Cast Out Caste

casteWritten By: Kayalvizhi J.

The other day, I was flipping through a local Tamil newspaper. It contained an ad, “Manamahan Thevai” (Groom Wanted) for their 28 year old daughter. In highlighting their requirements for the groom, they mentioned that they were seeking a groom of a particular caste (I will not name it here). I felt disgusted to see this being so openly advertised in a newspaper.

In the Tamil community, and other South-Asian communities, caste has been a marker of discrimination. The word caste itself originates from the Portuguese word, casta. When the Portuguese arrived in South Asia, they found that among the groups, there were subdivisions, and referred to the different groups as castas. Different castes, based on the traditional work you did, have been used to discriminate people as being higher and lower. These castes are seen as being so mutually exclusive to one another, that inter-marriage, friendship and relationships among castes are frowned upon.

Caste-based discrimination has been recognized as a human rights violation by the European Parliament who has adopted a resolution condemning it. Yet, in Tamil societies, caste continues to play an important role. Why? The reason caste remains prominent today, even though many disagree with it, is for a simple reason. The most basic underlying concept of caste division is based on purity – not only purity of the body, but rather purity of the spirit, mind and psyche. In the Tamil culture, purity is given upmost significance. The fact that caste has been socially constructed to be intertwined with purity is the reason that people still believe it today – they believe that association and inter-marriage among these castes can lead to ‘pollute’ this purity is the reason people subconsciously give caste an important place.

When inter-marriage does occur among people of different castes, most often than not, it is the man who belongs to the ‘higher caste’ for it is believed that the men are able to with stand a ‘polluted’ force. When the women is of the ‘higher caste’, in many instances as we may have seen in recent news, her family is so ashamed that they engage in abuse and violence and in some instances kill the couple in question.
Caste really was reinforced using these ideas of purity so that the public and masses would believe it.

However, reinforcing caste was a way for the dominant castes to retain their power and economic privilege. Although I will not name them here, the two most dominant castes, formed the elite in the Jaffna Kingdom, they were the landlords who retained an interest in commercial agriculture, and they the fishermen who raised their commercial status by venturing into trade. It was their commercial interest that allowed them to reinforce the idea that wealth, power, and purity were something that was limited to their higher castes. It worked in their favour – the public wanted to work for them, they were able to maintain a division among society through fear, and they were able to reproduce their dominant ideologies by selectively marrying within themselves. The labourers, or other caste people, never felt that they could take over what they did, and so, their businesses were protected and unthreatened.

If you noticed the Tamil caste system, the labourers are the ones who make up the brunt of the so called lower castes. Reinforcing the caste system meant that the elite could remain the elite, and the labourers would not challenge the elite because they themselves bought into the ideology that they were less than because of their caste. By forcing those from ‘lower castes’ to have to remove their headgear in front of ‘higher caste’ people, by forcing them to eat separately and using different utensils, and by forcing them to sit in designated places, this division was able to thrive.

In today’s time, we the new generation should be the ones to not discriminate using caste. What really is caste other than an arbitrary marker? Caste is useless, yet it is dividing us. Our unity as a Tamil community would be much stronger if we didn’t discriminate against caste. When we Tamils do not even see each other as one of us, then how can we expect unity and growth as a nation?

How do you ask this can be done? Don’t ask. Why do we give enough importance to it that we ask? When we are marrying, we should not ask or care whatever caste our significant other is. Even asking just to know you are ‘the same’ reinforces caste. We should not care – because it is not important. There is so much more to somebody than what caste they belong to. If in coming years, we, the youth stop asking, stop telling, then eventually, there will be a time where will not know and it will not be significant. The power to change the caste system is something we can do – simply, by not giving importance to it. The day we stop asking ‘what caste do you belong to,’ is the day of change.


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