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Caste and Politics

The fundamental thesis in all these commentaries seem to be that since the Tamils discriminate against their own people they have no right to claim equality with the Sinhalese. This argument recalls forcefully the claims of the American racists in the old days that since, every society practices slavery including Africans themselves, there was no harm in Americans practicing slavery too.
by Robert Sidharthan Perinbanayagam

(August 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Over the years, the claims of the Tamil people for justice, equality and dignity have been rejected with a variety of specious arguments. It is not necessary to go into these exercises here again. However, the latest attempt in this direction is to raise the issue of caste in Jaffna society. Former civil servants, who spent three or four years being de facto kings of the North, have sought to comment on this issue in many recent hero-stories that they have published in the newspapers. In these hero-stories they report not only how they defeated one departmental head or another or humiliated a hapless village headman, but how they vanquished the evil designs of the Tamils as well. Indeed everything seems to become grist to the mill of Tamil-bashing. Even a casual remark made in a cricket match is used by a famous historian to claim that the Tamils of Jaffna are cravenly caste-conscious. Off-the-cuff social commentators as well as the tribalist pundits in the newspapers have also got into this act. The implication of these commentaries is that the Sinhalese do not have the problem of castism and only Tamils do. One recent commentator is so ignorant of the political history of the island as to invoke Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s castism! It was indeed the fear of Karava ascendancy by the Goigamas that elevated Ramanathan to high stature by making him the representative of the “Educated Ceylonese” in the Legislative Council.

The fundamental thesis in all these commentaries seem to be that since the Tamils discriminate against their own people they have no right to claim equality with the Sinhalese. This argument recalls forcefully the claims of the American racists in the old days that since, every society practices slavery including Africans themselves, there was no harm in Americans practicing slavery too.

The argument that the Tamils practice discrimination against their own people and are therefore not entitled to claim equality with the Sinhalese is so silly that it should not even elicit any serious consideration. However, since it has been raised, either implicitly or explicitly, it should be faced head-on. There is indeed a simple rebuttal to this argument: whether one is a member of the lower castes or the higher castes, whether one is a Vellala, a Karayar or Kovia or a Nallava, so long as he or she is a Tamil, the victimization and discrimination will be felt equally. When the bombs fell on the people of Jaffna during the early years of the conflict, it fell on all the castes, and the organizers of the various pogroms did not seek out only Vellalas! Discrimination in employment and in the use of the Tamil language in public enterprises affects all the castes irrespective of whether they are high or low. In the struggles the Tamils have waged against their subordination in the Sri Lankan state everyone participated irrespective of caste distinctions, and, as is well-known, even took leadership positions. Even the benighted militants were led by the Karayar and was accepted by all – including the Vellalas, whereas the Sinhlese elite could not abide, at one time, a Salagama as a Prime Minister!

It is, however, the details of the caste system that these off-the-cuff pundits describe that needs serious analysis. It is the case that the caste system in northern Sri Lanka, as well as among the Sinhalese, is an inverted pyramid. The Vellalas are not only the powerful landowning caste but are also in a predominant majority. Insofar as this is the case, they are able to not only dominate Jaffna society economically, but also dominate it politically. Once universal adult franchise was introduced they were able to control the political fortunes of the Tamil people of the North. Not only did Vellalas vote for a Vellala candidate but even the other castes too voted for the Vellala candidates. In the event of a non-Vellala candidate coming forward – for example a candidate from the Kovia community – all the other castes would unite behind the Vellala candidate to ensure that the Kovias would not steal a march over them. This is the case even if a member of a “lower caste” put his name forth as a candidate. Inter-caste rivalry was stronger than anti-Vellala sentiments. With or without the support of the non-Vellala castes, the Vellalas would have maintained their dominance. Thus, the political power of the Vellalas remained intact. The psychology and sociology of this is perhaps not difficult to understand. Even in the West, where the caste system does not operate, the higher working-class and lower middle-class people often vote for the conservative candidates. The reasoning seems to be that it is better to keep one’s own status, as it was, intact, rather than allowing people lower than one to get ahead. Marx spoke about class conflict; there may or may not be a class conflict, but “class fear” seems to operate everywhere. Class fear may be defined as the apprehension of the people that those below them or equal to them in status may overtake them. The envy and resentment of being dominated by the upper castes or class is trumped by the fear of being overwhelmed by the lower castes and classes.

It must be remembered in this context that the caste systems are not binary ones but are graded ones. In the Jaffna system, for example, the Koviyas are an adjacent caste to the Vellalas and are entitled to all the privileges and rights that accrue to the Vellalas. Again, many members of this community, as that of the Karayar benefited from English education and achieved social mobility to become lawyers and doctors and government servants, university professors. The Karayar may be powerless politically, but they are economically independent of the other caste groups. And I am sure that they will not allow themselves to be labeled as “low caste” as some commentators in the newspapers have been known to do. None of the Karayar that I have talked to over the years accepted the claim that they were in an inferior position to the Vellalas but opted for a parallel position. They, as they say, “farm the seas” just as the Vellalas farm the land. Nevertheless they did not just concentrate on fishing as such but became masters of the craft of the sea and built seagoing vessels and engaged in overseas trade. Even within the island many of them became successful businessmen. The entrepreneurial spirit was very strong in their community and why this is so must await a later commentary. The emergence of a market-economy only encouraged these skills. The education they received in missionary schools, as well as sometimes in their own schools, gave them social mobility. So, in no sense were the Karayar victimized anymore than any other group. There were indeed economic disparities within the community that that is true of the Vellala community too.

Many, if not all, of the commentators on the Jaffna system seem to have a picture of a rigid and unchanging structure that has remained intact over the years. This truly a very stupid ahistorical and unsociological view of things. Social change is ongoing and over the last 50 years – or longer – changes have occurred that have altered the status positions and employment opportunities of the non-Vellalas. Among these changes, I would call attention to just two decisive steps that have changed the Jaffna system radically. One is the coming of the missionaries and the opening of schools all over the peninsula and the other is the free education scheme. These Christian schools did not actively practice discrimination against non-Vellala caste and indeed encouraged them to attend their schools and colleges. They were, after all, ripe for conversion! Even before the arrival of the Protestant educational missionaries, the Portuguese Catholics had made inroads into the Karayar community and opened opportunities for employment and even leadership in the communities. These schools gave its pupils proficiency in English and enabled them to get employment in government service and in the professions not only in the island but also overseas in Malaya, Singapore and Burma. It is a canard to claim that only the Vellalas benefited from these schools. Once again, I like to point out, that since they were in a substantial majority in the peninsula they obviously benefited most, but the other castes were not excluded from the fruits of English education.

I spent the first 28 years of my life – except for brief interruptions to study in Colombo for two years and then in Peradeniya for a few more years – studying and teaching in Christian schools. From kindergarten to my senior year, I studied at Jaffna College (1938—1950) and never did I see any member of my class being asked to sit in a lower desk or in the back of the class. Admittedly, this could have happened in isolated rural schools. Further many of my classmates were indeed non-Vellalas - though at the time I didn’t know it and I don’t think many of my classmates did either, because we didn’t pay attention to these things. Even before free education came along in Jaffna many non-Vellalas were admitted to the schools and given such a sound education that they became famous and not so famous professionals and indeed became leaders in their professions. I do not want to mention any names here and furthermore it would take a careful caste-census to discover how many non-Vellalas entered the professions both in Sri Lanka and in Malaya and Singapore.

Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the three “outcastes” were subject to discrimination by all the other casts – not just by the Vellalas. Even this had begun to change. In the early sixties, when I was teaching at a college in Jaffna, there were at least four students, to my knowledge, who were from these communities in my class of 30 students. I knew their status because I was acquainted with their fathers. I am sure this too has changed for the better now.

In conclusion, I must say that I am rather mystified as to why the tribalist commentators are so full of anti-Tamil venom. After all the Tamils have been vanquished, no doubt helped by the folly of the militant Tamil leadership, once and for all. Their elected political leadership has been rendered powerless, their demographic strength diminished beyond repair and their cultural annihilation is going on apace. The ruling circles among the Sinhalese will appoint select committees and arrange conferences etc. and pretend to consider meeting the grievances of the Tamils while vigorously pursuing its discriminatory policies. The representatives of the Tamils will participate in these charades, since they have no alternative, but nothing will change for the Tamils. After all, these conferences have been going on for over 50 years without any tangible changes. These conferences are in fact wily attempts to forestall playing fair by the Tamils: pretend to be serious about dealing with the problem and then find some excuse to do nothing about it.

So, the tribalist commentariat can rest easy now. There is no danger of the Tamils ever gaining their rights or their demographic strength. And these commentators should learn to accept victory with the same grace with which Sangakara’s cricket team accepted defeat in the World Cup!

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