There was an interesting work shop on ‘Conceptualizing Caste in Sri Lanka’ at the ICES on Tuesday 15th March 2011. It was noted that caste is a tabooed and under-researched subject in Sri Lanka, unlike in India, Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia. We tend to dismiss caste as insignificant and irrelevant, except perhaps in remote rural areas. In consequence, caste related problems are evaded and not addressed. It was noted by Prof. Tudor Silva that the British brought sanitary labourers from South India into selected Urban centres, and these then constituted the underclass of those towns, doubly despised on account of ethnicity and caste.

Prof. Ranweera Banda, based on his research in Panama in Ampara district, found that the people of that locality were of mixed Sinhalese –Tamil origin at all social and caste levels. However, the social and caste elite opted to identify with the Sinhalese upper castes, embracing the appropriate cultural practices needed for such identification. This is akin to the phenomenon of ‘Sanskritisation’  adopted by sections of the lower and middle  Hindu castes in India to gain upward social mobility, individually and collectively. In  contrast, those of the lowest castes in Panama have no such option and, though they too are ethnically of mixed origin, are treated as of a separate ethnic group and are doubly discriminated on account of ethnicity and caste.

Dr.Sidharthan explored the ways in which vital caste information is often not explicitly recorded by match makers but subtly communicated through the use of euphemisms. He noted that caste is often relevant even to those in the Diaspora. We are aware that despite the reluctance to use caste names, marriage advertisements of Sinhalese and Tamils persons may mention caste affiliation or caste requirement to avoid misunderstandings. We are also aware that the caste is a critical issue in elections almost everywhere in the Island, and is carefully considered by political parties in nominating candidates. Untouchability is almost exclusively a Sri Lankan Tamil vice; but other aspects of caste prejudices and preferences, eg; in electing representatives, negotiating marriages and even conferring benefits are practised alike by Sinhalese and Tamils, even including Christians.

Vinod Moonesinghe’s thoughtful letter (The ICES workshop followed a lively discussion in the newspapers, Island of 22 February) contains one factual error (it was Ponnambalam Ramanathan , not Ponnambalam Arunachalam who contested and defeated Marcus Fernando) but has provoked a valuable debate on caste. Vinod rightly points out (Island of 9 March) that race in the US context has many of the attribute of caste; US society has had traditionally many of the features of ‘Homo Hierarchicus’– a term invented  by Louis Dumont to reflect the essentially hierarchical structure of Indian caste. Vinod’s argues convincingly   that the caste remains a significant feature in Sri Lankan society and politics, and goes on to suggest that the real test for Sri Lanka would not be  the election of a Kadirgamar but of a Thondaman  .

Izeth Hussain (Island of 02 March) correctly points out that we should neither over state nor misinterpret the caste significance of Premadasa emerging as President of Sri Lanka. In a sense it is a classic case of ‘the exception that proves the rule’. Izeth refers to ‘Sri Lankans who have raised the question- whether Premadasa would have become UNP’s choice as Presidential candidate if not for the fact that he was a member of a small sub-caste that would not be able to entrench in power and constitute a continuing threat to Govigama dominance. At that time it seemed doubtful that the UNP would have with the same alacrity chosen as Presidential candidate  a member of the low country castes, namely the Karava, the Salagama and the Durawe’. Izeth goes on to say ‘it is time to recognise that there has been both ethnic and caste discrimination. The latter led to the two JVP rebellions, while the factor of caste in the LTTE rebellion is coming to be recognised’.

Brigadier Ranjan De Silva (Island of 4 March) spells out the distinction between Obama’s achievement and Premadasa’s and between progress in Sri Lanka and in India in relation to caste. He goes on to say ‘ Sri Lankan will reach the level of maturity of the US voter and the Indian voter only on the day we elect a Tamil or a Muslim as Sri Lanka’s executive head of state; not before’. I would introduce a qualification in this matter. The Tamil or Muslim need not, indeed should not, be an advocate of sectarian Tamil or Muslims politics; nor should he /she be seen by Tamils and Muslims as a puppet  unable / unwilling to effectively voice their concerns.

A critical factor in the dynamics of caste status and achievement in the Indian sub continent (particularly India, Pakistan and Bangaladesh) is the potent mix of demography and Universal Adult Franchise. A distinctive feature of the caste structure of the Hindu component of the Indian sub-continent is that it is pyramidical. At the apex are the three small elite ‘twice born’ caste categories, viz Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaisya. Then come the middle castes which are much larger in number. At the bottom are the Sudras, who are by far the most numerous. The Dalits (Untouchables) are ‘non-persons’ out side the caste structure and inferior even to the Sudras. From the Indian caste perspective and on a strict interpretation of the authoritative Hindu caste scripture, Manu Smriti, every one out side India is Sudra or Dalit. In fact high caste persons who travel abroad are required to go through a purification ceremony to be re-admitted to their original caste.This practise is now largely defunct. If we accept the legitimacy of Manu Smriti, Sri Lankans are a nation of low caste and untouchable persons. If we reject Manu Smriti, we must concede that caste in Sri Lanka has no scriptural basis.

Up to 1930, the Indian political, social and professional elite were almost exclusively Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaisya. Unlike in Sri Lanka, Indian Dalits had a towering intellect and leader in the person of Dr.Ambedkar. He was bitterly critical of Gandhi and other Congress leaders and even wrote a book titled ‘What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchchables’, but he could not be suppressed. He got Gandhi and the colonial government to accept quotas of 15% reservation for Dalits and 71/2% reservation for Tribals into not only recruitment to all state institutions, schools and colleges but also into elected political bodies at the time a measure of representative government was conferred on India (about 1935).Quotas and the demographic realities began to work, slowly but inexorably. In time, Gandhi and Congress changed, and so did  Ambedkar.The quotas were embedded into the Indian constitution drafted under the direction of Ambedkar two decades later.

By 1960, fundamental political changes had taken place, notably in South India-eg; the rise of the DMK. The changes have spread to the rest of India. It is now more likely that a Sudra or a Dalit or some one from an ethnic minority would occupy the highest political offices in any part of India than a Brahmin , Kshatriya or Vaisya of North India. Even in the professions, fundamental changes have been and are taking place. This does not mean that the caste structure built up over millennia has been demolished. Social changes occur slowly, and the caste institution may persist for centuries. What is important is that the structure is in the process of gradual decay.

Unlike in India, the demographic  feature of caste in Sri Lanka is an inverted pyramid. There are virtually no Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas of long standing in Sri Lankan society- apart from a few who came in within the last few centuries. The ‘high castes’ in Sri Lanka (Govigama,Vellala and any other) constitute the largest segment of the population. The Untouchables (including the Panchamar among the Tamils and the Rodiyas among the Sinhalese) constitute the smallest segment of the population. In between are the middle castes. In this demographic context the impact of Universal Adult Franchise is to reinforce caste hierarchy. There are some among other castes ,eg, Karava , who claim Kshatriya lineage, ranking above Govigama/Vellala. But such claims are ineffective in the context of continuing Govigama/Vellala dominance. Thus, although caste discrimination is even now much less acute than in India, there is  slow but relentless progress in India but not in Sri Lanka. The Govigama/Vellala control of the major political parties is as strong as ever. There has been much economic mobility , especially among Karavas and Salagamas, but social mobility is dampened by Govigama/Vellala dominance.

The same logic applies to ethnicity as to caste. The Sinhalese form a clear majority, unlike the Hindi speakers in India. In India coalitions of South Indian, Muslim and low caste communities could prevail against the North Indian and Hindi speaking communities. In Sri Lanka unless there are fundamental social and political changes, the kind of ethnic and caste transformation which has taken place and is continuing very gradually in India, may not materialise at all in the near future. Such changes need to be pushed and promoted by outstanding leadership of the kind India (South Africa too) has been blessed with in the 20th century. Even if such leaders emerge locally over the next few years, we need to be realistic. Fundamental changes will be slow and spread out over many decades. Sadly we see neither signs of the emergence of such leaders nor of the beginning of any such changes.