The Legacy of Dominic Jeeva

by Yalini Dream and Sajeevan Jeyakanthan

This piece was first published by The Blueprint. It is republished by Dalit History Month with permission.

Image via தேவThasan

“Thuppakki nizhalil sathiyum marainththirukkirathu. Mariththuvidavillai.”

“Caste is hidden in the shadow of the gun. It has not died.”

- Dominic Jeeva

Dominic Jeeva, famously known as Malikai Jeeva, was a well-loved anti-caste activist and canonical figure from the leftist strand tradition of Sri Lankan Tamil literature known as ‘mutpoku ilakkiyam’ (progressive literature). Born into an oppressed-caste among the five major oppressed and exploited caste groups collectively called the Panchamars, Dominic Jeeva grew up acutely aware of caste-based violence and abuse.

In 1927, the year Dominic Jeeva was born, the Forum for Depressed Class Tamil Labourers was formed to protest the violently enforced prohibitions and untouchability imposed on Panchamars. Through a hard fought campaign, the forum successfully defeated caste discrimination measures that forced Panchamar children to sit on the floor in schools segregated from children of other castes who sat on benches. In response to this historic win, dominant caste Vellalars (the Saiva-Christian Vellalar in Sri Lankan Tamil society are a dominant land-holding caste) burned down thirteen schools that implemented the new regulation allowing Panchamar children to sit on benches.

As Dominic Jeeva found conservative Jaffna Tamil society’s caste apartheid increasingly unbearable, he began writing about the experiences of Panchamars and joined the Northern Sri Lanka Minority Tamil Mahasaba helping launch The Teashop Entry Movement and The Temple Entry Movement. The Minority Tamil Mahasaba launched campaigns for reservations, the rights of all “outcastes,” and campaigns against anti- Panchamar prohibitions. In 1968, Dominic Jeeva powerfully stood up against the elite Vellalar politician and Tamil Nationalist C. Suntharalingam at the famous Maviddapuram Temple entry protest as C. Suntharalingam led a gang of 200 Vellalars, beating Panchamar peoples who tried to enter the temple with sticks.

Dominic Jeeva also made writing his weapon. His corpus began in the 1950s and explored the systemic casteism deep within Tamil society. His subsequent rise to recognition and fame paved a way for him to represent and record Panchamar life experiences, struggles, and aspirations. He is also known for establishing Malikai Publishing House in 1986 and editing the Malikai Literary Journal which is in its 55th year. Dominic Jeeva’s Malikai magazine is also known as a principal platform for translating leftist Sinhala literature facilitating discourse for a Tamil audience.

The struggle for liberation

As we reflect on the legacy of Dominic Jeeva’s life that powerfully spanned almost a century, we ask what history can teach us about achieving freedom for Panchamar, Dalit, and other outcast peoples of Sri Lanka, especially Panchamar and Dalit women and trans people facing multiple violent, abusive, and life threatening forces.

How can lifting up the history of anti-caste movements and the written work of Dominic Jeeva, K.Daniel, N.K.Raghunathan, Nandini Xavier, Thenniyan, and the rich history of Panchamar and other anti-caste literature — going as far back to Neelakandan Oru Sathi Vellalan by Idaikaadar in 1925 or more recently the work of Vehujanan (C.K.Senthilvel / சி.கா.செந்தில்வேல்) and Iravana (N.Raveendran / ந.ரவீந்திரன்) such as Struggles Against Casteism In Sri Lanka (இலங்கையில் சாதியமும் அதற்கெதிரான போராட்டங்களும்) — support the revitalization of anti-caste consciousness and movements in the North and East of Sri Lanka?

A courageous anti-caste movement began in 1910 through the North-East Workers’ Union and the fight for Jacob Gandi, the first Dalit student’s entry at Vaddukoddai College. It is because of the hard fought and strategic anti-caste movements that so many of the ostentatious bigoted prohibitions against Panchamar peoples were curtailed.

Dominic Jeeva and the Minority Tamil Mahasaba (along with Movement for the annihilation of Untouchability தீண்டாமை ஒழிப்பு இயக்கம்) were deeply invested in coalition building and joining forces with other oppressed and outcast peoples. As a result, the Muslim teashops in Jaffna were the first to permit entry to Panchamar peoples. Dominic Jeeva also spoke out against C. Suntharlingam’s staunch anti-Christian stance and continuously worked to forge alliances with working class peoples across caste and ethnicity. Participants and supporters of the Temple Entry movements’ hunger strikes and demonstrations included other oppressed peoples and appealed to a greater sense of justice and revolution amongst the wider population.

In the background, an increasingly venomous Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism spurred a series of anti-Tamil pogroms and policies; the progress and stability of these aforementioned coalitions came under pressure amidst this tumultuous terrain of a wider ethnic conflict.

Yet when Tamil peoples united under Tamil Nationalism to fight the violence of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism, many argue that the liberation of Panchamar, Dalit, and outcast people were subsumed by a Tamil Nationalism that failed to address the concerns of Panchamar revolutionaries. Some argue that the revolutionary fervor of anti-caste leftists such as Dominic Jeeva simultaneously catalyzed the revolutionary energy of Tamil Nationalism while being co-opted by it.

How is true unity and solidarity forged?

The majority of those that died during the 30 year “struggle for Tamil Liberation” in Sri Lanka were Panchamar and Malaiyaha Tamils. Representing the most displaced social group during and after the war amongst Tamils. Where oppressor caste groups were able to use networks to get out of internal displacement camps or the country, Panchamars and Malaiyaha Tamils had far less options.

Caste-based physical and sexual violence, labor exploitation, predatory lending, discrimination, well/water access, work with dignity, access to promotions, education, literacy, health, infrastructure (such as access to drainage systems, public transportation, electricity) and landlessness are some of the issues Tamil Panchamar and Malaiyaha Dalit people still contend with. Women and trans Panchamar and Dalit people are particularly impacted by these issues. The government of Sri Lanka and mainstream media outlets do not monitor caste issues and there are no reservation programs in place such as those in India. Caste-ignorant state policies combined with Tamil and Sinhala politicians informed by rival-nationalist perspectives contribute to underlying factors limiting substantial social change.

Despite many Panchamars having supported Tamil Nationalism, the ideology remains firmly in the hands of the Vellalar from its conception until now. It demands political conformity in order to unify Tamils across divisions and seeing Panchamar politicians in any Tamil Nationalist parties is extremely rare.

Since the late 1970s, the dominant Tamil national liberation movement and authoritarian practices by the LTTE closed up spaces for democratic organisations and people to independently fight against caste oppression. Presently, the situation is changing and avenues are slowly opening up to address caste based violence and organise towards the annihilation of caste.

How can the vital work of the Minority Tamils Mahasaba (சிறுபான்மைத் தமிழர் மகாசபை) and Ilankai Dalit Community Development Front (இலங்கை தலித் சமூக மேம்பாட்டு முன்னணி)/ Vadu gain greater support and recognition? What are the lessons that must be learned about how true unity and solidarity is forged? These are the questions that we need to answer in order to create a more hopeful future.

This article has been deeply informed by the vital work of Ilankai Dalit Community Development Front (இலங்கை தலித் சமூக மேம்பாட்டு முன்னணி).

Redefining the History of the Subcontinent through a Dalit lens. Participatory Community History Project