Midweek Review
‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ and other Tamils: Will the difference disappear?

by D. G. B. de Silva
It would seem that the distinction made between Citizens by ‘descent’ and by ‘registration’ has recently been abolished and that all persons are now referred to as a ‘citizen of Sri Lanka'. This was something which was overdue. The terminology ‘citizen by registration’ applied, though not exclusively, but in the majority of cases to persons of Indian and Pakistani origin and others who were classified as those of ‘recent Indian origin’ who came under the Citizenship Acts of 1947 and 1948. This change in nomenclature would have a bearing on terminology such as ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ and ‘Indian Tamil’ or ‘Tamils of recent Indian origin’ which had come into usage from the time of the colonial era.

Will the removal of the distinction in the source of citizenship result in the removal of the term ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ from the vocabulary on the one hand, and a common terminology ‘Tamil’ emerging on the other hand, applying to all Tamil speaking people, except the Muslims, irrespective of the historical ancestry claimed for each in the island? Notably, will the change remove barriers that separate ‘Tamils of recent Indian origin’ from other Tamils without any reservation? That seems to be a difficult question to answer because those who call themselves ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ as well as non-Tamils may want the identification tags which separate these different groups to continue, at last socially and culturally. The non-Tamils, especially the Sinhalese too may not be averse to the continuation of the difference because their issues with respective ‘Tamil’ groups are of a different nature and uniform application of terminology and the situation that may finally result from it may further complicate matters. Whatever may be the attitude from a political perspective the complete abandonment of differences could be causing some concerns all round.

Even with the common denomination social distinctions such as caste has continued for thousands of years among the Tamil people as much as with other people in India bound by that system including the Sinhalese. Besides, without maintaining such distinction how else could a historical justification be made for the claim to the Northern and Eastern provinces as the exclusive ‘Tamil Homeland’ of the Sri Lankan Tamils’; or a majority ‘Tamil speaking area,’ if one may use that alternate term unless the claimants of ‘Eelam’ fall back on the varied definition of ‘Eelam’ as a pan-Tamil nation, with a wider application as it was expounded three or four decades earlier to include all Tamils including those who are not Sri Lankan citizens but citizens of other countries. The situation calls for a new formula for the Tamil claim of ‘Homeland’ or ‘Eelam’.

From one point of view the swelling of numbers in the so called ‘Tamil Homelands’ by the addition of people of ‘recent Indian origin’ may seem an attractive proposition but it also introduces the problem of removing the advantage that high caste Tamils wield politically and socially over other Tamils which has also given them economic advantage over other Tamils. That is a clash of political interests with social as well as economic interests. Given the attitude towards the Dalits by high caste Tamils of Jaffna, as exposed by Ravikumar, who wrote recently on the subject of ‘Elam and the Depressed Caste: Caste of the Tiger.’ [See translation of his Tamil article published by The Sunday Island on August 25, 2002] a situation that has continued to be-devil the Tamil people. such loss of influence is not something that the caste Tamils of Jaffna particularly would wish to compromise.

There are also questions arising regarding the application of law of Thesawallamai.

Unless the LTTE effects a complete social reform, the present concentration, therefore, could continue, to work out the destinies of the people in the North and the East separately from that of the people of ‘recent Indian origin’ who are concentrated in the plantation districts of Kandy, Uva and Sabaragamuva provinces, i.e., away from the North-East.

Apart from the historical significance of the difference between those who fit into the categories of ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ and ‘Tamils of recent Indian origin’ i.e., the circumstances in which the terminology came into vogue, there is certain social significance attached to the respective terminology in their relationship to one another. The high caste Jaffna Tamils saw social, hierarchical and other advantages in their isolation from the Tamils of ‘recent South Indian origin’ the latter of whom are sometimes described as "Estate Tamils". With the advantage of access to better education they had, one of the claims that Sri Lankan Tamils’ have been making was to fill those posts and positions in public and private sector which, under a proportional distribution system, should go to the ‘Tamils of Indian origin’ who are still languishing behind in education.

The reason for the above assumption is found in the attitude that ‘high caste’ Jaffna Tamils have adopted towards other Tamils who are considered lower to them in the hierarchical arrangement. Ravikumar referred to the case of rejection by G. G. Ponnambalam representing high caste Tamil parties to incooperate the Memorandum submitted by the ‘Minority Tamil Mahasabha representing the Dalits of Jaffna calling for the removal of social disabilities imposed on the Dalis in the submission to be made on behalf of Tamils to the Soulbury Commission. The writer tries to show that even at a time of need to make common cause by all Tamils the preoccupation of high caste Tamil parties was over the preservation of their traditional right to discriminate and even cause violence against a section of the Tamil people. Hence their rejection of the Minority Tamil request which sought to remove such disabilities as restriction on temple entry, education and professions.

Where do the Tamils of ‘recent Indian origin’ fit into the scheme of things? Prof. J. H. Hutton, reputed former Social Anthropologist, at the University of Cambridge, referred to the South Indian Tamils employed as indentured labour in the plantations of Sri Lanka as "depressed workers class." He used this terminology against their background in South India as they stood in the social hierarchy. They were either tribal people or the so called "exterior castes". The latter was a term used by the Superintendent of Census to the people "outside the pale of Hindu society. [Hutton,p.l90]. The Jaffna Tamils have lived socially isolated from the ‘Tamils of recent Indian origin’ as the latter lived mostly in the plantation districts spatially separated from them. However, social barriers seem to have been set up against them almost along the lines applied to the ‘panchamas’ [Daits] in the North so much so that there is lesser interaction between the Indian element and the Jaffna high caste Tamils.


The situation would have been more explict in matters like rights of access to education, professions, or temple entry and other social relationships had they been part of the society in the North. Every Tamil of ‘recent Indian origin’ is aware of this situation. In fact, it was their spokespersons who drew my attention to this point when contrasting their social acceptance by the Sinhalese. When Hutton wrote [‘Caste in India’ p. 194] that "It must be laid to the credit of Ceylon that they have done more to raise the self-respect of the South Indian depressed class worker than any other single circumstance" that credit could not be shared by the high caste "Sri Lankan Tamils" who had been practicing discrimination against other Tamils.

Why am I raising these questions? These contain some thoughts that passed through my mind after reading Ravikumar’s article referred to earlier. They are presented in the same spirit that Dr. S. J. Tambiah presented his inquiry on the Sinhala and Buddhist organisation in his book ‘Buddhism Betrayed,’ though I claim no scholarship or foreign [or local] financial backing that Dr. Tambiah claimed to produce his book. The answer lies also in the articles that have appeared in newspapers from time to time under the name of several Tamil contributors: and other more serious writings including a few by Sinhalese and other writers who perceive a continuing historical process of discrimination against the Tamils. Additionally, the contents in the ‘fan-mail’ I receive from Tamil interlocutors, some provoking me to take up some issues and others encouraging me to write more. In the last category are some fair-thinking Tamils who can rise above parochial sentiment or misplaced Tamil chauvinism and of course the "Minority Tamils", the so called depressed classes in the Jaffna peninsula and elsewhere. Perhaps, the latter may be still remembering that it was I who received a delegation of theirs in the 1960s as directed by the then Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike to listen to their grievances of discrimination by ‘high caste Tamils’ and report to her on the matter.

Kandyan Tamils

From another perspective, one has to take note that the attempt to popularise the terminology ‘Kandyan Tamils’ as an appalation to Tamils of ‘recent Indian origin’ which is being extended at no cost to the Jaffna Tamils [Sri Lankan Tamils]. It is cutting both ways: one to keep the identity of the Tamils of the North and the East as ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ in tact while paving the way for another claim to a Tamil homeland based on a ‘historical Kandyan ancestry’.

The problem facing Tamil dissidents on the position held by upper caste Tamils and suppression of liberties under the LTTE could be seen from the fact that Ravikumar, the author of the article I quoted above, had to obviously write under a pseudonym. Speaking of the situation under the LTTE, he says, after observing that the rise of the Tamil armed struggle after 1983 and the consequent fall of democratic movements became a major hurdle in the way of an independent Dalit [so called Scheduled Tamil castes] movement, that ‘ Since nationalism could not concede even the slightest hint of an inner contradiction, writers who echoed continuously focussed on the problem of ‘panchamars’ [Dalits] were dubbed enemies of the nation, that the Tamil national liberation movement suppressed the voice of the Dalits; and the discrimination that followed from Sinhala majoritarianism in education and employment largely affected caste Tamils." He says that ‘But the ethnic conflict drew Dalits into the circle of violence. As the conflict heightened, well-to-do caste Tamils fled to foreign lands, but Dalits who lacked the resources to follow suit remained in Eelam’ and consequently were recruited into the armed struggle. This trend intensified in the l990s and today the majority of the LTTE cadres happen to be Dalits."

If the above is a correct assessment of the situation the answer to the question I raised at the beginning, i.e., if the social distinctions would disappear after the formal disappearance of the distinction between Sri Lankan Tamils and other Tamils in official documents, the answer has to be an emphatic ‘No’.


The caste hierarchy is so deep seated not only among so called high caste Tamils but also among the ‘depressed class workers’ [terminology is Prof. Hutton’s] of ‘recent Indian origin’ in plantations and elsewhere that the social distinctions that separate caste-Tamils from other Tamils are bound to continue for a long time, perhaps, as long as Hinduism lasts. I have been assured by my Tamil interlocutors that Hinduism would last for many more thousand years after other religions have disappeared from the island. Historically examined there may be some truth in that position since Hinduism has shown a great capacity to absorb any other religion or belief system.

As for the practice by ‘depressed classes’ I had the opportunity over quarter of a century to observe among the Indian plantation workers employed by us that when it comes to marriage of their sons and daughters how they find the antecedents of the families of other parties’ their places of origin in South India, Andhra or Malabar, and the caste background of each family. Prof. Hutton’s work shows how lower caste’ people in South India who were subjected to discrimination by their upper caste Hindus themselves applied discrimination towards those who were still below them, e.g., in the matter of spatial distance, the number of feet or metres that had to be kept between them when making social contacts.

This is also borne out by the observations of the Census Superintendent which Hutton has quoted where the former observes that "the exterior castes" themselves "are guilty of similar treatment to each other, and an exterior caste which considers itself to be on a higher social level than another....... adopts exactly the same attitude as the higher castes towards the exterior castes. [Exterior castes are taken to be those outside the pale of Hindu society-a rather inadequate definition]. Hutton p. 190} There can be hardly any breaking away from tradition-not in the next several decades any way. It did not disappear from among the ‘Indian Tamils’ even after over a century of exclusion from their Indian roots.

It would, therefore, not he surprising if such social barriers would continue to be observed by upper caste Tamils and others as they do now even in adversity as Ravikumar pointed out.

To examine the situation of ‘Indian Tamils’ closer, let me ask who created the distinction in nomenclature between the Sri Lankan Tamils’ and the Indian Tamils’ resident in Sri Lanka in the first place? The distinction runs contrary to the idea of a ‘Tamil speaking people’ which has been popularised lately for political purpose, for a demand of an exclusive homeland’ and self-rule. Perhaps attempts to forge a common political platform failed because of the invidious contradictions in the social relationship.

I suppose it was the British colonial administration which is responsible for introducing the distinction in nomenclature when it first referred to South Lankan Tamils as coast Tamils’, meaning those from the opposite coast, whom they wanted to settle in the plantations as well as in the tank country. The Tamils "who were in the island were referred to by administrators by the all inclusive term ‘Malabars,’ a term that should have strictly applied to people from Malabar coast. This points to the admission of their alien character The term could have had a wider meaning including Tamils and Malayalis and perhaps’ Telegus.

After large scale migration starting with the middle of the 19th century, of indentured laborers from South India under organised recruitment, especially from Technology, Arcot, Ramanad, Tinnevelly and Malabar, terms such as ‘ South Indian labour", ‘Indian Tamils, ‘Estate Tamils’ and the disparaging term "coolie" seems to have been used referring to the immigrant labour, and to distinguish them from local Tamils. These laborers were not only recruited from districts with poor agricultural conditions where alternate employment was also absent, and as such, had a surplus agricultural population, but also, they belonged mostly to what is called exterior castes’ in the Indian hierarchy. As Hutton called them they were depressed classes workers." [Caste in India, p.l94.].

The self-respect that tine’ South Indian depressed class workers’ in Sri Lankan plantations or in the cities enjoy in social terms, by the opportunities they enjoy to break away from the upper- caste strangle-hold in the Hindu system in India has not been recognised and only their political and economic status has been emphasised? In South India they were ‘no bodies’ but here in Sri Lanka they are more than some bodies’ both in political terms and economic terms with opportunities for social mobility as long as they do not opt to go under the domination of ‘ Sri Lankan’ caste Tamils. They are far better off than the village peasants with whom they maintain free social contact and even enter into matrimony in a few cases. No body stands in the way of their social mobility in the areas where they live. The casteism they observe themselves among them is their own affair. They are separated from the Vellala Tamil hegemony in the North, and only the latter practice social discrimination against them.

It is only the political advantage conferred by the idea of a collective identity as Tamil speaking people’ that the upper caste Tamil leadership has been chasing after and not the removal of social barriers which separate the two. I have already quoted Hutton on the self-respect gained by the South Indian depressed classes worker in Sri Lanka. He made this observation from a social anthropologist’s point of view despite evidence that the Indian coolies’ were treated like slaves by British planters and with social prejudice by the Sri Lankan Tamils.’ Tenant was one authority to compare them to West Indian slaves. I have quoted others in my earlier essays]. What is important is that the treatment of the Indian labourer by the British planters was not a sanction coming from divine dispensation or the words of ancient sages as the caste system is made out to be.
[To be Continued]