Speaking with People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), both Sinthujan Varatharajah, an expert political geographer, and Thanges Paramsothy, a renowned anthropologist, gave enlightening discussions on the nature and continued presence of caste as well the history of resistance to it.
Varatharajah, who is of Dalit origin, spoke on the oft-ignored history of caste discrimination and resistance. He notes that contemporary narratives often attempt to present the Tamil struggles as a casteless one but by denying the existence of caste we “deny the long history of resistance against caste". Varatharajah asks us to adopt an intersectional approach which questions how caste matters within a genocide, with an exodus.
Paramsothy similarly highlights the nuanced relationship between caste and national identity whilst drawing focus on contemporary issues surrounding ritualistic worship in Jaffna temples. He also highlights the manner in which the LTTE confronted issues of caste-based discrimination as well as the contemporary complexities brought by caste-based temple competition.
A history of caste-based violence
Varatharajah and Paramsothy highlight caste-based resistance reached its zenith at the start of the 20th century and extended into the 1960s before being subsumed by the “national question”.
Varatharajah notes that the first riot involving Tamils was conducted by the Vellalar (high caste) Tamils against the oppressed castes in Maviddapuram in 1871. Unceasing waves of violence targeted against the oppressed castes led to the political formation of organisations oft-forgotten which spearheaded the anti-caste struggle.
Paramsothy notes that these anti-caste movements gained the support of leftist movements as “they fought to gain equal access to education, temple rituals and other public spaces”.
Organisations like the such as the All Ceylon Tamil Congress and the Federal Party were established well after organisations such as the Northern Ceylon Tamil Minority. Furthermore, the non-violent demonstrations and satyagraha movement which was adopted by dominant caste members and led by Chelvanayakam, drew directly from the resistance movement of oppressed castes. However, the history of caste is far too often omitted.
“With each successful campaign, with increasing rights being granted to oppressed caste members, by the colonial state. They [the oppressed caste] faced more and more violence by the Tamil Vellalar dominated society”, Varatharajah states.
In 1929 there was the campaign for equal seating and eating opportunities for oppressed caste members, particularly children in schools. This was followed by the granting universal franchise by the British for all colonial subjects in Ceylon. Vellalar Tamils reacted by imposing even stricter caste laws in Tamil regions.
“They were so inhumane that they surpassed those in parts of the British raj and included prohibitions of carrying an umbrella, looking into the eyes of a dominant caste person, or covering their torsos” Varatharajah stated.
Read more from Varatharajah: Check Your Caste Privilege
Caste and the LTTE
The LTTE was not primarily a Vellalar movement but rather was set up by those primarily from the Karaiyar caste, which whilst not an oppressed caste was numerous and wealthy enough to challenge Vellalar society with less fear of sanctions, said the speakers.
Paramsothy highlights that Tamil militant movements, including the LTTE, treated casteism as an internal issue prevailing amongst the Tamil community. They maintained that the great threat “loomed from Sri Lankan Sinhala Buddhist dominant state”. The visibility of caste-based conflict was perceived as a threat to the unity of Tamils.
Today, he notes, conversions of caste are viewed as “bringing up old divisiveness back and therefore not healthy for Tamil liberation struggle”. However, there is a consistent failure to recognise the sacrifices made by the oppressed castes.
Varatharajah notes that the oppressed caste formed a large part, if not the majority of liberation fighters and “paid the heaviest price for Tamil liberation”. One reason offered as to why they composed such a large portion of the armed forces was because they were denied access to the land, capital, and opportunities which others had access to.
He asks us to conceptualise caste not simply as a rigid form of ritualistic discrimination but rather as a “social, economic, political, cultural and geographical system of apartheid”. One which “decided on who is able to own land and where one is able to live, work and die”.
Understood through this we can see that those from oppressed caste were the most impacted by the conflict.
“In 1983 for instance when Tamil people homes and shops were burned by Sinhalese mobs in Colombo and other parts of islands. Tamil plantation workers were equally affected by the racist violence. Many of them fled northbound only to be mistreated there too” Varatharajah highlights.
Caste is not a natural state of being but rather choices made by powerful groups to wilfully harm and suppress oppressed groups.
Read more from Varatharajah: Writing against hijacking, speaking against muting
Caste-based resistance in the LTTE
Paramsothy highlights that caste-based resistance transformed during the war and “took both visible and invisible forms”.
The LTTE, for instance, would punish those seen to be practising forms of caste-based discrimination in public. They further encouraged inter-caste marriage which brought about a challenged to preconceived notions of a casted-based natural hierarchy as well as the supposed purity of caste.
Paramsothy notes that LTTE leaders were from a variety of different castes, including oppressed castes, and married with members of different castes, including the dominant Vellalar caste.
Read more from Paramsothy on inter-caste marriages during the war: Inter-caste marriage in conflict settings
Paramsothy notes that the mobilisation of the oppressed castes in this process can be seen as a form of ritualistic defiance as they push to be able “to live with decency, respect and autonomy” within the realm of religion.
His talk raises questions over the prevalence of caste in contemporary Jaffna as well as Tamil diaspora. He notes that in Jaffna, segregation is quite visible and that with the diaspora it has transformed. To learn more about contemporary issues of caste with the diaspora, read his paper on "Caste within the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora".