24 October, 2021


Caste In The Tamil Diaspora

By Sinthujan Varatharajah –

Sinthujan Varatharajah

Endless waves of discriminatory policies and race riots unleashed on Tamils in Eelam/Ilankai evolved into an all out civil war that gave birth to a mass exodus of Tamils onto the shores of countries thousands of kilometers apart from home. This exodus of Tamils did however not only lead to the movement of marked bodies via foot, trains, boats, trucks and planes, but also to the movement of their rich and diverse customs and beliefs. The long lasting process of uprooting, dislocating and reintegrating Tamil bodies led to a parallel process of uprooting, dislocating and reintegrating cultural norms that are understood to be Tamil. Removed from its ancient cultural habitat, Tamil bodies and their respective culture/s found their new homes in an exile afar from home.

Part of what evolved over centuries to become Tamil culture is the ancient caste system, which took a pillar role in regulating social relationships amongst Tamils of all religions. Whether Hindu, Christian or sometimes even Muslim, caste produced and reproduced over multiple generations social barriers and regulations that created societies divided by inequalities and injustices. Thereby caste emerged as a social contract which bound together and managed people of different creed, origin and occupation into a relationship of inter-dependency, exploitation, humiliation and physical and social violence. With the emergence of Tamil nationalism as a response to an increasing Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, Tamil casteism faced unseen challenges by the socially progressive policies propagated by the armed Tamil resistance forces. Despite these challenges that questioned the authority of caste as a social regulating body, the caste system however continued to operate in overt and covert forms amongst larger Tamil society.

With the former and more recent exodus of Tamils and the ongoing ‘outflux’ of marked Tamil bodies from the island state, almost one third of the entire Eelam/Ilankai Tamil community finds itself today externally displaced and relocated in various corners of the global map. The removal of Tamil bodies and culture/s from the island into a number of unfamiliar states and societies obliged social norms and customs to be renegotiated and modified accordingly. In this process, intra-social relationships underwent a variety of changes in times of crisis, solitude and dependency. Thus, caste identities, behaviourism and boundaries as crucial social criteria and markers that have historically coined intra-social relationships amongst Tamils came equally into question.

Today, caste remains despite our diasporic being a sensitive issue that remains unspoken and covered. Questions such as: what diasporic formations caste today takes, what toll has the exodus and diasporic livelihoods taken upon caste identities and boundaries of Tamils or how did caste vanished or re-emerged in times of uncertainty remain unanswered.

In order to uncover caste from the social silenced imposed upon and identify the prelevance and space given to caste as a social criteria and marker in the global Tamil Diaspora, I’m currently undertaking a research project on caste consciousness amongst the members of the former. As part of the study, I have launched a survey that should help to understand how and in what forms caste continues – if at all – to operate in times of migration and globalization. The study should help to locate and understand contemporary forms of and meanings given to caste in diasporic situations. In the spirit of equality and justice it should further help to uncover what remains covered, and give voice to what remains voiceless.

For this study and its findings to be of weight and importance, it is crucial for Tamils (with Eelam/Ilankai origin) of all age groups (irrespective of place of birth) who form the global Tamil Diaspora, to participate in great numbers.

The project guarantees complete anonymity of all participants. All information provided by the survey participants will be dealt with discreetly and anonymously by upholding the highest ethical standards of academic research. No personal information will be published or shared with any third party at any point during the period of research or after. 

The study’s findings will be presented during next month’s Tamil Studies Conference in Toronto, Canada, and will also be published and available in the public domain.

For further information or questions, please feel free to contact me under:


The survey is available in four different languages:

Tamil: http://freeonlinesurveys.com/app/rendersurvey.asp?sid=4o7zov6o7wnqt3835146

English: http://freeonlinesurveys.com/app/rendersurvey.asp?sid=zngkz45kz54m1hu32062

French: http://freeonlinesurveys.com/app/rendersurvey.asp?sid=v79z6z8f77utkxn34793

German: http://freeonlinesurveys.com/app/rendersurvey.asp?sid=ets71v6mbiu5h2c32820


About the researcher:

Sinthujan Varatharajah is a graduate student of Sociology (MSc Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (United Kingdom). He has previously studied Political Science and Human Rights (BSc Hons). His research interests include postcolonial theory, race theory, casteism, multiculturalism and migration studies.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    This “study” is quite unnecessary as it evokes memories of divisions among tamils, when all are trying to forget all what happened and to forge ahead to a new future.
    “Caste” consciousness will exist in minds for some time more, and will come to the fore especially when marriages are arranged, but even this is becoming a thing of the past.
    Please do research into matters useful to society.

    • 0

      You say that this topic is unnecessary,ah!.The only necessary thing in life for you is Srilanka bashing.This article on Tamil cast discrimination is pretty embarrassing for you,no doubt about that.There will be more embarrassing things in store for you.You dirty so called high cast Tamils had to lick the toes of low cast Prabakaran to deliver Ealam,ah!Shame shame!You rascals discriminate against your own people and accuse that you are being discriminated by GOSL.You so called high caste Tamils,what do you expect from us?The great high cast Tamils licking the toes of the white man.When it comes to cast discrimination,you don’t care a shit about human rights.Damned cowards!The official toe lickers to the world”The high caste Tamils”.A damned waste of time writing about these high caste Tamil clowns!

      • 0

        Tamilrice-board has enslaved Sinhala rice-board as Kovia

        Jaffna farmes have to suffer withou water in that dry climate, notasign of any high status group.
        Some were bought to grow tobacco.

        In the White mans world all brownies are low-caste !!

      • 1

        Dear Max,
        Have you not heard of ‘castes’ among sinhalese – goigama,karawa,salagama etc. etc. There many other sub castes too – pottery makers,kitul makers,coconut tree climbers, dancers etc.
        The Maha Sangha itself is divided on castes – only goigamas can join the Amarapura Nikaya, lower castes can join only Ramanna Nikaya etc.

    • 0

      my sentiments exactly…

  • 0

    [Edited out] terrorist KARUNA AMMAN now with GOSL. but [Edited out] terrorist PRABAKARAN now only see at youtube NANDIKADAL.

  • 1

    This looks to be an interesting study. But why restrict it to Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora? How about the situation in Sri Lanka itself. By Sri Lanka, I mean the Sri Lanka comprising Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims, Upcountry Tamils, Burghers, Buddhists, Christians…
    And, the debates here would be much more informed if blanket statements are avoided by some rather “vocal” contributors.

  • 0

    Dear Friend,
    I am a Sinhalese. I do have an experience of Caste Discrimination in Post War Situation. We, University teachers, went on a trade union action demanding a payhike in 2011.
    JAffna University has organized a rally in Jaffna. We were invited to take part. The two friends, I am refering seems to be well wishers of LTTE. They have represented Tamil Cause without showing any differences.
    The Two friends were accompanying us to JAffna and one have arranged breakfast at her home on the way. However, the other Tamil friend stayed in the bus and was not invited into the home. He explained privately to me, this is what Wellala politics is.

    • 1

      May be they eat only rice and daal as they were enforced to control their diet, no meat and fish for them.

  • 0

    Thanks Sinthujan for starting a discussion on an unspoken topic which is important
    Thanks Upul for your contribution, excellent to hear from a third person.
    We have plenty of issues, not only the national question. Especially we expect from people who lives and grows up in casteless countries a different behavior. I have used this term castless and made the experience from the oppponents saying ” we have caste and they have class” in public discussions.
    To be honest we know we have cast and class, or better expressed we have everything.
    Is it not interesting to do the same survey for sinhalese diaspora?

  • 1


  • 0

    vellalars,dhobys,barber castes were attacking in 1871 tamils caste riots,in 1931 vellalars attacked the pallar castes,low castes were not allowed to play drummers for funarals,now it has reached for fund collection in 2012.tamils will revolt amongst tamils.

  • 0

    I think the debate is important, but sadly this is also descending to a predominantly “Tamil-bashing-Sinhala-Buddhist assertion” space.

    That does not do any good to the cause of Sri Lanka.

    I know that both Sinhalese and Tamils (the two main ethnicities in Sri Lanka by numbers) have a lot of caste issues lurking in the sub-soil. To those who say here that the case issue is restricted only to Tamils, just two points: a) Those among you who are spotless please throw the first stone, and b) before you throw that stone, please think about the good old saying “those living in glass houses should not throw stones”.

    I think the research is important, not because it focuses on Caste in the Tamil Disaporta, but because it appears to be the first step towards exploring the issue of caste in Sri Lanka.

    Good choice of topic, Sinthujan. I hope this becomes an objective, clear, and seminal study on caste in contemporary Sri Lanka.

  • 0

    Hi Sinthujan,

    I think this is a very interesting topic. However, you may want to consider narrowing the focus. It seems as if you are considering the prevalence of caste in today’s society, after the backlash of the war in the Tamil diaspora. It may make for an interesting study to consider the way caste is viewed by younger generations, perhaps those who immigrated to other parts of the world at a young age.

    For many people who grew up in Sri Lanka, confronted by the real impact of caste, it may be hard to differentiate and even question its presence. Those who are a bit more removed from this social reality, may be able to shed light and question the viability of caste constructs and its limitations.

    One of the commentators pointed out that caste seems to become an issue only during marriage. However, marriage is an important institution. It determines the caste of our children and the opportunities open to them. Caste has a real impact on education- what opportunities are open and to whom? Caste is a form of oppression and those who are unwilling to question it are those who are obviously in a privileged position.

    Good luck on your survey.

  • 1

    Many Govigama UNPers did not vote for Gen. Sarath Fonseka because he was karava..

    Many of whom are clost trusted by the madamulana president are govigama southern people.

  • 1

    Many Govis who are no longer stuck in the mud voted for General
    Some of Mahinda’s cousins also Karava

    Raja, Bamunu, Velanda, Goi is the traditional order

    This Goigama (copy of the Salagaman) is a post Dutch innovation for the mixed race Dutch locals.

    Post DS any tom, dick and harry included from the tiller, labourer, goi and even some padu making this the largest group by far.
    All land was owned by the kings and these were following land tenure system, a subtle form of slavery, part of the land transfered when the land gets transfered from one adigar to the next, etc..

    The land-locked Kandyan kingdom created some rank between the Shudra caste groups of SL as nearly all SL castes are Shudra by the ideological Aryan system.

    The patrons of the ancient Vuhares were Kings, traders, navigators, soldiers, rarely tillers unfortunately.

  • 0

    We are talking of cast discrimination among Tamils!

  • 0

    As a social study this is good.There are academic studies on Sinhalese castes but not on SL Tamil castes because academic field was dominated by Vellalas.It is good somebody did some real research.That is in the interest of academic studies. not to keep people divided.The more you research the futility of Vellala supremacy claim will be exposed and differences will disappear.A good dowry and good looks will supersede Vellela pride.

  • 1

    Ohhh Yes the POOR tamils.. As if they were Also Innocent.. 30 Years of terror given out to all Lankans by these powerless poor innocent Tamils

  • 1

    Better convert your name, Mr or Mrs or both. SJV, to Anagariga Dharmapala, Sinha Regiment,SWRD, JHU, JR, JVP or at least to maroun Schal.

    Sinhalese are very proud people. Do not spoil their name

    Come out and use your real name

  • 0

    In 1931 the Vellalar attacked the lower castes for hiring drummers for funerals. The message of the Vellalars was clear – no low castes could hire drummers for funerals! Do Tamil speaking Sri Lankans need to be reminded that they did not allow low castes to enter any place that Vellalar frequented? Yet when a government directive on “equal seating” emerged violence broke out in 1929 against low caste Tamil speaking Sri Lankan sitting on benches as previously they had to sit on the floor! This was how Tamil speaking Sri Lankans treated their own!Continuous petitions were written pleading the Government to cancel the directive. Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to request the Colonial Office in London to encode caste into legislative enactments.

    It was S.W.R.D Bandaranaike who opened the doors for low caste Tamil speaking Sri Lankans to attend schools & temples – places that were taboo to them by their own Tamil speaking brethren.
    The Social Disabilities Act No. 21 was passed in the parliament in 1957 giving lower castes of Tamil speaking Sri Lankans the right to attend schools & temples as the part of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike’s plan was to penetrate into the “low caste” votes of Tamil speaking Sri Lankans.

    No sooner Vellalar realized the dangers of SLFP led by S.W.R.D Bandaranaike courting the low caste Tamil speaking Sri Lankans, Vellalar devised their response. It was to create the best division possible. A rift between the Tamil speaking Sri Lankans and Sinhala speaking Sri Lankans which would strike better success than low caste-Vellalar divisions among Tamil speaking Sri Lankans. It is important to note that the satyagrahas, the tarring of Sinhala letter “SRI” on vehicle licence plates launched by the Veluppilai Chelvanayagam led Federal Party and G.G Ponnampalam led Tamil Congress – both Vellala high class political parties happened a year after making Sinhala the official language. Why did Federal Party and Tamil Congress not cry foul over the Sinhala Only Act in 1956 but oppose the Social Disabilities Act on 1957 with such venom? It is because Tamil speaking Sri Lankans wanted to deprive their own.

    Similarly, when the Srimavo led SLFP Government introduced university standardization in 1973 those that opposed were those who were against equitable distribution. The schools in thirteen out of twenty two districts did not produce a single engineering or medicine student until 1974. Students from Colombo and Jaffna who had been privy to education opposed opportunities that would be enjoyed by students from Batticaloa, Vanni, Ampara, Mannar, Monaragala & other less developed districts. While the composition of the ethnicity did not change entrance, for Tamil speaking Sri lankans it meant not only the Vellalar but lower caste Tamil speaking Sri Lankans too would gain university entrance. This was why Vellalar opposed the 1973 university standardization introduced by Srimavo led SLFP Government.

    Tamil speaking Sri Lankans who cry “discrimination” may like to recall how in the refugee camps during the 1983 riots Vellalar refused to share common toilet facilities with the low castes and a lot of problems arose inside the very camps housing only Tamil speaking Sri Lankans!

  • 0

    During the colonial time Vellalar and the Madapalli castes who provided most of the Mudaliyars to village headman who owned most of the arable land. Below the Vellalar were the Koviar who were also involved in agriculture. The people of the fishing castes, collectively known as the Karaiyar, were independent of this social structure to which the landed communities were bound. The Chettys were well known as traders and owners of Hindu temples and the Pallar and the Nalavar composed of the landless labourers who tilled the land. Other castes composed of traditional barbers, washers, potters and general service providers. In Jaffna Paraiyar lived in segregated settlements and were the untouchables, just as in the modern Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Under Tamil leadership in Jaffna Thurumbar – washers for toddy tappers and other low-caste families were not allowed to walk in daytime just in case their sighting would pollute the pure eyes of the Vellalar. The Thurumbar had to drag a branch behind to wipe the footsteps they leave when they walk at midnight so that the feet of the Vellalar would not be polluted next day by treading on low-caste footprints. Schools attended by low-caste children were burnt and low-caste students physically assaulted.
    Velupillai Prabhakaran perfected the fascistic culture of Tamil violence with his cult of violence that was not restrained by basic values of humanity. Torture, murder, incarceration, kangaroo courts, feeding Tamil dissidents to crocodiles in the Iranamadu tank, kidnapping teenage school children from the care of their parents and throwing them as sacrificial lambs to a war he could not win were all a part of his cult of violence which was glorified by the Tamil Diaspora. The Tamil Diaspora wallowed lustily in Velupillai Prabhakaran’s violence. The sadism of the Tamil Diaspora was demonstrated by the increase in the collection of funds abroad each time Velupillai Prabhakaran went on a killing spree. Their heroism was expressed in filling the war chests of Velupillai Prabhakaran led LTTE. Each time the Tamil Diaspora oiled the killing machine of Velupillai Prabhakaran led LTTE it was the Tamils left behind who had to pay with their lives. The Jaffna Tamil culture gave no choice to the Tamils: it was either fascism of Vellalar or fascism of Velupillai Prabhakaran.
    In the north the Jaffna Tamil leadership failed the Jagffna people under both regimes. They never qualified to be just and fair leaders/rulers of the Jaffna people. The violence directed against their own people has condemned the Jaffna Tamil leadership as the most unbearable, unacceptable Pol Pots of our time. With all its infirmities there was democracy and liberal space in the south. In the north, fascism and violence became a common existential experience of daily life.
    The evil in the Tamil culture, which was transmitted to Velupillai Prabhakaran, is represented precisely and accurately in the LTTE flag flown by the Tamil Diaspora as their symbol of pride and glory. It is the most obscene flag under the sun. There isn’t a single redeeming feature in it to project the Tamils as members of a civilized race. Its violent symbols – a snarling tiger putting his carnivorous head out of a ring of thirty-three bullets placed against two crossed guns fixed with bayonets – represent only a barbaric, blood-thirsty violence culture inherited from the Vellalar. Every inch of the LTTE flag questions the values of the Jaffna Tamils and their capacity to co-exist with other communities in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious world.
    The misguided Tamils might read it as a sign of their power. But where have their tigers, bullets, guns and bayonets taken them? It is a flag that is comparable only to the skull and cross-bones of the marauding pirates. It is a flag that can only lead the Tamils to further deaths and destruction under another fascist leadership. And yet the Tamil Diaspora continues to hero worship Velupillai Prabhakaran, the designer of the hideous flag. Tamil Diaspora seems to be possessed by the fascist DNA of their Tamil forefathers who despised their own people and kicked them around as if they were pariah dogs. In a sense, it is fitting that Tamil Diaspora should fly this flag because it not only exhibits their vile past but guarantees that the future will be no different.
    The confrontations, aggression and violence came only from the racist Jaffna Tamils, who exploited the issue to drag Jaffna deeper into mono-ethnic extremism. They succeeded in disguising their economic and class interests and promoting it as an act of discrimination against the Tamil-speaking Sri Lankans. The Tamil language issue was driven aggressively only by the racist Jaffna Tamils and not by the Tamil-speaking plantation workers, Tamil speaking Muslims or the non-Vellala Tamils of the eastern province.
    The aggression and violence of the racist Jaffna Tamils proved the Karl Marx’s theory that the ruling class will not give up power without a struggle. And true to the barbaric character of the Jaffna Tamils they declared war on the rest of Sri Lanka by passing the Vadukoddai Resolution in 1976 – the period when Tamil supremacy was in its last legs.
    Racist Vellalar of Jaffna were the founders of the fascist culture in Jaffna. Despite the civilized veneer presented to the outside world, Jaffna Tamils ran a fascistic regime reducing the depressed Tamils to slaves. Jaffna Vellalar’s cruel caste system has no other parallel in any other part of Sri Lanka. Jaffna Vellalar virtually had a free run of the Jaffna peninsula because the colonial rulers turned a blind eye to the subhuman Jaffna Vellalar culture of violence. Thesavalamai legitimized slavery and the Jaffna Vellala slave-owners ruled the peninsula with an iron fist, with the Portuguese, Dutch and English colonial administrators often refusing to interfere in the laws and customs of the ruling caste and class.
    Thesa (land) walamai (laws and customs) legitimized the land-owning Jaffna Vellalar as the slave-masters of Jaffna peninsula. From feudal and colonial times until May 18, 2009 when the Tamil cult of violence sank in Mullivaykal, Jaffna peninsula was under the jackboot of, first, Vellala fascism followed, second, by their equally brutal fascists – Velupillai Prabhakaran led LTTE. Both Vellalar and Velupillai Prabhakaran led LTTE oppressed and subjugated Tamils and denied their victims the fundamental right to live with even a modicum of dignity and self-respect. The LTTE took over from where the Vellalar left and perpetuated the cult of fascist violence which reduced the Jaffna Tamils to subhumans.

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