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Talking Taboo: Caste & Religion in the Tamil community

In the second part of the 'Unrestricted' series, a discussion forum by the Tamil Students Initiative (TSI) aimed at stimulating dialogue within the Tamil community on subjects often considered taboo, students across London gathered together to discuss caste and religion.

Following on from the success of the first session on sexuality and gender identity, the event, hosted by Imperial Tamil Society, began this time with guest speaker Sinthujan Varatharajah who recapped the long and uncomfortable history of the caste system within the Tamil community, including its origins and cultural impacts today.

"When we today read Tamil history, particularly its political components, we hardly find traces of the history of caste, it’s cleansed from our memories, as if caste never played any role in how society functioned in the Tamil areas of the country [and] as if inter-communal inequalities, discrimination and injustices never existed," Sinthujan, a PhD Candidate in Human Geography at University College London and Masters graduate at LSE in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies, said.

Drawing on personal experiences and everyday accounts, the room fell silent, as he highlighted the on-going ramifications on all Tamil people, particularly regarding the question of marriage.

"Caste issues aren’t just historic issues, they are also contemporary and affect us in the present," Sinthujan said, stressing that collective memories of caste discrimination were often erased.

Debunking the prevailing view that caste construct only exists within Tamil Hindu communities, students were intrigued as he explained the prevalence of caste discrimination within Tamil Christian communities too.

In small group discussions after, students came forward and shared their own experiences of caste discrimination, leaving others moved and angered by the how such oppression continued within the Tamil community.

One student described how his family was shunned simply due to their affiliations with people from a certain area, who were considered of a 'low caste'.

The discussions highlighted both how prevalent such discriminatory practices are, but also how 'normalised' they are, with many students saying they had opened their eyes to something that they had not considered at such depth previously.

"We have to fight this just as we would fight any other type of oppression, and I think we can do it, we're different from our parents generation" said one student.