Tamil Caste Discrimination

Tamil Caste Discrimination and State Exploitation of Caste Divisions are Causes and Levers of the Ethnic Problem

| by Thomas Johnpulle

(October 03, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Writing to Sri Lanka Guardian, Dr Sebastian Rasalingam made a bold revelation about the nexus between Tamil caste discrimination and the ethnic problem.

Power devolution cannot change things any better. TNA is led mostly by Jaffna centric Vellalar Tamils doesn’t represent the political aspirations of other Tamil speaking people. With or without devolution, caste discrimination will push the ‘low caste’/region-discriminated Tamils towards the open arms of mainstream democracy.
He gave examples some from his own long and rich life. The aim of this writing is to provide conclusive evidence in its justification and to shed some light on how the state shrewdly exploited the situation to its own advantage. In fact, the political, military and counter insurgency strategies of successive governments made good use of the divisions brought about by the Tamil caste system. Today those who truly want to protect Tamils and the Tamil culture of this island have to fight two fronts - Tamil caste discrimination by Tamils themselves and the government that sees divisions brought about by Tamil caste discrimination favourable to its counter insurgency strategy. By defending the caste system, one is actually defending the counter insurgency strategy that rests mostly, if not solely, on these cracks.

Official Language Act (1956) and Prevention of Social Disabilities Act (1957)

Contrary what some observers propagate, the ethnic problem didn’t start in 1956. The concept of Tamil Elam was inaugurated by Sir Ponnambalam Arunchalam as far back in 1923. In 1931 a highly disproportionate 50:50 representation was sought to represent people on an ethnic basis which was actually 70:30. Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi (Lanka Tamil Kingdom Party) was formed in 1949. It has changed its English name from Federal Party to Tamil National Alliance over the years; however, the Tamil meaning remains same.

After a resounding political mandate, the Official Language Act was passed in 1956 making Sinhala the only official language while allowing reasonable use of the Tamil language. It was a very peaceful transition. There were no violent acts, no satyagrahas, no large demonstrations and no serious protests apart from a small protest near the parliament without mass participation. Though it was seen as discriminatory and a great inconvenience, Tamils started to learn the Sinhala language. By then only less than 4.9% of Ceylon Tamil men and less than 1% of Ceylon Tamil women were fluent in English. In the case of Upcountry Tamils it was near 0%. More Tamils were fluent in Sinhala than English at that time. The 1956 Gal Oya regional riot had nothing to do with the Official Language Act which was the result of communal elements trying to assert ethnic enclaves in the East where a multi ethnic irrigation settlement was built in the late 1940s. The riot didn’t spread as it was based on a village level issue and not a national one.

Meanwhile SWRD Bandaranaike (SWRDB), having conquered the Sinhala electorate with substantial Muslim support, was looking at the only remaining political fortress - the Ceylon Tamil electorate of the north and the east. Ceylon Tamil political divisions in the north ran along caste lines but ‘low’ caste Tamils were not organised. While ‘high caste’ Tamils voted for and contested from Tamil race centric parties, others were less attracted to these parties. Even before Independence, at the 1957 general election, ACTC won all the seats in Jaffna District except the Kytes electorate where the majority belonged to ‘low castes’. Tamil electorates in the north were impenetrable for mainstream political parties. SWRDB’s plan was to win the support of ‘low caste’ Tamils and create a favourable support base in the north or to create a rift between the two caste groups and manipulate both. Although it was not an easy task of amassing enough support for a seat under the first-past-the-post system, SWRDB was determined to make use of the caste divisions to advance mainstream politics in the north.

This strategy was since used by all leaders of the country with sufficient political and military success.

As a UN member Sri Lanka upheld equal rights to all individuals and caste stood in the way of equal rights to all persons. Going by this commitment on 12 April 1957 the Social Disabilities Act No. 21 was passed in parliament. Tamil children of ‘lower castes’ could attend school regularly only after this act. People of ‘lower castes’ could participate in religious rites in Kovils without any disturbance from ‘high caste’ individuals. A reawakening happened in the north among previously marginalised Tamils. ( External Link )

Christian groups spearheaded the movement to petition court on any alleged discrimination they came to know. However, it didn’t go down well among the Vellalar ‘high caste’ people. A number of ‘high caste’ Tamils were humiliatingly punished for caste discrimination. Resentment grew against the government. Tamil politicians sensed the double danger of dismantling the caste system and mainstream political parties penetrating into the Tamil community. They took up a racial slogan that pit Tamils against Sinhalese. It worked well in the short run as racial sentiments and fears were drummed up. In the short term it unified Tamils across the caste/region/class divide. Large scale protests, satyagrahas and demonstrations broke out. Ministers were mobbed, Sinhala letters were tarred over a petty issue (having a Sinhala letter instead of English letters in vehicle registration numbers) and a civil disobedience campaign was launched by Tamil race based political parties (Tamil Kachchi and Tamil Congress).

All this happened in 1957 more than a year after the Official Language Act was passed (within 24 hours) and implemented. 

However, it was blamed for the trouble in 1957. Further agitations continued.

In 1957 Bandaranaike and Chelvanayagam (the leader of the Tamil Kachchi) came to a secret pact widely known as the B-C Pact. People, the parliament and even the Cabinet were not informed of let alone sanctioned it. It wasn’t approved by the parliament and therefore lacked legal binding on the parties. ( External Link )

Strangely no resolution of the language issue is found in the B-C pact. Instead it was more about devolving regional power! This is clear proof that it was the Prevention of Social Disability Act and not the Official Language Act that triggered Tamil resistance although the latter was cited as the root cause. The proposed solution had nothing to do with the Official Language Act. By gaining regional control, Tamil race based parties would make the provisions of the Prevention of Social Disability Act powerless and continue to rule over ‘low caste’ Tamils.

Understanding the true power of caste discrimination in the Tamil community

SWRDB was driven by political ambitions to create a favourable political niche within the Tamil community by uplifting ‘low caste’ Tamils. He never knew the width and breadth of the obstacle he was up against. Dr Sebastian Rasalingam has given a list of undeniable, first hand evidence of extreme caste consciousness among Ceylon Tamils. The following are documented events further substantiating his evidence.

It is well documented that in 1847, Arumuga Navalar - a Sri Lankan national hero - left the Jaffna Central College where he was a teacher because a ‘low caste’ Tamil student from the Nalavar caste was admitted to the school by Peter Percival - the principal! He came to the limelight again approximately 30 years later when a famine hit the Peninsular. He worked tirelessly to provide food and medicine to the Jaffna ‘high caste’ (Vellalars) people only. His actions angered not only low caste Tamils but also a cross section of the society. However, as the most prominent leader of the northern people at that time he made a strong statement by his conduct. Discrimination to this extent was never observed among other ethnic groups.

In 1871, Caste clashes erupted between Vellalar, dhoby caste and barber caste in Maviththapuram. The root cause of the riot was alleged that dhoby caste people refused to wash the clothes of barber caste people. Vellalar caste people were blamed for the violence. This is the first known caste/race riot in the island.

September, 1923 saw another caste riot in Jaffna. In Sutumalai, Vellalars attacked Paramba caste people who had hired drummers for a funeral alleging that Paramba caste people had no right to emplot drummers for their funerals as they were ‘low caste’. In 1931 a similar violent riot took place in Canganai, Jaffna where Pallar caste individuals were attacked by Vellalar people for hiring drummers for a funeral. According to Tamil tradition, only ‘high caste’ people could hire drummers and ‘professional mourners’ (a unique practice in the north) for funerals.

In June 1929 caste riots broke out again in the north in response to the ‘equal seating directive’ of the government which was applicable to grant-aided schools. Under this directive ‘low caste’ students were allowed to sit on the bench. Until then they sat either on the floor or outside the classroom. Resultant riots bunt a large number of houses mainly of low caste Tamils. Their children en masse were stopped from attending schools. Repeated petitions were made to the government by ‘high caste’ Vellalars begging to cancel the directive!

Strangely Sinhalese were not discriminated by Tamils in the north. A number of Sinhalese students of both ‘high caste’ and ‘low castes’ studied in Jaffna schools without facing any discrimination during this time.

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, held very strong views about the Tamil caste system. Although he did a yeoman service to build Sinhala-Tamil unity among elite caste politicians of both sides, he argued that the caste system was the very foundation of the Hindu society. In fact senior Sinhala politicians sought his assistance to prevent a ‘low caste’ Sinhalese from getting into the top most position of the colony.

According to the caste view of Hinduism, ‘high caste’ individuals were chosen by God to rule, and the lower castes were there to live according to the dicta of Manu. The learned legislator led two delegations during the in late 1920s demanding the Colonial Office in London that Caste be encoded into the legislative enactments of Ceylon. (Communal politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947, by Jane Russell, Tissara publishers)

This view is further substantiated by the fact that Vellalars are temple patrons providing money for the construction and running expenses of temples and for the maintenance of Brahmin priests. Brahmins are employed by the Vellalas to manage Kovils. Accordingly the priest hands over to the owner ‘prasatham’ or consecrated offerings after the chanting to distribute to the worshippers who receive the offerings. It has given ‘high caste’ Vellalars a dominant position in the Hindu society even bypassing the Brahmins. Extending and manipulating this position, they imposed regulations on others.

Messing up with such a very strong caste system and a caste conscious community came at a hefty price.

Further amendments to the Act

Prevention of Social Disabilities (Amendment) Act No. 18 of 1971 was introduced to overcome the weaknesses of the previous act. The initial act required an aggrieved party to take the matter to court. However, most ‘low caste’ Tamils were poor and couldn’t afford to go to court. The amendment authorised police action in case of a complaint. ( External Link )

This was to be the last nail on the coffin of Tamil caste discrimination. Tamil race based political party leaders were furious. They restarted their satyagraha campaigns and peaceful protests against the government action. In 1965 the government introduced laws to use predominantly the Sinhala language in government offices. However, no large scale Tamil protests were seen. But after the 1971 amendment act, protests started to grow. In 1972 Sri Lanka became a republic severing judicial links with the British Empire. Sri Lankan law became supreme and no further recourse was possible if one was aggrieved by the verdict of local courts. Meanwhile a new generation of educated Tamils started to emerge from the north and the east. ‘Low caste’ previously marginalised Tamils started to study and gain employment. In 1973 university standardisation was introduced as a means of equitably distributing taxpayer funds across the country. It disadvantaged students from Colombo, Galle, Jaffna and Kandy of all ethnicities but was favourable to students from Batticaloa, Nuwara Eliya, Vanni, Monaragala and other less developed districts. The percentage of Tamils in universities hardly changed but the composition between Vellalar Jaffna Tamils and other Tamils changed. Jaffna Vellalar Tamils were furious over it. Meanwhile this made the government and mainstream political parties even more popular among non-Vellalar Tamils. Although the 1977 election which was held under the first-past-the-post system hid the growth in support for mainstream political parties, it was clearly shown in percentages and margins. TULF failed to get the addition of percentages of ACTC and ITAK. Votes for SLFP and UNP increased in 1977 though under the election system they couldn’t win seats. ( External Link )

War unified Tamils across the caste system to some extent but not fully

Following the Vadukoddai Resolution, war broke out. It was a gradual war that started with the assassination of Tamil police officers, regional Tamil politicians and then civilians of other ethnic groups. All non-Tamils were wiped out from the districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mulaitivu and most parts of the Mannar district by armed Tamil groups. Caste was swept under the carpet in the midst of the war by these armed groups. However, the Tamil society never abandoned the caste system. They held on to it. Collapse of government control in the north paved the way to disregard the provisions of the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act there. Caste discrimination crept in once again into the Tamil society.

LTTE emerged as the sole Tamil armed group fighting the security forces. Having grown over a guerrilla force, it developed a civilian branch. The moment the civilian branch was formed, the LTTE had to follow Tamil societal values including the caste system. Otherwise the LTTE would have been rejected by the Tamil society. Caste and region awareness crept into the LTTE. The same phenomenon occurred in other Tamil groups from 1976 to 1987. Ultimately it was caste and region discrimination that led to the dramatic downfall of the LTTE.

Manipulating Tamil caste discrimination by successive governments

In 1978 proportionate representation was introduced to elections. A party with 10% (later reduced to 5%) of the district vote could stand to win a seat depending on the total number of seats. This meant even a small proportion of the population in a district could vote a party to power. In the north this clearly benefited political parties that newly emerged made up mostly of ‘low caste’ Tamils. Jayawardena started from where the Bandaranaikes ended. Clever manipulation of Tamil caste discrimination by government agencies managed to forge favourable Tamil political parties. EPDP is the main political force thus emerged. Except for a few leaders, its voters are mostly from castes other than ‘high’ castes. It was also a paramilitary group fighting the LTTE under government protection, assistance and direction. Exactly 30 years after SWRDB’s attempt to forge a pro-mainstream Tamil political group by uplifting the ‘low caste’ Tamils against the aspirations of ‘high caste’ Tamils came to fruition.

According to media reports, Vaiko, Tamil Nadu politician, made clandestine visits to the LTTE controlled territory in Sri Lanka during the 1980s. - File Photo
Unlike armed forces that are almost totally Sinhala speaking, EPDP managed to penetrate into LTTE support bases and disturb/destroy them. While they played a key military role during war, at election time they played a prominent political role. Presidents Premadasa, Kumaratunga and Rajapaksha continued to associate the EPDP. President Premadasa engaged EPDP in a wide range of political and military activities for the first time and soon thereafter EPDP managed to win the most number of seats in the Jaffna district in 1994 where the election was held only in government controlled areas (election was not held in LTTE controlled areas). For six years (1994 - 2000) EPDP held the Jaffna district under its political leadership. When the entire Jaffna district was liberated from the LTTE in 1995, EPDP’s role expanded.

After a series of battlefield loses the government went into peace talks with the LTTE. During this time the LTTE more and more integrated with the Tamil civil society. A public image was built and more public participation for LTTE cultural activities was seen. This was the time caste and regional status issues restarted to haunt the LTTE. It was an inevitable consequence of integrating with the Tamil society. LTTE’s capable Eastern Commander - ‘colonel’ Karuna was not awarded due regard for his achievements because he was not from Jaffna and didn’t belong to the Vellalar caste. Over the years other petty issues added to his relationship with the LTTE. Ultimately he split from the LTTE with the help of the government. Now the government had created two Tamil armed and political groups manned almost exclusively by non-Vellalar and/or non-Jaffna Tamils. Soon these groups clashed with the LTTE.

Tamil Tigers were engaged in a clever counter insurgency battle in the east. Defected eastern cadres fought against the LTTE unconventional style while security forces kept them engaged in conventional warfare. Without moving any offensive army units (53, 55, 57, 58 and 59 divisions), the army managed to clear the east. Extensive involvement of Tamil pro-government groups with tens of thousands of political activists, military cadres, supporters and well wishers had a dramatic impact on the war. Tamils played a crucial role in intelligence gathering. Going by the names of government sleuths killed by the LTTE during the Ceasefire Agreement, it is obvious that all of them were Tamil speaking and most of them were not from ‘high’ Tamil castes. This is a representative sample of the highly effective intelligence gathering operations of the military spearheaded by Tamil speaking people belonging to castes other than ‘high’ castes.

After the war, EPDP and TMVP have emerged as the only political forces to put pressure on Tamil race based political parties. All this was made possible by Tamil caste discrimination. Instead of totally eliminating it, all successive government made good use of it to pit ‘low caste’ Tamils against ‘high caste’ Tamils both politically and militarily.

In addition, upcountry Tamils and Colombo Tamils are also treated ‘differently’ by Jaffna based Vellalar Tamils. No intermarriages, political marriages and even cultural marriages are allowed between these groups by Jaffna Tamils. These have created further political advantages for mainstream political parties and their military agendas during war at the expense of Tamil unity. After severe discrimination by Jaffna Tamil elements, it is unthinkable that Muslims would be reintegrated into the Tamil community. Those who believe the ethnic problem started in 1956 would appreciate that the politico-military ‘solution’ to that problem was put in place in 1957 by way of another act!

Many attempts were made by Tamil Diaspora groups to bring together these parties but failed. A shallow political marriage would not last without underlying marriages between these various Tamil groups. Change must happen in the society where there is absolutely no caste or region discrimination. Until then, the Tamil community will be in tatters. There is no point denying it or pushing it under the carpet. The more it is denied, the more opportunities manipulators of caste divisions will have.

Today the Tamil community is at crossroads. It must decide and decide quickly, if the community is going to shed its extreme caste consciousness or not. There is no time to live in denial. Unless it is decided soon, caste and region differences will continue and the Tamil community will be divided and weakened.

Interestingly, strong caste awareness was the binding force of the Tamil community in the past. It has since become the downfall of the community. Unable to understand this reality will accelerate the disintegration of the community. Cries of Tamil ‘low caste’ children when they were denied education by high caste Tamils in the north have reached the high heavens and also the ears of defence experts.

Power devolution cannot change things any better. TNA is led mostly by Jaffna centric Vellalar Tamils doesn’t represent the political aspirations of other Tamil speaking people. With or without devolution, caste discrimination will push the ‘low caste’/region-discriminated Tamils towards the open arms of mainstream democracy.

Gone are the days when the government ran behind Tamil politicians for support for their anti-discrimination/social disability laws. It will not happen again as the status quo is beneficial for the government. Now the Tamil community must voluntarily enact its own internal Prevention of Social Disability rule. Hate mongering and perceiving people of other ethnic groups as enemies cannot unify the Tamil community. It has been proven disastrous. When it was used, governments cleverly divided the Tamil community and today the government, its armed forces and paramilitary groups are stronger than ever to maintain such divisions and leverage them for national security needs. In other words, Tamil unity has a new obstacle, which is also a clever and secret supporter of continuing Tamil caste discrimination. The single biggest threat to Tamil continuation is Tamil caste discrimination. Unfortunately for the Tamil community, it doesn’t seem to fully apprehend this and hence the caste system will not be shed anytime soon. That allows disruptive agents inroads into the community.