Issues of social inequality and oppression among the Tamils of North Sri Lanka, which were brushed under the carpet either by tradition or by the exigencies of war, are now coming into the open, thanks to the end of the 30-year war in 2009 and the restoration of democracy in January 2015.
Among the issues which were taboo till recently, are the various disabilities imposed on the lower Hindu castes (called the Oppressed Castes) and the higher Hindu castes (called the Oppressing Castes); and the denial of rights to the Indian Origin Tamils (IOTs) who had sought refuge in the Tamil-majority Northern Province during anti-Tamil riots in the Sinhala-majority areas of South Sri Lanka.
The movements of the oppressed communities are still in an incipient stage because of insufficient self consciousness among the victims as well manifest opposition from the upper castes, particularly the Vellalas, who are historically, socially, economically, politically and educationally advanced and numerically stronger to boot.
Issues of caste inequality did not, still do not, find expression in the public domain for a variety of reasons, but principally, the need to maintain Tamil unity in the face of the consolidation of the majority Sinhalese against the minority Tamils.
The pressure to maintain Tamil unity only increased when the movement for provincial autonomy started in 1948; metamorphosed into a militant movement to establish an independent “Tamil Eelam” in the mid 1970s; and developed into an armed struggle in 1983.
But come 2009, when the LTTE was annihilated, and the restoration of full democracy in 2015, the lid placed over issues like caste oppression and caste inequality was removed. Some socially conscious individuals from the oppressed castes as well as the dominant Vellala caste, began to raise long neglected issues and formed organizations to redress the grievances.
Lack of awareness among the oppressed was the first stumbling block, says Ahilan Kadirgamar, a Jaffna-based economist who is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization (CED). The media is an instrument to create mass awareness, but the Tamil media, dominated by the upper castes, still have a strong tendency to ignore or discourage discussion on the internal problems of Sri Lankan Tamil society, especially caste inequalities.
According to Kadirgamar, universities in the Tamil areas do not encourage research on caste inequalities. And with educational institutions in their hands, the dominant caste has captured the commanding heights in all modern institutions including those of the government, points out Chandrakumar, former MP who is now full time into uplifting the Oppressed Castes.
Chandrakumar points out that only a tiny fraction of the elected representatives of the Tamils are drawn from the Oppressed Castes. None of the Board of Ministers in the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) is a non-Vellala. Only a small fraction of the officer cadre of the 36,000-strong bureaucracy of the NPC is drawn from the Oppressed castes.
This is reflected in the distribution of the government’s resources. According to Kadirgamar, caste discrimination is reflected in the distribution of lands. “The dominant upper castes occupy the best lands and the oppressed castes are given the worst,” he says.
But the more substantive issue facing the Oppressed Castes is landlessness and the related issue of housing.
“The Oppressed Castes generally cultivate lands owned by various temples whose Trustees are Vellalas. The Trustees do not give 30-year permits but only for two or three years. Such short term leases do not allow the building of permanent brick and mortar houses. One needs a 30-year lease to build a brick and mortar house. Therefore, Oppressed Caste families are forced to live in thatched huts,” Chandrakumar says.
Although generally submissive, the Oppressed Castes have ceased to put up with grosser forms discrimination. Recently, in Puttur, in the Koppai area of Jaffna district, they had taken up the issue of the location of a cremation ground in the midst of a densely populated Oppressed Caste colony.
“The 2000 Oppressed Caste families in this area had to put up with the smoke emanating from the cremation ground. They wanted the cremation ground to be closed and another ground located at a distance to be used instead. But the Koppai Pradeshiya Sabha dominated by the Vellalas, not only did not oblige, but built a wall around the cremation ground to make it permanent,” Chandrakumar said.
“Angered by this, a group of Oppressed Caste youth broke the wall. But the case went to the courts. The Jaffna High Court stayed the use of the cremation ground. Thus, the 80-day struggle ended to the satisfaction of the Oppressed,” Chandrakumar said.
However, the Vellalas continue to demand that caste issues be brushed under the carpet for the sake of “Tamil unity”. But activists say that this is illogical.
“It is a ludicrous argument. True unity will be forged only with the end of caste discrimination and exploitation,” Kadrigamar said.
Indian Origin Tamils
The Indian Origin Tamils, also called “Malayaha” or Hill Country Tamils, number around 150,000 in the Northern Province
The Malayaha Tamils who fled to the Tamil-majority North for refuge during anti-Tamil riots in the South did get the expected security but re-location did not improve their economic or social status. They continued to be the hewers of wood and drawers of water, coolies or landless agricultural laborers, said M.P. Nataraj, co-ordinator of the “Union of Hill Country Tamils living in the North and East.”
Malayaha Tamil activists Nataraj and P. Muttulingam said that the earlier leaders of the Northern Tamils and the district administrations dominated by them deliberately gave Malayaha Tamils lands in areas which could not be provided with irrigation.
“Though some of them got lands, they could not cultivate with profit and had to take work as laborers in others’ irrigated lands,” Nataraj said.
Given an unfriendly and unsympathetic district bureaucracy and an uncaring political leadership, the Malayaha Tamils faced difficulties in obtaining “land permits.” In other words, even if they were actually cultivating lands, they had no legal rights over them. But if a Vellala bought land from them he would get the necessary permit for it.
“Land ownership is necessary to get loans and to be part of housing schemes. The community is desperately in need of help to become independent entrepreneurs because white collar government jobs are scarce in the under-developed North,” Muttulingam pointed out.
Fought For All Tamils
Muttulingam and Nataraj claim that there were 12,500 Malayaha Tamils in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),but their contribution to the liberation struggle is not acknowledged. On the contrary it is derided as a bid to “secure social standing”, they point out.
“It is said that LTTE leader Prabhakaran trusted Malayaha Tamils so much that he preferred to have them as his body guards. Thirty to 40% of the people caught in Mulliwaikkal, the last battle zone, were Malayaha Tamils,” Muttulingam said.
Muttulingam and Nataraj object to some recent publications in which it is said that post-war poverty is driving Malayaha Tamil women into prostitution.
“The Malayaha Tamils consider this to be a gross distortion born of an acute ethnic bias because post-war poverty has driven women from all castes into prostitution,” Muttulingam said.
There is a near total lack of political representation for the Malayaha Tamils in the Northern Tamil political parties. It is unlikely that this will be corrected any time soon.