Translator and academic, Dr. Subramaniam Jebanesan
Sri Lankan writer, K. Daniel, who was born in Jaffna, exposed through literature, casteism against the so-called dalits (the so-called untouchables) and the so-called thurumbars (dhobies or washer folk) within the Tamil society. His novel ‘Kanal’ was translated as ‘Mirage’ by former Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India, former Principal of the Jaffna College and a Visiting Lecturer in Translation Studies and Christian Civilization at the University of Jaffna, Dr. Subramaniam Jebanesan. It was edited, introduced (with an afterword) and annotated by Elmer K. and Ethel R. Timby Associate Professor of the History of Religions at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Prof. Richard Fox Young.
Dr. Jebanesan spoke to The Nation regarding various facets of the Tamil culture and the challenges threatening to engulf the residents of the North.
Q : What is the role that caste plays in the North right now?
No doubt the vellalas were the dominant caste, members of which enjoyed privileges in the fields of education, employment and the possession of land, and had contacts with the outside world, even overseas. The dalits did not have these privileges. Instead, there was unemployment, casteism and humiliation. They did not have freedom, relief and dignity. They worked as labourers for the vellalas.
That was till deceased Leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), V. Prabhakaran appeared on the scene. With the continuation of the war, the vellalas who were educated and skilled migrated to foreign countries whereas those of the low caste could not as they lacked the means and the training. Prabhakaran was totally opposed to caste based discrimination and the LTTE took stern action when such incidents were reported.
Now, however members of the oppressed castes are buying land and property belonging to the high caste members. Land in particular places in prestigious towns like that in Jaffna is being sold to them, very fast. No one can stop them from purchasing land. This is because of the land prices, the fact that they now have money and are able to buy land, and also because they continue to live on in the country.
They have been educated and they have good jobs and hold very important posts such as principals of schools, education directors and Government officers.
They are taking the place of the vellalas. The vellalas are not as powerful as they used to be. The vellalas are leaving the country. The dalits are also leaving but not in large numbers.
Elsewhere, all are allowed to go into the temples. One does not know whether another is low caste or not. Worship is not restricted. Seating arrangements in churches accommodate all. There is no segregation.
Over the past four decades, there has been significant and tremendous social change, a revolution in fact. What was once very serious is slowly on the decline. Caste is no more the dominant feature.
In all other matters they are equal but on one matter things have not changed. That is marriage. Caste is still a reality in this regard. It will take up to 100 to 200 years for this to change. They do not agree to marry inter-caste, particularly to a low caste, as they would be ostracized by the community. In marriage in particular, the mother’s side and the father’s side is closely studied to find out whether they are pure, caste-wise. There are inter-caste love marriages. Yet, they are not happy. They are ostracized. This is why they marry from the same caste.
Now if someone makes caste based remarks, people can go to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka immediately and serious action may be taken. The whole community will rise against such. Now the members of oppressed castes know their power. Therefore, now no one makes such remarks. In private however one may pass a remark about a person’s caste.
There will however never be a Tamil society free of caste.
Q : What is the state of education among youth in the Northern Province?
The system of education has changed very much. I belong to a dying breed. We learnt in English under mostly Sinhalese lecturers, who were friendly, hospitable and likable. When I was at the Jaffna College, out of the 10 students who were sitting for the university entrance exam in English medium, three were Sinhalese.
Today, 75% of the undergraduates at the Faculty of Science of the University of Jaffna are from the South. Now there are separate camps, the Tamil medium and the Sinhala medium. There is very little communication. There is no interaction. This has become the main problem. They do not know about each other.
They do not mix at all due to the language problem, which is a serious issue. Sometimes however I talk to students in Sinhala and they reply in Tamil. They should talk about their problems and feelings. They must be understood. This is not taking place. Communication would create mutual respect and sympathy.
If they meet, the Tamils will understand the fears and anxieties of the Sinhala people concerning the situation now and vice versa. They should meet more often. The Asgiriya Chapter recently came to the North to see the situation for themselves. This is good. They must come and see why the people took up arms and how things have changed since.
Sinhalese lecturers and professors are soon scheduled to come and teach at the University of Jaffna. The University is cosmopolitan and has such an atmosphere.
Q : Is the Tamil society reconciled internally, within?
No. We are chronically divided. There is no unity. The fact that we do not have unity is a serious problem. Now, everybody wants to be a leader. This will very much affect our place in the country. Under S.J.V. Chelvanayakam the Tamil community had some power and bargaining strength. The people in the South know very well that now this is not the case.
There are many problems in the Northern Provincial Council. Ministers resign, other Ministers take office. This is extremely unhealthy.
Things are very much disillusioning. It is a very sad state of affairs we must contend with.
Q : How is youth unemployment factoring into the societal situation there?
Unemployment has become very serious. Women are undergoing much hardship.
Now, it is about the amount of money a wife can bring in. They are not able to find a job. After graduating from the University, they are taken in as trainees. There are not many jobs available.
Roads have been built and tourism and the hotel industry, banks and transportation have been developed, yet is there any office where jobs are generated? There are resources. Factories are opening, which can absorb 1,000 jobs. Yet, they are not doing any kind of thing about it.
Especially, in every household, they have family members without a job. The suicide rate is going up. Those who are unemployed do not want to be a burden to their families. Something must be done.
Recently, the funeral for a 27-year-old girl who had committed suicide was held. Her marriage had been arranged. The dowry she had to give was Rs 15,000. The bridegroom was a good man but others would however have prevailed upon him convincing him that he could not get married without getting the maximum he could get right then. The dowry subsequently asked for became Rs 1.5 million. The victim could not tax her own sister for the money.
The most pathetic group is the unmarried, unemployed girls or women. They have no security. In post-war Germany, the male population decreased and very many women could not find a partner. The same problem is faced here.
Young boys migrate and seek partners from the countries where they are domiciled. Previously, what was expected was someone who was obedient, subservient and for ornamental purposes. Now even the mother must know how to use computers and speak English. People do not want people who can cook. They already have people who can cook. In Jaffna, there are institutes that teach German, French, Dutch and Norwegian. Earlier, everybody wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Now everyone wants to go to England, Saudi Arabia or Australia.
Nowadays, if students get through into University to study medicine, dentistry or engineering, they follow the course but otherwise they are not interested in following a general sciences or arts degree. They all want jobs that bring in money. The Science Faculty has less Tamil students. They are looking for more prestigious opportunities.
Q : How are the ex-cadres faring?
Ex-cadres are one of the most pathetic groups. They are not wanted by the community, the Government and by their own families because of their record and past. People believe that marrying a former cadre who fought would be akin to inviting unnecessary trouble. The Government is very revengeful.
They do not give a chance. There is rehabilitation but this is done harbouring prejudice over the fact that these cadres killed Sinhalese soldiers. Many of them believe that they did a great service. They are innocent people who got carried away by emotions. Now they are without weapons, money or jobs.
Q : Has the law and order situation affected the denizens? How?
Yes. The previously prevalent situation of education accompanied by morals such as honesty, dignity, and elsewhere the ability to speak English has declined and so many people have come to Jaffna with the intention earning quick money. The case of the gang rape and murder of a schoolgirl in Pungudutivu and two to three other such incidents, the former which is being heard at present, shows to what level the Tamil community has sunk.
There was discipline and order earlier. It is not so now. One has to be very careful. It is not as safe a place as it used to be. There are Police stations but the perpetrators have motorcycles and swords, and they are quick. Therefore it is not possible to control. If one is living in Jaffna, one lives with anxiety about one’s life and property.
Q : What do you make of the resettlement in the region?
Resettlement is taking a long time. In certain towns, people are congested. People have to find places that are secure and close-by to the cities. Areas must be policed otherwise we will find it difficult to live.
Q : What is the role of the arts including literature in the society at present?
Regarding literature and the arts, the future of the arts, depends on the people and the sangams (associations) organizing arts festivals about for an example the greatness of Tamil literature and those commemorating poets. This helps keep the Tamils as Tamils. Another problem is that the people are not studying Tamil, especially children who go abroad. Great harm is being done to our people. The community must be kept intact and this can be done by telling them of their noble past, the richness of the literature, the beauty of and the moral principles found in Tamil literature.