Caste – Positives

by Gaja Lakshmi Paramasivam

(August 26, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) I respond to the article ‘Caste & Politics’ by Professor Robert Sidharthan Perinpanayagam, published in Sri Lanka Guardian.

I enjoyed reading this article very much and could identify with most of it. In some ways it helped me complete the cycle in relation to Tamil Community. The part that I deeply identified with is the following

‘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.’

That in essence is the Tamil culture as I know it.

This above to me is true and yet I could not outline it as clearly as Professor Perinpanayagam has done – probably due to my strong focus on eliminating unjust discrimination – including on the basis of caste. The Jaffna caste system was included in Thesavalamai – the Tamil system of customary laws. It was appropriate due to the caste system being based on the type of work done. Had it been practiced genuinely – it would still hold good – as good as any workplace law. On the other hand, the secular workplace laws which are not practiced often have worse effects than the caste or even race systems, due to excessive ‘showing and telling’ about Equal Opportunity principles.

Even today, leadership is natural to the Vellala caste as it is for men in a family and to Whites in Australia. Most of us use the male names as our family names. It is not merely habitual. It is due to belief in our ancestors. Unlike in the West – it was customary for Sri Lankan Tamil males tended to use their given names as their surnames once they were ‘adults’. My husband’s surname for example is Paramasivam but his father’s surname was Subramaniam. Now as per Australian culture - our son carries Paramasivam as his family name. I was pleasantly surprised when during a recent family dispute over the estate of his brother – my husband who usually is very accommodating of his sisters – put his foot down and insisted on the application of the principles of Thesawalamai. Irrespective of the legal outcomes – my husband urged his nephews from Vaddukkoddai where the first political claim of Independent Tamil State was made, not to give up their rights as male descendents. To the surface reader this may seem to be discriminatory against the sisters. On the contrary – if this were not done – the effect would have been discriminatory against the sons who did take majority responsibility for the family including the sisters who were given ‘dowry’, including from the brothers.

In terms of females and males – Thesawalamai is the best system known to me in a community where majority women are homemakers. Likewise in terms of caste – to the extent it was job related – it was a system that supported workplace relations towards harmony by helping each one position himself. This I believe, is also why the Northern Tamils were/are outstanding in Public Administration. To the extent we believe in our elders, their system works for us – irrespective of what caste they belonged to and what caste we belong to. It was therefore beneficial for a Pariah to believe in a Vellala leader to get the essence of the wisdom of that leader. Genuine belief cleans us of unjust discrimination by either side.

During the depth of my pain at the University of NSW – which I believe/d was due to subconscious racial discrimination – I allowed myself to be cured by a song by Saint Nandanar who was born into Pariah caste and therefore had to pray from outside the temple. But Nanthi (sacred cow) moved so Nandanar could ‘see’ the Lord from the outside.

In Australia, I did the work of a Pariah (Toilet cleaner) because in my early days, I could not get jobs appropriate to my qualifications. To me the effects are the same – denial of earned benefits at a level beyond our parallels in the community of the custodians of benefits. Hence, unless I know of an Australian qualified chartered accountant who also worked as a Toilet cleaner/Pariah, due to lack of job opportunities, to me my demotion was due to racism. Confirmation of this is had, once we make to the higher level.

Unjust discrimination is painful – whatever its form. If we remove unjust discrimination in the strongest form that we see it through, we would have effectively cured ourselves of most forms of unjust discrimination. We take this Shakthi/Power wherever we go. To me the refusal to the Vice Chancellor of the University of NSW despite having worked to uphold the highest standards in Public Service – was similar to Nandanar being not allowed into the temple. Back then it was the cultural law in India – as was white Australia Policy in Australia. Social thinking from such policies does not go away in a short time. We do undergo pain but that also frees us from attachment to the benefits in the custody of the higher caste/race..

Taken at the national level in Sri Lanka, to my mind – both JVP and LTTE have rebelled due to caste related problems. During this discussion in a Sydney forum, a Sinhalese participant objected strongly saying that JVP problem was due to unemployment and not caste. To me, they are closely linked due to the higher castes holding the reins. The ruling castes would naturally tend to lead and unless they consciously look around – discrimination is likely to happen. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 could be seen as racism or as security measure. UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination was the form in which we see UN’s judgment. Those who seek to be Global – need to accept this as the basis whether they agree or not ; like it or not. Those who work most and/or sacrifice deepest are the real leaders of belief based followers. In every science, we accept with faith the discoveries made by others before us. Those who are not able to believe in individual/s before themselves are not likely to contribute to growth of status. This is why more and more Public Organizations are moving towards business and money based measures.

When I brought legal actions against my supervisors and government officials I considered to be responsible through failure to use affirmative action – it was based on my belief. On merit basis I measured highly positive and hence there were no lawful reasons for persecuting/punishing me. But to deliver judgment on belief basis – the judge needed to not only believe me but also have the courage to express it against officials who enjoyed high status in society. By giving form to my pain through the law available – I was able to know the limits of our legal system and free myself from expectations that the legal system would deliver justice. I still use and contribute to the system – but as a free individual who is not overly affected by their judgments. The experience helps us better relate to each other – with me taking my place as given by them and doing extra work to fill the gap.

This I feel was also the case with many Tamils who succeeded to make it to the top from being born in lower castes. Those of us who continue without being deterred by defeats and demotions – make the highest contribution to society. That is the opportunity we have that the higher classes do not have. If we keep fighting at their level – despite knowing that they are not likely to believe us – we would become like them and hence resort to revenge actions. Instead, if we keep moving on, guided by our Truth – opportunities come to us. Such opportunities deliver satisfaction that no amount of extracted ‘win’ or money could bring. They are ownership opportunities.

Strong secular system of workplace relations will automatically eliminate the caste / race system from the common workplace. Sri Lankan Government is elected through majority vote and therefore the Sinhalese ruling class are likely to dominate as the ruling class. As an academic at the University of NSW said about Union leaders – once they get into official positions within the institution – they talk the same language as the hierarchy. This seems true of the Sinhalese too. It would happen until the leaders invest more in discriminative thinking and those who used discriminative thinking on the basis of the substance before them – than in majority vote. Any country/institution driven by majority vote would not progress intellectually. The discriminative power of the brain is weakened due to excessive idle-time.

If we seek high status at the global level – we need to actively use anti discrimination laws with appropriate measures of Affirmative Action. These do not officially exist in Sri Lanka at the moment and hence it is highly unlikely that the next generation leaders would know what to do when there is another ethnic conflict. The other alternative is Devolution – Indian style. What we cannot afford is to do nothing out of fear of losing votes. The true Governor would neither desire nor fear. The path of such a Governor is the path that would lead us to Peace and Harmony.

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