By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
The Dutch, British and post-independent administrators have left behind in their records grim accounts of how the Saivite-Vellahla casteists distorted and perverted the Jaffna political culture. Modern scholars (Jane Russell and Prof. Bryan Pfaffenberger etc), who had studied the socio-political conditions of Jaffna, too confirm that Saivite casteism and Tesawalamai endorsed and legalised the dehumanisation of individuals, reducing the low-castes to irrelevant non-persons. No other society had stripped the basic rights of the individuals, leaving them without a modicum of self-respect. Robbing the less fortunate Tamils of their humanity has been the most disgraceful obscenity of the Vellahla political culture.
In comparison it seems that the cattle of Jaffna had been blessed with better opportunities to lead lives of quality and dignity than some of the non-Vellahlas. For instance, the cattle in Jaffna could walk in daylight without any obstruction from anyone. But the low-castes were denied that basic right. The Turumbas, one of the lowest of the low-castes, could walk only at midnight just to prevent them crossing the path of Vellahlas in daytime and polluting the purity of their eyes.
The cattle of Jaffna could drink water from any available source. But the low-castes could not drink water from the high-caste wells.
The cow, indeed, was considered a sacred animal and was treated with respect. But human beings were not even allowed to step in to the outermost court of their Hindu temples.
The bull was elevated to be the highest symbol when the bovine was placed at the centre of the Tamil traditional flag, before Velupillai Prabhakaran replaced it with the snarling tiger, a la MGM’s roaring lion. But the low-castes were condemned as pariahs and excluded from society.
Even the grass that comes out at the other end of the cattle is turned into “holy ash” which they wear on their foreheads as a symbol of their religiosity and purity.
In Jaffna it was glorious to be cattle but not human.
Casteism, however, was only one factor. On top of that came slavery, carrying with it all the accretions of inhuman cruelties. It is casteism combined with slavery that warped and dehumanised Jaffna. Casteism and slavery became interchangeable terms with slaves being absorbed into the lowest ranks of the caste hierarchy. These are two internal factors that dominated the Jaffna political culture and gave Jaffna its unique identity of being the fascist hell-hole of the oppressed. The mainstream politics of Jaffna, as it unravelled in the colonial and post-colonial periods, cannot be understood without factoring in these two forces, particularly Vellahlaism. Every action and reaction that emanated from Jaffna was based on Vellahla interests. Saivite-Vellahlaism was the life force that made Jaffna tick. Jaffna did not / could not / exist without it. Emphasising the necessity of the caste system to Jaffna society, the leading English publication of the Hindus in colonial times, The Hindu Organ, editorialised : “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” – p.24, July 18, 1918, The Present Crisis in Hindu Society).
Social scientists too have focused specifically on casteism and slavery as the two conditions necessary to understand the internal dynamics of Jaffna. Dr. H. W. Tambiah, a distinguished legal scholar, dealing with the caste system in The Laws and Customs of the Tamils of Jaffna said : “The caste system in Jaffna is a vital institution. The Vellalas, the landed gentry of Jaffna, had their adimas (slaves) and kudimakkal (persons who were not slaves but who performed customary services to the Vellalas.) Caste impinges in various ways on the question not only of race and religion but of economics law and the customs of the people. Many institutions and customs will not be understood by foreign readers unless they understand the social structure of Jaffna. “ (p.87 ). He had stopped short of saying that the Vellahla factor proved to be the dominant force that determined not only peninsular politics but also national politics in the post-colonial period.
Recognising also the dehumanising role played by slavery he states : “Slavery as it existed under the law of Thesawalamai has become extinct. But the student of the social science will not understand the structure of Tamil Society unless he has studied the law of slavery and the caste system prevailing in Jaffna. Even a student of law will not understand the legal institutions and the law applicable to the Tamils in its proper setting unless there is a discussion of this subject. Hence, an attempt is made to deal with the incidents of slavery under the Thesawalamai.” (p. 74 –Ibid).
Casteism and slavery converged into one solid force during the Dutch period, making it the turning point in Vellahla, and consequently Jaffna, history. The rise and consolidation of Vellahlas as a dominating political force took place decisively under the Dutch. Under the Portuguese it was the Catholic Karayar (Karawa – fisher folk) in the coastal belt that were privileged. The Protestant Dutch, who brought with them their anti-Catholic politics from Europe, favoured the Vellahlas by granting them land and government jobs. Four main factors combined in this period to make the Vellahlas the dominant force : 1. the codification of Tesawalamai which became the Magna Carta of the Vellahla supremacists, giving them the right to own and exploit slave labour and exploit the customs and laws drawn in favour of the Vellahlas ; 2. the opening up of the tobacco plantations, with the land grants from the Dutch, which made the Vellahlas rich and powerful, 3. the importing of cheap slaves from Coromandel to work in the tobacco plantations and 4, replacing the Catholic appointees of the Portuguese with the Vellahlas recruits to the Dutch administration. The recruitment of Vellahlas to the public service led to a virtual monopoly of the jobs in the public service. Hendrick Zwaardecroon, Dutch Commander of Jaffna, later complained that this recruitment “went so far as to the appointment of even (Vellahla) schoolboys as Majoraals and Cayaals from the time they left school.”
Dr. Tambiah states that the “slaves of Jaffnapatnam were divided into four castes, viz. Koviyars, Chandars, Pallas and Nallavars.” (p. 76 – Ibid).
The Vellahla migrants came from Malabaar in the the west coast of India and colonised Jaffna in the 12 and 13th centuries. They arrived carrying their casteist baggage. Slavery came later when the Vellahlas were rising as a wealthy tobacco planters. Like the British they needed cheap labour and like the British the Vellahlas reached across the Palk Straits to recruit the S. Indians as slaves. This trade reached its peak in the Dutch period. Hendrick Zwaardecroon gives a glimpse of the thriving slave trade at the time. He wrote: “Slaves from the opposite coast are brought here in large numbers, because the accounts state that from December 1, 1694, to the end of November, 1696, no less than 3,589 slaves were brought across, on each of whom was paid to the Company as duty for admittance the amount of 11 fanams, making a total of 39,424 fanams or 9,586 guilders. The people of Jaffna import these slaves only for their advantage, as they find the sale of the creature more profitable than the trade in rice or nely, these grain being at present very dear in Coromandel, which again is a reason why these slaves are very cheap there, being procurable almost for handful of rice.” (p. 29 — Dutch Memoirs, Zwaardecroon). By 1824 the British registers had recorded 15,350 Tamil slaves, according to Colebrook Commission report. .
The tax on slaves benefited the Dutch Company no doubt. But the Vellahla slave masters were the real beneficiaries. They profited the most. With their newly acquired wealth they also consolidated their base under the Dutch and became the most powerful political force. In fact, the noveau riche Vellahlas were willing to risk a political riot the moment the Dutch dared to replace a Vellahla Cannecapul (writer / clerk) with a Madapally, a rival caste of the same, if not higher, rank. Vellahla politics persistently aimed at retaining their supremacy at the expense of the other Tamils. Even under the colonial masters the Vellahlas ruled according to their traditional rules which were made by the Vellahlas to preserve the supremacy of the Vellahlas. It is their traditional laws and customs that was turned into Tesawalamai.
Describing their supremacy, M. Banks wrote: “They (Vellahlas) suppose that the whole social system is centred and focused on Vellahlas. All other castes are thought of as satellites to the Vellalas, as their servants and retainers. Those castes which do not fit into this picture, either because they never have done (for example, the fishing castes) or because of changes in the social system (artisan castes), are brushed aside as irrelevancies. Alternately, the more historically minded deplore the present time as a sad decline from the golden age when the Vellalas ruled all.” (p. 71. – M. Banks, Caste in Jaffna in E. R. Leach (ed), Aspects of Caste in S. India, Ceylon and N. W. Pakistan, Cambridge University Press, 1971.)
One of the most noteworthy characteristics of the Vellahlas was their undying attachment to their traditions, customs and laws which were embedded in the Tesawalamai, the legal Bible of the Vellahlas which guaranteed them their right to own and use slaves. The Tesawalamai that covered the main aspects of the Vellahla interests gave them the whip hand to rule Jaffna as casteist slave-owners who were no better than those who had power over life and death of the Negro slaves in the Bible Belt of America. Jane Russell who studied the social conditions in Jaffna wrote that “the pallas, landless labourers, were however, treated much like helots or serfs by the vellahlas who formed the powerful landowning class. Their position after the abolition of slavery was not much improved. As (H. W.) Tambiah observed : “Although slavery was abolished legally (in 1844), many of the depressed classes remained as de facto slaves of their masters for economic reasons. Even by the mid-20th century the status of the pallas, for example, was hardly any better than a century before. Tambiah quotes from the Manual of Madura District published in 1868 to describe the position of the pallas in 1951 : “ They are numerous but abject and despised race. Their principal occupation is ploughing the land of the more fortunate Tamils, and though normally free, they are usually slaves in almost every sense of the word. The outcasts or parayas had a deplorable social status. Among this group, there was a caste unique to Jaffna, the turumbas or washermen to the parayas. They were not allowed to be seen in the daylight and could only travel by night.”
According to the Thesawalamai, you can become a slave “by birth, purchase, by some other mode of acquisition, or by recall into slavery”(p. 80 – Ibid). The slaves had to get the consent of their masters to marry. The children of the female slaves belonged to the masters. A freed slave can be recalled and turned into a slave if he was insolent to the old master.
There was slavery even among the Sinhalese in the Kandyan province. But as in the case of caste, slavery was prevalent in the mildest form. The main difference is that the combined power of the casteism and slavery had grown into monstrous proportions, making the Vellahla slave-owners a formidable political force, with power to suppress rival castes and, later, going on the offensive against the rest of the nation. In the North caste, slavery, racism, Vellahla violence snowballed and grew into a menacing proportions as it rolled down the decades of the 20th century. But this happens to be the very factor that had been overlooked by our theoreticians, diagnosticians, social scientists who had probed into every nook and corner of the Sinhala-Buddhist society. No perceptive observer cold have missed the elephant in the room. But that is exactly what happened.
The role of our pontificating intellectuals who brushed aside the Vellahla factor as an irrelevancy needs a special study. More so, because of the dominance of Vellahla casteism as a political force till late in the 20th century, and even today, according to some research studies, has been a remarkable phenomenon. This reveals its innate power not only to survive but also in its rubbery tendency to bounce back each time it goes down. The British with their active enforcement of the abolition of slavery in 1844 succeeded in eliminating it. They went as far as buying the slaves from their Vellahla owners at 4sh. 6d. But casteism remained as a live political force. Neither the violence of Prabhakaran which was considered to be anti-Vellahala casteism, nor the Prevention of Social Disability Act, 1957 of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike had succeeded in eliminating Vellahlaism, root and branch. And the debate continues to this day as to whether it has been eliminated altogether.
What is equally phenomenal was the manner in which the Vellahlas got away with it, either by justifying it, or by covering it up, or by diverting attention to their bete noir, the Sinhalese. How did the Vellahlas manage to hide their crime against their own people, most of which were crimes against humanity, for nearly seven centuries? Why wasn’t it dealt with as a political evil the way the other oppressive regimes were exposed? While the Vellahlas were oppressing their own people under their casteist and fascist jack boots how was it possible for them to claim that they were the victims of the Sinhala majority?
The ability to cover-up their own crimes against their own people and paint the “other”, the Sinhalese, as the victimiser of the Tamils, has been a success story of the Vellahla elite manipulating peninsular politics. They are prone to point fingers at others while pretending that they are pure as new flakes of snow falling from heaven. S. J. Tambiah’s book titled Buddhism Betrayed? is a classic example. It would have shown not only his breadth of knowledge but also his depth of understanding the North-South forces that confronted each other and eventually clashed so violently, if he also wrote a book titled Hinduism Betrayed, with or without question mark. But like most Tamil intellectuals he refused to look into his own backyard. He was quite content to look into Sinhala-Buddhism on a lucrative contract given to him by Lal Jayawardena, who was then the head of WIDER, a UN organisation through which he pushed his anti-Sri Lankan political agenda, aided and abetted by his anti-Sinhala-Buddhist wife, Kumari Jayawardena, a thorough bred researcher and a noteworthy academic whenever she was not peddling her anti-Sinhala-Buddhist propaganda.
The role of our public intellectuals in plugging a mono-causal theory, blaming only the Sinhala-Buddhists, is partly responsible for the exacerbation of the North-South relations. They collectively tut-tutted about the violence against the Tamils by the lunatic fringe of the Sinhalese in the post-1956 period. That was fair enough. But why weren’t they outraged with the same vehemence, if not more, against the violence of Tamils by the Tamils? Why did they pretend that the Tamils were the victims of the Sinhala-Buddhist violence when the Tamils have been the victims of the worst kind for centuries by their Tamil masters? Why did they refuse to even peep over the cadjan curtain and look at the cruelties of the Saivite Vellahlaism? Was it because it was too shocking for them to view it? Or was it because the architect of Saivite Vellahlaism, Arumuka Navalar, had no inhibitions about preaching Hindu violence? His doctrine was spelt out clearly when he said : “It is the duty of every Saivite to kill those who steal Sivan’s property or revile him. If one is not strong enough to kill the blasphemer , one must hire another to do it. If one has nothing to hire with, one leave the country where the sinner lives. By remaining in the country one becomes a participator in the sin. (Cited as a footnote in p. 80 — The Bible Trembled, The Hindu-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon, R. F. Young and Bishop S. Jebanesan, Vienna, 1995).
Chilling, isn’t it? On what humane, or decent principles could any ethical / religious / moral leader ever goad his followers to kill the non-believers?
Western libraries are groaning with the unbearable weight of volumes written to condemn the Koran, accusing it of encouraging the killing of infidels. But when the Father of Saivite-Vellahlaism utters this barbaric statement there is either a total blackout, or thrown into marginalised footnotes, in academia, media and NGOs dominated by pro-Prabhakaranists and Hindus. Why are the Hindus of Jaffna who unleashed the Tamil Pol Pot exempt from the same judgment passed on the Muslims? In fact, the Muslims have been the victims of some of the most gruesome violence of the Vellahlas throughout their history. The Vellahlas, however, hate to be reminded of their inhumanity to their fellow- human beings, particularly the Tamils. To this day, they prefer be with Arumuka Navalar and his avatar, Prabhakaran, to any other Tamil leader. Both are worshipped to this day by the Vellahlas.
Shocked by the Vadukoddai violence unleashed by the LTTE against the Tamils, Prof. Rajan Hoole, one of the rare Tamil polymaths who had the courage to look at the internal dynamics of Jaffna objectively, once asked how such brutal violence could come out of the womb of Jaffna. He was looking for an answer to explain the rise of the bloody brutal culture of Jaffna and the mindless violence of Velupillai Prabhakaran.
In the light of what I have quoted above is there a need to go beyond Arumuka Navalar, the great hero of the Vellahla cult?