Casteism and Social Justice

Comrade SK Senthivel

[Text of Santasilan Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture delivered by Comrade S. K. Senthivel, General Secretary of the Marxist-Leninist New-Democratic Party at the Trimmer Hall, Jaffna on July 16, 2016. English translation by S. Sivasegaram]

I was asked to deliver this address in memory of the late Silan Kadirgamar; and I agreed wholeheartedly since I believe that it is a matter of pride to deliver this address in memory of the late Silan Kadirgamar who was a person of great social value, a great intellectual, a great educationist, and above all one who received leftist ideas and made them an integral part of his conduct.

In the social context of Sri Lanka, the socio-political environment of the Jaffna Peninsula in particular, Silan Kadirgamar firmly adopted a bold leftist line ― a Marxist line and ideas inherent to it ― and lived as one who not merely accepted them in his mind but made it his practice and acted organisationally on their basis.

At a time when intellectuals joined hands with the community, outside the confines of academia, to carry forward a movement for justice and equality, he was a participant, in fact a very active participant, in that movement. At the time I did not have the opportunity to work with him. But since his student Mrs Somesasundary Krishnakumar chairing this meeting has placed before you many more matters than I could say, I would proceed on this occasion to honour his memory to deliver my address titled “Casteism and Social Justice” in memory of Silan Kadirgamar who, as I said then, lived as a person of social worth.

Untouchability which is connected with caste and tightly bonded to casteism has existed in our social environment for very long. We can see that casteism has been able to make people unequal and divide them. We also see that casteism has developed to become unyielding. We know from history that the caste system, which could be said to be the basic structure of Indian social relations, has lasted on that landscape for more than 2000 years. There have continued to be all manner of debate and analysis about its origins.

Indus Valley Civilization

On the one hand, there is the view that it was something that the Aryans brought from the north to south. But the view of researchers who have studied society based on historical materialism is that caste is not something that was unique to Aryans and that the roots of the caste system could be found in the period of the Indus Valley Civilization, the Dravidian civilization which preceded the arrival of the Aryans. Thus historians hold that the four-Varna distinction or the Varnasrama concept of four Varnas combined with class distinctions in the Indus Valley civilization gave rise to the caste system.

We can also see that at the time when class differences and class contradictions developed in society, caste developed as an inalienable aspect of Hinduism, guided by Hinduism. The development of the caste system occurred through the merging of class and colour (Varna). Whether we consider the Manu Smriti, the Hindu legal text or the sacred text of Bagavad Gita, they either justify the casteist Varna concept or emphasize the caste based duties of an individual; and have nowhere rejected it.

History has shown us how the number of castes within this caste structure has proliferated to reach several hundreds. In this pyramidal structured caste hierarchy, the Brahmin occupied the heist positions followed by the Kshatriya followed by Vaishya followed by Sudra, comprising respectively the four Varnas. Within it lay several hundred castes located in their respective levels. Another feature of this caste structure, where castes are located one below the other, is that it has created a mind-set in which a lowly placed caste derives satisfaction from there being a caste below it.

Interests of the depressed castes

History shows that the number of castes has proliferated to reach many hundreds. The cast system has a pyramidal structure with the Brahmin at the apex, followed by the Kshatriya, then the Vaishya and then the Sudra, representing the four Varnas (meaning colour). Within them are hundreds of castes, again located hierarchically. What could be further noticed about this caste hierarchy is that since the castes are layered one below another, it has created a mind-set where a caste located low in this hierarchy seeks solace in there being another caste below it. In the context of this caste hierarchy, the Indian government set up the Mandel Commission to address the interests of the depressed castes.

The investigative study by the Mandel Commission reported that there were 3,750 castes in India. We know the reality that this caste structure is, however, not confined to the borders of India, and has spread to several South Asian countries. The caste system, which as I said earlier emerged from primitive class distinctions, developed alongside Hinduism to assimilate the very cruel, uncivilised practice of untouchability. Manu Smriti (the laws of Manu) occupies an important place among tools that linked untouchability with caste and thereby reinforced it.

The caste system which spread to the rest of South Asia had also well entrenched itself in Lanka. There has been a caste system among the Sinhalese as well. Likewise there has been one among Tamils. The caste system has been adopted as an important structure defining society in Lanka, especially in the north of the country, and more specifically in the Jaffna Peninsula. We can see that the caste system which came about well before the feudal stage of Indian society was fortified under a feudal hierarchy based on land ownership.

Caste structure in Sinhala society

Nationalists — Tamil nationalists — usually pride themselves that the Chola period was a golden age. It was in that Chola golden age that the caste system was consolidated in Tamil country. History informs us that the Chola regime constituted a well-defined structure in which the duties of and the conditions controlling each caste were defined. The caste system in Lanka has been seen to have been relatively mellow. Especially, the practice of untouchability is known to be minimal. Yet the caste system exists among the Sinhalese. We can see the Govigama caste located at the peak of the caste structure in the Sinhala society in much the same way as the Vellala caste is in the Tamil society; and there are several castes arranged below it.

There are Sinhalese friends here who will vouch for the existence of caste among Sinhalese. There still are people among Sinhalese who can identify the caste of a person from his name. However, perhaps because they are adherents of Buddhism, untouchability and caste oppression are much less or at a very low level among the Sinhalese. There is, however, a paradox. It was against the Brahmins who headed the caste hierarchy that the Buddha established the Dhamma. We learn from history that those oppressed by the caste system took to Buddhism and that enabled the spread of Buddhism and that Buddhism was opposed to Brahmanism and the caste system. We also see that the same Buddhism, somehow, assimilated the caste system here.

When the Hill Country Tamils were brought to the island by the British nearly eighty percent of them belonged to the depressed castes. Fifteen percent of them belonged to the high castes, who led them or assisted the British to subject them to exploitation. As the majority of the Hill Country Tamils belonged to depressed communities, untouchability as an institution remained weak. In the North, however, we find that the caste system remained firm and based on oppression. In the caste system as seen in Jaffna, about a third of the population comprised people depressed by caste, also referred to as the Pancama. In other words it can be said that a third of the Lankan Tamil population can be said to have been depressed by caste. Some analysts and commentators have sought to explain the term Pancama as members of five specific castes. But it does not mean five castes but refers a fifth Varna which lay outside the four identified Varnas, comprising toiling people, a people who were effectively slaves. Researchers have established that this is the true meaning of Pancama.

We learn that, historically, these depressed Pancama people have been subjected to severe oppression, treated as untouchable and seen as contaminated. Sir P Ramanathan and Sir P Arunachalam ― two strongly nationalist leaders from the North ― who emerged as leaders from among the people of the Jaffna Peninsula early in the last century, have sought to defend the caste system.

Donoughmore Commission

We find that Sir P. Ramanathan had been the leader of the Tamil elite and the guardian of the caste system and untouchability. For instance, in 1931, when the Donoughmore Commission considered granting universal franchise to all persons ― male and female ― above the age of 21 years, Sir P. Ramanathan raised objection to it. He has the distinction of mobilizing seventy nine village headmen to plead with the Governor of Ceylon that people of depressed castes should not be given the franchise.

Besides, when the railway service from Colombo to Jaffna was introduced, it was Sir P. Ramanathan who argued that separate carriages should be allocated for people of depressed castes. It is from such elitist leaders that Tamil nationalism sprouted.

Thus Tamil nationalism became reactionary. It was because it firmly upheld casteism at its social base that it was placed at the fore. That is now presented as the Tamil national history. But that Tamil nationalism never went in a progressive direction, because, as we can see, Tamil nationalism started its journey with utterly reactionary feudal thinking and feudal ideology. It was when such Tamil nationalism had its beginnings in this fashion, there emerged in Jaffna a commendable and contrasting form of Tamil nationalism, a progressive Tamil nationalism, in the form of the Jaffna Youth Congress referred to earlier. We see the Jaffna Students’ Congress which started early in the 1920’s advancing to become the Jaffna Youth Congress in 1924. We need to view the First Congress of the Jaffna Youth Congress held in 1924 in historical perspective. In a context where we had reactionary Tamil nationalism on the one hand and the Youth Congress on the other, the latter in its First Congress in 1924 adopted a statement denouncing untouchability as its third resolution.

We remember with much appreciation the courage with which the Jaffna Youth Congress adopted the resolution, in the context of the prevalent practice of untouchability at the time. Amid this what is important to note is that the Jaffna Youth Congress was founded not as a left organisation but as what could be considered a nationalist, national freedom organisation. Yet we witnessed its establishing what comprised features of progressive nationalism.

Relentless struggle by educationalists

We find that the Youth Congress then, with Handy Perinpanayagam, MC Subramaniam and others at the fore, at each of its Congresses expressed its opposition to untouchability. Delegates from India, left-wing delegates, and leaders who participated in the independence campaign of the Indian National Congress have addressed the sessions of the Jaffna Youth Congress. The well documented book authored by Silan Kadirgamar on the Jaffna Youth Congress carries a clear and detailed historical record of the relentless struggle by educationalists — young educationalists especially — and university graduates.

It was because of such initiative of the Youth Congress that an organisation for the depressed community was founded in 1925. A society called the Tamil Workers Association was founded with Joel Paul, a member of the depressed community as its leader. Others with a Christian background joined to found this organisation against casteism. Nevins Selvadurai, a Christian, an educationist, a progressive and an opponent of casteism became President of the Tamil Workers Association founded for the people of the depressed community. What we need to note here is the ability of this educationalist belonging to the elevated castes to stand together with members of both the depressed community and the elevated castes.

It was they who then opposed in 1930’s the caste-based differential seating and differential serving of food at schools to launch a successful campaign for seating and serving of food on an equal basis and made the government accept it. It was only as a result of the uncompromising struggle on that issue by the Jaffna Youth Congress, the Tamil Workers Association and other progressive Christians that the first egalitarian event, namely seating and serving of food on an equal basis, occurred in the Tamil society of Jaffna. The historical tragedy, however, is that the Jaffna Youth Congress which was founded in the 1920’s was within ten years defeated by reactionary Tamil nationalist leaders. After the Youth Congress successfully achieved its boycott of elections to four seats to the proposed State Council in 1931, the reactionary Tamil nationalist leadership reversed the earlier position and contested those seats in elections held in 1934.
Following the demise of the elitist leader Sir P Ramanathan, his place was taken by another elitist leader GG Ponnambalam, who declared that boycotting the elections was lacking in foresight. He proceeded to plead for elections to be held for the four seats, and contested the elections held in 1934 to be elected to the State Council. In the context in which the Youth Congress was done away with, the left movement of the North moved in to carry out its activities, thereby filling the socio-political space that was occupied by the Youth Congress. The Lanka Samasamaja Party set foot in Jaffna in 1937. An important personality in the LSSP then was Comrade Tharmakulasingam, also known as Jeyam.

When, after much strife, the remains of a member of the depressed community was cremated at the Villunri crematorium, shots were fired at those who were there during the night, and Mudali Sinnaththamby, a member of the depressed community, was killed on the spot. When his murder came up before the courts, no lawyer from the upper castes was willing to plead for the interests of the deceased. In this cruelly unjustly situation, Comrade Tharmakulasingam (Jeyam), although a member of the upper castes, defied all resistance to plead for the deceased. Following that incident, youth of the depressed community realised that, without a separate organisation for the depressed communities, it was not possible to overcome caste-based untouchability. Thus an organisation named Minority Tamils Congress was founded in 1943.

Depressed community

Following that event the Communist Party was founded in the North under the leadership of Comrade M Karthigesan. The Party worked hard among the depressed community based on class as they constituted toiling exploited people. Despite the hard work of the left, the situation persisted under the Jaffna caste structure, in which the people of the depressed communities could not have tea or food or go to the temple or move about in public places as equals to others. It was only after the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna government led by SWRD Bandaranaike came to power in 1957, that there was some progressive change in the struggles as well as the social life of the depressed communities.

The introduction of the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957 had only a marginal impact on casteism. Since 1958, the Minority Tamils Congress launched for the first time the struggle to access certain restaurants. The struggle was launched at the larger restaurants. A situation conducive to such equality existed in restaurants such as Subash Cafe and SeKu owned by friendly members of the Malayali community. It was here that it was clear that the Tamil nationalists, who boast that Tamils are the most ancient community, had on no occasion opened their businesses on an equal basis to members of the depressed community.

It was this that we pointed out to the Tamils then. Two kinds of Tamil people existed then. One was the elevated kind; and the other was the depressed kind. One can recognise the two kinds if one stood opposite a tea boutique. On one side will be those whose tea is served in properly made cups or brass beakers; and on the other side will be those who have it in empty soda bottles, and low grade cans. This duality could be changed only in a few restaurants in 1958. But nothing significant happened across the northern region.

Tamil society

It was against this historical background at the time that left comrades launched the upsurge of October 1966, led by the Party comprising Marxist Leninists. It was a mass upsurge under the red flag bearing the slogan “Let the Caste System Fall Apart! Let Egalitarian Justice Arise!” The forthcoming 21st October marks fifty years since that event. The upsurge of 21st October 1966 was a vigorous upsurge against caste-based untouchability in which over a thousand youth took part, and was the most important upsurge in the Tamil society of the time.
The struggle initiated by that upsurge enabled the building up of a broad-based front in the Tamil society called the “Mass Movement for the Eradication of Untouchability”. There were not only members of the depressed community. Members of the upper castes, leftists, communists, revolutionaries, democrats, progressives among people of various description participated in the struggle. That was why the campaign, besides developing into a broad-based campaign, facilitated struggles for equality in other matters as well.

The young generation of today will not know of a struggle that took place fifty years ago. But they should know how arduous and inspiring a struggle it was and how it mobilized a large army of youth who would sacrifice their lives for the cause.

The history of the struggle tells us that it was during the period of this mass movement that the members of the depressed community dared to confront violence unleashed against them with violence ― within limits ― by taking up arms. Thus, we can see that the members of the depressed community secured their rights because armed action played an important role in the struggle.

During the struggle that lasted five years fifteen members of the depressed community were shot dead by fanatical casteists. The youth of the depressed community and the Communist Party did not tolerate it. They used revolutionary violence to put down in matching numbers fifteen fanatical casteists. Thus we can see it as a major struggle which put at stake the lives of fifteen members of the depressed community to achieve some form of equality that the depressed communities enjoy today ― be it in tea boutiques or in the temples ― and make a major impact on casteism.

Then the ordinary oppressed people ― toilers and dwellers in huts ― used weapons at their disposal to struggle against fanatical casteists and caste-based oppression. In the village of Nichchaamam in Chankaanai, the campaign for entering tea boutiques lasted three years.

A poet who arrived from Batticaloa at the time wrote:

“Whatever time of night that the enemy may enter
Eyes of Nichchaamam will throw fire and burn to ashes.
….
I admire the anger that resides in little huts.
The soil of Chankaanai, I salute thee”

for it was the day on which a life was sacrificed. It was through such struggle that equality was won. I dare say that it was because the struggle of the time fought against untouchability that today’s community enjoys a degree of equality.

It was because of such struggles that the Tamil youth were drawn into subsequent Tamil nationalist struggles. But the extent to which the struggles for Tamil Eelam ideologically overcame casteism remains an important issue that needs to be researched. The question of the extent to which the struggle for Tamil Eelam overcame casteism needs to be debated at ideological as well as theoretical levels.

Expatriate communities

There is a view prevailing that today, seven years after the end of the thirty-year war, that a variety of events on various fronts indicate that casteism is once again quietly in action. The practice of inequality in the form of untouchability sometimes occurs in the open. Thus casteism is still asserting itself in practice in our society.

Dr Ambedkar stressed that there is that caste exists in society and that there is the restriction that one can only marry within one’s caste. This practice persists not only here but also among the expatriate communities. Casteist oppression could manifest itself as explicit oppression or as other forms of inequality. A situation has come in which every progressive and leftist should rise bravely to struggle on a social basis against the oppression faced by people of oppressed castes. That struggle needs to one for social justice.

What I wish to tell the youth of today is that they should look closely at human relations and social inequalities in our society. They should learn everything and learn from everything. What I wish to urge at this moment is that there should be a mobilisation of youth capable of fighting against social injustice.

Tamil nationalism which was born of reaction developed into reactionary nationalism and remains reactionary to this day. Even in national politics it is taking a most reactionary route. We remind ourselves that we need to smash this reactionary Tamil nationalism, identify the progressive nationalist forces who would emerge from it, and create a new environment in which they could develop into leftists.
Then, at the time when the Youth Congress was crippled, we see that progressive nationalists, such as P Nagalingam, P Kandiah and Tharmakulasingam, advanced from being Tamil nationalists to become leftists. What I wish to emphasise in my Santasilan Kadirgamar Commemoration Lecture is that good Tamil nationalists should also be good leftists.

In the environment prevailing then, people who were oppressed by casteism and untouchability and class and exploitation of labour advanced from among the depressed community through struggle. We think that time has come, as a continuation of that step, for revolutionaries who are Tamil progressives, to mobilise as leftists to constitute a new socio-political front, in the post-war context, to understand the current social inequalities and initiate a new form of politics to confront them. We witness four kinds of oppression in Sri Lanka―based on class, nationality, caste and gender. We have the duty to create true champions of social justice from among the classes and social sections who are oppressed at these levels. I conclude my talk by urging this matter.

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