Vellalar extremism turns into “Tamil nationalism”
By H.L. D Mahindapala
n three simple sentences Prof. S. Arasaratnam, the historian, has summed up the overarching force that governed Jaffna. He stated: “The Vellahlas (sic) were thus the key caste in the Tamil social system. They dominated the villages and ran its affairs. The numerous other castes served the Vellahlas.” ( p. 110 – Ceylon, Prentice- Hall Inc. 1964). This defines the omnipresent, Vellalar-dominated hierarchy that penetrated every nook and corner of the peninsula and dictated its laws and customs (Tesawalamai) to the subservient non-Vellalars.
Even though Vellalars had no centralised political power during colonial and post-colonial periods, their domineering role in every village, apart from the power derived as influential subalterns to the colonial masters, made casteist Vellalarism the overwhelming force that dominated Jaffna during feudal, colonial and post-colonial times. The only time Vellalarism lost its supremacy was to Velupillai Prabhakaran.
In the Vadukoddai Resolution, the ageing Vellalar leadership declared war and handed over the gun to the non-Vellalar Tamil youth to wage war. The privileged Vellalars who had the money, the qualifications and the English-speaking skills went abroad in search of greener pastures, leaving the “others” to fight their war. The Vellalars who legitimised violence in the Vadukoddai Resolution were hoping to ride into power on the backs of the non-Vellalar Tamil youth. It was Prabhakaran that came out of the Vellalar gun. He was the first-born child of the Vadukoddai Resolution. He took the gun and first slaughtered the Fathers of the Vellalar Resolution which gave birth to him.
Prabhakaranism was merely a variation of fascist Vellalarism without casteism. His one-man regime was an ideological extension of Vellalarism run by the low-caste. Centuries of Vellalar political culture had fertilised the Jaffna soil for the rise of Pol Potist Prabhakaranism. He faithfully followed his predecessors in power.
Born and bred in the Vellalar culture of violence there were no impediments for Prabhakaran to deny the Tamil people their dignity, equality and justice. The Vellalars justified his unrestrained violence, violating every code of the UN Charter, as a legitimate tool of “Tamil nationalism”. The depraved violence of Magha of Kalinga, the first Tamil king, Sankilli, Vellalars and Prabhakaran reduced their own people to the level of sub-humans. Tamil regimes were run on dehumanising Vellalar violence.
Of all the forces that ruled Jaffna, the Vellalars held power for the longest period, mainly as subalterns during the colonial period. Consequently, they emerged as the most influential and powerful caste in Jaffna. In particular, Vellalarism reigned supreme, as a legalised force, from the time (1707) the Dutch codified the Vellalar customs and laws. It was called Tesawalamai – the laws and customs of the land.
It was approved by 12 Vellalar mudliyars before the Dutch officially made it the law of the land. The Vellalar mudliyars endorsed the Tesawalamai because it enshrined their customs and laws. It consolidated Vellalar power to rule the Tamils under their oppressive laws, including slavery.
The codified Vellalar laws and customs (Tesawalamai) placed them at the peak of the caste hierarchy, enabling them to oppress and suppress those below them with a fascist fist. It is, for instance, the force that denied the oppressed Tamils of Jaffna their right to occupy a seat in the bus. In Jaffna they had to travel seated on the floor boards. The Tamils found their dignity, equality, and justice only when they travelled in the buses of the Sinhala-Buddhist South.
The first battle to regain and retain the threatened supremacy of the Vellalars was led by Moddely Tambi, the Vellalar Cannecappul (clerk to the Commander of Jaffna). He raised a force of Vellalars, including those from the Vanni, against the Dutch for sacking him. Dutch politics of the time was focused on balancing the rivalries of the castes which was a politically explosive task. The Dutch didn’t stop at dismissing Moddely Tambi. The vacancy created by the sacking of a Vellalar was filled by appointing a member of the rival caste, Madapally. In his Memoirs the Dutch Commander of Jaffna, Zwaardecoon, says that he sacked Moddely Tambi to reduce the power of the Vellalars who were dominating the public service.
Holding strategic positions in the public service was a politically sensitive issue with the Vellalars who guarded their key jobs in the administration – a means of maintaining their supremacy – with all their might. The Vellalars were ready to “move heaven and earth” (Zwaardecoon) to maintain their supremacy. Moddely Tambi led the riot against the Dutch to regain their position, prestige and power. The Dutch, however, were out to cut down the power of the Vellalars who were dominating the administration.
Zwaardeecoon says in his Memoirs that he was given the orders by the Governor “to make the necessary changes, that so many thousands of people should no longer suffer by the oppression of the Bellales, who are very proud and despise all other castes, and who had become so powerful that they were able not only to worry and harass the poor people, but also prevent them from submitting their complaints to the authorities.” He added: “The Bellales, (Vellalars) seeing that they would be shut out from these profitable offices and that they would lose influence they possessed so far, and being the largest in number and the wealthiest of the people, moved heaven and earth to put a stop the carrying into effect of this plan so prejudicial to their interests. …….Moddely Tambi was the principal instrument. He was the man who first appeared as a rebel, he had been injured by a long imprisonment and that this induced him to take revenge…… They also probably understood that it was my intention to diminish the influence of the Bellala caste, and were thus induced to take this course to promote the welfare of their caste. I think that it was also out of their conspiracies that the riots arose from which the Commandment suffered during my absence in the months of May, June and July. (Memoirs of Zwaardecoon – pp. 24 – 26.)
In his statement (quoted above), Prof. S. Arasaratnam confirms what the Dutch Commandeur of Jaffna Zwaardcoon wrote in his Memoirs: both confirm that the Vellalars were the most powerful force in Jaffna. Zwaardeecoon, of course, was more detailed. He argues with facts about the fascist oppression of the Vellalars who oppressed “thousands of people” and their commitment to fight for “profitable offices” to prevent “the loss of influence they possessed”.
He depicts them as a power-hungry malevolent force. The Vellalars policed the villages to keep the Panchamars (the five low-castes) within caste boundaries. Whenever the Vellalars failed to win consent they used ruthless physical force. Sporadic mini-battles were fought in the villages to enforce Vellalar rituals which were imposed to keep the rebellious Panchamars in their immutable place.
The post-Moddely Tambi Vellalar violence was on a mini scale at the village level. The most determined battle was fought at Maviddipuram Temple in 1968 when they were organised to challenge the Vellalars head-on for the first time. They had the backing of the Communist Party (Peking Wing) led by N. Shanmugathasan. When the Panchamars staged a non-violent protest demanding their right to worship in the Maviddipuram holy shrine of the Hindus, the Vellalars responded by bashing their heads with bottles filled with sand.
At the time, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan was a Vellalar MP of the Federal Party. He and the other Vellalar MPs did not lift a finger to oppose the oppression, suppression and persecution of the Panchamar Tamils. Prof. C. Sunderalingam, a caste fanatic, marched up and down in the pathway to the entrance of the Temple with a walking stick, threatening to hammer any Panchamar daring to cross the Vellalar boundaries. Sampanthan did not take S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of his Party, to the American Ambassador or the Indian High Commissioner to complain about Vellalarism – the dehumanising force that denied dignity, equality and justice to his fellow-Tamils.
Vellalarism survived on systemic violence unleashed from time to time to retain their supremacy in Jaffna during feudal and colonial periods. Prabhakaran was the first who was able to turn tables on the Vellalars. When the Vellalars were on top, they did not hesitate to suppress or massacres the rebellious Panchamars. When Prabhakaran was on top he did not hesitate to slaughter the Vellalar leaders. For the first time the arrogant Vellalars were forced to crawl on their fours before low-caste Prabhakaran. Both, of course, shared one thing in common: both were fervent adherents of the old tradition of Tamils killing Tamils.
The “Sinhala state” which is accused of “discrimination” had ruled Jaffna directly only for 72 years, leaving aside the 17 years of Sapumal Kumaraya. Of the 72 years, roughly half of it was run by Prabhakaran. Any comparison of the two cultures in the two states will confirm that the Tamil regimes, starting from King Magha to Prabhakaran, have been torturing, persecuting, oppressing and massacring Tamils for centuries. Besides, it was only in the ‘Sinhala state” that the Tamils of Jaffna enjoyed dignity, equality and justice.
The “Sinhala state” never denied them the right to be human, or to go to school, or to sit in a chair with the other children, or to walk in sunlight, or to enter a restaurant and share a common table, or to dine together, or to have the same rights as the Sinhalese in burying their dead, or for the women to cover the upper part of their body with a jacket.
In fact, the “Sinhala state” raised the dignity of the Tamil identity to the highest global level as never done before. For instance, there are 193 flags flying at the UN. Of these, only the flag of the “Sinhala state” has given the Tamils a place. When the world salutes the flag of the “Sinhala state” they also salute the Tamils and the Muslims. No other state, not even India, the original homeland of the Tamils, has given such a dignified place to the Tamils. No other king/leader of Tamils has ever raised the dignity/honour of the Tamils to such dizzy heights.
Instead of giving the Tamil their dignity, Tamil leaders policed their society to keep the Tamil out of their society as unwanted pariah dogs. Social distancing and segregation were codes imposed by the Vellalars to maintain their supremacy. Any invasion into their defined boundaries was considered a pollution of their purity – a notion borrowed from the Indian caste system to exclude the “other” and maintain their purity, exclusivity and supremacy.
In the post-Independent era, the Vellalars opened their most violent front against the Sinhala-Buddhists of the South when they realised that their supremacy was threatened by (a) the loss of British patronage and (b) the establishment of majoritarian rule based on democratic principles. In the 17th century, Moddely Tambi fought for Vellalar supremacy on casteist line because ideology of Vellalarism was a dominant force accepted by the Dutch.
They could use casteism as an argument to prevent administrative power slipping out of their hands and going into the hands of a rival caste, Madapallys. In the 20th century the Vellalars have lost the legitimacy to fight for Vellalar supremacy like Moddely Tambi on anachronistic ideologies of casteism. Nowadays, they fight to retain their feudal power under modern Western theories.
Vellalar supremacists fight under cover of minority rights, discrimination, racism, majoritarianism and human rights. The outdated feudal language and the logic of Moddely Tambi, the Father of Vellalarism, are no longer valid. The Vellalars have adopted the new lingo of NGOs to justify and retain their supremacy inherited from feudal times. The caste power has also changed into class power. According to latest reports, the new Vellalar class/caste maintains its caste boundaries on a low key, without some of its earlier rigours. In other words, Vellalarism continues to be a force in Jaffna signalling the Panchamars clearly that they are still outside the inner circle of the Vellalars
Jaffna was a domain ruled not by the Tamils but by the Vellalars who happen to be Tamils. The Vellalars have been the dominant caste that possessed the power to impose their will on casteist principles. There was no space for any other caste to make inroads into the central decision-making process of Jaffna.
Ever since Moddely Tambi’s revolt, no other caste has been able to dislodge the Vellalars from the strategic places. They dominated the commanding heights of politics, administration, professions, civil and religious institutions. Even today key appointments to schools and University of Jaffna continue to be reserved for the Vellalars. This enables the Vellalars to manipulate and manage major decisions that shape the contours of Jaffna society.
Politics, religion, customs and laws (Tesawalamai) continue to be defined primarily by the Vellalars. No ideology – liberalism, socialism, pluralism, humanism – ever gained even a toehold in Jaffna. Only one ideology triumphed – Vellalarism. It is an ideology based on the claim that only the “pure” Vellalars are entitled to wield power in Jaffna. The “other” is excluded and thrown out as outcastes. In the absence of the Brahmins in Jaffna, the Sudra Vellalars elevated themselves to be the lords and masters of Jaffna on spurious claims of purity.
The Sudra Vellalars, however, are the least qualified to claim the purity of the Brahmins who are supposed to have come from the head of Brahma. The low-caste Sudras came from the feet of Brahma, according to the classical Indian caste tradition. Vellalarism has survived on fictitious claims of purity. Take the case of the “pure” Vellalars who have no qualms about sleeping with low-caste concubines, or drinking toddy in low-caste taverns.
Obviously, principles of purity and superiority are raised only to grab and retain power. Vellalarism operates on a political network systematised to consolidate power in the hands of a dominant endogamous caste. The ideology of purity is enforced to segregate the powerless low-castes from the Sudra Vellalars, the self-appointed high caste.
This system was devised by the Vellalars to maintain an iron-fisted hierarchy structured on division of labour and rigid rituals. The rituals are designed specifically to control those below them with the sole intention of forcing the non-Vellalars to serve the power, needs and the demands of the hierarchy. It strips human beings of their basic rights, even to walk in the sun, and reduce them to subhuman factotums.
If, for instance, a Vellalar met a Turumban, the lowest caste forbidden to walk in daylight, he would be hammered mercilessly for polluting the purity of the eyes of the Vellalar. Vellalarism maintained its supremacy by denying equality, justice, and dignity of the non-Vellalars. Dehumanising their fellow-human beings is the most demeaning obscenity of the Vellala supremacists. It ostracises fellow-human beings and throws them down the hierarchy to make those at the top feel superior. Vellalarism is caste fascism of the most oppressive kind.
The architecture of overarching Vellalarism is layered to reinforce and preserve its supremacist base and its superstructure. It seeks to control every aspect of social life, from the womb to the tomb, to prevent any deviation that would threaten its power. Each defined hierarchical layer is fenced with ritualistic boundaries drawn to elevate Vellalar supremacy in every sphere at every level while, simultaneously, circumscribing the living space of the Panchamar to shrink them into subhuman non-entities.
Any transgression of the boundaries is suppressed with brutal violence to protect and maintain the supremacy of the Vellalar hierarchy. Vellalars wield power ruthlessly to prevent any threat to its supremacy and exclusivity, both of which are based on self-serving definitions of purity and pollution. Its legitimacy and authority are derived from its definitions of purity – fictitious principles introduced arbitrarily to elevate them above the rest.
Maintaining the supremacy of the hierarchy is the primary mission of its political agenda. It resists any external, legal, political or social incursions into its domain. Whenever it is unable to wield political power directly, it inveigles its way into centres of reigning power (Portuguese, Dutch, British, or Sri Lankan) to keep lines of communication open to influence decision-making in its favour. If that fails, it does not hesitate to mobilise its forces to combat any force that threatens its supremacy.
Its relentless violence is perpetrated perpetually to pursue its casteist political agenda. Its casteist boundaries limit the living space of the “other” to exclude them as unwanted outcasts of the elitist circles at the top. In contemporary times when the ideology of casteist Vellalarism has lost its legitimacy, the Tamil intellectuals either borrow modern theories to justify the antiquated casteist hierarchy, or divert attention from its horripilating history to demonise the Sinhala-Buddhists. Vellalarism was, in short, inhuman violence to discipline and control the Tamil slaves as subhuman factotums.
The Vellalar intellectuals who have been crying from the rooftops of the UN and UNHRC in Geneva are reluctant to raise their voices in sympathy with the untold suffering of the Panchamars persecuted by the Tamil priviligentsia. It is because the Tamil diaspora too is run by the guilty Vellalars who justified Tamil oppression of Tamils, including abduction of Tamil children to fight in the futile Vadukoddai War, in the name of “Tamil nationalism”.
The Vellalars constructed “Tamil nationalism” as their last refuge. They could no longer hang to casteist supremacy based on outdated ideology of purity and pollution. Besides, with internal forces of Panchamar’s challenging their supremacy they could not present a united front against the Sinhalese of the South. “Tamil nationalism” and the language issue were constructed by the Vellalars as a last resort to unite the fragmented peninsula on caste fault lines. Its early manifestations of “50-50” and “federalism” were political constructions created by the Vellalar leadership who fought only for the protection and preservation of Vellalar supremacy.
The last mission of Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan to London was to convince the British masters that casteism should be preserved for the stability, law and order of the colony. G. G. Ponnambalam did not raise “50-50” in the name of “Tamil nationalism”. Like his predecessor, Moddely Tambi, his mission too was to prevent the erosion of Vellalar power. His cry of 50 percent share of power was aimed at retaining Vellalar supremacy in the administration and the legislature.
He did not ask for separatism or federalism. In fact, he said: “Federalism is bad for Ceylon and worse for the Tamils.” His primary aim was to gain and preserve the disproportionate share of power to maintain the supremacy of the Vellalars. Through British patronage, they had already gained a disproportionate share of power in the British administration. Ponnambalam made the next move to grab a disproportionate share of power in the legislature. That is the meaning of 11 percent of Jaffna Tamils demanding 50 percent of power in the centre.
Under the colonial and the independent regimes, their political agenda was driven to acquire as much power as possible in the centre to preserve their supremacy. The Moddely Tambi syndrome never let Jaffna Tamil politics. In the post-Moddely Tambi period only enhanced variations of his grab for power was played out on an aggressive scale. However, his casteist ideology had run out of time in the 20th century. It was of no use to his successors. They craftily took to fashionable Western theories as their old casteist ideology based on the Vellalar purity and pollution was no longer viable.
Vellalar thrust for power climaxed in the Vadukoddai Resolution of 1976. By that time Vellalarism had transformed into “Tamil nationalism” – the last phase of Vellalar casteism. “Tamil nationalism” was manufactured by the Vellalars for the Vellalars to retain their supremacist status. They declared war in the Vadukoddai Resolution to ride into power on the backs of the low-caste youth. It was the last gambit of the Vellalars.
As usual they took to violence when they failed to get the consent of the majority to legitimise their supremacy. They abandoned the democratic mainstream and openly decided to go for militarism. In the penultimate sentence of the Vadukoddai Resolution, the Vellalar leadership urged the Tamil youth to take up gun and never cease firing until they achieved Eelam.
The next step was logical: the Vellalars weaponised Jaffna, mobilised the military forces, internationalised it, financed it from abroad, legitimised it with Western theories, lobbied for it globally, propagandised Tamil Pol Potism as a “liberating force” and, most of all, demonised the Sinhala-Buddhists as their bogey. Like the way the high-caste Vellalars slept with low-caste concubines, disregarding principles of purity, they were quite happy to go to bed with Pol Potist Prabhakaran as long as he was fornicating with violence to produce their Eelam baby.
The critical role played by Western theories to cover up and legitimise Vellalar fascism as “Tamil nationalism” needs a special study. In fact, there are many Ph. Ds awaiting the exploration of the hidden history of Jaffna. In particular, Jaffna University should confer an honorary doctorate on Selvy Thiruchandran for her brilliant study of Vellalar hypocrisy, obscenities, violence, oppression and fascism in her book, Caste and its Multiple Manifestations.
Of course, Jaffna University will not have the courage to do it. At least one of the other universities must honour her for the intellectual courage with which she has handled this tabooed subject. Despite the censorship imposed by Jaffna University, there are a few Tamil intellectuals who have begun to talk about the horrors of Vellalar casteism. It’s only a trickle right now. It is time for the Tamil intellectuals to turn it into a flood.
(Note: This is not the review of Selvy Thiruchandran’s book on Vellalar horrors that was promised. This should be read as a prelude to the review. The review will be written next week. I apologise for the delay – firstname.lastname@example.org).