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The Caste System

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by Vijaya Chandrasoma

Sri Lanka has been long considered a caste-blind society on the basis that it is a predominantly Buddhist country, and the Buddha himself denounced the caste system which was the accepted social stratification system in India.

However, the Sinhalese caste system certainly prevails today, perhaps not to the same degree it existed 100 years ago.

Though the significance of castes may depend on social and educational standing, it still plays an important role in matrimony. Personals in today’s newspapers abound with matrimonial advertisements, which, rather like the dating sites of the west, remain the best way to contract a marriage in a country where open and casual dating is still, by and large, frowned upon. And, unlike the dating sites of the west, requirements of race, religion, caste and often horoscopes are almost always specified.

Whether it’s a marriage based on caste, social and financial standing, or other criteria of compatibility; or the “love marriage” preferred by the progressives, the institution remains a crapshoot. The odds of divorce in the west currently stand at even money, because divorce is both easy and subject to no stigma. Divorce in Sri Lanka is rarer, as it has a social infrastructure to hold a marriage together, but the odds of a happy marriage, without divorce entering the equation, are also about even money.

Caste has never been an issue in our family. For those of us in the lower, or horrors of horrors, mixed lower castes, we proudly say that we do not care about caste. Rather like the billionaire who says he does not care about money. Or the lady married to an Adonis who says she doesn’t care for looks.

There is an interesting story about one of my aunts, which may throw some light on the caste system prevalent in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) in the mid-20th century. The social injustice this system represents prevails, to a lesser degree, even today.

My aunt was a most attractive lady, who met a gentleman at the university. They had a romantic relationship, and were planning to get married. There was one huge problem, however. My father was from the Karawa (fisher) caste, while the prospective groom was of the ‘high’ Goyigama (farmer) caste. Or was he even from the so-called aristocratic Radala caste? I don’t know, my knowledge of the caste system is just about non-existent, constrained as it is by an explanation given by my father, which I will relate at the end of this anecdote. They were planning nuptials, without first getting the blessing of the groom’s parents.

When the father of the prospective groom heard about the impending social disaster to his family, he immediately took a train to Hikkaduwa and imperiously told a villager to summon my grandfather to meet him at the railway station. The villager came back with the response from my grandfather, that if the honorable gentleman wishes to meet him, he’s welcome to do so at his residence.

So the noble gentleman humiliated himself by proceeding to my ‘low-caste’ grandfather’s house. Shunning traditional formalities, he told the old man that his son and my aunt were planning on getting married, which was unacceptable because of the difference in caste. To which my grandfather replied, I am sorry, sir, but you must get your son to stop this marriage. I am unable to do so, as I already have agreed to the marriage of my oldest son (my father) to a lady of an even ‘lower’ caste. My mother was of the ‘low’ Durawa caste, traditionally toddy-tappers, a caste I suspect didn’t even make the top ten. So the high-caste gentleman went back to his aristocratic mountains, and prevailed on his son to desist. Which was the end of that romance.

Time went by. My aunt, obviously a glutton for punishment, fell in love with another of these ‘high-caste’ types. His father, too, objected to the marriage, and made the same trek to Hikkaduwa, meeting with the same response from my grandfather.

My grandfather used to break into English when he was excited. So when his daughter came home for her vacation from the university, he exclaimed, “Your second father-in law also came”.

That particular high-caste gentleman disregarded his parents’ objections and married my aunt. Actually, he was a nice guy, and he was trading up. They enjoyed a long and very happy marriage.

My father’s attitude to the caste system is best illustrated by his answer to a question I think my younger brother Praki asked him when he was about seven years old. He said that the kids at school were talking about their castes, and wanted to know to which caste we belonged. My father said, Well, son, your mother is Durawa, I am Karawa, so you must be Jarawa (filth or trash in Sinhala).



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Self-Employed Traders petition SC over govt. favouring liquor dealers

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By A.J.A Abeynayake

The Supreme Court has decided take up, on 04 Oct. for hearing a petition filed by the Association of Self-Employed Traders against the opening of liquor stores during the current lockdown.

 The traders have requested the apex court to order the government to allow members of their union to engage in business activities since the liquor stores had been allowed to reopen during the lockdown.

The petition was taken up before a three-judge bench comprising justices L. T. B. Dehideniya, Shiran Gooneratne and Janak de Silva, yesterday.

 The State Counsel appearing for the respondents said he had received the relevant documents pertaining to the case only last Friday evening. Therefore, the State Counsel requested the court to give him time to seek advice from the respondents who were many.

Attorney-at-Law Eraj de Silva, appearing for the petitioner at the time, said about 7,000 members of his client union had lost their livelihoods due to the decision by the respondents.

Therefore, Attorney-at-Law Eraj de Silva requested the court to give an early date for considering the petition.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court decided to take up the petition for consideration on 04 Oct and directed the lawyers of the petitioners to take steps to send notice to the respondents before that date.

The petition was filed by the President of the United National Self-Employed Trade Association G.I. Charles, its Vice President P.G.B. Nissanka, and Secretary Krishan Marambage.

The petition names 47 respondents, including the Director General of Health Services, the Inspector General of Police and the Director General of Excise.

The petitioners allege that under the quarantine law, the Director General of Health Services, who is the competent authority, issued a notice on Aug 20 prohibiting the opening of liquor stores.

The petitioners point out that steps were taken to open liquor stores countrywide contrary to the regulations of the Health Authority.

The Director General of Health Services, the Commissioner General of Excise and the Inspector General of Police have stated that they have not allowed the reopening of liquor stores.

The petitioners have also requested the Supreme Court to issue an order to the respondents to allow the members of their association to engage in business activities as the liquor stores are allowed to remain open.

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Lankan born newly elected Norwegian MP Gunaratnam calls for investments here

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Newly elected Norwegian Labour Party MP, Lankan born Kamzy Gunaratnam says she will ask the new Norwegian government to continue engagement with the country of her birth.

 Speaking at a virtual media conference on Sunday night, Gunaratnam said that she does not believe that boycotting Sri Lanka is the way forward.

“I don’t believe in boycott. There needs to be investments. Only that will ensure employment,” she said.

Gunaratnam said that she is also prepared to meet President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, if invited, for talks.

She said that Norway must continue to assist Sri Lanka through trade, education and in other ways.

Gunaratnam said that she will also discuss with her party and the new Norwegian Foreign Minister, as well as the Norwegian Ambassador in Sri Lanka and see how best Norway can assist the country.

Gunaratnam said that Sri Lankans must also decide the best solution for Sri Lanka and not any foreign country. She said that Sri Lanka must not wait for foreign pressure to work on a solution.

The newly elected Norwegian MP also said that minority rights in Sri Lanka must be protected.

As a Norwegian MP she said that her main focus in the Norwegian Parliament will be to push for equality in Norway.

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Going to IMF best solution, says Ranil

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UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that a programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is necessary to mitigate impact of the growing debt repayment crisis; homegrown solutions are not effective.

“Unlike in the past, Sri Lanka’s debt problem has increased at a time when there is a global debt problem. This makes the situation more challenging and complex. Sri Lanka is a highly import-dependent economy,” Wickremesinghe said during a panel discussion, organised by the International Chamber of Commerce Sri Lanka on Saturday.

The UNP leader said that the government shouldn’t sell state assets to ease off the shortage of foreign exchange to have breakfast but reinvest those proceeds back in the economy. “Going to the IMF is the best solution,” Wickremesinghe said.

With reference to homegrown solutions, he referred to the mess caused by the government in promoting Dhammika peniya as one of the failed measures earlier on to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The former Prime Minister said that Sri Lanka should use the current situation to forge ahead with structural and public sector reforms which were postponed due to political considerations in the past.

The former PM suggested that the re-opening of the country be delayed till mid-October.

In responding to the issue of debt management in Sri Lanka, the UNP leader said that the most pressing concern is addressing the dwindling foreign exchange reserves of the country.

He explained that the regional foreign exchange reserves were projected to increase over the course of the year, however, Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves were on a downward trend.

He also said that economic recovery based on a resurgence of the tourism industry would be uncertain, and until airline ticket prices were reduced it was unlikely that tourist arrivals would increase significantly.

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