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Caste in modern Sri Lankan politics-II

Sinhala nationalism, in other words, had many strands and was not confined to a Sinhala Buddhist revivalist thread. Sinhala Christians participated in some currents of the nationalist awakening such as the Sinhalese National Day campaign of the 1910s. Nor were all the Westernised Ceylonese who pressed for constitutional reform by knocking at British doors, such men as D. B. Jayatilaka and D. S. Senanayake, wholly removed from nativist ideals and their associated prejudices. Though it has yet to be documented in thorough ways, there are suspicions that threads of communalist thinking resided within the Senanayake clan.

However, when Buddhist activists approached Senanayake as Prime Minister in the early 1950s to complain about undue Christian influence in high politics and the decline of Buddhism, he is said to have dismissed this contention in his pragmatic style. Such a response laid DS and his successors open to the charge of being "brown sahibs" catering to the Westernised Ceylonese. The epithet "tuppahi" (pronounced thuppahi) was part of the effective weaponry wielded against these elements of society.25

This line of nativist ideology coalesced in the mid-1950s with the vociferous hostility to the brown bourgeoisie presented by Leftist parties and those underprivileged. Thus, as we know full well, in 1955-56 one saw the upsurge of the underprivileged marshalled within the coalition headed by SWRD Bandaranaike’s SLFP under the umbrella MEP. The targets were the privileged English-speaking community, Christians and the UNP.26

This combination drew its energies from a fusion of nativist thinking and radical socialist currents. In the result it attracted the vernacular speaking petit-bourgeoisie and even Tamils disposed towards the vernacular and/or the underclass. However, the cry of Sinhala-only privileged the Sinhala language over the Tamil and had economic implications. Therefore the political transformation by ballot in 1956 was seen by many Tamils as disadvantageous to their interests – as indeed it was. In this manner, Sinhala nativism and Sinhala linguistic nationalism moved to the front reaches of power on the basis of a democratic process and numerical weight compounded by a first-past-the-post electoral scheme.

Significantly, many motifs paraded by the Sinhala activists in the 1950s echoed themes that had been raised since the late nineteenth century. There was a considerable measure of continuity both in content of political expression and the type of personnel in the intermediary layers of society who were in the forefront of agitation.27

I do not need to dwell upon the consequences of this moment in Sri Lanka’s history, the "revolution of 1956" as it is sometimes referred to. The processes unleashed then, as we know full well, contributed substantially to the sharpening of the ethnic divide and the outbreak of a series of wars.

As vitally, the currents of Sinhala nationalism were sustained in subsequent decades by those generational cohorts associated with the upsurge in the 1950s and 60s as well as new generational forces. Two examples suffice. The JVP youth of 1967-71 who launched an insurrection in April 1971 were a new generation that was a product of the changes in the educational order that began in the 1940s; but in ideological terms they were both children of the "Old Left" and children of "1956." Thus, as a "New Left"they shared ‘kinship’ with the Leftists who were part of the alliance that brought the MEP-led-by-the-SLFP to power in 1956.

The anti-Tamil strains of thinking that resided within the JVP of Stage One were muted in the second stage of this party’s history from 1977-1983 when it attempted to entice Tamil radicals to their cause through political activity directed by Lionel Bopage and others. But, after the Presidential election of 1983, Wijeweera’s nativist and chauvinist leanings surfaced in full measure so that the period 1987-90 revealed this Sinhala ideological virulence in a powerful manner.

At the same time, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the flowering of a strand of political rhetoric identified as Jatika Chinthanaya (Nationalist Thought). Two individuals linked to this stream of consciousness were middle class professionals who had been associated with Leftist circles in the 1950s and 1960s and can thereby be placed directly within the 1956 generations. One was Gunadasa Amerasekera, a dentist and frontline Sinhala novelist. The other was Nalin de Silva, a mathematician and university lecturer. Both were competent in Sinhala as well as English.

Serviced by such forces, these currents of Sinhala nativist thinking – ideologies that shaded both imperceptibly and in glaring fashion into chauvinism — emerged strongly under the aegis of the new SLFP during the presidential election of 2005. The manifesto known as Mahinda Chintanaya presented itself explicitly as the heir to the political triumph of 1956 at a moment when the strength of the LTTE was deemed a severe threat to the existence of state and people.

In one swoop, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his team stole the clothes of the JVP at the same time as they allied with the latter to win the Presidency stakes.28 They also had the Jatika Hela Urumaya as one of their allies. Thus a revamped SLFP, JVP and JHU in 2005 represented a powerful fusion of Sinhala bhumiputra thinking.

Having vested themselves with some of the JVP garments, once in power the Rajapaksa family and their SLFP were able to entice some members of the JVP into the fold — together with umpteen others from all parties snared by pork-barrel patronage. Today, the core JVP is alienated from the Rajapaksas and outside this combination, but has been severely weakened by the process. The presence of Champaka Ranawake and Upali Gammanpila in the corridors of power, however, implies that the engine room and masthead are both Sinhala populist and nativist – in short, that the governing SLFP regime is hardline bhumiputra. The horses of 1956 are riding the summits of the rata again.

* * * *

The caste factor may well have been relatively insignificant in the Presidential and parliamentary elections of the recent past. I have limited knowledge in this field, but I speculate that it has a bearing at the local level in the selection of parliamentary candidates and in sustaining some clusters of caste voting-blocs. I think that those who criticised Lakruwan have to attend, with provisos, to the blogger Rashan’s slashing note: "Cast [sic] is still a major factor in elections in Sri Lanka, go to Mathara Ambalangoda."29

Lakruwan’s main contention, however, is that Karava personnel figure disproportionately among the military officers who have been interjected by the government. DBS Jeyaraj’s marvellous work of investigative journalism has identified some of these men.30 We now need their ge names (the genitives) and locality of origin so that Lakruwan’s suggestion can be evaluated in empirical terms. On a priority grounds, however, one would think there is an operational logic in such a caste clustering. IF – note the stress on the "if" in the manner Jeyaraj — one mounts a subterranean revolutionary movement or coup plot, trust and loyalty are critical criteria in recruitment. This assemblage could be on a class basis as in the elite club-set involved in the failed officer/gentlemen coup of 1962.31

But such clandestine groupings could be based upon kin networks or school friendships. Where there is localised caste clustering, as in the Jaffna Peninsula and in some parts of the south, kin-affiliations and schoolmates at peer generational level are often weighted towards a caste core. The JVP leadership of the years 1967-71 seems to have contained a strong Karava core and in such areas as Elpitiya and Kegalle clusters of youth from the more depressed Wahumpura, Batgam and Rajaka castes were prominent. However, we can probably follow KM de Silva in seeing the caste factor as "secondary to the class factor" and the centrality of a "revolutionary ideology" as motivational inspiration forthis failed uprising.32

When a resistance mushroom known as the Tamil Liberation Organisation assembled in 1969 its key personnel seem to have been Karaiyar from the Valvettithurai locality, namely, Thangadurai, Kuttimani, Periya (Big) Sothi and Sinna (Small) Sothi, besides young 15-year-old Velupillai Pirapaharan. This cluster seems to have transmuted into the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) led initially by Thangadurai (aka Nadarajah Thangavelu), and Kuttimani (aka Selvarajah Yogachandran).

From the outset, the LTTE seems to have been sustained by a Karaiyar caste and peer-group network while the disappearance (by death, eviction or withdrawal) of capable Vellalar seniors36 in the years 1984-87 sustained the Karaiyar weightage within the top rungs of the LTTE in subsequent decades.

To my mind, however, Lakruwan’s article is more significant for the commentary it has attracted from various quarters. These blogs indicate that there are several people of various age ranges for whom caste is irrelevant if not abhorrent. However, a few swallows do not make a summer. One must be cautious about sociological generalisations relating to subterranean and interstitial currents of activity, namely caste networks which, for instance, operate in the organisation of Buddhist pilgrim groups heading from localities to hallowed sites.

What remains on the surface and hardly subterranean, however, are the virulent thoughts expressed in response to Lakruwan. Many of the bloggers hostile to his article seem to be products of the 1956 ideology. Their hostility to the caste factor has been aroused because they read it as a threat to the unity of the Sinhalese. Sinhala patriotism impels their vituperative reaction, including bile directed at Fonseka. They seek to protect the unitary state. In speaking as Sri Lankans they subsume the whole within their Sinhala sentiments. The issue of the part/whole relationship that I have underlined in my essay on "The Sinhala MindSet" resides below the surface … as powerfully as dangerously.

25 Roberts et al, People Inbetween, 1989.

26 See Roberts, 1956 Generations, 1981 and "Political Antecedents," 1989; and Mervyn de Silva 19

27 See Roberts, 1956 Generations, 1981 and "Political Antecedents," 1989.

28 In effect they replicated the tactic of John Howard’s Liberal Party in the 200s when t it stole the platform of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party.

29 A blog comment within the Lakruwan article in transcurrents.

30 Major-General Jammika Liyanage; Major General Jayanath Perera; Major General Samantha Sooriyabandara; Major-General Mahesh Senanayake; Brigadier Bimal Dias; Brigadier Duminda Keppetiwalana; Brigadier Janaka Mohotti; Brigadier Athula Hennedige; Brigadier Wasantha Kumarapperuma; Lt-Colonel L. J. M. C. P. Jayasundera; Captain R. M. R. Ranaweera; Captain B. Krishantha.

31 See Horowitz 1980 & Roberts 1983.

32 KM de Silva 1981: 342. Also Jiggins 1979: 127-36. My comments are also informed by diluted memories of conversations with Paul Caspersz, Victor Ivan and Gamini Keerawella.

33 Sabaratnam 2009. Varatharaja Perumal [not Karaiyar] was also a key figure.

34 It was probably this locality-cum-Karaiyar affiliation that enabled Pirapaharan to join TELO circa 1981 when he briefly split from the LTTE after a clash with Uma Maheswaran (who was Vellalar).

35 Hellmann-Rajanayagam’s early review of the LTTE concluded that it was "a Karaiyar-led and dominated group" (1993: 274). Besides Pirapaharan, Baby Subramanium, Seelan, Victor, Mahattaya, Thilakar, Kittu and Kumarappa were Karaiyar.

36 for e. g., Ragavan, Radha, Tileepan, Ponnamman, Curdles and Rahim,

37For e. g. KP, Castro, Soosai, Nadesan. But note that Bhanu and probably Pottu Amman are Civiyar.

38 Ironically, but not surprisingly, the early LTTE leaders, R?gavan and Pirap?haran, also expressed some distaste for caste divisions and stressed the need for cross-caste unity in the Tamil struggle (Ragavan 2009 and Narayan Swamy 1994: 69).

CONCLUDED

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