By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
The brief history of Jaffna can be explored, analysed and understood only as a by-product of Saivite-Vellahlaism — the over-determining central force that impacted on every aspect of Jaffna life, from the womb to the tomb. It is this force that ran through all the phases of peninsula, particularly the first three phases, and held it together a seamless whole. So any exploration of the history that moulded the identity of Jaffna and made it what it is today must necessarily begin by taking into consideration the following three phases — i.e., 1. nearly, eight centuries of Vellahla casteism which came with the first settlers migrating from Malabar in the west coast of S. India, + 2. four centuries of slavery, imported from the Coromandel coast of the east S. India, during the Dutch period + 3. nearly, two century of the ideological impact of the only iconic religious leader, Arumuka Navalar, (1822 – 1879), who revised and reinforced Saivite-Vellahlaism and told his followers : “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 The Bible Trembled, The Hindu-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon, R. F. Young and Bishop S. Jebanesan – p. 80). All three major forces contributed collectively to make Jaffna an exclusive enclave for the oppressive and violent Vellahla political culture.
The unique characteristic of Jaffna has been in the power and the supremacy of the Saivite-Vellahlas who imposed their iron-fisted political culture on the geographical neck of Sri Lanka. From the time the first migrants from Malabar decided to settle down permanently in Jaffna in the 13th century, as stated by Prof. S. Arasaratnam, the Vellahlas pursued a single-minded policy of consolidating their power to protect and retain their supremacy. Religion, politics, law, customs, ownership of land, ideology, rituals, and the overall culture were determined by the primary needs of the Vellahlas to serve the essential interests of the Vellahlas. In short, Jaffna did not exist without the Vellahlas and Vellahlas did not exist without Jaffna. It was possible to take the Vellahlas out of Jaffna but it was impossible to take Jaffna out of the Vellahlas.
The supremacy of the Vellahlas was comprehensive and they brooked no opposition to their power, position, privileges, property and perks. Nothing moved in Jaffna without the advice and consent of the Vellahlas. As the ruling masters in control of the land, temples, professions, particularly government jobs, and the overall decision-making process, the total responsibility for what came out of Jaffna should be sheeted only to the Vellahla leadership. No other caste / class held such totalitarian power as the Vellahlas. What passes off the Tamil culture is nothing but the Vellahla culture. They were the elite who laid down, with fascist force if necessary, the standards for conduct in all spheres, from the status birth to the final burial. Nothing that was not endorsed by the Vellahla codes of conduct was considered legitimate.
In assessing the forces that moulded Jaffna social scientists had not focused seriously on investigating the primary source that determined Jaffna politics : the Saivite-Vellahlaism. It has been the overwhelming force that went to make Jaffna and yet no comprehensive study of Saivite-Vellahlaism as the central force driving the politics of the peninsular had been made. Prof. Bryan Pfaffenberger, Prof. Ratnajeevan and Prof. Rajan Hooles and Bishop S. Jebanesan and R. F. Young have dealt with critical aspects of Vellahlaism. Nevertheless, the overall impact of Vellahlaism, both in Jaffna and on the national stage, has not been explored to the degree required to understand the post-independent scene. Vellahlaism came down like the most destructive juggernaut from the North and destroyed everything in its wake and yet that is the very force that has not been factored into analysing the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the post-independent era. Why? How did our intellectuals and social scientists miss this obvious factor? Why did they focus on the South and turned a blind eye to the North?
Throughout its history Vellahla casteism has been an incurable force. The Vellahla elite sincerely – nay, religiously – believed that in enforcing and perpetuating their caste system they were rendering a great service to mankind. They could be excused for believing in it in the feudal ages when there were no alternatives available for redemptive politics. But for the pillars of Tamils society to commit themselves so tenaciously and rabidly to a fascist system that was palpably oppressive and immoral in the 20th century condemns the Vellahla elite as the most evil force that retarded the progress of Jaffna and prevented its smooth transition into the modernity.
They were obsessed with Vellahlaism and went to extreme lengths to preserve it at any cost. On the one hand, their most respected political leader Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan went on special mission to London to legitimise Vellahla casteism as a permanent way of life. And on the other, they came down south to woo the Sinhala Goigamas ( the equivalent of the Tamil Vellahlas) to form political alliances and consolidate the power of casteist forces in the North. The little-known moves by the Tamil Vellahlas to join hands with the Sinhala Goigamas in the early decades of the 20th century were revealed by Prof. A. Jeyaratnam Wilson who wrote : “In fact, during these years there was discussion in certain influential Ceylon Tamil circles about the possibility of a political alliance between the Sinhalese Goyigama and their Ceylon Tamil Vellala counterparts. Such a view was seriously put forward at a closed meeting of Ceylon Tamils at the Combo Town Hall in 1945. These Ceylon Tamils hoped to trade on the contempt that some of the influential Goyigama politicians had for Karava…..In fact, as stated earlier, the Vellala dominated Ceylon Tamil leadership thought in terms of a partnership with their Sinhalese Goyigama counterparts to the exclusion to the exclusion of the powerful Sinhalese Karawa caste as well as other influential caste groups among the Sinhalese.” (pp. 466-467 – Ch. XIV, Race, Religions, Language and Caste in the Subnationalisms of Sri Lanka, in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Edited by Michael Roberts, Marga Institute, 1979).
Clearly, the Vellahlas, fearing the threats coming at them from the invasive forces of modernity, were running in all directions to protect and consolidate their power and privileges. The move of the Tamil leadership to form caste alliances with its Sinhala counterparts also confirms that the Tamil leadership, even as late as the thirties, was not concerned about Tamil nationalism, or of establishing a Tamil separate state, or about the welfare of the low-caste Tamils. They were, as usual, obsessed with only preserving Vellahla casteist interests and Vellahla supremacy. The Tamil leadership was ever willing to abandon the Tamils and join hands with their bete noir in the South to protect Vellahla supremacy in the North. In essence, Vellahlaism constituted the long and the short of Northern politics. It was when the anti-Vellahla internal forces were gathering momentum and threatening the supremacy of the Vellahlas that they took cover behind Tamil nationalism. At this stage they shifted from Vellahlaism to racism and from there to federalism and to separate state – movements that were initiated by the Vellahlas, managed by the Vellahlas for the survival of the Vellahlas. Tamil nationalism emerged only in the last stages of Vellahlaism that was losing its feudal religious and political legitimacy to maintain its supremacy over the other castes.
In its heyday, the Saivite-Vellahla culture reigned supreme in Jaffna, even among the Christian Vellahlas. During the colonial times, it was quite common for the Vellahlas to act as Christian converts by day and revert to Hinduism by night. This demonstrated the overwhelming power of the Vellahla casteist culture. The implacable Vellahla culture found its best expression in the person of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam who declared that though he was Christian by religion he was Hindu by culture. In other words, it confirmed that not even Christians could escape the power of the dominant Vellahlas culture, with its overwhelming casteist pull. Besides Chelvanayakam, being a Christian, had to make concessions at some time point if he was to retain his leadership in predominantly Hindu society.
It was also an acknowledgment of the hidden fact that Jaffna society and Hinduism – the Saivite version revised again by Arumuka Navalar – were inseparable. Jaffna was essentially a theocratic society ruled by militant Hinduism. Navalar takes Krishna advice to Arjuna, the Hamlet in the Baghavad Gita, and pushes it to the extreme. Arjuna who is debating whether to fight or not in the battle field is told by Krishna to do his duty as a warrior and fight even if it means killing his kith and kin. Hindus derive their militancy from this call to militant action in the Gita. Arumuka Navalar’s doctrine of killing enemies of Siva has its roots in doing his duty as defined in Hindu militancy. He interpreted it to mean killing the non-believers. The aggressive and intolerant Hindutva ideology remained as an intransigent force even among the converted Christians. It sealed the character of Jaffna as a closed society, leaving no space for any alternative ideology / force to rise within the cadjan curtain that ringed round Jaffna, isolating it from the rest.
The contrast with the south reveals two different cultures. The south was a democratic, liberal and cosmopolitan society while the north was a closed monolithic entity that kept the asangha out. (Asangha means to be out of the Hindu fold, to be lower than the lowest caste, says Prof.s. Ratnajeevan Hoole, The Exile Returned. ) Nothing that was anathema to the Saivite Hinduism (as revised by Navalar) had a chance of getting even a toe-hold in Jaffna. Ruthless Vellahla culture ran through Jaffna history as one main stream, preserving its mono-ethnic, mono-cultural identity. Its intransigence, its intolerance, its violence, its elitism, its exclusiveness (as opposed to the inclusiveness of the south), its refusal to accept any liberal or democratic forces, point to the inevitability of violent confrontations with the asangha, whether within or outside Jaffna.
Jaffna, in short, was a cultural singularity. Considering its ill-liberal, undemocratic, slave-owning, casteist fanaticism tending towards Hindu fundamentalism, it is legitimate to question the totality of the Tamil historical experience in the North, particularly because the reality, as outlined above, is in stark contrast to the romanticised mythology of Jaffna as a paradisiacal heartland of the Tamils. it is natural and also necessary to question its values and its vaunted achievements, if any. Besides, it is also time to question the entire Tamil historical experience because they had finally come to the end of the longest war in their history – the war that ran for 33-years, starting from the declaration of the Vadukoddai War by the Tamil leadership on May, 14, 1976 and ending on May 18, 2005 in Nandikadal. After all, it was a war which they fought in the name of protecting and preserving the Tamils, their language and their culture. So at the end of their war what did they achieve in Nandikadal ? Did they not return to square one, which is what was already there before the Vellahla leadership launched their insane war?
After the reign of terror unleashed by Velupillai Prabhakaran, after the abduction of Tamil children to fight in a futile war, after the massacre of the entire Tamil leadership, after killing more Tamils than all the other forces put together, after building a swimming pool for Prabhakaran and his children in centre the dry Vanni, after siphoning off the food and medicine sent by the “Sinhala Government” for the sustenance of its Tamil citizens, after holding 300,000 Tamil citizens as hostage to survive in a war that he had already lost, what did Prabhakaran leave as his legacy for the Tamils? Was there anything left for the Tamils to boast about other than humiliation? What great artist did his fascist culture produce? What justice did his kangaroo courts deliver to the oppressed Tamils? How much freedom was there for the Tamils to move freely? Did R. Sampanthan and M. Sumanthiram find their dignity and liberty under “the Sinhala government”? Or under Prabhakaran’s jackboots? What glory did the helpless Tamil parents find in watching their children being dragged forcibly by the Tamil Boko Harams? Prabhakaran gave suicide pills for the children of other Tamil parents before they went out on their suicide missions and he, in his last hours, surrounded himself with a human wall of 300,000 Tamil civilians who were shot when they tried to flee his clutches. Are these the achievements of the greatest Tamil hero? What is the worth of a culture that permits its leader to forcibly drag children into a futile war? What life chances did the great Tamil hero give to his people? Did he even allow the cries of the Tamil mothers be heard outside Vanni like the cries of the Tamil women who cried so copiously in front of Samantha Power and Navineethan Pillai?
Besides, what is the value of a culture that never had a streak of liberalism, humanism, socialism or any other liberating “ism” except oppressive Vellahlaism? Since the fundamental objective of the culture of Vellahlaism has been to oppress, persecute and deny the under-privileged low-caste Tamils their basic rights as human beings, what is left of the Tamil historical experience that could be equated with the humane values of other communities that contributed to the good of humanity? Is there any ethical, moral, religious, or cultural legacy left behind by the Tamil forefathers who were Vellahla casteists, or slave-drivers, or violent Hindu fundamentalists?
Perhaps, the answer could be found in the following counter-questions : Isn’t it logical that evil must necessarily breed evil? Considering the overdetermining factors that rejected any liberating ideology or force (as listed above) is it surprising that there was space only for one overwhelming force to spring from the perennial fascist culture of the Vellahla supremacists : Velupillai Prabhakaran, “the pathological killer” ( Prof. James Jupp, ANU, Australia) who liquidated more Tamils than all the other forces put together, as stated by the Tamil leaders? Prabhakaranism constituted the final stage of despotic fascism that ruled Jaffna. The history of Jaffna is wrapped essentially in the four ideologies : 1. fascist Vellahlaism; 2. primitive slavery; 3. Saivite Navalarism and 4. political Prabhakaranism — all of which are linked to the political culture of the Vellahlas. There was nothing significant in Jaffna outside these four dehumanising forces. It must be repeated again, for emphasis, that the most striking feature of the peninsular political culture has been the absence of a single Jaffna-centric liberal, democratic, humanistic, religious, political or moral force to save the Tamils from the successive fascist masters / ideologues. Neither in the creative arts and religion, nor in politics did anything originate in Jaffna to liberate the oppressed Tamils. Jaffna was an imitative society which borrowed the key elements from Tamil Nadu and remained as a sterile billabong.
Even Arumuka Navalar, the greatest cultural icon of Jaffna, was a mere importer of the Tamil Nadu culture to Jaffna. He is described as a “collector and editor of rare (Tamil) books” ( p.189 – Ibid). The two joint authors add: “Contrary to convention, we view Navalar more from a regional than local perspective, as less initiatory than remarkably well attuned and responsive to events and trends on the opposite side of the Palk Straits separating Jaffna from Madras Presidency. Viewed from this angle, there was actually little in the Northern revival that had not already appeared first in Madras or the rural districts of the mainland (e.g., Tirunelveli ). Instead of the usual emphasis on what Navalar achieved in India, we stress how India influenced him. Revivalism in Jaffna did have distinctive features that will be discussed in relations to the fact of Vellahlas domination in North Ceylon, but the Tamil mainland was far ahead of Jaffna in giving birth to the reactionary revivalism of the 1840s.” (p. 41 – Ibid).
Put together, the totality of Jaffna history adds up to eight centuries of fascist despotism that ruthlessly denied the Tamil people their basic human rights. The four dominant forces – casteism, slavery, Saivism and Prabhakaranism – reinforced each other and eventually melded into one solid force of Vellahlaism, the ultimate in fascist culture of Jaffna. After Arumuka Navalar revised Saivism to elevate the Vellahlas to the top of the caste hierarchy, his dogmatic Saivite doctrines categorised Jaffna officially into two irreconcilable socio-religious layers – the upper level of Vellahlas and the lower level of non-Vellahlas. Up until the 1930s the repressive Vellahla forces remained within the borders of the peninsula. However, in the dying days of the British Raj Vellahlaism spilled over to the south, gathering momentum all the way until it ran down to Nandikadal.
The Vellahla militancy that ran amok in the south opened up a new chapter in the history of the Vellahlas. It began with the Vadukoddai Resolution May 14, 1976. Vellahlaism found its comprehensive expression of its culture, history and politics in the Vadukoddai Resolution. It was the last throw of the Vellahla dice. As in most ideologies, its power was in the mythic glorifications than in the historical realities. The leading left-wing historian, Erick Hobsbawn pooh-poohed the Vadukoddai myths as examples that go to concoct “nationalisms”. That apart, the Vadukoddai Resolution emerged as the definitive definition of the Vellahla ideology that served the elusive Eelamist agenda. Either intentionally or unintentionally, it encapsulated the Hindutva militancy expressed by Arumuka Navalar (as outlined above).
The Vellahlas who met at Vadukoddai fulfilled Navalar’s ideology to the last full stop. The first point he made was to kill the non-believers and, true enough, the Vellahlas declared war in the Vadukoddai Resolution. Second, he said to hire someone else if they can’t do it themselves and the Vellahlas asked “the youth to take up arms”. Third, he asked, the Vellahlas to go into exile if they can’t do it because it’s a sin to stay in the land of the sinners. And the Vellahlas flocked to the West to find greener pastures.
No wonder the Vellahlas worship Navalar as their demi-god. The only obstacle to be the ”sole deity of the Tamils” is that the hired killer, Prabhakaran, is now competing with Navalar to take the first place in the Tamil pantheon. If, as claimed by some researchers, Vellahlaism is raising its ugly head again, then the chances are that Arumuka Pillai, who was anointed as “Navalar” (orator) in 1849, is likely to triumph over the low-caste hero of the Tamils, Prabhakaran – the biggest killer of Tamils.
For the moment, we will have to leave it as a toss up between the between the preacher (Navalar) and the prosecutor of his preaching (Prabhakaran).