Vellahlas escaped by transiting from caste to class armed with racism
Posted on March 14th, 2016
H. L. D. Mahindapala
In the two preceding articles I traced the crisis faced by the Vellahla ruling elite of Jaffna in the sixties. The low-castes staged organised threats for the first time challenging the supremacy of the Vellahlas. They not only threatened to enter the sacred domain of the Maviddipuram Temple – a domain reserved only for the upper-caste Vellahlas — but even stoned the statue of Arumuka Navalar, the demigod of the Vellahlas, which was taken in procession from Udippidy via Chavakachcheri to Jaffna. They could no longer r sustain their supremacy on the theology of antiquated Saivite casteism. In any case, their casteist ideology was no longer respectable nor valid in the middle of 20th century. Modernity creeping into the peninsula had undermined the ancien regime of Vellahlas though not comprehensively to deracinate Vellahlaism. However, the writing on the wall indicated that the old cadjan curtain thrown round Jaffna to keep the intrusive world out was crumbling. The Vellahlas had either to adjust or perish. A part of their crisis was in finding an escape route from out-of-date casteism without losing their position as the overlords of the peninsula. Managing the transition was a delicate process.
The corrosive force that ruled Jaffna was Vellahlaism with its twin evils of casteism and racism. It was not easy for non-Vellahla “others” to break through or break into Jaffna society managed and directed by the Vellahlas exclusively. The Vellahlas had built cadjan curtains to prevent, if they could, the winds of modernity sweeping in to change the feudal casteist structures of the peninsula. Facing internal threat in the 50s and 60s they were putting up a rearguard resistance to ward off invasions of modernity.
Neither Buddhism nor Marxism – the two biggest ideologies of the south – could get even a toehold in the north, even though attempts were made sporadically. For one thing, the Vellahlas were in the majority (50% – 53% in 1960). For another, only the Vellahlas held the reins of power in the temples, land, public administration, professions, politics, social networks and in the strategic institutions that could push the buttons of power, influence and resources. Only the Vellahlas had the potential to give political leadership in the peninsular because they were the English-educated elite who were holding commanding position in every strategic sphere of influence-peddling and power-brokering. Nor could institutionalised Vellahlaism with its deep-rooted tentacles gripping every nook and corner of the socio-economic bases be eradicated in a hurry. Nevertheless, Maviddipuram and the protest against Navalar exposed the chinks in their armour. The problem facing the Vellahlas was to find an answer to their dying casteist culture without losing their hold on Jaffna.
It was at this critical stage that the feudal Vellahla casteists realised like King Canute that they do not have the power to stop the rising waves of modernity sweeping across the neck of Jaffna. Despite rigid caste restrictions segments of a new Tamil class had risen, almost imperceptibly, from the low-castes and were competing with the Vellahlas as equals in the open market place where there were no caste barriers. The low-caste Tamils, equipped with the free education provided by “the Sinhala governments”, could now sit next to Vellahla upper caste in the public service without fear of being burnt by the Vellahla thugs. G.G. Ponnambalam, the caste-conscious leader of the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress, could not stand up in the courts of “the Sinhala governments” and refuse to argue his case with a low-caste Tamil lawyer. Slowly but surely, the creeping forces of modernity were pulling down the rigid caste barriers and the Vellahla had to either swim or sink.The writing was on the wall for the Vellahlas. Class was inexorably rising from the feudal ashes to replace caste.
The Vellahlas had no alternative but to accept the new realities. They had to adjust to survive. It was time to take the inevitable step : they sloughed their casteist skins like snakes and morphed into a new class. This shift from caste to class was a feature highlighted by Prof. K. Sivathamby of Jaffna University. Historian, Dr. G. C. Mendis too had said: “The British by their reforms brought into existence a new class between these two groups, the present middle class.” ( p.130 – Ceylon Today and Yesterday, Main Currents of Ceylon History, Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd). He argued that communalism that raised its ugly head in the thirties was a contest between the two middle-classes of the Sinhalese and Tamils for limited jobs in the public service – the only growth industry of the time.
In contrast, the Sinhala south had transited from feudal casteism to a seminal market economy, within a liberal/democratic framework, in the early 20th century. In the south the new class that emerged from the old castes were in command of politics. The transition from the old caste to the new class was gradual and smooth. This demonstrates that the ruling classes never die : they merely change their appearance by wearing new clothes. The new Sinhala class came from the plantocracy, plumbago mines, arrack renting, transport and other nascent industries. This class rose from a range of castes. Though it was theorised that the socio-economic changes in the south elevated only one caste – i.e, the Karawa caste – what occurred in reality was the rise of the new Sinhala class drawn from a cross-section of castes, as stated by academic Kumari Jayawardena.
But there were no similar ground-breaking shifts either in the economy or the socio-political structures of Jaffna. All the key agencies for change remained in the hands of the ruling Vellahla elite. Jaffna was the last to change, most reluctantly, from feudalism to modernity. The Vellahlas, in fact, moved to keep Jaffna as a closed society preventing internal and external forces from invading their exclusive domain. The Vellahlas were jealously guarding their power, privileges, properties, positions, perks derived from feudal and colonial traditions.
The crisis in Jaffna was the crisis faced by the Vellahlas. They had to decide whether they were going to remain in the dying caste system or resurrect as a new force with a new image, if they were to retain their leadership with all the privileges that go with it. The evolving and intermeshing north-south forces too pushed the new Vellahla class to drop the oppressive characteristics of feudal overlordism and reluctantly accept the changes imposed on them by emerging socio-economic forces. Rather late in the day, they accepted the inevitable and yielded to the overwhelming forces pushing them into the 20th century as a political class. And in the new class structure the rigid caste distinctions gave way to a rather frosty co-existence with the new rich low-castes. It was a case of the Vellahlas kissing the hands they could not cut. The upwardly mobile low-castes had reached their dream of being equal with the Vellahlas thanks to the free education provided by the so-called “discriminating Sinhala governments”.
Driven by vicious Vellahlaism the Saivite Jaffna Tamil leadership wrote the darkest chapter in Sri Lankan history dipped in the blood, sweat and tears of the oppressed Tamils. However, in the new phase they had to broaden their political agenda to make the Vellahlas look humane and acceptable as a class. They needed new clothes tailored to make them fit the part they were expected to play in the new times. The new verti-clad “Tamil nationalists” had. out of sheer political necessity, to reinvent themselves as a force for all Tamils. They could no longer be the exclusive Vellahlas standing up only for the Vellahlas as they were in feudal and colonial periods. They had to make concessions and one of them was to to drop their antiquated casteism.
However, in their agenda it was only a temporary move adopted for political expediency. Latest research indicate that the Vellahlas are hoping to regroup, reclaim and reassert their traditional power. Both in the Tamil diaspora and in Jaffna the Vellahlas continue to dominate the political agenda. The unwritten clause in the Vadukoddai Resolution was for the Vellahlas to capture Eelam and reinforce the power they have been hankering for from feudal and colonial times. Though they are acting as a class they have not given up their old caste loyalties. Those loyalties, eddying round dreams of Eelam, continue to bind them together. They need to stand together as a class because it provides the overarching ideology to hold the fragmented groups together. Revised Saivism of Arumuka Navalar, which was viable in feudal times, was no longer valid to claim leadership of the new class rising in the 20th century. Under casteism, authorised by Navalar, they had the power to exclude, and even eliminate the low-castes. In the class system they were forced to include the “others”, whether they liked it or not.
The problem facing the Vellahlas was not only to change but also to change without losing their grip on power. Whether under the caste system or in the new class system their primary objective was to retain their leadership. To retain its leadership role the new class had to consolidate its power base with a non-casteist ideology that would include all layers of society. For a brief while in the early thirties the Tamil youth of Jaffna openly rejected both casteism and communalism and campaigned for an overarching nationalism consisting of all communities. Moved by Gandhism they had unequivocally rejected communalism, including communal representation. In their day they were a powerful movement and G. G. Ponnambalam had no place in Jaffna. But this proved to be a passing utopian phase. The over-powering Vellahlaism defeated the idealism of the English-educated Tamil youth. Ponnambalam bounced back into the leadership by espousing the corrosive force of racism which was as destructive as Vellahla casteism. (See The Dance of the Turkey Cock – The Jaffna Boycott of 1931 – Jane Russell, pp.47 – 67, The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, Vol 8, No 1, January – June 1978). The rise of Ponnambalam demonstrates the inherent power of Vellahlalaism as an overdetermining political force.
Under Ponnambalam’s aggressive anti-Sinhala-Buddhist political agenda, racism replaced casteism as the new ideology to hold the fragmented Tamil groups together. It was also the time when the Vellahalas were transiting into a class. In this phase, the Vellahlas were forced to abandon their old casteists rigidities and turn into flexible classists without giving up their traditional Vellahla status in the peninsular hierarchy. In fact, the necessities of waging a battle against an external enemy made them reconcile with the local enemy, only up to a politically expedient point. For instance, they were quite happy to go along with the low-caste Tamil youth waging the Vadukoddai war launched officially by the Vellahla elite. The Vellahla elite who stayed behind were hoping to ride on the backs of the Tamil youth for them to come into power though their strategy misfired under the first born child of the Vadukoddai Resolution, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The Vellahla elite who went abroad sent their children to universities while financing the war waged by the low-caste Tamil youth in Jaffna. As in the feudal and colonial times, the Vellahala elite were making use of the low-castes to do their dirty work.
The concessions made to the low-castes were partly generated by the Vellahla needs to combat the Sinhalese. The Vellahla leadership was reaching out in all direction, to the “trousered Tamils” of Batticoloa and to the estate workers in the hill country. The flexibility of the Vellahlas came from the need to garner additional reinforcements to wage their racist war against “the Sinhala governments”. In particular, the Vellahlas could not operate their new front against “the Sinhala governments” with a divided peninsula.
Besides, they realised that the enemy of their power derived from feudal and colonial times was not the internal low-castes but the external Sinhala governments. S. W. R. D Bandaranaike had passed the critical Prevention of Social Disabilities Act (1957) which legally struck at the very foundations of Vellahla casteism. He was the very first political leader to take on the might of the Vellahlas by ramming the citadel of Vellahla casteism with his new Act. This confirmed all the fears of the Vellahla casteists that “the Sinhala governments” were a threat to their privileged status. They also realised that the Saivite casteist theology was not going to take them anywhere in combating the new national front opened up by the Vellahla decision-makers. Casteism worked only within the borders of the peninsula. But to take on the new “Sinhala governments” after their British patrons had left, they needed a new ideology and new reinforcements. Casteism had to go. It was too narrow and outdated.
Racism, on the other hand, resonated as a force not only to paper over the widening internal cracks but also to form a collective front against the external enemy in the south. It was the glue to hold the fragmented Jaffna together. And with some sophisticated theorising it was even recast into a respectable minority vs. majority issue and marketed world-wide. The new class that came out of the old oppressive Vellahla caste began to pose as liberal champions of minority rights. Simultaneously, the issue was packaged in fashionable theories and language that flowed with modern intellectual currents.
It was easy to market the idea of a minority battling a majority as a righteous issue. The Tamil lobby packaged it neatly without revealing the dark side of their history in which the Tamil “Minority” – their euphemism for the low-castes – was oppressed by the Vellahla majority with an iron fist. They never told the world that they had stripped every vestige of human dignity, liberty and security of their own people which reduced the low-castes to subhuman slaves. The Tesawalamai Code recognised four categories of slaves : Koviyars, Chandars, Pallas and Nallavars. (p. 76 – The Laws and Customs of the Tamils of Jaffna, Dr. H. W. Tambiah, Womens’ Education and Research Centre.)
Jane Rusell states that “the pallas, landless labourers were, however, treated much like helots or serfs by the vellahlas who formed the powerful landowning class. Their position after the abolition of slavery (by the British in 1844) was not much improved. As (H.W.) Tambiah observed : “Although slavery was abolished legally, many of the depressed classes remained as de facto slaves of their (vellahla) masters for economic reasons.”
“Even by the mid-20th century the status of the pallas, for example, was hardly any better than a century before. Tambiah quotes from the Manual of Madura District published in 1868 to describe the position of the pallas in 1951 : “They are numerous but abject and despised race. Their principal occupation is ploughing the land of the more fortunate Tamils, and though normally free, they are usually slaves in almost very sense of the word. The outcasts or parayas had a deplorable social status. Among this group there was a caste unique to Jaffna, the turumbas, or washermen to the parayas. They were not allowed to be seen in the daylight and could only travel by night.”
The Tamil churches, Hindu temples, schools, administrative and public institutions treated these marginalised outcasts as subhumans unfit for their exalted company. This is the dark side of Jaffna which the embarrassed Jaffna Tamils sweep under their mats. Jaffna Tamils have thrived essentially on the myths they have created to either to sanitise and glorify their own image or to demonise the “other”, particularly the Sinhala-Buddhists. For instance, the new caste/class took to virulent mono-ethnic extremism as a panacea to all Tamil problems without acknowledging that Tamil dignity, liberty and security were best served when they co-existed peacefully with the other communities than under any of the Tamils leaders – from Sankili to Prabhakaran.
One of the greatest achievements of “the Sinhala governments” has been the rescue of the Tamils from Pol Potist tyranny of Prabhakaran and the restoration of basic freedoms and democracy to the Tamils. What dignity, liberty, security and respect did Sampanthan and Sumanthiram get from their “dear leader” Prabhakaran? The “Sinhala governments” gave them not only security when they were threatened by the Pol Potist forces of Prabhakaran but also their right to criticise the “Sinhala governments”. In contrast, what was their plight under their “dear leader” Prabhakaran? What political rights did they enjoy under their Tamil “liberator”? Did they even have the right to nominate a candidate of their choice without the consent of their “dear leader”? It is undoubtedly the incurable tendency of the Tamils to believe in their self-destructive mythology, denying the grim realities imposed on them by their oppressive leaders, that bedevil politics for all stake holders. Demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists is their way of white-washing their dirty politics.
The overwhelming theme of their mythology has been to present the Sinhalese as the bogey man – the “goni billa” coming to take their rights and their children away. This was their tactic to divert attention from the systemic failures of Vellahalism and its inhuman cruelties. Without revealing these dehumanising undercurrents the criminal oppressors of the Tamils cried out loud, claiming to be the victims of “discrimination” of “the Sinhala governments”. The other popular myth is that Jaffna Tamils (read : Vellahlas) were not given their dues. This issue will be dealt later. Even Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, repeats the Tamil slogan that they must be given their dignity. Isn’t it Mangala Samaraweera’s duty to inform Modi that the dignity of the Tamils denied to the Tamils by the Tamil Pol Pot was restored on the banks of Nandikadal? Over 25,000 Sinhala soldiers sacrificed their lives to rescue the Tamils from the Pol Potist gulag. Tamils live in peace, knowing that their children will come home from school, because the Sinhala soldiers died to protect them too. The Tamils, no doubt, were among the main beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by Sinhala soldiers of “the Sinhala governments” that is generally accused of “genocide” and “discrimination”.
Unfortunately, I do not know of a single Tamil who had thanked the soldiers for delivering them from the tyranny of Tamil Boko Harams. Instead they keep on chanting the same old litany of complaints of “discrimination”, “genocide”, etc., brushing aside the fact the no other party has yet to beat the oppression, persecution,humiliation and the killing of Tamils by Tamils. Not surprisingly, this simplified anti-Sinhala-Buddhist message worked well to gain political mileage. Initially, the local Marxists and the Westernised locals too accepted it in toto. The new Tamil class, dressed in the Emperor’s clothes of human rights, won the plaudits of being champions of the underclass. The new class was indeed triumphant because they marketed their mythology with great finesse.
When the Jaffna leadership was forced to abandon casteism they fell back on concocted myths of the superiority of the Tamil culture in the heartland of the Tamils – namely, Jaffna. But as pointed out by Prof.S. Arasaratnam, the Tamil historian, Jaffna Tamils did not produce anything original of their own. They were merely basking in the reflected glory of their original and only homeland in Tamil Nadu. It was inevitable that Jaffna Tamils had to rely on myths because historical and political realities did not substantiate their imagined greatness. They were sandwiched between two great cultures : 1. of S.. India in the north and 2. Sinhala-Buddhists of the south. And not being able to match either one of them they created a mythology to make themselves feel great. Their myths filled the vacuum in their imagined lives because at the end of their journey in history they discovered, to their utter dismay, that they were left with hardly anything to be proud of as great contributors to the culture of humanity. According to their own hero-worshipping cult they have only two great icons : 1. Hindu Sankili, the killer of 600 Tamil Catholics in 1544 and 2. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tamil killer who killed the most amount of Tamils than all the others put together! O, I forgot the third great factor : Vellahla theology which whipped their own people into total submission as slaves.
Any political movement working genuinely for the rights of the Tamils should have first taken a positive and aggressive action to eliminate the inhuman treatment of Tamils by the Tamils. But the Jaffna leadership went along with the vicious status quo because (1) they came from the same caste and (2) they did not want to upset the apple cart fearing the political repercussions at election time. Take, for instance, the myth that S. J. V. Chelvanayakam worked for the Tamils. If he was the “Father of the Tamils”, as propagated by his followers, then the first issue that he should have taken up was the plight of his own people suffering under the cruel Vellahlaism. But he didn’t. Instead he led a racist movement targeting “the Sinhala governments” saying that they were not fit to rule the Tamils (meaning the Vellahla upper caste). He never paused to consider whether the Tamils were fit to rule the Tamils considering the roles played by Sankili and Prabhakaran – the most competent killers of Tamils.
Chelvanayakam, at best, was espousing the demands of the new class and not the Tamil people at the grass roots. He was, of course, feebly paying lip service to the elimination of the caste system but never took any meaningful steps to dismantle the caste system. Resistance to Maviddipuram and the attempts to revive Navalarism are indicative of the reluctance of the dying caste to give in. The big issues like the language etc., were raked up and highlighted mainly for the benefit of the English-educated Saivite Jaffna elite in the public services and professions. It was not an issue with the Tamil masses and traders who transacted their daily business with their Sinhalese neighbours / consumers without any language difficulties. What is more, even after the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 the Sinhala masses continue to be disadvantaged as the Tamils who are not competent in English – the language of the elite that runs the legislature, judiciary and the executive to this day.
Not having any progressive or liberal ideology the new Tamil class went into battle waving their racist flags. The Tamil leadership had to prove to their peninsular constituency that in the absence of the traditional casteist theology they do have a valid alternative that could make them look like worthy leaders. In this new game they were acting like the leeches : ready to suck the blood of the new racist veins having the sucked the sagging old casteist tits dry. Racism had been gathering momentum ever since Ponnambalam raised it as his political cry. Furthermore, when he went before the Soulbury Commission and lectured to them for ten hours he was canvassing mainly on the demands of the new rising class of traders, professionals and public servants who were transiting from their old caste into the new class. For instance he opposed the cooperative movement that served the people of all communities saying it was aimed at hitting the Tamil traders. His cry for “50 – 50” and the cry of “discrimination” in the public administration were to satisfy the expanding demands of the new class looking around for more power and territory. The craze for clerkship and power in the administration was ingrained in the Vellahla politics. The origins of this craze will be revealed in the next article with documentary evidence from the Dutch administration. Clearly, Tamil racism and the Tamil new class went together like a horse and carriage, galloping all the way to Nandikadal.
After Maviddipuram the Vellahlas could no longer wage their internal war against the low-castes. Though the subcutaneous hostility remained in their consciousness and in the hidden layers of their social system they had to tone down their casteist aggressiveness fearing not only the fragmentation of Jaffna but also the possibility of the leadership of Jaffna slipping into the hands of the Leftists, or even the Sinhala parties in the south. Besides, they had to mobilise all their internal resources to fight “the external enemy”. The new Tamil caste / class could not wage wars on two fronts simultaneously : 1. the internal caste enemy and 2. the external communal enemy. They had to unite the internal forces to fight “the external enemy”. Since they could not unite the fragmented Jaffna society on casteist lines they switched to anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racism as a common, unifying ideological force to hold the internal dynamics together.
Racism, of course, created its own set of demands : mainly a greater share of power and territory. Extreme racism also generated fanciful theoretical concoctions, historical fictions and geographic distortions. It was, therefore, not surprising to find Vellahlas increasing their demands for a greater share of political power and territory from 50 –50 to federalism and finally to a separate state. To justify this grab for power they changed their political vocabulary too : overnight racism became “nationalism”. However, their attempt to rope in the Tamil-speaking peoples in the Muslim and the estate communities failed. The grab for power remained exclusively as a demand of the Vellahla caste/class. A critical examination of all the Vellahla demands will reveal that the demands for power and rights were designed to reinforce the privileges of the Vellahla elite and the not the Tamil people in the layers beneath them. Mono-ethnic extremism, dressed up as human / minority / cultural / constitutional rights, became the badge of the new Vellahla class. They took to mono-ethnic extremism with the same kind of fanaticism with which they waged their war against the low-castes. As in the case of anti-low-caste politics their anti-Sinhala-Buddhist politics turned into a destructive force that dragged the nation – and the Tamils in particular — downhill for 33 years (from Vadukoddai in May 1976 – Nandikadal in May 2009).
The Vellahla casteist dug their own grave by passing the Vadukoddai Resolution which officially declared war against the democratically elected state. The rise of Prabhakaran in the wake of the Vadukoddai Resolution gave the finishing touches to the decline and fall of Vellahla casteism in its feudal form. Nothing less than an explosive force could uproot Vellahlaism which had dug deep roots into the dominant Saivite caste culture of Jaffna. It can be argued that Prabhakaranism was as much a revolt against the Sinhala south as it was against the Vellahla north. The Jaffna ruling elite will remember that the Prabhakaran’s “boys” first trained the guns on the Vellahla Fathers of the Vadukoddai Resolution before they ran berserk killing more Tamils than all the other forces put together.
Conclusion : both as a caste and later as a class, the Vellahlas knew how best to deport their own people to other countries or to eliminate those who remained within their domain. Of course, they didn’t do it themselves. They as usual kept their “purity” untouched by getting their low-caste agents, like Prabhakaran, to do their dirty work.
To be continued