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Can the caste be a thing of the past?

Posted by Manela Karunadasa

23 Apr 2016

“Everyone who lives here is our relative. We are called Parayar. No one allows us to live in other places, because caste is a big problem. Our caste people are not neat. They don’t keep their houses neat. Because of these habits, we are discriminated by other caste people.”(Respondent from Harinagar (name changed) who belongs to the Parayar caste community, 2014)

The caste system is a sensitive subject in Sri Lanka which continues to shape everyday lives of many vulnerable communities, particularly in the Jaffna Peninsula. The only quantitative study on caste practices in Sri Lanka suggests that nearly 20 to 30 percent of the population in Sri Lanka is affected by caste discrimination of one kind or another, and nearly 90 percent of the population recognises caste for some purpose (Silva, 2009b). However, these estimates are speculative at best and require a more thorough census type method before generating concrete numbers/percentages. The caste system is defined by International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) as a form of social and economic governance based on principles and customary rules that involve the division of people into social groups where assignments of rights are determined by birth and work is fixed and hereditary. The system is maintained through the rigid enforcement of social ostracism. At the core of this practice lies the doctrine of inequality and discrimination. The reality of caste based discrimination was not lost to policy makers and legislation as the Social Disability Act (1957) makes discrimination on the basis of caste a punishable offence.

Although caste is not practised with the same rigidity and violence as in India, its resurgence in post war Sri Lanka has serious implications for the socio-economic empowerment of lower caste communities in Jaffna.

Caste system in Jaffna

The caste system has been an element of the Jaffna social fabric for centuries. It is an institution with clearly defined patterns of inequality, discrimination and social rejection driven by a religiously defined notion of untouchability (Silva, 2009b). The society is divided into three broad social groups: high caste Vellalar, middle caste Karaiyar and Panchalas and the lower caste Panchamars (Lall, 2015). The latter is considered as the untouchable caste with its own hierarchy. In descending order: Ampattar (barbers), Pallar and Nalavar (bonded labourers) and Parayar (drummers). Similar divisions exist amongst the upper and middle castes as well. Campaigns against caste based discrimination has been a noticeable feature in Jaffna society since the 1920s (Silva, 2009b) and the rise of Tamil militancy is identified as a turning point in destabilising the dominance of Vellalars (Lall, 2015). While some claim that the caste system maintains a very rigid hierarchy, in Jaffna, since the war there has been some movement between and amongst caste groups through inter caste marriages.

Caste during displacement

Despite the suppression of the caste based discrimination in public service and social practices by the LTTE, with the end of the war in 2009, there seems to be a resurgence in caste politics. The LTTE’s ban on the caste system had not eliminated the practice of caste discrimination, but forced it underground and caste practice remained surreptitious. The caste system continued to exist during and after the war, and manifested through different means during and after the conflict, during displacement and resettlement. The fact that inhabitants of 25 out of 32 IDP camps that were present in November 2015 predominantly belonged to three oppressed caste groups: Nalavar, Pallar and Paraiyar, highlights patterns of caste-based discrimination and in this instance lower caste groups were restricted from purchasing land by high caste land owners  (Paramasothy, 2015). The predominant presence of lower caste groups in IDP camps is mainly due to re-territorialisation of old caste boundaries within new host locations (Paramasothy, 2015). While many families belonging to the Vellalar caste were able to escape the insecurity brought about by the rise of Tamil militancy, owing to the lack of social networks and limited assets, the lower caste groups were unable to escape the horrors and social suffering caused by the civil conflict (Lall, 2015). Marginalisation of the lower caste groups during displacement also took forms of denial of entrance to places of worship, access to water and decent employment and purchase of land.  Subsequently, in the post war era, lower caste groups in Jaffna peninsula face multiple barriers in securing livelihoods due to social exclusion brought about by discriminative caste relations (Pathmanesan, 2009).

Caste during post-war

Post war restructuring and relocation policies of the Government of Sri Lanka have primarily been caste-blind (Silva et al., 2009b), regardless of the fact that the caste system is entwined in the societal fabric of the Northern Province. A study under the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium that looks at a low caste community’s access to basic services found that many of the ‘conditions in low caste communities such as high dropout rates from school, alcoholism, the use of foul language, violence and lack of hygiene remain framed within a high caste discourse that explains and justifies the problems in the low caste communities as those arising from a culture of poverty (Lewis, 1969). After a fashion, the low caste groups themselves perpetuate a poverty stricken value system. The hegemony of this discourse is evident in the internalisation of these norms as illustrated in the opening statement by the low caste respondent. Unfortunately, these socio-cultural and economic norms are not scrutinised as conditions shaped by historic and systematic marginalisation and discrimination that prevented low caste groups from owning land, accessing basic education, getting political representation or being treated with basic dignity and respect.

These often overlooked and sidestepped issues pose a significant threat to the wellbeing of lower caste groups and could possibly undermine the success of post war transition and stability. The caste system will continue to marginalise many unseen and untouchable lower caste groups unless dealt with through a combination of policy interventions and political will. A stricter implementation of the social disabilities act; an impetus from civil society; and the backing of the political actors would be central to tackling caste discrimination in a holistic way.

This article is part of a series of blog posts synthesizing research conducted by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium in Sri Lanka. The Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) is a six year global research programme exploring livelihoods, basic services and social protection in conflict-affected situations. www.securelivelihoods.org

This article is based on research by Aftab Lall, a researcher at the Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka. Aftab’s research examines how low caste identity shapes access to basic services including water and sanitation, education and healthcare in post war North

Manela Karunadasa, graduated from University of London with a Second Class Upper in International Development. Currently based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Manela is passionately interested in the discussions of gender studies, climate change and post-war development in the country. 

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