Vellahlas escalated caste wars under British rule
Posted on April 13th, 2016
H. L. D. Mahindapala
After the Dutch it was the British who had to police Vellahla violence erupting in Jaffna. Caste wars escalated to a new level. Jaffna under the British was a battleground for mini-wars waged by the Vellahlas against the oppressed Tamils. The British annual administration reports for the Northern Province document faithfully the Vellahla violence for the year under review. Each report gives a glimpse of the violence and oppression faced by the non-Vellahlas. All the caste wars were to oppress the non-Vellahla, low-caste Tamils and deny them any degree equality, self-respect or dignity due to them as human beings. The systemic cruelty and oppression of the Vellahlas amounts to crimes against humanity. No other society has been as oppressive and cruel as the Vellahlas humiliating their fellow-Tamils.
The mini-war recorded in the Administration report of 1905 reveals the fate of the non-Vellahlas at the hands of the powerful Vellahlas. In this case the Vellahlas go to war with the Karaiyar (fisher) caste. What is significant in this case is that the caste war is waged not by Hindu Vellahlas but by Roman Catholic Vellahlas. Casteism had gone beyond the original boundaries and infected all layers of society. This indicates the extent to which casteism had poisoned Jaffna culture. The account in the 1905 Administration Report tells the tale :
“There were three caste riots in Jaffna during this year. There was a fourth in which rioting was threatened if the caste privileges to which the Vellalas set up an excusive claim were not interdicted to a lower caste by the authorities, but this course was not taken and nothing happened.
“The worst of these took place at Matakal on 25th June, 1905, between the Roman Catholic Fishers on the one side of the Roman Catholic Vellalas and others on the other side. One of the Fishers, who was beaten with a club, died. One of the opposite faction was shot and injured with a pistol by the fishers. The riot arose in consequence of a dispute in regard to beating tom-toms at a novena at one of Roman Catholic churches of Matakal. Cases and counter cases were filed. The charge of murder ended in the conviction of the accused, a Koviar (usually those who worked for the Vellahlas) of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to fifteen years rigorous imprisonment…….In consequence of this riot and of a previous riot a punitive police force has quartered on Matakal for six months.” (Ceylon Administration Report for 1905 – Part 1, C 18 –19).
The Catholic Church (Vellahala diocese) which embraced casteism set up separate seats in the front rows for the Vellahlas and reserved the seats in the rear for the low-castes. The power of the Vellahlas to impose their casteist will was greater than that of Jesus whose love and compassion cut across race, caste, and creed. Setting up separate seats for Vellahlas was a modified Christian version of reserving the inner courts in Hindu Kovils exclusively for the Vellahlas. In Matakal the riot was about the fisher caste beating tom-toms. – a privilege reserved only for the Vellahlas. In Maviddipuram it was about the refusal of the Vellahlas to share God’s sacred territory inside with the low-castes. Even in God’s open space the Vellahlas claimed a separatist territory for their tribe. God put all men together in his sacred earth. But the Vellahlas resorted to violence to keep man separated from man in God’s sacred space. Violent Vellahla villainy was a disgrace to Catholicism. The separatist politics of the Vellahlas was a disgrace to man and God.
Caste riots were becoming a regular feature threatening peace, law and order in Jaffna that the Government Agent of the Northern Province thought it fit to tabulate the caste riots for the previous years in his Administration Report of 1904 :
When there was no rioting in 1904 the government Agent made a special note saying: “There was not a single case of a caste riots in the Province during the year under review.” But it was only a rare exception. It started again and continued even as late as the sixties.
In these internecine caste wars, no Vellahla raised (a) the “Tamil nationalist” flag (none existed), or (b) the cry of “discrimination”, or (c) the fears of the Sinhala-Buddhist bogeyman. The Vellahlas identified their enemy as the non-Vellahlas and went for them ruthlessly in their mini-wars against the non-Vellahlas. It was home-grown, Jaffna centric violence generated by the Vellahlas against the non-Vellahlas.
At the peak of feudalistic casteism Vellahla violence was confined to the peninsula. Vellahla violence leapt out from its peninsular borders and targeted the Sinhala south, with the greater ferocity than against the non-Vellahlas, only when they shifted from casteism to racism. The racist cry, cloaked as Tamil “nationalism”, came later when Vellahla casteism had lost is power to hold the Tamil community together. Cracks in the concrete foundations of casteism were threatening the supremacy of the Vellahlas in the peninsula. Saivite Vellahlaism was no longer valid as a political force to mobilise all layers of the Tamil community. The low-caste Tamils were beginning to look outside the Vellahlas for leadership. For instance, P. Kandiah from the Moscow Wing of the Communist Party had won the Point Pedro seat – an ominous event that signposted the future threats to the monolithic power of the Vellahlas.
And this sign of power slipping out of their hands was something that the Vellahlas dreaded most. This was a serious threat to the power-hungry Vellahlas. Holding the political power in their hands was their ultimate aphrodisiac. They would not give that up for anything in the world. It was in the declining years of casteism that the Vellahlas switched from casteism to racism to hold divided Jaffna under the Vellahla umbrella. In incremental stages, casteism turned into racism and racism turned into “nationalism” / separatism. Simultaneously, the Vellahlas were mutating into a class. The new class had to slough the old skins of casteism. After that they to put on the new clothes of racism / nationalism / separatism to make them presentable to the post-Donoughmore, vote-wielding Tamil electorate. Each transitional stage was manipulated and managed by the Vellahlas, the only caste/class in a commanding position to initiate and direct the political agenda of the peninsula. Mutating from caste to class, and from casteism to racism to “nationalism”/separatism were the only means of broadening the political base to include all layers of Jaffna society under a united political formation to consolidate the electoral clout.
After the introduction of universal franchise under the Donoughmore Commission in the thirties it was obvious that the Vellahlas could not advance within Jaffna and outside under the casteist banner. The voting rights gave a degree of political power to the lower-castes which they had never enjoyed before. The Vellahlas had to win their votes if they were to retain power. It was at this stage that they were forced to adopt an alternative political ideology. They replaced casteism with anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racism = nationalism = separatism. This cry was first raised in its most crude and virulent form by G. G. Ponnamblam in the thirties. This opened the door for the Vellahlas to divert attention away from their internal failures, as leaders who had monopolised power in the peninsula, to the external “other” – the Sinhala-Buddhist bogeyman. The oppressor and the oppressed could unite only against an external enemy. Demonising the Sinhala-Buddhist gave the Vellahla manipulators the expedient means to unite the divided Jaffna community and divert attention to a common external “enemy”. The rest, of course, is history.
Under the colonial rulers the Vellahlas had the upperhand because the Dutch and the British ruled only through the Vellahla elite. It was also the declared policy of the Dutch and British to give their patronage to the Vellahlas to keep the natives quiet. The Dutch learned it the hard way by trying to break up the monopoly of government jobs held by the Vellahlas. The Vellahla Moddely Tambi led the revolt to prevent his job from going over to a Madapalli, a rival caste. There was a symbiotic relationship in which both the colonialists and the Vellahlas depended on each other for their separate survival. The colonialists absorbed the Vellahlas into their administration which kept the Vellahlas as obedient servants of the Dutch and British regimes. But in the post-Donoughmore period, and particularly after Independence, the critical centre of power shifted from colonial patronage to grass root forces.
The universal franchise introduced by the Donoughmore empowered the non-Vellahlas forcing the elitist Vellahlas to embrace mass politics to retain their power. They could no longer depend on the Colonial Office / Governor to allocate extra seats for them in legislature. The rise of voter-based mass politics forced the Vellahlas to woo the non-Vellahlas and take them along to serve the Vellahla agenda.The strategy of the Vellahlas at this stage was to mutate from caste to class and from outdated Saivite ideology to secular racism=nationalism=separatism. Universal franchise was the first big blow to the Vellahlas who, as a protected species of the British, were relying on colonial patronage. The voting power in the hands of the low-castes compelled the Vellahlas to go down to their people instead of looking up to the colonial masters for protection.
In his analysis of Jaffna society, Neville Jayaweera, Government Agent, Jaffna, (1963 – 1966), wrote : “Vellalar dominance rested on what had seemed an indestructible tripod : 1. One leg of the tripod was the patronage of the British’ 2. The second leg of the tripod was access to government service. 3. The third leg was the ownership of land in the peninsula and elsewhere in the North……The British gave the initial impetus to the Vellalar class in their ascent to power. To gauge the extent of that impetus, one has to read, as I have done, the daily diaries of Ackland Dyke, Government Agent of Jaffna for 38 years and of William Twyneham, for 28 years. Their patronage of the Vellalars was fulsome, and it enabled the Vellalar young men who passed out from mission schools in Jaffna to gain speedy entry into government service. “ (pp. 160 –161 – Jaffna Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision, Ravaya Publishers, 2014)
It was the common practice of the enlightened colonialists to absorb the native elite into their administration to keep the mass of natives below them quiet. As seen in the 1815 Kandyan Convention winning over the native elite was a necessity for the imperialists to overthrow native regime and capture power. The native collaborators were also needed to retain power. It was the native elite who knew best how to keep a tab on the restive masses and prevent them from running berserk. After the revolt of Moddely Tambi the Dutch too were careful not to upset the natives. Zwardecoon suggested studying the native customs and laws to understand the inner social mechanisms which could be manipulated and controlled for more efficient governance of Jaffna. It was this recommendation which resulted in the Teswalamai. And they made it a point to consult the local Modeliyars before making it a part of the law of the land, along with the laws of Netherlands wherever applicable.
In fact Neville’s strategy as GA Jaffna was somewhat similar. To defuse tensions and to keep the peace he went all out to study Saivite Hinduism and its casteist structures. Armed with that he went as far as he could to appease the Vellahla leadership, one of whom, Dr. E. M. V. Naganathan, threatened to bash his head with glass paperweight. By pursing non-confrontational and non-provocative politics Neville steered his way through the Jaffna minefield. His hands were full. On the one hand he had to face the wrath of the Vellahla leadership coming at him aggressively because he was the representative of the “Sinhala Government”. And, on the other, the non-Vellahlas were on his back urging him to implement the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957 which was aimed at dismantling the Vellahla caste fortress.
The entrenched Vellahlaism was a formidable force for which he had no answer, though he managed adroitly and diplomatically to handle the politics facing him. Vellahlaism was the Bastille of Tamil feudalism and it had to go. But the resistance of the ancien regime was formidable. Even in the late sixties Vellahla casteism was as aggressive and entrenched as it was in the time of Dutch. He decided to take on Vellahlaism by studying the subject to challenge the casteists intellectually. His study led him to the following conclusions:
“Even in the mid-1960s, the following principles defined what it meant to be a non-Vellalar: 1. Regardless of natural endowments, anyone born a non-Vellalar was frozen into his particular station for all of his life, be it fishing, tree climbing, road sweeping or whatever. Heredity was a cast iron frame from which there was no escape. 2. They dared not marry anyone from the Vellalar caste. 3. They were not allowed into premises occupied by the Vellalars, except for doing the tasks they were born into. 4. They did not have access into temples owned or managed by Brahmins or Vellarlars. In other words, they were non-persons. 5. They did not have access to Hindu schools or opportunities to proceed for higher education. This barrier was breached effectively when missionary schools began to proliferate, much to consternation of Hindu leaders. 6. They could not reside outside their villages. 7. They could not drink at the village well nor use any other public amenity outside their own village. 8. They could not wear jewellery, nor ride in carriages, nor use drums at any ceremony. 9. When they died they could not be cremated or buried on land reserved for the Vellalars.” And he concludes by saying that “in the 60s, the Tamil caste system was nearly as oppressive as it had been in India for over 4000 years.” (pp. 147 – 148 — Ibid).
And he was right. Jaffna, unlike the multi-cultural and cosmopolitan south, was a closed society. It never opened its doors for liberalism, Marxism, Gandhism, humanism or any other “ism”, other than Vellahlaism to gain a foot hold in Jaffna. Vellahlaism remained as a powerful force even in the post-independent era that none of the leading lights of the Tamils, all of whom were Vellahlas, dared to dismantle it. Everyone, including S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, “the trousered Gandhian”, found it too sensitive to touch it. Vellahlas switched from one ideology to another, from casteism to racism, from racism to nationalism / separatism without giving up its essential characteristic of being a dominant ruling force.
Jaffna and Vellahlaism are like Rome and Catholicism : one does not exist without the other. They were inseparable twins. When the Vellahla man says that Jaffna is the heartland of the Tamils he means that it is the only land where the writ of the Vellahlas reigned supreme. It was the only haven where he could enjoy the powers, privileges, and perks that were reserved exclusively for the Vellahlas. It was the only locality where Tesawalamai – the legal Bible of the Vellahlas — had any validity. There was no place for Vellahlaism outside Jaffna. Naturally, the Vellahla man was bent on preserving it as a separate entity only for the Vellahlas.
It was the Vellahlas who ran the political agenda of the peninsula from the womb to the tomb. Until the rise of Prabhakaran there wasn’t an inch of space for non-Vellahlas to initiate, direct or implement non-Vellahla politics. Even though the non-Vellahlas were oppressed they had no alternative but to vote for their oppressors, may be Ponnambalam Ramanathan or may be G. G. Ponnambalam, although they knew that these leaders were the champions of the Vellahlas. Neither of them stood up for the oppressed people of Jaffna. The Jaffna Tamils went along with the subhuman oppression and humiliation, even the forcible abduction of their children, because there was no alternative leadership to turn to. Take, for instance, the landmark Vadukoddai Resolution. Though it was initiated, endorsed and launched by the Vellahlas it was implemented by the non-Vellahlas. Even the oppressed Tamil worked within the ideological framework defined by the Vellahlas in the Vadukoddai Resolution. There was no alternative leadership or ideology. Besides, the new Vellahlaism, disguised as “nationalism”, fighting a common “enemy”, (i.e., the Sinhala-Buddhists), could not be opposed without being stigmatised as traitors to the cause of the Tamils. In essence, the new Tamil nationalism was old Vellahlaism. It was like old wine in new bottles. The essence was the same. Only the label was new.
Everything that came out of Jaffna was hand made by the Vellahla. Even Velupillai Prabhakaran was the first born child of the Vellahla Vadukoddai Resolution. It was the Vellahla Resolution that legitimised the subhuman violence unleashed by Prabhakaran. He became the iconic “boy” of the Vellahlas who had no other hero in their history. His photo adorned the mantelpieces and the walls of the Vellahlas both abroad and at home. That was only because the unwritten law, running as an undercurrent in Tamil politics, understood that Prabhakaran was the proxy of the Vellahlas who fought on behalf of the Vellahlas to eventually bring the Vellahlas back into power. Prabhakaranists would not agree with this. They would consider him as an autonomous force. But the Vellahlas knew it better. Besides, the financial, political, diplomatic and the brokering came primarily from the Vellahlas. Only they had the resources to keep Prabhakaran floating. Without them Prabhakaran would not have lasted as long as he did. He was their bargaining chip.
Only the misguided and the deluded would believe that the Vellahlas have reformed after Nandikadal and would settle for less than what is in the Vadukoddai Resolution. That Resolution enshrined and encapsulated the spirit and the force of the battle that took place at Maviddipuram – a separate territory exclusively for them, leaving out even the unwanted Tamils. Earlier at Matakal they fought bitterly for the exclusive right to beat tom-toms which no other Tamil could. Separatism became an integral part of Vellahla Hinduism and Vellahla Catholicism. The Churchmen were even planning a Vellahla theology exclusively for the Vellahla supremacists.
If God’s creation was intended for man and man to live together why is it that the Vellahlas have laboured for over five centuries to put them asunder? Their inveterate history confirms that they are not likely to change now because some aap-payas think that they can be appeased by offering constitutional hoppers. Like the original aap-paya they will take the hopper given to them and go home and stab the constitution-makers in the back.
Where will that leave the nation? Who is going to pick up the pieces? And at the end of it all, where will the constitution-makers be – in Alimankada or Pamankada?