Casting aside caste and class

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Addressing university students in the capital Colombo recently, President Maithripala Sirisena was reported to have said that “ending the caste discrimination in the North has become a more pressing problem than building national unity and reconciliation between Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people”. What the President said about the war-ravaged Tamil people in the North is as much applicable to their brethren in the East, extending all the way up to cosmopolitan Colombo, and overseas too. However, whatever President Sirisena said of the Tamils applies as much or even more to the ‘majority/majoritarian’ Sinhala-Buddhist community, of which he is very much a part.

“The process of handing back lands (occupied by the armed forces during the ethnic war) to the rightful owners is delayed due to several caste conflicts. The higher class claim the valuable lands while the lower classes are left with lands with very little value,” President Sirisena was quoted as telling the students and academics. In this context, he called upon academics and intellectuals to come forward to provide solutions to the social and criminal problems of the society using their knowledge.

Sirisena’s speech was in the context of the pending OHRC report to the UNHRC session in Geneva, claiming that all the lands in the one-time war area, taken over by the armed forces for their use, had not been returned to their rightful owners even a  decade later. But the complexities of the Sri Lankan/Tamil caste system that continues to dominate the societal discourse are not for simple/simplistic minds that drafted the OHRC Report, based on hearsay, like the Darusman Report before it.

If there is one area where the LTTE lost out from within the Tamil community as with the Sri Lankan State on the war-front, it was the ‘caste war’ that the monolith had waged incessantly from within. Through the period of the ‘LTTE occupation’ of Jaffna town in the first half of the nineties, Prabhakaran & Co renamed local tanks and other land-marks after their martyrs, heroes —  or, ‘maa-veerars’ in Tamil. Originally, many of them bore caste/casteist names, or those of some caste/casteist leader.

After the armed forces recaptured Jaffna in 1996 under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the authorities restored the original names. The Tamil community and polity criticised it and condemned it, especially those that had taken a ‘Sinhala name’. But long after the war, and more so through the five years of elected ‘Tamil rule’ in the North, under then TNA Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, neither the political leadership, nor the community leadership, did anything to restore the ‘LTTE names’ or something new and fresh.

Vellalar domination

The domination of the upper, farm-owning ‘Vellalar’ caste in the affairs of the Tamil community of the North and the East is historic. It has also been well-documented. When modern education and colonial jobs came the Tamils way in a predominant way, pre-Independence, the ‘Jaffna Vellalars’ were the maximum beneficiaries.

So, when ‘Sinhala Only’ came, they were also the worst-hit, along with other numerically smaller upper-caste, Tamil-speaking communities like Brahmins. Then, there were also Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, both Tamil-speaking from the North, who stood to benefit from the pre-Sinhala, English-centric education and jobs.

It may be too unfair to say that the ‘ethnic issue’, war and violence had its roots mainly in the ‘language issue’ centred on ‘Sinhala Only’.  Yet, its basis and contribution to the later-day events and developments cannot be wished away, either. The rest, as they say, is history – history that neither the Tamils, nor the nation can forget or erase out.

So dominant was caste and caste-domination within the Tamil community that it is at times argued that a non-Vellalar in later-day ITAK founder S J V Chelvanayagam could not win a Parliament seat from Jaffna in the first post-Independence polls of 1949. Extending the argument further, it can be said that the later-day Tamil demand for North-East merger may have had its contemporary origins in SJV’s Christian origins, possibly forcing him to look around for another route to capture Tamil hearts & minds. SJV did it in his time – but could not sustain it, maybe, as later events in his own time proved.

Prabhakaran came from the ‘Karayar’ fishing community in the North. The Eastern Tamils have their own ‘Mukkuvar’ community in the trade.To a certain section of the Tamils, then and now, Prabhakaran’s climb up as the ‘sole voice’ of the community sounded the death-knell to caste politics from within. Some among them argue that his ascension would not have been possible but for the end of casteism before his time.

Violence begets violence

There is no denying the prior acceptance of ‘Thanthai’ Selva as the common leader of the Tamils in the North and the East, may have unintentionally helped in Prabhakaran’s emergence in his time. He belonged to the younger generation, and those that thought that they were already suffering under the ‘Sinhala Only’ yoke, had in him and other militant Tamil youths, identifiable leaders.

These leaders and the outfits that they floated and/or represented became identifiable, not owing to the political causes that they were supposed to have espoused. That job was anyway being done by the older generation. Instead, their violent traits became identifiable for the new-generation youth, who have read the stories of Che Guvera and overseas contemporaries, as their Sinhala brethren in the South.

As it happened, the more violent of them won the earlier rounds. The LTTE emerged victorious and stronger – or, stronger and victorious vis a vis other Tamil militant groups. In the end, violence begot violence, and the armed forces ended the LTTE supremacy and dominance. The consistent complaint post-war is about violence of unprecedented proportions, allegedly unleashed by the forces.

Numerically stronger

There is nothing to suggest that the militant JVP from among the Sinhalas, again targeting the Sri Lankan State, was any different from the LTTE. Even the origins were not different, so to say, if we looked at the caste-class combo. Like the LTTE, the JVP too was founded by those that belonged to the ‘Karava’ fishing community in the South.

Both possibly felt left out and cheated from within, and had themselves heard in global capitals in the world, the only way the post-War world could be made to hear/listen in the sixties and seventies. It was again, not without reason. But then, in domestic politics of their times, both militant outfits had their ready cause, hijacked from the mainline polity of the time that had ‘failed’ their respective people(s).

In terms of caste politics, which along with class was at the root of internal divisions within, the Sinhala South was worse off than the Tamils, so to say. Possibly the upper-most Govigama castes among the Sinhalas is unique among all caste formations in South Asia, if not the rest of the Third World, too. The Govigamas not only continue to constitute the land-owning upper caste/upper class segment in the Sinhala-Buddhist society. They are also numerically stronger. This at least was/is not the case with the ‘Vellalar’ community in the nation’s Tamil demography.

Caste-class combo

Where political militancy began in this country — as elsewhere — and within communities it owed to a caste-class combination of the times. The respective leaderships (at least in the case of the LTTE, though not other Tamil militant groups that it obliterated) belonged to a lower caste compared to the dominant caste, and they represented a social cause that flagged the ‘class issue’ as well.

Before Rohana Wijeweera founded the JVP, SWRD-founded SLFP had taken away the ‘class’ issue of the socialist kind slowly and surely from the hands of the traditional left. The latter, as elsewhere in the Third World and more so in the immediate South Asian neighbourhood, confused class with castes – and hoped to win their ideological war by obliterating caste, which was steeped in the land and the people, and highlighting class differences of the ‘Soviet kind’.

Today, in nations across South Asia, where caste-identity politics dominates the sociological discourse, their politico-electoral base came from the traditional left. This was because in South Asia, and the rest of the Third World, ‘caste’ represents ‘class’, and ‘caste domination’ relates to ‘class domination’.

To date, caste politics dominates the Sinhala South as much as the case in the case of the post-war Tamil community. It is more visible than the other way round, but then the comparison should end there. Considering that President Sirisena has now addressed academics and intellectuals to address the ‘caste issues’ within the Tamil community, maybe he can kick-start a national discourse on the domination of caste in the twenty-first century Sri Lanka – ethnicity no bar.

At the end of it all, reconciling Sri Lanka’s caste-class conflict is of utmost importance, if a repeat of the JVP/LTTE kind of militancy were not to revive itself. At one-level, it is as important as ethnic reconciliation. Once that is achieved, in whatever form and content, the forgotten combo-conflict could re-emerge all around.

Only that the Tamil-speaking Muslims and Upcountry Tamil community, would still feel left out – and Sirisena’s prescription, now or later, should address their concerns even more. If nothing else, global realities speak for themselves. They cannot push the internal inconsistencies on this score under the carpet, nor can the SLT community claim that all those that lost their lives in Mullivaikkal were their people, and a majority of them were not Upcountry Tamils settled in the Vanni, not very long ago!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email:


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