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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby > Chetties and Bharatha are ‘ethnic groups’ in 2001 census questionnaire

Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby

Chetties and Bharatha are ‘ethnic groups’ in 2001 census questionnaire
Northeastern Herald, 11  October  2002

To the best of my knowledge and belief, except for a reference made in one of the Sunday editions of the Tamil paper Thinakkural during the enumeration weeks of Census 2001, the director, Census and Statistics has run away with a major national exercise with very questionable categorisations.

In the questionnaire given to the enumerators for taking the count of the people, he has given the following breakdown for the ethnic groupings in the country - Sinhalese, Sri Lanka Tamil, Indian Tamil, Sri Lanka Moor, Burgher, Malay, Sri Lankan Chetty, Bharatha and other.I am not referring here to the taking away of the colonialist categorization, which divided the Sinhalese into Kandyan and Low Country (had it been removed half a century ago it have would saved a lot of embarrassment for the Low Country elite in Colombo at the time) nor am I referring to the omission of the category of ‘Indian Muslim’ which constituted a substantial number earlier.

There has been a continuous history of inner tensions between the Sri Lankan Moors and the Indian Muslims. I do not know what the director, census and statistics thinks about how the Indian Muslims were absorbed into the general Sri Lankan population. Here, I am also not quarrelling with the nomenclature (though I should really be doing so) ‘Indian Tamil’, the legally accepted term is ‘Tamil of Indian Origin’). It is morally and politically wrong to continue to call this group Indian Tamil after granting them full citizenship in this country.

What I want to really raise here is the two new categories called ‘Sri Lanka Chetty’ and ‘Bhratha.’

Let us take the category ‘Sri Lanka Chetty’ first.Chetty in Tamil is a caste name derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sreshtin.’ Chetty is not a Sinhala caste. It is one of the most influential castes in Tamil Nadu. In fact there are a number of Chetty subcastes there.

In Sri Lanka, the Chetties are a homogenous caste group. There has been Chetty group in Jaffna, which over the years intermixed with the Vellalas so much so that there is sub-caste among them known as Chetty Vellalas. (One of Arumuga Navalar’s sisters was married to a Chetty Vellala. Among the Mukkuvas of Batticaloa too there is a matri-clan called Chetty Kudi. (In Tamil the word Kudi means clan).

Generally speaking the Chettiyars seem to have come from Tamil Nadu and were engaged in commercial and financing activities in Sri Lanka. Evidently at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, the coastal trade was largely in their hands. Most of them converted to Catholicism unlike the castemen in Tamil Nadu or Jaffna. Most of them continued to be Catholics even under Dutch and British rule; a few Chetty families like the Ondaatje’s became part of the Dutch Reformed Church. (The presence of a branch of the Ondaatje family in Batticaloa is to this day testified to by the place name Ondaatje Madam)

The Tamilness of this coastal Chetties was not in doubt till the middle of the 19th century when Simon Casie Chitty was nominated a member of the Legislative Council. More important is the fact that Casie Chetty was the first literary historian of Tamil in English (The Tamil Plutarch. 1857) He was also the author of the ‘Castes among Tamils of Ceylon.’

Perhaps the word Chetty in its westernised form became Chitty thus becoming the family name for many illustrious citizens of this country. Over the years their exclusiveness led them to be called the Colombo Chetties and their influence within the Colombo Municipality is retained by the road name ‘New Chetty Street.’ It also must be added here that Puttalam was the chief centre of the Colombo Chetties and there was a substantial population of Tamils until recently. Now of course they have dwindled in numbers and have become an insignificant minority.

Now the question is whom does the director, Census and Statistics, refer to as the Sri Lankan Chetties? Is this a polite way of giving an all-island status to the Colombo Chetties? Does the director, Census and Statistics, expect the few extant Chetty families in Jaffna also to fill in his questionnaire as Sri Lankan Chetties? I am sure the Chitties would be aghast!

Is it right on the part of the director, Census and Statistics, to introduce such caste categories as ethnic groups of Sri Lanka? The worst is yet to come.The Bharathas too are now classified by him as an ‘ethnos’- a group having distinguishable ethnic characteristics.There are two important Bharatha groups in Sri Lanka. One is the group of sea-faring families residing from around Chilaw down to Colombo. There is evidence that there had been Bharatha settlements up to Kalutara in the Colonial period.

Besides these indigenised littoral connected Bharathas, there also a handful of Bharathas in the Colombo Municipality who settled during the British rule, especially to work in the Colombo harbour. In fact the area opposite St. Anthony’s Church in Kotahena, there was a heavy concentration of Bharathas who had been maintaining close family relations with their caste group in Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu.

The word Parathar and its variant Parathavar have been in usage in Tamil from the earliest period. The most ancient of Tamil literature, the Sangam anthology refers to them as a people from the maritime regions (Neithal). They are depicted as traders and fishermen in the Sangam classics.It is possible that as fishermen they were also interested in pearl diving which should explain their presence upto the northwestern shores of Sri Lanka, some place names of which like Silavathurai and Silapham are reminiscent of Muthusalapham which in Tamil means pearl oyster beds.

In the late medieval, pre-western period, the pearl fishery was controlled by Muslim traders. The Muslims employed the Parathavar mainly as their Pearl divers. Scholars like A. Sivasubramanian have shown how the Parathavar who were exploited by their Muslim masters converted enmasse to Catholicism in the 16th century. It is quite possible that the large number of them who came to settle on the northwestern coast were already Catholic.

The fact that these Bharathas continued to practice their religion and speak their mother tongue is testified to by the number Tamil schools in the predominantly Catholic places of the Bharathas.

From the late 20’s there has been a slow process of Sinhalisation among them led by the Catholic Church itself. By the sixties and seventies the place of Tamil among the Catholics of the western and northwestern coast was severely dented. Only the Hindu coastal peoples in places such as Muneeswaram and Udappu retained their Tamilness amid this process of Sinhalaisation.

This has been a touchy, sensitive point – how are the Bharathas to be described in terms of the demography of this country, Tamils or Sinhalese? Those Bharathas who had to choose Sinhala as their medium of education on the western and northwestern coast became increasingly embarrassed to identify themselves as Tamils. Behind this language switch lies the interesting history of how the Roman Catholic Church was chiefly instrumental in promoting the Sinhalisation of the Tamil speaking Bharathas of the western and northwestern coast.

Without going any further into this history of the alienation of the Bharathas from the Tamils, let us return to the question of categorising Bharathas as an ethnic group of Sri Lanka.

Forgetting for a moment their inerasable Tamil origins, let us pose the pertinent question why are the Barathas fighting shy of calling themselves Sinhalese?It is unfair by the Sinhala language to call it their mother tongue and yet desist referring to themselves as Sinhalese.

The director of Census and Statistics has evidently stepped in (with all respect to him) where the angels fear to tread. The political point should be made clear here. We should try to find out that in the overall census whose numerical strength is affected by these two newly introduced categories? My problem is not so much with the categorisation itself because there have been many cultural ‘switchings’ in Sri Lanka in recent Sri Lankan history. For example, the process by which Kataragama lost its Hindu identity.

The question is who ordered this categorisation in the census? And on what historical authority?Extending this logic, how would the Sinhalese feel if tomorrow the Karawas or the Salagamas persuade the powers that be that they should be categorised as a separate ethnic group? To me, at the age of seventy, this administrative intrusion into the socio-political ……………..We have to take this as yet another one in the long list of bureaucratic invasions into minority rights. What is interesting here is that Tamil MPs who should keep themselves informed of developments like this one are blissfully ignorant.

Whether it is a case of making Bharathas a separate ethnic group or adding Haguranketha to the Nuwara Eliya district to increase Sinhala strength there, Tamil Parliamentarians are tight lipped for after all if you want to be in the good books of a minister or a government these are not things to speak of. “Oh Lord Forgive them for they do not know what they do”.


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