Caste system is still practiced in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Contrary to popular view propagated by the ruling caste that caste is a thing of the past, it is a living cancer within the Tamil community. The upper caste community is the ruling caste in this province. All other castes have been historically discriminated and downtrodden in a wide variety of ways – socially and economically and in many other ways, examples of which are far too many to be listed here.
The main Tamil political parties (Ceylon Tamil Congress, Federal Party and the TULF) unashamedly practiced or promoted or at best remained silent on the marginalisation and oppression of the lower caste communities and prevented them from improving their life chances. They are discriminated in access to land, education, employment and crematoriums. They are driven to live as social outcasts.
Their political representation in the country’s Parliament, Provincial Councils and other local government bodies is almost zero in spite of the fact they represent over 40% of the population in the NP. They are effectively disenfranchised.
Historically they have been kept out of temples, places of eating such as restaurants (serving tea and food took place in separate low quality designated vessels in a very humiliating manner). They were treated as sub-human. Through persistent struggles against the upper caste onslaught by these communities lead by Trade Union and Communist Party leader Shanmugathasan and other intelectual leaders they managed to win their right to enter into temples and worship side by side with the upper caste community.
Tamil Congress, Federal Party and the TULF never supported such emancipatory freedom struggles of the oppressed people either in the past or even today. They always took the side of the oppressors.
It is an ironical contradiction that they oppress a substantial section of the Tamil community while at the same time fighting to secure equal rights with the majority Sinhala community. Many oppressed caste communities today believe that if more devolved power especially police and land power is passed on to the upper caste Tamil ruling class, their marginalisation and oppression will be more intensified. This is why during the recent consultation exercise on the proposed new constitution oppressed caste community members requested for constitutionally guaranteed parliamentary representation. They stated that they will never get justice in the hands of the upper caste Tamil ruling elite, who tightly control all tiers of power.
Sri Lankan government made a huge egalitarian leap by setting up a welfare state by introducing free education from primary school all the way up to University and a free national health service and also laws against caste discriminatory practices. Any improvement in the life chances of the low caste communities of NP became possible only through these state measures in particular the nationalisation of all state funded schools. Such life chances have always been frustrated by the Tamil upper caste ruling elite. For example, the Federal Party campaigned against the nationalisation of schools, which eliminated or at least minimised discrimination against low caste community in school admissions. In spite of many obstacles and obstructions by the Tamil ruling elites we have seen slow but definite progress among the oppressed caste community in education and in being able to receive healthcare facilities.
A problem which has been simmering for a very long time has now exploded. Apartheid practice is in operation in crematoriums, which are classified into upper caste and lower caste crematoriums.
The community living in very close proximity to an upper caste crematorium is now protesting against the health hazards and other nuisance emanating from this crematorium. It is appropriate here to describe the key features of a Hindu crematorium. Traditionally and even today dead bodies of people are burnt under a banyan tree to ashes except possibly for some bones and skulls. The smell emanating from cremation is unbearably unpleasant. Atmospheric pollution is probably also harmful. Crematoriums are an open space with no boundary walls. There is no vegetation, trees or gardens around it.
Hindu mythology about dead persons’ souls and ghosts coming after you in the night to take you away is taught to children by parents, elders and teachers. So the children and sometimes superstitious parents too get psychologically traumatised. When dogs and birds bring the left over bones and skulls into their homes such traumas get worse. So living in close proximity to crematoriums is an unacceptable practice allowed by the local authorities, knowing of the existence of the upper caste crematorium nearby. People are agitating for thiscrematorium to be relocated.
What are the issues and solutions?
We are all born in the same maternity hospital. No segregation. If we are ill we get treated in the same hospitals and by the same doctors. No segregation! We all study in the same schools. No segregation! We all go to the same universities. No segregation! We now pray in the same temples and to the same Gods too. No segregation! We travel in the same buses, trains and aircrafts. No segregation! We speak the same language. No difference. We fought for freedom together and we gave our lives together. No segregation! We lived in the camps together. No segregation! We die in the hospital and we are all put in the same mortuary. No segregation! Up to this point there is no segregation and we can say we are almost civilised.
So why do we need separate crematoriums? Why segregation. Can’t we live happily and die happily especially because according to our Hindu religion we all go to the same places after death, probably a casteless heaven! Or will there be a caste system there too?
The solution has to be clearly a civilised one. Get rid of all the segregated crematoriums. Construct modern, clean, pollution free and environmentally friendly common crematoriums with incinerators, with secure boundary walls, vegetation, trees and well maintained gardens and lighting. When we give the last send off to our parents and friends let us do it with respect and dignity. That is the way to respect our dead.
What do we do about the fear of the dead, their souls and ghosts. Don’t teach superstitious myths to children. Instead teach them science. No wonder 80% of students in NP go to study Arts as opposed to science and remain unemployed!
Which came first – homes of the oppressed caste community or the upper caste crematorium? Some people are unable to break out of their entrenched caste prejudices. So they look for scape goats. They are comparing this man made problem to the “chicken or egg” puzzle. They say that they cannot say which came first and therefore a judgement is not possible. What a childish argument?
This analogy is fundamentally erroneous because irrespective of which came first this problem can be solved. I have already proposed a very civilised solution above.
Even if the crematorium was there first we do not need to allow its continued existence because it is detrimental to the health and welfare of the community around. Secondly we cannot havethe scandal of caste based apartheid practice in cremation centres of Jaffna. Oppressive practices have to be discontinued. Such practices are unethical and unsustainable. If you oppress others how can you justify your fight for emancipation or freedom from national oppression?
The chicken and egg argument is a dangerous and self-destructive argument. Let us apply it to the National Question in Sri Lanka just to understand how ridiculous it becomes. Who came first to the island of Sri Lanka – Sinhalese or Tamils? If it is Sinhalese then they will have the choice to decide everything. If it is Tamils then Tamils can have the upper hand in deciding everything. If we do not know who came first then there is no solution according the people who bring the chicken or egg argument. So in in all cases we cannot have a satisfactory solution. So why invoke chicken or egg argument?
But there is a solution if we don’t get bogged down with this chicken or egg logic. Who came first is irrelevant. Both communities have rights to live and run their lives in an amicable relationship, respecting each other. That is perfectly feasible and possible and there are many such living examples.
If we can solve our internal oppressive relationships reasonably and amicably we would learn enough lessons to be able to approach our national question also successfully through intelligent engagement. This issue comes within the jurisdiction of the Northern Provincial Council and I understand that the CM is very sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed caste community and I have observed him talking rather sympathetically in relation to another issue affecting the oppressed caste community. I hope he will rise to the occasion to do the right thing rather than pandering to the upper caste lobby.
History is definitely in favour of the oppressed caste because they are on a high moral ground. They have won many rights. If the ruling class don’t give in,their struggle will continue in one form or another until they win. Instead of being defeated again as in all their past struggles the upper caste ruling elite would be wise to replace all the separate caste based crematoriums with common crematoriums.