Sri Lanka: Caste prejudice & inequalities

We note the reference to caste. The three fundamental common components of race and caste are heredity, hierarchy and endogamy. In a racist society your race is determined by your ancestry and so too your place in the social hierarchy. These are also features of a casteist society.


by Dr. Devanesan Nesiah

The following essay based on a presentation by the author At the Conference on “Caste, Social Justice and Democracy in Sri Lanka” last month

( December 12, 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence of the wide prevalence of caste prejudice and occasional oppression spread across our island, particularly concentrated in some localities, notably in Jaffna, but focused research on the subject is hard to come by.

By and large the subject seems to be taboo in public discussions. Although there are public demonstrations on many other subjects, there seem to be none on caste. Many would hold that it is no longer a problem except possibly in respect of one or two aspects of untouchability such as temple entry and land ownership, and that, too, only in Jaffna. The reality is different. A glance through published matrimonial advertisements would reveal that caste endogamy is required or at least preferred, not only among Hindus but also among Buddhists and even Christians.

In India and Nepal, the two Hindu dominated countries, the caste rules are clearly defined (in the Vedas, and more particularly, in the Manu Smriti), and the caste hierarchy has been virtually unchanged for millenia. Traditionally, Caste Hindus who cross the Vindiya Mountains, understood by some as crossing the shores of India, lost caste, i. e.were demoted to the Sudra category. They needed to go through an elaborate ritual conducted by Brahman priests to regain their original caste status. Gandhi went through this ritual after he returned from his first trip to London (to qualify as a barrister). On the next occasion he did not go through that ritual because he had lost faith in it. So technically, he ceased to be a Vaishya (Bania/Chetty) and became a Sudra.

Over time this rule had become unenforceable because thousands of Caste Hindus were frequently going out and returning after attending conferences or higher studies overseas. Further, the rules had occasionally been bent to upgrade the caste identity of those below Kshathriya stature who had seized the throne and needed to be accepted as Kshathriya.

There have even been cases of foreigners (by definition, Sudras or Untouchables) who married those of high caste and whose caste status needed to be upgraded to that of the spouse. Despite an increasing number of such aberrations, the caste structure has retained its potency within the mainland. Moreover, during the last century and since, many of high caste had settled overseas, permanently or semi- permanently and it became neither practicable nor acceptable to treat them as Sudras or to compel them to go through the ritual of caste rectification every time they visited India. In fact many Hindu temples have been established overseas with Brahman priests officiating. Thus, though a few caste rules have been gradually abandoned or lightened, the basic structure of castes has retained its hold on the Hindus on the mainland.

The Sri Lankan caste structure is clearly a downsized offshoot of that of India; but the structure and rules have changed dramatically. In the virtual absence of significant numbers of those of high caste (Brahmans, Kshathriyas and Vaishyas) the locally dominant section of the Sudras (Govigama/Vellalar) has created a distinctly Sri Lankan hierarchy with themselves at the top. Because they are numerically the largest caste, they have not only got it accepted, but the apex of this hierarchy has stabilized over the decades despite the absence of any scriptural backing. Thus the top leaders of all the major political parties are Govigama/Vellalar, and this could continue indefinitely. Among the Sinhalese economic mobility has led to some changes in the caste ranking (but not in individual caste identity) at the middle and lower levels.

Although the Indian government has strenuously denied that caste and race are two sides of the same coin, these two hierarchies and the rules governing them are infact very similar.

The reason for India’s denial is to avoid international scrutiny of Indian caste related atrocities by the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. As set out in Article 1 of that document, it applies to discrimination on the basis of descent. That is a critically fundamental rule of Indian Caste, US Black Codes and South African Apartheid, a connection between race and caste but not the only one. They are both essentially hierarchical. Almost every rule of Apartheid or Jim Crow is matched by a corresponding caste rule. Further, Exogamy/miscegenation is taboo and the offspring of miscegenation are relegated to the lower category. Exogamy/miscegenation might have led to the formation of intermediate categories before the rules (with a clearly defined exception in the case of Namboodri Brahmans and Nair women) were clearly laid down, but the current rules are patently designed to deter Exogamy.

When the majority of the Supreme Court of the US in Plessy v Ferguson, 1896 upheld the conviction in Louisiana of Plessy, who was racially seven eights white and one eighth black for refusing to sit at the back of a railway carriage,it endorsed racism and segregation under cover of a spurious “separate but equal”doctrine.

That case is yet remembered and cited twelve decades since then and will continue to inspire scholars and human rights activists for the courageous and memorable dissenting judgment of Justice Harlan:

“It was said in argument that the statute of Louisiana does not discriminate against citizens but prescribes a rule applicable to white and coloured citizens. But [every]one knows that [it] had its origin in the purpose not so much to exclude white persons from railway cars occupied by blacks as to exclude coloured persons from railway cars occupied or assigned to white people … In the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the Law there is in this country no superior,dominant ruling class of citizens.There is no caste here. Our constitution is colour blind …The thin disguise of “equal accommodation for passengers in railroad coaches will not mislead anyone nor atone for the wrong this day done…”

We note the reference to caste. The three fundamental common components of race and caste are heredity, hierarchy and endogamy. In a racist society your race is determined by your ancestry and so too your place in the social hierarchy. These are also features of a casteist society.

What can be done to reduce caste prejudice, caste inequalities and caste oppression in Sri Lanka?

It would have helped if we had well researched information on caste in Sri Lanka of the kind available in India. But such research may also aggravate caste consciousness. In India caste identity is part of the data routinely collected for the national census and for other purposes; caste issues are openly discussed and debated in parliament, state assemblies and elsewhere. Since caste quotas established early under British rulerelate to all public sector employment and public funded education institutions as well as to elections to political bodies at all levels,caste identities are not only widely known but a central factor in life. Caste consciousness is deeply embedded in the population and fear of further raising caste consciousness is not as acute as in Sri Lanka.

The kind of remedies for caste inequalities (such as widespread quotas) adopted with some success in India may not be appropriate in Sri Lanka. Any scheme that includes recording caste identity in the national census or requiring caste identification in the selection process for state sector employment and promotion within the service, or admission to state funded educational institutions or in designing elections to political bodies so as to achieve the required quotas would reinforce caste consciousness. We may need different remedies.

Soon after I was appointed as District Secretary and Government Agent in Jaffna in mid-1981, I tried another approach in consultation with some leaders of the “Untouchables” in Jaffna, using prevailing residential caste segregation and barriers to occupational mobility across caste barriers to channel socio economic benefits to sections of the lowest caste categories. In this initiative I had the backing of the District Minister (U. B. Wijekoon) and the Chairman of the DDC (S.Nadarajah). The first of these schemes was targeted to the lowest caste, the so-called Pariars, whose traditional occupations were Funeral Drumming and Civic Sanitation (including road sweeping and the cleaning of toilets). This caste had a supplemetary focus on weaving andnaturally, preferred to describe their occupation as Weavers(Valluvar). The objective of the project was to introduce and spread silk weaving among this depressed community, thus providing some upward socio economic mobility. The Chairman, Export Development Board helped by getting down an expert Tamil speaking silk weaver from India who helped to identify a village (Madduvil near Chavakachcheri),exclusively populated by those of this caste. Locating the spinning and weaving centre in this village effectively ensured that all the spinners and weavers in the scheme were of that caste. The silk yarn had to be brought from South Sri Lanka since the climate of Jaffna was not suitable for the cultivation of mulberry needed to produce silk yarn. Incidentally this helped to strengthen Tamil – Sinhala economic ties. The scheme had an excellent start but the inflow of silk yarn was interrupted by the 1983 pogrom and my transfer out of Jaffna soon afterwards.

Even now if provision could be made for a steady supply of silk yarn and for the marketing of the woven silk, and these are not difficult to provide, the scheme could be revived. It has much potential not only for generating more income, but also to spread it horizontally across the caste community, reaching even the poorest.The capital investment required is modest.What is lacking is concern for the welfare of this community on the part of those in authority.

The second caste related scheme that I initiated was a patent palmyarah arrack distillery in the village of Thickam. The few existing distilleries were all pot distilleries. The objectives were similar to those of the silk weaving project. But, in the silk weaving project it was the location that ensured that the workers were exclusively of the targeted caste,whereas in the distillery case it was the occupation that ensured the targeting. The distillery enabled the absorption of excess palmyra toddy in the peak season, thus maintaining price levels and a steady income for all tappers including the poorest. Since this distillery was the first of its kind for palmyrah toddy, we had to consult Sinhalese coconut arrack distillers who helped by sharing their blueprints. These were adapted for palmyrah toddy. The project survived the disturbed conditions that followed the 1983 pogrom and is still functioning. Since the technology was makeshift the quality of the arrack is mediocre and needs to be upgraded. About a decade ago,long after I had ceased to be Government Agent, Jaffna, I managed to contact a leading firm of distillers based in Colombo who were willing to invest in upgrading the distillery and to produce a range of products (arracks and liqueurs) of export quality. Unfortunately, for different reasons, neither the State nor the head of the Palmyrah Development Board at that time was interested. Eliminating caste inequalities among Tamils was never a state priority. As for the Palmyrah Development Board, it was making some modest profits from the distillery, despite the mediocre quality of the arrack produced and it did not want to lose control. Its vision was limited. If the state is willing such an arrangement may yet be feasible and could generate considerable export earnings as well as providing local and foreign markets with a range of high quality palmyrah arrack and liqueurs.

The third project I had in mind involved the processing of leather and the manufacture of leather products of international quality in the village of Vathiri (near Point Pedro), famous for its skilled leather workers. They produce for the local market (mostly slippers and sandals). The Chairman, Export Development Board undertook to get down a leather expert from Italy to help to train the local workers to manufacture a range of export quality leather products for the markets in Colombo and overseas.But this scheme was still born on account of the 1983 pogrom. The scheme has great potential but I was taken away from Jaffna in 1984 and spent some years at Harvard, where I did a doctoral programme of reverse discrimination in the United States, India and Malaysia.

My selection of doctoral research was inspired by my experience in Jaffna. The leather products scheme also remains feasible but substantial state funding and initiative are required, as well as concern for the welfare of this community.

Though the subject of my doctoral thesis was inspired by my experience of caste in Jaffna. Since I had no access to any research on caste in Jaffna or in Sri Lanka, the focus of my comparative study was on race discrimination in the USA, caste discrimination in India and Bhumiputra policies in Malaysia, on all of which there was adequate published information. In the course of my own research on these subjects based on policy documents and research by concerned scholars and agencies, as well as the respective constitutional provisions and relevant court cases in those three countries, I had come to know more about caste in India than caste in Sri Lanka. On the basis of my study, I am convinced that the anti-caste remedial measures necessary and successful to a limited extent in India are inappropriate for adoption or even adaptation in Sri Lanka.

The remedy maybe in schemes of the kind that I started in Jaffna, and was not able to complete for reasons beyond my control. My approach was targeting socio-economic programmes that upgrade the socio-economic conditions of the most backward caste groups, particularly focusing on the poorest and most disadvantaged from among those caste groups, taking care to avoid increasing caste consciousness. Quota schemes benefit a few at the upper end of the caste hierarchy and there are very little benefits that trickle down and reach those at the bottom. This has been the experience in the case of race quotas in the USA (no longer operative) and caste quotas in India (yet operative). A decade or two of race quotas in the USA and many decades of caste and tribal quotas in India have boosted the upper classes within each beneficiary race or caste or tribe but not those at the bottom. Socio-economic programmes that avoid raising caste consciousness but facilitate horizontal spread of benefits at all levels are needed.

In Caste in Tamil Culture,Vikas Publishing House,1982, Brian Pfaffenberger credits the Tamil civilization for the creative blending of the ancient Vedic and South Indian caste hierarchies into a new caste system different to but not totally contradicting the Vedic system.A critical gap that needed to be accommodated was the virtual absence of the Kshathriya and Vaishya castes in the South.Equally important was to accommodate the dominant position of the land owning and often wealthy Vellalars in the South,contradicting their Sudra status. As set out by him (pp 4, 5):

“…the ranking categories and overall form of the Gangetic caste tradition are very poorly reproduced.The most striking aspect of this anomaly – the one with which this monograph is chiefly concerned – is the enigmatic status of certain non-Brahman cultivating castes,which are traditionally of the Sudra (or Servant) rankin Sastric terms and which are epitomized by the cultivating Vellalars of the Tamil hinterland.Throughout South India,in those areas in which Brahmans are not the chief land-owners,Sudra cultivating castes often possess what Srinivas has termed “decisive dominance” (M.N.Srinivas, The Dominant Caste in Rampura, American Anthropologist 61:1-16, 1959 ).Numerically predominant in an area and endowed with the lion’s share of the land,the dominant caste believes itself to be entitled to rule the villages in which it resides,and does not shrink from the use of force to maintain what it sees as its legitimate privileges(D. G Mandelbaum,Society in India, Berkeley: University of California Press,1970: II,358f).

Judged in purely Sastric terms,the non-Brahman dominant caste of South India – a caste which possesses only the lowly Sudra rank in the Sastric tradition of caste categories(Varna-s) – should not merit a high caste rank.Yet, proclaiming themselves to be very pure and respectable indeed,Vellalars,for instance are judged to stand in public esteem just below the Brahmans.”

Even more than in South India,Brahmans are numerically weak and economically inferior to the Vellalars in Jaffna and elsewhere in Sri Lanka.Pfaffenberger suggests that the South Indian caste system evolved through cooperation between Brahmans and Vellalars.The Vellalars conceded the pre-eminence of Brahmans in the caste hierarchy and in turn the Brahmans accepted the wealthy land owning Vellalars as next in line,fit to own land and to manage temples in which Brahmans functioned.The scales were tilted towards the Vellalars even more in Jaffna than in South India reflecting the reality of the numerical and economic marginalization of Brahmans in Jaffna.

In her pioneering Ideology, Caste, Class and Gender, Vikas Publishing House, 1982, Selvi Thiruchandran has emphasized Brahman – non Brahman(including Vellalar)conflict rather than co-operation,reflecting the rise of the Dravidian movement in the middle of the 20th Century.Vellalar socio economic dominance and temple management in Jaffna were established centuries ago and Brahman role in society was always marginal.Although originally Vellalars had no hesitation in accepting that they were Sudras,this is now often contested.The influence of the caste based Gangetic hierarchy is even weaker in Jaffna than in South India.

Within the Sinhalese caste system there are regional variations especially between Kandyans (more feudal,especially pre-colonial) and Low Country.Among the Sri Lankan Tamils too there are regional variations.Both among Sinhalese and Tamils caste based servitude and land owning rights were ubiquitous, especially among the Kandyans,till they were banned under the Colebrook Cameron Reforms of 1833. We see vestiges of such servitude on special occasions such as festivals and peraheras. Caste has continued to be a factor(though declining over time)in recruitment and posting in Provincial and District administration and,in the case of Indian Tamils,in selection for supervisory positions in the plantations.

Particularly among the Sinhalese it has been found that sustained socio-economic progress (notably in the cases of the Karava,the Salagama and the Durawa caste groups) has translated into upward group mobility in the caste hierarchy.Karavas are no longer regarded as low and some of them even claim superiority over the Vellalars based on alleged Kaurava descent(i.e.Kshathriya status).Salagamas,once very low in the hierarchy,are now widely accepted as next only to Govigamas and Karavas.Unlike in the case of race in the USA in the period dominated by the Civil Rights movement,there has never been any attempt in Sri Lanka to redefine electorates in Sri Lanka so as to increase the representation of the lower castes.Infact the reverse occurred in the case of Indian Tamil after their disenfranchisement in 1949.The electorate remained unchanged, but with Sinhalese Members of Parliament now elected in place of Indian Tamil candidates who lost out because most Indian Tamils were voteless.Thus the political power of the Sinhalese in Indian Tamil majority electorates rose sharply,increasing the proportion of Sinhalese in Parliament.We are reminded that when the US constitution was drafted it prescribed the demarcation of electoral boundaries with each Black slave counted as 3/5th of a person, but they remained voteless,thus increasing the political power of the White slave owners even in comparison with White voters in non-slave owning areas.

Among the Sinhalese the traditional untouchables were the Gahalas(executioners),Kinnaras(mat weavers assumed to have occult powers)and Rodiyas(beggars/snake charmers),but these categories were very small in number.Amongst Sri Lankan Tamils the untouchable Panchamars are more numerous. The Panchamars consist of Vannar(dhobi),Ambattar(barbers),Pallar(landless labour),Nalavar(toddy tappers) and Paraiyar(funeral drummers and road sweepers).Among Indian Tamils the supervisory grades have been reserved for those not of the lowest castes; the latter are recruited only to the lowest labour grades.

Although nominally caste could not lawfully be a factor in admission to schools and boarding houses,infact it was,particularly in Jaffna.In the 20th Century it was gradually abandoned even in Jaffna despite much opposition from the higher castes.With the outbreak of the civil war ethnicity gained relevance and to that extent caste became less relevant.There were similar developments in South India where language and ethnicity became more relevant than caste with the rise of the DMK Movement in the middle of the 20th Century.

There is a tendency, in Sri Lanka as elsewhere,to gloss over the severity of caste/race oppression.I was informed sometime in the mid-80s by Prof.Higginbotham(a Black law Professor at Harvard Law School)that as late as the mid 20thCentury he had gained admission to Harvard (from which Blacks were earlier excluded)but could not find a place in any of the Harvard boarding houses as they remained closed to Blacks.He found it impossible to get private accommodation with heating near Harvard as he was not from a rich family,and he found it impossible to study in the winter evenings after the Harvard libraries closed.He had sought an interview with the President of Harvard and told him he was not seeking to end segregation but merely to find a place warm enough where he could study late in the evenings.The President of Harvard was not at all sympathetic and told him that it was his problem and not of the President who would abide by the rule to exclude Blacks from the Harvard boarding houses. Incidently, at that time the KKK was active at Harvard.

I had most of my schooling in Colombo but I would often visit Jaffna around the mid 20thCentury and noticed that even in several churches separate benches were provided for the untouchable castes.Infact one Diocese based in Jaffna had a policy of not recruiting priests from untouchable castes so as not to lose membership from those of higher castes.Even in the first quarter of the 20thCentury many schools in Jaffna refused to accept untouchables as students,still less as borders.Even now there is caste discrimination in appointing Principals to government schools.

Those of untouchable castes were prohibited from entering eating houses and tea shops or were seated separately and served in separate vessels till around 1960.Prohibition of untouchables entering temples continued till much later.Even now, some of the restrictions remain. These facts are not widely known because caste is a taboo subject for public research and most journals are selective about publishing news of caste discrimination.Even research institutions like the Jaffna University do not encourage research on caste discrimination.

I have confessed that my familiarity with the South Indian and Sri Lankan caste systems is limited.As in the case of my study of the North Indian caste system,I have relied entirely on secondary sources.But whereas the North Indian caste system is backed by the Vedas and Manu Smriti,the South Indian and Sri Lankan caste systems lack such well-defined scriptural backing.The origins of the caste system in South India long precede the Sangam Period which is around two millennia ago.Whether it is as ancient as the North Indian caste system we do not know.Caste among Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese is comparatively recent,i.e.these may have developed from caste in South India within the last two millenia.

I have benefitted from conversations in respect of the Sri Lankan caste system with Mr. Neervai Ponniah and Prof. Saba Jeyarajah and from the excellent library of the Colombo Tamil Sangam. I have, of course, made use of the outstanding ICES library to further explore the caste systems in South India and Sri Lanka including those of the Sinhalese.These differ from but are clearly influenced by the rules and hierarchies of South Indian caste.As in South India,the second and third of the Vedic high caste catagories,viz. the Kshathriyas and Vaishyas, are virtually absent and, therefore the prescriptions of Manu Smriti are not fully relevant.

I am particularly indebted to Brian Pfaffenberger, Selvi Thiruchandranand the excellent collective work of Kalinga Tudor Silva, P.S.Sivapragasam and Paramsothy Thanges (Casteless or Caste-blind?,Kumaran Book House,2009). I am indebted to Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole for his comments on my draft and to Asoka Herath, Kaushala Ratnasingam and Esther Hoole who helped me in other ways.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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