Eelaam Homeland struggle was to hide Tamil Caste difference & unify discontented Tamils

| by Shenali Waduge

( January 17, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In understanding the nature of Sri Lanka’s conflict it is important to not only understand the nature of the Tamil caste & class system but analyze how intricately absorbed it is into the social, political, economical, religous hierarchy of how Tamils live or rather should live. The “ethnic” tag was introduced simply to sideline the divisions existing between Tamils & showcase a united front locally & internationally. Using “ethnic discrimination” by Sinhalese against Tamils was a perfect theme & perfect reason to start a conflict. The conflict enabled higher caste Tamils to keep a hold on lower caste Tamils by camouflaging the real intention & lower castes had no choice but to accept this homeland utopian vision. This did succeed to a great extent. It is now time for the world to know the truth and falsity of labeling Sri Lanka’s problem as “ethnic”.
Hiding behind facades that the Sinhalese are discriminating the Tamils, promoting these lies, distorting facts, paying western media to carry the wrong message is in reality doing damage to one’s own people.

It is also time for Tamils to seriously think of their own future vis a vis continuing generations old caste systems or to follow the path of equality amongst the Tamils before accusing the Sinhalese.

1956 Official Language Act
The 1956 Official Language Act making Sinhala the only official language yet allowing reasonable use of Tamil language is often cited as the grounds for the “Ethnic” problem. Yet apart from a few small protests there were no large demonstrations on record to oppose this. Tamils even started to learn Sinhala. We need to remember that English was the language being used however less than 6% of total Tamils in Sri Lanka were actually fluent in English. By 1956 Tamils constituted 50% of the clerical personnel of the railway, postal and customs services, 60% of all doctors, engineers and lawyers, and 40% of other labor forces.
How many would agree that the Eelaam struggle began in 1923 with Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam which evolved towards the 1931 demand for 50:50 representation when in reality the Tamil representation in terms of population was 70:30. The denial of this eventually led to the formation of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi in 1949 (Tamil kingdom Party). The ITAK conveniently changed its name to read Federal Party which today is known as Tamil National Alliance.
It was the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act & not the Official Language Act that Tamils opposed!
Part of SWRD Bandaranaike’s plan was to penetrate into the “low caste” votes of Tamils using division amongst Tamils to garner votes. This similar strategy has been & is still used in present day politics. Thus the Social Diasbilities Act No. 21 was passed in parliament in 1957 giving lower castes the right to attend schools & kovils. Its good for the western world to know that it was a Sinhalese who opened the doors for low caste Tamils to attend schools & kovils – places that were taboo to them by their own Tamil brethren. No sooner the Tamil high castes & high classes realized the dangers of mainstream parties courting the low castes they devised their response. It was to create the best division possible. A rift between the Tamils & Sinhalese which would strike better success than low caste-high caste divisions. Who remembers the satyagrahas, the tarring of Sinhala letters on vehicle registration numbers. All launched by the ITAC & Tamil Congress – both high caste/class political parties.
It is important to note that all these happened a year after making Sinhala the official language. Why did the Tamils not cry foul over the Sinhala Only Act in 1956 but oppose the Social Disabilities Act on 1957 with such venom? It is because Tamils wanted to deprive their own. However, the 1956 Act became a ruse which led to the Bandaranaike Chelvanayagam Pact which had nothing about the language issue but referred to devolving regional power which would enable them to continue ruling over low caste Tamils for eternity. In 1971 an amendment was brought to the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act which naturally did not go well with high caste Tamils & led to large scale protests.
Similarly, when the Government introduced university standardization in 1973 those that opposed were those who were against equitable distribution. Students of all ethnicities from Colombo, Jaffna, Kandy, Galle who had been privy to education opposed opportunities that would be enjoyed by students from Batticaloa, Vanni, Nuwara Eliya, Monaragala & other less developed districts. While the composition of the ethnicities did not change entrance, for Tamils it meant not only the Vellalar caste but lower caste Tamils too would gain university entrance. This was why Tamils opposed the 1973 standardization.
Caste riots amongst Tamils
Why is there no reference to caste riots amongst Tamils – where Vellalars, dhoby’s, barber castes were attacking each other in 1871. How about the Vellalars attacking the Paramba caste in 1923 because according to their caste they had no rights to hire drummers for funerals. In 1931 the Vellalars attacked the Pallar castes also for hiring drummers. The message of the Vellalars was clear – no low castes could hire drummers for funerals! Do Tamils need to be reminded that they did not allow low castes to enter any place that the high castes frequented? Yet when a government directive on “equal seating” emerged violence broke out in 1929 against low caste Tamils sitting on benches as previously they had to sit on the floor! This was how Tamils treated their own!
Continuous petitions were written pleading the Government to cancel the directive. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went so far as to request the Colonial Office in London to encode caste into legislative enactments.

Struggle for Tamil Eelaam never began with the LTTE
Those ignorant of these facts would give the 1956 Sinhala Only Act as being the reason for the emergence of the LTTE & to its demand for a separate homeland. How false this claim is. Why was the ITAC formed in 1949 which denotes a separate homeland in its name? Why did the Tamils want 50:50 representation? Why did Tamils gather to put forward the Vadukoddai Resolution calling upon Tamils to take up arms? Why did Tamils allow Tamil police officers to be assassinated while these political leaders watched when all non-Tamils were forced to leave by armed groups in the North?
Though the LTTE was a guerilla force it had to abide by the rigid Tamil caste system thus the links to high caste political parties. Prabakaran & his main stooges may have all been low caste & low castes in terms of numbers may be more than the high caste Tamils but the caste system is such that low caste Tamils will hardly revolt – they are born to accept & never challenge the caste they are born into. That caste differences were very much prevalent is clear in the manner low caste Tamils of the East were used for high risk operations including Karuna who was deprived “promotion” for being low caste which resulted in his ultimate defection & which helped liberate the East eventually from the LTTE. Tamils who cry “discrimination” may like to recall how in the refugee camps during 1983 the high castes refused to share common toilet facilities with the low castes & a lot of problems arose inside the very camps housing only Tamils!
The TNA
Who are they? They are a group of Jaffna centric vellalar caste Tamils who do not represent Tamils. They merely represent their caste & aspire to regain supremacy for their caste. They should in essence be banned for their vision & mission in entirety is to continue a political struggle for a Tamil Homeland. It is a party that needs to be banned in Sri Lanka for political parties are not meant to divide the nation. If the TNA does not represent the Tamil people accept representing the continuous of the Vellalar caste rigid traditions it is time the Government stop playing footsie with such a political party.
Essentially what we must all know is that the Vellalars will never allow lower castes to challenge their status quo in marriage (even political marriage for convenience is regarded taboo). The Jaffna vellalars think themselves the elite while the Eastern Tamils and upcountry Tamils are looked down upon lower than the low castes Tamils of Jaffna.
So the decision or rather solution for the future of Tamils lies within themselves. Do they continue the age old caste differences or do they put caste, class & regional differences aside. Can the West explain how devolution is likely to provide an answer to these bitter sentiments that exist where Tamils do not want their own to sit with them at dinner, to drink from a teacup belonging to a low caste or to ever into a marriage all because of the caste factor? Obviously the West does not understand or know the complexity of the caste factor amongst Tamils.
It may be just 2 years since the elimination of the LTTE. It is too soon for the low caste Tamils to realize they are in a better position now to decide how they should live politically. They will soon realize that they are not bound to galvanize behind political parties like the TNA that pretends to fight for their cause but is only the custodian of the Vellalar traditions. All that the TNA attempts to do politically has nothing to do with the betterment of the Tamil people and all to do with keeping the low castes from straying elsewhere politically especially tying up with southern political parties.
What is really important to Tamils
In so far as what is important for the Tamils, it is obvious they need to identify how far they are willing to let go of generations old caste & class barriers. For in defending the caste system they are unlikely to protect either the Tamils or the Tamil culture. The dangers of this arises from large numbers of younger Tamils seeking foreign pastures who are enveloping foreign culture not wanting to be tied to age old traditions that prevails & with time they are unlikely to chant separate homeland either. So Tamils are likely to loose the obvious which is the homeland as well as loose out on protecting its culture simply because they paid scant attention to its protection. The present day calls is for learned Tamils to start protecting the Tamil culture rather than going behind separate homeland themes meant only to hide their caste differences.
Tamils must look back critically at the past 30 years. Did the conflict have adverse effects on the Tamil elite/high class and the high castes? No. Who actually suffered then? It was the low castes who have been suffering all along and the irony is that the paid low caste stooge Prabakaran was a puppet in the hands of the Tamil vellalars who used him to deprive his own. Prabakaran cared not to raise his own caste except to glorify himself. Prabakaran cared not to uplift the lives of the other low castes sharing what he earned from LTTE Inc, then these Tamils are never likely to find a savior any time soon unless they begin to change among themselves.
The Indian factor
Just as political parties used caste difference to gain political mileage, religious groups used caste to entice low caste Tamils who were poor to follow Christianity/Catholism. Similarly, low caste Tamils became a tool for foreign interferences and India & its intelligence agencies too followed this strategy.
India is no stranger to caste differences. There are 166million untouchables in India. India’s Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening offense. 20% that is 11m Dalits live in Tamil Nadu & more than 50% live below the poverty line. Neither the AIADMK nor DMK have done anything to change the lives or livelihoods of the Dalits and it is no different in other States of India.
So for India using low castes of Sri Lanka would be nothing new. Part of the plan to economically develop the North with Indian assistance is certainly aimed at uplifting the technical & educational know-how of Tamils in order to incorporate them into India’s larger plan for the region. It is good for Sri Lanka to be more alert about what countries give post-conflict for the giving factor is more often camouflaged by what they plan to take ultimately!
Hiding behind facades that the Sinhalese are discriminating the Tamils, promoting these lies, distorting facts, paying western media to carry the wrong message is in reality doing damage to one’s own people. People who had been marginalized through the colonial periods, throughout post independence and even while the LTTE prevailed is the real story of the Tamil low castes who had to endure 30 years of suffering. Is this the destiny of the low caste Tamil people? Is it only the vellalars that must thrive in Sri Lanka? This is the question that needs to be answered first by Tamils & next by the West.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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