The Sunday Leader

Caste in Jaffna And India

Review Article on Neville Jayaweera’s Jaffna 

  • Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision

Dr. Devanesan Nesiah

Neville’s extensive research into caste in Jaffna is admirable. Within a short period he had gained a degree of knowledge of the system that very few, even among Jaffna Hindus and, perhaps, no other Sinhalese possesses. Much of the credit goes to Rameshwara Iyer. But the very valuable and extensive findings are marred by a few factual and conceptual errors.

I am familiar with Jaffna and have some understanding of the operation of Jaffna’s caste system, but have not studied any literature on the subject. However, a good knowledge of the Indian caste system was an essential requirement for my Doctoral thesis at Harvard University written in the four year period beginning mid-1985. Since my work was on “A Comparative Analysis of Preferential Policies in the USA, India and Malaysia”, the Hindu scripture I focused on was Manu Smriti (Laws of Manu). Since Manu means Man in Sanskrit, it is not clear if it is the collective work of a group of Brahmin scholars or the monograph of an individual Brahmin scholar called Manu. It contains a few contradictions and is terrible in its treatment of Sudras (low caste), women and, worst of all, Untouchables. Untouchables were originally referred to as Durjan (evil people), patronisingly renamed Harijan (God’s people) by Gandhi, referred to as Scheduled Castes in the Indian Constitution and now increasingly referred to by their Gujarati name, Dalit (oppressed people).It is interesting to compare the evolution of the term used for US Blacks, from Niggers to Negro, from Negro to Coloured (a patronising euphemism) and now either Blacks or Afro–Americans (the latter misleading in that it excludes Non-Black Americans of African origin, e.g. those of Arab origin).

I confess that Manu Smriti  is the only Hindu scripture that I have some significant familiarity with. As a Brahmin who has opted to retain his caste title Iyer (in contrast to Nehru who opted to drop his caste title of Pandit, the Kashmiri equivalent of the Tamil Iyer), Rameshwara Iyer may not be a totally disinterested scholar. He would surely be familiar with Manu Smriti , but would he be willing to publically repudiate it? My reading of Manus Smiriti was from an excellent translation from the original Sanskrit by E.W. Hopkins (eds), The Ordinances of Manu, 1884, London, Trubner and Co., available at Widener library, Harvard University and many other good libraries across the globe.

The caste system has been evolving in the millennia since the Vedas were written, and the number of caste sub divisions has kept on multiplying for various reasons. By the time Manu Smriti  was written in the early part of the First Millennium AD there were very many castes, with regional variations, but all within the Varna system ordained by the Vedas. Now, almost another two millennia later, the number of castes have grown further, again with regional variation. The number of castes in India is of the order of 2000-3000 (Marriott and Inden, 1974, Caste Systems, Encyclopedia Britannica, Macropaedia 3, Chicago, William Benton; Ghurye, 1960, Caste, Class and Occupation, Bombay Popular Prakashan; Hutton, 1961, Caste in India :Its Nature, Function and Origins, Bombay, Oxford University Press; Galanter,1984, Competing Equalities, Delhi, Oxford University Press and Berkeley, Los Angelis and London, University of California Press. In comparison to India the number of castes in Jaffna is miniscule.

Some of the prescriptions of Manu Smriti  are too terrible to be fully operational anywhere any time, but the Brahmin orthodoxy retains it as a guide and a model to be selectively cited. On one of the clauses prescribed is that any who leaves the shores of India loses caste. Thus when Gandhi returned from London in the 19 century after qualifying as a Barrister, he had to go through an elaborate ceremony conducted by the Brahmin hierarchy to restore him to his Vaishya status. This clause in the Manu Smriti  has not been deleted but is now utterly impractical and no longer observed.  In any case by the time Gandhi went abroad the second time he had lost faith in the Manu Smriti .

Regarding caste mobility, “A Sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not redeemed from servitude. Since this is innate in him, who can set him free from it? (Manu Smriti , VIII, 414) under the rule quoted earlier, all of us in Sri Lanka (and in any country outside India)  are, at best Sudra, not entitled to wear the sacred thread. This applies to the Vellalars in India who too are not entitled to wear the sacred thread – the hallmark of the high castes under the Varna system, yet prevailing in India.

Neville’s claim that the Vellalars of India acquired wealth and lands may be partly true but contradicts Manus Smiriti. Manu has decreed that a Sudra who has acquired wealth causes offense to Brahmins (Manu Smriti , X129 ) and that a Brahmin may take possession of the property of the Sudra with perfect peace of mind (Manu Smriti  V111 ,147). Untouchables are singled out for the most demeaning and malicious treatment. Manu decreed that the dwelling of Chandalas and Svapakas shall be outside the village, that they must be made apapatras (out castes) and that their wealth shall be dogs and donkeys’ (Manu Smriti  X, 51). Their conditions of life are to be as humiliating as possible; they must wear the garments of the dead, use only broken dishes, and any ornaments must be of iron, (Manu Smriti  X 52).

The caste system in Jaffna is terrible (I am fully with Neville on this) but that in India is immeasurably worse. Caste related rapes and murders occur frequently, often with the complicity of the Indian police and local political leadership. It is true that the caste system as practised in Sri Lanka is different (milder and less rigid) to that in India. Regarding temple entry, it had been a major problem in India for centuries and was central to Gandhi’s movement for the emancipation of Untouchable.

Gandhi had a long and bitter feud with Dr Ambedkar but in a gesture that was both magnanimous and brilliant, Dr Ambedkar was appointed Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution which is an incomparable model of Affirmative Action, covering even the elections to National and State legislatures but only excluding  the private sector. As Sir Ivor Jennings has stated “The ghosts of Sidney and Beatrice Webb stalk through the pages of the text of the Directive Principles [of the Indian Constitution]”. (Jennings, Ivor, 1953, Some Characteristics of the Indian Constitution, Madras, Oxford University Press). All the above quotations from Manu Smriti  are in my book Discrimination with Reason? 1997, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

What are the origins of the Low Country and Kandyan Sinhalese and Tamil Caste systems. We can only speculate. Our ancestors, apart from some miscegenation with Arabs, Europeans, Indonesians etc., came from deeply caste conscious India. But those who left India went out of the reach of the Vedas and Manu Smriti  and the Varna system. The dominant classes (not necessarily the absolute majority) devised their own caste systems with themselves on the top, with no scriptural justification.

These were the Radalas, other Gowigama elite and Vellalar elite. It is unfortunate that while the state acted against untouchability among the Tamils (that was politically opportune), it did not abolish caste altogether (that would not have been politically opportune). Even the Mahanayakes practice it (“e.g. non Govigama are not accepted for ordination by the Malwatte and Asgiriya Mahanayakas). Many Sinhalese think that the caste is exclusively a Tamil problem, but that is not true as evident in the matrimonial columns of the Sinhalese newspapers. Matrimonial columns of the Tamil newspapers are no better. We have yet to produce a Gandhi or an Ambedkar or, even better, evolve into a people conscious of the need to be a nation with equal rights for all citizens.

The Sinhalese and Tamils caste systems are closer to each other than to that sanctioned by the Vedas and Manu Smriti . Although they lack religious sanction, the Sri Lankan caste systems are backed by the dominant classes in Sri Lanka, whereas in India the high castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas are too small in numbers to retain political power post universal adult franchise. They have already lost their grip on Indian politics and the trend is likely to continue with the mixed category referred to in the Indian Constitution as Other Backward Classes producing most of the leadership, eg: Prime Minister Modi. In Sri Lanka the Gowigamas and Vellalars are yet firmly in control. If for some reasons the top leadership must pass temporarily to some one of the other caste, it will not be a caste that could threaten the supremacy of the Gowigamas, but a caste very low in the hierarchy and dependent on the Gowigama leaders.

The rise of the LTTE among the Tamils is “an exception that proves the rule” in that it rose through the bullet, not the ballot. With their defeat the Vellalars have quickly resumed their grips on Tamil politics as have the Gowigamas on Sinhala   politics. Erosion of caste is inevitable but is, sadly, this process is likely to be long drawn out.


6 Comments for “Caste in Jaffna And India”

  1. Manuelpillai

    Fully agree with Dr,Devanesan Nesiah that the Caste system is not worse like that obtaining in India and is not a big problem today as it was in the past.

  2. gamarala

    “Caste” is essentially a state of mind.There is no “high caste gene” in those professing to be different from their peers.

  3. Sangaralingham

    Good luck. Society never want to change. Education intelligence economy and knowledge of diversity open indeed ness will help solve most of the problems. Caste by the mame it carries with it come snobbishness. Humans across the universe come in one form by our isolation from one another we establish various tradition culture. Leading to conflicts confusion in society paranoia and in discrimination injustice inequality in wealth health education

  4. ranjit demel

    till I was 19 I did know my caste.i came to know my caste in Europe,because some sinhale idiots proved that I come from a so called upper caste.when some idiots ask me to which race I belong,i tell them go and ask my mother,but I know iam a it comes to religion,i say iam only a born Christian.then some idiots are worried about the class,they prefer to be with the upper class.idiots are idiots,from ny childhood my father taught me equality,justice,that is important,and fight for that. iam a happy and satisfied individual,and iam no leftist ranjit demel berlin colombo

  5. Nawaz Dawood

    Though Prbhakaran was used as the torch bearer of the Ealam illusion where Tamils will live in comfort for the rest of their lives. But his original fight was with the high cast Jaffna Hindus which was manipulated by the same people and used Prbhakaran as the scape goat. We can see this now with the same people who lead Prbhakaran in this destructive path talking the same thing of division. For better of worse this caste system will keep the higher ups comfortable at the expense of the lower casts. The day majority of the Tamil people realize this we will understand that their is no issues with Sinhala and Tamil people. It is the ugly head of the cast system which divide us all.

  6. small-big joke

    Caste (gradfather’s job) keeps all those who practice it with a low morality and mentality.

    It is for mental cases accross the spectrum; take a look at parliment, government or the opposition.

    It is OUR disease of the nation, part of our problems.
    Imagine the performance of our cricket team if the best were not given their due

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