By Thanges Paramsothy –
Caste and ethnicity continue as important organizing principles among the Tamils in Sri Lanka, particularly in Jaffna. Caste identities have been maintained, fashioned, modified and (re)strengthened from ancient times to the present era in multiple and complex ways in Jaffna society. There is a widespread belief among the general public and those who are keen to strengthen Tamil nationalism that caste may disappear if people stop talking about it. This is not very different from the claims made by the Sri Lankan state about the ethnic identity of the Tamils: If the Tamils stop speaking about their ethnic identity or the Tamil nation, then Tamil nationalism will gradually disappear and there will be no ethnic conflict. For the former, silencing discussions on caste issues is an approach that seeks to unite the Tamils under the umbrella of an ethnic identity so that they can fight for the Tamil nation collectively. On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government highlights, time and again, the caste divisions and caste discrimination within the Tamil community with the hidden motive to weaken the mobilization of Tamils towards achieving ethnic solidarity. However, both these approaches have failed repeatedly, as discourses that have caste and ethnicity at their heart continue to be meaningful to us given that we face caste and ethnic or national discrimination in our everyday lives. Whereas Tamil nationalist activists give a lot of importance to national oppression, they show hardly any interest in discussing caste discrimination or addressing the grievances of the oppressed castes within the Tamils. This brief paper will discuss the ways in which caste exists within today’s Tamil society and analyse the implications of the claim that ‘not talking’ about caste would make caste disappear from the Tamil community.
The political significance of the interplay between caste and ethnicity within the Tamil community has increased during the last few decades unlike before. This is in fact a general phenomenon in most South Asian societies. Even though a nuanced and deeper analysis of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka indicates that its origins could be traced back to the colonial period, it only is during the post-independence period that Tamil nationalism started to openly confront Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. An age old system of ‘untouchability’ within the Tamils underwent changes following the famous temple entry struggle at the Maviddapuram Murugan temple in 1968. After the tragic events caused by physical violence between the dominant caste, the Vellālar and oppressed caste groups, major Hindu temples including Maviddapuram opened their doors to ‘untouchables’. Pfaffenberger (1990) indicates that this was a turning point where Tamil nationalism attempted to ‘heal caste wounds’ within the Tamil community while addressing the greater threat looming against the Tamil ethnic identity from the Sinhala dominated state. However, the temple-entry struggle within the Jaffna Tamil community achieved only limited success. This struggle did not change the discriminatory practices undertaken by caste-based Hindu Temples, which are located in Jaffna’s villages. Sivathamby (2007) rightly points out that the temple-entry struggle has achieved only a symbolic success. In many villages in Jaffna, people from different caste groups have their own temples to perform their rituals. In certain villages, even now, oppressed castes are not allowed to enter into the temples run by the so-called ‘upper-caste’ families or ‘upper-caste’ trustees. Even the temples where oppressed caste communities are allowed to worship, they are not allowed to carry the idols of Hindu Gods on their shoulders during temple festivals. This practice that is generally observed in the villages has made underprivileged caste groups build their own Temples rather than winning access to Temples owned by dominant caste communities.
The Tamil diaspora plays a key role in keeping Tamil nationalism alive within the country of its origin and beyond. They financially support traditional religious rituals conducted in the temples located in the homeland. The traditional practice of building caste-based temples in the villages of Jaffna due to caste antagonisms in the religious domain has been further accelerated by diaspora remittances sent by members of different caste groups to their own communities in the homeland. Many oppressed caste temples in Jaffna have been renovated with the financial support provided by the diaspora. Many of these temples have been upgraded from temples that practised multiple non-agamic traditions to temples that adhere to the agamic tradition. The mobilisations and investment of oppressed castes in the religious domain have, on the one hand, supported their efforts to live with dignity and respect; on the other hand, they have reproduced and/or re-strengthened old caste-based religious identities in a new modernised society.
As regards caste and nationalism, Jaffna Tamils act differently in different periods of time for different purposes. The Tamil community and its leadership, which includes both democratically elected leaders as well as militant leaders, adapted different modes and measures to address the caste question within the Tamils. Hellmann-Rajanayagam (1993) has argued that the LTTE fought a two-sided war. The first one was against the government in order to establish a separate Tamil homeland in the North and East regions of Sri Lanka. The second war was against its own Tamil (Vellālar) establishment. The LTTE and even Tamil ethnic politics have achieved a considerable success in unifying Tamils politically in favour of ethnic solidarity irrespective of the caste divisions within the community. Mobilising the people towards a unified ethnic consciousness was comparatively easy for the LTTE, as the Tamils, irrespective of their caste identities, felt that there was a greater threat to their Tamil ethnic identity due to actions taken by the Sri Lankan state and its military forces over an epoch. However, when the LTTE demanded social changes within Tamil society, particularly with a view to creating a society free of caste discrimination, they were not welcomed. When such a situation arose, the Vellālar dominated Tamil politics denounced the LTTE.
Political leadership and its social and caste composition significantly vary from times of war to relatively peaceful and settled times. Those whose ancestors previously worked for the Vellālar and/or were oppressed by the Vellālar came to power in Tamil militant movements. The LTTE was dominated by the Karayār caste (fishermen). Thus, we see the opening of a space where traditionally underprivileged castes could occupy powerful political positions. For example, Thamilchelvan, coming from an oppressed caste community, became the leader of the political wing of the LTTE. The LTTE leadership emerged from subordinate caste backgrounds and wanted to mould Jaffna society by eradicating caste and gender discriminations and exclusions carried out in the name of caste and gender throughout its known history. However, to produce a casteless society was not an easy task. In a number of cases, in order to get support to its military mobilisation against the Sinhala chauvinist state, the LTTE could not act explicitly against the Vellālar majority. The LTTE was able to punish individuals who were identified as acting in favour of caste, but could not do the same when caste-based issues led to confrontations between different groups in the villages of Jaffna. Following the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, in a scenario where Tamil resistance shifted to non-violence, the Vellālar became dominant in electoral politics as they did before the emergence of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka.
It is important that we understand the transformations that caste-based relations among the Tamil people underwent during the war and displacements. Inter-caste relations within the people varied as the Tamils went through periods of crisis and of relative stability. People from different caste groups had to intermingle and interact with each other in emergency situations of all kinds, making it difficult to sustain ‘untouchability’ and caste-based social distance. The ‘new’ emergency practices that promoted inter-caste relations, however, did not last long as the community stepped into relatively peaceful times. There is an overwhelming representation of certain oppressed caste groups in the long-term IDP camps in Jaffna. More importantly, unlike spaces that cut across caste boundaries, long-term IDP camps emerged along caste lines. For example, the four IDP camps in Mallakam a village, in Northern Jaffna, comprises only oppressed caste groups, namely Pallar (agricultural labours) and Nalavar (toddy tappers). Old geographies of caste get reproduced in new social settings produced by the war like the long-term IDP camps in Jaffna. It does not mean that caste is the only factor that shapes this new social setting. In fact, many factors including poverty, landlessness, limited social networks and capital and traditional caste-based segregation and spatial practices are at play in these settings (Thanges and Silva 2009). As a constellation of multiple social, economic, cultural and political forces, they act upon people’s capacity and agency. However, we need to acknowledge that caste plays a very crucial role in shaping this constellation and its impact on the communities. One cannot understand the modern (re)configurations of the traditional caste system without examining them vis-à-vis colonialism and its impact on the social fabric of our communities, the emergence of Tamil nationalism, Tamil militancy, the civil war and its consequences like displacement and post-war political developments.
Arranged marriages are instances where caste belonging is openly expressed and taken into consideration. People are willing to reveal their caste identities in public in order to find a partner from the same caste group. We see this trend in the matrimonial columns published in Tamil newspapers. The Tamil diaspora is not free of this traditional matrimonial practice. When they look for a partner for their child, parents from the so-called ‘upper caste’ background take extra care in finding someone from the same caste group. Even though the second generation follows certain principles and practices of their parents, they seem to get confused as to how they would want to deal with caste in choosing their life partners. There are many examples of broken relationships among the second generation diaspora due to the barriers created by caste.
In conclusion, a major trend observed in contemporary Jaffna society, as opposed to the 50s, and the 60s that witnessed struggles against caste discrimination, is that open discussions on caste or the annihilation of the caste system are not appreciated much by the general public, even though caste plays an important role in political mobilizations and in the selection of political leaders, the appointment of persons to positions in higher education and public administration, in religious practices and performances, and very noticeably in marriage. There is a complete silence within the community on the question of caste discrimination, even if caste is either intentionally or unintentionally practised in public as well as private spheres of life. This development can be interpreted as part of the Tamil nationalist mobilisation aiming at uniting all the different groups within the Tamil community towards building ethnic solidarity. However, such political mobilizations sweep caste and caste discrimination under the carpet. It is quite right to assume that the Tamil community’s silence on caste oppression does not intend to eradicate caste-based traditional practices in political, educational, religious and cultural domains; instead, it enables the continuation of those practices, albeit in new forms, in those domains, without allowing room for potential internal struggles within the Tamil community.
*Thanges Paramsothy, PhD Research Student in Anthropology – School of Law and Social Sciences – University of East London, UK
Hellmann-Rajanayagam, D. (1993) Jaffna Social System: Continuity and Change under Condition of War, International Asienforum, 24(3-4): 251-281
Pfaffenberger, B. 1990, ‘The Political Construction of Defensive Nationalism: The 1968 Temple-entry Crisis in Northern Sri Lanka’, Journal of Asian Studies, 49(1): 78-95.
Sivathamby, K (2007) ‘Divine Presence and/or Social Prominence: An Inquiry into the Social Role of the Places of Worship Jaffna Tamil Society, in Sivathamby (ed.), Sri Lankan Tamil Society and Politics, Chennai: New Century Book House, pp. 24-56.
Thanges. P, and Silva, K.T, (2009) ‘Caste Discrimination in War-affected Jaffna Society’ in Silva, K. T, Sivapragasam, P. P, & Thanges, P. (eds.), Casteless or Caste-blind?: Dynamics of Concealed Caste Discrimination, Social Exclusion and Protect in Sri Lanka, Copenhagen: International Dalit Solidarity Network, pp. 50-77.