By Thanges Paramsothy –
The question of why a single person from oppressed caste groups could not become as a member of parliament in the last parliamentary election held on 17th August 2015 has not yet been asked or answered. Seven members of parliament from Jaffna electoral division were selected as qualified members according to the population ratio. Among them, a single member is not from the oppressed caste groups, while such caste groups occupy more than half of the Jaffna population. However, only two individuals from oppressed caste, Pallar, out of thirty-eight members have become as members of northern provincial council in the last election held on 21st September 2013.
My recent study conducted in two regions in Jaffna namely Pungudutivu and Mallakam indicates that more than half of the population are from five oppressed caste groups such as Nalavar, Pallar, Paraiyar, Ampattar and Vannar. We do not have Jaffna population breakdown in terms of caste. However, it is quite clear that a large number of people from dominant caste, Vellalar, have migrated overseas using their extended socio-economic and educational networks since the independence of Sri Lanka. The majority of Tamil diaspora population in abroad composed of an overwhelming majority of the Vellalar (Daniel & Thangaraj 1995; McDowell 1996, 1999). This has changed the traditional demographic proportion of Jaffna and made the Vellalar as one of the minorities in numerical terms. The study conducted indicates that the Vellalar population consists of 30% of the population in the two regions. As of 1950s, it was estimated that half of the Jaffna population (50%) was from Vellalar caste (Banks 1960). This shows that 20% of Vellalar population in Jaffna peninsula has migrated to overseas or other part of the country. Even though the findings of the study on the composition of caste population in two regions in Jaffna cannot be simply generalised to the entire Jaffna peninsula, they can be taken as potential samples. It also makes sense due to the overwhelming migration of dominant caste Vellalar to the affluent western countries. Nevertheless, the Vellalar domination has been consistently remaining in Tamil nationalist politics.
The five oppressed castes groups, who are now majority in numerical terms, are in a position to become as potential political leaders in Tamil nationalist politics. Apart from the numerical strength of oppressed castes, they also have a higher record in their educational achievement, socioeconomic mobility. However, they still fail to become as active participants in the Tamil nationalist politics. A number of left movements functioned among Tamils before the armed ethnic conflict had contributed in demolishing “untouchability” to a great extent from Tamil society. However, they did not mobilise the oppressed castes to question/challenge the Vellalar-led Tamil nationalist politics that in number of instances fails to take affirmative actions against internal backwardness and discrimination in terms of caste, gender, class and religion. The question arises why are the oppressed castes unable to enter into the Tamil political mainstream? To what extent does the Vellalar-led Tamil national political system work to include the oppressed caste persons as their potential leaders? In order to answer these questions, we need to analyse the Tamil national political trend and the psyche of both oppressed and dominant caste groups.
Even though some authors see the origin of Tamil nationalism with the Tamil kingdom before the colonial powers and Saiva revivalist Arumukanavalar (Gunasingam1999; Cheran 2009), the Tamil nationalist politics has been increasingly constructed in relation to defensive or reactive nationalism, which denies identifying the existing internal differences. The Tamil nationalist politics throughout its known history systematically avoid seriously looking at its caste-oriented politics, where oppressed castes rarely or never have a leadership position. As the government of Sri Lanka fails to take an affirmative action to the Tamil national question, the Tamil nationalist politics continuously fails to change the traditional caste domination in its political mobilisation. It has a complete blindness on this issue. The internal differences in terms of caste are expected to continue as such whereas the all Tamils are expected uniting them under the Tamil nationalist project. This political mobilisation creates a scenario where a segment of Vellalar and their close associates take upper hand and others particularly the oppressed castes struggle to be part of such politics. The oppressed castes consistently remain as potential voters rather than potential political candidates/leaders.
Apart from the systematic exclusion of oppressed caste in the Tamil nationalist political movement, there is also a lack of awareness/motivation among the oppressed caste groups in articulating their social capital for a betterment of the underprivileged and marginalised groups in particular and Tamils in general. The educated oppressed caste groups for some reason also avoid participating in Tamil nationalist politics. The younger generation of oppressed castes who mobilised upwardly in terms of education and economy see that caste plays a little role in society. However, most of such generation contradicting to their view either avoid identifying them with a particular caste group or pretend that they belong to dominant caste Vellalar. Their attempt is not simply creating a casteless society but rather achieving status in caste ladder/hierarchical order. This in turn supports the Vellalar political leaders to continue their domination in Tamil politics, where the oppressed castes are simply viewers/voters than participants.
As we know, caste struggle against “untouchability” has much longer history than the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. If we count the date, it is one century older in Tamil political and social history. The internal caste differences, which were openly practiced in Tamil areas particularly in Jaffna, had challenged the Vellalar-oriented Tamil political mobilisation. Some Vellalar leaders such as Sivasithamparam, Amirthalingam and Naganathan who contested respectively in Udduppiddy, Vaddukkoddai and Nallur electoral divisions were defeated in the parliamentary election in 1970 due to the opposition of underprivileged caste groups against the Vellalar leaderships. This was also because these Vellalar leaderships were not supportive and in some instances acted against the struggle against castisim, which reached its peak in the 1960s. However, the increasing threat to the notion of homeland (territory), language, citizenship, employment and educational opportunities destroying the nationhood of the Tamil people due to the Southern Sinhala Buddhist extremism and its power were utilised by the Vellalar political leaders in order to unite people under their leadership undermining internal inequality, which went against their political leadership in the previous parliamentary election.
The Sinhala Buddhist extremism threatening to Tamil ethnic identity and political freedom in turn were supportive for those who want to exercise blindness on its own inequality and maltreatment. This was also the period when the oppressed castes and left movements achieved a notable success in demolishing the “untouchability” among Jaffna Tamils. Some authors see the achievement of the struggle against castisim as a symbolic success considering its limitation and boundary (Sivathamby 2007). In order to fulfil the grievances of oppressed castes, “the mobilisation against caste discriminations” also became as part of political manifesto in the Vaddukkoddy election campaign in 1977 along with the demand for a separate Tamil homeland. However, a single step has not yet been taken by such Tamil nationalist leaders in order to fulfil the grievances of oppressed caste groups. They continue their Tamil nationalist project getting a tremendous support from the oppressed caste groups rather than providing an equal opportunity to participate in Tamil nationalist politics.
The Tamil nationalist project led by the Vellalar went to its extreme claiming a separate Tamil state, ‘Tamil Eelam’ due to the failure of their negotiations with Sinhala extremists for a political solution. This has tremendously helped them to achieve uniting all Tamils irrespective of caste, class, religious and gender differences for their political purpose. Those who previously voted against the Vellalar leadership are now forced to vote such political leaders considering the threats to Tamil ethnic identity and its nationhood. The Vellalar Tamil nationalist politics soon capitalised the extreme positions of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in order to unite the Tamils under the Vellalar-led Tamil nationalism. However, the Tamil armed groups particularly the LTTE then challenged this caste-oriented politics. Those who were in lower positions in the constructed hierarchical caste order became as leaders taking upper hand in the LTTE movement.
The LTTE movement, which was in power, to some extent had destroyed this political domination within its movement giving leaderships to all caste groups. Thamilchelvan, for example, who was from one of the oppressed caste groups, Ampattar, became as a leader of the political wings in the LTTE movement. Apart from the debate on success, failure and problems in the political mobilisation of the LTTE, it had the negotiating power where people from different social and caste backgrounds became as participants. Soon after the LTTE was defeated, the Tamil politics is once again been dominated by the Vellalar caste in Jaffna. The oppressed castes have a little or no space to become as potential leaders. The criticism against the TNA is that they appoint one person from the oppressed castes as a candidate at every parliamentary election in order to show that they are ‘casteless’ in their selection process of the candidates. However, the past experience shows that the person who was selected as a contesting candidate in the TNA would be as a potential loser than a winner.
The unsolved prolonged Tamil political issue particularly creates a space where the dominant Tamil political party and their appointed candidates from a similar caste or social background to become as leaders. The prolonged political issues and war related wounds once and again support such political leadership. This makes the task much easier in consolidating the sentiment of Tamils towards the Vellalar Tamil national project. It rarely gives an opportunity for those who do not have such backgrounds. In such a context, if the oppressed castes need to have an equal opportunity in accessing to political power, it is also essential to find a long-lasting political solution for the prolonged ethnic conflict.
By saying this, I do not simply motivate caste-based political mobilisation in Tamil nationalist politics, as it is in India. I also strongly believe that the solution for the contemporary conservative Tamil political mobilisation cannot be achieved simply by inducing the caste-based sentiment in Tamil nationalist politics. Such intention may satisfy those who want to divide the cohesion of Tamil political mobilisation. I do not expect to satisfy those who take advantages by dividing people in the line of caste. I also do not see such a space for engaging caste divided politics in the contemporary Jaffna. My concern in this paper is to lead the Tamil nationalist politics as a progressive movement rather than a conservative one bonding with a particular dominant caste, as it is now.
Coming to the point that I made at the beginning even though the oppressed caste groups are numerically high and mobilising themselves upwardly in socio-economic and educational domains, they consistently fail to articulate their social capital in their political participation apart from voting to the Vellalar candidates. This situation needs to be changed. The contemporary Tamil nationalist politics should create such a space where all people irrespective of caste differences participate for a progressive social change. Even though the Tamil politicians particularly the TNA say that they do not see caste in their selection process of candidates as well as supporting a candidate to become as a potential leader, it is not true. They consciously do it in contrast to what they say.
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*Thanges Paramsothy – PhD Research Student in Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, University of East London, United Kingdom