Caste oppression has a long and convoluted history in Jaffna. There is also, nearly a century’s worth of recorded history of progressive elements within the community agitating against the caste system. Serious ground was beginning to be gained by the anti-caste movement in the 60’s and 70’s before ethnic conflict and consequent militancy drove the movement underground for nearly three decades. Now, post 2009, issues of caste oppression have risen again like a spectre (the LTTE had banned most of its outward manifestations) ― and so too has the pushback against it.
October 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of a historic march from Chunnakam to Jaffna by thousands of men and women protesting caste oppression. “The marchers came from all walks of life,” said SK Senthivel, one of the stalwarts of the anti-caste movement in Jaffna. “We were youths at the time following leaders like N Sanmugathasan, KA Subramaniam and VA Kandasamy. Our march was joined by nearly all castes of the Tamil community as there were progressive members among the oppressive castes too. Even Muslims who did not face caste oppression themselves joined us on that historic march, to lend us solidarity.” The historic march which took place on 21 October 1966 was overtaken by police brutality. Many of the leaders were beaten up and jailed. Nevertheless, a consciousness had arisen ― both in the minds of the anti-casteists as well as the casteists whom they were addressing ― that caste oppression would no longer be accepted or unchallenged.
Fifty years later, on 15 October 2016, a conference was convened in Jaffna by a coalition of left groups calling themselves the Mass Movement for Social Justice, to review the past as well as to strategize the way forward.
Panels comprising activists, researchers and academics were hosted to review the history and possible future, of the anti-caste movement in Jaffna. Among other things they explored the ways literature and arts helped combat caste oppression as well as documented its social realties; the current context in terms of land oppression and the economy; education and culture, and so on.
SK Senthivel was the guest speaker who explained the history of the anti-caste struggle in Jaffna from the 1920’s onwards. According to him the Jaffna Youth Congress and other left oriented organisations had begun the struggle in 1924, mostly through peaceful demonstrations. At the time, overt forms of oppression included not allowing the oppressed castes into Hindu temples and serving them tea in broken bottles or rusty tumblers― unlike the polished vessels used for the oppressing castes.
The series of peaceful demonstrations had an effect so that by 1958, three of the major temples of Jaffna ― Nallur Murugan, Vannaarpanani Sivan and Yaal Perumal temples ― threw their doors open to the oppressed castes. This was a major feat to have achieved without violence ― the upper caste management of these temples were progressive for their time ― but various other temples had to have their doors forcibly opened over the next decade, for temple entry to take place.
Similarly, certain tea stalls in Jaffna agreed to serve all castes in similar vessels. In the meantime, the VSSK Cafe became the first restaurant to open its doors wide to everyone as well. All this took place in the late 1950s. Over the next decade, a mostly nonviolent movement which has put up with violence from the dominant castes for decades finally decided to retaliate with the slogan, ‘We will no longer turn you our other cheek. If you slap our cheek, we’ll slap yours back’. They took to arms and forced their way into resisting temples and eateries until nearly all these establishments opened their doors.
Apart from this historic achievement of opening up temples and tea stalls however, progress in negating other areas of caste oppression continued to be slow; hence the protest march of 1966. In 2016 however, SK Senthivel was not entirely certain whether much tangible progress had been achieved apart from the opening of tea shops and temples.
He also noted that Uduvil Girls School in Jaffna, currently under media speculation for controversy of another kind (regarding the retirement of its principal) was the first school to voluntarily offer equal seating in common congregations when serving meals at functions. Earlier, the oppressed castes whether students or parents, had to sit out of the way, separately. Thereafter, the government made it a mandatory regulation to serve everyone equally, and took action against principals who flouted the regulation.
The theme of the conference was to rise as humans to live in equality in Jaffna. Senthivel concluded his speech by asking the audience, “We keep hearing rousing rhetoric around here that we’ll rise as Tamils. My question to our community though is, are we ready to rise as humans instead?”
Land Oppression and the Current Context
Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist who does research work in Jaffna, presented a paper on “Land Rights and Economy within Contemporary Caste Society”. He noted that every time caste oppression is sought to be addressed in Jaffna, many in the mainstream reject the need to do so with the superfluous response “Oh but caste oppression is no longer present in Jaffna; we only observe caste when arranging marriages”. Ahilan noted, however, that even though overt forms of tangible oppression had gone underground, oppressive practices were still pervasive ― and this could be seen especially when it came to ownership of land, as well as economic structures.
The oppressed castes traditionally did not own land. To this day, when educated, socially mobile members of their community attempt to buy land, they are thwarted in multiple, insidious ways; should they succeed even then in buying lands, especially in dominant caste bastions, the community around them tended to harass and marginalise them in various ways.
Post-war, when grants were given to rebuild houses to war-affected peoples, the poorest 10% of the war affected in Jaffna lost out on the grant― because a stipulation of the grant is that they should own at least two perches of land to build those houses on. Needless to say it was mostly the oppressed castes who lost out due to this, for no fault of theirs.
Akalya Francisglain, a sociology graduate and researcher, presented a paper on education and culture in contemporary caste society. She noted that previous speakers had talked about the value of literature and arts in capturing and documenting the culture and lived realities of the oppressed castes. She however observed that the culture of the Villella (the most oppressive caste in Jaffna) being that of the majority and the dominant one, much of literature and the arts tended to pass off Villella culture as synonymous with Tamil Jaffna culture. Thus, while some of the other castes did have distinctly different cultures, they were made to feel different or ashamed, with many of the oppressed castes aping Villella culture to achieve social mobility in their lives. She said this was a prevalent yet unfortunate phenomenon that had taken place over time, obliterating non-dominant caste cultures along the way, which as a phenomenon were not sufficiently studied or documented.
On that note, the academics of Jaffna (a few of whom attended the conference) came in for severe criticism from both speakers and the audience, for not researching or critically analysing caste oppressions enough. So also were criticised the local media, who were perceived as not covering the matter in depth.
Ajith Balasooriya, a visiting academic from Colombo University, brought up a caste-related phenomenon he had observed in Jaffna that neither the local media nor the Jaffna academics appeared to be covering; the oppression of the palmyra industry. While outside the peninsula, Jaffna’s cultural identity is deeply entwined with the palmyra industry ― within the peninsula, the industry either doesn’t receive much support or is covertly oppressed ― because it is handled by an oppressed caste.
“At supermarkets and handicraft shops in Colombo, entire aisles are dedicated to palmyra products but the shelves are often empty. The sales staff tell us that there is not enough supply to match the demand. Yet over here in Jaffna, I am told that of the four million palmyra trees standing in the North, only about four percent is being utilised. The rest are going to waste. Mostly because only a certain caste engages in the industry, and even they have been made to feel so ashamed of it that many of them do not practice it if they can avoid it,” said Ajith.
Education and Schools
Regarding education, Akalya noted that to date, discriminatory practices continued in the enrolment of students at schools. “I saw on a school admission form that parents had to fill to enrol their child in Grade 1― details had been asked about the parents’ income, educational levels attained, and even whether they owned land. What has the parents’ income or education (which would knock out many of the oppressed castes’ parents), and especially their ownership of land, got to do with their child’s education?”
Udayani Navaratnam, Women’s Development Officer in Jaffna, endorsed Akalya’s statement with an anecdote of her own: “We know of a certain school that knocks out applicants based on their addresses ― They use the addresses to perceive if a child comes from a dominant caste or not. So oppressed caste parents who want to enrol their children in that school have now learned to give fake addresses ― thereby ensuring that their children are given a seat which would otherwise be denied them.”
Many more aspects of historical and contemporary caste structures as well as the way forward to address them were explored at the conference by other speakers and during lively participant interaction. These will be explored in a follow-up article.
Saturday, 22 October 2016