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Caste in modern Sri Lankan politics

In a recent intervention in the www.transcurrents.com (10 Feb. 2010), Lakruwan de Silva has conjectured that caste rivalry between the Govigama and Karava contributed in a secondary manner towards the rift between the Rajapakse clan and General Fonseka.1 In his broad survey of caste undercurrents in the history of the Sinhalese, he also refers to the Kara-Govi rivalry that surfaced during the contest for the "Educated Ceylonese Seat" in the Legislative Council in British times in December 1911. In serendipitous coincidence a gentleman named Nadesan recently alluded to this famous occasion when the Govigama elite of that day is said to have backed Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s candidature and helped him defeat Dr. Marcus Fernando for this coveted post.2

Let me begin by clarifying the background to this contest. A coalition of Ceylonese activists from the Burgher, SL Tamil and Sinhalese communities had begun to exert pressure on the British rulers from circa 1906 seeking devolution of power. The British authorities responded in miserly fashion in 1910 with the Crewe-Macullum reforms conceding a modicum of expansion in the advisory Legislative Council and introducing the electoral principle for the "Burgher Seat" and the newly-created "Educated Ceylonese Seat;" while still maintaining the existing nominated seats.

Voting rights for both these new seats were determined by property and educational qualifications so that the electorates were tiny. Within the body of 2938 who exercised their votes for the Educated Ceylonese seat, the "Ceylon Tamils" made up 36.4 per cent of the voters and Sinhalese 56.4 percent.3 The Karava elite made up a significant proportion of the Sinhalese voters because of their success in both the educational and entrepreneurial paths of mobility.4 Therefore, they were able to field Marcus Fernando from a brilliant scholastic family that had secured twin-marriages with C. H. de Soysa’s daughters, thereby rendering the Fernandos part of the Warusahännadig? clan that commanded fabulous wealth. In this situation those Govigama activists who were Govigama-minded "did not consider themselves strong enough [to field a candidate] and took the pragmatic course of supporting … Ramanathan’s candidature."5 This emphasis needs a caveat. As Kumari Jaywardena has shown, not all the Govigama rich supported Ramanathan; he was so much a conservative that they preferred the mildly liberal Fernando.6

This caste alignment did not emerge out of the blue. There had been a long history of Kara-Govi rivalry in diverse quarters and at various social levels from the 1860s if not earlier. Let me detail some facets without claiming that this brief review is comprehensive.

Those with the closest affiliations with the British ruling class in Ceylon in the mid-nineteenth century were the educated Burgher elite and Govigama aristocrats from the mudaliyar class in the Low-Country, especially the Obeyesekere-Bandaranaike clans. But the Warusahännadig? de Soysas had amassed such wealth and prestige by the 1860s that they snaffled the right to feast the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited the island in 1870. The first-class Govigama were so miffed that they attempted to boycott this function.7

However, these Govigama families enjoyed other eminences: the British invariably appointed one of their educated sons to represent the Sinhalese as Nominated Member in the Legislative Council – a post that was re-designated "Nominated Low-Country Sinhalese Member" after the Kandyan aristocracy were given a nominated seat in the 1890s.

This monopoly was quickly challenged by the ambitious Kar?va. In 1894/95 they mounted a series of public meetings at the little towns of the south west quarter which presented the British with petitions supplicating the selection of James Peiris for this nomination. 8

At the same time one witnessed electoral competition for seats in the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) between Govigama and Kar?va gentlemen cultivating electorates defined by restricted property/educational qualifications. Among those who entered the CMC in the 1890s were the Jayewardene brothers, Hector and Justus on the one hand, and, on the other, C. M Fernando, younger brother of Marcus Fernando. Subject to correction I believe that one will find that Hector Jayewardene and C. M. Fernando contested each other for the post of President of the Law Students Union in the 1890s. It was Hector Jayewardene in fact – more than the Senanayakes, correcting Lakruwan de Silva – who is said to have marshalled Govigama votes in favour of Ramanathan in 1911.

All this, of course, was elite-level politics that might seem rarified folly to those attached to grass-roots advocacy. They should pause awhile. Caste jostling for status had deep roots. From the mid-nineteenth century Karava and Sal?gama personnel challenged the conventional claims to superior ritual status attached to the Govigama. These challenges were mostly in the Sinhala medium and generated a pamphlet ‘war’ at different moments in the period 1868-1911. While several were written under pseudonyms, it is known that Itihasa (1876) was the work of the Karava monk, Weligam? Sri Sumangala thera and that the Govigama reply in 1877 was composed by a collective that included Hikkaduv? Sri Sumangala thera and some lawyers.

The respectability of the authors did not constrain them from the use of vituperative, and even filthy, language. The vernacular-educated intelligentsia, among them the journalist, G. D. Pälis Appuh?my, were at the centre of these writings in pamphlet and newspaper. 9

Such contestation was not a product of the British period. Malalgoda has revealed that the questioning of Govigama hegemony and exclusiveness began in the eighteenth century in response to a royal decree in 1765 that restricted higher ordination to the city of Kandy and its chapters. Non-Govigama laity and monks combined to effect upasampad? ceremonies in the lowlands in 1772 and 1795. Then, between 1799 and 1813 five caste-specific parties went to Burma and returned with ordained monks of unquestionably authenticity. Three of the groups were Sal?gama, one Dur?va and the other Kar?va.10 The preponderance of Sal?gama is no accident. Their clout in the cinnamon trade in this era meant that they had both the economic means and political networks to initiate such moves.

These examples of caste rivalry – within an incomplete survey on my part – would seemingly give weight to Nadesan’s scathing criticism of one of my recent short essays on the ground that "CASTE was more important than RACE and religion" in the British period (see fn. 2). Not so. Nadesan’s bizarre misreading of my essay on "The Sinhala Mind-Set" is guilty of oversimplification11 and subsumed by a form of either/or reasoning. The political arena is a complex one, involving many strands and many alliances that could shift according to context. Jostling, competition and hostility between the different religious collectives on the one hand and, on the other, between ethnic communities (usually known then as "communities") co-existed with caste competition within the Tamil and Sinhalese communities.

Within such a situation at any point of time particular sets of actors in a specific context may be directed strongly by Factor or Identity X, say the caste factor. This does not mean that Factors and/or Identities Y and Z are weak or non-existent; rather they are on hold – a metaphor from the world of air-traffic control – because deemed irrelevant to that specific context. Indeed, for a good part of the twentieth century (and the centuries before) one became Sinhala by being Govigama, Dur?va or whatever, just as one became "Thamil" by being Vell?lar, Kar?iyar, Koviyar etc (though Pallar and Nalavar were occasionally deemed "not Thamil" in the pure sense12). For a good part of the twentieth century it would have been rare for a Govigama family to seek a Vell?lar spouse, so that cross-caste marriages of this type – or any type – arose as exceptions among the highly Westernised ‘decaste-ified’ elements of society, or in the urban slums and shanties or in the malaria-ridden backwoods.

The interlacing complications can be seen in the manner in which the mobilisation of caste fraternities within the Sinhala Buddhist world energised the resistance of Buddhists to the evangelical imperialism of the Christian orders in the British period. Their ‘training’ in caste polemics during the late Dutch and early British periods stood them in good stead when they had to face up to the missionary challenge on platform as well as print. Indeed, to follow Malalgoda, the presence of energetic Buddhist chapters organised on caste lines provided a multifaceted basis for Buddhist revitalisation.

Thus, in the late nineteenth century one sees Buddhist monks who had espoused the superiority of their caste working together with monks from other castes in movements directed against Christian privileges. Likewise, in the 1890s and 1900s the jostling for political position between the Fernandos and the Jayewardenes did not prevent their cooperation in the polite agitations of the Ceylon National Association – an elite political grouping that challenged notions of white superiority and the racial bar by pressing for the Ceylonisation of the Ceylon Civil Service.

In opposition to Nadesan, I note that the movement of Buddhist revival did not derive inspiration from Arumugar Navalar’s sturdy programme of Hindu revitalisation. Young & Jebanesan are firm on this point: "There is … no evidence at all of a pan-Lankan, Ceylonese … reaction to Chritianity at any time in the history of the island’s encounter with that religion."13 Both movements of religious revitalisation were reactions to the denigration heaped on native "idolatry" by Christian missionaries, disparagement that was sharpened by the general circumstances of political subordination and White racism.14

Many people today are aware of the movement of Buddhist revival that developed from the mid-nineteenth century and are familiar with the ardent attempts of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) on this front. It is also known that what were called the "riots of 1915" – involving assaults on the Muslims in the south western regions – erupted as a result of disputes surrounding religious processions.15 Similar disputes had generated a clash between Catholics and Buddhists at Kotahena in 1883.16

Such incidents have enticed some scholars to downplay the significance of Sinhala-Tamil competition and the collective identities which sustain such rivalry in the decades before universal franchise (1931) and/or independence (1948).17 The historians’ overwhelming focus on the activities of English-speaking Ceylonese elites who pressed for constitutional devolution in the vocabulary of liberalism has compounded this leaning.18 As a result, the force of Sinhala nationalist thinking in the six decades 1870 to 1931 has not received adequate weight in many writings.

I delineate this period because of the availability of printed material in Sinhala in newspapers, pamphlets and books; and on the foundations provided by my research work on this type of material in the period before 1915. There was a recurrent discourse among the vernacular intelligentsia that was alarmed by the degree to which Westernised lifeways were threatening Sinhala culture. The dangers were regarded as both cultural and economic. The reliance on Western imports was adversely remarked upon. The widespread adoption of a Westernised life style and the diffusion of Christianity among the Sinhala people were seen as marks of their degeneration as well as instruments which furthered this process—undermining their gunadharma (religious virtues), kulacaritra (traditional customs) and bhashava (language).19

The tone of the articles, pamphlets, novels and plays which exhorted the Sinhalese varied from the didactic to the biting satire of the zealot. An index of the convictions that drove these ideologues is provided by the consistency with which they birched the Sinhalese themselves—indeed to such a degree that one can speak of self-flagellation. Perhaps the sharpest diatribes were directed against those Sinhalese who were aping the Westerner. In Piyad?sa Sirisena’s writings such Sinhalese are even rendered into a distinct ethnic category: the samkara (mixed) and/or the tuppahi (low and mixed).20

Indeed, the titles of Sirisena’s early novels, Apata Vecca De [1909] and Maha Viyavula [1916], capture this anxiety in capsule form. The Api here, in his thinking, are the truly indigenist Sinhalese of the hinterland, the people of the rata as distinct from the people of the thota. Numba ratay da? thotay da? asked the hero Jayatissa from Rosalin21 when he fell in love at first sight [first novel in 1906]. That is, the Sinhalese of the littoral, significantly Westernised and/or Christian, are not authentic natives of the soil. They are potentially para and tuppahi. Therefore, we see here the early makings of J?tika Hela Urumaya thinking.

Diatribes were not confined to the inauthentic Sinhalese. Abuse was also heaped on the ultimate source of threat, the paradesakkara (low and vile foreigners). These foreigners included the British, the kocci (Malay?lis), the hamba (Indian Moors), the marakkala (all Moors), the hetti (Chettiyars), the javo (Malays), the bhai (Borahs), and the para demala (low and vile Tamils).22 In one of Anagarika Dharmapala’s essays in 1911 there is even a polemic directed against the kocci demal?.23

Nor should one forget that at the same time as Dharmapala’s campaign there was a strand of Sinhala patriotism that concentrated on the purification of the Sinhala language, identified specifically as the Hela language. Munid?sa Kumar?tunga (1887-1944) may have been its modern-day flag-bearer, but this emphasis had several forerunners as well as others (e.g. Jayantha Weerasekera) who bore the torch into the post-1948 era.24

1The initial representation by De Silva is as conjecture but he subsequently adds this note: "Reports suggest that [the government] deftly and subtly played the caste card within the military to deny Fonseka the military vote. The President succeeded. In the ensuing post-poll purge of the military, the Karave have disproportionately been targeted. Other Karave generals have been sacked from the armed forces. Karave Buddhist monks had been arrested. Much to my chagrin, caste may still be alive in Sinhala Buddhist society, albeit as an undercurrent."

2 See "comment" in www.thuppahi.wordpress.com.

3 See Table 3 in Roberts in History of Ceylon, 1973, p. 283. Also see Jaywardena 2001: 335.

4 See Roberts 1973 and Kar?va, 1982 for illustrations of these processed of social and economic advancement

5 Roberts, Kar?va, 1982: 116.

6Jayawardena 2001: 336 referring to the Hewavitarnes and EG Jayawardene as examples.

7Some members of the Govigama aristocracy pursued this course, but those holding official position could not do so. For details, see Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 93.

8Roberts 1974: 561-64.

9 For details, see Roberts, Kar?va, 1982: 159-65; and for a list of pamphlets, pp. 336-40.

10 Malalgoda 1976. Also Malalgoda 1973, Roberts 1982: 133-40, and Young & Somaratna 1996.

11 My article was a brief Memo that did not attempt to survey the 19th and 20th centuries.

12"In the early 1970s some Vellalars expressly denied thatNalavrs and Pallars were Tamils" (Pfaffenberger 1994: 149).

13 Young & Jebanesan 1995: 33.

14 On Navalar, see Young & Jebanesan 1995 and Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1992.

15 On the issues that provoked such clashes, see my "The Imperialism of Silence," in Roberts 1994: chap. X and the details on the 1915 in chap. 5 [which latter is reprinted as chap 00 in my Confrontations, Colombo, 2009].

16Somaratna 1991.

17 One instance being the article by Nissan & Stirrat 1990.

18For the constitutional agitation see K. M. De silva 1973 and 1981. Also note Jayawardena 2001.

19 Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 10-21, 80-81.

20 Sirisena, Apate Vecca D?, 1954 [1909]: 9ff and Sucaric?darsaya, 1958: 126, 130.

21 Jayatissa saha Rosalin was Sirisena’s first novel published in the year 1906. See Amunugama 1979 and Roberts et al, 1989 for fuller analysis.

22 See "Rat? tibena ävul, apatama ve tävul" in Sinhala J?tiya, 1 June 1913. Sinhala J?tiya 30 March 1915: Sinhala Bauddhay?, 2 Jan 1915: translation of article by WDA Gunatilaka in the Sinhala J?tiya, March 1915 in Dowbiggin 1915b and Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989: 10-21.

23 Kocci Demal? (Malay?lam Tamil) is the title of his piece too (Sinhala Bauddhay?),14 Jan. 1910.

24See Dharmadasa 1992: 261-86.

(To be continued tomorrow)

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