By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
In 1968 Jaffna was facing an internal caste war which was threatening to tear it apart. The simmering caste conflict in Jaffna exploded with the low-castes, spurred by N. Shanmugathasan, head of the Peking-wing of the Communist Party, threatening to enter the Maviddipuram Temple – the segregated religious domain preserved exclusively for the high-caste Vellahlas from feudal and colonial times. It was, in a distant way, similar to the storming of the Bastille: the decadent and dying ancien regime of the feudal Vellahlas power resisting with all their might the rising forces of modernity. Prof. C. Sunderalingam, a Vellahla caste fanatic, was threatening to attack any low-caste who dared to cross the threshold of this Hindu Temple. The Vellahala casteists, including the leadership of the Federal Party dominated by the Vellahlas, were behind him, either overtly or covertly, but mostly covertly.
Dudley Senanayake, the Prime Minister, had given instructions to the head of the Jaffna Police, Deputy Inspector General, R. Sunderalingam, in Jaffna to open the temple for the low-castes. The battle lines were drawn clearly and the battle of the two “Sunderalingams” was at boiling point. The champion of the Tamils, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, who was crying from roof tops about the alleged discriminations by the Sinhala governments, never lifted a finger to help the oppressed the Tamil untouchables / dalits, other than paying lip service to abolish the caste system. His deputy, Appapillai Amirthalingam, dodged the issue by saying that the Federal Party did not want to take sides to avoid bringing politics into the temple.
The vicious caste system of Jaffna was a form of fascist rule imposed by the ruling Vellahla caste on the untouchables / dalits to maintain their “purity” and supremacy. Caste fascism stripped the dalits of human dignity in every sphere of their life. Even the right to drink water from the wells was forbidden. One of the lowest of the low-castes, the turumbas, for instance, were forbidden to walk in the daylight lest they should pollute the purity of Vellahla eyes. Beneath the serene surface of the Jaffna landscape casteism slithered into every nook and corner like a poisonous snake, ready to strike at anyone that came within hissing distance of the upper caste territorial and social borders. The cadjan curtain that fenced off the “other” (outcastes) demarcated their separate territory to prevent pollution from the “outsiders” which included the Tamils low-castes.
The ubiquitous cadjan curtain of Jaffna symbolised the separatist line of the Vellahlas who drew artificial and arbitrary borders to keep the “other” out. In the minds of the supremacist Vellahlas the “other” included the Batticoloa Tamils, the estate Tamils, the Sinhalese and even the Tamil-speaking Muslims. The Vellahlas were obsessed with separatism as a means of retaining their purity and superiority, both inside and outside the peninsula. The separatist ideology began with excluding their own people out of their Vellahla supremacist circle. Separatism was a means of protecting and preserving their feudal and colonial powers, perks, positions and privileges. Any intrusions to pollute the sanctity of the Vellahla inner circles, either by Tamil low-castes or the Tamil and non-Tamil outsiders were strictly forbidden. Some intrusions were punished with death. Whether it is the secular Thesavalami law, (law of the land), Saivite religious laws as restructured by Arumuka Navalar, the caste fanatic, the Catholic Church practices of reserving the front pews for the upper caste and last pews for the low-castes, the ruling political ideology, the approved traditions of the social order, all coalesced to keep the “other” (particularly the untouchables /dalits) out of Vellahla properties, Hindu temples, schools, wells, buses, and all other social amenities necessary for living as equal human beings with dignity.
The roots of Tamil violence and its subhuman culture can be found in the embedded casteist forces that pursued only purity, exclusivity and supremacy. The Vellahlas never hesitated to use violence to retain their purity, exclusivity and supremacy even at the cost of oppressing and suppressing their own people. “Vellarlars,” wrote Prof. Bryan Pfaffenberger, “had long considered the Jaffna Peninsula a private preserve for their interests……In the fifties, for instance, many Minority Tamils ( Vellahla euphemism for their untouchables / dalits ) still lived in Vellarlar – owned palmyrah groves or wasteland; if they did not submit to Vellarlar labour demands, they could be threatened with expulsion. The economic compulsions were paired with informal political controls : Minority Tamils who attempted to raise their position would find their communities victimised by Vellarlar- organised gangs of thugs, who burned down huts and poisoned wells.” (p. 81 — The Political Construction of Defensive Nationalism: The 1968 Temple-Entry Crisis in Northern Sri Lanka, The Journal of Asia Studies, 49, No. 1, February 1990).
The caste system was legitimized and maintained as a divinely ordained and immutable religious order of the chosen people, the Vellahlas. The low-castes were destined, according to their karma, to remain in the condition into which they were born. They had no alternative in this life except to accept the supremacy of “the God-given Vellahlas”. Consequently, it became more than a religion. It became a political cult to keep the Vellahla caste/class in power, exclusively on a fascist theology, manufactured and sanctioned by the Father of the Vellahlas, Arumuka Navalar,(1822 – 1879), the leading caste fanatic of Jaffna. Saivism, as doctored by Navalar, was essentially a religious cover to legitimise the supremacy of the Vellahlas – the lowest category in the hierarchy of the classical caste system in India. The highest caste was that of the Brahmins. But there were no Brahmins, the priestly caste, in Jaffna, except for the few who crossed over from India. Crossing the seas was a taboo to preserve the purity of the priests who are likely to be polluted by foreign influences. This posed a problem for the imported caste system in Jaffna : the caste hierarchy in Jaffna had no substitute for the Brahmins at the apex. It was Arumuka Navalar who stepped in and anointed the Vellahlas as the divinely ordained substitute for the Brahmins. In a show of gratitude the Vellahlas have worshipped him since then as their demi-god.
Navalar was himself a Vellahla and he imposed all the religio-social restrictions to keep the low-castes condemned as victims of their karmic past. He is the evil genius of Jaffna who perverted the Jaffna culture into a rigid, fascist gulag of the Vellahla supremacists. The Vellahlas owe everything to him because he used religion as a political tool to enthrone the Vellahlas as the supreme authority of Jaffna. Thanks to Navalar the Vellahlas gained the religious sanction to be the overlords of Jaffna. From the time of the Dutch, when the Vellahlas rose in rebellion against the appointment of a Madapalli (an extinct caste now) as a Canakepulle to the Dutch administration, the Vellahlas gained the upperhand of being the subalterns to the colonial masters. They brooked no opposition to their power in Jaffna from any internal rival castes. Though they were the unacknowledged subalterns under colonial masters they lacked the religio-social authority to be in command. Navalar filled this vacuum by anointing the Vellahlas as the supreme caste divinely ordained to rule the other castes. After Navalar’s blessings the Vellahlas assumed that they were born to rule and any challenge to their authority was put down with violent force, if necessary. Navalar’s politicised Saivism turned Jaffna into casteist / racist enclave. His Saivism dehumanised Hinduism and pushed the low-castes into a hell hole of casteist / racist fascism.
Navalar took the lead in setting the precedent for the denial of basic human rights to the low-caste Tamils. He was one of the first to exclude the low-castes entering his schools. Navalar’s Saivisim, therefore, was more than a reformed religion. It was a political cult manufactured by him to deny the oppressed Tamils of Jaffna their dignity, their liberty and their right to live as human beings. Some were condemned as slaves for life until the British abolished slavery in 1844. Neither the British nor the radical Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957 passed by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike – the only comprehensive legislative/political step taken by any administration to combat the caste fascism of Jaffna – worked because Vellahlaism was an entrenched force, like Saivism, that could not be eradicated overnight. It became a part of the DNA of Jaffna culture.
Only the explosive force of Prabhakaranism had some impact on the caste establishment. But that too seemed to have been short-lived. Latest research reveal that Vellahlaism is raising its ugly head again in Jaffna. Thanges Paramsothy, PhD Research Student in Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, University of East London, United Kingdom wrote in his latest article: “The LTTE movement, which was in power, to some extent had destroyed this political domination within its movement giving leaderships to all caste groups. Thamilchelvan, for example, who was from one of the oppressed caste groups, Ampattar, became as a leader of the political wings in the LTTE movement. Apart from the debate on success, failure and problems in the political mobilisation of the LTTE, it had the negotiating power where people from different social and caste backgrounds became as participants. Soon after the LTTE was defeated, the Tamil politics is once again been dominated by the Vellalar caste in Jaffna. The oppressed castes have a little or no space to become as potential leaders. The criticism against the TNA is that they appoint one person from the oppressed castes as a candidate at every parliamentary election in order to show that they are ‘casteless’ in their selection process of the candidates. However, the past experience shows that the person who was selected as a contesting candidate in the TNA would be as a potential loser than a winner.” (Colombo Telegraph – November. 05, 2015).
Saivite Vellahalism was a well-knit and organized political force, wrapped in the revised text of Saivism, to protect, promote and preserve, at any cost, its feudal and colonial powers, privileges. positions and perks of the Vellahlas. Its collective and concerted socio-political objective was initially to keep the low-castes as a subhuman species to do their dirty work, if necessary by thuggery and inhuman force, including killing. It was no doubt a prickly issue for the Vellahlas who were fighting a losing battle to preserve their feudal and colonial privileges in the 20th century. Losing their supremacy over the low-castes was an unthinkable proposition for the Vellahlas. Peninsular politics depended essentially on the supremacy of the English-educated, Saivite, Jaffna Vellahlas over the rest. They derived their authority and legitimacy in feudal/colonial times from the distorted theology of Arumuka Navalar who elevated them to the peak of power. But in the 20th century the religious authority, as defined by Navalar, was losing its validity. Vellahlaism as a ruling ideology was so powerful that even Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to London before he died in 1930 to convince the imperial masters that the caste system should be kept at any cost for the stability and progress of the Tamils. However, creeping modernity, universal franchise, market forces, free education, liberal and socialist ideologies were undermining the“divine” authority legitimised by the caste fanatic Arumuka Navalar.
By the 60s the traditional authority of Saivite casteism was coming apart at the seams and threatening to unseat the Vellahlas from their precarious perch located in the highest peak of the caste hierarchy. The persecuted “Minorities”were rising, slowly but surely, from the ashes of vicious casteism. It was at this juncture that the threatened Vellahlas nominally dropped casteism and turned to racism/nationalism to unite the divided Jaffna society. The cover of “nationalism” was the last ploy of the Vellahlas adopted,mark you, not to serve the Tamils of all layers, from the top to the bottom, but to retain the power, privileges, positions and perks of the Vellahlas. To achieve this they had to establish an administration of the Vellahlas, by the Vellahlas, for the Vellahlas. Under the British they were almost there, holding a commanding position in the legislature, public administration, professions and the private sector. Their concentration of power was in the public sector holding a disproportionate share of jobs in the British administration. This kept them quiet and satisfied enjoying the most favoured status with English as the official language. It is the command of the English language that lifted them from the rest of the low-caste Tamils and the other communities as a power elite. This gave the English-educated, Saivite, Jaffna Vellahlas the upperhand, both inside and outside Jaffna.
There was marked shift from casteism to racism in the post-Donoughmore period when the arrogant and uppity Vellahalas were forced to depend on electoral votes of the low-caste to retain power in the legislature. Jane Russell in her masterly study of racism in the post-Donoughmore period, Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931 – 1947. (Tissara Publication, 1982). reveals the pure anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racist ideology spearheaded by Ponnambalam in the thirties without being motivated by any traces of “nationalism”. Her book gives an insight into how the Tamil racist casteists manipulated northern politics to retain Vellahla supremacy, both inside and outside Jaffna. Clearly, “Tamil nationalism” was a latter-day construction. Even Prof. A. J. Wilson, the leading authority on Tamil politics of this period, wrote : “Ceylon Tamils lacked clearly defined objectives during this phase. It was based on the mistaken belief that the British presence would continue and that Ceylon would be granted restricted self-government and not complete independence….” ( p. 14 – S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 – 1977, A Political Biogrpahy, (Lake House Bookshop. 1993). In a more direct and perceptive analysis, Prof. Asoka Bandarage of George Town University, Washington, USA, in her scholarly text, says: “ As Benedict Anderson suggests, many of the primordial identities, nations and traditional homelands espoused by various ethno-nationalist groups are only ‘imagined communities’ formulated in response to modern circumstances rather than primordial entities based on historical facts. The traditional Tamil homeland thesis manufactured by Sri Lankan Tamil elites is a case in point.” (p. 10 – The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka, Terrorism, ethinicity, political economy, (IUniverse, New York.)
Obviously, the Tamil Vellahla elite was leading a racist movement against the Sinhala-Buddhist majority purely to protect their socio-political interests. Tamil nationalism was not even in their vocabulary at the time though nationalism was the popular flavour of all politics in the early 20th century. Initially, Tamils were not moved by nationalism in which the masses rallied behind a Nehru or a Gandhi. It was primarily a movement of the Vellahla elite at the top to protect their powers, positions, perks and privileges more than a mass movement for nationalism. Even the issues raised by Ponnambalam in thirties and Chelvanayakam in the forties related to concerns of the Vellahla elite and not the Tamils masses. The language issue, for instance, was essentially an economic issue that concerned the Tamil public servants and professionals and not the Tamil masses who negotiated their commercial and private transactions comfortably, from Sea Street jewellers to barbers and thosai-kadays in Kandy in Sinhala.
In the thirties the Tamil leadership opposed universal franchise because it threatened their elitist and privileged position. It was not only a political leveller but also a direct challenge to Vellahla supremacy. Under feudal and colonial times they used the religious ideology to retain their power. Under the new democratised dispensation of the post-Donoughmore period they could no longer use the outdated authority of Saivite casteism to sustain their power. Under the new political circumstances the Vellahlas were forced to abandon casteism as a means to win votes in the peninsula. They had to look for an alternative ideology to keep the reins of power in their hands and it was in this phase that the Vellahla elite turned to virulent racism with G. G. Ponnambalam, the new kid in political bloc, going hell-for-leather, with his racist attacks on the Mahavamsa and the Sinhalese. Ponnambalam used his anti-Sinhala-Buddhist campaigns as naked and blunt racist attacks. He did not argue his case on Tamil nationalism at any stage. The thirties was the time when nationalism was moving like a tidal wave across the British empire. Ponnambalam did not base it on anti-colonial nationalism. It was pure and simple anti-Sinhala racism. It was later camouflaged as nationalism by Chelvanayakam because Ponnambalam’s “50 – 50” campaign lacked the populist aura of nationalism that could include the excluded low-castes.
There are several dates picked to define the birth of Tamil racism. It is possible to go back as far as 1921 to identify the origins of racism as a political force. It was the year in which Sir, Ponnambalam Arunachalam broke away from the Ceylon National Congress, based on the multi-ethnic model of Indian National Congress, and established the first racist organisation, the Tamil Maha Jana Sabhai. But racism, as decisive political forces, was forged by G. G. Ponnambalam in the thirties. He injected virulent racism into mainstream politics for the first time in the thirties when his crude attack on the Sinhalese sparked off communal riots in Nawalapitiya, Matale and Passara.
Historian Dr. G. C. Mendis commented that the communal harmony that prevailed for centuries was broken by the communalism that erupted in the thirties and the forties. Focussing on this aspect he wrote : “This (Sinhala-Tamil) communalism seen in 1943 was undoubtedly a new development. European writers such as the Portuguese Jesuit Fernao de Queyroz and the Englishman Robert Knox of the seventeenth century and James Cordiner and other English writers of the nineteenth century have left us pictures of Ceylon with its various divisions of society but in none of their works does one come across communal conflicts of the type we saw then.” ( p. 127, Ceylon Today and Yesterday, Main Currents of Ceylon History, Associated Newspaper of Ceylon Ltd., 1957).
It was in response to the rising racism of the north that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike countered by establishing his defensive Sinhala Maha Jana Sabha in 1936. Ponnambalam raised the stakes of racism in thirties by raising the unsubstantiated cry of “discrimination” in the thirties, mark you, and demanded “50 –50” for 12 % of the Tamils. Though he claimed that it was for all the other minorities as well, neither the estate Tamils nor the Muslims were a part of his “50 – 50” bandwagon. The racist slide from “50 – 50”, to federalism to Eelam was inevitable, particularly with “the little now and more later” politics of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the Father of Separatism. So it is clear that by the thirties – long before the Sinhala Only Act (1956) or even “1983” – the Tamils had started galloping on their racist horses dragging the nation into a Tamil-Sinhala conflagration.
After the failure of casteism to hold Jaffna together the Vellahla elite was jumping desperately from one slogan to another to retain their feudal and colonial powers. The panic-stricken Vellahla elite could only find anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racism as a political tool to defend their decadent and antiquated ancien regime. Their worst fear was that of losing power which they held as subalterns during the colonial period. While the Sinhala south embraced a multitude of ideologies – practically all the “isms” that were floating around in the post-War II period – Jaffna stuck to racism aimed at targeting the Sinhalese of the south. With casteism the English-educated, Saivite, Jaffna Vellahlas (ESJVs) rose to be the sole power inside the peninsula during the feudal and colonial times. With racism they became the key player outside Jaffna in the post-independent period – the period in which Jaffna took to self-destructive politics of extreme racism. Under the British rule the ESJVs had risen to become a powerful block outside Jaffna. By the time the British left they were in a commanding position to be key players in centre of politics in Colombo.
By 1948 the ESJVs of the north felt strong enough to mount a challenge using the racist/nationalist card. Please note I have used the acronym ESJVs and not the Tamils as having mounted the challenge to the centre playing the racist card. I shall explain why in the next article. For the present, I shall end this article by noting that S. J. V. Chelvanayakam launched his Illankai Thamil Arasu Kachchi urging a separate state on Decembe r 18, 1949 – just one year after independence. It was in the halcyon days when practically nothing significant had changed from the British administration except the colour of the faces of the new rulers : the Brown Sahibs had taken over from the White Sahibs.
Chelvanyakam’s cry for separatism had no other basis other than racism because it was not based on the Sinhala Only Act (1956), or “1983”, or any of the other issues that exacerbated the North-South relations later. Tamil racism was already in motion in 1948 determined to carve its own way to towards its inevitable end in Nandikadal (2009). Chelvanayakam severed his links with his leader, Ponnamabalam, on the spurious issue of citizenship to the Indian estate workers in August 1949. It is not because he was concerned about the plight of the estate workers. It was only because he feared that the electoral power of the Tamils as a whole would weaken should the Indians estate workers lose their voting rights. Once again it proved to be a bogus issue because the astute leader of the estate workers, S. Thondaman, resolved it without resorting to violence, or aligning himself with the Jaffna Tamil leaders. He suspected that they were trying to muscle in to his patch under a pan-Tamil movement, the Iyakkum (movement) of the Thamil Payasoom Makkal (Tamil-speaking people) and rejected their advances.
In this very sketchy outline I have tried to trace how northern events had escalated incrementally from a lower level of racism to a higher racist plane without the help of the Sinhala-Buddhists who are usually accused of being the cause of Tamil extremism. Chelvanayakam launched separatism long before long before S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike ever dreamt of breaking away from the UNP and launching his SLFP, long before the Sinhala Only Act, long before “1983”, etc., revealing the fact that initially there was no correlation between the rise of Tamil extremism and the politics of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Mono-ethnic extremism had its roots in the internal dynamics of Jaffna politics without any contributions to its rise and growth in its formative stages in the 30s and 40s. Besides, separatism and violence are inseparable. One follows the other automatically and inescapably. This inevitability was acknowledged and expressed clearly in the Vadukoddai Resolution when the Vellahla leaders urged the youth to take up arms and never cease until they attain Eelam. The Tamil leadership knew that they could break away to form a separate state only through violence. It gave the Tamils the official licence to kill. And killing they did without any restraint. The Tamil youth took to killing like duck to water. There was no stopping them after the Vadukoddai Resolution.
They targeted the Sinhalese saying that they were merely retaliating to the violence inflicted on them earlier. Then they killed the Indians who came as peace-keepers. Here too the Tamils claimed that they fired back at the Indians because they were raping their women and torturing and killing them. Then they started killing Muslims. Why? There was no rationale for this. Was this necessary at all? What had the Muslims done to the Tamils to kill them? Worst of all, the Tamils turned their guns on Tamils. Why? What had the Tamils done to the Tamils? In the end, the Tamils were facing the horror of Tamils killing Tamils ruthlessly in the name of “Tamil nationalism” which lacked the power to force the Sri Lankan government to grant Eelam.
The indiscriminate killing of Tamils reinforces the fact that the Tamils did not need a reason for killing. They were happy to kill anyone who dared to cross their path. They have got away with blaming the Sinhalese for every thing that went wrong in the north-south relations, including the rise of Prabhakaran. But the facts contradict this fabrication. If the Sinhalese were responsible for Tamil violence why didn’t Prabhakaran, who was supposed to have been created by the Sinhalese, stop at killing only Sinhalese? If the Sinhalese created Prabhakaran, the most cruel and biggest killer of Tamils in their history, shouldn’t he have targeted only the Sinhalese? Why did he go all out to kill the Muslims and the Tamils? What had the Muslims done to the Tamils? The fiction that the Tamil took to violence because of the Sinhalese is demolished by the fact that it is Prabhakaran’s violence that had killed more Tamils than all the other violence put together. So are the Sinhalese responsible for the Prabhakaran killing Tamils?
As a Sinhalese I can always dismiss the Tamils killing Sinhalese, without rancour, saying that it is a part of the brutal Sankili trait that runs through Jaffna culture. (Sankili marched down to Manner and massacred 600 Tamil Catholics on the Christmas eve of 1544 because they owed allegiance to the King of Portugal and not to “the sole representative of Jaffna” – the perennial ambition of Tamil leaders). Second, though I cannot condone the killing of Muslims I can always pretend that the Tamils had their own reasons for killing the Muslims without, of course, accepting anyone one of those reasons as being valid. But what I can never accept or forgive is the Tamils killing Tamils. It reduces Jaffna to a barbaric enclave of a prehistoric age. What is the culture of Jaffna if its leaders gave the silent nod to Tamils killing Tamils? What is worse, the so-called cultured Jaffnaites and their cohorts in NGOs diverted attention away from inhuman cruelties and injustices inflicted on the Tamils by the Tamils by accusing the Sri Lankan and Indian forces of doing far less than what the Tamils had done to the Tamils.
They even justified Tamils killing Tamils in the name of a bogus “nationalism” that was not there to move the Jaffna Tamils to rise against the Sinhalese as one mass movement. If the Sri Lankan forces were “a genocidal occupation army”, as claimed by some Tamils, how come they succeeded not only in driving out Prabhakaran, their “nationalist hero”, and hold Jaffna, the heartland of the Tamils, even when Prabhakaran was at the peak of his power? It was possible to throw out the Indian occupation army with the solid backing of the Sri Lankan government because it was “a genocidal occupation army”. But the Tamil Tigers, who claimed that they defeated the fourth largest army in the world, could not survive against the nationalist forces that annihilated them on the banks of Nandikadal.
Tamil history records that the Tamils have been the primary victimisers of the Tamils and yet they continue to pose as victims of the Sinhalese. How long are they going to wallow blindly in their political humbuggery?
There is, no doubt, that something is rotten in the state of Jaffna and that something is the basic inability of the Tamils to face reality and, more importantly, the lack of elementary morality which leads them to worship Tamil killers of Tamils as heroes.
The saintly pose of Tamil political purity and victimology stinks to high heaven in the peninsula and in Radhika Coomaraswamy’s ICES – the Incestuous Cabal of Eelamist Sycophants – that has been manufacturing bogus theories distorting historical facts to back up victimological fictions of the most privileged community in Sri Lanka.