Monday, May 21, 2012

Is there untouchability in Sri Lanka
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Sri Lanka’s mainland has returned to normalcy after decades of war in that country. It was the period when all the issues of social concern actually got sidelined in the bigger issues of ethnic nationalist identities. Unlike India, where the caste identities are very sharp and movement against brahmanical domination has reached to a new level, in Sri Lanka, the impact of Buddhism as well as Brahmanism are visible parallel in two distinct cultural identities called Sinhalese who practice Buddhism and Tamils who claims to be Hindus. Most of the mainland people converted to Therveda Buddhism which is also known as Hinayana in the third century BC.

It is not unknown fact that untouchability is a ‘gift’ to humanity by the ‘varnashram dharma’ popularly known as Brahmanism or Hinduism in India. Those of us who felt that it disappear once you converted to other religions or migrate to other countries should be surprised to see the prevalence of it outside India, particularly in Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Of course, it is also a reality that while in Nepal it is too powerful as it remained a Hindu Monarchy state till a few years back where brahamnical rulers did everything to maintain status quo in favor of the brahmanical castes however in Pakistan and Bangladesh it is practiced with in the Hindu society which means wherever the popular way of life is not the brahmanical Hinduism, the impact of untouchability or caste system might not have been completely eliminated but definitely reduced though the governments there did not provide any legal protections to the untouchables just in the name of protection of minority rights as all of them were clubbed together in the Hindu category. In this context, Sri Lanka is the best example of the negligible impact of untouchability and caste system in their national lives.

On my recent visit to Sri Lanka, it was important for me to understand the dynamics of untouchability or caste system in that country which we all look upon as a Buddhist nation though in the post British colonial period the country is marred in ethnic violence and complete distrust between the major ethnic groups of Tamils and Sinhalese. Walking through the streets of Colombo and other regions, one does not find stream of beggars and people living in extreme poverty which are very much visible in the other countries of South Asia. In fact, the railway stations and airport normally in South Asia are preceded by millions of squatters and their filthy unthinkable living hell but in Sri Lanka they remain clean and better governed. While it would be untrue to say that I did not find people cleaning the street or the small roadside shops of shoemakers but the truth was also that they were nominal in number and secondly most of them never looked isolated and do not really have the caste attachment to their work. On the Vaishakh Poornima day, which is basically known as Buddha Poornima in India, SriLanka celebrate with great joy and thank giving when people not only have mass lunch programme but also share with others. My host wanted to distribute 25 packets of lunch to street people and it took us driving several kilometers to be able to give the food to different people. I do not know what the poverty ratio in Sri Lanka is but it is definitely not as chronic as exist elsewhere including India. The fact is that, to a large extent, the influence of Buddhism has vanished untouchability as well as caste system from Sri Lankan society. It is clear that though different Sinhalese groups may have distinct ethnic identities and may be marrying among those distinct identities yet there is no graded inequality among them as exist among the Hindus which has provided both untouchability and caste system a divine sanctity. Untouchability is not practiced among them. Most of the intellectuals as well as social activists that I met during this trip to Sri Lanka mentioned that it is the influence of Buddhism which has given them new identity and democratize socially a culture which suffered from the disabilities of caste system and untouchability.

Human rights organisations talk of an untouchable community named as Rodi which too is not visible very much. This community was engaged in various kind of menial work including manual scavenging but that too is does not exist in Sri Lanka. Moreover, there is an interesting story to Rodi’s becoming untouchable or lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy. Rodi legend suggests that they are descended from Ratnavalli who was the daughter of King Parakrama Bahu in the 12th century. Ratnawalli was also known as Navratna Valli. The historical background was recorded by a British civil servant Hugh Nevill about a century back.
It was found that Navaratna Valli had developed longing for human flesh which was being brought to her by Veddha hunter. The Veddha accordingly waylaid youths in the woods, and disposed of their flesh to the royal kitchen. The whole country was terrified by the constant disappearance of youths and maidens. When the king knew about this incident, he stripped his daughter of all the royal linkages and got her married to a scavenger community person compelling her to make her living from menial work such as sweeping the streets and cleaning.

Many of the intellectuals feel that Rodis that way is only a class factor as its lineages are definitely linked to royal family of the past and hence it cannot be attributed to caste system. That the king got his daughter married to the boy from this community even as a punishment may reflect that caste might not have mattered that much during those days.
The fact is that among the Sinhalese the caste system is actually not as pervert as it persists among the Tamils. Like any other country, Srilankan Buddhist society is also becoming class conscious. But it is equally important to analyse and understand the crisis of ethnic identities of Tamils and Sinhalese. It is also important for us to understand the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis from the caste angle and spread of Buddhism in the region resisted by the brahmaical Hindus represented by the Tamils who practiced caste system and untouchability in the worst form.

During the colonial period the British brought people from Southern India particularly poor Tamils, a majority of who belong to Dalit community, to work in the tea plantation estates. They got settled in Jaffna and other northern provinces. Later many of them were brought to up hills in Nuwara Eliya area about 70 kilometer away from Kandy in the huge tea estates. Their conditions were dismal and never a concern for the upper caste brahmanical leadership of Tamils who treated them as refugees and practiced untouchability with them. Even today, the condition of tea plantation workers in Jaffna and in the north is a matter of great concern. The interesting point is that the political leadership of the Tamils in Sri Lanka always came from the power elite of Tamil predominantly Brahmins from the mainland of Sri Lanka. The issue of Tamil Elam matter little for those who were fighting for their survival in the tea estates in the Northern Province of Jaffna. According to sources, the inter caste marriages are impossible and migrated Tamils from India, mostly low caste remain isolated and unwanted in the region. It is also a fact that as a leader V.Prabhakaran of the LTTE was not accepted as genuine representative of Tamils by leaders of major Tamil parties in Sri Lanka who actually hail from mainland in Colombo and the surrounding areas. The reason for this might also have been his low caste background. Though, unfortunately at the end, LTTE became ruthless and eliminated all those who came in its way. It is also true that the same LTTE had little concern about the caste issues in the region.

A fairly large number of the Dalits migrated from Tamilnadu are working as tea plantation workers in the Tea estates developed by the British in the hilly areas of Sri Lanka. Their conditions are not great and had never been a matter of concern for the political parties in Sri lanka. The high caste Tamils rarely raise their issues or mingle with them. In the din of the Tamil nationalism, the issue of the Dalits has been relegated to nothing as if they do not exist or face any caste discrimination. It also need to be understood in India that the battle for a separate Elam of Tamil Nation has nothing to do with the issue of Dalits or social justice unlike Tamilnadu where the anti caste movement actually dethroned the brahmanical forces from the state. The dominance of backward classes in Tamilnadu is the sign of strength of Periyarist movement in Tamilnadu though it is also a fact that the same movement could not really bring Dalits in its fold. But the situation in Sri Lanka is sharply different and that have nothing to do with the social justice movement in Tamilnadu. The Tamil identity is being constructed as unified without addressing the issue of the plantation workers. Culturally, the Buddhist temples are being countered with huge Hindu temples with active cooperation and support of the Tamil Brahmins. This has given a fertile ground for regrouping of the Hindu right wing forces in Sri Lanka.

One sincerely hope that one day the issue of Dalits in Sri Lanka will get international recognition and they will get fair deal in the administration. Hopefully, the Tamil groups which are highlighting the issue of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Sri Lanka will also be able to highlight the issue of isolation and ostracisation of migrated Dalits from Tamilnadu, a majority of those working in Tea Estates both in the high lands as well as northern province of Jaffna. Sri Lankan government must acknowledge this and start providing legal protection and support to Dalits in that country so that they too participate in the nation building process.