Caste is all present in Jaffna, but a silence prevails about caste oppression. Such silence and invisibility were not always the case, where vibrant struggles against caste oppression shook Jaffna some five decades ago.
It is this history of caste oppression and ways to struggle against it that are the subject of A. G. Yoharaja’s book in Tamil, ‘Elluvom! Nimirvom! Thiralvom! Samuha samathuvam: Aduththaa katta naharvu kuriththa mun varaivu’ (Let’s Rise! Let’s Stand Straight! Let’s Mobilise! Social equality:
A first frame for the next movement), Chinthan Books, 2020.
This short book written like a manifesto for anti-caste activism was launched in Jaffna on February 9, 2020 at the Veerasingham Hall, where about eighty people discussed and debated the way forward for anti-caste politics and struggles. If caste relations are deepening and caste oppression is intensifying in the post-war years, how do we confront caste and work towards its eradication?
During the decades of war and in the post-war years, discussions on caste relations were either non-existent or silenced in public forums in Jaffna. This is the case in official spaces where caste relations inevitably impinge on rural development as well as in academic spaces where arguably analysis of caste relations are crucial for understanding Tamil society. Nevertheless, in recent years, some discussions in alternative forums and a few books by activists have been engaging the persistence of caste relations and its oppressive workings.
Those discussions and writings often begin with the tremendous struggle launched on October 21, 1966 to eradicate untouchability. That major movement led by the Communist Party (Peking Wing) and supported by many other leftists and progressives was arguably the first armed struggle in Jaffna during the last two centuries, where dozens of individuals died fighting for equal access to public spaces such as temples, tea shops and schools. That movement which strategically used waves of non-violent protests and armed resistance when necessary, gained broader support from Jaffna society, isolated the overtly oppressive caste propagandists and gave an irreversible blow to untouchability.
The broader social changes that began weakening caste relations were eventually silenced after a decade with the rise and eclipse of Tamil nationalism, which mobilised society on the single issue of addressing ethnic discrimination and eventually armed struggle towards a separate state.
While this history of the anti-caste movement is a common starting point for discussions on caste by leftists, the more difficult question is how to address the contemporary manifestations of caste oppression. Indeed, working with war-battered communities reluctant to become involved in social activism and protest is a difficult task.
Yoharaja, belonging to the generation that participated in the anti-caste movement in the late-1960s, exiled in Europe during the war years, and present in Jaffna during the post-war years, has been exploring new approaches to addressing caste oppression.
An important contribution of Yoharaja’s work are his efforts to introduce a new political vocabulary and discourse into anti-caste activism. Instead of using terms like upper castes and oppressed castes, he suggests using “backward communities” for upper castes and “marginal communities” for oppressed castes. He believes all those who have a vision of social equality should be called “forward communities”.
Even as debates continue as to whether untouchability has been fully eradicated or has mutated into new forms of social exclusion, Yoharaja calls for social equality as the main platform for action. In tracing and critiquing the caste discourse of nineteenth century figures like Arumuga Navalar to drawing on twentieth century progressive anti-caste writers such as Daniel, his plea is for intellectual work contributing to social wisdom to address caste oppression.
His work is damning of Tamil officials and intelligentsia for sustaining and perpetuating caste oppression and exclusion. He draws on theorists including Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, to analyse the workings of caste in institutions and the proliferation of caste ideology. Reading Yoharaja one gets a sense of how oppressed caste individuals feel when they walk into government departments or private enterprises; how should they walk in, can they sit down and can they ask a question; all as if their bodies were caged by the micro dynamics of official and class power.
Furthermore, overwhelming ideological caste power disables the self-respect and dignity of individuals and social standing of communities. Yoharaja draws inspiration from the ‘Black liberation’ movement in the US and calls on anti-caste activists to address the long-neglected inter-sectional character of women’s oppression along caste and gender lines.
Would major anti-caste struggles again burst open Jaffna society? Or will caste relations continue to re consolidate through stealth creating new forms of oppression, exploitation and social exclusion? Yoharaja’s advocates a multi-pronged and plural path towards social equality in contemporary times.
The rural and land questions continue to be crucial for addressing caste in Jaffna society.Yoharaja claims that while control over land ensured the dominance of the Vellala caste, the control over sea by the fisher castes gave them some autonomy. In this context, he advocates the oppressed castes draw on and develop the Palmyrah palm that is ubiquitous in Jaffna as their own resource.
Yoharaja suggests a range of forms of engagement. Redistribution of resources and a focus on educational advancement are considered fundamental for social equality. Reservations in employment and efforts to make political breakthroughs to confront the hegemony of the Vellala caste officials and politicians is another avenue. A commission on caste, legal changes and policy measures are needed. Ideological work that confronts the backward discourses of social and women’s deterioration requires literary resistance and cultural work more broadly.
In this way, ‘Elluvom! Nimirvom! Thiralvom!’ and some of the other recent works on caste are sparking new discussions and debates. Given the overwhelming power and persistence of caste oppression and exclusion, the way forward is going to be slow and arduous. Public engagement as with Yogaraja’s book are crucial for breaking the silence on caste and is the first step towards challenging this continuing curse against social equality and freedom.