Opinion Article

Castes, religions and Eezham Tamil nationalism

[TamilNet, Sunday, 19 July 2009, 23:34 GMT]
“Tamil nationalism needs to realise its potentialities and weaknesses in making it progressive, benevolent and an internationally recognised culture in the future world,” writes Opinion Columnist Ampalam. “The secular linguistic identity of Tamil nationalism, based on a classical language in which more than two millennia of human experience and discourses both spiritual and temporal are recorded, and its inclusiveness cum plurality are strong points in making criteria for nationalism and in contributing to the paradigm ‘culture and development’. But jingoism of religions, which soon will be used as cards by imperialisms regional as well as international, and castes cum hierarchies old as well as new, are the liabilities,” he further writes.

Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole has emailed TamilNet a further response to the features appeared in TamilNet 8th and 14th July, titled, ‘Graves of Peter Percival, Foote discovered at Yercaud’ and ‘Percival was not an apostate: Prof. Hoole.’ TamilNet sent Prof. Hoole’s response to opinion columnist Ampalam and the comments received from the columnist follow:

Comments from Opinion Columnist Ampalam:

Caste had its own discourse among Tamils, and for that matter among all the South Asians, whether Hindus, Buddhists, Christians or even Muslims.

An academic discussion is not to uphold or discredit anything but to call a spade a spade.

Christian Churches are not the first or the last to deal with the issue.

To cite some of the earlier religious movements, Buddhism that never recognised caste in its philosophy, the Saiva / Vaishnava devotional movement that in fact originated largely from the lower echelons of the Tamil society and spread to the rest of the subcontinent, Veera Saivism (Lingayats / Pandaaram of Jaffna) that incorporated everybody to priesthood, Ramanuja’s Sri Vaishnavism that included untouchables into the Aiyangkaar Brahmins of today, the mystique movement of the Siddhas and Islam - all contributed to the discourse in times of history.

The reality was that some of the reformers themselves became new identities of caste, or religio-social identities and made their own niches in the hierarchy.

No one can ever negate the significant role played by all Churches since 16th century, in addressing the issue of caste by providing recognition, identity, education and above all, opportunities for upward social mobility to the lower echelons of the society.

But it is calculated oversimplification of sectarian interests to reduce the discourse between Saivism and Christianity among Eezham Tamils as one that was between those who were upholding caste and those who were rejecting it and to say that the educational institutions were started for the sake of positions taken on caste. There were no government schools but only mission and native schools in the 19th century and the Anglican government discouraged not only native initiations but also the Catholic institutions by depriving them from aid.

While scholars recognise forces of colonialism and nationalism in the whole process, insiders are aware of the roles played by feudalism and materialism in the society.

Whatever the religions may be, when institutionalised, the ultimate aim is not addressing caste but achieving spiritual conquest to confirm or to pave way for temporal conquest.

As Prof. Hoole admits, even after 500 years of their history, if the Churches are still fighting caste ‘the vestiges of Hinduism’ found among the ‘fallen ones,’ so are the socio-religious reformatory institutions of modern Hinduism. Where is the difference?

It is an Orientalist perception of monoistic minds, inspired by the philosophical strains of West Asian origin, to give importance to The Book (in singular) and to look at with the same eyes the pluralistic cultural formations that may have books in plural, make books anew or may not even care for books at all.

In such systems, if there are some texts that uphold the divinity of something, there will also be many other texts that will be nullifying it. When society has the freedom to choose and has the freedom to discard the unwanted to go redundant, it doesn’t care for changing the relics.

Prof Hoole’s reference to continued holiness of any text that upholds divinity of redundant human-made ideas draws only parallel in the continuity of The Genesis, even when science has disproved it.

It is not a problem if anyone takes pride in the faith one cherishes at heart. But what made the problem in the 19th century was a newly created section in the society considering it a caste of spiritual elite, claiming spiritual superiority while harbouring duplicity, and looking at the vast majority of the masses as ‘spiritual untouchables’.

It was this spiritual issue that made a person like Navalar to write ‘Saiva Thoosha’na Parikaaram’ (Remedy for the desecration of Saivism) and the generation of the people of the Age to respond with revival.

Whatever the discourses of the Age were, the world around us has evolved far away from the Brahmanical constructs of social power or from the Colonial-Orientalist constructs the Churches designed in seeking the same power or from Navalar’s constructs in response.

The issue of caste was addressed at a different plane later. In modern times, it was the socio-political movements of Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar and the Dravidian Movement of Periyar and Anna, both Indian national and Tamil national, and also the leftist movements that in fact reached the masses including Eezham Tamils more effectively than any sermons said in the churches or activities of modern Hindu reformatory movements.

It is well known how in Eezham it was the political process of the leftists, Tamil nationalists and the militants that ultimately addressed the issue to the levels of achievement reached today.

What plays role in the rise of ‘fallen humans’ today is not religion but is politics.

Positive role of the nationalism of militants, war, displacement, oppression faced commonly by the society and diaspora life have helped the Eezham Tamils immensely in forgetting caste.

But one should look at where the discourse leads to today in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in India: communities seen as the lowest of the lowest have started proudly re-asserting to their identity and associated culture, through the political discourse of the Dalit movement.

What is implied by this contemporary discourse in Tamil Nadu is that hierarchy is the one viewed as the actual problem than caste identity.

The Tamil literary genius Puthumaippiththan has written some remarkable short stories on the issue of caste and religion, not sparing any of the religions or movements of his times. We invite the attention of readers familiar with Tamil to these stories of 1930s and 40s to grasp the discourse:

Puthiya Koo’ndu (the new cage, on Brahminism, Protestantism and Catholicism), Kodukkaappu’li-maram (the Garcinia tree, Protestantism and Catholicism), Niyaayam (justice, Protestantism), Naachakaarak-kumpal (the destructive lot, Saiva Ve’l’laa’las and Islam), Puthiya Nanthan (Gandhian movement), Kadavu’lin Pirathinithi (the representative of God, Bramanism, Gandhian movement), Vaazhkkai (life, Theosophical movement), Thani Oruvanukku (for individual, nationalism), Koapaalaiyangkaarin Manaivi (the wife of Koapaala-aiyangkaar, antithesis to Sanskritisation and Dumont's pure - impure binary even before the analyses appeared).

It is not within our purview here to explain what is caste, but for the edification of those who confuse the sociological analysis it should be said that Varna and Jati (Chaathi) are two different entities, even though English has only one word 'caste' to indicate both. While the four-fold classification of the former is a theoretical construct of Brahmanical origin, the latter in practice is another stream of unknown origins and antiquity. Hierarchy varied in time and space through upward and downward mobility. Castes also appeared and disappeared. A suggested reading for structural analysis of caste is Homo Hierarchicus of Louis Dumont, even though its conclusions are challenged by many.

Finally, there is an error in the history Hoole constructs. He says both Navalar and Ramanathan did not want voting rights for lower castes.

Navalar died in 1879 and there were not even proposals at that time for universal adult enfranchisement. Only educated Ceylonese had a constituency to vote.

Ramanathan who died in 1930 spent two sittings, one open and another secret, giving opinion to the Donoughmore Commission that came with the proposal of universal suffrage. The Commission in its report expressed hope that universal suffrage will help the social conditions of the lower castes. The Tamil representations of lower castes were in favour of universal suffrage.

It is known Ramanathan was against universal suffrage, but on what grounds was never revealed. As ethnic differences between Tamils and Sinhalese became strong since 1920s, many Tamil leaders at that time feared universal suffrage in a unitary system would harm the Tamils. Donoughmore Commission ruled out the proposal for three federal units. Ramanathan was not there when the first elections under universal suffrage took place in 1931, which the Tamils boycotted at the call of the leftist Youth Congress. The Tamil fears were proved correct later, when there was an All Sinhalese cabinet in 1936.

Readers may wonder at the conduciveness of the discourse on 19th century contentions of Saivism and Christianity to the national struggle of Eezham Tamils today.

It is for the reason of structuring a healthy and inclusive Tamil nationalism the discussions are brought in here, because we should know where we stand.

Tamil nationalism needs to realise its potentialities and weaknesses in making it progressive, benevolent and an internationally recognised culture in the future world.

Its secular linguistic identity based on a classical language in which more than two millennia of human experience and discourses both spiritual and temporal are recorded, and its inclusiveness cum plurality are strong points in making criteria for nationalism and in contributing to the paradigm ‘culture and development’. But jingoism of religions, which soon will be used as cards by imperialisms regional as well as international, and castes cum hierarchies old as well as new, are the liabilities.


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