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Caste origins of Sri Lankan Authoritarianism- Part 6


[Editor’s Note: An interview with Mr. Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission by Nilantha Ilangamuwa of the Sri Lanka Guardian]

(June 06, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) That basis of social organization of Sri Lanka, at least by Polonnaruwa Period was the ‘caste system’ is recognizing as a historical fact. However what has not been revealed is the manner in which such social organization on the basis of caste, was established. The analysis of history in terms of caste has not yet been done. However analyzing from this point of view can throw light on many of the problem still persisting on contemporary Sri Lankan society.

There may be many reasons for undermining caste analysis. One of the most important reasons is the romanticized view of nationalism, that in its many varieties. The Sinhala nationalist narrative and Tamil nationalist narrative want to present romanticized views of their history as well as their problems. Bringing the internal conflict within each ethnic group in terms of caste would undermine much of the pain of nationalism that is made of its deferent varieties. This is perhaps one of the very reasons why more attempt made to understand the inner dynamics within societies in terms of its own internal problems in which caste place a very important role within the Sri Lankan society.

Dr. S. Rathnajeevan H. Hoole in a very quite incisive analysis in a paper entitle ‘Caste as a Hate Crime: Reassessing Arumuka Navalar and Vellala Dominance in Sri Lanka’ which he wrote with E. Elilini Hoole, speaks of ‘Sudra’’s origin on the entire Tamil community. Today Tamils claims to belong to various castes among which ‘Vellala’ are the dominant caste. More and more people have made claims to belong to this caste in an attempt to claim some kind of respectability within the community. Amusingly according to the Dutch records, numbers of persons belong to Vellala were 30% of the populations while at present this has increased into 50% of the populations, showing clearly various kinds of migrations into this caste. But who are Vellala. Is it a variety of Brahmin caste, which came from India as stated by early historians during Portuguese and Dutch times the Vellalas were themselves Sudras. Is that so, how did Sudras become Vellalas?

Certainly Vellalas are not originate from the Brahmin caste. The Brahmins were forbidden by the ‘rules of Manu’ to travel by ship and to go abroad. These rules were strictly upheld. Therefore the early migrations from India could not have been from the Brahmins.

A very strict rule within the caste system is that Brahmin could marry only within their own caste and therefore the question of some migrant Brahmins coming and getting married in Sri Lanka and creating more Brahmin was also not possible. In the natural cause of things, the people who migrated early leave their lands when their once who face greater difficulties in their societies and then from this point of view it was the Sudra caste which could have been the early migrants which settle in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka.

Caste Among the Sinhalese

This same premise could be valid in terms of the Sinhalese. The early migrants from India to Sri Lanka, who settle in Sinhala Speaking areas and who latter created the Sinhala civilization would have been Sudras. The creation of the myth attributing a princely status, to the mythical person who is supposed to be the originator of the race is quite understandable. In order to give some respectability to the entire race this person has to be from a princely family or even as a ‘Sinhabahu’ legend goes, from a lion. While such attempts to give some respectability to race is understandable. However,the fact that it was originally the Sudras that would have migrated to Sri Lanka, is very much more pausible. Therefore, Sinhala speaking people who settled in Sinhala areas were also Sudras. Sudras gradually may also have married into the ‘Vadda’ community and therefore combinations of Sudra and Vedda communities would constitute the beginnings of the Sinhalese. Clearly any kind of claims that the origination from the Brahmin has to be excluded.

Anyway, in Indian status ladder famers are sudras. Therefore ,Govigamas like the Tamil Vellalas are of Sudra origin. Vijaya of Mahawama, if there was such a person would have been a Sudra. Therefore Sinhala Kings like the Tamil ones too, were persons who originated from the Sudras .

Two questions that arise are, what kind of society did the Sudras created at the begining and At what kind of relationship there was among themselves? The next question is how does Sudra settlements gradually developed the caste habits which belong to the Indian caste traditions without there been migrations from the same Indian castes to Sri Lanka? How does the social aspect of caste system ands hierarchical structure, enter into Sri Lankan society?

Re-establishment of Caste system in India

In the Indian society after there was a serious setback of the caste system due to the influence of ‘Jainism’ and ‘Buddhism’ in India, there was once again a revival of caste system after few centuries. The revival of caste system and the wiping of the Buddhism happened more or less at the same time in India. There is some knowledge about the manner in which this revival of caste system and the wiping out of Buddhism took place in India. That was done by vigorous social movements which were given a regious coloring, engaging in a systematic repression and persecution of the Buddhists . This was accompanied by a forceful replacement of the caste system, over a long period of time with the support of the rulers of the time. After the ‘Asokan’ period which supported Buddhism, new dynasty established itself, which was totally opposed to Buddhism and which replaced Buddhism with the Brahmin religion together with the reestablishment of the caste system.

There were village to village reorganization of caste, by Barahmins, who were well instructed on the work of the reorganization and thus virtually an enormous social experiment took place by way reorganizing the society on the basis of caste.

Indian experiment brought to Sri Lanka

By the end of the ‘Anuradhapura’ period with the invasion of ‘Kalinga Maga’, there was a period of social reorganization in Sri Lanka. The similar type of social experiment which was carried out in India of reorganizing villages on the basis of the caste principles would have taken place during this time. This reorganization was also connected with the development with the system of monarchy with absolute powers. Thus the development of the monarchy and the development of caste principle during this time transformed Sri Lanka into social organization which was based on caste. Thus the Sudra communities settled at the beginning was transformed into caste based new hierarchy through social transformation which took place latter. However the original populations which settled in the country were Sudras and therefore it was a transformation of Sudra society into caste system with new claims made by various groups for high states.

Thus, despite of false claims for new identities’ all Sri Lankans share common identity of being Sudras.

To be continued……


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