26 July, 2017

Recasting Caste: War, Displacement And Transformations

By Francesca Bremner

Dr. Francesca Bremner

Dr. Francesca Bremner

We return home, but not to the same place. (Bender & Winer, 2001:15)

I explore the transformation of caste identity that occurs when the social ties and spatial practices anchoring people to place and each other are torn asunder by war. Achille Mbembe (2003) points out that, spatial relations on the ground are rewritten while occupations rage, territory is fought over and modes of control come into operation. The narratives collected in this study illustrate Mbembe’s insight into spatial relations. It traces the new history forged at the intersection of different modes of control—the State and the LTTE—by the subjects of this study.

My research was conducted in a Tamil village in the North East of Sri Lanka hitherto referred to as Ramyapuram. Caught in the middle of the Civil War between the Sri Lankan Government and the Rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the village was affected from 1985 until the end of the war in 2009.

This article is based on interviews I conducted with the villagers over a period of three months in 2005. The people in the village had suffered during the war and were wary of an outsider. Building trust was not easy in a climate of fear and distrust, especially in a setting where informants had been used by both the State and LTTE to target the villagers. I interviewed 25 women during this three month period. These interviews were semi-formal conversations conducted over lunch, tea and the exchange of recipes in which fragments of narratives emerged over a period of time. These fragments repeatedly coalesced around the axis of caste, and I began to realise the importance of caste in the construction and transformation of identity in the experience of war. The destruction of lived spaces, being confined within refugee camps and the surveillance of the land spaces involved the transformation of spatial practices. This plays an important role in this study.

Since the women identified the period between 1985 and 1993 as one of devastation and change, this article is based on their experience during this period, and focuses on the narratives of women who consider themselves at the low end of the village hierarchy based on caste.

The Village before displacement had a particular structure and system. The major castes in Ramyapuram were the Vellalar and the Karaiyars. According to the villagers there were 350 Vellalar families and 75 Karaiyar families before the war, whilst there were only five Pallar families and two Vannar families. The Pallar families and one Vannar family did not return back after the period of displacement in 1990. All of the Karaiyar families and less than half of the Vellalar families returned. Caste and livelihood were generally interwoven in the village and upheld by socio-spatial boundaries. The boundary between castes was policed and maintained very carefully through the binary of purity and pollution, which was realised primarily through the exchange of food and touch. Thus social interaction was controlled very carefully by the Vellalars. The article therefore also focuses to a significant extent on the navigation of social ties and hierarchy between the Vellalars and Karaiyars, although the experience of the one

Vannar family is also included.

Read the full article click here; Recasting Caste- War, Displacement and Transformations

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Latest comments

  • 2
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    Please don’t bull shit , you are creating mister again leave the tamils alone and stick your nose in your own kind and see how many cast you have

    You want write some good do research with young population and thief education

    • 2
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      For those who do not believe that caste exists today, this documentary in Tamil by Colombo Law Faculty students should be educative:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=OZLmgs1DbFc#!

      • 0
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        s.R.H. Hoole,………………………………………………

        Thank you. There is a need for an English and Sinhala Narration of the video…………………………………………………
        So,it says, Religion is the Man, Man is not the Religion……….

        Sri Lanka is not alone in this bigotry on Culture, Religion and Caste. It is the same, bigotry. My culture, caste or religion is superior to your caste, religion or culture. To be civilized one must, yest must, debunk all castes, cultures and religions, that are not Egalitarian and discriminates other castes, cultures and religions………………………………………………………. Christopher Hitchens at the “Festival of Dangerous Ideas” FODI ……………http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kwiHkM126bk ………………………………………………………… Uploaded on Nov 25, 2011 Christopher Hitchens Starts at 4:00 the ‘Festival of Dangerous Ideas’ at the Sydney Opera House in October 2009. …………………………………………………………………. The topic was ‘Religion Poisons Everything

      • 0
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        Any one watching please remember it was made in Sri Lnaka by Sri Lankans from the law faculty of Sri Lanka. They speak the truth truth nothing but truth. Please believe me I am a Sri Lankan I dont lie.

  • 4
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    While on my numerous trips to the North the past few years, I didn’t see anything of the sort mentioned in the OP, such as segregation based on pollution/not touching . I don’t doubt some of it exsists but I didn’t personally observe it/see it/hear about it.
    -Caste is indeed an insidious, odious and evil institution. One must not forget that caste is a foreign import, it was imposed on the native people of the subcontinent by Aryans and zealously maintained by Brahmins. -Caste has destroyed much of native SubCon psyche and culture, so too has the accompanying linguistic genocide by Aryans which went hand in hand with caste oppression.
    – The Sinhalese today are overwhelmingly of native SubContinent ancestry, yet Sinhala rules have been doing everything they can to erase what is left of native SubContinent Linguistic heritage, namely Tamil. Sinhala rulers and their supporters are destroying their own native heritage when they try to destroy Tamils.

    • 0
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      You are living a lie. Caste sytems is really strong in the north and the est. Never has a Hindu been interviewed on international TV because they were always against the Low caste Christian based LTTE.

  • 1
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    This was an article worth reading . even though these caste relations are deplorable it is the reality . and it was a good piece of research instead of the crap that poses for journalism on CT . There is another Sinhalese lady too who writes interesting research into these issues .

    Keep writing . and keep doing the good work :)

  • 1
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    I cannot help thinking of Sebastian Rasalingam’s writings where he argued that the caste structure of our society had much to with the rapidity with which one man exercised his power over a whole society quite used to taking orders from the upper strata. He also argued that the high-class Vellalar lawyers living in Colombo who formed the federal party (Ilankai Arasu kadchi) pushed the Tamils into war, partly as a way of holding onto the ancient caste-based power structure and land. JohnPulle, Anthony and several others also argued in the same line. However, this writer has argued that the LTTE actually worked hard to eliminate the caste system, albeit with the idea of creating a racially “pure” Tamil nation.

    I hope some scholar would examine if the origin of the war itself was connected with caste power and the hegemony of the Colombo Tamil lawyers over land, as claimed by Rasalingam and other maverick writers, although in my view, the language issue and continued state-insensitivity to Tamil needs ignited the matter, and caste was a secondary issue. The Indians too were part of it, although Jayalaitha and others make sounds as if they are sympathetic.

    If this writer were to visit Tamil Nadu, she will find that the caste system in Sri lanka’s North is rapidly disappearing ( sincerely hope), while that of India remains very static. This is mainly due to the free-education system imposed by the state. The communist party under Shanmugathasan used to claim that the ITAK prevented access of low castes to schools covertly, while they organized protests in Jaffna against Bad-ud-deen’s university admissions system because it was a direct threat to upper-class (caste?) education where the vast majority of University graduates are of Vellalar or Kariyar origin. Some of these inconvenient truths have also been voiced by Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole.

    Strangely, the Human-Rights NGOs have not played any role or even exposing or fighting against caste discrimination in the North or East. This is probably because NGOs fight the causes that fund them, and the low castes do not have such funds!

  • 2
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    Caste issue is not diminishing as many wish that to happen. The main reason being is that everyone wants that to happen in other families but not with their family. The typical Jaffna man’s selfishness manifest here also. But, it is happening among the diaspora as the parents have no control over the marriages of the children.
    This is a good article and research even though it is embarrassing to read.

    • 2
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      I agree with Dr. Arun,

      Caste is an issue continued even in the Tamils who migrated to western world. The intensity of impact of caste system is minimised due to various factors such as education, economic status and the liberation struggle.

      It is sad and embarrassing to look back the intensity of the impact of Caste system. People were not allowed inside public places like temples, schools, and restaurants. People were not allowed to wear clothes to cover upper body, not allowed to get water from public wells and so on. The situation has changed at public places but it remains at individual level (family, home) where no one can force individual’s right of decision making.

      However, there is a need for bring regulations and laws to implement measures to get rid of this monster. For example, Prohibit advertising based on caste system in media. For example, it should be illegal to mention caste in any form of communication (verbal, writing or webs).

  • 0
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    What about the caste issues among Sinhalese?

    Tamil caste system i still imposed by Christian churches.

    Hindus normally not acive in the issues.

    LTTE is an example because the Karayans are majority Catholics but they cannot become bishop of Jaffna.

    They worked hard to use Tamil and robberies

    • 0
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      Sebastian Rasalingam says that when he first moved to Colombo this was his experience (in the 1950s, I think)
      “However, although I was an outcaste among the Tamils, I found that my Sinhalese mates invited me to have tea with them – a strange experience for a man who was always spoken to by Tamils in the curt “inga va” Tamil. The politics of the Tamils in the Ramanathan era was Caste Politics…..

      I think the caste issue comes up among the Sinhalese when it comes to arranged marriages. But otherwise you don’t even see it, although there are vestiges of it even amonf the Buddhist monks where the “Nikayas” were divided accoring to castes during the time of the Kandyan Kings (who, of course, practiced the caste system as they were of Hindu extraction). However, instead of asking “what about the caste system among the Sinhalese”, I humbly suggest to Mr. Sivanathan, that we need to clean up the problem in our midst, in our Temples, and even churches.
      We got to ask how many “low caste” people are in the ‘professions”, among the bishops, in politics, and in journalism. There are none that matter in Journalism, and so the caste issue is never aired in newspapers.

      The Leftist leaders also chose to ignore the caste problem. Have you seen any articles against caste discrimination by Kumar David or others? While Sinhala discrimination and state terror rose to a high pitch during the war, we have been practicing a much worse type of discrimination among ourselves, and sanctioned it via religion right up to the 1977 TULF victory and beyond, although the TULF proclamations or Vaddukkoddai did not refer to it. The idea was, we don’t talk of our divisions, but we fight the Sinhala (ignoring tha fact that we are utterly out-numbered!).
      <br.
      But who are the we? The upper class, wealthy Tamil leaders resident in Colombo who sphere-headed the Tamil politcs of Arasu? While the cannon fodder was the poor people in the Vanni?

  • 1
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    “Casteism” is a state of mind.
    Vellalar caste persons tend to beleive that ‘caste’ is inherited – as if there is a “vellala gene” in one of their chromosomes.
    They hate those of “lower” caste acquiring education,jobs,homes tec.to become ‘social equals’ of so-called vellalas – who actually labelled themselves as such.
    In a hospital,when a vellala is prescribed a blood transfusion,that person does not insist on “vellala blood” to be transfused !!!!

    • 0
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      Caste is a creation of the Aryans and was imposed on SubContinent peoples by them.Caste is not native to Vellala culture, the idea of caste was a poisonous injection by Brahmin priests and most Vellala are brainwashed by religion so caste got established .

    • 0
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      ha ha and that is how Prabakaran was able to rally the low caste Christians and fight the Land owning Tamils and Sinhalese. It exists in the South as well reason for the JVP taking up arms on more than one occasion. Ask Fonseka!

  • 0
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    Caste System is Indian. Indians where ever living use the caste system to cause the division among them. Tamils do that so too.

    In Sri Lanka too Tamil caste system should be destroyed by what ever the means available.

    • 0
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      Jim Sinhala Swifty …………………………………………..

      Caste System is Indian. It was imported to Sri Lanka along with Hinduism and Buddhism…so that the Priest and Monk Hegemony be mainlined with the help of the rulers even though Buddhist was opposed to the caste system. Just read the Matrimony Section of the Sinhala Newspapers to understand Sinhala Caste System.
      ……………………………………………………………..

      http://www.lankanewspapers.com/news/2011/9/70564_space.html

      ………………………………………………………………

      The plight of the Sinhala `DALITS`- Karava, Durava, Salagama, Berava and Rodi. Caste discrimination in Sinhala society.
      Friday, 9 September 2011 – 10:42 AM SL Time………………………

      The 13th century Sinhala literary work, the Pujavaliya went on to assert that a Buddha would never be born in the Govigama caste The Govigama reaction was swift. Kandyan Buddhist civil law as later documented in the Niti Nighanduwa, placed the Govigama at the top of an elaborately ordered caste hierarchy. ………………………………………………….

      The Kandyan Buddhist clergy – the Siam Nikaya – DENIED ENTRY into the Buddhist monkhood to the non-Govigama. They EXCLUDED THE KARAVE. This led wealthy Karave merchants in the maritime districts to finance the journey of Ambagahapitiya Gnanawimala Thera to Amarapura in Burma for the ordination into the Buddhist monkhood in 1800 AD. While the newly founded Amarapura nikaya had 21 sub-sects defined on caste lines (i.e. Karave, Salagama and Durave), it nonetheless offered a rare opportunity for the Karave to join the Buddhist religious order. ……………
      …………………………………………………………..

      Other Karave ABANDONED BUDDHISM ALTOGETHER AND CONVERTED TO ROMAN CATHOLICISM to seek caste emancipation. 50% of the Karave caste might well be Christian today. At present, Karave Christian youth have the best education outcomes in Sinhala society.

    • 0
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      Keep dreaming. That irradicating the caste system in Tamil society is as good as having Eelaam. Lost cause even in India where Dravidians are considered lower than the arayans before caste is taken into account. Even cooks have to be Brahamins! Pot washers are the Christians/low caste.

  • 1
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    says the dravidian who has changed his name

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