Colombo Telegraph

Moddely Tamby – The Father Of Vellahlas

By H. L. D. Mahindapala

H. L. D. Mahindapala

It is hindsight that throws insights to create and illuminate foresight. That is the beauty and value of history. It gives meaning. It also throws up warning signs for those with 20-20 vision to read the road map that points the way to destinations. Those who refuse to look back and gain the advantages of hindsight are like drivers on the road speeding without a rear vision mirror : they would never know what would come from behind and whack them off course.

A critical look at the past would also provide ample signs of the shape of things to come. If, as they say, coming events cast their shadows then one has to go no further than Moddeley Tamby to get a glimpse of the explosive events that came down from the north in the 20th century. Moddeley Tamby, hitherto unknown Tamil Vellahla Cannecapul (a writer / clerk) attached to the Commander of Jaffnapatnam, is a name that was buried in the archives of the Dutch. He figures prominently in the Memoirs of the Commander of Jaffna, Hendri Zwaardecroon, who sacked him. All hell broke loose after that. Zwaardecroon had committed the big crime of sacking a Vellahla Cannecapul and appointed another from the rival Madapally caste. In typical Vellahla fashion Moddeley Tamby rounded up the powerful Vellahlas and with some extra help from the Vanni he led the first Vellahla revolt against the Dutch. This is the first time that the Vellahlas flexed their political muscle. This was also the first of the many Vellahla encounters that were to follow and end in the violence endorsed in the Vadukoddai Resolution. There is no doubt that Moddeley Tamby’s revolt shook the Dutch administration.

The Vellahla struggle for power in the administration was worrisome to the Dutch. They knew that Vellahlaism was at the root of the problem. They kept a sharp eye on it. Zwaardecroon’s report on Tamby’s riot is an accurate characterisation of Vellahlaism that is valid even to this day. He presents a clear descriptive view of the prevailing caste politics, particularly the power of the Vellahlas and how well entrenched they were in the system even during the time of the Dutch. In his Memoirs Zwaardecroon says that the Vellahlas had the virtual monopoly of the jobs in the Dutch administration. The tax collectors, Majoraals, (minor village officials), Cannecapuls, Arachchies etc., came from the Vellahla caste. For instance, Don Philip Sangerapulle, “from Cannengray, a native of evil repute”, had “obtained during the years 1689 and 1690 all the advantages he desired for his caste and for his followers. This went so far as to the appointment of even schoolboys as Majoraals and Cayals from the time they left school.” The Vellahla monopoly was not welcome by Zwaardecroon. He brought it to the notice of Governor Thomas van Rhee who authorized him “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 adds that “it has always been a rule here not to restrict the appointment to these offices to the Bellales, but to employ the Madapallys and other castes as well, to serve as a counteracting influence; because this means the inhabitants were kept in peace and through the jealousy of the various castes the ruler was always in a position to know what was going on in the country.”

Zwaardecroon now comes to the the riot of Moddeley Tamby. He says: “ All these reasons induced His Excellency Thomas van Rhee to give me leave to bring about the necessary changes which have not been introduced. I appointed the Collector of Waddemoraatje as my Cannecapul in place of of Moddeley Tamby, whose place I filled with the new Collector of Madapally caste, while also a new Collector was appointed for Timmoraatsche in place of Don Juan Mandala Nayaga, whom the late Mr. Blom had discharged from office in one place. ….I have further transferred two Collectors in the large Province of Wallegamo, so as to gradually bring about the desired change in the interest of the Company and that of the other castes; but I heard that this small change created so much disturbance and canvassing that haad to leave the matter alone. The Bellales, seeing that they would be shut out from these profitable office 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 to the carrying into effect of this plan so prejudicial to their interests. With this view they also joined the Wannias Don Philip Nellampane and Don Gaspar Illengenarene Mudliyar in their conspiracies, The latter two, also Bellales, well aware that they owe many elephants to the Company, as stated at the beginning of tis Memoir, and known that their turn would also come, organized the riots in which the said Moddely Tamby was the principal instrument. … They also probably understood that it was my intention to diminish the influence of the Bellala caste, and were thus induced to take its course to promote the welfare of their caste.”

In many respects Moddeley Tamby represents the Vellahla political culture that dominated the colonial and post-colonial landscape. Understanding Moddeley Tambi is the key to understanding colonial and post-colonial history that flowed from Jaffna. It is the clear that he was fighting for one cause only : vellahlaism. He was fighting with the Dutch not because the job of Cannecapul went to a fellow-Tamil. No. He was fighting to grab a key post in the Dutch administration because the loss of it would “diminish the influence of the Bellala caste.” He was fighting to retain the power of the Vellahlas for the Vellahlas. Profit, power, position and prestige depended on holding key administrative positions. The Vellahlas were craving for power and getting a firm foothold in the administration was another way of sharing power with the rulers. Vellahla politics from the time of Moddeley Tamby was focused on grabbing a lion share of power in the administration. This is the factor that rose to monstrous proportions in the post-colonial period and dominated the national agenda.

The Dutch colonial setting in which Moddeley Tamby and the Vellahlas came into prominence is also important to understand the rise and flow of Vellahla politics from the 17th century to the present. The Dutch period is, indeed, a watershed for the Vellahlas because they consolidated their power and position during this period. The rise of Vellahlas as a political force in the Dutch period is highlighted by R. F. Young and Bishop S. Jebanesan in their masterly study of Jaffna society, The Bible Trembled, The Hindu-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon, Vienna, 1995. They wrote: “The peninsula became a Vellahla domain only in the Dutch era when the coastal Karaiyar caste, the bulk of which had become Catholic in the sixteenth century, was dispossessed from positions of administrative power by Vellahlas (Protestants (nominally at least) and Hindus) of untainted loyalty. In gratitude the Dutch granted concession to Vellahla landowners, especially those who cultivated tobacco, the region’s most lucrative plantation product. A steady supply of labour had been guaranteed by bonding the Nalava (the regional term for Tirunelveli toddy-tappers) and other subordinate castes to them as “soil slaves”. The Vellahlas were, therefore, advantageously positioned to affiliate remuneratively with the British when the Dutch were overthrown.” (p. 104).

Moddeley Tamby’s riot is the first political act of the Vellahalas to assert their right to be in commanding positions to exert power, even if it was as subordinate agents of the colonial masters. They emerged as a political force with the riot of Moddeley Tambi demanding that the privileged position of the Vellahlas as the ruling elite in the caste hierarchy should be preserved at any cost. Besides, the land grants given to them by the Dutch, the lucrative trade of tobacco, the mass importation of slaves by the Vellahlas to work their tobacco plantations, their privileged position in the Dutch administrative service and the Vellahla violence, their unofficial political tool, to maintain their supremacy were some of the factors that strengthened their power as a political force. It was also in 1707 that the Dutch enthroned the Tesawalamai, the laws and customs of the Jaffna Tamils, endorsed by the 12 Vellahla Mudliyars, as the guide to their rule. This legalised and enhanced the power of the Vellahlas to impose their law on the slaves and the other low-castes. Of course, the Dutch too was keen on learning the laws and customs of the natives. That would also help them to pursue their policy of divide and rule among the competing castes more effectively. In 1697, Zwaardecroon “had suggested the need for a a “concise digest” of those customs which might serve for the instruction of the members of the Court of Justice as well as for new rulers arriving here.” (p.11, The Administration of Justice in Ceylon under the Dutch Government 1656 – 1796, Prof. T. Nadaraja, Journal of he Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, New Series, Vol XII, 1968.)

The Dutch were the first to face the wrath of the Vellahlas. They found it necessary to study the pervasive and pernicious caste system for them to govern Vellahla-dominated Jaffnapatnam. They also felt the need to balance the caste rivalries if they were to maintain law and order. Governor Thomas Van Rhee drew up the first list of castes in Jaffna. He identified 40 caste groups. He listed the Vellahlas as the “most numerous of all castes”. (p.7 – Memoirs). They were also the most influential and rich. Zwaardecroon who had a rather cynical view of the Vellahlas wrote : “It is a well-known fact that the more influential natives always try to oppress the poorer classes, and it will be impossible to prevent their doing this if they allowed to become stronger than they already are.” (p.28 – Memoirs).

The oppression, cruelty and the injustices of the Vellahlas were exasperating to the Dutch rulers. Anthony Mooyart, a successor to Zwaardecroon, wrote : “It is extremely difficult, although quite necessary, to administer even justice in this (Jaffna) Commandment, so as to maintain the reputation held by the Netherlanders for wise and just government, and at the same time win the hearts of the natives and secure their loyalty. I found it most difficult to protect the poor when they had the right on their side from the peculation of their own (Vellahla) countrymen. Those who have the power and held in estimation by the authorities (i.e., the Vellahlas) are like birds of prey, who strip their victims to the bone of everything they have and leave them hardly their lives. When a poor man brings a charge against an influential Malabaar (i.e., there were no Tamils those days), or had been injured by him, the latter uses his influence in such a way that if steps be not taken to bring the offender to justice, the offence remain undetected, or if detected, the facts are so perverted that the poor man does not receive the justice which he is entitled to; while again, many others are accused who are perfectly innocent. Powerful or rich Malabaars, and even ordinary Lascoreen, often bring charges against innocent people toward whom they have a grudge, or when they fail to extort from them as much as they wish it.” (p.6 – Dutch Memoirs, Mooyart.)

The Vellahla riot led by Moddeley Tamby should be placed against this political background. The moment I stumbled into this incident whole new vistas opened up before my eyes. A Vellahla leading a riot to get back a job in the government service rang a bell. I saw Moddeley Tambi in a different light. I saw the the primary source of all the cries of grievances and discrimination that plagued the colonial and post-colonial periods written large in neon lights in the VellahaIa face of Moddeley Tambi. I saw the seeds of violence he sowed in his riot exploding with greater devastating force in the 20th and 21st centuries. I also saw the rise of Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan as Permanent Secretary to the Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake. I saw the globe-trotting Raju Coomaraswamy, the father of Radhika Cooomarswamy, sitting pretty as the king of the Treasury, very much like S. Paskaralingam in Ranil Wickremesinghe Treasury today. I saw Dr. S. Chellapah, the Director of Health, Lt. Col. Anton Muttukumara. the first Sri Lankan Army Commander, Rajan Kadiragamar, the Navy Commander, M. Tiruchelvam, Neelan Tiruchelvam’s father, the Solicitor-general, K. C. Nithiyananda, the head of the powerful Government Clerical Service Union etc., etc., marching behind Moddely Tamby, following his footsteps. In hindsight, I saw Moddeley Tamby as the father of the Vellahla Tamils who dominated the public service. I saw him as the first Vellahla activist setting the example for grabbing power with violence, if necessary.

The Moddeley Tamby mentality of the Vellahlas has been to capture the second tier of power in the administration because that is the next best option available to those who can’t capture legislative power at the peak political tier. And they guarded this privileged position in the administration with their lives. Moddeley Tambi rebelled against the Dutch because the Vellahla supremacy was threatened and the Vellahlas never tolerated any threat to their status. He began as a betel carrier to Sangarepulle “from Cannengray, a native of evil repute.” (p. 24 – Dutch Memoirs, Hendri Zwaardecroon, the Commandeur of Jaffna.). That, however, is irrelevant. What comes to fore is that he was first and foremost a Vellahla – “the most numerous” and powerful of the 40 castes enumerated by the Dutch. Moddeley Tamby raised the banner of ONLY Vellahlaism and not any cause of the Tamils. Nor did he raise an anti-colonial, pro-nationalist cry. His main objective was to retain the public service job for the Vellahlas. His resistance was to prevent it going to a rival caste, who was also a Tamil, by the way. Keeping government jobs in Vellahla hands is their way of power sharing with the rulers. Power sharing at any level is an obsession with the Vellahlas. They would not hesitate to walk over the dead bodies of their fellow-Tamils to get there.

This is why the Dutch had to face a riot. Giving an important post like a Cannecapul to the Commander of Jaffnapatnam to a non-Vellahla was an affront to Vellahla status and supremacy. It is Moddeley Tamby’s role as a Vellahla political activist, defending Vellahla supremacy, that makes him standout from the rest of his contemporaries. Historically too, he should have come into the limelight because he stands out as the first representative of political Vellahlaism which became a dominant political factor in the colonial and post-colonial history of Sri Lanka. He is the archetypal figure that represents the essence of Vellahla-centric politics that streamed down from the Dutch period to contemporary times. The main strands of casteist politics that dominated Jaffna had hardly changed since he set the pattern in his riot against the Dutch.

In the Dutch records, Moddely Tamby emerges as the first Vellahla political man who gave the lead to casteist politics. In time Vellahla casteism spread like cancer eating into the body politic of Jaffna and from there to the rest of the nation. Vellahlaism was injected into every move and counter-move that came out of Jaffna. The irony is that the Vellahla riot led by Moddeley Tambi was so insignificant it never even reached the footnotes of mainstream history, either in the north or the south. It remained buried in the records of the Dutch. As far as I know this is the first time that it has been taken out from its obscurity and examined for what it is worth. At first I was startled by the fact that the “obedient and obsequious” Vellahla Tamils had revolted against the Dutch. And the more I looked into it the more I was fascinated by Moddeley Tamby’s role. It struck a note in me. I realised that Moddeley Tamby represent more than a Vellahla man fighting for his job in the Dutch public service. It dawned on me that he was the first of the many Jaffna Tamils who would fight tooth and nail for jobs in the public service. Looking back with all the advantages of hindsight, I could not help note that he was the precursor of cataclysmic events to come.

Moddeley Tamby was driven by the internal casteist dynamics that were to determine the course of events which ended eventually in Nandikadal. He was the first to demonstrate the “craze for clerkship” in public service – a phrase coined by the Tamil Bishop of the Church of South India in Jaffna, Sabapathy Kulendra, quoted in S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 – 1977, A Political Biography, A. J. Wilson, (p. 72). This “craze for clerkship” has been the bane of Jaffna politics When G. G. Ponnambalam went before the Soulbury Commission and delivered his nine-hour lecture his main complaint was about discrimination in public service jobs – the only growth industry under colonialism. After examining the evidence the Commissioners dismissed it as stuff and nonsense. In fact, they found the Jaffna Tamils, mainly the English-educated Vellahlas, were occupying a disproportionate share of jobs in the public service.

Government service has been a second religion to the Vellahlas, next to Saivism. To the Jaffna Tamils acquiring jobs in the public service was like power-sharing in the administration of the day. Being in the commanding heights of the ruling administration gave them an advantage in policy-making and decision-making at the highest level. They were able to monitor and influence in devious ways politics to serve their interests. It was the next best thing to running a state of their own. I remember K. C. Nythiananda, the firebrand head of the Government Clerical Service Union, telling me: “You (meaning Sinhalese) govern. We (meaning Tamils) rule!”. Moddely Tambi was the first Vellahla Tamil who had the identical ambitions of Nythiananda: others may govern but the Vellahlas always wanted to rule. In short, Jaffna, as a discrete political force, cannot be understood without taking into account the internal casteist dynamics that caused Moddeley Tambi to riot against the Dutch for a job in government service. It is the vaulting ambitions of the Vellahla supremacists to rule that came out of the colonial period and dominated the post-colonial period as a destructive political force.

Vellahlaism was a politically sophisticated force. They gravitated towards power and would go to great lengths to go to bed with anyone to share power under the cover of dirty, stained sheets.The casteist mentality of Moddeley Tambi, focused particularly on capturing seats in the government, was an obsession with the Vellahla Tamils. Prof. A. J. Wilson confirmed this when he wrote : “On the whole. the Tamil vellalas have dominated government service and the professions, with the occasional member from the minority caste.” ( p.140 – Ibid). To the Vellahla Tamils it was more than dowry-earning, permanent, pensionable job, with railway warrants for free travel. It was, most of all, a political power base where they had the ear of the rulers of the day. Public service became a leading power base of the English-educated, Saivitie, Jaffna, Vellahla Tamils. So when Chelvanayakam decided to make the biggest proclamation of his career, the decision to establish a separate state for Tamils, he did not make it in Jaffna, the so-called heartland of the Tamils. He made it at the Government Clerical Service Union, (GCSU) Headquarters in Maradana. On December 14, 1949 he and his lieutenants trooped into a room, upstairs and announced his ambition to be the Jinnah of Sri Lanka. He had calculated quite correctly that for him to win Jaffna he had to win the English-educated, Saivite, Vellahlas public servants. On this day Chelvanyakam manifested himself as a reincarnation of Moddeley Tamby blown up into monstrous proportions. Christian Chelvanayakam is the Tamil genie that came out of the Saivite-Vellahla bottle and took Jaffna for a ride all the way to Nandikadal.

The “craze for clerkship” in the public service began with Moddeley Tamby. His caste-driven riot against the Dutch contains the quintessence of Jaffna politics which informed and determined the politics of Jaffna since then. He was, in short, trying to assert the divine right of the Vellahlas to rule. The unbroken continuity in the forces of Jaffna politics that determined its character throughout the colonial and post-colonial period, stemmed from the casteist factors raised and pursued by Moddeley Tamby ruthlessly. He is the primordial source and force of Vellahlaism, with “a craze for clerkship”.

He represents the most dominant political strand that ran through the colonial and post-colonial history : vellahlaism. This has been the most neglected aspect in the multitudinous volumes written on Sri Lankan history. Moddeley Tamby deserves a special place in the history of Jaffna because he is the first pioneering political activist to the raise the Vellahla banner and fight for the Vellahlas. The rest who followed him were mere imitators who ran, carrying his violent Vellahla banner, all the way to Nandikadal. It is Moddeley Tamby’s Vellahla spirit and essence that was infused into the laws and customs written down in Tesawalamai confirming the supremacy of the Vellahlas. In fact, the Dutch drafted and instituted the Tesawalamai because they felt the need understand the violent Vellahlaism unleashed by Moddeley Tamby. It is the revised version of Moddeley Tamby’s casteist ideology, seeking supremacy and legitimacy in every realm, that subsequently led to the anointment of the Vellahlas as the divinely ordained elite over all other castes by Arumuka Navalar – the caste fanatic. It was to retain the supremacy of the Moddeley Tamby’s casteism that Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan went all the way to London to pressure the Colonial Office to legalise it. It was Moddeley Tamby who reincarnated as Prof. C. Suntheralingam and stood flailing his walking stick to keep the low-castes out of the inner courts of Maviddipuram Temple. It was Moddeley Tamby who came out of the casteist bottle at the GCSU Hall in Maradana and spoke through Chelvanayakam whose ambition was to rule as the leader of the Vellahlas.

None of these leaders ever stood genuinely for the oppressed Tamils who were kicked around as subhuman pariahs during the feudal and colonial centuries. They were all cut-outs of Moddeley Tamby imitating him, sometimes in refined ways and sometimes in crude violence. In the end, it was Moddeley Tamby’s Vellahla violence that was honed and unleashed by Velupillai Prabhakaran – the Vellahla proxy who became the unwitting tool of the Vellahla politics wrapped crudely in the distorted history outlined in the Vadukoddai Resolution.

It is the Moddley Tamby mentality that created Jaffna jingoism and its latest avatar, C. V. Wigneswaran.

On the available historical evidence it is fair to conclude this essay by saying that all violent and non-violent Tamil leaders who had fought only for the Vellahlas and their divisive politics are nothing but perverted doppelgangers of Moddeley Tamby – the Father of Vellahlas.

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