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Debate On ‘Para Dhemalā,’ Ethnic ‘Purity’ And Caste Ideology

Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

When I read Charles Sarvan’s first article “Para Dhemalā,” I didn’t see anything objectionable although I sensed perhaps he was not interpreting Michael Roberts’ views on the subject correctly and also I couldn’t agree with his last paragraph which paraphrased Paul Caspersz saying “if one insists on the label “Indian Tamils,” then one should also speak of “Indian Sinhalese.” The paragraph was simply inaccurate. Otherwise there was much meaning and substance to what Sarvan said about ethnic discrimination and caste ideology.

When I was growing up at Moratuwa, almost at the center of the town, I cannot recollect anybody using the term ‘para demala’ even during the cataclysmic communal riots against the Tamils in 1958. Perhaps I didn’t hear them. I had several Tamil friends at St. Sebastian’s College, where I was initially studying, but even there it was not used to my knowledge. But ‘paraya’ was often used not so much at school but in the area where I lived and it was used as a derogatory term in anger or to spite someone who is not liked by you. It also had the connotation that ‘the other’ is inferior.

But even in our school books I believe the terms ‘para desin’ and ‘parangi’ were there and our teachers explained the meanings respectively as ‘foreign’ and ‘Portuguese’ also emphasizing they are not neutral but pejorative terms. In our area, (Sinhalese) people believed that there were two classes of Tamils, those who were called ‘Jaffna Tamils’ and the others, the ‘Indian Tamils.’ Some considered the first group as more or less equal, but not at all the second. But the majority considered both as ‘alien’ and also ‘inferior.’

Having read EW Adikaram’s “A Communalist is a Psychopath” (Jativadiya Manasika Pisseki) as an early teenager, the distinction or the discrimination worried or puzzled me. My effort is not to say that I have been free from any ethnic prejudice. On the contrary, I wish to admit that as a person brought up and socialized within a particular social context, I may have certain prejudices or biases unconsciously. But in my conscious life, I try my best to be free from biases or prejudices while at the same time not rejecting my given ethnic identity.

But the reason to write this rejoinder is not the above. With all respect to Roberts, I believe that there is something extremely significant in what Sarvan has pointed out in his initial article. That is the connection between ‘ethnic conception and caste ideology.’ This is not the first time I have said this. The following is what Sarvan has said.

“The context in which the word para was used, both at boarding-school, in Colombo and elsewhere; the accompanying tone of voice and facial expression, all indicated contempt, dismissal and rejection. Para was linked to Parayā (low caste) and that sufficed to convey meaning to me.”

What he relates is a personal experience, but what is significant to me is what he says as “the accompanying tone of voice and facial expression, all indicated contempt, dismissal and rejection.”

Where does this come from? My conjecture is that it comes from the age old caste-ideology with the accompanied conceptions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution.’ This caste-ideology manifests among the majority Sinhalese in one way and among the Tamils in another. I am not saying that both are the same in practical terms, one discriminating the other on equal terms, but the ideological roots are more or less the same while there are other root causes as well.

Have I encountered the ‘contempt, dismissal and rejection’ as a so-called Sinhalese? Yes, something closer to that at least once and seen a similar behavior another time. But if I recollect the way the Sinhalese treat the Tamils or the Muslims, then it is almost uncountable. The different experience may be due to me being a ‘Sinhalese’ and moving primarily among the Sinhalese.

Among the Sinhalese, the influencing ideology remains as a ‘superior caste’ which attempts to subjugate a perceived ‘inferior caste.’ It claims ‘purity’ as a ‘chosen people’ by combining ethnicity with religion (Sinhala Buddhism) and attempts by and large to purge the ‘pollution’ through attempted ethnic cleansing of both the Tamils and the Muslims or even the Sinhalese Christians as outcaste.

Among the Tamils, the influencing ideology remains as a ‘distinct group’ also trying to claim a similar ‘superior status’ aligning with the brethren across the Palk-Strait. It also claims ‘purity’ and attempts to purge ‘pollution’ by cleansing whoever perceived as polluting its purity.

I am not saying, the caste or ‘caste-like’ ideology is the only ideological current among the Sinhalese or the Tamils. But often it becomes dominant and distorts ideological landscape or political thinking of the country. We sometimes patronize ourselves by saying or thinking that the caste system is dead and gone in Sri Lanka. But that is not simply the case. The caste ideology is well and kicking. Those who are most communal minded are probably the ones who are most caste minded.

I was recently writing an essay on human rights and the 1978 constitution and wondered why it is so much difficult for the todays Sri Lankans to accept universal human rights. My observation after some contemplation was that because they are (perhaps unconsciously) strongly caste minded. There is a perennial difficulty for many Sri Lankans to grasp and accept the concept of equality due to caste ideology. This may possibly change with the new generations. But that is not the case yet.

The dilemma that Sri Lanka faces in this connection is a historical one, connected with the state and ethnic formation. Let me quote only one paragraph from what I wrote in 2000 (Human Rights, States and Politics: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka):

It is interesting to examine how the successive migrant communities from India, or other countries in the region, were absorbed into the society after the establishment of the Sinhalese ethnic state. Except in the case of Kshatriya or royal blood, it is evident that others were absorbed at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. At a very early stage of migration, those who came from Madhura in South India were absorbed as the service castes, who were supposed to function as artisans, craftsman, and manual laborers. The origins of several other so-called low castes in the country, e.g. fisherman and cinnamon peelers, can also be traced to the people who came from South India at a later date. What we can see here is a convergence between the ethnic divide and the caste divide.” (p. 59).

During 2002, when I was conducting some field research in the interior of the Kalutara District, I came across a caste called Demala Gaththera. Gaththera caste is one of the oppressed castes in the country, popularly believed a ‘low caste.’ The story was that when some Tamil migrants came to live in the area for some reason, during the early nineteenth century, they were called Demala Gaththera.

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Peaceful Moors, Sinhala Wahabis And The Silver Lining Among ‘Wahabis’

Hameed

Hameed Abdul Karim

Responding to A.R.M. Imtiyaz’s ‘Moors of Sri Lanka are Not Perfectly Peaceful’

For the life of me I cannot imagine why my good e-pal Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz Razak would want to write an article feeding on the same thrash that racist bigots in Sri Lanka, under various guises, throw at Muslims to propagate their doomsday scenarios in his article ‘Moors of Sri Lanka are Not Perfectly Peaceful’ that appeared in your popular ‘Colombo Telegraph’.

The usual Wahabbi bait is flung to convince readers there is a looming threat posed by this cult that will somehow swamp all Muslims in Sri Lanka. Whilst it is true there is a Wahabi trend among Muslims, writers tend to exaggerate this tendency to emphasize their points and to propagate their anti-Muslim feelings. Saudi Arabia’s backing of the military coup in Egypt has exposed the rulers there and has brought ‘Wahabi’s’ out in the open claiming the backing of their government for the Egyptian military led government is not in their name or faith. So there is a silver lining among ‘Wahabi’s’ just as much as there is one in Sri Lanka in the form of Buddhist monks who speak of communal harmony and get assaulted by ‘Sinhala Wahabi’s’ for their virtuous deeds.  Besides, there is a resistance among Muslims in Sri Lanka to Wahabism and it’s not like as if their ideology is going unchallenged by ‘traditional’ Muslims.

I am surprised that Dr. Imtiyaz had said Moors are not perfectly peaceful. By making such a statement he implies that they are violent if we are to go by opposites. ‘Moors’ have shown great rectitude in remaining peaceable in the face of grave provocation. The overwhelming majority in the Sinhala community have also shown a strong resistance to the ethno fascists among them knowing only too well there is a political hand behind all the shenanigans of the BBS and their acolyte like the Sinhala Rawaya.

And what’s the proof the good doctor provides for Moors not being peaceful? Why, the same diatribe on Madrasas and hijab and abayas those ethno fascists throw about all day every day to sell their hatred for the other. You can be sure those ethno fascist Sinhala Buddhists who revel in creating disharmony among communities for their political paymasters will grab what Imtiyaz had said and fling it with glee at Muslims at will.  Why should Dr. Imtiyaz peddle the same jingoism beats me, considering that he is an egalitarian. Being an egalitarian imposes on one professing such values the spirit of liberalism and even support for the wishes of those who want to be different. Why, there is a heartwarming article in your ‘Colombo Telegraph’ about non-Muslim women in Sweden donning the hijab in support of a Muslim sister who came under a racist attack for choosing to dress in accordance with her faith.

I take mild exception to Dr. Imtiyazs’ equation of Muslim with Moors knowing very well he did not mean any harm. I am not a Moor, but I am a Muslim. And there are Muslims among all communities here in Sri Lanka. Some are converts to the faith. But let me hasten to add that as a Muslim I cringe with shame and sorrow if I hear my co-religionists have attacked a place of worship belonging to another faith anywhere in the world. That’s how attached I am to my faith which strictly prohibits acts of a violent nature like all faiths, I suppose.

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On Rudrakumaran’s Opportunistic Hypocrisy Of Reconciliation

Amjad Saleem

Amjad Saleem

A recent post in the Colombo Telegraph by the ‘PM of the TGTE’ expressed solidarity with the Muslim community whilst “extending our fullest support to the Muslim people, we also extend our solidarity to the Muslim community, as a community whose mother tongue is also Tamil, asking them to join the Tamils in their struggle to build a secure future for all in the Tamil state”.  The article was written on the back of rising incidents of attack against the Muslim community by extreme Buddhist groups.

I not only found this article laughable but highly delusional in the assumptions that the Muslim community would entertain any notion of an alliance with the TGTE, whose singular premise has been to extend the LTTE mantra and campaign on a separate Tamil state.  Making this statement, the TGTE was not necessarily ‘concerned’ about the Muslim community per se, but it was aimed at showing the ‘intolerance’ of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism.  At quite a crucial time for Sri Lanka, during the anniversaries of the Black July pogroms 30 years ago, the article aims to draw parallels with then and now and to show that nothing has changed.  Yet interestingly it seems to have taken the TGTE 4 years since the end of the conflict (and the occasions of these incidents) to publicly reach out to the Muslim community

At one level, it is rather presumptuous  and hypocritical of the PM of the TGTE to call for solidarity with Muslims and to suggest that there is a secure future for them in a Tamil state.  The experience of the Muslims with the Tamils has far from been the case.  Without acknowledging let alone at least apologising for what took place in Jaffna and the north in 1990, with the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim community by the LTTE, the TGTE’s sincerity will be questioned and the notion of the safe presence of Muslims in a Tamil state is merely academic.

However it is not just the expulsions from the north that needs to be discussed.  There are other elephants in the room that need to be acknowledged between the Tamils and the Muslims. Whilst the end of July was the anniversary of Black July, the beginning of August brought about two poignant yet painful memories for the Muslim community of the 30 year old war which apart from discussions on facebook, didn’t elicit much of a public response.

The horrific shootings at the mosques in Kathankudy, Batticaloa Province, in August 1990 by the LTTE is a painful reminder that the sanctity of religious places of worship is a stain on inter community relations in Sri Lanka and is not something that has been only violated by today’s proponents of Sinhala Buddhist extremism.  Visit Kathankudy today and the physical scars of that day are just as visible as the mental scars.

Fast forward to August 2006, and the precursor to the start of hostilities between the government and the LTTE which led to the end of the conflict in 2009, triggering international protests around the world for the way it ended, the killing of civilians and treatment of displaced people. Almost 50,000 mainly Muslims were displaced once again by the LTTE  from the village of Mutthur in the Trincomalee district, after leaflets were sent around the town  by the LTTE in April of 2006 warning Muslim residents to leave,  in a scene almost reminiscent of what happened in Jaffna in 1990.   Despite this mass exodus of people from the  town and being kept in refugee camps, the international outcry and remembrance will be for the 17 aid workers who were killed in Mutthur during this time.  What is also little talked about apart from the actual displacement and the refugee crisis that ensued are the eyewitness accounts that talk about how LTTE cadres intercepted evacuees from Mutthur and separated youth from the group, executing them,  with some dying as a result of government shelling.

Without such acknowledgements and recognition of such incidents, the rhetoric of TGTE and many other Tamil representatives (both outside and within Sri Lanka) ring hollow as they opportunistically ‘reach out’.

Of course the opportunistic hypocrisy is not just one sided.  There are those in the reconciliation movement who will have to ask themselves some serious questions as they fail to address the trajectory of Sri Lanka currently.  30 years ago when the mobs came hunting for the Tamils, many Muslims were warned that their time would come. It seems recent incidents involving the Muslim community seem to be proving this statement to be true.  In the week of the commemoration of the Black July anniversary, there was a lot of naval gazing and hand wringing as people  not only openly apologised for the sins of their community but also spoke eloquently about the need for lessons to be learnt.

Yet a few weeks afterwards in the wake of an attack on a mosque in Colombo, seeming to put into action the threats from 30 years ago, it was evident that those laments were nothing more than just rhetoric.  The deafening silence of many prominent Sinhalese activists (a large number of them Buddhist), especially those involved in reconciliation work, a large number of them friends (from the UK),  has not only been disappointing, but frustrating and disheartening.  In the height of the real challenge for reconciliation for the country, it was met with silence and inaction.

Thus in that light, the premise of the article the PM of the TGTE could be interpreted as right:  The actions of the minority extreme Sinhala Buddhist elements actually reflect the sentiment of the majority. If that is the case, then there is no hope for any united Sri Lanka where anyone who is non Sinhala Buddhist can hope to live peacefully. One can argue whether that would also exist for non Tamils in the TGTE, but again that is academic.

There are many who argue that had they been able to, they would have spoken out or tried to help during Black July as lessons were learnt  The opportunity that they missed then presents itself now.  In the absence of any real effort to tackle ethnic and faith problems now, all the rhetoric of reconciliation (by all stakeholders) smells just of opportunistic hypocrisy.

If we truly want reconciliation, then we have to be consistent and at least speak out against any injustice perpetrated in our name.

*Amjad Saleem is the Head of Communications for The Cordoba Foundation, a Muslim-inspired ‘think and do’ tank which provides an alternative communication channel for thought leaders and policy makers on intercultural and religious dialogue, social justice issues and peacebuilding between communities. He is their lead on the Conflicts, Development and Faith Programme and on subjects including South Asia, conflict reconciliation and interfaith dialogue. Prior to this, Amjad was Country Director for British NGO Muslim Aid in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. He has an M.Eng from Imperial College, London, an MBA from U21Global, and is currently pursuing a part-time PhD at Exeter University on faith in post conflict reconciliation. He has lectured part time at the University of East London and Lawrence Tech University in Michigan, and regularly contributes to online journals, websites as well as other media

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