‘Race,’ Class, Caste And Other Excuses For Discrimination
At the very inception of this column let me explain why I have apostrophized the first word in its title: it is because it has been misused more than any of the other of the terms of division in that title, denigrating groups of people deliberately and with malice.
Recently, in the course of an exchange of emails, a friend inquired whether attempts were not made during the last Presidential election to identify Sarath Fonseka as belonging to the Karava caste, thereby suggesting that he was, in some way, ‘inferior’ to his opponent at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who belonged to the Govigama or Cultivator caste. Having a clear recollection of several news items in one English daily, in particular, I replied in the affirmative because I recalled discussion, in that same paper, of strategies, not only to denigrate Fonseka on the basis of caste, but to send in people of that very caste to ensure that the people of Ambalangoda, Fonseka’s home town and a Karava bastion, would cross caste lines and support Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was deliberate manipulation of one of the most sensitive marks of identification in this country and one which was fraught with peril because of its potential to generate the kind of violence of which there had been too many ugly instances in the past.
Before this, one of the English-language dailies did an extensive exploration of the political role played by alleged leaders of the Durawe community, pointing out how, when Bernard Soysa was a very prominent theoretician and leader of the Trotskyist Nava Lanka Sama Samaja Party he was prepared to lay aside his party’s revolutionary Socialist principles (and rhetoric) and pay obeisance to the leader of his caste at the time, N. U. Jayewardene, a prominent ‘practicing capitalist’ if ever there was one! Interesting behaviour indeed by someone who belonged to a political party that claimed to abjure such narrow and primitive lines of separation!
The great unifier, however, which cut across these dividing lines has been wealth and the elevated social position that came with that affluence. Also, in recent times it seems like, if the scion of a prominent family married below his ‘caste-standing,’ if I might coin a term, he could, by virtue of power and position, wash away the ‘stain’ of ‘low caste’ from the family escutcheon! Not only could such ‘stains’ be washed away but so could any that accrued by marrying completely outside one’s community/ ‘race.’
One might understandably assume that those belonging to that category of the Sri Lankan citizenry accurately defined as Euro-Asian would not come within metaphorical miles of such prejudice. Not so, I’m afraid. I have very clear recollections of my parents’ and even my generation speaking disparagingly of those of similar genetic background as inferior, based on one parent, usually the female one, belonging to a ‘lower caste’ or a community considered ‘inferior’ by the standards prevailing in that society at that time. The pecking order in many Eurasian circles would begin with the Radala Govigama and descend through the lower’ castes of the Sinhalese community group. Those of a different ‘race’ such as Tamils, Malays or Muslims were fitted in at a level dictated by the whim or fancy of the person(s) making the determination, but certainly at a lower level, particularly if there was a caste category that could be applied as in the case of someone of Tamil ethnicity!
Ultimately, though, it was money that determined where one stood in the scheme of things. The Golden Rule read, “He who has the gold, makes the rules!”
On a personal level, what I found most disquieting on my return after better than three decades away from Sri Lanka, was the fact that not only was caste-ism alive and well, it seemed to have gained a stronger foothold than ever thanks to the emergence of a ‘fundamentalism’ in society which had its roots in the simplistic application of religious principles be they Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or Islamic. At best, symbols had achieved a status where they were being applied as practical cornerstones of daily conduct. At worst, those with the power to do so were ramming their own beliefs down the throats of the less powerful, often while being conscious of their inherent falsity. Those of us brought up in the liberal democratic traditions of the 20th Century found this nothing less than downright frightening and the practical application of the law in day-to-day life confirmed those fears. How could they not when someone writing critically of some religion or in praise of another was taken into custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act or some similarly draconian piece of legislation?
Those espousing ‘fundamentalism’ – and I have no hesitation in applying that term at its most pejorative – have sought to suppress any form of dissent from the orthodoxies, which, typically and logically, qualify as the lowest common denominators in what I am compelled to define as ‘thought.’
The trend is most evident in the ‘movers and shakers in that dichotomous category – ‘militant Buddhists’ – for the simple reason that that religion has been made primus inter pares by legislation. If other often self-appointed and self-righteous ‘leaders’ of the other religions are bringing up the rear in this matter it is only because of their lack of economic and political ‘clout.’ Even there, some of them, such as a Christian denomination that shall remain anonymous today, have supported and allied themselves so closely with repression in this country that its approach to matters of democracy and the right to dissent is indistinguishable from those with whom they choose to march in lock-step. As someone said, “‘Liberation Theology,’ my foot!”
As different as religious fundamentalism, on one hand and a refusal to accept political diversity and dissent, on the other, might seem, I would submit that they are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. I say this, primarily because they have a foundation in standards dictated not by intellect but by naked economic, political and military power wielded without any consideration of principle. Remember my earlier reference to The Golden Rule?
When you base your organization of society and the individual worth of its citizens on some arbitrarily determined yardstick not on intellectual discussion and discourse and ensure adherence to it by the application of brute force, your society is in trouble, no matter in how sophisticated language you couch such a philosophy of religious, racial or caste superiority and intolerance of the ‘other.’
Believe you me, I certainly wish someone would prove me wrong because such proof might give us a glimmer of hope at the end of our currently very dark tunnel of despair!
P.S. to last week’s column: the pile of garbage in the photo was only ONE of SEVERAL at the location!