By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
I wish to forward the following e-mail I received from Mr. Ramachandra Sunderalingam, the Police Superintendent of Jaffna when the Maviddipuram revolt of the low-castes was at its peak. I think this letter has value for research students digging deep into the caste issue in Jaffna. It is an insightful first-hand account of an eye-witness who actively participated in the negotiations with his namesake, C. Suntheralingam (CS), the casteist firebrand who was leading the Vellahla counter-attack to keep out the low-castes storming the gates of Maviddipuram Temple. It also reveals the tightly-knit caste network of the Vellahlas who were pulling for each other from their commanding positions in strategic places.
Mark you, CS was a professor of mathematics and had been a Cabinet Minister in the Cabinet of D. S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. CS is the archetypical Vellahlite who combined in him the two main characteristics that defined a Vellahla : 1. casteism and 2. racism. He was well-known for running down the Sinhalese saying: Sinhalaya modaya, kavun kanda yodaya. As revealed in this letter CS went as far as the Privy Council to defend Vellahla supremacy denying the low-castes their basic right of worshipping the shared Hindu God/s. Readers will also remember that another star Vellahla leader, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, too went to London to urge the colonial masters to legalise the caste system in the interests of the people of Jaffna. Which, of course, meant the Vellahla ruling elite.
Mr. Sunderalingam retired from Sri Lanka Police and served in the top rungs of Interpol located in Paris. He now lives in Chennai. Here’s the full text of Mr. Sunderalingam’s letter:
Just returned to Chennai from Hyderabad. A Lecture at the Police Academy. Well, you have written a thesis on Vellala caste Tamils in the Jaffna Penninsula. A well researched analysis. My input will be minimum, confined to my personal experience and happenings on caste disputes during my 6 year tenure in Jaffna as SP Northern Province. It was a fact the Vellalla community, considered the High Caste, dominated all political and economic activities in the Peninsula for decades in the pre-Independent and post-Independent Ceylon. In 1970 all Jaffna MPs were Vellallas. If one had visited a village in Jaffna, one could have observed that the Vellalas lived in residential area in well built houses, the lower castes always lived in clusters in the outskirts in cadjan sheds doing daily menial work for the high caste Vellalla Hindus and Christians. To be fair, Christians were more compassionate. It was during the sixties the so called depressed classes including Nalavas, Pallars, Parayas etc etc woke up , thanks to Mr Shanmugathasan and his Peking-wing set up a “Minority” (low-caste) front to fight for their rights
Prevention of Social Disabilities act 1957 was only an act in the statute book to deal with social disabilities based on caste discrimination, more applicable to Jaffna Penninsula. The bubble burst with the Maviddapuram Temple Dispute in 1968. My namesake Mr C. Sunderalingam (CS), a fanatic, put up a barricade in front of the Temple dividing the area. The outside area was exclusively for the Lower castes while a separate entrance was erected for the so-called Vellala caste people to walk closer to the inner sanctum.
I visited the Temple with a Police Squad when tensions were running high. I saw CS, with a walking stick, ordering the Palla community worshippers to do their worshipping by standing behind the barricade. They were not allowed to enter the sacred area reserved only for the upper caste. In the meantime, GA Jaffna, Vernon Abeysekera, and Mr Stanley Senanayake, SP Special Operations Anti-Immigration, KKS also arrived on the scene. Negotiations failed and free-for-all occurred between CS group and Minority group. It was not a major clash. Only a few were injured.
I mentioned to CS that he was morally bound to open the Temple to all persons alike or close the Temple doors for everyone. I remember telling him God is equal to every one standing before him. Mediation with CS failed and Temple doors were closed. In one of the telegrams sent by CS to IGP and PM he alleged that the SP was acting as a Dictator and asked for my removal. PM Dudley Senanayake was well briefed by IGP. PM’s response : “Let the Sundaralingama fight it out”. The next morning Sunday Observer headlined “The Battle of the Sundaralingams rages in the North.” Police filed a plaint against CS under the Social Disabities Act. Same time CS filed action against me for Unlawful Assembly etc in Mallakam Courts.
The Magistrate was a die-hard Vellalla who was determined to go for trial. I went to Colombo, and met Attorney General, Mr Victor Tennakoon. By virtue of his position under the criminal procedure he had the right to withdraw any private plaint filed against any Government official. When the State counsel appeared in Court with A/G’s letter on the next date, this caste-minded Magistrate rejected A/G’s plea and document. Believe me, this case went up to Supreme Court (SC) in Colombo. It overuled the Magistrate’s order and granted my discharge. In the meantime, Police filed action against CS under Social Disabilities Act and he was fined Rs 100. 00 and warned. When, however, SC upheld the Magistrate’s order CS went to Privy Council. With his personal appearance he was hopeful that the conservative Lords will accept his arguments based on the customs and traditions of the Jaffna Tamils but the Privy Council upheld the SC order. Mr Gratien appeared for the Govt of Ceylon. This was the last Privy Council case from Sri Lanka with no more appeals after that ( I believe).
Aftermath- Maviddapuram Temple was closed, with an injunction filed by AG restraining CS and the Maviddapuram High Priest. My evidence was recorded for 3 days in District Court of Jaffna. In 1971 a Parliamentary Committee composed of Pieter Keuneman, Leslie Goonewardena and Cholomondely Gunawardena, with my recommendation, passed a new amendment to 1957 Act with more stringent provisions
Caste discrimination prevailing in Jaffna, no doubt, initially led to the growth of extremist Tamil Youth Movements. One Sivakumar, identfiied as a Militant Youth leader before Prabaharan in 1970, planned a campaign in the Peninsula for a common sit-down meal comprising all-caste youth in one sitting. This was a movement to get all youths of all castes together. Sivakumar was suspected in two bomb throwing incidents, including Alfred Duraippah’s car bomb incident, during this period. To begin with, all Youth leaders of the LTTE came from VVT Karaiyar caste.
I have always stated that the detention of Rohana Wijeweera in Jaffna 1971 and JVP attack on Jaffna Jail was an inspiration to Jaffna Youth. The cry in Jaffna was : If Sinhala Youths can revolt against Government what are we doing? From one perspective, it can be argued that Rohana Wijieweera created Prabahaharan (?).
You are free to quote me in the incidents and happenings in Jaffna during my tenure in Jaffna.
Best wishes to your wife.
PS : On a personal note, may I add that Sunda’s family and my family have been close from our salad days. In fact, my wife and I shared one wing of the palatial house of his equally famous brother, Dr. R. Pararajasekaram, the eye surgeon, at Turret Road, almost opposite the Liberty Cinema. My wife and I lived as his guest for years. Dr. Pararajasekeram worked as a volunteer with Fred Hollows, attending to the optical needs of Aborigines in remote places in the Northern Territory. Later he joined WHO. My wife and I are grateful to his generosity. We are privileged to be friends of such a distinguished family.