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Home > Tamil Diaspora - a Trans State Nation > Malaysia > Culture and Economy: Tamils on the Plantation Frontier in Malaysia Revisited, 1998/99

Tamils - a Trans State Nation: Malaysia

Culture and Economy: Tamils on the Plantation Frontier
in Malaysia Revisited, 1998/99

Ravindra K. Jain, Centre for the Study of Social Systems,
Jawaharlal Nehru University  New Delhi, April 2000   [ Full Text of Paper in PDF]

From the Preface Observations by Prof. J. A. Barnes Ravindra K. Jain - On the Caste War

From the Preface:

This paper is based on a restudy during December 1998 to March 1999 in the same location and among the same Tamilian people as my initial field investigation in Malaysia (then the Federation of Malaya) in 1962 - 63. The unit that I studied originally carried the pseudonym of ‘Pal Melayu’. It was a large rubber estate on the west coast of Malaya owned by a European company, situated about 35 kilometers from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. In this paper I use the same name, Pal Melayu, for the unit of my original investigation. But in deference to the wishes of my respondents during the restudy I refer to the region where Pal Melayu is located by the real names of the towns - Kuala Selangor (earlier called ‘Bunga Raya’), Batang Berjuntai (earlier called ‘Bintang Emas’) and Bukit Rotan (earlier called ‘Baku Baku’). Further more, unlike in the earlier publication, I use real names rather than pseudonyms for all the persons referred to in this text.

In order to summarize the main findings of the original study I can do no better than to reproduce the following observations by Prof. J. A. Barnes from his Foreword to my monograph, South Indians on the Plantation Frontier in Malaya, Yale University Press, New Haven & London; University of Malaya Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1970:  

Observations by Prof. J. A. Barnes -

Ravindra Jain's book is about Indians who went from South India to Malaya to work, and about their children who were born there and who are now Malaysian citizens, though still identifying themselves as Indians. If he had followed the established tradition in studies of this kind, Jain might have written mainly about the extent to which these migrants have retained their Indian characteristics or acquired Malaysian qualities, or about relations between Indian migrants and their Malay and Chinese neighbours in Malaysia. Instead, he tackles his data in a different way. He concentrates his attention on relations among Indians themselves in a typical Malaysian setting. Following the pattern of intensive - rather than extensive-inquiry characteristic of social anthropology, he analyses in detail the changing structure of social life on one rubber plantation, Pal Melayu, spanning a period of seventy years. He sees the plantation as a ‘total’ institution, within which Indian labourers not only produce rubber for export but also grow up, marry, save and consume, quarrel and cooperate, and die.

Yet the plantation is not a segregated enclave isolated from the rest of the world. The rise and fall of British colonialism, the Japanese occupation and the Emergency, and increasingly the development of Indian and Malaysian nationalism all impinge on the structure of plantation society, while the fluctuating price of rubber on the world market precariously provides the reason for its existence. The hierarchical organization headed by the European plantation manager and designed for the efficient production of rubber is contrasted with the partially egalitarian community system, which regulates most activities ‘off’ work. The same individuals have places in both systems, and Jain skillfully shows how the two systems subtly influence each other.

A particularly interesting part of his analysis deals with the several kinds of credit arrangements found in the community. The Tamil laborers are proletarians, not peasants, who have no fixed property in land or houses and who sell their labor in a very restricted market. Inelastic earning capacity has to be matched to erratically varying demands for consumption goods and presentations by recourse to the pawnshop and to circulating credits unions. Whereas in India social intercourse often tends to become highly politicized, here in Pal Melayu Indian social activity is characteristically monetized. As Jain says, ‘The rich are those who not only work for money but also know how to make money work for them.’ Their comparative wealth comes not from a higher income but from using their income more effectively. Yet the rich men are rubber tappers earning the same modest wages as their fellows.

Two distinctive features of Pal Melayu society should be noted. Women are employed in rubber production as well as men, and we might expect that their earning capacity would give Pal Melayu women a greater degree of social autonomy than their sisters enjoy in India. In fact, they are still in a significantly subordinate position, for the management prefers to pay the wages of all the members of a household to its male head. Thus although a young wife is to a great extent free of that dominance by her mother-in-law which she would experience in India, she is still under the control of her husband. If she lacks male kinsfolk to defend her interests, as many migrant women do, then however much she earns she is in a defenseless position. Likewise young men who may earn as much as their fathers are still dependent on them at Pal Melayu for assistance in meeting the expenses of marriage. Thus these proletarians, unencumbered by land and other forms of inheritable property, and working as separate and interchangeable laborers in rubber production, are nevertheless enmeshed in a network of cross-sex and crossgeneration ties of obligation and dependence.

The second special feature is that Indian workers at Pal Melayu, as at other rubber plantations in western Malaysia, are able to maintain close ties with their villages of origin in south India. They are therefore not necessarily proletarians in perpetuity, for their favorite form of capital investment is in land in India. There is continual movement back and forth between India and Malaysia, and some married couples divide their citizenship so as to maintain a sure foothold in both countries. Despite the comparative poverty of rural India, many of the older laborers still regard it as their true home, to which they hope to return permanently. On the other hand, most of the young people who have lived all their lives in Malaya are less attracted to India, and yet are not at all eager to explore the possibilities of Malaysia outside the protective and familiar environment of the plantation. The relative proximity of India has meant that the formation of an autonomous Indian overseas community, as for example has occurred in Fiji and Guyana, has been delayed in Malaysia. Yet it is clear that the historical sequence of structural changes discussed by Jain did not end abruptly with the achievement of Malayan independence and that further adjustments in plantation society lie ahead.  


Ravindra K. Jainn On the Caste War -

"There is a caste war going on among Indians in Malaysia. Let me delineate the general process and recent history. The estates had only non-Brahmins & Adi-Dravidas and no Brahmins. The companies employing Indian partly through design and partly as a fall-out of recruiting procedures let the status quo of Indian villages be here, viz., the non-Brahmin and Adi-Dravida division was firmly entrenched and it helped the management to run the estate. The Vanniar as "dominant caste" and Adi-Dravidas as the "subordinate castes" as I wrote in my 1970 book described the situation correctly. That caste was increasingly an aspect of culture rather than of social stratification per se was broadly true of the isolated and insulated circumstances of estate living.

With the post 1969 changes and the increasingly powerful stream of Indians marching out of the estates the "djinni was freed from the bottle". Opportunities were there for any or every of the Tamilian castes for the taking, though of course because of the environment the non-Brahmins had a head-start compared to the Adi-Dravidas. But the situation has rapidly changed over the 1980s and 90s. Of course there has been economic mobility across the board for estate Indians. But there has also been important socio-economic mobility. The earlier caste-based kindred-around-kanganies - of the non-Brahmins & the Paraiyans-have broken down and the former estate population has become economically & geographically mobile as well as scattered. The ‘head-start' by the non-Brahmins of which we spoke earlier is increasingly being neutralized in the sense that, in the new circumstances, the Adi-Dravidas have caught up or are very much in the process of catching up.

What happens to the culture of caste in this context is extremely instructive. It would be a triviality to say that the Adi-Dravidas have ‘Sanskritized'. The latter of the Indian variety just does not fit. For one thing, the Adi-Dravidas have made a massive inroad into the Tamilian ritual life if not actually appropriated it. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that the non-Brahmans in strictly public religious (ritual & temple) terms are existing at the sufferance of the culturally mobile and high profile Adi Dravidas. The entire history and present organization of the Thandayudapani temple in Batang Berjuntai epitomizes that process. While the non-Brahmins have concentrated on entrepreneurship basically in the economic sense, the cultural entrepreneurship of Adi Dravidas has flourished and taken a number of varied forms. On the one hand, they have become managers of the ritualistic and social (e.g. marriage registration) functions of the new temple, on the other hand, teachers of their castes-themselves educated ones like Rajagopal - have undertaken in a manipulative and entrepreneurial way to `motivate' the youth (especially children) of their own caste but with an eye on individual mobility, popularity and leadership. The ideological and political umbrella under which this upwardly mobile Adi-Dravida category is functioning is provided squarely by Dravidian Tamilian ideology, rhetoric and organization. I

In this respect the understanding between Muniandy (temple chairman), Nallathamby and Parasuraman (DMK spokesperson) and Rajagopal (ambitious teacher of the "paradigm shift" fame) is remarkable. The rhetoric and vanity of Muniandy is worth documenting. He discusses the Vanniars as Telugu refugees (rather than self-claimed rulers) in Tamil Naduthe titles Reddi, Naicker, Naidu etc. he says are all from the Telegu country. The real Tamilians are the Adi-Dravidas. While on the one hand, he connects himself up with Tamilnadu, he also speaks of the earlier hauteur of the Ceylon (Jaffna) Tamils against Indian Tamilians (especially the lower castes) and the present 180 degree turn which impels the Jaffna Tamils to show solidarity with their Indian counterparts.

Many are the stories of the superciliary attitudes of the Ceylon Tamils (cf. Rajakrishnan alluding to their Ceylonese head of the department Tilagavathi giving a public statement that Indian Tamil culture was lower than Ceylon Tamil one because the former were of "lower castes" which she later retracted by saying that she had said & meant 'clan' rather than ‘caste'.) but the non-Dravidas seem to have taken their revenge on the Ceylon Tamils. According to Muniandy in Colombo at the height of Sinhalese-Jaffna Tamil conflict the former were between back (with long steel pipes) by a combination of Malaylees, Singhs, Telugus and Tamils (meaning Indian Tamils again mainly Adi-Dravida) who came to their rescue. The Sinhalese raped and ravished the Jaffna Tamil and thus (to the (great vicarious satisfaction of Muniandy) destroyed the hypocritical and supercilious `purity' of their women. It was then that revenge had been taken and a new solidarity commenced between the Ceylon Tamils and the Indians. It is in this context that Prabhakaran has proved himself to be a real Tamil-a hero whose tapes are popular among the Dravidian Tamils, books are there and portraits garlanded. In the same vein, Muniandy kept on praising and extolling Ambedkar. (I did not deliberately mention Pandithan because that would be embroiled in local politics rather than of meta-narrative or the Myth, which was the centrepoint of Muniandy's rhetoric).

The element of so-called desanskritized sanskritization in Muniandy's knowledge system is a claim to the intricate knowledge of the caste system. Even the Parayans, he said, were divided into eight or nine hierarchical castes (what Rajagopal called ‘subcastes') Talis of various castes differed. (‘Did I know?’ - the rhetorical question he asked me.) They had got a gurukkal from India on hire. They called him gurukkal rather than the inferior term pusari (animal slaughter associated) as in North India. In other words, they were practicing a Tamilian Great Tradition superior to the practices of North Indian or the northern-ward Telugus who had pretended to be rulers of the Tamils. Muniandy further said that though he knew about all the intricacies and the true origins of the caste system, he would not be so foolish as to mention these in public. Mentioning all this caste stuff in public "would lead to a big fight".

Muniandy openly confessed that as marriage registrar he knew that inter-caste marriages were taking place galore. He slept over problem-marriages (pregnancies before marriage especially of inter caste unions). Also the stigma of caste did not die out completely. Women of high caste married to low caste men when they reached the age of 35-45 (when the man was becoming other worldly they other still enjoyed health and youth superior to their husbands. They looked down upon the latter, and even told their children how their father was of a lower caste then herself.

This is also the right place to mention what Aiyappu (himself from Andhra & this claiming to be an ‘outsider' like me) theorized about the mixed marriages taking place. According to him the origin of mixed marriages (especially hypogamous ones) lay in the looseness of estate life where kanganies, conductors and even European managers had liaisons with married Tamil women & provided bastards. The latter were told about their true parentage by the mothers who thus became ‘rebels' and started considering them to be the equals or even superior to the so-called ‘pure' non-Brahmans. This "infusion of the alien seed" had given rise to the great increase in mixed marriages, elopements and flouting of caste rules in marriages.

It is interesting to note the largely defensive and economic entrepreneurial (as opposed to cultural entrepreneurial) position taken by non-Brahmins like Ganesan and his brother Thangavelu) The latter is a bit reconciled though the former has had sallies in politics and in religion but continues to have an uneasy relationship with aggressive Dravidian Tamilism. (Notice that none of the Adi-Dravidian temple committee members came to my so-called "dialogue" in the temple arranged by Ganesan and how the only person of that category who came was Rajgopal and was all the time challenging the Mahanandram people and their activities emphasizing the lack of unity).

Another point to note is that Muniandy type aggressive Tamilism helps him interact interethnically. As representative of ‘true' Indian type he is able to hold his own with Malays and Chinese and show down the so-called Indian Tamil of the high caste, grasping, greedy ambience. ‘Holier than thou', ‘purer than pure'. Fighting and partly succeeding in higher public credibility in an inter-ethnic context. For the Indian elites the best policy is to play down caste in public (though use it fully in private-among themselves).

While caste as the embodiment of social stratification does not play a dominant role among Tamilians in Malaysia, the caste ascription to groups by birth and the practice, by and large, of caste or even sub-caste endogamy is attributed to kinship, viz; to sondakarar status among those who intermarry and express solidarity as kindred-style quasi-groups and networks. In this respect the situation of Tamilians radiating spatially from Pal Melayu is similar to what Yalman has called ‘micro-caste kindred' in Sri Lanka (Yalman 1967). Here the elementary structures of kinship among Malaysian Tamils produce what may be described as ‘conservative' social structure when the verb ‘to conserve' is being used in a positive sense.

This culture of caste premised on Tamil kinship (and affinity) is an aspect of evolutionary trend in the Pal Melayu region. To give a concrete instance, the catering business of Ganesan is largely channeled along the lines of kindred based networks in localities such as Batang Berjuntai itself, the various tamans fronting the estates of the Pal Melayu region and extending up to Rawang. The modernizing conversion of older puberty ceremonies for girls (tiratti) into 21st birthday celebrations common among all ex estate workers has meant a big boost for Ganesan's catering business. Similarly, the attenuation of purity/impurity considerations coexisting with the bonus of esteem attached to a non-Brahman caterer like Ganesan during celebration in the Adi-Dravida households has meant a certain twisting of the arms of an orthodox Hindu like Ganesan in the direction of reluctant, though avid (because profitable), extension of business activities among the dalits. The sentiment of kinship and endogamy is strong among economic entrepreneurs like Ganesan although the next generation of even non-Brahman parents openly state their perception that caste endogamy and hypergamy etc. are doomed to extinction.  


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