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We condemn casteist violence at Vaddukoddai; We resolve to fight against all forms of caste oppression

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The Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence strongly condemns the casteist violence unleashed on the oppressed community in Arasady, Vaddukoddai, in Jaffna, on the 19th of September 2021 by a group of dominant-caste youth and men. Many members of this community were injured during this violence. One person’s finger was slashed off. Houses, properties, work equipment and workshops belonging to the members of this community were vandalized.

Caste-based violence has a long history in Vaddukoddai and its neighbouring villages such as Ponnalai, Thunaivi, Koddaikaadu and Muthali Koviladi. The incident that happened in Arasady cannot be viewed merely as an incidental use of physical force by one group on another or a conflict between two groups, as sections of the media try to portray it; it is a violent manifestation of deep-seated caste prejudices existing within caste-based hierarchies and socio-economic dimensions of caste oppression that characterise Jaffna society.

Caste Structure around
Arasady Village

Arasady, where this violence occurred, is a village that is geographically and socially divided along caste lines and caste-based boundaries. The villages in and around Vaddukoddai, where marginalized communities live, do not have paved roads. The sand pathways in these villages become clogged with flood water during the rainy season. Some of the houses lack basic facilities.

Parents from these communities complain that their children are discriminated against in the schools at Vaddukoddai. Even in places of worship, the community faces marginalisation and exclusion. The religious and social organisations that operate in Vaddukoddai are organized along caste lines. In everyday life, the marginalized people from this area face casteist slurs from those of dominant caste groups.

Casteism, Resistance
and Resilience

The oppressed communities at Vaddukoddai have been affected by poverty. Many of them work as daily-wage labourers. Some of them do not own inhabitable or cultivable land. Children from some of these families have had to drop out from school due to poverty. This community has faced systemic marginalisation in education and economic development, transportation and infrastructure facilities and culturally as well, for many decades.

Some members of this community were among those most severely affected during the protracted civil war in the country. They were displaced from Jaffna during the 1995 Exodus. Some of the displaced people later moved to the Vanni and had to live through the horrific violence that unfolded during the end of the war, before returning to Vaddukoddai a decade ago. In the post-war years, the state did not offer any robust programs for the socio-economic upliftment of this war-ravaged community. Some members of the community, in their effort to make ends meet, fell into the debt-trap of predatory microfinance companies. The violence they faced in September has compounded their sense of marginalisation.

Historically, caste chauvinism is transmitted from one generation to another; economic policies of the state do not take into consideration the ways in which caste oppression works in society; and Tamil political leaders ignore, downplay and conceal casteism prevailing within the Tamil community. These factors and forces have led to the current predicament of the oppressed communities in Jaffna. We need to understand the violence at Vaddukoddai as a part of these continuing social, political, economic processes of caste-based oppression and exclusion.

Caste struggles have been fought and the oppressed caste communities have risen against their oppression. They have fought, negotiated, compromised, and individually and collectively challenged the oppressive conditions of caste domination. The community at Vaddukoddai that faced casteist violence has shown great resilience and courage in overcoming caste-based marginalisation over the years. Their will to survive and to survive with dignity and their ability to recalibrate their struggles for the future bear testament to this. Their perseverance, resistance and community building and the openings created by the larger and everyday struggles against casteism in the North have made possible changes, mobilities and progress in geographic, social and economic terms.

Taking pride in all that they have achieved as individuals and as a community against all odds stacked against them, the people collectively and continuously strive for a dignified life for their community. They have faith in life and persevere to ensure that their children will not face the problems they and their ancestors had to face. Even though the recent violence has caused fear among the community, they are confident that they will overcome the threats they face in a collective spirit and by building alliances.

Justice for the Community and Eliminating Caste Oppression

The measures taken by the Police to ensure that those affected by the violence at Vaddukoddai have justice are unsatisfactory. It is even alleged that the Police on some occasions allied themselves with the dominant caste group that perpetrated this violence. The Police have not done enough to bring to book many who were involved in this violence. Politicians and lawyers associated with the perpetrators and others who are hesitant to challenge casteism head-on are sending feelers to the affected community to dilute the latter’s demands for justice and their democratic struggle against casteism. Such insincere attempts to weaken the community’s spirit of resistance should end immediately.

The Vaddukoddai incident has brought us to the crossroads of anti-caste activism and a reappraisal of how we look at the societies we live in. We need to acknowledge and struggle against the deep economic, political and social divisions that are amidst us, signified most potently by caste. As the community in Vaddukoddai rises against this latest infraction of their right to inhabit place, the right to work and live in society, we as a whole must act in solidarity with them. While condemning the casteist violence in Vaddukoddai, we commit ourselves to fighting and resisting all forms of caste oppression and building a social and political culture where there is no room for caste-based oppression.

The Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence was inaugurated following the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019 with a view to promoting coexistence and social justice among different ethnic and religious communities.

Following the casteist violence at Vaddukoddai in September 2021, the members of the Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence visited Vaddukoddai and held discussions with the people who were affected during this violence. The Forum met on the 22nd of October 2021 to discuss the violence and the challenges faced by the oppressed community in the aftermath of the violence. A decision was made at this meeting to issue a statement condemning this violence.



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Opinion

Govt. stubborn on organic manure from China

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According to media reports, it is evident that the Government is hell-bent on importing organic manure from the same company that supplied the first shipment, rejected by the Plant Quarantine officials of the Department of Agriculture (DOA). We are aware that US$ 6.9 million of Valuable Foreign Exchange (VFE) has been paid to this company (when the country is hard pressed for foreign currency) as compensation for the manure rejected due to obvious reasons viz. contamination with harmful microorganisms.

This VFE thus paid as compensation could otherwise have been used to import the much-needed chemical fertiliser. for which the farmers are rightfully clamouring. It was also reported that the Minister of Agriculture is planning to get a new SLSI Standard established, to facilitate this importation.

First things first, and it will be best for the authorities in the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Government, to sit for a while and study the Plant Protection Act No.35 of 1999, without losing time – better late than never. According to provisions and regulations under this Act, commercial quantities of organic manure cannot be imported to Sri Lanka. Only small samples of such materials can be allowed by the Director General of Agriculture, who is the implementing authority for the Plant Protection Act, and such samples can be used only for laboratory research work and cannot be added to the land.

As a retired officer, who worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, I am aware that no amendments have since been brought to the Plant Protection Act to change the provisions referred to above, and the regulations thereon. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether such amendments can ever be brought, since plant quarantine is an issue that cannot be compromised on the whims and fancies of Governments, and is subject to international covenants/agreements, as health issues pertaining to plant, animal and human life are involved.

Whatever standard that the SLSI establishes for organic manure imports, as per the request of the Minister of Agriculture, will have to comply with the aforesaid provisions of the Plant Protection Act. The so-called fresh shipment, if it is called organic fertiliser/manure, will necessarily contain a concoction of microorganisms, coming in bulk from a foreign environment to that of ours, and this itself could be disastrous, That is exactly why Plant Quarantine Services, the world over ( including Sri Lanka), are so strict in adhering to the relevant regulations. ( In this regard, we are all aware of the havoc created by the tiny Corona virus that, in fact, originated in China.)

In the event a fresh shipment comes, and if the Plant Quarantine officials act in the same manner as they acted when the first shipment came, strictly on scientific principles and in keeping with the regulations, the new shipment should get rejected if the material is really organic manure. So once again are we going to pay a massive compensation and lose VFE once more at this critical juncture; when we are in dire need of the same, to meet basic requirements? It is felt the Government should even at this late stage reconsider its policy on importing commercial quantities of organic manure/fertiliser, which no farmers ever wanted, and hence stop it forthwith, without getting this country into a further muddle.

The best is to produce organic manure/fertiliser on-farms as much as possible, due to the hassle of transporting over large distances, the way it was practiced by some farmers earlier, too, and use it as a soil re-conditioner; along with chemical fertiliser, which will give the much-needed plant nutrients in appreciable quantities, to achieve the required yield levels which will be sufficient to meet the national targets. Organic farming per se has been and can be practiced in Sri Lanka in niches over the years; it is nothing new and is known to give low/moderate yields at high cost, for special markets. Organic farming can never cater to our total national need, and the Government needs to understand this fact and reconsider its policy.

A.B. EDGAR PERERA

Retired Director/Agricultural Development

Ministry of Agriculture

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Opinion

Power Cuts: Engineers kept in the dark

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The above news item says even senior engineers of the CEB were kept in the dark about the power cut on Thursday, 13th Jan, despite Minister Gamini Lokuge assuring the country of uninterrupted supply. This gives the impression that there is no proper coordination among the engineers within the bCEB and the Ministry for Power. Added to this catastrophic situation, now enters another player, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka [PUCSL] making matters worse, where it insists approval for power cuts, according to a schedule, should be obtained from them.

The present power cut may be that the CEB has given the correct picture to PUCSL, and the information to the Minister may be by a section of engineers who play politics. The Minister should take the advice and information from the General Manager, and he should be held responsible for any false or incorrect information. It must also be said that there could be unexpected or unforeseen failures, which could alter the plans, and in such circumstances the GM, CEB could be excused. It is very unfortunate there is no unity among the engineers in the CEB, which has caused this unpleasant situation, embarrassing the Minister, the government, and placing consumers in a state of despair.

This difference in opinions among engineers in the CEB, reminds me of a similar situation in the 1980s, when the hydro reservoirs were running dry due to a severe drought. One section of engineers, to please the Minister, advocated running the turbines, expecting rains any time; while the other section advocated a power cut, saying it is dangerous and makes matters worse as the turbines could be damaged with dead wood and other objects dragging in with the flow.

This matter was brought before the Ministry, and the then Secretary to the Ministry for Power and Energy, the late James H Lanerolle, advised the Minister to approve a power cut which was turned down. Not being satisfied and being national minded, and in keeping with the responsibilities placed on him by the President who appoints Secretaries to Ministries to advise and guide Ministers, with the permission of the Minister made representations to the then President J.R.Jayewardene. A meeting with the President was arranged with engineers of both parties. On giving a patient hearing and understanding the gravity, the President turned to the Secretary and said [I can yet remember clearly as I too attended this meeting] “James, carry out your decision to shed power”. This should be a lesson to the present Secretaries of Ministries, not to play politics, and serve the President who had appointed them for the purpose mentioned above.

If there was no PUCSL to interfere, then the CEB would have briefed the Minister and the Secretary to the Ministry, and taken a correct decision. As the CEB has to serve two masters – PUCSL and Ministry – the two factions of engineers in the CEB act differently, one seeking PUCSL and the other the Minister.

I recall here the plea made by former Minister for Power, Dallas Alahapperuma, to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to remove PUCSL from interfering with the CEB, which the President on understanding the difficulties of the Minister to carry out his duties efficiently, safeguarding the government, rightly agreed and issued instructions accordingly. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also the Finance Minister, overruled the President’s order and allowed the same procedure to follow.

It will be advisable for the present Minister for Finance, Basil Rajapaksa, to review, under the present confusing situation, which has brought Minister Lokuge to a questionable situation, and also the public having no faith in the promises made by government

G. A. D. SIRIMAL
Boralesgamuwa

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Opinion

Beginning of all things auspicious

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Happy Thai Pongal!

Cosmic phenomena have baffled mankind since the beginning of time. ‘Sun worshipping’ or ‘Heliolatry’ was one of the most widespread forms of worship in ancient times. Historical evidence suggests that sun-worship was practised not only by Indians but by Africans, Egyptians, Chinese and Indonesians. In fact, a remnant of sun-worship, one time-tested ritual survives to-date. Thai Pongal, celebrated today by Tamils the world over irrespective of region, caste or creed, is the only form of Sun worship in existence today.

Thai Pongal is the Hindu version of Thanksgiving, performed by offering the first portion of the harvest to the Sun God, Surya. The festival has more than just religious significance. Especially in the tropics, where the sun shines throughout the year, it is an abundant source of power. Consequently, for millennia the sun has been the driving force of agriculture. In fact, in the tropics any cultivation thrives on just sunlight and rain. In short the tropics owe its plenitude to the sun.

Thai Pongal marks the Indic solstice when the sun enters the 10th house of the Indian zodiac Capricorn. The ‘Thai’ in ‘Thai Pongal’ represents the month of January (the 10th month of the Tamil Calendar), which marks the beginning of the harvesting season for Hindus. ‘Pongal’, rice from the first harvest, cooked in milk and sweetened with jaggery, is an offering to the Sun God, Surya. Pongal also translates to ‘boiling over’ or ‘overflow’.

Thai Pongal is celebrated with great enthusiasm and eagerness by Tamils the world over. Indicative of the bumper harvest, celebrations are more pronounced in the tropics. Unlike in Sri Lanka, in Tamil Nadu, where Thai Pongal is said to have originated, it is celebrated for four days. The first day, January 14 this year, marks the beginning of multiple festivals, characterised by a scurry of activities, just as before Sinhala and Tamil New Year. Houses and yards are cleaned and trash from the previous year is burnt. In fact, so much burning takes place that Tamil Nadu pilots have complained of navigation difficulties due to smoke! The burning of trash is also figurative. It signifies unburdening of past year’s mental encumbrances and the expression of gratitude.

On the morning of the first day of celebrations Hindu women decorate the floor of their houses with Kolam, intricate patterns made from coloured rice flour. Rather than mere artistic expression or decoration, Kolam symbolises happiness and prosperity. Kolam is also used to demarcate the sacred area where the Pongal is prepared. Milk is heated until it boils over and rice and jaggery are added afterwards. The boiling over of milk symbolises abundance. Prepared within the parameters of the Kolam, in a clay pot using fire wood, Pongal is offered first to the senior most members of the family on banana leaves, after the prayers.

‘Mattu Pongal’, the third day of celebrations is dedicated to paying respect to cattle. Much like the Sun, cows are an integral part of tropical agriculture, not to mention Hindu culture. The cows work the fields year round, helping the farmer reap a plentiful harvest, by pulling the plough. In fact, before the advent of commerce, much of the early Hindu economy was based on milk trade. During the festive season cattle are garlanded, kumkum applied on their foreheads, horns painted and fed a mixture of jaggery, honey, banana and other fruits, referred to as venn pongal.

On the first three days most Hindus restrict themselves to a vegetarian diet. But on the fourth day, hill country Tamils of Sri Lanka start eating meat. The third day is spent visiting relatives. Bull fights, referred to as Jallikattu, are the main attraction in India on the second, third and fourth days. These take place out in the open and is considered an extremely dangerous and gruesome sport. Consequently, those who participate are considered gallant. The season consists of many other games and festivities such as bullock cart races, harvesting dances, music and festivities at temples.

Thai Pongal signifies prosperity and abundance in the new year. Hindus reap their first harvest in the month of ‘Thai’. As such, it is a financially beneficial and prosperous month. Hindus make wedding plans, plan to buy new property and assets and start new jobs during this month. The Tamil saying ‘Thai piranthal wali pirakkum’ means ‘with the beginning of January a new pathway is also paved’. This is the essence of Thai Pongal, which marks the beginning of all things auspicious for the Hindus.

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