Violent Vellahlas despised and oppressed the Tamils
Posted on April 9th, 2016

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of Jaffna discovered that the Vellahlas, the ruling caste, stood in the way of reforms needed to liberate Jaffna from outdated feudalism and fascist casteism.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.

13 Responses to “Violent Vellahlas despised and oppressed the Tamils”

  1. aloy Says:

    Whether it is for Vellalas or down trodden poor the construction of TIN houses in the NE is a crime. I myself have lived in such a prefab house in a far away country with similar climatic conditions and really suffered. Unless the houses are fully air conditioned it is difficult to stay in them. GOSL should listen to the chief minister who apparently has the welfare of his people in this case.

  2. Dham Says:

    If properly rated insulation in walls and roof is in place and good ventilation provided, steel cladding can be acceptable.
    What is important is the quality and value for money of these products.
    Being Indian products we cannot expect it to be good. Otherwise how on this earth should Bajjaj 3 wheelers can still be produced in 2016 ?
    Indian products have only given us death for 50 years now. Time to completely stop buying Indian products. Indians bribed our politicians to flood our country with rubbish and become rich.

  3. aloy Says:


    You can use what ever you like for the cladding, some people use cemboards and they are insulating. But most important is the roof. GI or any steel roofing should never be used for low roof as it becomes extremely hot in conditions like ours unless you have AC and reliable power supply. My family suffered in Nigeria as the power supply was erratic. Interestingly it was an Indian who gave approval as the head in the Housing Corporation for such a Prefab housing scheme.

    Since this project is to be paid for by our own people why they do not use SL companies to build it?.

  4. aloy Says:

    For insulation of GI (or Amano) type roof we normally use a 50mm layer of glass wool with reflective aluminium foil on top of chicken mesh in addition to a ceiling and all rooms being air conditioned. Can our Indian made low cost houses afford that?.

  5. samurai Says:

    What has insulation walls, tin houses, prefab houses for Vellalas or others got to do with the subject matter of the article?

  6. aloy Says:

    Thanks for coming to the point without beating about the bush. See how many paragraphs are there in this write up. I know Don is a gifted journo and has been writing about Vellalars and ‘white Caucasian Christians’ from overseas and I have seen readers have been more or less ignoring them as we are living in digital age where people have more intersting things to read. So, if HMLD feels insulted for not taking what he has written seriously I am sorry about it.

    However I feel that the bone of contention is this massive housing scheme. Many are talking about it in SL and CM of NPC is the escape goat. Perhaps interested parties are attacking him. The vellala problem is centuries old and their caste problem is as old as India is as a nation. As Sri lankans we should look at our own interest and do something good for our country irrespective of whether they are vellalars or poor peasant. I am surel those in NE including the Sinhalese in Vavunia and the East will benefit from a properly implemented housing scheme.
    I am however against the racist divisive policies of Vellala Vigie.

  7. Dham Says:

    Insulation as you motioned and ceiling is a MUST for roof as well as walls. I thought at that price all these were done properly. I agree A/C is also required for small houses unless at very windy locations.

  8. SA Kumar Says:

    aloy / Dham You are Great Sinhala puta(lvarkal).

    You both talk about welfare of We Tamils honestly We never ever thought about weflfare of not even one Sinhalase person in our life time .

    No wonder We never ever able to win war with you as Dharma always with you ( we both believe Dharma & Karma concept) !!!!!

    NB/ one time Mother lanka called Dharma Deepa ( Tharma Theepam) .

  9. Dham Says:

    Please don’t thank. We were discussing about right and wrong.

    If a normal comfortable house can be constructed for X Rs per sq. m and Indian Takaran House for Y Rs. per sq. meter, there is no reason paying our good Indian relative unless Y is less than 4 times X. Profit going overseas shall also be considered.

  10. Dham Says:

    Whether Vellala Vigie protested or Sinhala WW proposed , all proposals shall be considered on its merit. In this case V V appears to be correct. Moreover, let him earn some commission from local suppliers, money is not going to India.

  11. Fran Diaz Says:

    We thank HLD for this article.

    Almost all people outside of INDIA, PARTICULARLY PEOPLE OF THE WEST, do not know that Caste is stated in the BIRTH CERTIFICATES of ALL INDIANS. This, of course, includes all Tamil people. This is reason why Dalit Tamils flee Tamil Nadu. The plus to flee Tamil Nadu and enter Lanka is that birth certificates do not carry Caste lines in Lanka. The other pluses in Lanka are :

    FREE Education
    FREE Health Care
    Tamil folk will probably get FREE housing and Land when they ‘return’ to Lanka from the TN camps. (Who knows who these people are – they may carry only the UN ID cards plus UN issued $75 per person).
    Now, the latest news says Sinhala Army folk get housing free IF they marry a Tamil !

    As far as we know, none of the Sinhala or Muslim displaced due to LTTE genocide activities have got back their land.

    However, if Eelam is formed, then Caste will be re-established in the Eelam area by Tamil Nadu (virtual ruler of Eelam).

  12. Dham Says:

    It is now known that Naamal was the man hero behind Bogasweva Sinhala settlements, only Sinhala settlements lately. We should worship Naamal for that action everyday because no other politician had guts to do some Sinhala settlements since mid 1900s.

    However, only 8 takaran sheets provided and Rs 50000. No expressways built there, it is a dirt hell as we know. This LTTE government have stopped all payments to Sinhalas.

    It is only BBS looking after these people. After the Lankadeepa article ( which I pasted in my comments) Army has threatened people not to disclose anything to journalists. Is this Sinhala army ? Ranaviruwo’s ?

    BBS has come and distributed ration bags with basic food ( and clothing ?) etc. Well done and thanks to Charles.
    However people have fought over the freebees and it is not good for people to depend on them.
    All they ask is a road. Why couldn’t the father support the son to complete these settlements so that people can work carry on with some cultivation, sell them and make a proper living, I don’t know.

  13. Dilrook Says:

    If Namal had done that according to Dham, that makes him a worthy politician (than I thought of him). However, the amounts provided is far less than what was spent on a house for Tamils in Vanni. It should have been done with better state sponsorship as done in Vanni and Tamil villages.

    Sirisena must realise he will not get the support he received from Tamils ever again. To ensure his political future and that of Vimukthi Kumaratunga, he has to win over the Sinhalese. Others will vote for the UNP candidate.

    If executive presidency is abolished, then there is absolutely no need to depend on Tamils to come to power. All Tamil majority areas will vote for TNA and a few to UNP. Others get nothing.

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