Tamil of Sri Lanka - Sociopolitical Organization



Sri Lanka is nominally a parliamentary democracy with a president as the head of state. The two-party parliamentary system is, however, dominated by Sinhalese, and the Sri Lankan Tamils are not sufficiently numerous to affect the outcome of elections. As a result moderate Tamil politicians who endorsed a parliamentary solution to Tamil grievances were ineffective and were swept away during the rise of Tamil youthful militancy.

Social Organization. Sri Lanka's Tamil regions take on their distinctiveness owing to the presence of a dominant agricultural caste—the Vellala in the Jaffna Peninsula and the Mukkuvar in the eastern coastal region—on which the entire caste system is focused. In contrast to the Tamil mainland, Brahmans are few, and although they are considered higher than the dominant caste in ritual terms, they are generally poor and serve the dominant caste as temple priests or temple managers. Traditional intercaste services focused on the dominant caste and were both sacred and secular; the sacred services, such as the services provided by barbers and washers at life-cycle rites and by agricultural laborers at sacrificial rituals, served to define and regulate the low status of serving groups, while the secular ones created patron-client linkages that could endure for generations. Once bound to these sacred and secular relations, the artisan castes freed themselves by taking advantage of British liberalizations, the expanding service economy, and their urban residence. The rural service and labor castes remained in traditional relationships with the dominant castes until the mid-twentieth century, when the rise of a service economy created new marginal economic niches for these groups at the same time that mechanization rendered their labor unnecessary. Coastal fishing groups were never incorporated into the compass of agricultural caste Solidarity, and in consequence they have long maintained their independence and resisted the stigma of low status. Prior to the twentieth century, caste statuses were upheld by a huge variety of sumptuary regulations, such as a rule prohibiting low-caste women from covering the upper half of their bodies. Caste discrimination in such matters, including temple entry and the use of public facilities and conveyances, is now illegal but persists in rural areas. In the face of the brutal occupation of Tamil areas by Sinhalese security forces in the early 1980s, caste rivalry diminished in intensity as the Tamil community pulled together. Prominent in many Tamil militant organizations are leaders from low or marginal castes; Tamil youthful militancy is thus a rejection of traditional caste ideology as well as a generational and ethnic revolt.


Political Organization. The Sri Lankan state is partly an artifact of colonial rule: excessively centralized, it was devised to suppress regional rebellions as the British were consolidating their power. The failure of this overly centralized political system to devolve power to the provinces is one of the reasons for the rise of militant Tamil separatism. Unable to win concessions from the Colombo government, Tamil parliamentarians lost credibility and were pushed out of the Tamil Community by militant youth groups, which were composed mainly of unemployed graduates as well as unmarried and rootless youth. Fractious and focused on a single, charismatic leader, these groups competed with each other—sometimes violently—until the 1987 incursion by Indian troops under the provisions of an accord between Colombo and Delhi; the Marxist-oriented groups, unlike other factions, accommodated to the Indian security forces, whose presence and actions in the Sri Lankan Tamil community were resented as much as those of the Colombo forces. After the departure of the Indian troops, those Marxist groups lost credibility. At this writing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a nationalist group, has effectively eliminated—through attrition, fear, assassination, and massacre—all other potential sources of political leadership within the Tamil community. They have won support among peasant folk who believe that no one else can protect them from the Sri Lankan security forces, but expatriate Tamils frequently voice concern that LTTE rule will amount to a brutal dictatorship.


Social Control. Within traditional Sri Lankan Tamil Villages gossip and ridicule were potent forces for social conformity. The family backed its authoritarian control through threats of excommunication (deprivation of lands, dowry, and family support). With growing landlessness and unemployment, however, many families are unable to deliver on their material promises and the threat of excommunication has become increasingly empty. Suicide and youthful militancy are both manifestations of a general rejection by youth of traditional forms of authoritarianism.

Conflict. Traditionally, conflicts occurred within families and between castes. Interfamily conflict often arose from Status competition, particularly when a wealthy ward attempted to cease relations with its "poorer relations" in pursuit of new, more lucrative ties with a similarly-endowed group. Longstanding grudges and obsession with "enemies," real or imagined, sometimes have led to violence. Dominant castes routinely used violence to punish subordinate groups that were taking on high-caste life-style attributes (such as using umbrellas) , often by burning down huts or poisoning wells. Since the late 1970s, the ineffectiveness of moderate Tamil politicians has led many Tamil youths to conclude that the only solution to their problems lies in violence. The result has been the rise, not only in Tamil areas but throughout Sri Lanka, of a culture of violence, in which unspeakable acts of slaughter and massacre are commonplace. It has even spilled over into India where, in 1991, Sri Lankan Tamils assassinated the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Official estimates are that approximately 20,000 have died in Sri Lanka's decade-old civil war but unofficial estimates place the toll at two to three times that figure.


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