Insane fury in Tamil politics destroys the Tamils

By H.L.D Mahindapala


“The cruelty of Sangkili (and his avatar Prabhakaran) increased with his power…..” Yalpana Vaipava Malai

Jaffna has been the dark side of the Sri Lankan moon: its’ history has been consistently hidden from public scrutiny. Reason: It is politically disadvantageous to reveal the horrors of Jaffna Vellala rulers oppressing their own Tamil people throughout its history when they are accusing the Sinhalese of discrimination. This factor may have inhibited the Tamil historians from producing an authoritative and comprehensive history book.

In fact, Jaffna Tamil intellectuals, most of whom are Vellalas, seem to have imposed self-censorship in dealing with the dark side of Jaffna history. Reports speak of the Jaffna University dons and Vellala high-ups discouraging research into the iron-fisted rule of the Vellalas who ruthlessly oppressed and persecuted the low-castes. Confirming this Prof Rajan Hoole wrote: “…when a recent Jaffna University doctoral thesis had extensive quotations showing the dark state of Jaffna society early in the 19th century, one of the three examiners insisted on a good part of it being removed before approval.” (p. 27 – 28 – NETHRA, Vol 2. No.1. Oct-Dec. 1997, a quarterly journal edited by Regi Siriwardena).

In the same paper, he reveals that a leading member of the Navalar commemorative committee with an O.B.E. moving to block “some less attractive side of Navalar” being exposed, saying that “it is high time to stop researches of this type on Navalar.” Navalar, the revered guru of the Vellalas, is a caste fanatic who hated the low-castes and the Christians. He did not hesitate to urge the Saivite followers to kill “the blasphemers” (i.e. the Christians).

History of Jaffna

Sanitising the history of Jaffna for political gain has been a common trend. Though Jaffna boasts about its history, it is yet to produce an authoritative history of its bloody past. Jaffna University (established 1972) too has failed to deliver a scholarly historical account of its people to guide its people. So, the magnitude of the cruel history of Jaffna was never told to the Tamil people or to the world. It is obvious that Jaffna University prefers to keep its history hidden rather than reveal the horror stories that haunt it.

The void in the mind caused by either hiding or white-washing history has been filled with a rosy picture of Jaffna as an idyllic haven of non-violent, Gandhian Tamils persecuted by the Sinhala-Buddhist “hegemonists” who had denied them their “legitimate aspirations”, equality, justice and dignity. History, however, tells a different story: the English-speaking, Saivite Jaffna Vellala (ESJVs) elite of Jaffna was the most privileged community and the PQLI rated Jaffna metrics (education, health and transport) as the highest in Sri Lanka. Those who get their history wrong can never get their politics right. Even though it is late – their distorted historical perspectives have already wreaked havoc in the nation and done its worst to the Tamils – it is time to put the record straight again.

The dark side of Jaffna history has been bloodied by brutal violence against the “other”. Mylvakanam, poet and historian, was accurate when he described the violence of Sankili, the first mass killer of Tamils, as “insane fury”. He said so when he wrote the Tamil equivalent of the Mahavamsa, the Yalpana Vaipava Malai. The History of the Kingdom of Jaffna – p.33. He added: “The cruelty of Sangkili increased with his power. His subjects were not able to endure it any longer….” (Ibid- p.37). The meaning contained in this telling phrase foretold the ingrained nature of Tamil political violence that was to come. The “insane fury” of Sankili did not end with him. The Sankili cult that became an integral part of the Tamil political culture ran down to Velupillai Prabhakaran.

“Insane fury” defines the hate cult of Sankili against the non-Hindu Tamil. First, Sankili’s “the insane fury” led to the massacre of 600 Tamil Catholics for owing allegiance to the King of Portugal. Second, this “insane fury” then turned against the Sinhala Buddhists who were forcibly thrown out of Jaffna. It is the first known act of ethnic cleansing in recorded Sri Lankan history. Those Sinhala-Buddhists never came back, says Mylvakanam. Third, his wrath turned towards the remnants of the Malay soldiers who were expelled. Later, Tamil fury targeted the Muslims who were driven out of Nallur. Muslims who dragged their feet discovered pigs’ heads in their wells.

Fourth, the perennial oppression and killing of Tamils by Tamils became the norm in Jaffna history – an ingrained trend that sprouted from the “insane fury” of Sankili and flowed via the casteist Vellalas in feudal times to the “insane fury” of Prabhakaran. Like that of Sankili, it was a fury that targeted anyone who refused to swear allegiance to Tamil power. Victims of Prabhakaran’s bloated arrogance ranged from Neelan Tiruchelvam to Rajiv Gandhi. Sankili’s hate cult and the insane fury of Prabhakaran had the common aim of ethnically cleansing Jaffna.

Sankili is the original father of separatism who cleansed Jaffna of the “other” to establish a Tamils only state. After him, the establishment of the Tamil only state, if necessary through violence as expressed in the Vadukoddai Resolution, became the sole goal in Tamil politics.

Suicidal act

This “insane fury” in the Tamil political culture found its ultimate expression in Prabhakaran. Only an “insane fury” would have prompted him to kill Rajiv Gandhi. Taking on India was a suicidal act. His decision to kill Rajiv came from the insane Sankili cult of hate. It is revealed in a new book that has come out recently. It will have to be dealt with in a separate chapter. It is this cult of hate that killed him and the Tamils at Nandikadal. Had he been more flexible, tolerant and democratic, he would still be dictating terms to the Sri Lankan Government.

The “insane fury” in Tamil political culture refuse to tolerate dissenting Tamil individuals who do not toe the racist Tamil line. They are either ruthlessly eliminated by the sword of the Sankili hate cult, or killed politically by the Tamil electorate which knows no other history other than that of Sankili and Prabhakaran. As for the non-Vellala Tamils, their fate was worse than death. The ostracised low-caste minority was treated as subhuman beasts.

The “insane fury” of Jaffna politics was repeated with slight variations in the post-independent years, particularly in the post-Vadukoddai Resolution (May 14, 1976) period. This Resolution – the ultimate political manifesto of the SJVs – legitimised the “insane fury” of the Tamils when it urged the Tamil youth to take up arms. Going to war was an insane act that destroyed the Tamils mainly. The slow but steady rise of Tamil violence is documented in the Sansoni Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Incidents which took Place between August 13 and September 15, 1977, Sessional Paper No. VII – 1980. It is a valuable document that details the rise of the “insane fury” of the Tamils that finally exploded in 1983.

The provocative Tamil violence “needling the lower-level ethnic leadership in South” (Prof. A. J. Wilson) exploded in 1983. The cumulative impact of the escalating Tamil violence in the post-Vadukoddai period resulted finally in the Sinhala “lower-level ethnic leadership” erupting in violence against the Tamils in 1983. The killing of the 13 soldiers in Jaffna was the last straw. The rest is history.


Violence of “insane fury” must necessarily lead to barbarism. This history was kept in the dark by the Tamil leadership because they feared the political consequences of exposing the barbaric side of Jaffna. If the hidden history of how Jaffna was ruled by the fascist Vellala ruling elite, reducing the low-caste Tamils to labouring beasts, was revealed, the Tamil propagandists could not have marketed to the world their narrative of victimology accusing the Sinhalese of discriminating against them. What the Vellala elite did to their fellow Tamils is unforgivable.

Assuming a genetic purity and a spiritual superiority which they never possessed, they ruled Jaffna using brutal violence, whenever necessary, to keep the low-castes within the rigid caste boundaries from birth to death. For the Vellalas lording it over the low-castes in the peninsula Jaffna was indeed a romantic haven – the only domain where caste slavery of the Vellalas was legalised under Thesawalamai law.

The English-speaking, Saivite, Jaffna Vellala elite (ESJVs) had one foot in high society in Colombo and the other foot holding down the heads of the Jaffna low-castes who, as ostracised outcasts, had no status in Tamil society.

Ostracised low castes

To the ostracised low castes, Jaffna was a dehumanised hell-hole. They were condemned to live in it from the womb to the tomb without any hope of redemption. The delusional belief of the Vellalas that they are the Brahmins of Jaffna born to rule infused them with an unwarranted arrogance. They manipulated the internal dynamics to monopolise the decision-making process at all levels and to overdetermine politics in Jaffna, excluding the “other” (mainly the low-cates) from having a say in power politics of the peninsula.

Only the ESJVs – the majority – had the power and the positions in the hierarchy to frame and write the political agenda of the peninsula from A to Z. Their grip on the levers of power was comprehensive which made the ESJVs the virtual rulers of Jaffna, even when they were serving as servile subalterns during the colonial period.

The craze among Jaffnaites was to be in the clerical service of the British bureaucracy. Being in the bureaucratic machine of the colonial administration gave them the advantage of using administrative power in the absence of political power. By holding a disproportionate share of jobs in government service, the ESJVs had the ear of the colonial administrators. They used their reserve power in the bureaucracy to protect Vellala interests wherever there was a loophole, particularly in the judiciary.

In special cases loaded with issues judges were sent from the South to prevent Vellala judges perverting justice. Besides, in the colonial time being in the public service gave a prestigious status, particularly to win a fat dowry in the marriage market. The power-crazy political culture warped Jaffna society: it turned Jaffna into a violent society as it went in search of power at any cost.

The pursuit of power was a speciality among the ESJVs. When S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the father of Tamil separatism, launched his separatist movement, he did not launch it in Jaffna – the vaunted homeland of the Tamils. He launched it in the headquarters of the Government Clerical Services Union (GCSU) in Maradana, Colombo. He picked the right audience which was responsive to his separatist cry. They believed that a Tamil state would restore more power to the Tamils in a Tamil only bureaucratic hierarchy.

Of course, the main political demand was for a greater share of public service jobs. The cry of discrimination was primarily a cry for a greater share of government jobs, despite the fact that the Jaffna Tamils had a disproportionate share of jobs.

Jaffna politics and history has been the politics and history of the Vellalas. The low-castes did not have the power, prestige, resources and status in the hierarchy to influence and determine the political agenda of the day. Nor were the non-Vellalas organised as a collective to exert political pressure. As the majority controlling the commanding heights of the peninsula – land, temples, schools, local councils, government jobs, lucrative tobacco plantations, professionals (lawyers, doctors, academics, engineers, accountants etc) – the Vellalas determined the course of events which always went in their direction. It was so from feudal and colonial times.

Vellala power reached a climax when the laws and customs of Jaffna, Thesawalamai, were codified by the Dutch with the consent of the Vellala mudliyars. Thesawalamai legalised Vellalaism. The power of the Vellalas was entrenched so deeply that not even the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike – the only legal instrument that dared to challenge the Vellala power – was able to dislodge their tentacles gripping Jaffna society. The exclusion of the low-castes was just not a mere demotion in ritual status. It was an outright denial of political, social and human rights. It was a political ploy designed to keep power within the Vellala clan.

The English-speaking Saivite Jaffna Vellala elite who lived in the South, enjoying the best of both worlds, romanticised Jaffna as their ideal haven. Their biggest grievance was that they could not rule the rest of Sri Lankan the way they ruled Jaffna. They were bent on retaining a dominant grip on the administration because they knew that they could not dominate the nation politically. Jaffna, however, was the only domain which had legalised Vellalaism. So, they manoeuvred every which way to preserve Jaffna as the exclusive domain of the Vellalas.

Electoral politics

As the majority, they had the numerical superiority to maintain their dominance in electoral politics of Jaffna and to keep the minority in its place. What they lacked was political power to rule the North as a separate state. One of the factors that propelled separatism was the ambition of the Vellalas to retain their feudal and colonial powers and privileges, most of which gave them power to rule Jaffna and the minority Tamils without external interventions.

It is the power of external interventions that hindered their power to retain their ritual status in Jaffna. Even within Jaffna, the Vellalas marked their separate territory with cadjan curtains.  The ubiquitous cadjan curtain that marked the Vellala houses was a signal to the “other” to keep off the high-caste premises.

Though it was a powerful force, Vellalaism was not a significant determinant of the Tamil identity in Jaffna. The Jaffna identity was dependent essentially on Hinduism and Tamil language. The Vellalas cottoned on to these two ideologies in the 20th century as Hindu casteism was losing its power with the rise of secular ideologies. In particular, in the post-Donoughmore period, the universal franchise took away the monopoly of political power held by the Vellalas. The low-castes empowered by the vote was threatening to fragment Jaffna on casteist lines. The Vellalas had no counter ideology to hold Jaffna together under their hegemony.

The secular ideologies of socialism and democracy would undermine their dominance. The only ideologies that could hold Jaffna together under Vellala hegemony were Hinduism and Tamil Language. It also enabled them to hold on to their concepts of purity and superiority. These two ideologies would also prevent the fragmentation of Jaffna on casteist lines.

Formidable forces

Language was the force that could bond divided Jaffna under Vellala hegemony. Consequently, Vellalaism surfaced as Tamil linguistic nationalism. The Vellalas latched on to the language and Hinduism because they were the only two forces that could save them ideologically and politically. Navalar and C. V. Thamotherampillai shine in the Jaffna political landscape because they represent both Hinduism and Tamil language. Both are known for reviving the Tamil language.

Their tireless efforts to resuscitate the buried cultural treasures of Tamil literature made them cultural heroes both in South India and Sri Lanka. Vellalas took linguistic politics as it was the most viable instrument to retain power.  With the decline of casteist Vellalaism, Hinduism and the Tamil language became the most formidable forces of Jaffna. It is these two factors that bonded all layers of the fragmented Tamil communities together. The identity of the Jaffna Tamil is woven around these two ideologies. Prof. S. Pathmanathan says that “the Hindu tradition, along with the Tamil language, forms the basis of the Tamil identity.” (Quoted by Prof Ratnajeeevan H. Hoole in p. 28 of Nethra Ibid).

These two forces were hijacked by the Vellalas when they realised that casteism, the divinely ordained order, was losing its power to sustain them in power. But power did not slip out of the Vellalas until the arrival of Prabhakaran. In the same page, Prof. Ratnajeeevan Hoole says that, “The belief of the many Tamils (is that) unless one is a Saivite, he is not a Tamil and unless one is a Vellala, he is nothing.”

The Vellalas continued to exploit both Hinduism and language to maintain their dominant place in politics. They have not offered the electorate any other liberal, democratic, socialist to the Tamil electorate. Prof. Kumar David has branded the Tamil leadership as “congenital idiots”. They succeeded in surviving as a caste elite under Hinduism in feudal and colonial times. But modernity undermined casteism as a political force. As the force of casteism declined in the 20th century, the Vellalas turned to language for political survival.

The use of Tamil language became the most explosive issue in national politics as it spilled over from Jaffna to the rest of the nation. To the Vellalas, it turned out to be the most unifying force of Tamils cutting across caste divisions. It even appealed to the Westernised Sinhalese and the English-speaking elite in Muslim and Burgher communities. But it was the Vellala Tamils who, in the absence of any progressive political program, went all out to exploit the language issue.

It was also an issue confined mainly to the elitist Vellalas in the professions. It was not a vital issue to the Tamil-speaking Muslims and Indian Tamils as it was to the Jaffna Tamils. It was not an issue that affected the Tamil traders because those running shops communicated without any difficulties with the Sinhala customers. It was not an issue that affected Tamils who had settled in the South to live in Sinhalese neighbourhoods.

As neighbours, the Muslims and the Tamils communicated with the Sinhalese without any linguistic problems. It was not an issue at the highest elitist level because they communicated with each other mainly in English, with Sinhalese thrown in. So, language was not really a divisive issue that threw communities apart. It was really a class issue that brought the elite of all communities together against the use of Sinhalese.


Language continues to be played up as a key issue by the Tamil politicians. It is pushed to extreme levels by Wigneswaran who never ceases to harp on its greatness. He never fails to boast of its antiquity. So what if Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world? He uses this argument to downgrade Sinhalese which he says is a latter day product of the 6th and 7th centuries. Here he is trying to impress that there is superiority in antiquity. It is a stupid argument that has no validity.

According to that argument, English is inferior to Tamil because the father of the English language, Geoffrey Chaucer, lived and wrote his poetry only in the 15th century. Simply put, the antiquity of a language does not grant any superiority. Superiority, if any, of a language depends primarily on its utility. Besides, the Tamils of Jaffna have no right to claim any part of its greatness because they had not contributed to its glory. Tamil remains in Jaffna only as a borrowed language.

They came with this borrowed language from South India – the one and only homeland of Tamils. They did not create it nor have they contributed anything substantial to its greatness. The greatness of the Sinhalese is that they created a new language

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