Chief Justice Burnside (1882) rejected Vellala “show of force and terror” and confirmed one law, one nation.
Posted on September 12th, 2020

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Once upon a colonial time, when the Vellalas dominated the casteist fiefdom of Jaffna, a husband of a low-caste Tamil decided to bury his wife  accompanied by the ritual of beating the tom-tom. But beating the tom-tom was an exclusive privilege accorded only to the Vellalas, the highest caste. The ritual of beating the tom-tom by low-castes was taboo. It was considered to be an intrusion into the domain preserved exclusively for the Vellalas. Angered by the violation of this ritual a Vellala mob waylaid the low-caste mourners and assaulted them. The triumph  of the Vellalas was in humiliating and putting the low-castes in their place. Any challenge to the supremacy of the Vellalas was resisted fiercely and ruthlessly from the Dutch period. However, in attacking the low-caste mourners the Vellalas had crossed line. The Police of the British Raj decided to act. They charged the Vellala Supremacists with unlawful assembly. The law found them guilty but the Vellalas appealed.

One of the eminent leaders of the Vellalas, Sir Ponnamblam Ramanathan, a disciple of Arumuka Navalar, the demi-god of the Vellalas, appeared on behalf of the Vellalas. He contended in appeal that the accused (the Vellalas) had the right to act in the way they did, in view of Section 8 of Regulation no. 18 of 1806. It was not brought to the notice of the Court that this Regulation had been repealed by Regulation 20 of 1844 (the year in which the British abolished slavery). In Queen vs. Ambalavanar, His Lordship Burnside, CJ.,. assuming that Regulation of 1806 was still in force, said: In  the present, it might be sufficient to ask what does this mean? Does it really mean that by the laws of this country one of Her Majesty’s subjects could be prevented from honouring  the dead in a particular way;  because some other person or body of people said they had the exclusive privilege of doing so? But suppose it is conceded that this the law, and that the Supreme Court should be moved for a writ of injunction to prevent a woman from being carried to the grave to the sound of tom-tom, does it follow that a body of men may assemble themselves together, and by show of force and to the terror of the other subjects of the Queen enforce their own edict to that effect against the party who favoured the tom-tom. I apprehend not. I say it with diffidence in the face of the learned Counsel’s contention. I trust that none of the ancient rights of the Malabar inhabitants of Jaffna Patnam will be jeopardised. Notwithstanding the contention and the venerable authority on which it is based, I make, bold to hold that the Malabar inhabitants of the Province of Jaffna Patnam, whoever they may be, must one and all be subject to the universal proposition of law applicable to the whole colony, that the people cannot take the law into their own hands, and seek to administer it after the fashion of Judge Lynch.” (p. 19, Tesawalamai, T. Sri Ramanathan, Lecturer in Law, The Nadaraja Press, 1965).

In this brief paragraph Chief Justice Bruce Lockhart Burnside (1882) summarised succinctly how the Vellalas perverted the socio-political culture of the peninsula with its ideology of casteist supremacy. It was not meant to be a sociological study of the Vellala culture of Jaffna. He was merely analysing clinically the reality prevailing in Jaffna. In the process he paints a grim picture of the human condition under the grip of the Vellalas. In dealing with this incident he goes to the nub of Vellala politics and questions the validity of its ancient rights” and its venerable authority”.  He sees this incident as an attempt by the Vellala Supremacists to take the law into their hands. The violence unleashed on the mourners is nothing but a clear show of force and terror” to impose their will on other subjects.

It also demonstrates that the Vellalas used its ancient rights” to rule Jaffna with an  iron-fist from the womb to the tomb. His comment on the body of men who would assemble themselves together and by show of force and to the terror of the other subjects of the Queen enforce their own edict” was prophetic. It is the Vellala leadership that met in Vadukoddai in May 1976 and unleashed force and terror to enforce their Eelamist edict. He rejected the claim of the Vellalas to exclusive rights based on venerable authority” and declared that this is one nation with one law.

In his summation he concluded by saying, whoever they may be, must one and all be subject to the universal proposition of law applicable to the whole colony, that the people cannot take the law into their own hands, and seek to administer it after the fashion of Judge Lynch.”. This is a total condemnation of the Vellalas taking the law into their hands and lynching their own people. This was not an exceptional incident. This was the norm since the reinforcement of Vellala power under Tesawalamai in the Dutch period. No other leadership had vilified, dehumanized, persecuted, oppressed and denied the basic fundamental human rights of their own people to walk this earth with dignity as the Vellalas of Jaffna.

Casteism turned Jaffna into a political peninsula of the Vellalas, run by the Vellalas, for the Vellalas. Vellalaism was a religio-political force that enthroned the Vellalas as the God-given rulers of Jaffna. It was the work of Arumuka Navalar, the Hindu guru who single-handedly changed the religio-political culture of Jaffna and enthroned the Vellalas at the peak of the casteist hierarchy in the absence of  Brahmins who were the  divinely casteist superiority of the Vellalas that turned them into political supremacists. What is  more, only the Vellalas had the power and the resources to determine  and  direct politics of the peninsula. They were the owners and controllers of commanding heights of Jaffna. They owned/controlled/dominated the land, the kovils, the Churches, the non-Governmental schools, professions, and, most of all, a disproportionate share of position in the state bureaucracy. They were, in short, the most privileged elite who wielded power both inside and outside the boundaries of Jaffna. They were at the top of the socio-political hierarchy and with English language skills there were none to challenge them in Jaffna.

In fact, in the first decades of the 20th century they did  not consider themselves to be a minority. They considered themselves  to be a majority on the national scene. (See: The Ceylon National Congress in Disarray 1920-1: Sir  Ponnambalam Arunachalam leaves the Congress – K. M. de Silva, The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, Vol II, July-December, 1972.) It was also a time when national politics was determined by the English-speaking elite of the North and the South. There were no mass movements. That came after in the thirties after Donoughmore Constitution.

The British Raj was negotiating mainly  with the English-speaking elite of both communities. It was a time when Sir. Ponnambalam Arunachalam and Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan were virtually the national leaders defining and determining the politics of  the day. And the Southern elite accepted their leadership until the Northern elite drifted apart demanding disproportionate power from 1921. Prof. K. M. de Silva’s magisterial essay, (cited above) analysing in depth the first political ruptures led by the Vellala leaders, tells the tragic parting of ways with incalculable consequences.

Initially, with the gradual invasion of modernity into the crumbling castesit fortress, Vellalas first fought to  retain their power and privileges with rival castes (e.g. Madapallis). Under the British rule low-level resistance came from the low-castes, as seen in  this case. But, by and large, the Vellalas kept the other castes under their heel. Under Navalar’s revised Saivism they had the religious authority to condemn and exclude certain categories as pariahs (outcasts). Navalar’s Saivism sanctified and empowered the Vellalas to reduce a segment of their own people to subhuman level. The Turumbas, the lowest  of the low-castes, were not allowed to talk in sunlight in case they polluted the sight of the pure Vellalas. They could walk only in the night when the Vellalas had gone to sleep. This was the entrenched political culture of the peninsula which even the colonial masters failed to dismantle despite the British abolishing slavery in 1844.

Vellala supremacy came out of Hinduism. In classical Hinduism the Brahmins constituted the anointed high priests – the highest in the casteist hierarchy. But there was religious taboo  on Brahmins crossing the seas. So, when the waves of Vellalas crossed the Palk Straits, leaving the Brahmins behind, there was no one to fill the place of the high priests in the peninsula, The gap was filled by the Hindu revisionist, Arumuka Navalar, the caste fanatic who crowned the Vellalas as the God-given lords of the land to take the place of the Brahmins – the law-givers and hence the rulers of Jaffna. He fortified their supremacy with his new interpretation of Saivite Hinduism. This is the religious source of Vellalaism.

But before Arumuka Navalar sanctified and reinforced Vellalaism as a God-given commandment, the rights and the powers of the Vellalas were codified and legally enthroned by the Dutch in the Tesawalamai, the Bible of the Vellalas endorsed by 12 leading Vellala mudliyars of the time. This is the secular source of Vellalaism. The sum and substance of the Tesawalamai was to legitimize the supremacy of the Vellalas. Untrammelled ownership of slaves was handed over to the Vellalas. It was the legalised beginning of subhuman slavery in Jaffna. . 

For instance, the Pallas were classified as the menials to the Vellalas. They were slaves from their origin.” The rights of the Vellala owners were defined as (1) Right to exact service; (2) Right to control the marriage of Slaves; (3) Right of appropriating children. (The child of female slave belongs to the Master).(4) Right over the slaves’ properties. (p. 16 – Ibid). Also, a freed person insolent could be brought to slavery again.” Also, a freed person insolent could be brought to slavery again. (p.16 – Ibid.) The best piece of Tamil literature that came out of sterile peninsular culture, Kanal, K. Daniel, a Turumban, dramatised graphically the suffering and the exploitation of the low-castes by the ruthless Vellalas.

This is only a thumb-nail sketch of the subhuman  history of Vellalaism. Its tyrannical abuse of power became an inviolable code to maintain the supremacy of the Vellalas. The Vellala determination to impose its casteist will is exposed in the judgment of Burnside, CJ. Some of the main characteristics of the Vellalas are contained  in  the judgment. The iron-fisted rule, inherent Vellala violence, the subjugation and the oppression of the Tamil people, exclusiveness rejecting the other”, the overall political culture that dehumanised their own Tamil people, rejecting change and adhering to feudal fascism, the Vellalas ganging up against anyone else challenging its power, are revealed explicitly in the judgment. The Vellala determination to be the unchallenged lord and master of the Jaffna, excluding  the other” (even if they are Tamils) has been demonstrated in Burnside’s judgment.

Clearly, it is not Tamilness”, nor the greatness of Tamils and their culture, nor the concept of a Tamil nation” that made the Tamils into what they are today. It is Vellalaism that morphed into Tamilness”. It is the Vellala oppressors and persecutors of the non-Vellala Tamil people who are posing today in verti as Tamil nationalists”. By definition, the Tamils included all the Tamil-speaking people of Jaffna. But the non-Vellalas were not  admitted into the Vellala-dominated Jaffna  society. The non-Vellalas were pariahs, the outcasts, who were not quality Tamils. The Vellalas who were in a commanding position to define and determine the political agenda, controlled events to  feather their  own nest. Jane Russell, in her penetrating study of communalism under the Donoughmore Constitution ( 1931 – 1947), documents how the Vellalas manipulated the system to keep the non-Vellalas out of the power elite.

The rise of G. G. Ponnambalam represents the radical shift towards  communalism in Jaffna. He combined in his person the two most virulent forces : communalism and casteism. Both went in hand in hand to shape the future of Jaffna politics. Ponnambalam’s virulent communal campaign laid the foundations for subsequent communal conflagration. He was no Tamil nationalist. He was a rabid, casteist communalist – and both went together in Jaffna. It was his campaign that snuffed out the idealistic Youth Congress, a formidable force in the late twenties dedicated to combat communalism and casteism. The Gandhian movement could not  stand up to the overwhelming  force of casteist communalism ignited by Ponnambalam. Vellalaism and Ponnambalist communalism were inseparable. In fact, when the Tamils talk of homeland”, or the heartland” they mean the haven  of the Vellalas and not  the Tamils. To the Tamils outside the Vellala circles Jaffna was a hell-hole created by the Vellalas.

Though the Tamils boast about their Tamilness” the Jaffnaites were not even recognised as Tamils by the Dutch and British administrators. As documented in Burnside’s judgement, the word Tamil was not even used to describe the Jaffnaites by the colonial masters. They were referred to as Malabaris” because they were recruited as cheap labour from Malabar.  Chief Justice Burnisde reference is precise: the Malabar inhabitants of the Province of Jaffna Patnam”. There is no reference to the Tamils at all.

Sri Lankan Tamils did not  exist in the eyes of the world. Not until Sir. Ponnambalam Arunachalam named them in the first census conducted in 1901. The Vellalas embraced Tamilness” and Tamil nationalism”  only when  they found that Vellaism had passed its use-by-date to win power in competitive electoral politics. Arumuka Navalar’s Vellala casteism had lost its divine status in the 20th century. . It was no longer marketable as a political force to survive in post-Donoughmore politics. Tamil nationalism was the last refuge of Vellala exploiters of the Tamil people. Nationalism replaced casteism. Twentieth century  did not recognise casteism as a viable political force.

If the grandson of G. G. Ponnambalam dares to look back objectively he will realise that his grandfather never talked of two nations. The idea of Tamils as a separate nation, like the Muslims of India, was not  in his political vocabulary. That came later with his junior, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. The truth is that Ponnambalam condemned any separateness. He, in fact, declared that federalism  is bad the Ceylon and  worse for the Tamils. So, when the grandson talks of two nation he is in reality mocking his grandfather. Besides, he is refusing blindly to accept the reality facing him. He cannot get a separate state without the consent of the international community. Erik Solheim, the peace-maker, made it categorically clear that no  nation in the world was willing to recognise the two-nation theory. He should know because he dealt with international actors who were vital for the survival of Prabhakaran, the low-caste hero of the high caste Vellalas.

Besides, the claim of a Tamil homeland has been debunked comprehensively by two eminent scholars: Prof. Silva and Prof. G. H. Peiris. In their masterpieces they have provided irrefutable evidence to reject the homeland  theory. The Tamil ideologues, on the contrary,  are striving laboriously to construct theories that would be politically useful for separatism. The officially  accepted theory for Eelam was presented in the Vadukoddai Resolution which contains concoctions and distortions to claim that they were makers of history from  the dawn of time. But Prof. K. Indrapala, the first professor of history of Jaffna University, wrote in his doctoral thesis that the Tamils established their first settlements  only around the 10th century. This not gel with the authorised version of history of the Vellalas. So, he had to leave the University in a hurry. Later he recanted  and constructed a new theory to fit into the political agenda of the separatists. The Tamils are still searching history to confirm their claim in politics.

Finally, when the grandson contradicts his grandfather it exposes the credibility of both. Tamils have been floating in this dilemma of credibility. They do not know whether to believe the Vadukoddian history or Vadukoddian politics that led them all the way to Nandikadal. The future of Tamils depends on coming down to earth from the homelands they build in the air and accept the reality of peaceful co-existence which is only place available for  all communities. They must accept that  the  place occupied by the Tamils, despite all its imperfections, is far, far superior to the place given to the oppressed Tamils by the casteist Vellalas or fascist Prabhakaranists. 

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