By Basil Fernando –
Casteless or Caste-blind? – Dynamics of Concealed Caste Discrimination, Social Exclusion and Protest in Sri Lanka – edited by Kalinga Tudor Silva, P.P. Sivapragasam and Paramasothy Thanges, is a very important addition to the studies on caste and its continued impact on the Sri Lankan society. To those who wish to or pretend to believe that caste is no longer a relevant issue for Sri Lanka, this study should serve as an eye-opener.
The research team who have contributed to this study have identified three types of caste based discriminations in Sri Lanka; the caste as it exists in the North and East, among the Tamil community; the caste organization within the Tamils of Indian origin that is – the estate workers; and the caste discrimination among the Sinhalese.
This study confines to the experience of caste from the Dalit perspective. In the Sri Lankan context from the point of view of what are called depressed castes. The study concludes that from the point of view of their limited study about 30% of the Sri Lankans fall within this category.
Study of caste within the Tamil population provides great deal of data while also providing some important insights into the struggles against caste, among the Tamils in the recent history. It is interesting to note how the caste issue was an important focus in the Tamil political struggles and how the upper caste politicians change the focus of Tamil politics as directed against the Sinhalese. Thus, creating an impression of absence of distinctions and conflicts among the Tamils themselves. The LTTE on the other hand, imposed a ban on caste in the territory that they controlled, and thus once again directed the struggle of the Tamils identifying the Sinhalese as the enemy. However, after the end of “the war”, the caste factor has once again re-surfaced which has led some groups from the depressed castes wanting to remain in the camps rather than to go back to the localities where they came from due to the fear of being discriminated on the basis of their caste identities. Writing an overview of caste discrimination in Sri Lanka, Kalinga Tudor Silva and Paramasothy Thanges observes, that “…in spite of nearly two decades of war and related population displacements, a growing sense of minority consciousness and an ethnic solidarity cutting across caste among all Tamils and an official ban on caste imposed by the LTTE, caste distinctions continue to exist and affect day to day life, particularly in the Jaffna Peninsula…”.
Among the Tamils of Indian origin, it was a British policy to recruit the workers to work in the estates, from amongst the most depressed castes in India. On the other hand, those who were to exercise a leadership of over these workers such as Kanganis were recruited from better-off castes. This distinction has continued to-date, with some modifications. Even today, those who continue to suffer from greatest amounts of social disadvantages are those who originally belonged to these most depressed castes.
Among the Sinhalese, caste has been a central aspect of social organization over a long period of time, and its influence continues up-to date. “…The caste organization in the pre-British Kandyan Kingdom had a feudal character with an aristocracy known as the Radalas, peasantry – (Govigama), service castes (seva kula) and those expected to provide menial services (niche kula). …” The dignity of each group was determined by the particular group that they belonged to.
There were some castes which were at the bottom layer of the caste system. Amongst the Tamils they were referred to as panchama caste and were treated as untouchables. According to some writers, 18 percent of the total population of Jaffna belonged to this category. Among the Tamils of the Indian origin the three lowest caste groups were pallan (menial workers), parayan (drummers), and chakkilliyan (toilet cleaners). Despite of their numerical strengths, these groups suffered greater discrimination. Among the Sinhalese, three small caste groups namely rodiya (beggars), kinnara (mat weavers), and gahara (executioners) were treated as out-castes. They often lived in isolated villages. Other caste groups that also suffered greater discrimination included padu/bathgama (manual labourers), berawa (drummers), wahampura (juggery makers), and kumbal (potters), and these were subjected to many forms of discriminations and prohibitions imposed by upper castes (the govigama and radala). According to some writers 20 to 30 percent of the Sinhala population belonged to these depressed caste groups.
The book consists of the following chapters; Cast discrimination in Sri Lanka – and overview; Caste Distinction in Sinhala Society; Caste discrimination in the war affected Jaffna Society; Caste Distinction among Indian Tamil Plantation workers in Sri Lanka; Urban untouchability: condition of sweepers and sanitary workers in Kandy; Conclusion and recommendations; and several Annexures. In fact, these Annexures, make interesting reading and provides much insight not only to the caste system, but also about the discourse on caste in Sri Lanka.
One of the speakers at one of the Seminars reported in an Annexure, expresses the view that one time, it was common in Sri Lanka to deny the existence of discrimination on the basis of gender. However, this has undergone considerable change in attitudes due to the work of many persons and groups who consistently exposed the issue of gender discrimination. He hoped that the present day denial of caste discrimination will also undergo such a change and this form of discrimination and its impact would be gradually recognized. Many of the speakers at these seminars have also given series of recommendations for better recognition of the problem and for the development of a policy framework to deal with the caste issue.
This book makes a strong argument exposing the myth of casteless-ness and the prevailing caste-blindness in Sri Lanka.
It may be noted, that caste-blindness is expressed often in many different forms; often it is said that with social changes and education, caste has ceased to be an important consideration in Sri Lanka. There are others who argue that since Sri Lanka is a Buddhist society, caste never played an important role in Sri Lanka. However, anyone who looks into the day to day affairs in the country, including the ways politicians are selected for contesting various constituencies, the way the caste becomes a consideration for the selection of important social positions and jobs, and how caste is used for black mailing to undermine opponents both in the public and private spheres, would know the tremendous influence that caste plays in the Sri Lankan life.
When the basic organizational structure of society has been designed on the basis of caste, and when this organization has prevailed for over a thousand years, the natural consequence is that it leaves deep impressions within the inner consciousness of the people. With modern knowledge about the role the unconscious factor plays in the lives of individuals and the society, it is not difficult to comprehend why caste remains such a formidable factor in South Asian societies. In India, there had been great struggles throughout history to overcome these influences. However, in Sri Lanka there had not been such struggles. Unfortunately, defying the great legacy of Buddhism to fight against caste in Sri Lanka in the period of revival of Buddhism the Nikayas that were created adjusted to the caste imperatives. The way caste based prejudices have militated against the development of democracy in Sri Lanka is a tale yet to be told. Casteless or Caste-blind?, is a book that is essential reading for those who are making a genuine effort to understand the nature of Sri Lankan society and those who seek explanations as to how the Sri Lankan endeavor towards the development of a democratic society is faced with such a formidable obstacles.