Free education has brought out wider egalitarian impact in Sinhala society, but this has not eliminated the caste inequality altogether. Rather caste has been made an underground phenomenon rarely discussed in public, but remained bottled up within the individuals and local communities only to be rekindled from time to time in the caste inspired political loyalties during the time of elections, social conflicts and social uprisings (Jiggins 1979, Chandraprema 1991).
This caste alignment did not emerge out of the blue. There had been a long history of Kara-Govi rivalry in diverse quarters and at various social levels from the 1860s if not earlier. Let me detail some facets without claiming that this brief review is comprehensive.
The grand war time alliance of Sinhala Buddhist interests appears to have unravelled. I attribute the bad blood between the Rajapakse and Fonseka camps to vendetta and revenge. This is largely a personal feud born of a sense of betrayal. However, I wonder whether the legacy of caste has had a tangential role in the matter after all. Rajapakse is the scion** of an old southern Govigama family while Fonseka was a Karave general also from the south.
Let us explore the issue in some detail. Professor K.M. de Silva in his `History of Sri Lanka`, refers to the MIGRATION OF THE KARAWE, SALAGAMA AND DURAWE CASTES FROM SOUTHERN INDIA TO SRI LANKA BETWEEN THE 14TH AND 17TH CENTURIES AD. The Karawe, a maritime caste, appear to have had a disproportionate influence in the Sinhala military in medieval times. M.D. Raghavan`s publication, `The Karave of Ceylon: Society and Culture` illustrates the cultural history in some depth. Michael Roberts also documents Karawe elite formation in his seminal publication `Caste Conflict and Elite Formation, the Rise of the Karave elite in Sri Lanka: 1500-1931`.
Caste divisions are not unknown in Sinhala Buddhist history. The Govigama-Karave competition intermittently resurfaces in our history. The Govigama are the farmer caste akin to the Tamil Vellalar. The Govigama are perhaps 50% of the Sinhala population while the Karave are likely 10%. The Govigama unfairly dismiss the Karave as a fishing caste.
King Vijayabahu in the 11th century DENIED ACCESS TO THE SO-CALLED LOWER CASTES to venerate the Buddha`s footprint at the summit of Sri Pada or Adam`s Peak. These castes were confined to a lower terrace further down. This led to an immediate counter when a 12th century rock inscription of King Nissanka Malla warned that the Govigama caste could never aspire to high office.
The 13th century Sinhala literary work, the Pujavaliya went on to assert that a Buddha would never be born in the Govigama caste The Govigama reaction was swift. Kandyan Buddhist civil law as later documented in the Niti Nighanduwa, placed the Govigama at the top of an elaborately ordered caste hierarchy.
The Kandyan Buddhist clergy - the Siam Nikaya - DENIED ENTRY into the Buddhist monkhood to the non-Govigama. They EXCLUDED THE KARAVE. This led wealthy Karave merchants in the maritime districts to finance the journey of Ambagahapitiya Gnanawimala Thera to Amarapura in Burma for the ordination into the Buddhist monkhood in 1800 AD. While the newly founded Amarapura nikaya had 21 sub-sects defined on caste lines (i.e. Karave, Salagama and Durave), it nonetheless offered a rare opportunity for the Karave to join the Buddhist religious order.
Other Karave ABANDONED BUDDHISM ALTOGETHER AND CONVERTED TO ROMAN CATHOLICISM to seek caste emancipation. 50% of the Karave caste might well be Christian today. At present, Karave Christian youth have the best education outcomes in Sinhala society.
Many of us were thankful that these caste divisions in Sinhala Buddhist society had ebbed. However, recent events indicate that this may not entirely be so. In the late 1800s, Charles Henry de Soysa, the foremost Karave philantrophist, had hosted a banquet to the Duke of Edinburgh in Colombo, an event boycotted by the Govigama political elite led by Solomon Bandaranaike. Dr. Marcus Fernando, a Karave leader of no mean accomplishment, ran for the Educated Ceylonese seat at the 1911 elections. The Govigama elite, led by the Senanayakes, successfully defeated him and ensured the victory of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Tamil candidate, instead. The Govigama preferred Tamil leadership to that of the Karave Sinhalese. That was treachery on the part of the Govigama.
We now witness a situation where Rajapakse has LITERALLY CRUSHED FONSEKA. Let us not forget that all Sri Lankan heads of state, with just one exception, have been Govigama. Non-Govigama representation in Sri Lanka`s legislature has declined since independence. And all three revolts against the post-independence Sri Lankan state were led by the Sinhala Karave or Tamil Karaiyar.
PLAYED THE CASTE CARD TO DENY FONSEKA THE MILITARY VOTE:
The feud between the President and the erstwhile General, while personal in nature, has now developed caste over tones. The President`s camp was uncertain of victory in the run-up to the polls. Reports suggest that it deftly and subtly played the caste card within the military to deny Fonseka the military vote. The President succeeded. In the ensuing post-poll purge of the military, the Karave have disproportionately been targeted. Other KARAVA GENERALS have been SACKED from the armed forces. KARAVE BUDDHIST MONKS had been arrested. Much to my chagrin, caste may still be alive in Sinhala Buddhist society, albeit as an undercurrent.
FONSEKA ARREST AND THE GOVIGAMA-KARAWE CASTE EQUATION IN SINHALA SOCIETY:
General Sarath Fonseka, despite what some consider to be his betrayal, is Sri Lanka`s first four star general. He had won one of Sri Lanka`s highest awards of military heroism - the `Rana Wickrama Padakkama`. India`s national security advisor had described Fonseka as the best army commander in the world. Its time he is set free.