Caste: Compromised Conscience
Caste is a fact of life in Sri Lanka and its elections. No one talks about it. Some religions sanction it, defining dharma as caste duty. Others are ideologically opposed to it but compromised. For, going against the system has consequences as in marriage.
The America Ceylon Mission in Jaffna undermined caste much, but in 1826, because Church expansion required respectable converts, it targeted agriculturists, saying “Vellalas are emphatically our people.” They opened up a female boarding school so that agriculturist boys may marry Christian agriculturist girls; otherwise they would marry their Hindu cousins when they went home, leading to reversion. Accordingly the Church even supplied a dowry. As the Church compromised, she also worked for the conversion of the low-castes. Depressed areas like Ariyalai West were converted by St. John’s’ The Rev. Canon SS Somasundaram and Chundikuli’s Muriel Hutchins who cooked and ate with them, holding night classes over the Hindu Schools Board’s objections. I was recently at a community function when an elder tearfully recalled these.
As with churches so it is in politics. Egalitarian parties need to compromise against what their hearts tell them is right just to win elections.
Caste and Communalism
Among Sinhalese, the British had undermined caste by allowing non-agriculturists to come up through businesses and by creating new aristocrats like the New Radalas. Despite Vidyodaya valiantly defending agriculturist superiority in the 1860s, caste seemed undermined. With St. Thomas’ shifting from Mutwal to Mount Lavinia in 1918 (Footnote 1), the fisher-castes of Moratuwa were further empowered. Ironically this strengthened caste-based thinking as the empowered fisher-folk, instead of undermining caste, strengthened it by seeking caste status, arguing that their caste appellation “Karawa” is from Kshatriya.
Among Tamils, the Sinhalese also influenced changes. Fisher-caste Sinhalese bishops insisted on Jaffna producing low-caste Tamil priests. Sinhalese communalists taunting us on our caste practices helped clean up some of our more shameful customs. Christian schools under predominantly non-Tamil boards admitted scavengers and palanquin-bearers, first as students, then as teachers, and by the 1990s there were non-agriculturist Principals. The exodus of educated agriculturists has seen two non-agriculturist vice chancellors from nonpolluting lower-castes appointed by Sinhalese Presidents (though for political reasons, not caste).
Caste and Elections
Many Tamils hold that caste is of the past. But Jaffna is Jaffna. Recently Colombo’s Law Faculty produced a documentary on caste-based temples. Profane caste put-downs during website discussions exhibit our primitive home cultures. Agriculturists who say the low-castes have profane habits, show their own true colors when swearing at the low-castes in website discussions.
The FP with agriculturist roots, brought a private member’s Prevention of Social Disabilities Act as far back as 1957 to ban caste discrimination, intervened at the Maviddapuram Temple in 1968 to give low-castes access, and nominated the depressed caste G. Nalliah to the Senate. But it has suffered a relapse since. All its Jaffna MPs today are said to be agriculturists; they had other candidates who lost. Attempts at remedy failed as those like Mudiyappu Remedius changed camps and are now UPFA candidates, entrenching agriculturist stereotypes about low-castes and Muslims. (In fact, when agriculturists like Thiagarajah and Arulampalam crossed over in the 1970s it was not attributed to their caste habit but to Tamil Congress members’ qualities).
The FP, however, is able to get votes from all castes and survives with an agriculturist leadership because the other castes still have not reached middleclass status. The few low-caste graduates are reluctant to be candidates and have their caste become an issue. With non-agriculturists as numerous as the agriculturists, the position is not sustainable (Footnote 2).
The TNA has appointed 15 people, 3 from each constituent party, to nominate PC candidates. The FP’s Jaffna Branch has decided on Mavai Senathirajah for Chief Minister. The nominations committee will likely endorse this. But trouble is foreseen over each constituent getting the same number of candidates whereas some will get no seat without riding FP coattails. FP Senior VP SK Sittrampalam accuses the party of lack of transparency and being controlled by its parliamentary group. Sorting these out amicably challenges the TNA.
Another challenge is ensuring the candidates’ democratic credentials. In 2010 with the war just over and not knowing if LTTE remnants and military intelligence would kill TNA candidates, few came forward. The candidates were therefore professional politicians for whom politics was a way of life or militarists and murderers used to standing up to armed enemies. Now, there is an opportunity for the party to invite low-castes (and lower-castes), professionals and women. One way is to invite public discussions and op-eds on pressing issues by people with ideas. When good people get engaged, they will in time come forward to carry their ideas to reality seeking political power.
The EPDP and Caste
Douglas Devananda stands exposed on caste. Recall 2010 when my friend Manuel Mangalanesan, well below the agriculturists in caste, received the highest preferential vote in Jaffna among those vying to be Mayor. His base was the Christians of Ariyalai West. Devananda chose the present agriculturist mayor Yogeswari Patkunarajah. When Mangalanesan protested, he was beaten up in front of them (his family at church tell me) and locked up at Sridhar Theatre till Devananda’s candidate was installed. That Mangalanesan is still with Devananda exposes the lack of options the depressed castes have and the TNA’s lack of vision in making overtures to them.
Devananda’s supporters go out of their way to say that he is agriculturist; for agriculturist support is critical. But to his credit, his support base is low-caste. Of his two MPs one is a washerman and the other is said to be of fishercaste. But when his men are identified by the US State Department as rapists and murderers, it strikes terror into the middleclass on a caste basis. (See an associated article “From the Tamil Press: EPDP Jaffna Municipal Council Member Remanded for Robbery,” which further proves how the EPDP lives off the public, including by Devananda appropriating Sridhar Theatre from an owner who has been trying to get it back for years but fears to press his case).
Devananda’s supportive but uncultured writers hint at Devananda’s thinking and their own family backgrounds. M.Sivananthan writes:
“The US and [its] agents work against Douglas … the term ‘paramilitary’ is a product of American embassy cables. EPDP is a registered political party and he is an elected person. … EPDP officials are given guns for their protection. How can the Americans brand them as ‘paramilitary’ while allowing Americans to carry guns as a constitutional right? … Majority Tamils are Hindus. What [did] these catholic morons contribute to the Tamil people? … Catholic Church is the loot keepers of LTTE and shared the loot of LTTE. … All the inscriptions and OLA leaf books were destroyed by the Catholic criminals. … [Church of South India] ancestors came from Vedarnyam and belong to a fishing caste of Sempadava! … Christians have no hesitations to tell lies!”
Devananda’s lower-caste MPs, Christian Regional Body Chairmen and supporters in Ariyalai, Delft, Kayts and Velanai must wonder what monster they have created.
The TNA must identify women candidates and they will. The UPFA, however, is struggling because of the certainty and shame of a rout. Men do not mind that shame for the perks and money they pick up by trading on government influence even in defeat. It is indeed few women like Devananda acolyte Suseeladevi Sarangapane who after 20+ votes in the LG elections, can still show their face in public.
Routing the Government
The government, hell-bent on eliminating Tamils, can work only with Tamils wanting to bilk public coffers and people who were with the LTTE when that affiliation gave them money and power. Tamil politics is so abysmal that even as we do not want Sinhalese policing us, some Tamils have asked the police to prohibit unmarried couples from using the same umbrella! This request is to a government that says all lands appropriated by the LTTE now belong to it; and that TNA protests are hypocritical because they never objected to the LTTE’s original appropriations. But the rights to the property of the people whose lands were taken over, are not vitiated by what the TNA did or did not do. Further, neither the TNA nor the public could argue against the LTTE. People like Sampanthan were LTTE victims.
What we think of this pernicious government we must show through the ballot. A second chance is also in the offing as the Jaffna Municipal Council finishes its term soon.
Footnote 1: In 1918 Bandaranaike was 19 years old and it is unlikely he studied at Mount Lavinia as often claimed.
Foootnote 2: Agriculturists were 30% in Dutch times but had risen to a half by 1960 through false claims. More would now claim agriculturist status but the countervailing exodus of the educated makes estimates difficult.
By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole –
The EPDP’s Sutharsing Vijayakanth, Member of the Jaffna Municipal Council, has been remanded by the Jaffna Magistrate for 14 days for robbery. He is said to have had 5 lovers whom he would adorn with robbed jewelry and admire them. He was apprehended when he went to a bank to pawn some of his loot and a bank official recognized it as his. This led to the recovery of 103 sovereigns of gold.
Jaffna’s Crimes Branch confirmed that he had forced tribute from traders over the phone and brought girls from the south for prostitution. He is also known for going about Jaffna in his white car with school girls.
English language papers up to Friday 12th generally did not cover this major incident while The Colombo Gazette and Sri Lanka Mirror mentioned it distancing the EPDP from Vijayakanth without details such as his being an EPDP Municipal Council Member. The self-censorship is an indication that powerful people were in league with him. The police had no choice but to act against the dark forces ruling Jaffna because of the bank report. Now it will be damage control by the police.
The EPDP Secretary General Kamalesh announced that they were suspending Vijayakanth from the party and all party members should cease dealings with him forthwith. Scoffed a Federal Party man, “Did Devananda and the others not know from his lifestyle? This is what they have been caught at. The rest is a lot more!”
Just before provincial elections, Douglas Devananda will find the arrest of a powerful and prominent colleague difficult to explain away.