By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
After enduring the indignities and humiliations of oppression and persecution of the Vellahla supremacists, the “Minority Tamils” – a euphemism for the untouchables — launched their first organised revolt in 1968 at Maviddipuram Temple. Earlier attempts during British rule to resist the oppression of the Vellahla fascists were quashed ruthlessly by Vellahla thugs. The isolated incidents in various corners of Jaffna merely provoked the Vellahla oppressors to hit back with severe punishments, including burning and killing of the low-castes. The annual reports of the British administration for the province of Jaffna have recorded the numerous incidents of Vellahla violence crushing the low-castes. These were unorganised, sporadic attempts of the low-castes to breakthrough Vellahla fascism. The push to enter Maviddipuram Temple, backed essentially by the Peking-wing of the Communist Party, was the very first organised movement of the untouchables to challenge the Vellahla supremacy.
It was in the sixties that the Vellahla elite (i.e., the English-educated Saivite Jaffna Vellahla (ESJVs)) faced the full wrath of the untouchables / dalits. The organised revolt of the low-castes at Maviddipuram was an affront to their power and prestige. It was a serious challenge to the Vellahla supremacists. And they were not going to take it lying down. The revolt of the low-castes was also a severe blow to their carefully crafted campaign to denigrate the Sinhala-Buddhists as the oppressors of the Tamils. Any exposure of the Vellahlas as the brutal persecutors and executors of their own people would undermine their main propaganda thrust to demonise the Sinhala-Buddhist majority – a theme which they played to the hilt to gain political mileage by claiming to be victims of “the Sinhala government”.
The immediate reaction of the Vellahlas to the Maviddipuram revolt was to fall back on their demi-god, Arumuka Navalar, (1822 – 1879). The Vellahlas owe their higher status in the caste hierarchy to Navalar. It was he who single-handedly reformulated the Hindu Saivite ideology to elevate the Vellahla Sudras (the lowest in classical caste system of India) to the highest rank in Jaffna. So when the low-castes launched their organised revolt the Vellahlas responded by organising a public expression of their faith in Navalar, the Godfather of Vellahla casteism. They decided to revive Navalarism by carrying his image in a procession. In June 1969, one year after Maviddipuram revolt, the Vellahla elite launched a march from Udipiddy to Jaffna, carrying the statue of Arumuka Navalar in a procession. It was meant to be a Saivite religious procession but it had all the undertones of Vellahla politics making a desperate bid to reassert its supremacy over the low-castes. It was a move partly to reinforce and reinvigorate the threatened political base among the Vellahlas and partly to deliver the clear message to the untouchable that Vellahlaism was alive and kicking.
Navalar’s statue was to be unveiled at Nallur on June 30 at 7.30 p.m. Only about 500 selected invitees were expected to attend the ceremony. But everything was not going the Vellahla way. The streets of Jaffna were tense. Red-shirted Tamil youth were distributing anti-Navalar pamphlets. Hand-bills condemning Arumuka Navalar Sabhai were also distributed.
N. Shanmugathasan, the Peking-wing head of the Communist Party, was behind the anti-Navalar movement.
Posters had appeared on the walls of Jaffna. One screaming poster demanded : BLOW UP THE STATUE OF NAVALAR FOR HE IS A CASTE REVIVALIST!” Another cried : “NAVALAR WAS A CASTE DIE-HARD. WHY ERECT STATUES FOR SUCH A REACTIONARY?”
The statue had journeyed from Udipiddy through Chavakachcheri to Jaffna. In some places the statue was stoned. V. Navaratnam, the firebrand of the Federal Party, was heading the procession carrying the image of Navalar. As tensions mounted “the Sinhala Government” had to rush reinforcements to keep the peace and restore the Vellahla status quo. (See The Times of Ceylon – June 28, 1969).
Maviddipural and the anti-Navalar protests shook the very foundations of Saivite Jaffna Vellahla casteism. These events were the external manifestations of the subterranean forces that were suppressed by brutal force for centuries. The full fury of the oppressed low-castes was threatening to tear Jaffna apart in the 60s. The Vellahlas were reacting defensively. They could no longer rely on the feudal brutal force to retain their grip on Jaffna.
The Vellahlas had maintained their supremacy in Jaffna during feudal and colonial times by suppressing with force all moves of the low-castes to assert their right to live as human beings. Summarising the violent politics of Vellahla fascism Prof. Bryan Pfaffenberger wrote: “An artifact of a colonial plantation economy, the caste system of Jaffna could be maintained only by force – and force has indeed been used … These (caste) restrictions had the force of law under Dutch and the early British regimes and even into the 1960s. In Jaffna in the 1940s and 1950s, for instance, Minority Tamils (i.e. oppressed castes) were forbidden to enter or live near temples; to draw water from the wells of high caste families, to enter laundries, barber shops, cafes, or taxis to keep women in seclusion and protect them by enacting domestic rituals; (forbidden) to wear shoes; to sit on bus seats; to register their names properly so that social benefits could be obtained; to attend schools ; to cover the upper part of the body; to wear gold ear-rings; if male, to cut their hair, to use umbrellas; to own bicycles or cars; to cremate the dead; or to convert to Christianity or Buddhism.
“To enforce these restrictions extra legally Vellahlas have fielded gangs of thugs to punish upwardly mobile Pallars and Nalavars. These gangs pollute untouchable wells with dead dogs, fecal matter, or garbage, burn down untouchable fences or houses; physically assault and beat Minority Tamils, and sometimes kill them. Preceding the Maviddapuram crisis there had been several altercations in which Minority Tamils died.” (The Journal of Asia Studies, 49, No. 1 (February 1990)).
No ruling elite in any community in Sri Lanka had oppressed and ill-treated their own people like the way the Tamil Vellahla caste of Jaffna persecuted, and even killed, the low-castes, if they dared to violate their “purity” and supremacy. They subjected the low-castes to abject humiliation from womb to the tomb. Prof. Pfaffenberger was documenting the existential conditions under which the low-castes were forced to live. Jane Russell too in her pioneering book, Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931 – 1947, (Tisara Press, 1982), revealed in graphic detail the iron fist of Vellahla domination and oppression. It was not like the fizz of the violence of the Sinhala lunatic fringe that explodes today and subsides tomorrow. It was a systemic way of life that humiliated and exploited the oppressed Tamils, mark you, with the blessings of Hindu Saivite religion, for centuries. Vellahla fascism turned Jaffna into a gulag for the low-castes from which there was escape only in the grave.
The Jaffna Tamils detest talking about this shameful and dark chapter of their history because it pricks their inflated ego filled with illusions of being highly moral Gandhians living exclusively on the purity of the greatest culture on earth. Besides, exposing the dark underbelly of evil Jaffna would undermine their claim of being victims of “discrimination” by “the Sinhala governments”. The inhuman treatment of Tamils by Tamils makes a mockery of their allegations of “discrimination” by the so-called “Sinhala governments.” Fearing condemnation by the civilised world and the consequent loss of political mileage they have moved heaven and earth to hide the dark side of their history, first, by posing as moral purists superior to all other communities and, second, by diverting attention away from their hidden cruelties to issues of “discrimination” by the “other”, namely their bete noir “the Sinhala governments”. So it is not surprising for the Jaffna Tamils to react aggressively whenever they are exposed as criminals who had persecuted, oppressed a sizeable segment of their own people as subhuman insects fit only to be crushed under Vellahla feet.
Of course, practically all histories of all communities have their own black spots, but the record of the Vellahla Tamils of Jaffna goes beyond the horrors of segregation in the Bible Belt of American south, the apartheid in S. Africa, and even the barbaric Boko Harams who abducted their own children. Ironically, it is this leadership that cried loudly to the world that “the Sinhala governments” had “discriminated” against them since 1948 – the year of Independence. It is the systemic cruelty of Tamils persecuting and killing Tamils that the Tamils love to sweep under their mats. The victimisers of the low-caste Tamils love to bask in the glory of being treated as victims of “the Sinhala governments”.
The Tamil Churchmen, who preached human dignity and rights, had no qualms about going along with this oppressive casteist order. Christian morality was politicised to sanitise the image of the Tamils by focusing on infirmities of “the Sinhala governments”. Tamil Churchmen religiously brushed aside the Biblical command to first look at the beam in their eyes before criticising the mote in the eyes of others.
It is the systemic horrors of Tamils persecuting Tamils that make Maviddipuram and the anti-Navalar protest significant events. These events demonstrated to the Vellahlas that the fascist casteism on which they survived and thrived had passed its use by date. The Vellahlas were also beginning to feel the heat of the internal divisive forces rising from the ranks of the low-castes. They were no longer in a position to use fascist violence to enforce casteism of the old feudal regime. In the sixties the Vellahlas were in the doldrums. They were struggling to hang on to their rank and status in the societal hierarchy knowing that the old way of life was over.
Caste was to the Vellahlas what petrol was to a car. It was essential to the Vellahlas because any attempt to dismantle the casteist hierarchy would take away the power and privileges of the Vellahlas. At the same time, it was becoming increasingly clear to them that the answer to the rising low-caste forces was not to go back to Arumuka Navalar. The religious cover Navalar provided to elevate the Vellahlas to the peak of the caste hierarchy was no longer tenable or viable in 20th century. The Vellahlas were desperately in need of an alternative to Navalarism. A new rationale with a new ideology was needed for the Vellahlas to retain their grip on Jaffna – their primary political base, a.k.a, “the heartland of the Tamils”. Maviddipuram and anti-Navalar events were pushing the Vellahlas to modernity which they were forced to accept most reluctantly.
Jaffna was poised delicately between two worlds – one dying and the other struggling to be born. The Jaffna Vellahla leadership was silent and reluctant to take any meaningful or active steps to liberate the non-Vellahlas, fearing a backlash from the Vellahla voters. But at the same time it was aware of the enemies at the gates threatening to tear down the decadent ramparts of its ancien regime. Apart from the Peking-wing of the Communist Party the Buddhist monks and Buddhist activists too rushed to Jaffna to present an alternative to the Vellahla supremacists. They were hoping to do an Ambedkar who converted the untouchables in India to Buddhism on a mass scale. Ambedkar used anti-Hindu caste Buddhism to liberate the oppressed dalits from the tyranny of the Brahmins. His movement gained universal recognition and approval.
But neither the Buddhism nor Marxism succeeded in providing a viable alternative to Vellahlaism. During the better part of its history Jaffna had lived only by two “isms” : casteism and racism. Those who lived by casteism and racism were also doomed to face the bitter consequences of these two self-destructive and dehumanising forces. Unlike the open society in the south Jaffna had shut the door to any liberal “ism”. As a closed society, tightly controlled by Saivite Vellahlaism, only casteism and racism remained as interchangeable dynamics dominating every aspect of Jaffna political culture. Both were inextricable strands that intertwined interminably to shape and determine the politics of Jaffna.
Casteism, in particular, was a dogmatic and ineluctable belief system which they had internalised as a way of life. The Hindu Organ, the ideological guardian and the leading mouthpiece of Jaffna society in the British period, expressed the essence of this dogma when it wrote : “The caste system which constitutes the hall mark of Hindu society is indispensable to us Hindus if we are to exist as a corporate body. Comparing the merits of the East and West, Meredith Townsend in his admirable book Asia and Europe says: “I firmly believe caste to be a marvellous discovery, a form of socialism which through the ages has protected Hindu society from anarchy and from the worst evils of industrial competitive life. It is an automatic poor law to begin with and the strongest for a known trade union! If ever our critics judge matters relating to our institutions, they do it from a superficial knowledge of men and matters, or are blinded by their shallow enthusiasm for advertising religious propaganda.” (The Hindu Organ – July 18, 1918). The indispensability of caste was felt so deeply that Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the shining star of Tamil politics, went on a special mission to London to impress on the British colonial masters the need to legalise it.
Vellahla casteism and racism were inseparable twins that were feeding on each other. The symbiotic relationship between these two forces overdetermined the political culture of Jaffna. One was the handmaiden of the other. Nothing significant took place in Jaffna outside the interplay of these two forces. The streak of rabid racism that ran through its history was documented first in the Yalpala Vaipa Malai, the seminal history written at the request of the Dutch colonial masters. It records ethnic cleansing of the Muslims and the Sinhalese by the Tamils. Tamil racism surfaced, alongside casteism, in various forms during the colonial and the post-colonial periods. The Hindu Organ (April 4, 1918), for instance, ran a letter, attacking “Marakayarism”. The correspondent was protesting against the introduction of the Muslim sarong which he said was an insult to the native verti. The correspondent wrote : “The latest, by no means the last, proof to our self-imposed suicidal policy of denationalisation, is the introduction of “Marakayarism” in the domains of our dress. Can anything be more disconcerting to the nationalist than seeing a born Tamil in the Mohammedan Sarong? ……”
The distortions of crude Tamil racism has not abated even in contemporary times. It comes from the highest sources. The best example is the form of a former supreme court judge drafting and passing resolutions in the NPC damning the entire Sinhala leadership, from D. S. Senanayake downwards, as “genocidal” leaders! In going down this Alzheimer’s path, Chief Minister, C. V. Wigneswaran, has conveniently forgotten the history of Tamil leaders, from Sankili to Prabhakaran – two Tamil political twins who stand on the only known peaks of Tamil history consisting mainly of the bloodied bones of Tamils massacred by Tamils. After claiming a history longer than that of any other settler in Sri Lanka to whom else can Wigneswaran look up to as inspiring icons of the Tamil past? By all available accounts, he has so far claimed only Prabhakaran — the Tamil Pol Pot who has killed more Tamils than all the others put together. Tamils massacring Tamils, or wiping out the entire Tamil leadership, or dragging a generation of young girls and boys to fight in a futile war, or using fellow-Tamils as a human shield to protect the backs of their doomed leaders fleeing from the battlefield, are, tragically, the high points of the Tamil political culture.
This is the legacy left for the Tamil Churchmen, NGO pundits and the Tamil diaspora to celebrate. The pain and suffering inflicted by the Tamils on fellow-Tamils throughout their history convict the Tamil leadership as irredeemable criminals who shed tears (crocodile ones at that!) for the Tamil dead, hoping that tears would bring more political gain than what has been derived so far from “corpse politics”. Tamil-dominated NGOs like the ICES or the CPA will commemorate “1983” annually, saying “Never again”! That is commendable. But when — O, when! — will these Tamil-dominated NGOs give equal emphasis to Kathankudy and Arantalawa to remember the innocent victims of mindless Tamil violence?