Colombo Telegraph

A Note On Casteist Racism

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

The material provided by attacks on my articles in the Colombo Telegraph by Tamil racists over a long period prompts the thought that there could be a case for establishing a special category of racism that might appropriately be called “casteist racism”. We can safely assume that practically every ethnic group in the world could produce its quota of racists, and that the extent of the racism and its intensity could vary due to many factors. It also seems reasonable to think that the caste system according to which some castes are born inferior and will remain inferior throughout their lives can conduce to particularly nasty and virulent forms of racism. Earlier I have sought to explain the fact that Tamil anti-Muslim racism has been much worse than that of the Sinhalese on the ground that the Tamils are far more caste conscious than the Sinhalese.

I must briefly recapitulate some of the essential facts that led me to that conclusion. Earlier I listed many details to establish that I should be counted as among the most pro-Tamil of all the non-Tamils in this island. Not one of those details has been refuted, but – true to form – about a couple of Tamils have jeered and sneered over my claim to be pro-Tamil. The insistence has continued that I have been for several decades an extreme anti-Tamil racist. What is most interesting is that there has been no serious attempt to substantiate that charge, none whatever.

One Tamil has argued that the concerted attacks against me by around seven to ten Tamils that went on week after week for several months were the work of just one individual who assumed several Tamil nom de plumes. His argument was that all the attacks showed an identical style. It is possible that the concerted attacks had behind them a foreign Islamophobic group or a state. But since then practically every article of mine has provoked attacks by one or more Tamils, exhibiting the same hysterical hatred and mad dog rage. One Tamil held that the attacks were because I had infamously advocated famine as a weapon to subdue the Tamil rebellion. But I have shown more than once that I was outspokenly against that. It is known of course that part of the explanation for Tamil anti-Muslim hatred is that the Muslims consistently took the Sinhalese side against the Tamils. But I believe that I am the only Muslim to have consistently berated the Muslim politicians for their support for every bit of Sinhalese racist idiocy against the Tamils.

I and others have not been able to make out the rationale behind the Tamil attacks on me except on the ground of an intense caste mentality among the Tamils. Relevant in this connection is my last article on Muslim identity in relation to caste. It is known that many Tamils believe that the Muslims have very little Arab blood in them and that they are predominantly the descendants of Tamil converts to Islam who mostly married low caste Tamils. This kind of idiocy about the Muslims has evidently been prevalent among Tamils after the notorious casteist racist Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan – widely regarded by Muslims as anti-Muslim – propounded his theory that the Sri Lankan Muslims are really Tamils.

How would that Tamil caste consciousness about the Muslims apply to my case? The Tamil casteist racist would regard the Muslims as essentially low caste Tamils, though they have not been assimilated into the Tamil caste system. Consequently they are a people who should be constricted to lower positions in the society. It is alright for them to succeed in business because that has been their traditional occupation. But even in the field of business they should be petty traders, and leave big business to their betters. I am not being caricatural here because that is exactly how Ramanathan saw the Muslims of his time: as engaged in petty trade and menial occupations, ignoring the fact that the Muslim whom he was trying to prevent getting into the Legislative Council was immensely wealthy and lived in regal splendor in Mumtaz Mahal which later became the Speaker’s House. Today the Tamil casteist racist could find it acceptable if I am a big business man, a drug kingpin, or even if I am somewhere towards the top in some of the professions. But I had gained a certain kind of reputation – rightly or wrongly – as a diplomat, and subsequently as a writer, political analyst, a Westernised intellectual and so on. (At this point I can hear the Tamil howls and screams that I am a boastful liar who is trying to conceal the fact that I am third rate in every way). What has to be explained is not that my articles have provoked dissent: if articles provoke no dissent at all, it usually means that they are vacuous. What has to be explained is that they have provoked so much hatred and rage particularly among Tamils. I and others have found it impossible to explain this except on the basis of Tamil racism.

There are excellent reasons to believe that caste consciousness can aggravate racism to a very serious extent. First of all we must note that there is a powerful hierarchical drive in humanity. All complex societies that have a division of labour are organized hierarchically to varying degrees, and hierarchy can be the most extreme under a caste system. Louis Dumont in his famous book on caste Homo Hierarchicus argued that the Indian caste system is not just a system of social stratification like the Western ones. For one thing it valorizes inequality unlike the Western systems of social stratification: it is possible to move towards equality under the Western system but not under the Indian caste system. Furthermore, the Indian caste system is given a religious legitimation under Hinduism. It has to be expected that a mentality shaped by a caste system will be peculiarly prone to racism. It makes sense therefore to talk of a category of casteist racism.

Before concluding I must emphasize that I am not postulating anything like enduring hostility between the Tamils and Muslims because of Tamil casteist racism. For one thing – as the West has been showing us – racism can be combated, contained, and even be eliminated to a great extent. I believe that the majority of the Tamils are not racists but are decent and wholesome human beings just like most members of our other ethnic communities. It is up to that decent non-racist majority to combat, control, even eliminate the casteist racists in their midst. Those casteist racists must be made to accept that the Muslims too will be producing brilliant writers and intellectuals – brilliant figures in every field – and nothing in the world is going to stop that. Why should the Tamil casteist racists work themselves up into impotent hatred and rage over what is inevitable?

This article is no more than an introductory note on casteist racism, containing many points on which I hope to expand in the future. In the meanwhile I must point to a concrete instance of anti-Muslim casteist racism in action. A Tamil racist signing himself as Backlash has been letting off his babooneries in the Colombo Telegraph over practically every article I have written over a long period. He is possibly the agent of a foreign power who has been instructed to keep on throwing mud in the hope that some of it will stick. The Tamil attempts to stop me being published in the Island and the Colombo Telegraph have failed over a long period. Backlash, probably backed by others, has thought that it would be a better ploy to try to get Muslim leaders to stop me writing and being published on the ground that my writings are doing immense harm to the Muslims. He wrote some weeks ago that he had persuaded Muslim big shots to that effect and that they would be talking to me about my articles. None has done so up to now. Backlash has commented on my last article that it has a new note of sobriety which is the consequence Muslim notables having spoken to me. Nothing of the sort has happened. What is interesting is that Backlash has put himself in the position of a Tamil who is advising the Muslims on what is good for them, on the presumption that the Muslims don’t know what is good for them. He has put himself in the position of a superior to an inferior, of an elder brother to a younger brother, of a superior caste to a lower caste. That’s a clear example of Tamil anti-Muslim casteist racism in action.

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