Thursday, April 15, 2010
Caste origins of authoritarianism in Sri Lanka--Part 2
An interview with Mr. Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights
Commission by Nilantha Ilangamuwa of the Sri Lanka Guardian
(April 15, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) We talked about the linkage
between the collapse of the rule of law, democracy and human rights
violations in Sri Lanka and also the relationship to the issue of
caste. Can you elaborate on this aspect?
In a caste based society there is no concept of the equality of the
law. What this means is that there is no acceptance of laws common to
and binding on all persons on an equal basis.
Without this there is also no basis for representation which is the
basis for representative government. In fact, there is no room for
inter-communication between various groups in society. In caste,
instead of inter-communication what you have is very strict
separation; something even more than the separation in apartheid.
Once you have no basis for inter-communication then there is no room
to recognise freedom of speech, communication and media.
When these basic concepts of equality before the law are absent, the
next thing to happen is that the punishment meted out to different
groups varies. Therefore there is disproportionate punishment of the
weak and the poor and those who don't belong to the privileged. This
not only inherent in caste but is conceived to be a virtue.
In caste society the hierarchy is an ideal. If things are organised
hierarchically in caste society the belief is that things will work
well is way.
The top of the pyramid should have everything; the bottom of the
pyramid should have nothing.
That is what caste is and it is what democracy is not. That is why we
are giving up even the limited extent of democracy introduced with the
independence and returning to authoritarianism.
People will argue that there is no equality anywhere. Even in the
developed world like the United States there is a tremendous gap
between the rich and the poor. This is common throughout the world. So
what is so very different in the caste society context and these other
The question of equality, in economics or social equality and the
concept of equality before law are two very different concepts.
Equality before law means that despite of being rich or poor, powerful
or otherwise the laws of the country apply to all in a similar way.
For example if there is a crime called murder which is called into
law, a murder committed by a poor man and one committed by a rich man
should not be different. It also applies to any other law, for example
corruption. Let us say there is a crime called bribery. Whether an
officer of lower rank obtains bribes or when the higher ranking
officers or even persons holding political office obtain a bribe under
the rule of law there is no difference.
The same law applies to all. Both officers need to be punished by the
state. And the state must have the political will to punish both for
similar types of crimes.
Of course the rule of law is not only about crime but everything else.
For example, suppose you must declare your income. In fact, everyone,
irrespective of rank has to declare their income according to the
methods prescribed by the law.
It someone does not comply the law should also have the means and the
methods of prescribing similar punishment to both.
No one should be able to enter court and say that he is the holder of
a certain office and therefore he cannot be brought to court. That is
the minimum of the rule of law, even if it is the king himself; the
king cannot say to the court, "Your court is not for me. You cannot
ask me to appear and to answer questions. You cannot even ask me to
reply to charges when they are laid down properly according to the
The idea that anyone is above the law is completely alien to the idea
that everyone is equal before the law. We cannot say that everyone is
equal before the law except the king.
In a caste based society the principle is different. In India the
Brahmins are the top caste. They were above any of the rules. The
rules only applied to those of lower caste according to their rank. If
a high ranking person demands the produce of the villagers, the
working farmers, they have no choice but to give it.
If a Brahmin demands a daughter of even a second ranking caste member,
like the traders or warrior caste they have to hand her over.
Rape was not a crime in a similar way to any Brahmin. It can of course
be a crime of unforgivable nature if by any chance a lower caste, a
Sudra for example who did physical labour or an untouchable Dalit,
were to rape a Brahmin girl not only the rapist but his entire family
and his clan could be wiped out, their houses burned and by that
everyone would be taught a lesson.
So that very concept of crime was relative; relative to the position
held in the caste hierarchy. In the context of the rule of law
irrespective of your economic, social or political position the way
you are treated before the law is the same.
The same crime, the same punishment by the same process of law and the
courts has the power to do that. No such court system could exist
within a caste society. Thus the concept of the administration of
justice as required by a rule of law system never arose in societies
as long as the system which prevailed in the past was the caste
Even when colonial powers introduced it, it did not take root, in such
Therefore before the colonial powers introduced the courts systems
that developed later, in Sri Lanka we do not have the experience of
justice in the true sense with which we talk about justice today.
For example the word 'yukkitiya' does not have the same meaning with
regard to a landlord or a 'radalaya', an ordinary peasant. It is even
worse if they belong to a lower caste, the fisher folk for example, or
a washer man, there is no common idea of justice.
In caste society, inequality is inbuilt into any kind of punishment or
justice. Privilege is justified and protected by the whole system. Any
kind of advantage is gained only be way of some kind of patronage of
the people at the top. Being servile to the top, showing every kind of
deference to the top, respecting the people at the top, meaning doing
whatever they wish is the normal law of caste and that is the kind of
situation we are returning to in every respect within our social
So the difference between democratic society and a caste based society
is not about some kind of absolute equality which is not even an
ideal. The ideal is equality before the law, the same laws, the same
kind of treatment for non-observance of the law by the same kind of
courts with the powers of those courts to ultimately monitor the
observance of the law and having the same respect for the rights of
There must be rights for everybody, not just for some people and
duties only for other people in caste society; duties for everybody
other than those small privileged groups. The top group has the
privileges the rest of society has only the duties and if they don't
carry them out they can be punished as harshly as possible by those
who have no concept of common right and wrong.
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