Caste, Politics and the Northern Problem

| by Vishnuguptha

(September 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Wars usually settle nagging national issues. They bring to a close any on-going conflict among parties and with the victor claiming superiority over the vanquished, both parties striving to resolve their outstanding concerns amicably or otherwise. More often than not - history bears testimony to it- what usually happens is the total domination of the losing party by the winner and if the winner has sufficient amounts of capital both military and otherwise, it begins a new chapter of reconciliation and recuperation between the parties. Finger pointing has little to do in such circumstances.

The Marshall Plan

Statesmen of yesteryear have upheld the principles of justice and fair-play, subordinating the petty little differences and excesses that may have occurred during the time of war. Marshall Plan in the wake of the Second World War is such an outstanding example. It is of utmost importance that after the end of hostilities the loser is not subjected to scorn and derision. That process has to flow down from the top to bottom, from the Head of State to the minor bureaucrat in all strata of government. When introducing and enacting the policies of the victorious party it is essential that justice is tempered with mercy.

Magnanimity in victory

Examples of magnanimity in victory are aplenty in human history, but one of the most outstanding ones is recorded in our own Great Chronicle-"Mahawansa"-when King Dutugemunu decreed that every person who passes by the Tomb of Elara, the slain Dravidian King, to remove his headwear and footwear as a mark of respect for the vanquished. Such gestures of generosity of spirit are taught as human values in the histories of almost all countries and cultures. In the famous Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy exhibited such spirit in granting some of the requests Chairman Khrushchev asked after he (Khrushchev) conceded to American demands at the beginning. The victor does not humiliate the vanquished, he offers him a respectable and honorable way out-that is the accepted custom and that is the honourable one. They say, triumphalism and self-glory do not belong in great minds. They reside in the small and puny.

Honourable victors do not humiliate the vanquished

Nevertheless, the world today is in a state of fluidity beyond tangible grasp while the increasing awareness of democratic values and human rights has taken enormous strides, sometimes to the irritation of some rulers and governments. Although the progress in the field of human rights has been remarkable in terms of awareness and consciousness, its real value is yet to be fully comprehended by the less developed societies. Many instances may be drawn from the African continent, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America. Egalitarian concepts have evaded these societies and age-old caste, creed and religion divisions have assumed enormous proportions to the detriment of these very societies. Yet these communities have opted to rot away in the murky mud of the old and stale. This has resulted in violent uprisings, macabre killings of their own fellow beings, irrational squabbles settled by morbid murders and stamping one’s rule in the most inhuman way. This is particularly evident in the African continent.

Notoriously divided my caste and class

South Asia illustrates a different facet of this phenomenon. India and Sri Lanka are notorious for their class and caste divisions. Both countries brag about age-old traditions and the supremacy of two of the oldest religions in the world, Hinduism and Buddhism. Both Hinduism and Buddhism preach, among other things, non-violence (ahimsa) and equality. In fact Buddha was the religious leader who preached and practiced the concept of equality among all human beings, enunciated in the precept: "Najajja Wasalo Hoti, Najajja Hoti Brahmano, Kammana Wasalo Hoti, Kamma Hoti Brahmano" (One becomes a nobleman by his deeds and not by his birth, one becomes an untouchable by his deeds and not by his birth).

Contrary to Buddha’s teachings, Sri Lanka’s Nikaya system based on caste

Yet what is practiced by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka is just the opposite. The Nikaya system created by the Sangha is totally based upon caste. No non-Govigama person shall be ordained under Siyam Nikaya, while Amarapura Nikaya was created by a leading philanthropist in the South of Sri Lanka of a particular caste for similar purposes. Desecration of one of Buddha’s main principles is enacted in the very temple premises! In today’s marriage proposal columns, what is emphasized most is caste, creed and religion. Even in the second decade of the twenty first century, Sri Lankan parents cannot seem to find a way to dispel caste, creed and religion from their main mundane duties of giving their children in marriage. In elections, candidates for certain electorates and districts are chosen purely on the basis of caste.

Dravidians also steeped in class and caste division

On the other hand, the Dravidian people are even more divided on the lines of caste. The issue of the untouchables has pestered this community to such an extent, even public figures like well-known politicians do not hesitate to draw their lines along caste threads. For instance, the Federal Party that later evolved into the Tamil United Liberation Front and still later to the Tamil National Alliance has never been led by any person other than a Vellala caste gentleman. Piripaharan who hailed from the fisherman caste dominated this community solely through the barrel of the gun.

Caste-based politics of Sri Lanka: Sinhalese Nationalists back Vellala Tamil over Karawe Sinhalese

A unique case in point in the divisive caste-based politic of Sri Lanka is the election held in 1911 for the first Educated Ceylonese Member in the then Legislative Council. The two candidates were Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Dr. H. Marcus Fernando. While Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan hailed from the Tamil Vellala caste and from the so-called Royal Family of Jaffna, Dr. Marcus Fernando represented the Karava caste among the Sinhalese. The Sinhalese leaders at the time including some die-hard Sinhala nationalists, got together and helped elect Sir Ponnambalam with a comfortable majority, purely because of the caste factor.

Not so honourable

The divisive mindset on the part of both communities is well illustrated in this. Though this is projected by some as a unique case of inter-ethnic co-existence, underlying factors that led to it are not so honorable.

Both Sinhalese and Dravidian peoples are too deep-seated in this mindset. Sub-divisions within their own communities were taken very seriously, displaying this outlook especially in matters of matrimony and other family ceremonies and rituals. One cannot say which community is more entrenched in this morass- whether it’s the Sinhalese or the Tamils.

When these two communities clash and our history bears testimony to such periodic and frequent clashes, the very nature of the subservient adherence to sub-divisions and other nuanced differences burst asunder, making reconciliation and forgiveness almost impossible.

The Break-up of Sri Lanka

I quote from "The Break-up of Sri Lanka" by A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, the members of the Soulbury Commission wrote as far back as 1945:

All Sinhalese Heads of State and Heads of Government, from D S Senanayake to Mahinda Rajapakse, failed to negotiate any agreement acceptable to the Northern Dravidians except J R Jayewardene, who was more or less coerced by the Indian government and who left behind the Gandhi-JR Accord. How ironical is it that J R, who virtually launched the campaign against the BC Pact in 1957, had to, thirty years later in 1987, write into law by way of the 13th Amendment to the 1978 constitution, some of the most salient chapters and clauses of the BC Pact?

"When political issues arise, the populace as a whole tends to divide, not according to the economic and social issues which in the West would ordinarily unite individuals belonging to a particular class, but on communal lines. It is this factor more than any other which makes difficult the application of the principles of Western democracy to Ceylon."

This extraordinary perception of the Commissioners is even more pertinent in today’s context. The climax of the Northern Dravidian issue was, ostensibly for all purposes and principles, settled by the annihilation of the armed cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam on May 19, 2010. But does it appear like that any more? The IPDP camps in the North, total absence of any expressive attempt by the victor, in this instance the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL), towards genuine reconciliation, the "Grease Yaka" phenomenon, the lackadaisical approach on the part of the President to the TNA demands are compounded by the Darusman Report, the Channel 4 "Killing Fields" audio visual presentation of alleged grave violations of human rights and crimes against humanity and unrelenting propaganda by the Tamil Diaspora.

To this mix is added the time-tested tactic adopted by successive Sinhalese Heads of State - Parliamentary Select Committee to adjudicate the pro and cons of the Dravidian demands for devolution of power from the center to the Provinces. J R Jayewardene adopted this to the utter frustration of Amirthalingam and his fellow Dravidians.

First genuine attempt to address Dravidian demands

The first politician who proposed a federal system of government for the resolution of this nagging issue was S W R D Bandaranaike in 1926 in the then Legislative Council of Ceylon. However, he in the 1950s as Prime Minister admitted that he changed his mind subsequently.

However, with G G Ponnambalam’s failure with successive Governors of Ceylon in the fifty-fifty demand in the 30s and 40s, the first genuine attempt at paying heed to the Dravidian demands was in 1957 and resulted in the introduction of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact(B-C Pact). Yet in less than two months after signing the pact, Bandaranaike, owing to the pressure brought upon him by Bauddha Jathika Balavegaya, led by Maha Sanga and L H Mettananda, F R Jayasuriya and others, had to disown it. Bandaranaike in a most dramatic fashion tore the paper that the Pact was written on in front of the protesters who chose as their location of the protest Bandaranaike’s own private residence. Apart from these outside pressures, SWRD had opposition to the B-C Pact from within his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party ranks, in addition to the now-famous Kandy March organized by J R Jayewardene who was not even in Parliament at the time but led a defeated UNP from outside.

Dudley-Chelva Pact also failed

Then the Dudley-Chelva Pact, as it was popularly known, was introduced in 1965. This agreement reached between Dudley Senanayake and S J V Chelvenayakam sought to do the same that was envisaged in the Bandaranaike-Chelvenayakam Pact with the establishment of Regional Councils and devolving more powers to the regions including land distribution. This too met with the same fate as was the B-C Pact. Dudley Senanayake failed to get sufficient support from his backbenchers for the Regional Councils to be enacted into law.In both cases, the B-C Pact and Dudley-Chelva Pact, the Sinhalese leaders had to withdraw what was offered at the beginning owing to the pressures brought upon them by their respective Sinhalese-dominated Parliamentary group and the majority of the people from the outside. Both SWRD and Dudley were known to be very liberal-minded politicians, whereas J R Jayewardene was known more for his conservative posture on national issues. Ironically it was this hard-headed "conservative" who left something behind for the Dravidian man in Sri Lanka as a constitutional arrangement - to what extent it is being implemented is another issue - in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka consequent upon the signing of the Gandhi-JR Accord done under severe stress conditions in 1987.

Similarities and contrasts between the Pacts

Let us examine the similarities and contrasts between these Pacts. Both B-C Pact and Dudley-Chelva Pact were signed by two parties in Sri Lanka. Gandhi-JR Accord was between the Head of State of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister of India and it was the only agreement that received the approval of the legislature in Sri Lanka. The first two were aborted after the Sinhalese party to the Accords knew that they could not secure the support among their own party ranks in the legislature. All three agreements, after being signed, were followed by civil unrest; in the first two instances Buddhist clergy was involved to the hilt, while after the Gandhi-JR Accord, a political party (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna/JVP) was ostensibly engaged in the whipping up of communal feelings among the Sinhalese people. Nevertheless, the involvement of Buddhist monks in the riots was no less in this instance too.

Not just an elitist response to granting rights to the masses

While the first two accords were the result of hard negotiations between two political parties-SLFP/FP and UNP/FP respectively-as logical steps of an evolving process between two communities claiming equality of status among others, the Gandhi-JR Accord was a direct result of India’s intervention in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. The situation for the Dravidians, as per their version of the tale, worsened with the passing of years. Sands of time, instead of burying their grievances, fanned further flames. Successive governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority went thus far and no further. The battle fought by the civil organizations met with stonewall after stonewall. When Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan objected vehemently, in the early part of the last century, to the granting of universal franchise to Ceylon, he had a reason for it; it was not just an elitist response to granting rights to the masses.

The government would become unbearably Sinhalese

He foresaw that with the advent of universal franchise, the government that was going to be in power would become unbearably Sinhalese, unbearable at least to the aspirations of the Dravidians. Then we saw the departure of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, Ramanathan’s younger brother, from the National Congress and the sowing of the "seed of Elam" for the first time in modern history of Ceylon in 1923. Both of them thought that they could work with the Sinhalese elite who were dominating the political scene then. Both of them later realized that they could not trust them and they were right. Not Sir James Peiris, not D S Senanayake, not Bandaranike, not anyone.


Then came G. G. Ponnambalam with his "fifty-fifty" demand -seats in the legislature to be divided between the Sinhalese and all other minorities (not just only Tamils as perceived by most of general Sinhalese masses) on a fifty-fifty basis- which, though it appeared very attractive to the Northern Dravidians and Colombo Tamils alike, did not receive much response from the colonial governors. Even Soulbury Commissioners at the time set the "fifty-fifty" demand aside saying it’s not workable. When G G Ponnambalam joined the D S Senanayake cabinet, the more ideologically vigorous group of his followers led by S J V Chelvanayakam, Q.C., formed a new party, the Federal Party which continues up to date with periodic changes to its title name.

A J Wilson’s Break Up of Sri Lanka gives full details of the failures in the processes quite lucidly, sometimes with a pardonable Dravidian tinge to it. What followed is recent history and with the failures of B-C and Dudley-Chelva Pacts, the Dravidian tactics took a drastic turn in 1975 with the killing of Jaffna Mayor, Alfred Duraiappa. The ascent of Piripaharan as the uncrowned king of Jaffna was a logical necessity of this process.

Why did the civil actions fail? Underlying this age-old confrontational relationship between these two communities, is a failure not only to read the other’s mind, strategies and tactics but even to a larger extent, the failure to estimate the other partydetermination to accommodate. The Sinhalese thought that by granting little concessions like Cabinet portfolios to the Dravidian leaders, the tide could be stemmed, while the Dravidian leadership underestimated the Sinhalese leaders’ reluctance to grant equal status to the Dravidians.

Leaders did not descend from the top they emerged from the masses

Individual relationships can never be expanded to engage a total community. Leaders on both sides had very healthy personal relationships with each other on an individual basis. But that was never ever extended to the collective community. Leaders really did not descend from the top but they emerged from the masses, consequently reflecting the hopes, wishes, aspirations, respect and hatred of their followers. Chelvanayakam had once remarked that democracy is all about numbers. The Sinhalese leaders had the numbers, 70% to 11% in so far as Sinhala/Tamil ratio was concerned. For them to get elected to office on a continuing basis they could not afford to antagonize the masses. It was never going to be possible for total amity between the two communities. Unlike India, who had leaders in the calibre of Gandhi and Nehru who shed their parochial thinking aside when dealing in matters of state and nation, Sri Lanka cannot boast of one single political leader who would have risen above the fray. Not then, not now. We are not a country to be governed by Philosopher-rulers. The depth of knowledge, desire to lead to an end and sheer determination shown by Pundit Nehru in the various challenging circumstances in India are totally absent.


All Sinhalese Heads of State and Heads of Government, from D S Senanayake to Mahinda Rajapaksa, failed to negotiate any agreement acceptable to the Northern Dravidians except J R Jayewardene, who was more or less coerced by the Indian government and who left behind the Gandhi-JR Accord. How ironical is it that J R, who virtually launched the campaign against the BC Pact in 1957, had to, thirty years later in 1987, write into law by way of the 13th Amendment to the 1978 constitution, some of the most salient chapters and clauses of the BC Pact?

Lacked raw guts

In the writer’s judgment, both Dudley and Bandaranaike failed to get their respective Pacts passed because they lacked not the desire but raw guts. I dare say that neither Dudley nor Bandaranaike was mentally equipped to handle a crisis of that proportion. Both were confirmed

Oscar Wilde: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars"

liberal thinkers and very able Parliamentarians; yet what is required at the helm is much more than that: it requires relentless pursuit of goals; it requires ruthlessness and alacrity in getting things done. It requires boldness of the mind bordering on being rash. J R had it (although, for unknown reasons he failed in the aftermath of the ’83 July riots). The only other liberal who had that quality was Chandrika Bandaranaike, but she did not display any desire to solve the problem. On the other hand, Mahinda Rajapaksa has proven to be a very bold leader, but he happens to be sitting on the other side of the fence of this national dilemma.

Nehru once remarked thus: "Peace is not a relationship of nations. It is a condition of mind brought about by a serenity of soul. Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people".

Locked in battle

Two communities, either not trusting or accommodating the other, are locked in a battle as old as human history. So it’s a hopeless situation. Where are we to go from here? The present regime does not seem to have the tact or the desire to find a lasting and just solution for this, for they are embroiled in their own posture of self-righteousness. Furthermore, they know very well that in order to win elections they simply cannot "let down" their Sinhalese brethren. The Dravidian leadership today is still shell-shocked from what happened to the once-powerful LTTE. But it could not have escaped their notice how the Jaffna voter answered their call in the recently-held local government elections. The results were an outright rejection of the government policies, more or less a referendum on the regime’s stance on the issue. So, in the absence of a Gandhi, Nehru or Anna Hazare, Sri Lanka will continue to drift like a rudderless boat in the muddy waters of communal politics.

Oscar Wilde said: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars". Do we have amongst us anyone looking at the stars?