!!) and commensality, or sharing food at one table, were also openly considered unacceptable in the 1930’s, but all that has long since disappeared under the pressure of universal suffrage, insurgencies and prolonged civil war. Doubtless it has also disappeared in Jaffna. Jaffna may be the most socially conservative part of the island, a place where HW Tambiah could describe the situation of the pallas caste in 1951 as being “slaves in almost every sense of the word”, but willy-nilly Jaffna is tied into the global economy and will become more so as decades pass. As expatriate Sri Lanka Tamils start returning to retire and/or set up charities and schools, build hotels, open art galleries, start businesses, restore temples etc change will accelerate. In thirty years’ time, the caste friction that once characterised the Northern and Eastern Provinces will be as anachronistic as the bullock cart.

But meanwhile there are some changes that might speed up the process: one mentioned by Sebastian Rasalingam appears to require some form of land reform. This would assist the economic liberation of non-vellala castes most of whom were landless labourers prior to LTTE /Sri Lankan army rule. In fact, there may have already been considerable land redistribution via squatters rights and this needs to be regularised in law. Of course, equal access to temples, churches and schools will need enforcement by authorities but mostly this will be accomplished by the shaking of the money and migration tree.

However, lest we forget, it is vital that the memoirs of authors like Messrs Rasalingam and Johnpulle are preserved and read, or better still, made the subject of academic study by the Jaffnese themselves.

 Jane Russell, Camberwell, London



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


Filed under caste issues, cultural transmission, disparagement, economic processes, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, politIcal discourse, reconciliation, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, unusual people, women in ethnic conflcits, working class conditions, world events & processes

2 responses to “Reflections on Caste Disabilities in the Jaffna Peninsula in 1973 and Movements towards the Present

  1. See my comment under:
    Debating Tales of Caste Oppression in the North
    Michael Roberts

  2. Pingback: The Early Phase of Sinhala-Tamil Rivalry in Ceylon, 1931-70s | Thuppahi's Blog

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