by Sebastian Rasalingam, Torornto, Canada
(July 04, Toronto, Sri Lanka Guardian) My article published in the Sri Lanka Guardian, entitled "Sinhalizatioon of the North and the Tamilzation of the South" was provoked by a response to D. B. S. Jeyraj's article on Kokachchankulam by Prof. Dharmawardana who maintains a detailed website on place names. My article was followed by a very compassionate and hopeful article by Pearl Thevanayagam and Dr. Narendran. We also see Jeyraj taking up the same theme within a different script under the title "Tamil destiny is inextricably intertwined with that of the Sinhalese".
Pearl Thevnayagam's article brought out some aspects of the caste problem as seen by an upper-caste Tamil Christian who is perturbed by the immorality of it. I owe my education and the escape from the system to the Christian schools, and I need to say something about this (see below). The other writers also tend to see it from the upper end of the hierarchy, and recognized the serious import of the problem to the Tamils, but offered no clear solutions. Dr. Narendran's article, and Jeyraj's article, both imply, directly or indirectly, preserving the distinct Tamil Character of the "Historic Homelands".
Traditional Tamil villages and their caste visage.
However, these writers probably did not follow up the link given in Professor Dharmawardana's short article, to his website entry on Kokachchankulam. I, with the help of my grand daughter, took the trouble to do so. If one were to say, "IDPs should be settled so as to preserve the original cultural character of their villages", every western liberal, seeped in theories of multi-culturalism, would immediately endorse it. Strong or moderate Tamil nationalists would also approve of "preserving the character of traditional Tamil villages". The entry under Kokachchankulam in the "place-names" website states that: "The Eelam wars led to much upheaval in this area which became predominantly Tamil since the late 19th century (cf. J. P. Lewis). It was formed by a mosaic of caste-based hamlets. Resettling these villages mainly with the original occupants, or their kith and kin, without suitable social engineering poses the danger of recreating the old caste enclaves, not only in this village, but in similar war-ravaged villages".
That the place name Kokachchankulam could mostly likely have come from Sinhala, and that the village is a mosaic of caste-based hamlets are matters that should not surprise anybody who is aware of some history. However, if we do not respect the "caste character" implicit in Tamil society, and attempt to settle barbers with the dhobies and Vellalars, all hell would open up, with constant bickering, agitation and violence. Those who think that they are the creme de la creme do not wish to mix with the lower stratum. A similar repugnance exists even at very low levels. Thus the dhobie-caste people who wash clothes for the Vellalars will not mix with dhobies who wash clothes for lower castes. Of course, today no one may be actually washing clothes as in the old days. However, the caste designation of a generation ago still applies, even if the washing is done by a commercial laundry run by Muslims or Sinhalese. Should such intruders be even allowed in a "Tamil village striving to preserve it's Tamil character"? Can there ever be a "historic Tamil village" without its caste system?
- Sinhalization of the North and the Tamilzation of the South.
- Pernicious caste curse of Tamils living in the dark ages
- Caste in Jaffna – current realities
- Tamil Royalty
- Liberation trouble
Thus, recreating the cultural face of Tamil villages is not really the simple, laudable objective that the naive human-rights worker of the West would imagine it to be. The upper-caste Tamil writer is also unlikely to think of this problem, from his comfortable home in Karuvakkaadu (Cinnamon Gardens) or Markham, Ontario. Hindu society has been fundamentally construed and conceived as a hierarchic society, based on exclusivity and living apart (apartheid) of segments of society regarded as incompatible or increasingly "unclean" as you go "downwards". The Eelam doctrine is simply the caste doctrine of exclusive living-apart applied to the two ethnic groups of Sri Lanka, framed into the attractive dream of a glorious Tamil kingdom.
Why couldn't the Indian estate workers take the train?
I explained to my grand daughters, born in Canada, that their grandmother's elders came from India to work in Ceylon, and also returned to India with their savings, walking through the snake-infested, malarial forests of the Vanni. They could not even comprehend it. "Why wouldn't they take the train, or something like the Greyhound bus"? Till almost the end of the 1940s, many estate workers did not dare to take the train, even if they had the money. If they managed to procure a ticket, they would only stay in the train till about Vavuniya or before. Once the train enters the "Tamil areas", they knew that they could be beaten and thrown out of the moving train, with truly tragic results. Even in walking through the Vanni, they had to follow designated paths, avoiding high-caste villages, camp for the night and take water only from designated locations. Such locations could be suddenly torched and "cleansed" by zealous upper-caste Tamils who may even be Christians. Or, the walkers may have to do some work for a Periya-dorei, free of charge, to secure right of passage. Even in more recent times, low-caste train passengers going beyond Vavuniya knew the perils. Amazingly, no social scientists or "human-rights" researchers have bothered about delving into such matters.
My baptism and admission to a Christian school helped me immensely to tunnel my way out of an inhumane society . The Christian Church is both a liberator and an invader. It was in turn invaded by caste-conscious Bishops who slowly edged out the Prince of Peace from the portals of the church. Even in Christian schools I had to carry a small stool or mat from class to class as only upper-caste kids could sit on chairs. My sisters were not sent to school, as that would have been going too far. "They might set fire to our house and destroy the girls if we don't stay within our station in life", was the simple explanation.
Opposition to Progressive legislation as the origin of separatism.
When Colombo began to push socially progressive legislation like universal franchise, free education, women's rights, worker's rights etc., the Colombo Peria-Dorei class couldn't stand it any more. The building of causeways giving access to depressed villages was followed by attempts to upgrade village councils to town councils, town councils to urban councils, and urban councils to municipalities. "Enough is enough", said the Chelvanayagams, Ponnambalams, and other absentee land lords of these village councils and urban councils as they could not see why they should pay higher taxes for these "developments". The idea of Eelam was born decades before "Sinhala Only", as you can appreciate by a modern re-reading of the Hansard of the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. Check how the upgrading of Jaffna to a municipal council was opposed tooth and nail by our Tamil leaders! Taking control of the North and East, away from Colombo, was the only possibility if the ruling class of the Tamils are to remain in the saddle.
But their plan of riding on militant nationalism was hijacked by the even more militant "boys". The karaiyar- Prabhakaran, or the ambattar- Thamilselvan were signs of the extent of the rejection of the Colombo Vellalars, rather than modifications in the totally subjugated Vanni society. The hierarchical caste-based society, already used to keeping any deviations in check by force, was perfect for creating a war machine held in place by terror. Unlike in the old days, this terror could now be executed using modern weapons provided by Indians and Diaspora Tamils. The irony of the "Tamil Liberation" cry was that it talked of the discrimination of the Tamils by the Sinhalese, and totally ignored the utterly more horrendous discrimination right in its bosom. Even in the last year of Chelvanayagam's life, the Chinese-wing Communist party of Sri Lanka was agitating in Chelva's electorate against outstanding caste discrimination acts. When Chelvanayagam and Naganathan sat on the grass of Gall Face green in Satyagraha in 1958, Sinhalese thugs assaulted them. If some of the low-caste men had gone on Sathyagraha on the immaculate lawn of a home in Manipay belonging to one of the Periya-Dorei who actually lived in Colombo, even in 1976, they too would have been immediately assaulted, their families would have been hunted down, and their villages torched. This did not require the Periya-Dorei ordering it. The system took care of it. This couldn't happen to the leader of the Peking-wing Communist party - an upper class Tamil - demonstrating in a Tamil village against another member of his own class.
But the war and its terror-structures are now done for. We must look forward to a new set up. Today we need to recreate the cultural face of Tamil society without its ugly under-belly of social exploitation via a hierarchical structure. How do we do it?
Re-engineering a more equitable Tamil society.
How could we re-engineer Tamil society to recreate a humane structure where Tamil literature, poetry, dance forms, film etc., could flourish? We have a festering wound of horrendous inequity in Tamil Nadu showing us how horrible it could become, where money and modernization have become weapons for further exploitation rather than social justice. The war and the upheaval of the North and East have created a new opportunity to answer this issue. This real question is avoided in the writings of upper-class columnists who wax eloquent about "the national question", and about devolving power into the hands of regional Lords, or implanting the "Indian model", or creating two distinct, embattled nations.
I ask those Sinhalese who favour power devolution to provincial council if they would like to have a Mervyn de Silva as their "Chief Minster"? The Tamils have individuals more sinister than any Mervyn de Silva lurking in the shadows, waiting to just get their hands on the control button.
My answer to the problem is the intermixing of ethnic, religious, caste and other groups to created a tapestry where no group is strong enough to exploit any other group. Thus I titled my essay as "Sinhalization of the North and the Tamilzation of the South". This is not a new answer. Christian liberal movements of the 1920s had similar answers. They truly had the correct answer and their ideas of social equality were too advanced for their age or even today. They went beyond limits, claiming that the Donoughmore reforms were insufficient, and ended up in the politically suicidal "Jaffna Boycott". They demanded immediate "Swaraj" from the British, demanded governing the country in Sinhala and Tamil, elimination of the caste system, eliminating the dowry system, and endorsed universal franchise. They were pushed aside by their boycott, and by the polemical racial politics of Ponnamablam, which was more in tune with that age. If you read the blogs to Jeyraj's columns, we see that the 1930's racist sentiment is where many of our intellectuals (both tamil and Sinhala) are still sitting.
Unfortunately, the liberal Christian movements are largely a spent force today. Many clerics of the Christian church became open supporters of the LTTE. They even carried the Holy Madhu statue into the LTTE territory. The Church has failed in its inability to see morality from immorality. Similar things happened when the Church had to deal with Hitler, or with pedophile priests. Nevertheless, even today, liberal-minded non-denominational Christian organizations as well as secular organizations can play an important role via an engagement in social reconstruction.
The Hindu Kovils are terribly retrograde institutions whose influence has to be moderated by suitable enactments. This can be ensured by establishing some sort of a Hindu-temporalities authority consisting of non-Hindus as well. I think this was what the British did with the Buddhist Temporalities act. Here we should note that some Hindu temples, e.g., Kathirkamam (Katharagama), is run without any caste restrictions by nominally Buddhist managers, as noted by Leonard Wolf even in 1910.
In my last article I pointed out the well-known kinship between Buddhism and Hinduism. Sri Lankan Tamils should not treat Buddhism as a hostile force "owned by the Sinhalese". Hinduism gave up the stench of animal sacrifices, and embraced vegetarianism because of Buddhism. It could have got rid of caste with the aid of Buddhism, but for the power of the Brahamins. Of course, Sri Lanka never had any but faux-Brahamins. Today the faux-Brahamins and the upper classes have emigrated to the West or to Colombo. So there may be a place for a more meaningful entente with Buddhism, and a return to the high moral message of the Manimekhalai and the Thirukkural, both texts of Tamil Buddhists.
Land reform in the North is an absolute must. The government must declare all land holdings in the war-ravaged areas to be null and void, and review land titles, taxation, ownership and residence. The type of land reform that touched the south under the "Paddy Lands act", the Plantations act", etc., had no effect in the North. This must be corrected. Much of the traditional ownership of land in the north is caste based and the land should be redistributed in a just manner to include the lower castes. Thesavalam is an instrument which ensured that "intruders" - low-caste people- could not buy land. Once ownership limits and titles for actual residents are established, the rest of the land should be declared crown land. Then such land could be lease-auctioned to Sri Lankan companies for development, based on competitions for developments of various units of land. Such leases should not exceed 25 years. Foreign companies could engage in such projects only if they have Sri Lankan partners. Some of these development plans could be cultural, e.g., private universities or technical colleges.
There should be no restriction based on race, caste or other discriminatory basis in such commercial development plans. But a clause must be included to ensure that existing residents of the villages would be given employment. Unfortunately, Tamil intellectuals are mostly from the land-owning classes, and they also own the newspapers, Internet sites, international and transnational Tamil Fora. etc. They dominate their political will, still stuck in the 1930s, or its extension to the Vaddukkoddai resolution. The true changes may come from non-traditional leaders among the Vanni Tamils. Or indeed, an estate Tamil may lead all Sri Lankan Tamils to their senses.
I have no personal vendetta against those who have humiliated us or assaulted us because of our "station in life". They are products of the system. Similarly, Ramanathan with his caste theology, Prabhakaran with his suicide cadre, or Kasi Ananthan who wrote poetry justifying violent methods, are all products of the system. Sarath Fonseka who may have committed war crimes and moved to the opposition to protect himself, the Rajapaksas who were at the helm, others accusing them of war crimes, are probably all in the same boat. Before we throw stones at these sinners, let us ask who amongst us have not sinned.