By Aahithyan Ratnam –
A very timely article by Thanges Paramsothy appeared in these columns very recently. There is now one more rare public admission that we have a serious problem.
We all know that people in Jaffna are judged based on their caste but we refuse to admit it. Even the Christian Church, corrupted by its social surroundings and the religious antecedents of its members has now unofficially separate churches and graveyards for the different castes. So much so that a person’s caste may be fairly accurately hazarded from the Jaffna church where he worships.
Younger members of society are more willing to admit this reality, as have idealistic students of Colombo’s Law Faculty who have produced a documentary in Tamil on Jaffna temples and caste. Although with age, even they get fossilized in the caste system as marriage is invariably and inevitably within their own caste. That unfortunate surrender of youthful ideals is because, out of a sense of realism, they do not want the stigma of caste to be placed on their children and family when they marry down the caste ladder.
Our caste is very real in terms of power, but it is bogus in terms of provenance. The sooner we recognize it, the faster will the system fall. That is the focus of this article.
Bryan Pfaffenberger in his book Caste in Tamil Culture: The Foundations of Sudra Domination in Tamil Sri Lanka (Syracuse, NY, 1982) has pointed out that:
i) Vellalas are Sudras (Choothirar in Tamil), the last of the four broad Vedic categories of caste. [In the Vedic Caste system, there are four broad categories, the priest (Brahmin) – warrior (Kshatrya) – merchant (Vaisya) – worker (Sudra). All who do physical labour are Choothiras, whether the Vellala who tills his fields or the Ambattan who cuts your hair.]
ii) The census conducted by the Dutch in the eighteenth century had 30% Vellalas but by the time of his doctoral thesis in the 1970s it had risen to 50%.
M.D. Raghavan in his book Tamil Culture in Ceylon (Colombo 1971) explains the sudden increase of Choothira Vellalas in the words of a wise Tamil proverb that says that a Kallan (of thief caste) may come to be a Maravan (warrior), and then by respectability he may slowly become a Vellalan. Raghavan adds that the Vellalar are like brinjals in that they mix palatably with any ingredient.
Passing: Dr. Albert Johnston was admitted to Chicago and then to Harvard under a 2-student quota for blacks. In 1940, the Navy recruited Dr. Johnston and then withdrew his commission after the Naval intelligence authorities had questioned him about reports that he had “colored blood.” Denied jobs for being black, he passed in order to practice medicine. After living as leading citizens in Keene, N.H., the Johnstons revealed their true racial identity, and became national news. Thyra Johnston, classified as Black on her birth certificate because she was an eighth Negro, died aged 91 (New York Times, November 29, 1995)
We see this in our own time but we cannot speak about it openly, even in academic terms, for fear of being labelled casteists. Many move towns as cultivators and join the Vellala bandwagon. Fathers anxious for their unmarried daughters approaching their “Expiry Date Stamp” (age of 30), agree to marriage with hurried inquiries and then, if and when a mistake is discovered, ensure that their son-in-law and grandchildren are continued to be known as Vellalas by cutting out his relations from family functions. This is called “passing”.
The origin of the American term “passing” says Allyson Hobbs (A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America, 2014) is from a phenomenon concerning Black people of mixed parentage born to slave women being used by their White masters (just as the Thesavalamai testifies to Vellala men using their slave women). Such Americans as of mixed parentage, when sufficiently light skinned, go as White. This is “passing.” This is why many Whites in the US are not as pink as Europeans and more sallow like Mediterranean Whites who have an admixture of African blood. (Out of America’s 224 million Whites, a formal genetic survey by “23andMe” found that six million have some African ancestry. The 39 million or so African Americans had European genes accounting for 24% of their DNA.)
There are records of passing Blacks refusing to go when a Black-looking parent asks for them from their deathbed. Likewise passing low-castes refuse to attend marriages of relatives who have not passed yet, out of fear of association. How many Vellalas do we know who are “passing”? I am sure we all do know some.
The Saiva rite of Theetchai, reserved for the twice-born to cleanse themselves, was claimed by low caste Choothira Vellalar following Arumuka Navalar’s lead in “passing”. Tamils argue that the four-fold priest-warrior-merchant-worker division from the Vedas is not Tamil and that we have a different system. This argument is made by the most caste-conscious Vellalas among us who are disturbed by the idea that they are in fact Choothirar. Indeed if Vellalas are not Sudras, are they then Brahmins or Kastriyas or Vaisyas? Or worse, are they mlecchas, that is untouchable barbarians from outside our society?
Caste surely comes from the 90th hymn of the 10th book (Purusha Sukta) in the Rig Veda which justifies caste. Vellalas need that fiction because many of us deny caste among us as the only way of saying that we are not Sudras (workers). Vellalas wants caste to maintain superiority but deny the Hindu-Veda nexus with caste to show they are not Choothirar.
To see that the caste problem is still very real, look at the comments after a recent article on Tamil Muslim relations where the most vocal, nationalist comment-writers (including some Christians) have insulted Muslims as Dravidian low caste converts and then congratulated each other. They are obviously unaware of the rich literature on the origin myths of every caste – for example:
i) Romila Thapar, Clan, Caste and Origin Myths in Early India, Indian Institute of Advanced Study,1992, and
ii) Lawrence A Babb, Alchemies of Violence: Myths of Identity and the Life of Trade in Western India, Sage Publication, India, 2004
These books show that every caste has some origin myth like really being Brahmins who were sent out because their ancestors ate beef by mistake, or a crow excreted on a progenitor’s head. If we can have origin myths, why not others too? If we can convert, why not Muslims too?
Often it is when people do not fit into our origin myths that it is easier for us when they move out of our society. For example, many Vellalas object to their progeny marrying Singhalese, but have little to object over the numerous marriages taking place between lower caste Tamil women and the many migrant Singhalese workers now in Jaffna who leave with their brides. On Delft Island, where the Portuguese were active, there is a caste called Uluparayar whose daughters are very light skinned. But Vellalas who look for “fair brides” will not marry them. At least ten of them have worked as nurses at the Jaffna hospital, married Singhalese doctors, and moved on. Assassinated Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle from that community married a Singhalese doctor and passed. Few, however, came forward to claim him as a kinsman to get his help. They are all conveniently excised from Vellala memory.
Let us accept that all of us in Sri Lanka are low castes, if not passing mixed castes. Out of these the Vellalas are the best at creating myths about themselves such as the right to Theetchai. They are so obnoxious in putting everyone else down that in practice the Chetties of Jaffna (really the third ranked as trader-Vasiyas by the Vedas) have to hide their ancestry and claim to be the fourth ranked Sudra Vellalas because of the Vellala monopoly in myth-making. Even the Brahmins of Sri Lanka, by strict Hindi-Vedic law have lost caste because crossing oceans is prohibited to good Hindus (H. G. .Rawlinson, “Early Contacts between India and Europe,” in Chapter XXX, p. 435 of A.L. Basham, A Cultural History of India, Oxford: Clarendon Press,1975).
Despite all this emigration out of Sri Lanka I suspect the process of upward mobility through passing continues and Vellalas will rise beyond their current 50%. It might be the only feasible way of removing caste from our midst. Let everyone be Vellala as a means of reaching equality. Hurray for Passing!
Passing is happily happening in real time. We have had non-Vellala high officials in Jaffna (MPs, VCs, Speaker, GA, etc.) from the Kaikula (weaver-soldiers), Koviya (domestic workers), and Chiviya (palanquin bearer) castes, the castes below the Vellala who have physical contact with Vellalas in their homes.
The fishing caste Karaiyar are an anomaly because they are financially independent of the Vellalas and are therefore carefully excluded by the Vellalas. For example, while very ordinary academics from the Chiviya and Kaikular communities have been accepted in Jaffna as Vice Chancellors, an accomplished Karaiyar academic like Karthigesu Sivathamby was actively opposed. Like him was another, even though he was married to an accomplished Vellala woman academic. The Tigers with their Karaiyar leadership (although supported by Vellala hangers-on) had planned a Tamil University in Kilinochchi for which they designated the latter as VC. Unfortunately this historic moment was not to be when their regime fortunately collapsed. That no one is these columns knows that there have been and are non-Vellalas from the middling castes holding high-office in Jaffna, underscores that the Vellala numbers will rise through passing despite emigration.
I seriously doubt whether that positive trend of upward caste mobility of the middling castes like Koviyar, Chiviyar, and Kaikular will reach those at the lower end. We will, I think, migrate towards two castes, the passing Choothira Vellalas claiming high status and the others who will be from castes “such as Nalavar, Pallar, Paraiyar, Ambattar, and Vannar” whom the Choothira Vellalas will call the low-castes. The Karaiyar may be the only force capable of giving opposition to the ennoblement of power by the passing Choothira Vellalas.