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The dynamics of caste politics in Jaffna



Caste divisions in Jaffna are based on professions that people have been hereditarily engaged in. Agriculture is considered the profession of the Vellala caste, which is the most dominant caste in Jaffna. Nalavar and Pallar work as toddy tappers and labourers in gardens. Parayar, who beat the drums at funerals, are treated like slaves. Vannar wash clothes and Ambattar work as hairdressers. There are internal divisions among the Vannar and Ambattar, based on the caste identity of their customers. Some hairdressers, for instance, have customers exclusively from the Vellala community, whereas others cater to customers from the less-privileged castes. The different caste groups that constituted the minority-Tamil community do not have marital relationships with one another; they maintain their insularity. Among minority Tamils, those who are educated and hold prestigious jobs conceal their caste identity and regard themselves as superior to the less-privileged members of the minority-Tamil community. Among the less-privileged castes, Koviyar and Karaiyar were favoured by the majority-Vellala community. Unlike the other less-privileged castes, they did not face serious problems.

Interview  with  dissenting  dialogues
Courtesy: Dissenting Dialogues 



(May 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) After the rise of Tamil nationalism in the North and East of Sri Lanka, political discussions have overlooked caste discrimination rooted inside the Tamil community and underplayed the significance of caste identity in envisaging the notion of emancipation. The mainstream Tamil media have hardly admitted the existence of caste oppression among Tamils. Tamil nationalist groups and dominant Tamil political parties have not shown much interest in abolishing caste oppression. Taking into account the lack of importance given to the grievances of marginalised castes and the vacuum in engaging with their political aspirations, in April, dissenting dialogues caught up with 76-year-old P.J. Antony, the General Secretary of the Minority Tamils’ Maha Sabha, at his residence on Palaly Road, Jaffna to talk about the history and contemporary manifestations of caste, caste politics and the nexus between caste and economy in Jaffna.

Originally from Trincomalee, Antony moved to Jaffna (his mother’s birthplace) in 1937 after his father died. In 1958, he began teaching at a rural school in Puloly, Jaffna. He lost this job in 1980, due to his active involvement in a strike organised by the teachers’ union. But in 1982, he was reinstated as a teacher. When he retired from teaching in 1995, he was the principal of a school in the Trincomalee district. Antony became a lawyer in 2001. Since 2005 he has been practicing law in Jaffna. Recently, he led one of the independent groups that contested from the Jaffna electoral district in the general elections held in April 2010.

dissenting dialogues: Could you speak about how you became a minority-Tamil activist? What kind of work have you done so far?

P.J. Antony: I was a victim of caste discrimination when I was 13 years old in Jaffna. I was assaulted by upper-caste students at the Christian school I attended. I cannot forget that incident - even now. The Minority Tamils’ Maha Sabha was established in 1941 with the view to winning the rights of the downtrodden castes. Jovel Paul and M.C. Subramaniam were some of the active leaders of this movement. I wanted to actively work for the welfare of minority Tamils and joined the MTMS after completing the G.C.E. Ordinary Level exam. Later, I got a teaching position at an outstation school, and moved out of Jaffna. Though I had also been appointed to the post of clerical servant in the public sector, my desire was to educate my community, and therefore I chose to accept the teaching position. Many people, including one of my teachers, said that mine was an unwise decision. When I came back to Jaffna in 1969 I was elected as the General Secretary of the Maha Sabha.

Minority Tamils were not allowed by the Vellala caste to enter or worship in Hindu temples at that time in Jaffna. The MTMS organised protests and temple-entry campaigns. Even though I was Catholic, I enthusiastically participated in many of these campaigns. I was prepared to risk my life for the cause of minority Tamils. There was an attempt to stab me with a knife when I was participating in a temple-entry campaign at Valvettithurai Sivan Kovil. Comrade S. Rasaiah, who was the treasurer of the MTMS, saved my life on that day. I then sent letters to several police stations in Jaffna to seek the support of the police to ensure the participation of minority Tamils in pujas and festivals held in Hindu kovils. We hardly got the support of the police before 1971. In 1956, the social disabilities act was introduced in Parliament to abolish caste oppression. However, there were many loopholes in this act when it was implemented for the first time. Taking advantage of these loopholes, the Vellalas continued to prevent minority Tamils from entering the Hindu kovils in Jaffna. When the act was amended in 1971, the police, as custodians of law and order, had to support the organisers of temple-entry campaigns and they could no longer connive with the u p p e r - c a s t e p e o p l e o r r e m a i n i n a c t i v e . M r. Sundaralingam, Superintendent of Police, Jaffna, rendered his fullest cooperation to us. Mr. Rajasingham, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, Kankesanthurai, ordered the trustees of the Variyavalavu Pillayar Kovil in Thunnalai to open the temple to minority Tamils in the presence of some members of the Maha Sabha.

I also helped many educated youth from the minority-Tamil community to find jobs, especially as teachers. Mr. Dahanayake, who was the Minister of Education in 1957, gave teaching appointments to many from the minority-Tamil community who had three credit passes in the G . C . E  O r d i n a r y  L e v e l e x a m i n a t i o n . M r. A . Amirthalingam, who was an MP then, opposed this move under the pretext that it would bring down educational standards.

I have also been working for the land rights of minority Tamils. I helped the landless in my community to get land in the Vanni region. Land officers in Jaffna in the 1970s did not cooperate with us when we requested land for the minority-Tamil community for the purpose of cultivation in Kilinochi. However, Mr. Ponnambalam, who was the Government Agent of Jaffna at that time, helped us a lot. As a lawyer, I have helped many in my community to obtain permanent land deeds. Many of them are now able to receive financial assistance under the housing schemes introduced by the government.

dissenting dialogues: Can you describe the caste hierarchy in Jaffna and the relative power of the different castes?

P.J. Antony: Caste divisions in Jaffna are based on professions that people have been hereditarily engaged in. Agriculture is considered the profession of the Vellala caste, which is the most dominant caste in Jaffna. Nalavar and Pallar work as toddy tappers and labourers in gardens. Parayar, who beat the drums at funerals, are treated like slaves. Vannar wash clothes and Ambattar work as hairdressers. There are internal divisions among the Vannar and Ambattar, based on the caste identity of their customers. Some hairdressers, for instance, have customers exclusively from the Vellala community, whereas others cater to customers from the less-privileged castes. The different caste groups that constituted the minority-Tamil community do not have marital relationships with one another; they maintain their insularity. Among minority Tamils, those who are educated and hold prestigious jobs conceal their caste identity and regard themselves as superior to the less-privileged members of the minority-Tamil community. Among the less-privileged castes, Koviyar and Karaiyar were favoured by the majority-Vellala community. Unlike the other less-privileged castes, they did not face serious problems.

The downtrodden castes were denied membership in local government bodies such as the village council and the town council. When wards were demarcated for electoral purposes, Vellala bureaucrats split the areas densely populated by minority Tamils into several segments and merged them with the different wards where the Vellalas were the majority. Minority Tamils could not become a majority in any of the wards that came under a local government body. Consequently, they could not send their representatives to the local government bodies in Jaffna. However, a person representing the minority-Tamil community got elected to the Kopay Village Council in the late 1950s. But when he participated in a meeting of the village council, he was not even given a chair; instead, he was asked by the other members to sit on an old mortar. Minority Tamils were not allowed to eat food in the company of upper-caste people. They could not go inside tea shops. Tea was given in rusty tin containers and soda bottles. They were asked to sit on an empty sack spread on the floor when they were given food in shops. This custom existed in the 1960s even in places like Subash Café.

In the 1930s and 1940s, minority-Tamil women were not allowed to wear sari blouses. They had to raise the piece of cloth they wore so as to cover their breasts. At Catholic churches in the peninsula, women were not permitted to cover their heads with a veil. The upper-caste people also barred minority-Tamil men from wearing Vetti, the national outfit for Tamil males.

dissenting dialogues: What were the challenges minority Tamils encountered in getting access to education in the past? What kinds of measures were taken by the Maha Sabha to make educational opportunities available to minority Tamils?

P.J. Antony: After my father’s death, my mother worked as a daily-wage labourer to raise me. When she approached some Catholic priests, they asked my mother why I could not be trained in my father’s profession. Upper-caste people thought education was not meant for minority Tamils. Downtrodden castes could not send their children to fee-levying schools due to poverty. The introduction of free education and the takeover of schools by the government did not improve minority Tamils’ access to education. It was still difficult for the children of minority Tamils to get admission to leading schools, like Jaffna Hindu College, Parameswara College and Puttur Sri Somaskanda College. However, in the 1960s, Mr. Manickkavasagar, the then Director of Education in Jaffna, and principals like Mr. Thambar of Jaffna Central College and Mr. Sivapathasundaram of Parameswara College were very keen to educate children coming from oppressed castes and gave them admission. In many schools, upper-caste teachers discriminated against students from marginalised castes. These students were not given benches or chairs. They had to sit on the floor. Even if they were given seats, they had to use the seats at the back. They were unnecessarily punished by their upper-caste teachers. The teachers insulted these children by pointing out their caste background in front of upper-caste students. At the request of the Maha Sabha, Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party government established nearly 15 schools in the peninsula to cater to the educational needs of minority Tamils. At the same time, more than 200 youth from the minority-Tamil community were appointed as teachers at these schools. The establishment of these schools enabled our students to learn in an atmosphere free of discrimination.

dissenting dialogues: Have you noticed any significant changes in the caste hierarchy over time?

P.J. Antony: We rarely see caste discrimination in public sector offices these days. Though minority Tamils are able to secure jobs in various departments and boards, they are denied promotions, though not overtly, on caste grounds. Discrimination against minority-Tamil students at schools has declined. We no longer need separate schools for minority Tamils. Barber saloons are free of caste discrimination. But many temples in Jaffna still remain closed to minority Tamils. The younger generation of the downtrodden castes thinks that there is no caste discrimination now. Similarly, people belonging to the upper castes claim that caste oppression has come to an end. But caste discrimination exists on the ground in multiple ways. For instance, at the University of Jaffna, minority-Tamil students, even if they excel in studies, are hardly appointed to positions above demonstrator. A person from an underprivileged community was not appointed to the post of Registrar at the University of Jaffna, even though he had the necessary qualifications. Since minority Tamils are not denied access to education they have been able to become graduates, doctors and engineers. When the people of Jaffna were displaced to Chavakacheri in 1995 during the war, upper-caste well-owners threw litter and excreta into wells on unused land in order to prevent displaced people belonging to marginalised castes from using those wells. Caste continues to be a decisive factor in social relationships. However, some cross-caste marriages have taken place in Jaffna. Minority Tamils who have risen up in the social ladder through education and employment lead a fairly comfortable life, whereas the economic status of many from the community remains below the poverty line. Many minority Tamils do not have a permanent job.


dissenting dialogues: What kind of impact does caste have on employment, poverty and ownership of land in Jaffna?

P.J. Antony: In rural Jaffna most of the labourers working in paddy fields and gardens come from underprivileged castes. Of these workers some are women. The same castes constitute the labour for stone breaking. Most of the workers in road construction and cleaners in the municipal area belong to the marginalised castes in Jaffna. These employees are often underpaid. Though the tasks they are involved in are dangerous, relevant authorities have not taken due measures to ensure their safety and health while they are working. Most of these workers have not organised themselves as trade unions to demand their rights and higher wages. Tenant farmers from the downtrodden castes also encounter crises. Landlords fear that these tenant farmers might claim ownership of the land, and therefore they are keen to remove the tenant farmers from the land where they have been cultivating crops. Though some of them have been living on temple land for many years, they cannot become owners of that land. In places like Vaddukoddai and Point Pedro, many are unable to build houses, even though the government is willing to provide them with financial support, as they do not possess land. Though the government and NGOs seem to help people who are without houses, they have not done anything substantial to distribute land to the oppressed castes. Upper-caste Tamils who have left the country for good are not willing to sell their land to minority Tamils. All in all, many oppressed-caste people are impoverished in many ways.



dissenting dialogues: How would you evaluate the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front role in the struggle against caste discrimination?

P.J. Antony: The EPRLF had a lot of progressive ideas about the liberation of the oppressed castes. They supported social reforms based on leftist principles. They launched campaigns at the village level to eradicate caste oppression. In Karainagar, a public well used by oppressed castes was polluted by upper-caste people with human excreta, with the intention of hindering the oppressed castes from using that well. Some members of the EPRLF operating in the area identified the people who had thrown faeces into the well and got them to clean the well.

dissenting dialogues: How do you view the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam role in recognising the identity of minority Tamils and addressing their grievances?

Tamil women Sri Lanka c.1909 by Skeen & Co
P.J. Antony: The LTTE did not actively campaign against caste discrimination. The issue was not given much importance; instead, they created the illusion that the Tamil community is free of caste oppression. They did not have the same level of commitment as the EPRLF or the Communist Party towards fighting caste discrimination. The parliamentarians from the minority-Tamil community could not act independently on caste issues because of the domineering politics of the LTTE.

dissenting dialogues: The Minority Tamils’ Maha Sabha contested in the last general elections as an independent group, after a long absence. Why did you decide to contest alone without backing any of the mainstream Tamil political parties?

P.J. Antony: Minority Tamils constitute nearly 40 percent of the population of the Northern Province. They should be given three or four representatives in the Jaffna electoral district alone. In past elections, the Tamil United Liberation Front and the Tamil National Alliance fielded only one candidate from the minority-Tamil community. Although some of them were elected, they could not do anything significant for their community, as the parties they represented did not have an agenda to contribute to the advancement of minority Tamils. Moreover, though we had announced our idea of contesting in the last general elections in the media, the TNA did not show much interest in engaging with us. The TNA’s lack of interest in addressing the problems of minority Tamils left us with the sole option of facing the elections as an independent group. If the TNA had sincerely been concerned about the problems of our people, they would have approached us.

dissenting dialogues: Though you say that minority Tamils account for 40 percent of the population of the Northern Province, your party, which represented the minority-Tamil community, could not even send one member to Parliament. Why did your party not perform well in the last general elections?

P.J. Antony: There wasn’t much freedom in Jaffna during the elections for our candidates to do electioneering. We were told about many malpractices at the counting centre. We heard that votes cast to our party were considered invalid. The election was not conducted in a peaceful way. It was not a free and fair election. Otherwise our party would have recorded a better performance in the last general elections.

dissenting dialogues: When you contested in the last parliamentary elections, some Tamil nationalists said you were backed by the United People’s Freedom Alliance government in order to split Tamil votes in the North along caste lines.

P.J. Antony: We never sought any support from the government or other political parties. We did not even get a cent from the government for electioneering. Some comrades from abroad sent us money. We have no interest in damaging the Tamils’ struggle for liberation. Our younger generation also works for the liberation of the Tamil community. Maha Sabha has never been against the political rights of the Tamil community. On the other hand, some candidates from privileged castes used their caste identity to muster votes in the general elections. The castes they openly identified themselves with do not have grave caste-related problems like the ones that plague minority Tamils. However, when we represented the political interests of oppressed castes and voiced their hardships we were unfairly accused of creating divisions within the Tamil community.

dissenting dialogues: Why do you think many youth from downtrodden castes joined the Tamil-nationalist militant groups?

P.J. Antony: Many youngsters from the minority-Tamil community joined the militant movements because of poverty in their homes. They also felt that they should not operate alone as it would undermine the Tamils’ struggle for liberation. They saw these groups as providing them with an opportunity to be on par with the upper castes. Perhaps they were not aware that these groups were not serious about the emancipation of oppressed castes. Though minority Tamils contributed a lot to the Tamil liberation struggle, upper-caste Tamils and upper-caste Tamil leaders have failed to eradicate caste oppression inside the Tamil community.

dissenting dialogues: What are your plans/goals for improving the rights of minority Tamils? What kind of political action do you think is viable to fight caste oppression in the North?

P.J. Antony: The Communist Party and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, which supported the cause of minority Tamils in the past, are now not active in the North and East. Mainstream Tamil political parties like the TNA tend to think that issues related to caste could be dealt with by fielding one or two candidates from the oppressed castes in the elections. They do not have a broader vision to root out the caste system. However, we are interested in having talks with Tamil political parties such as the TNA, People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam and EPRLF to find solutions to the problems confronting minority Tamils at present. We will demand more political representation for minority Tamils from these parties. We will support parties that are willing to give representation to three to four members from the minority-Tamil community in parliamentary elections in Jaffna. We will also fight against caste discrimination in appointments and promotions in the public sector. If these options are unproductive, we will have to start mass struggles based on the principles of non-violence to annihilate caste oppression.


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