As far as Eelam Tamil politics are concerned, caste is a contentious issue. Broadly speaking, two trends can be observed in discussions of caste and casteism in Eelam Tamil society. One tends to overlook any debate on the pernicious ramifications that caste had and continues to have on Eelam Tamil society. The other overlooks or deliberately distorts any discussion of the radical role that the LTTE played in challenging casteism in Tamil society. In the belief that the egalitarian legacy of the Tamil revolutionary struggle for freedom is of vital importance not just for the Tamils but for all oppressed peoples in South Asia, this article seeks to explore the role that LTTE played towards the annihilation of caste in the Eelam Tamil nation.
The social structure prior to commencement of armed struggle
The caste structure and the agricultural system of the various regions of the Tamil Eelam homeland, such as the Vanni, Mannar and the East were diverse and were notably different from the system in place in Jaffna. Since there is a widely perceived notion that Eelam Tamil nationalism is Vellala and Jaffna centered, there lies a dire need to address it.
The Jaffna peninsula which comprised the most densely populated portion of the Tamil Eelam homeland was peculiar in social structure and tenure system. The scarcity of land and large availability of labour was exploited to entrench a feudal-casteist system which thrived on labour intensive agriculture, the caste system and exploitation of lower castes. Furthermore the high concentration of various landowning castes in the peninsula facilitated Velalla elites to establish their hegemony over the agricultural system. The Vellalas consisted of various caste groups that were brahmanically classified as sat-sudras, and were sanctioned to hold land. These castes assimilated over the course of time and used the title Vellala. Despite the common caste title, there were strong divisions and stratification within the Vellalas.
The scarcity of land and the Vellala monopoly upon it rendered them to exert a crushing hold on lower castes that inevitably lived on land controlled by the richer Vellalas. The lower castes became dependent and enslaved under such an oppressive and exploitative agricultural system which enriched the Vellala elite. The Tesavalamai, a set of various customary laws applied in the Jaffna Kingdom pertaining to civil life, property ownership, marriage and relations of production was an ideological source which legitimized Vellala hegemony and caste oppression. In the early 18th century it was translated, codified and applied by the Dutch colonial rule. Moreover it also sanctioned Vellalas to own slaves to work their agricultural economy, enabling a fledgling capitalist economy to be built upon slavery and caste oppression. Although slavery was abolished in the latter half of the 19th century during British colonial rule the semi-feudal system and the corresponding mentality continued after post-independence. By the second half of the 20th century the Vellalas held not only immense control over land, epistemology and capital but they also controlled the bureaucracy in the Tamil regions.
The Jaffna caste system was mostly peculiar due to numerical strength of the entrenched landholding castes which constituted around 50 percentage of the peninsular population. Such a vast caste population implied internal stratification and differentiation in terms of sub caste and class. Nevertheless the caste ideology overarched class divisions and enabled the Vellala elites to hold hegemony over the socio-political, educational and economical walks of life in Eelam.
Such a rigid control exerted by Vellalas over Tamil Country for centuries cultivated a casteist and conservative Tamil culture which perpetuated the semi-feudal system, Vellala hegemony and resisted any socialist change. The dominant identity of being Tamil was also monopolized by this tradition which in reality hampered the nationalist mobilization which demanded principles of equality to organize resistance against a marching national oppression.
The early bourgeoisie nationalism of the Tamils during the 1940’s and 1950’s did not challenge the Vellala hegemony. Beyond the effects of unity engendered through rampant external oppression by the Sinhala state, the Tamil political leadership did not aim to dismantle the internal oppressive system. It did however advocate a political identity which was founded on national characteristics instead of the previous criteria of caste and region. It was in the 1960’s that the question of caste was consistently addressed by the militant Tamil anti-caste movement.
Nonetheless it was the intensified national oppression and the subsequent radicalization of Tamil youth which saw the effective challenge to the then existing semi-feudal system. In fact, the very first student martyr of the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle, Pon. Sivakumaran, was deeply inspired by the anti-caste movements of the 1960s. The commencement of Tamil militant movements and their struggle for national self-determination and against national oppression in the 1970s cultivated an antidote to the Tamil conservative tradition. Already, the peaceful political protests led by leaders such as SJV Chelvanayagam were becoming sensitive to the question of caste. The Vadukkoaddai resolution that was passed under his chairmanship in May 1976 – a resolution which till date is an ideological pillar for Eelam Tamil sovereignty – and mandated by Tamil voters in the 1977 elections had the clause that “in the state of Tamil Eelam caste shall be abolished and the observance of the pernicious practice of untouchability or inequality of any type based on birth shall be totally eradicated and its observance in any form punished by law.”
The growth of the Tamil armed resistance brought revolutionary changes within Tamil society as they fought the rampant national oppression of the Sri Lankan state alongside being opposed to the traditional conservative culture of Tamils and the caste and gender oppression it sanctioned. A revolutionary national identity was propagated by the Tamil militants for the Tamil nation, in which all forms of oppression were to be fought against and caste annihilated.
The armed struggle period
Though other Tamil militant groups sought to address the question of caste, it was the LTTE which proved to be the most effective and consistent organization in regard to this question and played a crucial role in the processes of transforming Tamils towards an egalitarian society. The empowerment of hitherto oppressed castes and women, alongside programmes of land redistribution and nationalization brought an effective challenge to the entrenched elites’ monopoly over land, capital and political power.
A pamphlet titled ‘Socialist Tamil Eelam’ released in the 1980s explicitly stated the position of the LTTE on the question of caste. To the Tigers, the caste system was “an oppressive system inextricably linked to class structure and based on exploitative economic practice with ideology playing a crucial role in its origin and in the legitimisation of the system. The LTTE is committed to the total eradication of the caste system.” Further, the guide manual for usage of the Tamil Eelam national flag states that “Red represents the realization that freedom is not complete with the establishment of the separate state of Tamileelam. We should abolish distinctions of caste and class. Egalitarianism should become our spiritual principle. Gender equality should permeate Tamil society. The revolutionary changes necessary to spread social justice represented by these principles are reflected by this color.”
The judiciary of the LTTE de facto state also effectively challenged the oppressive aspects of Tesavalamai, which sanctioned the privilege and hegemony of land-holding elites. In an interview for TamilNet, Mr. E. Pararajasingham, head of the judicial division of the LTTE said “A good portion of Thesawalamai as it stands is obsolete and ineffective. What Thesawalamai says about the slavery, adoption and caste are no longer valid; slavery and caste discrimination which Theswalamai talks about are abominable to the modern Tamil sensibility.”1
Annihilation of caste is a historical process, an aggregation of events and social action as much as it is an ideal social state and a goal. It is in such light one has to assess the radical changes brought about in Tamil society and its national culture by the LTTE. Through the enrollment of women and lower castes into the movement and the subsequent incorporation of social programs of empowerment and equality, the LTTE developed a secular, anti-casteist, egalitarian Tamil national culture and institutionalized it through ceremonies, practice and belief.
It is also necessary to mention here what writer Karthick RM terms the phenomena of a ‘secular festival’ – Heroes Day, held every year on the 27th of November, the day the first LTTE cadre fell in battle. “Under the Tigers, the occasion drew more crowds than any religious festival of the Eelam Tamils – it still does among the diaspora – and the event not just fostered a sense of solidarity but also provided the Eelam Tamils a shared memory of opposition to persecution. Besides, the festival produced a horizondalizing effect on what was once a vertical society. The Tamils paid common homage to martyrs of different castes, subcastes, religions alike and their graves were rallying points of the Eelam Tamil culture that the Tigers hoped to create, transcending sectarian affiliations.”2. This also complements the process of annihilating caste in order to establish a secular and egalitarian Tamil society.
Likewise, Dr. N. Malathy, a key member of the North East Secretariat on Human Rights (NESOHR) who survived the genocidal war, writes in her book ‘A Fleeting Moment in My Country’ of the changes that occurred in the LTTE administered areas.“The pervasive caste-consciousness of South Asia was eliminated. Vanni held the promise of progressive ideals for women in the society and of a government oriented toward the wellbeing of the people. Infusing people with the spirit of struggle, it united them as one people. Indeed, it held the promise for many more social changes that would have benefited Tamils and perhaps even the whole of South Asia.”
The LTTE neither exerted its control over the complete Tamil territory nor did it rule in optimal conditions, it had to fight an ever encroaching occupational army and the Sri Lankan state’s protracted genocidal policies. Though it was not possible to arrive at the stage of the annihilation of caste amidst such challenges, the LTTE prohibited the caste system, and consciously worked towards the social process of annihilating caste. In the 30 years of armed struggle and the mere 15 years of holding the Tamil homeland under their rule, they achieved remarkable changes and did effectively dismantle oppressive elements of the semi-feudal capitalist society. With the destruction of the LTTE, the government is reviving casteism and endemic conflict between various castes as a component in its larger genocidal agenda of destroying the national unity of Tamils and eradicating the revolutionary ideology and legacy of their armed struggle. The LTTE through large scale empowerment of Tamil women and the transformation of them into revolutionaries embodying an agency of change effectively challenged the positions and collective perceptions of gender and patriarchy whilst fighting casteism. With the absence of the LTTE, women are among the main targets of the patriarchal and brutal military occupation of the Tamil homeland by the Sri Lankan state and the radical changes achieved by the LTTE are being dismantled, violated and reversed. In fact, reintroducing casteist divisions is being utilised as a counterinsurgency tactic of the Sri Lankan state3.
The significance of the LTTE legacy
Although the LTTE did not annihilate caste, they achieved remarkable progress in working towards such a goal. These social changes are to be addressed in order to utilize the legacy of LTTE and the national consciousness they espoused to advocate anti-casteism in the present and future. In this spirit Ambedkarite movements and Periyarite organizations in Tamil Nadu, India, renowned for their relentless struggle against Brahmanism and towards caste annihilation, recognize and espouse the revolutionary progress made by the LTTE in Eelam.
In contrast the liberal and postmodernist elements addressing caste in Eelam deliberately seem to obscure the historical changes which have occurred during the relatively short period of Eelam Tamil militancy. Thus the problem of the post modernist position in relation to Eelam and caste is their political alienation and their concept of decontextualized critique or critique without a cause. Their unwillingness to analyze national oppression, to adequately scrutinize the LTTE’s progress and to address the transformation of the Eelam national consciousness is also problematic and has profound impact on the question on caste in Eelam.
Even in addressing overseas caste discrimination among the diaspora, the postmodernists selectively leave out the ideological impact and legacy of social changes brought about by the national liberation struggle in the homeland. Moreover they are oblivious to the fact that it is exactly the liberal environment in Western countries which allows for the re-emergence and reproduction of such oppressive and regressive practices as caste discrimination and casteism which were criminalized, countered and aimed at being eradicated in the homeland under the LTTE.
While it is absolutely required to document and voice the inhumane caste discrimination and oppression, it is equally necessitated to acknowledge the changes and progress brought on about by the Tamil women and men who besides fighting a chauvinistic state and its armed forces also strived to establish an egalitarian society. When speaking about caste in Eelam without accounting for such remarkable agents of change who broke the Vellala hegemony, one is involved in depriving people of their historical agency as well as silencing the revolutionary qualities which they exhibited. It is a fact that these men and women in fact achieved within 15 years what the ‘democratic’ Indian state has not been able to achieve in more than 60 years of independence. Thus the knowledge produced through the postmodernist position tend to be rendered as an arm chair and intellectualized practice of caste opposition which cannot be transmitted into the local contexts which breeds the oppression concerned.
Liberal academics interested in caste thus seem to indulge for reasons other than working towards the eradication of these very experiences which they espouse themselves as representing or voicing. If not accounting for changes which manifested on the ground and giving due credit to those who brought it about, the progress attained is cloaked to the effect of essentializing caste differences. Such intellectual practice has profound implications on the oppressed nation as it has the detrimental effect of discouraging national unity in the midst of unfettered national oppression and genocide. In a paradoxical manner the liberal academic tend to present these caste divisions as essential, primordial and being incapable of change. Moreover the incorporation of progressive and anti-caste factors in a peoples’ history is an effective mode of promoting adherence to the principle of egalitarianism and to ensure commitment to the continuation and intensification of such revolutionary processes in the present. By finding historical legacies of anti-casteism one can effectively rally a larger section of the people in the society concerned, to work against and eradicate casteism in the spirit of revolution and national liberation. Otherwise the spirit of resistance to such social evils will be limited within the corridors of academia or liberal NGOs without permeating the streets and lanes which harbor casteism.
These liberal and post-modernist obfuscations also strengthen the process of distortions perpetuated by brahmanical forces in India regarding the legacy of the Eelam Tamils’ struggle. This is particularly orchestrated through the brahmanical forces’ control of epistemology and ideological definition which is utilized among other aspects to represent the LTTE as devoid of popular support and to silence its revolutionary potentials. Brahmanical forces in India from across the political spectrum, as evident through the likes of BJP associated Subramanian Swamy, the centrist Shekhar Gupta or the leftist N.Ram, are all unwavering in their propagation of anti-LTTE discourses which have had considerable impact on the Indian public opinion. Such a brahmanical agenda transcends the political divisions of right, centre or left which beguile the Indian population and they subsequently converge in the upper-caste knowledge production which disseminates representations which deny the sudra historical agency of change, or the capacity to fight entrenched social evils such as caste. Thereby, in the spirit of the age old Brahman supremacy we are told to rather be dependent on brahmin guidance in achieving moksha from caste oppression while they conveniently present themselves as being absolved from brahmanism.
The revolutionary spirit to fight casteism in erstwhile conservative and semi feudal capitalist societies such as the ones in South Asia is best achieved if built upon previous revolutionary legacies if they are to be found within a people’s history. In regards to Eelam, this is undoubtedly to be found in the tradition of the Eelam armed national liberation struggle, and particularly in the LTTE. The remarkable progress is an inspiration for the whole of south Asia which till this day grapples with the evils of caste and gender based oppression. This is not to imply that caste was eliminated in Eelam, but during the armed struggle period, caste consciousness was sought to be dismantled in favor of an egalitarian mentality.
The liberal and postmodernist when addressing caste in Eelam, enters into a ideological standstill in order to grasp the fact that it was a revolutionary and ‘non-liberal’ force such as the LTTE which achieved these changes through ‘forceful’ imposition of social practices, whereas from a perspective hailing from liberal ideology one should not be forced to abandon privilege, monopoly and discrimination but rather the emphasis lies on an abstract ‘democratic dialogue’. It is in such a context that none of the neo-liberal and capitalist democracies in South Asia have achieved a fraction of the revolutionary changes attained through the Eelam liberation struggle. Instead of allowing knowledge to be produced and inspirations drawn from such a tradition, the liberals, postmodernist and brahmanical forces are involved in obscuring, silencing and delegitimizing such an ideological and social legacy of the national liberation struggle.
Dr. Ambedkar said “Revolution is the mother of philosophy and if it is not the mother of philosophy it is a lamp which illuminates philosophy.” Taking a cue from this, we can also say that revolution is a guide to social critique. Concomitantly, any discussion of caste among Eelam Tamils only goes down a blind alley if it is ignorant of the changes that the revolutionary movement for national liberation sought and brought about.
 For E. Pararajasingham’s interview, see: http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=79&artid=10277
 For Karthick RM’s Article, see: http://radicalnotes.com/2011/09/02/eelam-tamil-the-politics-behind-the-term/
 More on the use of caste division by the state in its counter insurgency, see: http://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=79&artid=36189
Athithan Jayapalan is a Masters student of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen, Norway. Born in Eelam, he has been raised in Norway and lives there currently. Also works with the Coalition for Tamil Rights, a diaspora based network of the Tamil Left and their allies advocating Tamil self-determination, and against all forms of oppression including caste.