Caste & Politics in the Sri Lankan Tamil World

Robert Siddharthan Perinpanayagam, in Groundviews, 22 August 2011, where the title reads “Caste And Politics” …. An article that drew 19 comments including some responses from “Sid”… reproduced here with highlighting imposed by The Editor in circumstances where my friend “Sid” from Peradeniya  days is no longer around to dispute matters … as he surely would have.

Over the years, the claims of the Tamil people for justice, equalty and dignity have been rejected with a variety of specious arguments. It is not necessary to go into these exercises here again. However, the latest attempt in this direction is to raise the issue of caste in Jaffna society. Former civil servants, who spent three or four years being de facto kings of the North, have sought to comment on this issue in many recent hero-stories that they have published in the newspapers. In these hero-stories they report not only how they defeated one departmental head or another or humiliated a hapless village headman, but how they vanquished the evil designs of the Tamils as well. Indeed everything seems to become grist to the mill of Tamil-bashing. Even a casual remark made in a cricket match is used by a famous historian to claim that the Tamils of Jaffna are cravenly caste-conscious. Off-the-cuff social commentators as well as the tribalist pundits in the newspapers have also got into this act. The implication of these commentaries is that the Sinhalese do not have the problem of castism and only Tamils do. One recent commentator is so ignorant of the political history of the island as to invoke Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s castism! It was indeed the fear of Karava ascendancy by the Goigamas that elevated Ramanathan to high stature by making him the representative of the “Educated Ceylonese” in the Legislative Council.

The fundamental thesis in all these commentaries seem to be that since the Tamils discriminate against their own people they have no right to claim equality with the Sinhalese. This argument recalls forcefully the claims of the American racists in the old days that since, every society practices slavery including Africans themselves, there was no harm in Americans practicing slavery too.

The argument that the Tamils practice discrimination against their own people and are therefore not entitled to claim equality with the Sinhalese is so silly that it should not even elicit any serious consideration. However, since it has been raised, either implicitly or explicitly, it should be faced head-on. There is indeed a simple rebuttal to this argument: whether one is a member of the lower castes or the higher costs, whether one is a Vellala, a Karayar or Kovia or a Nallava, so long as he or she is a Tamil, the victimization and discrimination will be felt equally. When the bombs fell on the people of Jaffna during the early years of the conflict, it fell on all the castes, and the organizers of the various pogroms did not seek out only Vellalas! Discrimination in employment and in the use of the Tamil language in public enterprises affects all the castes irrespective of whether they are high or low. In the struggles the Tamils have waged against their subordination in the Sri Lankan state everyone participated  irrespective of caste distinctions, and, as is well-known, even took leadership positions. Even the benighted militants were led by the Karayar and was accepted by all – including the Vellalas, whereas the Sinhlese elite could not abide, at one time, a Salagama as a Prime Minister!

It is, however, the details of the caste system that these off-the-cuff pundits describe that needs serious analysis. It is the case that the caste system in northern Sri Lanka, as well as among the Sinhalese, is an inverted pyramid. The Vellalas are not only the powerful landowning caste but are also in a predominant majority. Insofar as this the case, they able to not only dominate Jaffna society economically, but also dominate it politically.  Once universal adult franchise was introduced they were able to control the political fortunes of the Tamil people of the North. Not only did Vellalas vote for a Vellala candidate but even the other castes too voted for the Vellala candidates. In the event of a non-Vellala candidate coming forward – for example a candidate from the Kovia community – all the other castes would unite behind the Vellala candidate to ensure that the Kovias would not steal a march over them. This is the case even if a member of a “lower caste” put his name forth as a candidate. Inter-cast rivalry was stronger than anti-Vellala sentiments. With or without the support of the non-Vellala castes, the Vellalas would have maintained their dominance. Thus, the political power of the Vellalas remained intact. The psychology and sociology of this is perhaps not difficult to understand. Even in the West, where the caste system does not operate, the higher working-class and lower middle-class people often vote for the conservative candidates. The reasoning seems to be that it is better to keep one’s own status, as it was, intact, rather than allowing people lower than one to get ahead. Marx spoke about class conflict; there may or may not be a class conflict, but “class fear” seems to operate everywhere. Class fear may be defined as the apprehension of the people that those below them or equal to them in status may overtake them. The envy and resentment of being dominated by the upper castes or class is trumped by the fear of being overwhelmed by the lower castes and classes.

It must be remembered in this context that the caste systems are not binary ones but are graded ones. In the Jaffna system, for example, the Koviyas are an adjacent caste to the Vellalas and are entitled to all the privileges and rights that accrue to the Vellalas.  Again, many members of this community, as that of the Karayar benefited from English education and achieved social mobility to become lawyers and doctors and government servants, university professors. The Karayar may be powerless politically, but they are economically independent of the other caste groups. And I am sure that they will not allow themselves to be labeled as “low caste” as some commentators in the newspapers have been known to do. None of the Karayar that I have talked to over the years accepted the claim that they were in an inferior position to the Vellalas but opted for a parallel position. They, as they say, “farm the seas” just as the Vellalas farm the land.  Nevertheless they did not just concentrate on fishing as such but became masters of the craft of the sea and built seagoing vessels and engaged in overseas trade. Even within the island many of them became successful businessmen. The entrepreneurial spirit was very strong in their community and why this is so must await a later commentary. The emergence of a market-economy only encouraged these skills. The education they received in missionary schools, as well as sometimes in their own schools, gave them social mobility. So, in no sense were the Karayar victimized anymore than any other group. There were indeed economic disparities within the community that that is true of the Vellala community too.

Many, if not all, the commentators on the Jaffna system seem to have a picture of a rigid and unchanging structure that has remained intact over the years. This truly a very stupid ahistorical and unsociological view of things.  Social change is ongoing and over the last 50 years – or longer – changes have occurred that have altered the status positions and employment opportunities of the non-Vellalas. Among these changes, I would call attention to just two decisive steps that have changed the Jaffna system radically. One is the coming of the missionaries and the opening of schools all over the peninsula and the other is the free education scheme. These Christian schools did not actively practice discrimination against non-Vellala caste and indeed encouraged them to attend their schools and colleges. They were, after all, ripe for conversion! Even before the arrival of the Protestant educational missionaries, the Portuguese Catholics had made inroads into the Karayar community and opened opportunities for employment and even leadership in the communities. These schools gave its pupils proficiency in English and enabled them to get employment in government service and in the professions not only in the island but also oversees in Malaya, Singapore and Burma. It is a canard to claim that only the Vellalas benefited from these schools.  Once again, I like to point out, that since they were in a substantial majority in the peninsula they obviously benefited most, but the other castes were not excluded from the fruits of English education.

I spent the first 28 years of my life – except for brief interruptions to study in Colombo for two years and then in Peradeniya for a few more years – studying and teaching in Christian schools. From kindergarten to my senior year, I studied at Jaffna College (1938—1950) and never did I see any member of my class being asked to sit in a lower desk or in the back of the class. Admittedly, this could have happened in isolated rural schools. Further many of my classmates were indeed non-Vellalas  – though at the time I didn’t know it and I don’t think many of my classmates did either, because we didn’t pay attention to these things. Even before free education came along in Jaffna many non-Vellalas were admitted to the schools and given such a sound education that they became famous and not so famous professionals and indeed became leaders in their professions. I do not want to mention any names here and furthermore it would take a careful caste-census to discover how many non-Vellalas entered the professions both in Sri Lanka and in Malaya and Singapore.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the three “outcastes” were subject to discrimination by all the other casts – not just by the Vellalas. Even this had begun to change. In the early sixties, when I was teaching at a college in Jaffna, there were at least four students, to my knowledge, who were from these communities in my class of 30 students. I knew their status because I was acquainted with their fathers. I am sure this too has changed for the better now.

In conclusion, I must say that I am rather mystified as to why the tribalist commentators are so full of anti-Tamil venom. After all the Tamils have been vanquished, no doubt helped by the folly of the militant Tamil leadership, once and for all. Their elected political leadership has been rendered powerless, their demographic strength diminished beyond repair and their cultural annihilation is going on apace. The ruling circles among the Sinhalese will appoint select committees and arrange conferences and etc and pretend to consider meeting the grievances of the Tamils while vigorously pursuing its discriminatory policies. The representatives of the Tamils will participate in these charades, since they have no alternative, but nothing will change for the Tamils. After all, these conferences have been going on for over 50 years without any tangible changes. These conferences are in fact wily attempts to forestall playing fair by the Tamils: pretend to be serious about dealing with the problem and then find some excuse to do nothing about it.

So, the tribalist commentariat can rest easy now. There is no danger of the Tamils ever gaining their rights or their demographic strength. And these commentators should learn to accept victory with the same grace with which Sangakara’s cricket team accepted defeat in the World Cup!

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  1. Nishan ……….August 22, 2011 • 5:22 pm

The article sounds like an angry rant, quite unfortunately. But it’s pretty obvious the caste system is pretty pernicious and practiced to a far greater extent than it is among the Sinhalese. And the most caste conscious Tamils appear to be the Jaffna Tamils. An aspect of Tamil Hinduism that Sri Lanka could do without.

Why stop with castism; why not highlight racism as well? The MR regime is racist to the core; Sri Lanka could do without this to

I would invide Mr Berindanayagam, just out of interest, replace the words Karayas with Tamils and Vellas with Sinhala. Many people would argue that despite war, much of the discrimination that Tamil people were subjected have reduced over time. Many tamil youth have plenty of opportunities in education, in jobs and in business. Experiences in poverty of Tamil people are no different to those of empowerished Sinhala people of Sri Lanka.

I am sorry if I expressed myserlf in too complex a way. I will simplify it for Nishan’a sake:
1.The caste system of Jaffna is more intricate than one which can be described as “high” and “low”. It is subtely varied system.
2.Tremendous changes have occuured during the last half century in the distribtion of power, privilege and economic opportunity to dissolve the rigidity of the caste system to great extent.
3. While the Vellalas remain the dominant caste politically, in other areas the non-Vellalas have achieved great successes.
4. Even if the Jaffna Tamils are more casteist than the Sinhales — which is true, in my opinion — if the Tamils as such are victimised everyone,Vellalas and non-Vellalas suffer equally.
5. The time is past for the Sinhala supremacists to stop bashing the Tamils.

Robert, Which was worse- how the Sinhalese have treated the Tamils in the past 50 years, or how higher castes have treated lower castes for the past several centuries? Please do not interpret this as Tamil-bashing; personally I believe casteism in Sinhala society is far worse and hypocritical for the simple reason that our religion forbids it (among other things, like killing).

I totally agree with you that Sinhala racism never distinguished between castes (nor region, nor religion). All Tamils were treated equally bad, although the poor had it worse because they had no connections nor wealth to bribe their way out of persecution. Tamil nationalism in this sense most certainly was created by the Sinhalese, not so much by the Tamils themselves.

If this is true, though, then what does that say about Tamil nationalism? Is it really a solution to anything, or merely a symptom of an underlying problem?

  1. niran anketell .……….. August 23, 2011 • 7:31 am

Excellent piece! Kudos to you for a incisive deconstruction of the spurious ‘casteist’ charge. One thing though Robert – Sinhalese commentators are not alone in the endeavour you’ve described. A tiny but influential sect within the Tamil community – mostly self acclaimed diaspora ‘activist’ types of the SLDF ilk – have taken it upon themselves to tell the world about about the plight of the “Dalits” in Jaffna. Interestingly, the “Dalit Manifesto” uses the Indianised term “Tamilians” instead of “Tamils” or “Thamizhar”, raising the question as to how indigenous and authentic this movement really is.

  1. Nithyananthan ……….. August 24, 2011 • 3:52 pm

Nithy, we have not received your comment, so please resend it. Thank you. GV.

Caste System – it was originally a system of social stratification egregated by rank inherited by chivalrous qualities, conduct and behavior based on his/her moral principles – graceful in manner and free from vulgarity that’s appropriate to his/her gentle birth and so on…sanctioned by customary norms and laws guided by one’s environment of upbringing and religion. Throughout the passage of yester-millennia such social system has morphed and degraded itself into a disastrous evil classification – simply revolving around greed to power and wealth – thus over-powering the values of being righteous, genteel and noble by seemingly superior evil forces. This phenomenon is evident in our part of the subcontinent – India in particular. Until 1972, still further down till 1983, Ceylon Tamils had been so ignorant about the magnitude of impending disaster and what’s stored in the storage for them. We owe so much to our brethren for been alerted our awareness, at different intervals after 1948, about the consequences of inter-social disparity in our backyard and gradually abolished such evil customs, norms and barriers and eventually brought the Tamil Community together under one banner ‘Ceylon Tamils’.

@ wijayapala: I appreciate the essence of the matter that you said to Mr. Robert highlighted in bold. Yet, very often you are observed as exhaling hot & inhaling cold air.

After all, I find it as an outstanding literally explicative exposition, a catalytic need of the hour by Mr. Perinbanayagam, rebuffing the newly evolving jingoistic mindset of some section of our Sinhalese Brethren. Thanks! Nithy!

Dear Nithy, Earlier you had corrected a mistake I made when I mistyped “Banda and Chelva” instead of “Banda and Dudley.” I haven’t heard from you since.

Yet, very often you are observed as exhaling hot & inhaling cold air.

What exactly am I exhaling hot? Could you kindly be more specific (and I’ll try not to exhale in your face)? And what does it mean to inhale cold air?

We owe so much to our brethren for been alerted our awareness, at different intervals after 1948, about the consequences of inter-social disparity in our backyard and gradually abolished such evil customs, norms and barriers and eventually brought the Tamil Community together under one banner ‘Ceylon Tamils’.

Are the Tamils really under one banner? Is Mr Devananda part of that banner?

  1. Ravana ..………. August 24, 2011 • 3:56 pm

I must thank the author for clarifying the difference between casteism and racism in a manner very relevant for the Sri Lankan situation. I would say that the racist row in Sri Lanka emerged relatively recently in comparison to the caste rivalry which had been present perhaps for centuries among all Sri Lankans. Michael Roberts nicely outlines how “othering” and xenophobia emerged as a strong sentiment among the Kandyans in the middle ages. But, when we talk about “Kandyans” we are really talking about suzerinity of the King of Senkadagala who assumed the status of “emperor” of the island. There is even evidence that even during the Portuguese times other Chieftains/Princes met to demonstrate allegiance to this King, even the King of Jaffna sending a representative (instead of coming himself- a clear act of defiance). It is also evident that in these times there was no reference to separate “races” in Lanka. Instead all the people on the island were called “cingalaz”.
Bryan Pfefenberger (I think) has outlined the development of the unique “Tamil” culture in Jaffna with a mixture of natives, those who arrived 800 years ago (mostly Kerala), and those who arrived 2-300 years (mostly from Madras brought by the Dutch). Interestingly, many of the “Singhalese” as they were later identified came from Kerala in the past 800 years.

The “Tamil” “Sinhala” differentiation appears to have emerged in the past 200 years and appears to make no sense to me other than in linguistic terms as culturally (even down to caste) there appears to have been very little difference. It also does not make sense to differentiate the two languages as belonging to different groups. Modern Indian research appears to be undermining the 19th century European prejudice which led to Aryan-Dravidian divide.

The characterisation of the so-called “Tamils” as foreigners by the “Sinhalese” appears to be entirely an accident of history because they happen to be an identified majority and expropriated the ancient identity of the island as well. If you do genetic analysis, I am willing to bet that it would be difficult to tell different groups of Tamils and Sinhalas in comparison to say a control group of North Indians.

The Tamil Eelam project aiming to identify an even more mythical separate state has only served to alienate Tamil speakers from ownership of the island’s history which they should claim as a whole along with the Sinhalas. Unfortunately, the ethnic group identifications (Tamil and Sinhala) appear to be here to stay. It is therefore best to treat them as two linguistic groups having a common heritage. I wonder if there should be promotion of research into the common heritage of both languages as well. There should also be revision of history which labels Cholas solely as plunderers. Their contribution to the culture of the island in the Polonnaruwa period and their service to Tamil literature and Buddhist philosophy should be honoured. I say this because, for no real good reason the Cholas (a dynasty) is somehow identified with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The Tiger emblem of the Cholas expropriated by the LTTE did not help either. In fact as I understand, some of the so-called Tamil castes in the 19th century had the Lion as an emblem!

Process of reconciliation should include such processes examining the reality of Tamil-Sinhala identities including their origin as ethnic groups in the 19th century. Prior to that it should be recognised that both groups had a common origin as citizens of Sinhale which was a Feudal state with very complex arrays of kinship and loyalty patterns. It should be recognised that these kinship patterns were region and caste based and that there were no racial divides recognised by these citizens themselves. This is not to say that Europeans such as Knox did not recognise “Malabars” (from the coast of Kerala). Clearly, Knox had considered those of Jaffna different to the Kandyans based on the use of language. I am aware that historians talk about complex migration patterns at Mannar for many centuries. However, does a 2nd generation Australian have any less claim to be an Australian than a 5th generation one? Same should apply to Sri Lanka.

  1. Silan Kadirgamar ……. August 25, 2011 • 12:16 am

This intervention by my long time friend and contemporary at Jaffna College and Peradeniya, on Caste in Jaffna is in many ways welcome, especially in the light of some ex-GAs (otherwise decent men) indulging in Tamil bashing using caste. Caste is a South Asian reality just as much as racism by the colour of one’s skin is a reality in the western world. Siddharthan Perinbanayagam is extremely knowledgeable on caste in Jaffna and he is by no mean an apologist for Tamil nationalism. He distanced himself from, I may say he abhorred, the politics of the Tamil Congress, the Federal Party, the TULF, the TNA and the LTTE who have collectively placed the Tamil community in the ignominious and disastrous predicament in which the Tamils find themselves today.

I came to Jaffna College as a 12 year old from Malaysia knowing nothing about caste in Jaffna. Jaffna College in 1947 had several students from the ‘lowest’ of castes some of whom were free boarders – a policy of ‘affirmative action’ initiated by the College. We lived in the same hostels, shared the same rooms and sat together for all our meals. It never occurred to me until much later in life that some of these boys belonged to certain castes.

The Roman Catholic schools obviously broke the caste taboo first. But I have two major noteworthy events to relate. In 1916 the immensely popular and great liberal, Principal John Bicknell decided to take in a student from one of the Dalit castes into the then fully residential Jaffna College. All the other students quit. Bicknell made the famous announcement that he will go on with the College with just one student. One by one the rest of boys returned.

The other was related by my father to us when we were children. Henry Peto another one of the outstanding educators of that era was principal of St. John’s College about the same time as Bicknell. Gordon Kadirgamar was cricket captain. St. John’s for the first time in 1916 had a boy from the Dalit caste in the team. They were to play Jaffna Hindu College. There was a great deal of tension in Jaffna town. Peto and Gordon with this boy seated in the middle rode by horse carriage to the Jaffna Hindu grounds. St. John’s won the toss and batted first. When this boy went in to bat the Jaffna Hindu team walked out of the grounds. The umpires declared the match won by St. Johns. The boys of St. John’s returned marching triumphantly through the streets of Jaffna town singing with much jubilation. Some of the outstanding cricketers and football players some captaining teams in Jaffna schools came from these castes as early as in the 1940s.
I may add that the Jaffna Youth Congress campaigned for and broke barriers of caste pertaining to inter-dining in public places and equal seating in schools in the 1920s. The latter was opposed by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, much venerated by Sinhalese leaders. There were from the early decades of the 20th century radical movements and later left parties that challenged caste hegemony.

Going by Trotsky’s dictum that “war is the locomotive of history’ the rise of Tamil youth militancy had to some extent a leveling effect. Noteworthy changes have taken place in the patterns of house ownership and residential land in the Jaffna Municipal area. The much needed empirical research pertaining to patterns of land ownership, especially agricultural land in the Peninsula has not been done. For that to happen Jaffna has to be a free society and is unlikely to be one in the foreseeable future, until the security forces are at least confined to barracks. The least that Sinhalese commentators can do at this juncture is to refrain from Tamil bashing using the caste issue. They had better address their energies to good governance and the pressing problems that the Sinhalese people face in spite of 63 years of self-government.

August 25, 2011 • 9:22 pm

Now that Silan Kadirgamar has revealed that I am oppposed to the narrow and shortsighted politics of Tamil ‘nationalism,’ I am obliged to reveal that I am also irrevocably opposed to the neo-fascist politics of Sinhala “nationalism,” particularly the paranoid versions of it that see Tamil conspiracies behind every bush and a Damila yakko on every tree

  1. perinbanayagam ………. September 12, 2011 • 2:56 am

Hello Ravanna: I hope you get to read this since it is rather a late rejoinder.

However after reading your comments in these pages and particularly the following sentence: “The Tamil Eelam project aiming to identify an even more mythical separate state has only served to alienate Tamil speakers from ownership of the island’s history which they should claim as a whole along with the Sinhalas.”

I have two questions to ask you:
1. Why are you wasting your energies on making these short insightful comments instead of writing a book with these ideas?
2. Why are you hiding under a pseudonym?!
Get to it; Write the book and expand on the quoted sentence!!


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One response to “Caste & Politics in the Sri Lankan Tamil World

  1. Rex Olegasegarem

    Michael, I was not aware that Sid Perinbanayagam has passed away . When did this happen ? Not very long ago I communicated with him and he referred to our time in Peradeniya as “wonder days”. Rex

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