SRI LANKA: Caste Origins of Authoritarianism in Sri Lanka — Part 4 

Dear friends,

We wish to share with you the following article from the Sri Lanka Guardian.

Asian Human Rights Commission
Hong Kong

May 27, 2010

An article from Sri Lanka Guardian forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: Caste Origins of Authoritarianism in Sri Lanka — Part 4

(Editor’s Note: An interview with Mr. Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission by Nilantha Ilangamuwa of the Sri Lanka Guardian)

(May 26, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Dr. Rathnageevan Hoole in a recent article on the insecurities of the Tamils published in the Sunday Leader ( External Link: Hoole Speaks Of Tamil Insecurities) speaks of the intolerance of the moderate positions among the Tamils. This goes back to, not just something recent, but something that can be called part of a culture.

In the caste-based social ethos there is no place for moderates. The very nature of the caste-based organisation is that it polarises society in the most naked ways. The concentration of all power, influence and privileges at the very top and the deprivation of power to the largest part of society who engage in labour is the very essence of a caste-based society.

This is taken even further in the development of the untouchables and the outcastes. The polarisation is driven to a point where their existence is not even recognised. The untouchables and the outcastes do not enjoy even the minimum amount of respect that is available even to the lowest strata of society.

What all this means is that such a society can be based on only the use of very extreme coercion. The point at which caste emerges, separating the highest from the lowest would have been the point at which maximum forms of coercion was exercised on the majority of people who constituted the lowest group to accept their position. As these deprivations affect the most basic aspects of life such as food, clothing or habitation no group of persons could have accepted such positions except when they were forced to do so by extreme sanctions and punishments.

Understanding the culture of a caste-based society should essentially be an attempt to understand the coercive methods that would have been used on a large population to the extent that this population would accept these deprivations. It is only when this acceptance happens that the humiliation of these persons becomes a normal way of life. In caste-based societies large populations have arrived at a point where they accept as normal the deprivations that would be difficult for any other person to accept. The deprivation of food and drink, of clothing and shelter are among the most basic elements which the very physical nature of human beings find difficult to accept. The fact that such acceptance has been made to a point that in a society there is some kind of consensus that people accept such deprivations points to a time at which they were driven to a point where they had to accept such a situation purely for the sake of survival.

To transgress these limitations which have been enforced would have been so painful that finally the population accept these things as their normal lot and transmit that conception from generation to generation.

In understanding the kind of problems that develop in Sri Lanka in its recent history one needs to go back to this kind of culture that were made to accept the extreme limitations and deprivations on their lives as normal.

That kind of deprivation was achieved through coercion is made permanent by various kinds of ideologies philosophies which are often transmitted through religion and other cultural mediums. Thus, within such modes of social communication the question of moderation cannot exist. Any kind of a moderate view could give certain advantages to those who are living at the very bottom of society and create a greater space for them to enjoy certain needs that all human beings need to enjoy such as food, drink, clothing and habitation which of course goes together with the makings of families and closer societal relationships.

Ideologies that polarise are therefore an essential component of a caste-based society. On the one hand the polarization at the top means the existence of forms of power that know no restraint. Restraining power by way of moderation by philosophical, social and cultural process of reflection will undermine the coercive practices that are needed to keep deep divisions which are part of society. Therefore the idea of restraining power which goes into the making of societies that develop restrictions on power cannot coexist with the conceptions of a society based on caste.

Intolerance of the moderate position is not only manifest in dealing with the minorities but it exists within the majority itself. Within the majority itself the ideological tendencies to develop completely polarised views has been a part of the development of the culture within the majority itself. Examples can be shown from every aspect of life but perhaps the most recent examples of the discussions relating to post war justice may be sufficient to illustrate this aspect.

It is one of the most normal aspects of societies which have faced extreme conflicts to make attempts at certain periods when the conflict subsides to look into these problems and to look into the possibilities of peace, reconciliation the ways by which to avoid the recurrence of such conflicts in societies. However, it one were to watch how these discussions taken place since May 2009 in Sri Lanka one would see how much of an attempt there is to polarise the entire issue and to prevent any kind of attempt to take a more moderate and humane view of the problem.

The very recent press interviews by Gunadasa Amarasekara and a few others on a report issued by an international group relating to the post conflict issues is just a sample of the attitude that generally prevails on these matters. Mr. Amarasekara’s position, like several others who associate with him was to deny any kind of wrongdoing on the part of majority community or the armed forces. Their position is that no such discussion is even necessary because no such wrong was ever done.

This position arises from an even larger position that is, in this relationship between the majority and the minority no such problems regarding wrongs exists. It is extended only to the discussions between the LTTE and the military. The idea here is that there cannot be any question of any wrong in this relationship.

It is in the very heart of the discourse of right and wrong in a caste based society that those in power can do no wrong. Those in power have the absolute right to use whatever kind of coercion and violence in order to keep those who are below in that position. That is the basic rule in any caste-based society. There is no question of proportionate punishment for wrongs. There is no idea of a kind of wrong that would be valid for those at the top as well as for those at the bottom.

For example, murder done by someone at the top relating to someone at the bottom is not the same kind of crime as if it were done by someone at the bottom against someone at the top. If someone from the bottom dared to do any such act not only him but his family and his clan, his property and everything else could be destroyed without any kind of inquiries or any kind of attempt to understand why such an act has been done. On the other hand if somebody at the top engages in the murder of someone at the bottom that at worst is a minor transgression or it may not be a transgression at all. These are the deeply embedded cultural norms in Sri Lanka as a caste-based society.

Much of the discussions about law in Sri Lanka take place as if there are commonly shared cultural norms within the community on these issues. Education on modern law has always presumed equality before the law and such premises as the bottom line of discussion. However, these are not the cultural norms on which the social relationships at their depths are rooted. At the depth of these relationships are the conceptions of power that can do no wrong and conceptions of those at the bottom that simply have no right to complain about whatever treatment that they receive from those in power.

These norms were created at least ten centuries ago, at least from the beginning of the Polonowara period as far as the entire country is concerned. For Sri Lanka to become a modern society these cultural norms remain a major obstacle. However, the entire political philosophy of governance in real terms is based on these norms. These were the norms that were practiced in the 1971 insurrection which was a group of people from South was involved: it was same in suppression by the JVP for the second time between 1987 to the 1991 period. Once again it was a revolt from within the majority itself. These were also the norms that were practiced even more ruthlessly in the suppression of the rebellions of the Tamil minority and the LTTE. The external justification was that the LTTE was as ruthless as can be. However, that ruthlessness is itself a product of the nature of a society where the dominant culture knows no rules of tolerance and it reproduces in the rebel the same kind of behaviour.

Whatever the reason, at the depth of culture and psychology what exists in Sri Lanka in terms of power relationship is the kind of norms which are based on a caste-based society.

Today it remains the major obstacle for the development of Sri Lanka into a modern society. The principles of moderation, the principles of the equality of all citizens, the principles of law based on mutual respect for all are the norms of modern society. It is to this set of norms Sri Lanka finds difficulty in entering into.

Dr. Hoole makes an interesting observation of the resilience of the Tamil people.

The Tamil people are resilient. You can see how well they have done in the West even when they came with nothing—and I mean nothing, often no money and no qualifications. They are innovative, cohesive and intrepid. To do equally well in Sri Lanka they must be in control of their lives and responsible for decisions that affect their lives as they are in the West.

The same observation can be made of many Sinhalese, Burgher and other Sri Lankans who have rebuilt their lives from nothing almost in different environments. The problem really is not with the people. The problem is with the Sri Lankan cultural ethos and environment which is built on the cultural norms of a caste-based society. Within that environment despite of all the mighty efforts people make they are being crushed over and over again. It is this very resilience of the people that this cultural system cannot cope with. Violence in our society is engendered to crush this very resilient spirit of the people. The more resilient the people become the more violence this culture generates to crush them. That is the problem that this society must struggle to understand and deal with.

For earlier parts of this series please see:

SRI LANKA: Caste origins of authoritarianism in Sri Lanka–Part 3

SRI LANKA: Caste origins of authoritarianism in Sri Lanka — Part 2

SRI LANKA: Caste origins of Sri Lanka’s authoritarianism

Document ID : AHRC-FAT-024-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Caste-based discrimination,