Tamil Royalty

by Gaja Lakshmi Paramasivam

(July 01, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) I respond to the article ‘Pernicious caste curse of Tamils living in the dark ages’ by Pearl Thevanayagam, published in Sri Lanka Guardian.

I am strongly interested in this article due to the opportunity for me to present my feelings and thinking on this issue here in Australia. Details are in Appendix 1.

I am happy to note that more and more Tamils are focusing inwards to identify the problem through angles that are within our control and management. Whether it is caste or race the basic reason is the same and therefore the effects would be similar.

Ms Thevanayagam says in this regard ‘Mr Sebastian Rasalingam’ article, Sinhalisation of the North and Tamilisation of the South in yesterday’s Sri Lanka Guardian, is of utmost necessity and urgent issue Tamils need to address if we are to reach closure on our prejudices and shine the torch inwards for permanent integration into Sri Lankan polity and obtain our legitimate rights from the majority Sinhala government.’

The experience through which I relate to this kind of integration is divorce in marriage. When a close member of our family went through divorce a few years back, many Tamils said ‘what about the children? They need both parents ?’ At first I tried to educate them that the children were NOT more adversely affected than other children in their environment. But later I just did not bother. Our daughter Gayathri who is a well recognized lawyer in family law said ‘Look at it this way they have two homes instead of half a home.’

Likewise, if we Sri Lankans could work it to get the respective leaders on both sides to do their duties independent of each other. Majority Tamil Administrators are as guilty in the issue of caste as are the Sinhalese leaders in the issue of race. Until we address the caste issue, we would not have earned the moral authority to demand that the Sinhalese address the race issue. The side that cures itself first is the leader of Peace. The other side has the moral obligation to follow.

Ms Thevanayagam says ‘I am still not sure what my caste is. On the one hand my late father used to say we have a family tree and on the other my mother used to say we have enough mix in our blood that it would be indeed very difficult to define our caste-base.’

I know what my caste is – Vellaalar (Farmer Caste). Recently Lawyer Mr. Storer Yogendra, rang me from Colombo in relation to the Intestate Estate of my brother in law Mr. Subramaniam Yoganathan of Vattukottai. Mr. Yogendra introduced himself as ‘family’ saying he was from Arali the village of my father’s side. I was happy to go along with Mr. Yogendra until he seemed to ignore my husband’s rights under Thesawalamai (Customary Laws of Tamils of Northern Sri Lanka) even though we have actually practiced Thesawalamai in terms of responsibilities of sons. So when I met with Mr. Yogendra in Colombo - I said that I was of ‘Udayar’ ancestry. I said this because my father often said he was the grandson of Dharma Udayar and my mother said she was the granddaughter of A.M.Pillai. Later when I studied the work of Professor S Pathmanathan on Thesawalamai I learnt that Udayar held highest positions at village level in Administration and Justice systems. They had the responsibility to assist the Judiciary at the national level. To me this meant that my belief in my father and the respect I paid him in that position was naturally giving me access to the wisdom of my forefathers. On my mother’s side I felt I was sharing in the wisdom of my great-grandfather A M Pillai about whom my mother spoke highly every time she wanted to share her family experiences. Like with Ms Pearl Thevanayagam’s mother, my mother also was not caste conscious.

So what does caste mean to us of this generation? Ms. Thevanayagam says in this regard ‘As a 12 year old I became conscious of how Tamils used the caste system to enslave least 75 percent of the Tamil population by obtaining their services virtually free based on their belonging to the servile class.’

Caste based system which is also called the Varna System (Varna = Color) as it was practiced and included in Thesawalamai was the parallel of the Industrial Relations system of today’s Australia. In Sri Lanka, Farmers / Vellaalar ranked at the highest levels whilst in India Hindu Priests / Brahmins did. Farming was as important to Sri Lankan Tamils as Temples were to Indians. In Australian University system they are the Vice Chancellor (Farmers) and the Chancellor (Priests) respectively.

To the extent one side or the other is doing the job as per the caste classification – that would be the right way. The reason for this is ‘Belief’. When we perform traditional work – we are driven largely by belief and less by conscious calculation of merit. Belief is the basis of program and merit of projects. In programs the Commonness of the path – Principles and Processes is more important than the outcome and v.v in projects. In the Sri Lankan context the armed war is project and racial equality and national commonness is the program. In terms of Northern Sri Lanka, caste based activities need to be managed as projects and only the final outcomes merged with racial program. Otherwise there is the real risk of reverse discrimination happening – along the lines of 9/11.

I realized this by living in our temple compound – at the meeting point of twin villages of Thunaivi-Sangarathai - as part of the community there. The folks of Thunaivi are largely Nalavar / Toddy Tappers and the folks of Sangarathai are largely Vellalar. Our family donated part of the temple-land towards building a Development Center through a NECORD project. I observed the arrival of ‘political’ parties who were trying to lead the people saying ‘We will not submit to dictatorship from the higher caste. We will consolidate and fight for Equal Rights’. Some mentioned their alleged proximity to the current Government Agent; whilst others used the name of Minister the Hon Douglas Devananda. I firmly stated that the Development Center would be used only for Common Purposes and not for Party Politics. Given that only the People of Thunaivi were there - if not for my presence – the Development Center was likely to have become a Political Center of the party with more cash. People of Thunaivi are known to take revenge and was well known as a recruitment source for the Tamil Tigers. Once when the local head of the NGO was trying to reason with them about where the Development Center was to be situated – one group shouted to bring out the ‘swords/knives’. That was a first experience for me and I was really shocked. When I tried to reason out – the villagers said – this is not about you but about the NGO. At that point the driver of the NGO vehicle urged us to leave the place and we took his advice.

Despite all that I cared enough to build a cottage in the temple compound and I live there as part of the Nalavar Community. They are people swaying between belief in pain and hearsay in pleasure. The only way to complete that project is to be part of them and complete it with them on the basis of belief and not from outside.
Ms Thevanayagam says in this regard “I was touched and enlightened by this scholar Mr Rasalingam’s honest, erudite and simple explanation on the fate that befell Tamils and why Tamils need to change their attitudes. They are still living in the dark ages carrying with them the burden of ignorance, arrogance and narrow-mindedness.”

So I went back to read Mr. Rasalingam’s article. I read with distress the following ‘The best thing that could happen to Sri Lanka, and the only thing that would guarantee the stifling of future ethnic discord is the disruption of in-grained ethnic enclaves which are not only racially segregated, but also caste segregated. Mr. Jeyaraj had mentioned villages including Kokachchankulam around Nedunkerny, but failed to note that even up to the 1980s, these had Caste Enclaves that even the war lords did not disrupt. The war did not destroy the segregation of Caste and Women in Tamil society, but mobilized them and hijacked them for political ends, as they were the easiest to subjugate and control.

I strongly believe that the State should have a clear program of settling Sinhalese in the villages of the North, and at least some Tamil IDPS in the villages of the south. The Sinhalese, with 75% of the population, would be demographically highly pressurized and hence the move to the sparse regions of the North and the East would be no different than the move of the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants (WASPS) of the US East coast to the "homelands" of the Hispanics West in the USA. Such redistribution of population, and NOT devolution of power into the hands of corrupt regional lords, is the best investment for long-term peace in Sri Lanka. Such a redistribution of population will also strongly undermine the Caste and gender discrimination endemic in traditional Tamil society with its Manu Dharma. Sinhalese society is far far less caste conscious, and accords greater power to its womenfolk.’

If indeed there was no caste segregation during our current reality – Tamils in these caste enclaves would become like the Aborigines of Australia. Majority adults in the village of Thunaivi are not interested in formal education and often when there is no supervision (which includes supervision by our organization) many of their children just loiter around and form group power through which to rule those who seem less powerful than they. By living there I learnt that they themselves had their own caste based hierarchy. One community leader said that previously she would not eat at the homes of a certain section of that Nalavar community but that after I ate at her place she now makes the effort to eat at their homes during functions. I then realized that the higher caste Tamils have truly shared their system of hierarchical management with the lower caste Tamils. That would be possible if there was a real work plus belief basis to it. Tamils are known for their outstanding performance as Public Administrators because of the caste system which helped each group take its place as per its own responsibilities to the community. One Thunaivi guy said that he stopped working at a restaurant in Jaffna town because they expected him to keep his fingernails clean! I made up my mind not to eat any food cooked by him. In fact when he applied for the cleaner’s position, I gave it to his wife who not only seems to maintain personal hygiene herself but also ensured that her daughters clean and well dressed.

Until majority Tamils of Northern Sri Lanka embrace an alternate form of merit based hierarchy, we need to value the positives from our caste system. Until this caste issue is addressed – Sinhalese without army protection, are at risk in Northern Sri Lanka. Majority low caste Tamils did not feel racial discrimination pain. They were attracted to the quick benefits in the custody of those in power. LTTE took advantage of that. It did allocate high positions to many lower caste Tamils. But then was there enough Vellalar to choose from? Vellalar found it easier than the lower caste to leave the country.

Tamils as a Community need the hierarchical caste system and the gunas / attributes of Vellalar to feel Equal to a Westerner in high level Administration in the Western system. If they/we gave that up – they /we give up the strength of their belief in the work of their ancestors. We need the belief to remain mentally independent. It is wrong to use it to calculate where merit basis is required to be used. It is this belief in our ancestral values that help us contribute as Equals to the Diversity of our nations.

It is understandable that Mr. Rasalingam who claims to have lower caste origins, would recommend assimilation which is another way to practice communism. Until Mr. Rasalingam is able to believe that Vellalar were the rightful leaders in Northern Sri Lanka and until the binding power of the Community in the Western world flows from the intellectual work of Vellalar – he needs to not express on behalf of the whole community on belief basis but only on merit basis. Low caste people often have difficulty projecting naturally the effects of higher level actions. It’s our belief that gives us the foundation. Lower castes who segregated themselves would find it difficult to believe someone of higher caste. When they get benefits more quickly than other groups (as is happening now in Northern Sri Lanka) they tend to practice reverse discrimination – as LTTE did. It was the inability of the LTTE leadership to believe in the wisdom of Tamil Administrators who believed in their ancestors, that blocked their progress towards civil administration. This continues to happen in lower caste enclaves including our village of Thunaivi.

It is not acceptable that Ms Thevanayagam is readily embracing the opinion put forward by Mr. Rasalingam. Ms Thevanayagam might be more helpful in asking her favorite Government Agent Ms Imelda Sukumar as to why the Administrators (most of whom are of higher castes than the folks of Thunaivi) are yet to occupy the above mentioned Building - as was promised when we donated the land. The talk is that they are fearful of the locals who are quick to grab their weapons when they are upset. I had to bring some of the officers to our premises in an attempt to help them see that if I – a woman without any male company from our family and caste – could manage those folks – so could they. We have to find innovative ways to bring these groups together without damaging their belief system.

Caste is the parallel of the Class system of the West. Even now, White Australians pay special attention to British Royalty – not on merit basis but on belief basis. Surely, we are entitled to believe in our own Royalty? If we do not – we become second class to these White Westerners.

If Ms Thevanayagam and others would send their feedback to the email address below, we would include them in our Sunday’s discussion so that our contribution would benefit more groups.

Appendix 1

The politics of caste in post conflict Sri Lanka

by GajaLakshmi Paramasivam

Sunday 3rd July 2011 4.15 PM for a 4.30 PM Start
Epping Leisure & Learning Centre
1 Chambers Court (Off Pembroke St), Epping.

GajaLakshmi Paramasivam is a grass roots activist who has devoted herself to fighting discrimination, whatever its form, in both Australia and Sri Lanka. She is particularly interested in the issue of caste, and is currently involved in a project to eliminate caste-based discrimination in the twin villages of Thunaivi-Sangarathai in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Gaja is an accountant by profession, and has held senior positions in a number of public and private sector organisations including Air Lanka, University of New South Wales, and the News South Wales Public Service. In Australia she is also involved in providing consultancy on Resource Management and Industrial Relations. Gaja describes her personal philosophy of life as believing firmly in the freedom of the individual, and seeking to live as close as possible to ‘her own truth’.

Please RSVP to reconciliationforum@gmail.com

Tell a Friend