1 October, 2020

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Debate On ‘Para Dhemalā,’ Ethnic ‘Purity’ And Caste Ideology

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

When I read Charles Sarvan’s first article “Para Dhemalā,” I didn’t see anything objectionable although I sensed perhaps he was not interpreting Michael Roberts’ views on the subject correctly and also I couldn’t agree with his last paragraph which paraphrased Paul Caspersz saying “if one insists on the label “Indian Tamils,” then one should also speak of “Indian Sinhalese.” The paragraph was simply inaccurate. Otherwise there was much meaning and substance to what Sarvan said about ethnic discrimination and caste ideology.

When I was growing up at Moratuwa, almost at the center of the town, I cannot recollect anybody using the term ‘para demala’ even during the cataclysmic communal riots against the Tamils in 1958. Perhaps I didn’t hear them. I had several Tamil friends at St. Sebastian’s College, where I was initially studying, but even there it was not used to my knowledge. But ‘paraya’ was often used not so much at school but in the area where I lived and it was used as a derogatory term in anger or to spite someone who is not liked by you. It also had the connotation that ‘the other’ is inferior.

But even in our school books I believe the terms ‘para desin’ and ‘parangi’ were there and our teachers explained the meanings respectively as ‘foreign’ and ‘Portuguese’ also emphasizing they are not neutral but pejorative terms. In our area, (Sinhalese) people believed that there were two classes of Tamils, those who were called ‘Jaffna Tamils’ and the others, the ‘Indian Tamils.’ Some considered the first group as more or less equal, but not at all the second. But the majority considered both as ‘alien’ and also ‘inferior.’

Having read EW Adikaram’s “A Communalist is a Psychopath” (Jativadiya Manasika Pisseki) as an early teenager, the distinction or the discrimination worried or puzzled me. My effort is not to say that I have been free from any ethnic prejudice. On the contrary, I wish to admit that as a person brought up and socialized within a particular social context, I may have certain prejudices or biases unconsciously. But in my conscious life, I try my best to be free from biases or prejudices while at the same time not rejecting my given ethnic identity.

But the reason to write this rejoinder is not the above. With all respect to Roberts, I believe that there is something extremely significant in what Sarvan has pointed out in his initial article. That is the connection between ‘ethnic conception and caste ideology.’ This is not the first time I have said this. The following is what Sarvan has said.

“The context in which the word para was used, both at boarding-school, in Colombo and elsewhere; the accompanying tone of voice and facial expression, all indicated contempt, dismissal and rejection. Para was linked to Parayā (low caste) and that sufficed to convey meaning to me.”

What he relates is a personal experience, but what is significant to me is what he says as “the accompanying tone of voice and facial expression, all indicated contempt, dismissal and rejection.”

Where does this come from? My conjecture is that it comes from the age old caste-ideology with the accompanied conceptions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution.’ This caste-ideology manifests among the majority Sinhalese in one way and among the Tamils in another. I am not saying that both are the same in practical terms, one discriminating the other on equal terms, but the ideological roots are more or less the same while there are other root causes as well.

Have I encountered the ‘contempt, dismissal and rejection’ as a so-called Sinhalese? Yes, something closer to that at least once and seen a similar behavior another time. But if I recollect the way the Sinhalese treat the Tamils or the Muslims, then it is almost uncountable. The different experience may be due to me being a ‘Sinhalese’ and moving primarily among the Sinhalese.

Among the Sinhalese, the influencing ideology remains as a ‘superior caste’ which attempts to subjugate a perceived ‘inferior caste.’ It claims ‘purity’ as a ‘chosen people’ by combining ethnicity with religion (Sinhala Buddhism) and attempts by and large to purge the ‘pollution’ through attempted ethnic cleansing of both the Tamils and the Muslims or even the Sinhalese Christians as outcaste.

Among the Tamils, the influencing ideology remains as a ‘distinct group’ also trying to claim a similar ‘superior status’ aligning with the brethren across the Palk-Strait. It also claims ‘purity’ and attempts to purge ‘pollution’ by cleansing whoever perceived as polluting its purity.

I am not saying, the caste or ‘caste-like’ ideology is the only ideological current among the Sinhalese or the Tamils. But often it becomes dominant and distorts ideological landscape or political thinking of the country. We sometimes patronize ourselves by saying or thinking that the caste system is dead and gone in Sri Lanka. But that is not simply the case. The caste ideology is well and kicking. Those who are most communal minded are probably the ones who are most caste minded.

I was recently writing an essay on human rights and the 1978 constitution and wondered why it is so much difficult for the todays Sri Lankans to accept universal human rights. My observation after some contemplation was that because they are (perhaps unconsciously) strongly caste minded. There is a perennial difficulty for many Sri Lankans to grasp and accept the concept of equality due to caste ideology. This may possibly change with the new generations. But that is not the case yet.

The dilemma that Sri Lanka faces in this connection is a historical one, connected with the state and ethnic formation. Let me quote only one paragraph from what I wrote in 2000 (Human Rights, States and Politics: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka):

It is interesting to examine how the successive migrant communities from India, or other countries in the region, were absorbed into the society after the establishment of the Sinhalese ethnic state. Except in the case of Kshatriya or royal blood, it is evident that others were absorbed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. At a very early stage of migration, those who came from Madhura in South India were absorbed as the service castes, who were supposed to function as artisans, craftsman, and manual laborers. The origins of several other so-called low castes in the country, e.g. fisherman and cinnamon peelers, can also be traced to the people who came from South India at a later date. What we can see here is a convergence between the ethnic divide and the caste divide.” (p. 59).

During 2002, when I was conducting some field research in the interior of the Kalutara District, I came across a caste called Demala Gaththera. Gaththera caste is one of the oppressed castes in the country, popularly believed a ‘low caste.’ The story was that when some Tamil migrants came to live in the area for some reason, during the early nineteenth century, they were called Demala Gaththera.

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    It’s human nature to identify ourselves either with the language we speak, the tribal roots, the country we are born / naturalised, or the faith one chooses to profess. Its OK to be a Sinhalese, Govigama, Sri Lankan / Canadian, Buddhist as long as one respects each other. All derogatory terms are used to incite the devil in us.

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      The farmer caste is shudra
      Mahagoia Nilaperumal Bandarsnayakes Tamil pandarams
      Only in SL & Tamil Nadu these shudras have exercised their majority
      Govi becoming govigama
      Vaddha is only second to the Radhala, in theory
      Yet these original landlords oppressed, suppressed and virtual parayas in their own land
      Fantasy is new imported fisherman in an island country
      Like the bestiality of sinhabahu

      Parakum & Gajabahu fought over the pearl harvest first
      One commanded his fleet to India, for the relic
      The other sent Adittya & fleet to Burma, for shipping elephants
      Vijaya & 700 bandits married these Madurai people
      Imported other Madurai people

  • 0
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    It seems lucrative for some self proclaimed ‘social scientists’ to dwell upon dung heaps in order to appease their paymasters, the INGOs who in turn thrive on the miseries of human conflict, real or concocted.

  • 0
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    Very interesting and thought provoking. Why is it that a vast majority of Sri Lankans refuse to accept and adopt universally recognized human rights? It is there in both the Sinhala and Tamil people. Is it merely selfishness, or is it a lack of caring for others?

  • 0
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    Stop degrading Tamils.

    Tamils have self attracted an alien identity. It is their fault.

    In Australia they are called “boat people”.

    • 0
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      Probably you didn’t know that most of the returned ‘boat people’ to Sri Lanka were Sinhalayos!

  • 0
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    An another good article from Dr. Fernando :)

    I believe it is just normal that these kind of terms are being used by every folks to attack the other. The impact of those terms could sound. different from majority to minority and the other way around. Until I happened to mix up with tamil students at the Pera, I did not have any contacts with them before. But after moving to Europe, I got to know srilanken tamils refugees in several european countries. I have no doubt that they the tamils are used to use terms similar to ” Para Demala or Hadi Demala” specially when they express their angers against majority sinhalese folks.
    Btw, I heard my father as a choleric person screaming at us as “Parah mu koheda giye – (where had you been all the times) at the time, we the teenage siblings disappeared to play with neighbouring lads.

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    Laksiri Fernando,

    Thanks for your excellent article on para Demala and the forces Egalitarianism has to fight in Sri Lankan society with its roots in the caste system, despite 2,300 years of “caste-free” Theravada Buddhism dominated by the Govigama Buddhists and “caste-loaded” Vellala Tamil Hindus.

    1. “That is the connection between ‘ethnic conception and caste ideology.’”

    2. “I was recently writing an essay on human rights and the 1978 constitution and wondered why it is so much difficult for the today’s Sri Lankans to accept universal human rights.”

    3. “Where does this come from? My conjecture is that it comes from the age old caste-ideology with the accompanied conceptions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution.’ This caste-ideology manifests among the majority Sinhalese in one way and among the Tamils in another”

    4. “There is a perennial difficulty for many Sri Lankans to grasp and accept the concept of equality due to caste ideology.”

    Likely, it has its roots in the Hindu Caste system, and how high caste Hindu Tamils treated the para or paraya caste, the drummer caste who drummed at funerals. This must have got into the Sinhala useage, even though not common.

    Tamils consider paraya caste, the drummer caste to be low caste, and call others parayas or parayan. The Sinhalese have their own versions as well.

    I know of a Sri Lanka Tamil women who is married to a Westerner and have a son. When the mother gets angry, calls the son paraya very angrily. When the son grew up he consulted a Tamil-English dictionary, and was puzzled as to why his mother would call him a “Drummer” every time she got angry with him.

    May be the Sinhala want to call the Tamils “Para Demala” every time they got got angry, the “Drummer Tamil” but with an angrier and more derogatory tone.

    • 0
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      A good Sin Hala story. Please believe him

  • 1
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    Para Demala and Para Suddha are identical they mean, foreign Tamil and foreign White. Both used as terms of contempt

    • 0
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      What does ‘Para Balla’ mean? Foreign dog?

  • 0
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    I lived in Tissamaharama and Galle for around 6 years and never heard this racist term, it is now very common to hear people saying ‘para dhemala’ in these same areas. I am from the Burgher community and have tried to make even my friends realise that this is very bad but it seems to slip out whenever the talk swings around to the issues between Sinhalese and Tamils.

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    I think it is a mistake to conflate the meaning of the two words PARA and PARAYAN or PARAYAR.The first word used as prefix refers to foreigner, alien, one without a fixed abode and by extension also can be used to describe mendicants,sadhus as PARA+DESI.Its antonym is SWADEASI.So, when a Sinhala=speaker uses it there is no reason to conclude that it is an allusion to caste since the Sinhalese do not have a paria caste.
    In fact paradamilla wonderfuly encapsulates a whole theory of Sri Lankan history and society, the entitlement of Sinhala people for supremacy and exclusive rights to the island.
    In fact in its almost poetic condensation it is matched only by the concept of the “Arya Sinhala Suit”.A whole theory of race, propounded by 19th century German and French and English theorists–ARYAN–, brought to the island by German linguists, is combined with an ethnno-linguistic term –Sinhala– to describe and make an apprarel

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      lmao arya brought by Germans . the Buddha must be german too .

      • 0
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        The prince Siddhartha (Buddha), as a Nepalese, was not an Aryan. The German Hitler claimed he was an Aryan. What Perinbanayagam is refering to is the German Pali scholar Wilhelm Geiger who interpreted/translated the Mahavamsa.

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        The prince Siddhartha (Buddha), as a Nepalese, was not an Aryan. The German Hitler was an Aryan.

  • 0
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    So does para balla mean low caste dog, foreign dog or by extrapolation Tamil dog? Whatever is expounded here,the Tamils think that they are being called paraya dogs and the poor dogs don’t deserve the name. It is the people who use these terms who sound like low humans. High time Sri Lanka accepted:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed [by their Creator] with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”.

    That would be a revolution towards mutual evolution.

  • 0
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    The farmer caste is shudra
    Mahagoia Nilaperumal Bandarsnayakes Tamil pandarams
    Only in SL & Tamil Nadu these shudras have exercised their majority
    Govi becoming govigama
    Vaddha is only second to the Radhala, in theory
    Yet these original landlords oppressed, suppressed and virtual parayas in their own land
    Fantasy is new imported fisherman in an island country
    Like the bestiality of sinhabahu

    Parakum & Gajabahu fought over the pearl harvest first
    One commanded his fleet to India, for the relic
    The other sent Adittya & fleet to Burma, for shipping elephants
    Vijaya & 700 bandits married these Madurai people
    Imported other Madurai people.

  • 0
    0

    The farmer caste is shudra
    Mahagoia Nilaperumal Bandarsnayakes Tamil pandarams
    Only in SL & Tamil Nadu these shudras have exercised their majority
    Govi becoming govigama
    Vaddha is only second to the Radhala, in theory
    Yet these original landlords oppressed, suppressed and virtual parayas in their own land
    Fantasy is new imported fisherman in an island country
    Like the bestiality of sinhabahu

    Parakum & Gajabahu fought over the pearl harvest first
    One commanded his fleet to India, for the relic
    The other sent Adittya & fleet to Burma, for shipping elephants
    Vijaya & 700 bandits married these Madurai people
    Imported other Madurai people

  • 0
    0

    Paraya is used by the Tamils as a name for a caste only after the 12 th century AD. Before that the lower most caste was known as Pulayan and is still known in Kerala as Pulayan and in Karnataka as Holeya. This came about during the period when Tamils (including Keralites) and Karnatakans were influenced by Jainism that was militantly vegetarian in its outlook. All tribal and indigenous people who ate meat and were brought into the concept of expanding village economy as workers were incorporated into the society as Pulayas and due to Jaina aversion to meat eating kept outside of settled society. Eventually with the waning of Jaina influence amongst South Indians the caste system became modelled on Hindu Varnshrama. Pulayas in Tamil society took various niche positions and some became drummers (hence Parayar). Amongst the Sinhslese too we have a caste called Berava. Notwithstanding all the linguistic and religious differences, South Indians and Sinhalese society is organized identically not matter what the “arya” ruling class tried to do, the bedrock of society has not changed for thousands years in South India and Sri Lanka.

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