As the tiger begins to change its stripes, it must grapple with the shifting terrain of the jungle. The Sri Lankan Dalit movement has been subjugated by the larger cause of Tamil nationalism all these years. It is time for its revival.
“In 1981, the UNP leaders, who shout themselves hoarse about democracy, summoned their military thugs and burnt down the Jaffna library, the biggest library in Southeast Asia. About the same time, caste fanatics in a small village, Ezhudumattuval, near Jaffna, threatened Dalit children at a school, seized their books and notebooks and set them afire. “Why did Tamil society choose to condemn one incident and remain silent on the other?”
– Dominic Jeeva, Dalit author from Eelam
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief V Prabakaran’s two-and-half-hour press confer ence on 10 April this year is regarded as a turning point in the ongoing peace initiatives in Sri Lanka. Prominent among the issues raised at the press meet were those concerning Muslims and Estate Tamils (also called Hill-Country Tamils, Tamils of Indian Descent or New Tamils, since a majority came over from India as plantation workers). Responding to these queries, Prabakaran and LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingam said they had invited leaders of these two groups for talks on issues concerning their future and, as expected, an agreement has now been arrived at. However, the press conference was disturbingly silent on the question of Dalit-untouchables who constitute nearly 15 percent of the Tamil population in Eelam. No one saw fit to raise the matter and the Eelam leadership too chose not to dwell on it. The silence of the assembled press corps is understandable. But the reticence of the Tamil leadership is deliberate neglect. A problem that has been awaiting a resolution for decades was simply glossed over as if it did not even exist.
The primary reason for this neglect is that contemporary Sri Lanka lacks an energetic Dalit organisation that can exert the necessary social pressure to ensure that the issue gets the prominence it deserves. This current absence of Dalit political leadership is conspicuous in an otherwise forceful history of assertion. In fact, Dalit political consciousness among Sri Lankan Tamils predates the mobilisation of their counterparts in Tamil Nadu. The militant struggle against untouchability by Sri Lankan Dalits gives them the distinction of being among the earliest to wage war against casteism. But over the years the Sri Lankan Dalit movement has lost its organisational drive, and so while the Muslims and the Estate Tamils have ensured that their issues remain prominent on the Eelam agenda, the most oppressed of the Tamils do not evoke even a passing mention from the Jaffna Tamils, who lead the armed separatist struggle.
Roots of violence
It is customary for Tamil nationalists to regard the Jaffna Tamils as role models, particularly because of their ‘achievements’ in the armed struggle. But Eelam and the Jaffna Tamils have an unsavoury tradition that does no credit to their claim to special status. They have produced casteist, chauvinist scholars such as Arumuga Navalar of the early 19°’ century, who, echoing Manu, the preceptor of the varna system, declared that the parai (Dalit drum), the woman and the panchama (Dalit) are “all born to get beaten”. Navalar is just one among a large company of Jaffna Tamils who stoked casteism and helped it take strong roots in the island. The history of caste Hindu atrocities on Dalits is long and shameful. The significant moments in the Dalit struggle for self-respect and upper caste reprisals merit recapitulation if only to demonstrate why this problem will not be easily resolved.
Those who celebrate the greatness of the Tamil armed struggle are of course careful to avoid mention of when Jaffna’s earliest episodes of armed violence took place and against whom these were directed. Violence began to inform the Tamil landscape as early as 1944 when some caste Hindus gunned down a Dalit as he tried to cremate the body of an old woman of his community at the Villoonri cremation ground in Jaffna. This anti-Dalit violence was to continue sporadically over the years. Thus, it can be said that the culture of armed struggle began in Sri Lanka in the form of attacks on untouchables. However, Eelam’s panegyrics to itself and its armed revolution cannot accommodate such uncomfortable facts.
In the circumstances, it is not surprising that Dalits in Sri Lanka were forced to form political organisations much earlier than Tamil Nadu Dalits. In fact, they were pioneers in political mobilisation even among Sri Lankan Tamils. Tamil nationalism acquired a real political edge only in the 1940s with the formation of the Tamilar Congress in 1944 and the Tamilarasu Party in 1949. Dalit mobilisation preceded this by a quarter century, with the formation of the Forum for Depressed Class Tamil Labourers in July 1927. The forum launched an agitation for “equality in seating, equality in eating” in 1928 in protest against caste discrimination in schools where Dalit children were forbidden from learning or dining with other children. Two years of sustained struggle resulted in an administrative order that in grant-aided schools low-caste children should be allowed to sit on benches instead of on the floor or outside on the ground. In retaliation, caste Hindu Tamils burnt down 13 schools that implemented the new regulations. And by way of political follow-up, the elite of the Vellala community from Urelu, Vasavilan and Punalakkattavan petitioned the government in 1930 to rescind the equal-seating directive.
The next major effort to thwart Dalit rights took place in 1931, when the then British government of Sri Lanka set up the Donoughmore Commission to look into the changes to be introduced in the country’s constitution. The commission recommended the introduction of universal adult franchise in Sri Lanka. As a result, the Dalits gained voting rights. Unable to tolerate this development, caste Tamils, headed by prominent leaders like S Natesan, launched an agitation. They were ready to give up their own voting rights to prevent Dalits from getting theirs. To demonstrate their social power, they went one step further and imposed several new restrictions on Dalits. According to the new draconian strictures: “Untouchable women should not cover their torso and (must) remain half-naked. They should not wear jewels, not use an umbrella, nor use the caste thread in marriages. Their children should not bear the names used by dominant castes. They should not cremate, but bury the dead bodies. They should not use footwear; should not get water from public wells; should not sit in buses; nor send their children to schools”. These restrictions were even harsher than the restrictions imposed in the 1930s on Dalits of Tiruchi, Ramanathapuram district in Tamil Nadu by the dominant Kallar, Maravar and Thevar communities.
Sri Lankan political parties, including caste Tamil leaders, advanced several reasons to oppose universal franchise. They argued that the extension of voting rights to all would increase corruption; that only landowners are patriotic so voting rights should be restricted to them; that voting rights would be misused by the illiterate and that women should not get involved in politics and hence should not be given the right to vote. However, the Donoughmore Commission stood firm, and Dalits attained voting rights in 1931. Suffrage gave them some political leverage and was a boost to their struggle, as is evident from some of the limited changes that came about in the economic sphere. For instance, S Natesan, who was at the forefront of the opposition to voting rights for untouchables, under compulsion of seeking Dalit votes, had to introduce measures such as the legalisation of the tree tax (mara-vari scheme) in 1936. This helped the Dalits involved in the toddy business gain economic independence from upper caste Tamils. This and other successes stimulated further attempts at forging Dalit political unity for agitational ends. The Conference of Oppressed Tamils in Northern Sri Lanka was organised in August 1943. One of the outcomes of this conference was the formation of the Northern Sri Lankan Minority Tamils Mahasabha. In order to unite Dalits all over Sri Lanka, the Northern Sri Lanka Minority Tamils Mahasabha was renamed the All-Sri Lankan Minority Tamils Mahasabha and its demands were enlarged to include protection for arrack production, improving educational opportunities for untouchables, reservation for untouchables in teacher training and representation for untouchables in the legislature.
Meanwhile, the agenda to suppress Dalits was being continuously pursued in the constitutional sphere. Sri Lankan political parties, dissatisfied with the recommendations of the Donoughmore Commission, demanded a new constitution for Sri Lanka. In 1942, these parties asked that the British send a mission to Sri Lanka to initiate the process of writing a new constitution for the country. In response to such pressures, London dispatched a commission to Sri Lanka to elicit the views of the various communities on the proposed new constitution.
The Commission, headed by Lord Soulbury, conducted its deliberations from December 1944 to April 1945, and held discussions with representatives of various communities. The Minority Tamils Mahasabha decided to submit a separate memorandum to the commission. But the Tamilar Congress Party and its president, GG Ponnambalam, insisted that a separate submission would affect the unified Tamil cause. To decide the issue, the Minority Tamils Mahasabha organised a meeting in Jaffna, to which Ponnambalam was also invited. The Mahasabha made it clear that if the Congress memorandum included issues of Dalit welfare, particularly those concerning education, professional rights and eradication of untouchability, it was ready to give up its plan to submit a separate memorandum. With Ponnambalam rejecting this demand, the Mahasabha was forced to go along with its original plan to submit a separate memorandum.
In the hostile climate that prevailed, with the Tamilar Congress and caste Tamils assuming a threatening attitude, the Dalit leadership was forced to smuggle members of the Soulbury Commission to their villages in order to show them the wretched conditions of living. But all this was of no consequence, since the caste Hindu sentiment prevailed and the welfare of Dalits found no place in the newly drafted constitution. Instead the ‘unified Tamil’ cause found safeguards in the ‘Soulbury Constitution’, which proscribed any legislation that would affect a community or religion. This constitution was in force till 1972, when it was redrafted. Ironically, the constitution that caste Hindu Tamils believed would safeguard their interests exclusively, to the detriment of the Dalits, was later to pave the way for their own marginalisation, as Sinhala chauvinism rode roughshod over the clauses designed to protect minority rights.
As recommended by the Soulbury Commission, elections were held in 1947 in which the United National Party (UNP) and the Tamilar Congress were the main contenders. The third force was constituted of the left, represented primarily by the breakaway factions of the sole pre-war left party — the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSP). One faction of the LSP set up the Sri Lankan Communist Party in 1943. When M Karthikeyan introduced this party to the Jaffna Tamils, a large number of Dalits joined it. Dalit writers like Daniel, Dominic Jeeva, ML Subramaniam, and K Pasupathi were part of this group. Though they joined the communist party, they continued their work with the Minority Tamils Mahasabha, with which they had been associated in the past.
As political consciousness among the Dalits evolved, two trends emerged within the Minority Tamils Mahasabha. Some accepted the communist ideology while others were content with agitating for small privileges. On the electoral strategy, there was unanimity of opinion that they should not vote for the Tamilar Congress, which had not only actively campaigned against the inclusion of Dalit rights in the Soulbury constitution but had also failed to nominate Dalit candidates in the election. There was however a difference of opinion between the moderates and others on whether they should vote for the UNP or the left parties. The majority of the Minority Tamils Mahasabha campaigned for the UNP, which had appointed a Dalit to the senate. The UNP programme was more pro-Dalit than that of the Tamilar Congress. The UNP campaigned against untouchability, announced several schemes for Dalit welfare and promised to nominate a Dalit member to the assembly. For many moderate Dalits, these assurances were sufficient ground for supporting the UNP.
In contrast to the stand taken by the Tamilar Congress, the Tamilarasu party, which first raised the slogan of Tamil ‘right to self-determination’, initially embarked on a policy of Dalit accommodation. The Tamilarasu decided to take Tamil nationalism beyond Jaffna and unite Tamils from all the areas, focusing on the racist attitude of the Sinhala government. As a Tamil nationalist party it was forced by the presence of independent- minded Dalit political organisations to address the problem of untouchability and casteism, at least nominally. The Tamilarasu included ‘abolition of untouchability’ as one of its resolutions at the party’s fifth conference held in July 1957. The accommodationist compulsions of an inclusive nationalism are evident in Tamilarasu leader Thanthai Selva’s speech at the time of the party’s founding: “If we want to qualify ourselves to win, we have to eradicate the evils in society and purify it. Among the Tamils, there are untouchables. They think they are oppressed by others. Ethically speaking, if we do harm to others, someone will do the same to us. If Tamils want to attain liberation, they must give the same to those who are deprived of their rights in our society”.
The promises and resolutions however, did not add up to much in real terms. The Tamilarasu did not make any effort to implement them in their parliamentary programme. Meanwhile, developments in the larger Sri Lankan polity were to have adverse consequences for both upper caste Tamils and Dalits. This was particularly the case with the government’s chauvinist Sinhala Only Act of 1956, which deprived all Tamils of their fundamental rights. Despite such openly discriminatory developments, the communist party continued to support the UNP and since by now the communists dominated the Minority Tamils Mahasabha, many Dalit leaders had no option but to join Tamilarasu. A new organisation, the Minority Tamils United Front was formed with the support of the Tamilarasu party.
Tea and temples
In order to consolidate its support among the Dalits, the Tamilarasu pushed for the introduction of the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act in April 1957. This act treated caste-based discrimination in public places as a crime but imposed a fine of ‘not more than SLR 100’ and a jail term of six months for perpetrators of such crimes. Just how lightly the problem of untouchability was taken is evident from a comparison with the situation that obtained in Tamil Nadu in the 1930s. Raobahadur ‘Rettaimalai’ Seenivasan (a Tamil Dalit leader who attended the Round Table Conference with BR Ambedkar) says in his autobiography that a fine of INR 100 was imposed on those who prevented untouchables from using public wells, ponds and the market. In 27 years the real value of the rupee had declined, but there obviously was very little change in the legal attitude to untouchability. In the interest of condign punishment, if nothing else the depreciation of the currency could have been factored into punitive fines.
With such weak protective laws to help them survive with dignity, Dalits had to increasingly address their own social issues through direct action to force poltical parties to heed their plight. In October 1958, the Minority Tamils Mahasabha gave a call for a “teashop entry movement”. The Mahasabha delivered an ultimatum demanding that teashops should begin admitting Dalits before 13 December, failing which they would agitate in front of the offending establishments. This movement put pressure on the Tamilarasu Party, which responded by announcing an “annihilation of untouchability week” from 24 November. The party, keen to prevent the division of its Tamil base, initiated a dialogue with the teashop owners in Jaffna. As a result, two teashops run by non-Tamil south Indians admitted untouchables. Others soon followed suit. It is a singular irony of Sri Lankan politics that Dalits attained the right to vote in 1931, but had to struggle for another 27 years before they could drink tea in public with dignity. But though teashop doors had opened, school gates remained remained shut.
It was only through the efforts of the Communist Party leader Pon Kandaiah that 15 schools for the children of the Dalit community were opened. Competitive politics involving the communist and the Tamilarasu parties, in the context of organised Dalit activity, was clearly a determining factor in securing some limited policy gains. Changes in the nature of competitive politics were to have adverse consequences for the Dalits. This is most clearly evident from the developments in the aftermath of the split in the Communist Party in 1964 and the subsequent participation of Tamilarasu in the UNP-led government in 1965.
As part of its constituency building, N Shanmugathasan’s communist party led the popular temple-entry movements, apart from launching agitations to seize unfilled lands and access water from public wells. Newspapers almost daily carried stories about Dalit agitation — among others, the burning of Kandasamy temple chariot in April 1968 and the riots that took place during the staging of the play Kandan Karunai in June 1969. In response, Tamilarasu, the Tamil nationalist party, strongly criticised this agitation. The Tamilarasu leadership had become concentrated in the hands of a Colombo-based group with representatives from the dominant communities in Jaffna. The political resolutions of the party were drafted in accordance with the interests of the dominant caste of Jaffna, the Vellalas.
By the 1970s, Sri Lankan politics had taken a turn for the worse, acquiring an increasingly ethnic character, as the politics of Sinhala-Tamil accommodation began giving way to conflict. Tamil nationalism intensified in response to the continuous Sinhala racist policies. The Tamilarasu, having compromised itself by participating in the government, began to lose its base among Tamils. The major racist attack of 1983 opened a new trend in the country’s politics, particularly Tamil politics. While Sinhala politics continued to be competitive, Tamil politics became the monopoly of a nationalism that subsumed every other division within society in the interest of an overarching unity that refused to admit intra-ethnic differences.
Caste and the Tiger
The rise of armed struggle after 1983 and the consequent fall of democratic movements became a major hurdle in the way of an independent Dalit movement. Since nationalism could not concede even the slightest hint of an inner contradiction, writers who continuously focussed on the problem of ‘panchamars’ were dubbed enemies of the Tamil nation. The Tamil national liberation movement suppressed the voice of the Dalits. The discrimination that followed from Sinhala majoritarianism in education and employment largely affected caste Tamils. But the ethnic conflict drew Dalits into the circle of violence. As the conflict heightened, well-to-do caste Tamils fled to foreign lands, but Dalits who lacked the resources to follow suit remained in Eelam, and consequently were recruited into the armed struggle. This trend intensified in the 1990s and today the majority of LTTE cadres happen to be Dalit.
The increased participation of Dalits and women in the armed struggle had the paradoxical effect of loosening some of the more rigid strictures of Hindu society that are incompatible with the flexibility required by armed combat. But this did not lead to Dalit issues being addressed in any formal or concrete sense. The changes that have taken place are merely pragmatic adaptations dictated by necessity. Even so, caste Tamils, who see themselves as the sole representatives of all Tamils, are uncomfortable with this new state of affairs since they fear that the rigid rules of subordination will be permanently breached. As if to reinforce the orthodoxy, while limited social change has been taking place in the Lankan Tamil homeland, émigré caste Tamils have reinforced caste distinctions in their adopted countries.
Clearly, migration to foreign lands has not mitigated the effects of caste; caste feelings remain strong and there is little reason to believe that the pragmatic concessions that the Tamil society in the home country has made in conditions of war will last when and if peace arrives. Hence, it is important to ask whether the (interim) government that will be formed after the peace initiatives will address the problems of the Dalits. Dalits have played a crucial role in the powerful struggle that forced the Sinhala government to negotiate, but it is increasingly looking like the LTTE will abandon the Dalits when there is no longer any need for their services. Caste Tamils in Eelam could well give vent to their caste feelings once the climate of fear is dispelled. To avoid such a situation, the Dalits need to procure some assurances.
The details of the LTTE’s understanding with the Estate Tamils and Muslims are not very clear. Yet, the concessions that the latter have managed to extract over the last two decades is instructive at least as a modular specimen to be imitated. On 21 April 1988 an agreement, based on talks held in Madras on 15, 16 and 19 April 1988, was reached between the leaders of Muslim United Front and the Tigers. The 18-point agreement, signed by Kittu alias Sadasivam Krishnakumar for the Tigers and MIM Moheedin for the Muslim United Front, recognised the cultural and social distinctness of the Muslims and provided constitutional safeguards to them. 33 percent of the population in the eastern territory is Muslim and the figure is 18 percent for the northeast. Hence, the agreement stated that not less than 30 percent of state assembly seats should be given to them, besides giving them an unspecified representation in the ministry. Based on the percentage of Muslims living in each district in the northeast, proportional reservation would be given to them in jobs in the public sector. It was also agreed that an Islamic university would be started with special educational facilities. The chief ministership of the northeastern province would rotate between Muslims and ‘others’.
Such an agreement is important for the Dalits. A similar agreement could now be chalked out to provide education, jobs and land to the Dalits. The demands made in the resolutions of the Minority Tamils Mahasabha and the plan of action put forth in the movements for eradication of untouchability (by the communists in the 1960s) should also be taken into account in such an agreement. If the future is to be insured against social conflict, the Tigers will have to come forward unilaterally to provide a solution to the Dalit problem. The current absence of a Dalit movement is no indication that there will not be one in future. The long war has paved the way for change, and the long negotiation for peace has forced on the LTTE many unprecedented changes in their policy. This newfound flexibility can be the basis for a long-term vision to secure genuine democracy. And that can happen only when the problems of the most oppressed are substantially addressed. This is the primary duty of a democratic dispensation and to fulfil that the Tiger must lose its caste.
(Translated from Tamil by R Azhagarasan)