Caste & Camp People In Jaffna: Landownership & Landlessness

By Thanges Paramsothy

Thanges Paramsothy

The issues confronting the Tamil IDPs in Jaffna have not been resolved for the last twenty-five years mainly due to the continuing presence of the so-called “High Security Zones” (“HSZs”) created by the Sri Lankan state and its forces. Tamils who were displaced from their lands of origin such as Palaali, Myliddy, Thaiyiddy and Kangesanthurai during the internal armed conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan state have not yet been resettled in their lands even after more than six years from the brutal end of the war.

Before going to discuss the caste and land issues of the IDPs living in IDP camps, a brief classification of the displaced people from the northernmost costal parts of Jaffna would be useful to get an overall picture of the IDP population in Jaffna. Those who were evicted can be broadly divided into four categories. The first group includes those who have been living in the IDP camps established in the Valikaamam and Vadamaraadchi regions following their displacement in 1990. The second group comprises those who are living with their friends and relatives. The third group has managed to buy land and built their own houses in Jaffna and elsewhere in Sri Lanka. A substantial number of individuals and families who make up the fourth group have migrated overseas following their internal displacement. In this piece, I discuss the challenges facing those who remain in the 32 IDP camps in Jaffna.

The IDPs living in the camps face a number of problems in their everyday lives. Poor infrastructure facilities, limited privacy, lack of employment, poverty, limited access to land, water and places of worship, the social stigma of living as IDPs for many long years in the IDP camps and so on can be listed as some of the issues that they face in their day-to-day lives. I do not look at all these issues in this piece. Limited or no access to land is one of the core issues that need to be resolved for any betterment to happen in the lives of these IDPs. Landlessness has indeed created other problems so that I call it a core issue.

A total of 32 IDP camps are now located across seven Divisional Secretariat (DS) Divisions in the Jaffna peninsula. According to the data collected by these DS offices in Jaffna, as of November 2015, approximately 11,500 families (38,500 individuals) have been identified as IDPs. The total number of families remaining in these 32 camps is approximately 1,158 (4,238 individuals).

Caste and Camp IDPs

Information pertaining to the caste composition of the people who live in the 32 IDP camps was collected in order to understand the correlation between landownership and caste. Surprisingly, certain caste groups, rather than a mixture of different caste groups, are predominantly present in all these IDP camps. Of the 32 IDP camps located in the Thellippalai, Uduvil, Sandilippai, Koppai, Nallur, Karaveddy and Point Pedro DS divisions, the inhabitants of 25 camps predominantly belong to three oppressed caste groups namely Nalavar, Pallar and Paraiyar, who were respectively known as today tappers, agricultural labours/toddy tappers and funeral drummers/cleaners. The remaining 6 IDP camps in the Point Pedro DS division only consist of Karaiyar, traditionally known as fishermen. However, it is well known that the individuals from these caste groups now do different occupations without limiting themselves to their traditional caste-based occupations. It is much difficult to decide one’s caste background based on their employment in today’s Jaffna, as each individual belonging to the different caste groups does various jobs after completing his or her higher education and obtaining professional qualifications.

Photo: by Thanges Paramsothy, an IDP camp in Jaffna affected by the recent flood

A recent report titled “Nilamum Naangalum (land and we): Understanding Post-war Land Issues in Northern Sri Lanka” published by the Maatram Foundation in November 2015 identified caste as a cross cutting issue affecting land. However, the impact of caste on people’s access to land is discussed only briefly in this report. The report fails to offer a nuanced analysis of the caste dynamics as they relate to people’s ownership of and/or access to land in Jaffna. There are a number of reasons why the displaced people belonging to only certain caste groups (continue to) live in the IDP camps whereas those coming from dominant caste groups like the Vellalar and other wealthy people have managed to have their own shelters in Jaffna or moved to other parts of Sri Lanka or migrated overseas using their economic wherewithal, professional qualifications and social capital without having to living in the camps with minimum facilities, limited privacy and the stigma attached to such conditions of existence.

Firstly, the oppressed castes generally did not own lands in Jaffna or other parts of Sri Lanka except their ancestral landholdings. Most of them are economically poor to buy lands or build their houses elsewhere in Jaffna. Once they were evicted from their lands, they are unable to create separate shelters, as other relatively wealthy and dominant caste groups do. Their survival depends largely on the subsidies provided by the government and the NGOs. Secondly, most of the oppressed caste groups did not have networks outside their own community. As a result, they find it difficult to move out of the welfare centres (camps).

Thirdly, each caste group in Jaffna, even after the repeated displacements, shows a keen desire to live near or with members of their own caste group. Even though the caste geography of Jaffna and its villages was in a flux during the conflict and the disasters and due to the overseas migration of oppressed castes and the formation of “new middle class” in the midst of civil war in Jaffna, the people have managed to set up separate caste-marked territories excluding other caste groups during their long-term stay outside their lands of origin. In other words, in post-war/post-displacement Jaffna, one observes the re-territorialisation of old caste boundaries in host locations perhaps with small-scale differences and adjustments. Most of the oppressed caste groups do not have the social and economic capital necessary to escape the armed conflict and the political violence. All these reasons forced oppressed caste communities to live in the IDP camps. Even though the IDPs living in the camps developed links with their host community in Jaffna overtime, they have been systematically discriminated against when it comes to issues like access to land, temples and places of worship, water and employment due to their socially constructed caste status and the competition among different caste groups over the limited resources available in the region.

Camp People as Visible IDPs

As indicated at the beginning, the IDPs can be categorised into a number of groups on the basis of their relationship to their residential arrangements. All these IDPs except the people living in the camps are not visible. The only visible IDPs are the ones occupying the camps and have been residing consistently in the same places for the last two and half decades. They are presented as one of the most vulnerable sections of the community at every local and parliamentary election. They are also the people who have often been portrayed as the people badly hit by presence of the “HSZs” in the representations made by the Tamil political and civil leaders to the international community and humanitarian organisations. For example, when the Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron visited Jaffna, he was taken to one of these IDP camps. When the Tamil media and political discourses present these IDPs in the camps as one of the communities rendered acutely vulnerable by the war, they hardly mention the ways in which the caste identities of the IDPs have compounded and exacerbated their social, economic and cultural hardships resulting from the war and the displacement.

In contrast, the Sri Lankan forces on a number of occasions attempted to relocate the camp people in different areas in Jaffna in order to reduce the amount of IDPs. However, their attempts repeatedly failed due to the unwillingness on the part of the IDPs to move to other places for a number of reasons. Uncultivable land, lack of infrastructure and the long distance between the proposed settlements and their work places are some reasons detailed by the inmates of the camps in Jaffna for not accepting the offer made by the government and its forces. The state attempts time and again to reduce the number of IDPs in a camp rather than taking steps to solve the long-term problem of landlessness, which poses a challenge to their physical and social existence as individuals and communities.

While the Tamil political leaders attempt to use the people who are living in the camps to regain the lands occupied by the forces in the name of “HSZs,” the government and its forces try to reduce the number of visible (camp) IDPs without releasing the people’s lands in “HSZ” for their use. Both parties have failed to understand the complex socio-economic forces undergirding the landlessness of the camp people and to offer a permanent solution to their demands for land and resettlement. The data, which was collected from the DS offices, show that a substantial number of camp (oppressed caste) residents do not own land either in the “HSZs” or elsewhere in Jaffna.

Land Ownership and Landlessness

A large portion of the private land in the “HSZs” is owned by the Vellalar caste and other affluent sections of the community rather than people living in the IDP camps. The IDPs in the camps who have been living away from their ancestral landholdings of minuscular size for the past twenty-five years have become absolutely landless due to the war and the displacements. A new generation of this community has come of age without ever witnessing their parents or grandparents owning land. A number of young people and new families experience a sense of powerlessness as they have no claim over any land. According to the data collected as of November 2015 from the DS offices in Jaffna, there are approximately 1,158 families living in the IDP camps. Nearly 869 families out of the total 1,158 do not own land either in “HSZs” or elsewhere in Jaffna.

Photo: by Thanges Paramsothy, Thalsevana Holiday Resort built in “HSZs” in the northern costal Jaffna called Kangesanthurai

The data show that they are going to remain in the same places with minimum facilities and limited privacy, even if the “HSZs” are dismantled and the land is released for the use of the civilians. Most of the camp people who have been used and displayed as the victims of state aided discrimination against the Tamil community by Tamil nationalist actors are not going to be the direct beneficiaries of the moves to reclaim land from the “HSZs.” There are many housing projects underway for the war-affected people following the end of the civil war. The fundamental criterion used for granting financial support under these housing schemes is that the beneficiaries should have a piece of land in their name. If they do not own land, they will not be eligible for getting financial support to build houses. As most of the war-affected IDPs in the camps continue to live as landless people, they are also going to be homeless in their own country even when the “HSZs” are released for the use of the people in the North.

In order to address the issue of the landlessness of the (oppressed caste) people in the IDP camps, a constructive policy needs to be developed. The processes of distributing land for the war-affected, landless Tamil people in the North and the efforts to find them homes and shelter should recognize the historical injustice the oppressed caste communities faced and continue to face in pre and post-war Jaffna. Land and resettlement policies that fail to take into consideration the manner in which the caste-marked political economy of Jaffna shapes the individual and collective social existence of the oppressed caste groups are bound to fail and would deepen the social and economic inequalities within the Tamil community in the North along caste lines.

*Thanges Paramsothy – PhD Research Student in Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, University of East London, United Kingdom

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