By H. L. D. Mahindapala –
Hendri Zwaardecoon, the Dutch Commander of Jaffna, and R. Sunderalingam, Superintendent of Police, Jaffna, lived and worked in Jaffna overseeing the Tamil society, its security and all its law-and-order issues. Though they lived and worked in two different worlds – separated by around 300 years – they faced the identical crisis that threatened the peace and security of Jaffna : the casteist politics of the violent Vellahlas. Both officials were fighting for the restoration of human dignity and equality denied to the Tamils by the Vellahlas. Both fought for the rights of the oppressed Tamils, and for the removal of historical injustices and imbalances caused by the entrenched forces of oppressive Vellahlas. And both had to face the violent politics of the Vellahlas – the most powerful force within the overarching power of the ruling state, in colonial and post-colonial times.
It is this overdeterminig force that was holding Jaffna back. Tradition-bound Jaffna was the last enclave of feudalism. It was the comfort zone of the Vellahlas and they resisted any change that would undermine or destabilise their safe haven. Besides, the Vellahla leadership found legitimacy essentially within that anachronistic socio-political framework. Their supremacy did not go beyond the borders of the peninsula. The Vadukoddai Resolution was to extend their powers beyond the borders of Jaffna.
The Vellahla leadership aimed at keeping both feet in feudalist past while dipping one foot occasionally in modernity, from time to time, to gain whatever advantages it could get from the advancing ticks of time. The progressive march of modernity, however, was a serious threat to its supremacy. Colonial and post-colonial administrators of Jaffna discovered that the Vellahlas, the ruling caste, stood in the way of reforms needed to liberate Jaffna from outdated feudalism and fascist casteism. Since Vellahlas lived and thrived by casteism they found advancing modernity unbearably intrusive and undermining their casteist power and privileges. Consequently, reformists like Zwaardecoon and Sunderalingam had to face the hostile reactions of the aggressive Vellahlas fighting back to preserve their feudal fortress in Jaffna.
The Vellahlas, who controlled the commanding heights of socio-economic establishment of Jaffna, from land to temples, readily accepted the material goods and services that enhanced and reinforced their power and privileges. Officials records have established that schools, English-education, hospitals, roads and railways, irrigation works, and commanding positions in the state administration and private sectors went a long way to uplift the quality of life of the Vellahla elite in particular. But they resisted any move to change the systemic fundamentals of their feudal structures that would grant equality and dignity to the oppressed Tamils. The Vellahlas reacted sensitively and aggressively each time reforms were introduced to improve the living conditions of the oppressed Tamils. The administrators bent on reforming Jaffna society ran into the impenetrable Chinese Wall of Vellahlaism that ringed round the peninsula.
Delving deep into the politics and power of Vellahlas, Neville Jayaweera, Government Agent of Jaffna (1963 – 1966), reveals the hostile reaction of the Vellahlas resisting reforms in his memoir, Jaffna, Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision, An autobiographical reflection on the ethnic conflict. Armed with the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957 – the only bit of radical legislation available to alleviate the misery of the oppressed castes of Jaffna – he was hoping to mobilise the local forces to uplift the Tamils oppressed by the “evil” forces of Vellahlaism. But he found that the 11 MPs, the key power-brokers of Jaffna which included S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the great champion of the Tamils, were very backward in coming forward to implement the reformist laws. Reason: All MPs were Vellahlas! Even at the administrative level he could not go very far. The 14 District Revenue Officers of Jaffna, who were administrative officers working under Jayaweera, too had “poured cold water” over his plans for reform. No surprise there either because they too were all Vellahlas. (Ibid — p.142). The available evidence proves that from the time of the Dutch to the time of Sunderalingam, and even later, the Vellahlas ganged up against the other castes to preserve their supremacy. The Vellahlas were committed primarily to protect the interests of the Vellahlas and not the Tamils who were oppressed by them from feudal times. It was against the political culture of the Vellahlas to let the non-Vellahlas be their equal.
It was Zwaardecoon who first revealed this vicious casteist undercurrent that underlined the politics of his day and the days to come. He said: “Changes are necessary so that many thousands of people should no longer suffer by the oppression of the Bellales, who are very proud and despise all other castes.” (Memoirs of Zwaardecoon, 1697 – p. 27). This underscores the fact that the Vellahlas were not only the dominant power of Jaffna but also “the oppressors” of the non-Vellahla Tamils. Zwaardecoon identifies the two main characteristics of “the proud Bellales” – 1) the despising of the non-Vellahla Tamils as subhuman pariahs unfit for their superior company and 2) the permanent political culture of oppression that reduced the non-Vellahla Tamils to subhumans. Both go hand in hand to buttress each other. It was this oppressive culture of the Vellahlas that reigned supreme in Jaffna.
A typical symbol of this oppressive culture was Prof. C. Suntheralingam, Oxford Tripos in Mathematics, CCS, and a ex-Cabinet Minister. When he stood at the entrance of the Maviddipuram Temple, flailing his walking stick to keep the low-castes out of the inner courts reserved as a sacred space only for the elitist Vellahlas, he displayed his ingrained Vellahla fanaticism that turned Jaffna into a casteist gulag. If a Tamil coming out of Oxford can despise a section of his own people as a subhuman race and keep them out of their inner circle because of an imagined sense of superiority, endorsed, of course, by the ruling religious ideology, then it means that 1) the evils of casteism had dug deep roots into the political culture of Jaffna poisoning the minds at the highest levels and 2) its inhuman consequences had stripped the basic rights of the ordinary Tamils to live as human beings with dignity. Denial of dignity and equality by the upper layers of Jaffna to its lower layers laid the foundations for the fascist culture that dehumanized Jaffna society. The Tamil victims of the insufferable indignities and inequalities tragically found no escape from the karmic hell created by their Vellahla masters.
There are, of course, castes and castes. The Sinhalese too had their own castes but scholarly consensus confirm that Buddhism had humanised the caste system in the south. Vellahlaism, on the contrary, turned Saivite casteism into a fascist cult in which human beings were religiously deprived of their right to be a human being with even a modicum of dignity. The Vellahlas dehumanised the oppressed Tamils by reducing them into invisible zeroes that did not count in any respect, except to serve them as obedient servants. They despised their fellow-human beings to the point of denying them even the right to walk in daylight. They were kept out of sight to protect the purity of the Vellahla eyes. By forbidding the turumbas, a low-caste, to walk in daylight the Vellahlas cast the hapless Tamils into a darkness at noon. In poverty it is the loss of dignity that aches more than the stomach without bread. In oppression it is the despising and degrading of a fellow-human being that causes more pain than the crack of a whip. The obscenity that condemns the Vellahlas is their inhuman denial of the basic right of Tamils to drink even a drop of water from their ultra-superior wells. The vast majority of the non-Vellahlas lived in a Kafkesque nightmare outside the forbidden castle of the casteist Vellahlas.
The casteist passions, political intransigence, the despising of non-Vellahla Tamils and the humiliating oppression of the non-Vellahlas coagulated into a mass of self-destructive extremism. The “suffering of the many thousands of Tamils” was caused by this oppressive political culture. The contradictions and the tensions of the peninsular political culture arose from the intransigent refusal of the Vellahlas to face the necessary changes for the good of all. The diminishing and/or the elimination of the feudal powers of the Vellahlas was a sine qua non for the welfare of all Tamils. Therein lies the rub. The Vellahlas resisted any changes to their casteist status quo. Their politics focused on increasing their share of power and reinforcing it and not on democratising power to let all Tamils share it as equals. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and G. G. Ponnambalam opposed the granting of universal franchise to the low-castes because it would force the Vellahlas to share power with the low-castes. Though they were opposed to sharing power with their people their overall political agenda was based on demanding a disproportionate share of power from the centre to consolidate Vellahla power, both in the north and in the centre. They resisted democratisation and liberalisation that flowed from the Donoughmore Commission reforms fearing that it would undermine their supremacy.
The Vellahlas were obsessed with grabbing an undue share of power from the colonial and the post-colonial regimes to make sure that the power to retain their supremacy does not slip out of their hands. It began with the first revolt of Moddely Tambi against the Dutch. It was a revolt to oust the rival Madapalli caste from getting their share of power in the Dutch administration. Colonial politics and the post-colonial politics ran into direct confrontations with the Vellahlas mainly on this issue of power sharing. The Vellahlas fought back tooth and nail with the other castes even on issues of burying the dead or wearing jewellery because they viewed any infringements of their customs and laws as a threat to their supremacy. Consequently, any proposed reforms to change or diminish entrenched Vellahla power resulted inevitably in a violent reaction from the Vellahlas. This explains why the other two Tamil-speaking communities were able to resolve their differences with the majority Sinhalese non-violently, within the democratic framework. Resolving issues non-violently with the Muslims and the estate Tamils was possible because they were focused on specific issues that were negotiable and not intransigent and insatiable issues like power sharing which were intractable and highly volatile.
Muslim and estate Tamils raised issues that granted them their place as citizens sharing a common territory and destiny within a democratic framework. They were not demanding territorial power bases to establish a separate state. The Vellahlas, on the other hand, were out to get a separate political enclave to maintain their feudal/casteist supremacy. The cries of “50-50”, federalism, Eelam were raised by the Vellahlas for the Vellahlas. It was, of course, disguised as a demand of the minorities opposed to discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. This anti-Sinhala-Buddhist story of “discrimination” is another one of the tall tales that should be told in detail on another day. But “separatism” developed as a primary force of the Vellahlas, by the Vellahlas, for the Vellahlas to maintain their exclusive and elitist identity, rising above the rest to consolidate their powers and privileges. Internally, the main thrust of peninsular politics of the Vellahlas was “separatism” from the non-Vellahlas to maintain their casteist supremacy. Internal “separatism” was an elitist cult to differentiate and maintain their superiority. Casteist separatism, blessed by Saivism, gave the Vellahlas the upper hand in Jaffna. It was the cruelty of the separatist / casteist regime, alienated from the average Tamils, that led to intermittent caste wars throughout the colonial and post-colonial periods. Vellahlas went to war with the other castes to keep their purity, superiority, distance, and separateness.
Externally, separatism took a different complexion. When separatism transited into the national arena it dropped the regional casteist characteristics and took on the racist colouring (they disguised it as a minority vs. majority issue) to broaden the political base. Casteism divided communal entities into fragments. Racism united divided communities and pitted them against the other communities. The ultimate expression of Vellahla racism was wrapped in the Vadukoddai Resolution. It was a declaration of war to divide the nation on racist lines. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of Tamil racist separatism, took it to the extreme when he refused to buy a house in Colombo fearing that the liberal / cosmopolitan culture of the south will pollute the Tamil purity of his children. In the absence of colonial patronage and protection separatism became a protective cult in the minds of the Vellahlas to maintain their feudal powers and privileges.
Besides, the religious, legal, social and political ideologies and institutions were structured to keep the Vellahlas apart from the rest, as the superior rulers / masters / oppressors. The Vellahla political culture was based essentially on defining and maintaining their separateness to emphasise their superiority over the rest. Political, cultural, religious, legal, social, ideological separateness was an essential requirement for the Vellahlas to retain their supremacy. Vellahlaism threatened by invading forces of modernity could find refuge only in carving out a separate political entity. Separatism was going to be the Chinese Wall that would keep the invading forces out of their so-called “Tamil homeland”. It was similar to the futile mud walls that Prabhakaran put up to halt the forces advancing from air, land and sea.
The tragedy in all this that the Vellahlas built the wall and fled to greener pastures abroad leaving the Tamils they despised to fight their Vadukoddai War. They were hoping to ride into power on the backs of the low-caste poor fighting on their behalf. Their tactic was to remote control their Vadukoddai War from London, Toronto, Paris, Oslo and Melbourne etc. They were not willing to risk their lives. As usual the Vellahlas were getting their dirty work done by the non-Vellahlas. Were they really committed for a state of their own like ISIS fighting for their caliphate? The New York Times ( Sept. 27, 2015) reported that 30,000 Muslim expats from Western nations, from Australia to America, slipped into Syria and joined the ISIS forces with a self-sacrificing commitment to establish their caliphate. How many Tamils from abroad left their Chardonnay and Chivas Regal, their second car, their universities and holiday homes to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the local Tamil cadres in the Vanni?
Loud-mouths like Dr. Sam Pari, a middle-aged Tamil activist from Sydney, went to Vanni, signed up to be a card-carrying member of the LTTE, took some pictures with the LTTE high command and flew back to her air-conditioned home in New South Wales, Australia to boast about her contribution to the victims of “the Sinhala-governments” – the primary source that was feeding and caring for the Tamils held as hostages by her “Suriya Devan”. Pompous propagandists like “Paki” Saravanamuttu was crying into his beer at the American Embassy cocktails, railing against “the violations of the human rights by the Sinhala governments” without caring a hoot about the root causes of the suffering of the Tamils down the ages. The late Kumar Ponnambalam had thirteen Mercedes Benzes in Colombo and he was complaining about the lack of transport for the Tamils in the Vanni. His father, G. G. Ponnambalam, would not let a low-caste constituent from his electorate in Jaffna cross his gate in Colombo. He would chase them away telling them to go to his office in Jaffna, according to one of the lawyers in his chambers, Sunil Rodrigo, former Chairman of Lake House.
Their total contribution was to perpetuate the suffering of the Tamils which began in feudal times and continued to this day by the Vellahla villains of Vadukoddai. They put all their political eggs in the one basket of separatism which led them to Nandikadal. Clearly, over the years, casteism, racism and separatism latched on to each other as the political agenda of the north transited from one phase to another. In incremental stages, casteism morphed into racism and racism morphed into separatism. Each stage was determined exclusively by the Vellahlas. Regional separatism of the Vellahlas on a caste basis and separatism on a national scale based on racism caused irreparable damage mainly to the Tamils who had to face the brunt of the purblind Vellahla leadership that led the Tamils all the way to Nandikadal.
Neither the Dutch nor the British records indicate that the Vellahlas had espoused the cause of the Tamils either as a bonded Hindu community or as a Tamil-speaking collective in Jaffna sharing common values. If they cried for Hinduism it was for the Saivism of the Vellahlas and not that of the Tamils who were kept out of Vellahla temples. If they cried for Tamil culture it meant the elitist cult of the Vellahlas, decked mainly with the imported products of S. India, without any creative or original input from a Jaffna-centric culture.
This explains why the concept of nationalism was late in coming to the Vellahlas. They were primarily a self-centred, insular, navel-gazing collective focused only on the immediate threats to their power and positions. In the colonial period, “Tamil nationalism”, which could have united all layers of society in a common front against alien regimes, was never a part of the political agenda of the Vellahlas. Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to London to urge the colonial masters to legalise casteism. But he never pressed for “Tamil nationalism”. It didn’t exist. The only ideology that moved them was Vellahlaism. In fact, they were cosying up to the colonial masters to reinforce their power to rule the “other” Tamils. They were quite content with colonialism as long as they were allowed to rule the “other” Tamils. Tamil “nationalism” was a latter day construction manufactured by the Vellahlas to cover-up the evils and failures of their casteist leadership.
As Vellahlaism began to lose its legitimacy they put on the Emperor’s clothes of “nationalists” to make them look respectable and acceptable in the eyes of the world. “Tamil nationalism” was a fashionable disguise to market Vellahlaism as a new political force that would be acceptable to all layers of Jaffna divided on casteist lines. Nationalism was also the only alternative ideology to anachronistic Vellahlaism which had gone past its use-by-date. It was the most convenient political means of bringing the divided Tamil community under the Vellahla umbrella. Tamil “nationalism” helped to swell the numerical strength of Vellahla politics.
Apart from adopting the white verti of “nationalists” they also posed as Gandhians to clean the image of oppressors. In the post-colonial period they went for optics in a big way to remake their image as “nationalists” mainly to wipe out the five centuries of oppressive feudal memory. As stated by Zwaardecoon, “the Bellales” acted as the “oppressors” of the non-Vellahla Tamils. By and large, the history of Jaffna consisted of the colonial rulers and the oppressed Tamils battling the Vellahlas. It was only when the Vellahlas feared that the post-colonial governments would be a threat to them, particularly without the patronage of the colonial masters, that they took to Tamil nationalism. It also served as an alternative ideology to out dated Vellahlaism.
In short, the history of Jaffna has been a history of perennial caste struggles. If you take out the Vellahla mini-wars waged to keep the low-castes under their jackboots the history of Jaffna would be as flat and dry as its landscape. The tragedy, however, is that it is the poor, despised and oppressed people of Jaffna who had to pay with their blood, sweat and tears for all the wars launched by the Vellahlas, including the one that ended in Nandikadal.