(July 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I have read recent articles by Sebastian Rasalingam and Pearl Thevanayagam on the caste problem in Jaffna, with much interest.
I respond here briefly on what I perceive as the extended dimensions of the caste problems of old, now. I will not name castes nor refer to them as high or low. I find such descriptions very distasteful personally. I also want to stress that my observations are not backed by any structured study. They are observations that can be disputed by anyone who knows more and corrected where it is merited.
The prolonged civil unrest in the north, with intervening periods of brutal warfare and acts of terrorism has left the social hierarchy in Jaffna in tatters. What we see now is an inverted pyramid, with the so-called depressed castes (some call them Dalits- an Indian term) - a majority and the poorer of the so-called elite castes, at the top in terms of numbers. The majority of the so-called ‘Elite’ both caste-wise and education and culture-wise have abandoned Jaffna and have either migrated to the West or the south of Sri Lanka. The few who remain form the narrow end of the inverted pyramid.
The absence of an educated and cultured class of people has robbed Jaffna of its icing and its essential character. There are few to set standards and be examples. This is a tragedy in terms of quality of the Jaffna society, although it had an ugly, caste-based dimension. At the broader end of the inverted pyramid, are the victims of both the abhorrent aspects of the caste system of old and the real victims of the prolonged civil unrest and war. In most instances it is a combination of the two. The depressed classes have been stranded without the equipment to deal with their dominant status in terms of numbers in Jaffna. They lack leadership, the guidance and the finances to assert their new strength in numbers. They were exploited by the LTTE as a ready source of cannon fodder although families that lost their sons and daughters to the war were declared ‘Mavirar Kudumbams’ by the LTTE and honoured once a year. The little they gained by way of social status because of the cannon fodder role they played was lost on 19th May’2009. Their social status however has not improved as a result of the LTTE era, meaningfully. The only improvement I see is that there is a reluctance to refer to them by old caste names. The public expressions of caste discrimination are on the wane, although in households of the caste elite, this consciousness is yet present.
The so-called depressed classes have now become the vote bank for some political formations, of rather dubious character. While their votes are avidly canvassed and probably paid for, there is no organized movement to improve their educational, lifestyle and cultural status. Adding to their numbers are those left over from the so-called elite castes. They are a little better off economically and yet have some advantages in terms of education, lifestyle and culture. These constitute the vote banks for political formations such as the TNA.
A new social order has to evolve in Jaffna taking into account these realities. What would ultimately result is a class- defined hierarchy dictated by financial status. The necessary alignments are already shaping. There are many at the bottom of the pyramid aspiring to reach the middle and even the top. Few have done this already. Unfortunately, for many at the bottom this is yet a dream. The social problems currently visible in Jaffna are also manifestations of the hierarchical realignment taking place. Centuries of oppression have left their scars and have been exposed as the result of our past thirty odd year history. Jaffna was not prepared for the calamity that befell it, especially in terms of the mass migration that has taken place and a fall -back position to cope with it. Land ownership is yet a monopoly of those elite castes that have migrated and is an issue to be resolved, because the vast majority of the depressed castes are landless. Unless these issues are confronted and resolved in a wise manner, we will see more social turbulence. We are now paying the price for caste-based oppression of old.