By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
The status and power of the Vellahlas took a dramatic turn with the coming of the Dutch. The Vellahlas were elevated officially by a foreign power to the top of the caste hierarchy when the Dutch recognised them as the ruling caste of Jaffna. This status was officially confirmed in the Tesawalamai (1707) — the legal Bible of the Tamils of Jaffna drafted initially by the Dutch colonialists as guide for good governance. The Dutch were the first to codify the laws and customs of Jaffna and when they drafted the Tesawalamai (desa = land + walamai = customs and laws) it was handed to the twelve Vellahla Mudliyars who, after examining it, endorsed it as the valid laws and customs of the land. Tesawalamai not only reinforced the rigid Saivite caste system enthroning the Vellahlas at the top but also endorsed slavery in Jaffna. As laid down in the Tesawalamai those born into the Koviar, Pallar, Chandar and Nallavar castes were condemned as slaves from birth and the Vellahlas were their masters with powers of life and, sometimes (unofficially), death, over them.
With the power of being recognised legally as the ruling caste by the colonial masters, the Vellahlas did not hesitate to act ruthlessly and unrelentingly to maintain their supremacy. The Vellahlas fought the oppressed non-Vellahla Tamils of Jaffna tooth and nail, from the womb to the tomb, to prevent any challenges to their power and prestige. The primary political objective of the Vellahlas was to keep the low-castes apart as untouchables who would pollute their purity if the latter were treated as their equals, Living above the rest to maintain their purity was their mark of superiority as defined in Saivism. Though battles to preserve casteist purity were fought ceaselessly as a sacred principle of their religion, Vellahlaism was, in essence, a violent political force operating from feudal times to maintain their supremacy at any cost. They fought the oppressed Tamils in every domain to keep them down as a species unfit for human contact or relationships, except as slaves, or inferior subjects. Whenever religious and secular laws of the Vellahlas were threatened they never failed to suppress the oppressed non-Vellahlas under their fascist jackboots. Vellahla thugs were the unofficial police force that maintained Vellahla law and order in the peninsula.
To the oppressed non-Vellahlas, Jaffna was the black hole of inhuman casteism which deprived them of their dignity, self-respect and basic rights like walking in day time. The turumbas, for instance, were allowed to walk only in the nights, just in case their sighting should pollute the purity of the Vellahlas eyes. In their nocturnal peregrinations the turumbas were forced to cry out loud saying : “The turumbas are coming!” as a warning to the Vellahlas to keep them out of sight. Casteist Jaffna was bizarre as a Kafkesque nightmare.
In the post-Tesawalamai period, Vellahlaism turned out to be more than a ritualistic caste. It turned into an iron-fisted fascist force which reduced the oppressed non-Vellahlas to a subhuman species. When the draft of the Tesawalamai was presented to the twelve Vellahla Mudliyars for their comments they endorsed everything and argued only for the tightening of the laws to give more powers to the Vellahla masters over their Tamil slaves. Under the Dutch, Vellahlaism emerged as an overwhelming political force with power to control key existential aspects of Tamil society. Saivism and Tesawalamai worked together from the religious and secular ends to keep the low-castes caged tightly inside a socio-political straight jacket from which the low-castes had no escape. On the one hand, Saivism had anointed the Vellahlas as the highest in the caste hierarchy under the laws of God. And, on the other, Tesawalamai confirmed them as the highest authority under the laws of man. The low-castes could not appeal either to God or to man for their salvation.
Armed with the authority of the religious and secular laws, the Vellahla commanded the highest prestige and power in Tamil society. Keeping the non-Vellahla Tamils subjugated to the superior will of the Vellahlas has been the primary objective of Vellahla-driven Northern political agenda. The Vellahlas fought the outcasts to keep them out of (a) their pure water in wells – they even dropped faeces into the wells of the low-castes, (b) their schools which were burnt if the low-castes were admitted, (c) their churches where there were separate pews for the low-castes, (d) seats in public places, (e) their Hindu kovils, and, last but not the least, (f) even burial grounds. In some instances, the low-caste Tamils were punished by the Vellahla thugs for wearing banned clothes or jewellery – symbols that announced the supremacy of the Vellahlas,
Tesawalamai legalised the abject misery of the Tamil slaves and the oppressed Tamil castes. Slavery was banned under Regulation 20 of 1844, Abolition of Slavery Ordinance. However, Dr. H. W. Tambiah, revealed that “(T)hough slavery was abolished legally many of the depressed classes remained as de facto slaves of their masters for economic reasons.” (p.85 – The Laws and Customs of the Tamils of Jaffna, published by Women’s Education and Research Centre.) The hawk-eyed Vellahlas were ever vigilant and fought in religious, social, political and legal fronts to retain their Vellahla power, privileges and prestige. Dr. Tambiah cites a legal battle waged by the Vellahlas to prevent the low-castes from burying their dead according to Hindu rites, namely, the beating of tom-toms, which the Vellahlas claimed to be their exclusive right. Vellahla thugs attacked the funeral procession. They were found guilty of unlawful assembly. They appealed and the Vellahla claim to use force in defence of their traditional rights was defended by no less a dignitary than Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan.
Commenting on this criminal and civil case Dr. Tambiah wrote : “In Queen vs. Ambalavanar, a man of one caste wish to bury his wife according to certain ceremonies which the neighbours of a difference caste thought were only applicable to them. The neighbours assembled together so as to form an unlawful assembly. They were convicted of the charges of unlawful assembly, and they appealed. The late Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan contended in appeal that the accused had the right to act in the way they did, in view of section 8 of Regulation No. 18 of 1806. It was not brought to the notice of the Court that this Regulation had been repealed by Regulation 20 of 1844.”
In a stinging judgment His Lordship Burnside, CJ., said : “In the present, it might be sufficient to ask what does this mean? Does it really mean that by the laws of this country one of Her Majesty’s subjects could be prevented from honouring the dead in a particular way; because some other persons or a body of people said they had the exclusive privilege of of doing so? But suppose it is conceded that it is the law, and that the Supreme Court should be moved for a writ of injunction to prevent a woman from being carried to the grave to the sound of tom-tom, does it follow that body of men may assemble themselves together, and by show of force and the terror of the other subjects of the Queen enforce their own own edit to that effect against the party who favoured the tom-tom. I apprehend not. I make bold to hold that the Malabar inhabitants of the Province of Jaffnapatam…. cannot take the law into this own hands, and seen to administer it after the fashion of Judge Lynch.” (Ibid – pp 85-86).
The oppressive and cruel politics of the Vellahlas cast a dark shadow across the whole of the peninsula throughout the feudal, colonial and even during the post-colonial period until the rise of Velupillai Prabhakaran. Their over-determining role that spilled over from the neck of Jaffna into the rest of the south in the post-independent period cannot be ignored. Dr. Tambiah summed it up when he wrote that “the student of the social sciences 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.” (Ibid – p. 74).
Our half-baked social scientists, most of whom were one-eyed Jacks and Janes, picked on stray anti-Tamil comments – comments only, mark you, — of Anagarika Dharmapala and A. E. Goonesinha, the first labour leader, to point an accusing finger at the Sinhala-Buddhist south for the north-south conflict without giving equal weightage to the more vicious and corrosive internal dynamics of peninsular politics which not only systematically oppressed the non-Vellahla Tamils on a mass scale for centuries but also exacerbated the north-south relations by dragging fascist casteism into extreme racism. Blaming the Sinhala-Buddhist south was a deliberate ploy to divert attention from the crimes committed by the Vellahla leadership against the Tamils. Any attempt to focus on the Vellahla crimes would take away the sting from their accusations of “discrimination” by “the Sinhala governments”. Their usual litany of complaints blaming “the Sinhala governments” gave the licence for the Vellahla leadership to get away with discriminating, persecuting and killing their own people on a mass scale with impunity.
Anyway, assuming that there is some substance in finger-pointing at the Sinhala-Buddhists, consider how it compares with cruel crimes committed against the Tamils by the Vellahla leadership. Historical records prove that the mass scale crimes against the Tamils were committed by the Tamil leadership during feudal, colonial and post-colonial times, and not by the Sinhalese. The oppression, persecution and killing of Tamils stand out as crimes against humanity committed exclusively by the Vellahla supremacists to protect and preserve their power and privileges. In the post-colonial period it was the Vellahla proxy, Velupillai Prabhakaran, that killed more Tamils than all the others put together, according to S. C. Chandrahasan, son of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, and V. Anandasangaree, leader of Tamil United Liberation Front. The issue of discrimination by “the Sinhala governments”, and even sporadic mob violence against the Tamils, bears no comparison to what the oppressed Tamils have endured during the better part of their history by the Tamil leadership. It should also be emphasised that the Sinhalese had never oppressed the Tamils, or any other community, like the way the Tamils were persecuted, oppressed and even killed by the Vellahla leadership and their proxy, Prabhakaran. The caste discrimination imposed by the Vellahlas on their own people denied the Tamils of their basic human rights – something which the Sinhalese never did. Nor does any social scientist have any evidence to prove that the Sinhalese have committed crimes against the Tamils people on the scale of Vellahlas, or their proxy Velupillai Prabhakaran.
All the accusations against the Sinhalese were confined to the post-Donoughmore period which began in 1930. But our social scientists deliberately refused to look over the cadjan curtain into the systemic discrimination and cruel oppression built into “the Tamil Society” from feudal times, or even from the time Tesawalamai was officially codified in 1707. On any historical or social scale no one has surpassed the colossal oppression and misery imposed on the Tamil people by their Vellahla leadership. What the Tamils have done to the Tamils throughout their history has made Jaffna the hell-hole of Pol Potist tyranny. Ironically, in a total distortion of historical realities, it is the Sinhalese who are accused of discriminating against the Tamils – an issue that will be dealt with later.
This one-eyed view of post-independent history has contributed in large measure for the distortion and the exacerbation of the north-south relations. As stated by Dr. Tambiah national politics cannot be understood without a clear grasp of “the structure of Tamil Society”. But the discourse on this subject so far has not taken into consideration “the proper setting of the Tamils”, or the internal dynamics of peninsular politics, that incrementally pushed the Tamil agenda to mono-ethnic extremism. By and large, the references to the role of the Tamils have been superficial or negligible in comparison to the overwhelming mass of literature that had poured out of the pro-Tamil lobby to demonise the Sinhala-Buddhists. The finger-pointing would have had some justification if the Sinhalese had committed within the last 60-odd years of its rule even a fraction of what the Vellahla leadership had committed against the oppressed Tamils from feudal and colonial times. Comparing feudal and colonial centuries of Vellahla oppression of Tamils to 60-odd years of what they call “the Sinhala governments” is like comparing the mini-dagobas of Kantadorai in Jaffna to Jetawanaramaya – the third tallest structure of the ancient world next to the Pyramids of Giza.
To understand the overpowering political role of the Vellahlas in regional and national politics it is necessary to go to the Dutch records. Their records give a stunning insight into the Vellahla politics, their aggressive tendencies to crush their rivals, with violence, if necessary, and their craving to grab power and privileges at any cost. The Vellahlas, ensconced in seats of power from the time of Dutch occupation, were not willing to co-exist with the other Tamil castes or communities, if and when they felt threatened. Both as a caste or as a class they pursued their politics aggressively. Historian S. Arasaratnam wrote : “The Vellahlas never gave up heir ascendancy has been carried into the modern democratic system by their numerical preponderance.
“The Vellahlas were thus the key caste in the Tamil social system. They dominated the villages and ran its affairs. The numerous other castes served the Vellahlas “ ( p. 110 – Ceylon, Prentice- Hall Inc. 1964).
The rise of the Vellahlas as the most dynamic and over-determining force in Sri Lankan politics has neither been studied nor emphasised by our social scientists. This is a force that has not been factored into historical or political analyses. This has been the hidden factor in national politics. The Vellahlas have been the primary political force that overtook all other political forces, including the Marxists, and captured the centre stage of national politics Volumes have been produced without any reference to this critical factor that determined the course of post-independent history. The Vellahlas emerged as a dominant, if not the dominant, political force in the post-independent period. Like in India, caste politics played a key role in the Sri Lankan political landscape. But no other caste rose to power, subjugating all other castes, to dominate regional and national politics as the Vellahlas. This is the unique characteristic of the Vellahlas who fought only for the Vellahlas. Though they lived among the Tamils they prevailed as a separate political entity from the Tamils at the grassroots. They lived like the yolk and the white in the egg – two separate entities inside one shell. Any discourse on Sri Lankan politics without the Vellahlas is like talking about Hamlet without the Prince. In Gramscian / Machiavellian terms they can be classified as a demonic “Modern Prince” riding high on the ideology of mono-ethnic extremism.
To understand the Vellahlas it is necessary to go back to the Dutch period when they rose as an inveterate and aggressive political force. What is not discussed in the known literature is the first aggressive attack launched by the Vellahlas to crush their rival caste, Madapallis, competing with them for a job in the Dutch administration. In hindsight it can be viewed as a landmark event – a precursor to the aggressive politics of the post-independent period. The revolt of the Vellahlas against the Dutch was to crush their rival caste, the Madapallis, who were seen as a threat to the privileged position they held in the Dutch administration.
Occupying channels of direct access to the colonial masters was essential for them to consolidate and promote Vellahlas interests. Their attempt to grab power defeating the rival caste is recorded faithfully, in graphic details, by Commandeur of Jaffna, Hendri Zwaardecoon. It is the Dutch who first recognised and recorded the Machiavellian tactics of the Vellahlas to eliminate their rivals. His report describes and explains the Vellahla obsession with power and the drive to grab jobs and all state advantages for themselves. The politics of the time was dominated by caste rivalry to obtain jobs in the Dutch administration. Handling caste rivalry presented a knotty problem for the Dutch rulers. For instance, the Dutch Governor Van Rhee wrote in his Memoirs : “ I think it is necessary to state that a bitter and irreconcilable hatred exists between the people of Ballala and of the Madapalli castes. It has therefore, always been the rule in Jaffnapatanam not to elevate one above the other. For this reasons the two Canecappals, or writers of the Commandeur, are taken from two castes so that one may be a Ballala and the other a Madapalli.” (Memoirs of Van Rhee – p. 12).
This caste rivalry should be kept in mind in reading the following report of Commandeur Zwaardecoon which speaks volumes about the Vellahlas and their aggressive casteist politics:
“The tax collectors and Majoraals (minor village officials) are native officers appointed by the Company to demand and collect the poll tax, land rent, tithes, and the Officie and Adigary rates…..In the year 1690 a change was made in the appointment of the Collectors and Majoraals. Up to that time all these and many Cannecappuls, Arachchies, and collectors belonged to one caste, viz, that of the Bellales, being farmers or peasants. The principal of these being to the family of Don Philip Sangerepulle, from Cannengray, a native of evil repute; so much so, that His Excellency the Extraordinary Councillor of India, Laurens Pyl, who was at the time governor of Ceylon, issued an order on June 16, 1687, by which Commandeur Cornelis van der Duyn and his Council were instructed to have the said Don Philip and several of his followers and accomplices put in chains and sent to Colombo. He succeeded, however, in concealing himself and eventually fled to Nagapatam, where he managed to influence the merchant Babba Porboe to such an extent that through his aid he obtained during the years 1689 and 1690 all the advantages he desired for his caste and for his followers. This went so far as the appointment of even schoolboys as Majoraals and Cayaals from the time they left school. His late Excellency van Mydregt, who had great confidence in the said Babba, was somewhat misled by him, but was informed of the fact by certain private letters from the late Commandeur Blom during His Excellency’s residence at Tutucorin. His Excellency then authorized Mr. Blom on July 4, 1690, to at once make such changes as would be necessary, under the pretext that some of the Majoraals were not provided yet with proper acts of appointment issued by His Excellency. This may also be seen in the answer to some points brought before His Excellency by Mr. Blom on October 20. These replies bear date November 29 following. Finding, however, on my arrival from Batavia, that these appointment were still reserved for the Bellales, through the influences of a certain Moddely Tamby, who had formerly been a betel carrier to Sangerepulle, later on a private servant of Babba Porboe, and last of all Cannecappul to the Commandeur, and another Cannecappul, also of the Bellas caste and a first cousin of the said Sangerepulle, of the name of Don Joan Mandala Nayaga Mudliyar, I brought this difficulty before my Governor His Excellency the Extraordinary Councillor of India, Thomas van Rhee, on my visit to Colombo in the beginning of 1698. He verbally authorized me 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.
Already in the years 1673 and 1675 orders had been given that the Collectors should be transferred every three years; because by their holding office for many years in the same Province they obtained a certain amount of influence and authority over the inhabitants, which would have enabled them to take advantage of them; and it has always been a rule here not to restrict the appointments to these office to the Bellales. but to employ the Madapallys and other castes as well to serve as a counteracting influence; because by this means the inhabitants were kept in peace and through the jealousy of various castes the ruler was always in a position to know what was going on in the country. 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 Cannecappul in the place of Moddely Tambi, whose place I filled with the new Collector of Maddapally caste, while also a new new Collector was appointed for Timmoraatsche in the place of Don Joan Mandala Nayaga, whom the late Mr. Blom had discharged from his office as Cannecapull of the Gate; because now two Bellales are allowed to hold office in one place. He agreed with me on this point, as may be seen from his report of August 20, 1692. I have further transferred two Collectors in the large Province of Wallegamo, so as to gradually being bout 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 I had to leave the matter alone. The Bellales, seeing that they would be shut out from these profitable offices 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 the carrying into effect of this plan so prejudicial to their interests. With this view they also the Wannia Don Phillip Nellampane and Don Gaspar Ilengenarene Mudloiyar in their conspiracies. The latter two, also Bellales, well aware that they own many elephants to the Company, as stated at the beginning of this Memoir, and knowing that their turn would also come, organized the riots in which the said Moddely Tambi was the principal instrument. He was the man who first appeared as a rebel, he had been injured by a long imprisonment and that this induced him to take revenge, these same two Wannias having been then the first accusers who came to e complaining against this man in the latter part of 1694. Perhaps later on they considered the great assistance they received from his during the time of Babba Porboe in obtaining the various privileges and favours. They also probably understood that it was my intention to diminish the influence of the Bellala caste, and were thus induced to take this course to promote the welfare of their caste. I think that it was also out of their conspiracies that the riots arose from which the Commandement suffered during my absence in the months of May, June and July. I cannot account for them in any way, as I have stated previously when treating of the Wanni. I am obliged to repeat this here, in order that Your Honours may be on your guard and watch the movements, alliances, and association of the Bellales and the Majoraals of the Wanni.; because although I may have persisted in bringing about the desired changes, I preferred to leave the matter alone, seeing how much annoyance this first attempt caused me, and how the obsequious subjects of this Commandement are not only given audience in Colombo, but are also upheld against their local ruler, whose explanation is not only not asked for, but who even prevented from defending the interests of Company at the place he had a right to do….” (Memoirs of Zwaardecoon – pp. 24 – 26.)
Does this battle for government jobs ring a bell? Was not the political platforms of Ponnambalam and Chelvanayakam based on the allegations Tamil government servants losing jobs under “the Sinhala governments”? Was Moddely Tambi the forefather of Ponnambalam and Chelvanayakam?
Watch this space in the Colombo Telegraph for the next revealing episode in the hidden history of Jaffna.