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

An interview with Mr. Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission by Nilantha Ilangamuwa of the Sri Lanka Guardian

(April 24, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the last discussion, we examined the inequalities which are inherent in the caste system.

Q: How does caste affect the social aspects of Sri Lankan society?

A: Caste systems idealize inequality, which creates and justifies cruelty in the treatment of the weak. Cruelty is not an accident when the caste system exists. In democratic societies, there are instances in which cruelties occur. However, the ideal of democracy espouses the prevention of cruelty and the maintenance of a humane society which respects every person.

This is not so with the caste system; the caste system idealizes a ruler who is capable of being harsh and cruel. If the ruler is not able to be harsh and cruel, then the ruler is seen as weak. Therefore, a mentality that is ingrained in the caste system allows rulers and those who engage in security to be harsh on others, without there being any problems of conscience.

Q: Could you clarify how cruelty is within the very ideals of a caste-based society?

A: Let’s discuss it with an example. We know the famous Indian legend of Sambukar. Sambukar was a low caste person. He was supposed to do menial work, including physical labour, and was to refrain from making attempts to engage in learning or any kind of intellectual effort. But secretly, Sambukar aspired to be well-read and learned. With that aim, he studied the various Shastras, and Vedas, the books for Brahmins. In doing so, he transgressed one of the fundamental rules of caste society. But he did it in secret, and over time, he mastered the art of the yogis. He was able to do what any yogi could do in terms of breathing exercises. It was a habit among the Brahmins who engaged in yoga to develop various postures that they could hold for a long time. Sambukar developed the art of staying like an owl in a tree for a long time as well as other methods of yogis. During this time, the son of a senior Brahmin died. Brahmins believe that everything in their lives happens according to various rules and theories in their books. The senior Brahmin interpreted the death of his son as being due to transgressions in the order of the caste society. With that in his mind, he took his son to the house of Rama, their leader, and complained that the son of a Brahmin could not die if there had not been a societal transgression. He told the Rama that he should find out what had happened and immediately put an end to it. Angery Rama got into his legendary vehicle with his powerful weapon given by the gods, and immediately travelled around to find out what has happened. He went everywhere but he could not find anything that had gone wrong, or anyone other than a genuine Brahmin to have entered the Brahmin area. So he tried a trick which has been developed by Brahmins to find out who a Brahmin is and who is not: he asked for their genealogy. When he came to Sambuka, Sambuka humbly said, “I do not have any Brahmin genealogy.” He explained that he belonged to a low caste, but by his own effort has learned the shastras and had achieved what he had achieved. The story goes that Rama was so furious that he took out his weapon and slew Sambuka right there. In response, the gods rejoiced and came down from the heavens to thank Rama for saving their system. The Brahmin son was revived, and everywhere, Rama was praised by the Brahmins.

This story illustrates the core of expectations of a ruler within the caste hierarchy: he must defend the rules with all possible ruthlessness. Rama does not ask any questions of Sambukar, nor does he see any sympathy for a downtrodden man who, in modern terms, was socially mobile, and was able to attain learning against all odds. And indeed, the rule within the caste system involves zero sympathy for those of low caste, and a ruthless defensiveness of the social order. Now, in Sri Lankan society, we have also seen a great deal of ruthless violence when citizens express any kind of dissent. Take the south, for example. The Sinhala Armed Forces were used to ruthlessly suppress the JVP in the late 1980’s when over 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared. Is this not a reflection of a similar attitude?

The absence of remorse on the part of the Sri Lankan regime at the time, as well as on the part of a significant section of the intellectual classes, for those who were slain in times of repression particularly through forced disappearances, is a useful reflection of the value system within a once caste-based society, and the continuing effect of that mentality on society.

Extensive research with foreign researchers as well as through government-appointed commissions into forced disappearances have demonstrated that the majority of those killed were poor and belong to what is known as the lower caste. The earlier research into this by Francois Houtard, a Belgian socialist, clearly established that the majority of the rebels who were killed belonged to the lower caste.

This is the whole issue of an absence of sympathy for people of a lower caste within the Sri Lankan hierarchical social system. Among the disappearances was the death of Richard D Soiza. This death provoked the Sri Lankan middle class. But all such killings should have provoked similar reactions. However, that reaction was not extended to others who were made to disappear and were exposed to enormous cruelties. It is the same in the north and the east for a longer period. There, the fact of ethnicity and the fact of caste were combined. With a simple excuse of dealing with ruthless terrorism in a ruthless way, the issue of large-scale cruelties perpetrated on a large population has been ignored.

This mental attitude is not about the suppression of terrorism, but has been bequeathed from centuries of caste oppression, caste system and the hierarchical values that have been established within a caste system. Today, repression has become a way of life within Sri Lanka. The law is not enforced at all in these matters.

Q: Has there not been any kind of significant enforcement of law relating to the victims of disappearances in the south, north and east

A: It can be said, categorically, no. Let’s take the example of habeas corpus actions. This is an enormously important remedy in any rule of law society or liberal democracy, and Sri Lanka does call itself a rule of law society and a liberal democracy. There is a study which has not been published into over 900 Habeas Corpus applications that have been filed in the appeal courts of Sri Lanka in recent decades. There isn’t a single case that could be called a success. Under various kinds of small pretexts, the cases have been dismissed and the excuses given by the establishment have been accepted. The courts have also found various legal excuses which allow them to not deal with the fundamental issue of the liberty of the individual. The liberty of the individual is at the core of the remedy known as the habeas corpus action. With the disappearances of people, the habeas corpus action has also disappeared from Sri Lankan law.

The virtual disappearance of the capacity of the courts to defend the individual liberty of citizens, which is the reason for the existence of the courts, is now becoming extremely visible. And now, the ideals of caste society are replacing the ideals of a rule of law and democratic society.

To be Continued …

Previous Parts:
Caste origins of authoritarianism in Sri Lanka–Part Two
Caste origins of authoritarianism in Sri Lanka–Part One
The Phantom Limb ( free E Book in pdf format )

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Document Type : Forwarded Article
Document ID : AHRC-FAT-019-2010
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Caste-based discrimination,