I am Still Tamil


“God made me and broke the mold.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The idea of “Tamil” as a singular identity is problematic. Many Tamils in the diaspora hold a dichotomous approach to what being Tamil means. This tends to create difficulties for more transcultural individuals with a Tamil upbringing.

Tamil identity can be distilled into a bipolar spectrum with core Tamils at one end and periphery Tamils at the other. The majority of Tamils do not fall at the extreme ends of this spectrum, but somewhere along the middle. However, what makes the question of Tamil identity divisive is the perceived construction of “us” and “them” in the Tamil community. In other words, there lies a socially constructed barrier between “core Tamils” and “periphery Tamils”, leading to an identity schism.

Why this is problematic is the impact of “core Tamils” judging “periphery Tamils” as outsiders and therefore not deserving of Tamil identity. The fallout is one of the periphery avoiding the core. Thus, the “core” identities never evolve or change. This stagnation of “core” identities becomes even more problematic when confronted with intermingling with other cultures.

The “core” Tamil identities are taken from the cultural commune. The term cultural commune was introduced by Castelles, a pioneer in identity politics, and embodies several characteristics. The primarily role of the cultural commune is to act as a dominant institution in which identity can be sought, and to reinforce the perception of identity. The cultural commune also acts as a refuge of solidarity among individuals that “protects against hostile, outside world” (Castells, 2010).

What this means to the Tamil commune is that the core identity reflects an identity that is aimed at being exclusionary by nature. Its protective nature allows only those who are “approved” to be associated with this identity. The subsequent society, in theory, will therefore be one of mutual respect and understanding.

What is missing from this notion of Tamil identity is the individual. As Tamil identity is reinforced through a “communal” understanding of what entails being “Tamil”, it is not up to the individual to change or alter the meaning. Long-standing traditions – particularly nationalism and religion – therefore become focal points of judgement. The end result is a community that rejects anyone that questions the commune’s perception despite that the commune’s perception is itself socially constructed.

This can explain why traditional Tamil society still holds many archaic views. The caste system is still prevalent. Tamil youth are expected to pursue very specific fields of study (science, law). Women are expected to behave as Victorian role models. Rape is seen as the woman’s fault as it brings shame to the family. These are just a few examples of values that have been part of the archaic construction of the Tamil commune but need to be reformed.

The periphery Tamil is characterized not by what they are, but by what they are not. They may have the ethnic makeup, the linguistic capacity, and may even believe in the religious doctrines that underpin the commune. Yet they are distinct in contrast to the core. You can easily notice these periphery Tamils on most university campuses. They are generally in non-traditional programs, associate with any ethnic group that is not Tamil, and most importantly are disgruntled and even offended by being associated with other Tamils.

While I do not have survey data to reflect this, several personal experiences with periphery Tamil individuals reflect this type of behaviour (and while they do not use this term it is implied through their behaviour). However, it is important to note that periphery is not mutually exclusive from core – they run along a spectrum that allows an individual to embody any combination of these two categories.

Those who fall in the middle of this identity spectrum can be considered moderate Tamils. Though their identity is underpinned by the commune, their personal decisions and ambitions are individualistic and not along the norms of the commune. An example would be a Tamil-Hindu girl that refrains from premarital relations while studying Comparative Politics.

We have thus far identified three categories of identity (core, moderate, periphery). The issue with the moderate identity comes from the lack of impact this identity has on the overall commune. The moderate identity will not alter the status quo and will be seen as an abnormality in the system. As their identity still adheres to socially constructed premises of what constitutes a “Tamil”, they still reinforce this onto others. As a result, we still have the dichotomy of the core and periphery, with “moderates” as generally more “core” due to their passivity.

Now let us turn to the issue of modernizing. Generally, “core” individuals associate modernization as a negative concept as it entails a loss of one’s identity. However, the reality is the traditional commune appropriates a person’s individuality more so than the modernized commune. How often have you been confronted with the choice of appearing “not Tamil” through your actions, and thereby decided not to act on that choice? Your identity is imprisoned to adhere to specific characteristics of the commune – or risk not being associated with the commune.

From personal experience, I have found myself in several situations where my actions – which are a physical manifestation of my identity – have been interpreted by other Tamils as “not Tamil”. The issue is that the “core” perceives modernization as a loss of identity, without considering the hybrid nature of the Tamil commune and the modernization commune. By questioning the established Tamil commune, we seek to change the negative aspects of it.

As addressed earlier, these are issues that feel absurd in 2013. But we can hybridize this – eliminate the negative aspects of the commune, maintain the good, then add more good from the modernization. The problem then becomes who decides which aspects are good?

It can be solved by the “invisible hand” economic argument – the bad will not be enforced and thus disappear, while the good will persevere. Since the commune will lose its ability to reinforce social constructs through active manipulation of identity, we will therefore be able to integrate “periphery” and “core” in an inclusive manner that fosters greater cooperation, and ultimately a Tamil identity that will persevere.

Works Cited:
Castells, M. (2010). Communal Heavens: Identity and Meaning in the Network Society. Wiley-Blackwell.

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Sriram Pakeerathan

Born and raised in Norway, Sriram has since moved to Canada with his family. Currently enrolled at Wilfrid Laurier's Political Science honors program, Sriram's work revolve primarily around Global Governance, International Political Economy, as well as Comparative Political Theory.

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10 thoughts on “I am Still Tamil

  1. Great job writing such an impressive article! Your modern view on the much needed change in the identity of being a Tamil was very interesting and enjoyable to read.

  2. Although a very intersting article, it seems as though your analysis of the tamil diaspora is quite narrow in that its focused on your own experiences within a particular city. For example, is the situation similar in say diaspora populations in LA or Kuala Lumpur. One could further argue that the dicotomy you describe doesn’t even exist in Sri Lanka, esspecially not as a result of the the processes your describe.

  3. Although a very intersting article, it seems as though your analysis of the Tamil diaspora is quite narrow in that it is very focused on your own experiences – within a particular community (in a particular country). For example, is the situation similar in say diaspora populations in LA or Kuala Lumpur? Quite likely not.

    One could further argue that the dichotomy you describe is inherent within all communities – there is always some who are more traditional while there are those who are more progressive. In fact, this is not only the case for the diaspora community but the tamil community in Sri Lanka itself. Nor is this a new phenomenon but one that has existed for time immemorial.

    Further the idea that these two ‘wings’ who simply think differently and have differing values will one day merge, or that such a merger is necessary is very much up for debate. Although you’ve provided anecdotal evidence wherein this divide has had seemingly negative consequences, whether or not this is pervasive in the entire Tamil diaspora, never-mind for all Tamils, remains unclear.

  4. I disagree, while I do not have any empirical data or have any experience with other diaspora populations, I am confident that the same type of social construction exists in these areas as well.
    Yea, but what is interesting is that while generally communities tend to modernize when presented with a catalyst, it is no longer active. We still hold on to archaic values. The assumption is that the “commune” will always evolve (social Darwinism), but this growth has stagnated. This is what I’m eventually arguing for; that we need to re-assess the characteristics we assess. I am not disagreeing with you, I haven’t discovered anything new, I’ve just applied the theoretical knowledge from identity politics to the specific context of Tamil diaspora.

    You do have a great point, whether or not a merger is necessary is definitely up for debate. The point I’d like to make is not that they need to assimilate; by accepting our unique differences, and accept each individual choice (liberalism) then we as a more cohesive unit can be more progressive. What I mean by this is that we stop “excluding” members of our society by making it a point by saying that an individual is more Tamil or less Tamil. While I have no empirical evidence for this statement, I am confident you may have experience with this phenomena of having someone judge you or hearing someone judge someone else. Is this negative? In certain cases yes. We hold archaic values such as favoring patriarchy, discriminate against castes, assuming certain values for women, and so on. I will make the grand assumption that those are negative traits.

    Thanks for your input! I appreciate you taking time reading and commenting; academia grows from intellectual input and I really enjoy these criticisms.

  5. I merely think your points with regards to accepting individual choices and differences is more an argument for the removal of ignorance and the adoption of more libertarian social outlooks, not personal views.

    Negative traits could be on both sides of the dichotomy you describe, where the traditional wing may fail to understand the outlook of the progressive wing, the progressive may similarly fail to undertand the disposition of the traditional. For these two wings to simply accept each others views as being permissible and quite alright needn’t involve a merging of the two, simply understanding and acceptance.

    I’ve not quite witnessed this exclusion you describe… perhaps its due to my relative lack of close Tamil friends. However thinking back, i’ve always been “welcome” amongst Tamils at the schools I’ve attended, even if I perhaps failed to conform to the “Core” you described. But thats not to say such a phenomena does not exist – merely that it is not all pervasive.

    Simply my view. Thank you again for the interesting article.

  6. The negative traits of the Tamil commune have been maintained for reasons more than just to comply with cultural norms or to maintain “identity”. For example, parents of a couple might set aside their Caste issues if the educational or socioeconomic aspects of the union are favourable. And conversely, when economical outlooks are not so good the parents can use the Caste issues as a reason to object to the union.

    That is to say, even within the “core” Tamil society individual choices are made based on reasons external to cultural values. In these cases cultural values are used to ensure individualistic goals are achieved. Parents who want their children to go to Medical or Law School would likely compromise if multi-million dollar endeavour is in their child’s prospects.

    There is nothing here that needs to be solved, or in reality can be solved. Agreeing with McGillian’s comment, at each at every stage of any given culture conservative and contemporary views can and will be found. The ideal view of merging today’s “core” and “periphery” values will only make way for a renewed definition of what the “core” and “periphery” are.

  7. Great article.What I’ve seen is that many Tamils are eating beef,which is highly prohibited.Tamil people who are currently eating,please stop it now and make other people aware also.I’m using your article as an opportunity to remind Tamils of this fact.

  8. Prohibited to who? Only Hindus have the taboo on eating beef, and I’m pretty sure there are Christian, Muslim, atheist, and other religious and non-religious Tamils.

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