Bad news: Vellalars are back in Jaffna
Posted on February 5th, 2022

H. L. D. Mahindapala

Vellalarism has been a unique force in Sri Lankan history.  It has been the longest running political force in Sri Lankan history. It has run through three colonial empires – Portuguese, Dutch and British – without losing its grip on power. Even when slavery was abolished in 1844 Vellalarism managed to defy the law. Its capacity to adapt itself to changing circumstances without breaking up is evidence of its inner strength. It emerged as a political force from its shadowy past in the Dutch period and continued to dominate, without a break, directing the politics and culture of Jaffna with a fascist fist whenever necessary. It dominated Jaffna and enforced its will on the politics of the peninsula. It is this force that spilled over the Jaffna Lagoon in the post-independent period as a divisive force to disrupt peace and stability of the nation. It has lasted for roughly 700 years whereas Sri Lanka celebrated its 74th year only the day before yesterday. Its longevity, its deep-rooted power to survive and its tentacled grip on the commanding  heights of power have been ignored by historians, sociologists and political scientists. It has been the most under-researched and under-reported force in Sri Lankan politics.

In recent times, most of Vellalar politics have gone disguised as Tamil politics. Tamil nationalism” came in the nick of time to save the Vellalars. Earlier they were dependent on the caste-driven ideology to survive in their Vellalar-dominated electorates. But the Vellalars could not fight their political battles inside and outside Jaffna in the 20th century under their anachronistic and supremacist casteist label. So, they latched on to identity politics. Consequently, the Vellalars took to Tamil nationalism” like duck to water. There is nothing in Tamil nationalism” that which is not in Vellalarism. It is the politics of Vellalars that is wrapped in Tamil nationalism”. In short, Vellalarism = Tamil nationalism”.

Like everything big that came out of Jaffna it is the Vellalars who crafted the Tamil identity and  Tamil nationalism” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries respectively. They were quick to change their garb into national dress because they were in a hurry to grab the nationalist” leadership which was gathering momentum in the dying days of Vellalarism. They never gave up the leadership of Jaffna except for a brief period to Velupillai Prabhakaran. The Vellalar leadership, assembled at Vadukoddai in 1976, declared war and handed over the gun to the Tamil youth to fight for Eelam. The ageing Vellalar leadership went into hibernation during the 33-years of the Vadukoddai War (1976 – 2009). Now that Prabhakaran is no longer there the Vellalars are back in the saddle in Jaffna. That is the latest sad news from Jaffna. This is confirmed in the latest book written on the Vellalars by one of the best authorities on the subject – Ms. Selvy Thiruchandran.

In the 20th century the Vellalars were forced to yield to the forces of modernity. As Vellalar casteism ran out of steam in the 20th century the Vellalars switched over to Tamil nationalism, which was also the only remedy available to unite fragmented Jaffna on casteist lines. It was also the only ideology available to retain their grip on power in the 20th century. Ideologies of Marxism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, liberalism, Castroism etc., were not palatable to conservative Vellalars. They were too radical for them. Besides, anyone of those modern ideologies would have decisively undermined and dislodged the supremacy of the Vellalar casteists. This placed the Vellalars in a dilemma: how were they going to march into modernity. Vellalars needed a new ideology. The only option was Tamil nationalism”.  Until the thirties the Vellalar leaders were fighting tooth and nail to retain casteism. Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s last trip in the late twenties to London was to convince the Colonial office that casteism – meaning supremacy of the Vellalars – was necessary for law and order in Jaffna. 

Even G. G. Ponnambalam, the new leader of Tamils, after the deaths of turbaned Ramanathans, Arunachalams and Mahadevas, was an arch conservative, refusing to accommodate the Panchamars (low-castes). But the rising tide of modernity was against casteism. After the triumph of mass politics under the Donoughmore Constitution the Vellalars could not rely on the traditional power of casteism to win votes. The initial clashes of the Vellalars in the colonial period were with the other castes in the peninsular. And the domestic politics of the colonial masters in Jaffna was focused on holding the balance between the rival castes competing for power. The Dutch records carry the details of the caste rivalry. After the early inter-caste skirmishes, the Vellalars emerged as the dominant force ever since Modeeley Tambi led the riot against the Dutch, which was followed by the codification of the Tesawalamai (1707) – the legal document that reinforced the powers of the Vellalars to rule over the slaves. But casteism as an ideology was losing its credibility and viability like imperialism. Casteism was cracking up Jaffna, threatening the supremacy of the Vellalars in the 20th century. .

Nevertheless, with their numerical superiority, their supremacy remained untouched by any rival caste. They were the wealthy over lords of the land, kovils, and schools  — all of which were the commanding heights of the peninsula at the time. In 1680, the population of the Jaffna region was 169,299, according to Dutch records. (p. 192 – Tamils in Sri Lanka, A Complete History (C. 300.B. C. –  C. 2000 AD, Murugar Gunasingam). Of these 12,000 were slaves owned by the rich Vellalas, according to the Tombos kept by the Dutch in 1690, (p.192 – ibid) The Vellalas were the majority among the Tamil people and enjoyed high social status,” (p.192 – Ibid). In addition, they dominate society by monopolising the official and authoritative and official positions. They also occupy the principal places in the religious institutions and rituals and through their high status present an appearance of authoritativeness”.(p. 192 – Ibid). Their strength and durability have been in their ability to cling on to strategic points of power in the colonial administration, first in the Jaffna peninsula from colonial times and then outside Jaffna in the post-independent administration, despite cries of discrimination.

The turning point which consolidated the Vellalars as formidable political force was in the Dutch period. The conquests of the Tamil regions by the Dutch in 1658 proved to be a great advantage to the Vellalas,” says Gunasingam. (p.192 – Ibid). Vellalar power was consolidated by occupying the strategic places in the Dutch administration – a power base which they occupied even after the British  left in 1948. Their craze for clerkship” in government service brought them together as an unofficial power bloc of the Jaffna Tamils.   A popular saw of the time summarising the privileged position of the Tamil public servant ensconced in government offices said that the son shone in Colombo while the father the reaped the harvest in Jaffna. Recognising their political clout, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam launched his movement for Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchu in December 1948 at the headquarters of the Government Clerical Service Union at Maradana and not in Jaffna.

The disproportionate power they held in the colonial administration gave them the upper-hand in steering and distributing administrative power. In the absence of political power, they used the administrative power to further their interests. From the Dutch to British and British to the independent era the Vellalars never lost their grip on administrative power. The collective power of kovils, schools, land-ownership, casteist supremacy, wealth, and most of all, administrative power made them the supremacists of Jaffna for  nearly 700 years. They manipulated among themselves to keep the lion share of government jobs in their hands. The other castes  had to share the left-overs. They held a disproportionate share of power in the public service of the Dutch and British regimes. The Soulbury Commission dismissed G. G. Ponnambalam’s complaint of discrimination in the public service because Jaffna Tamils (11% population) held 32 % of the government jobs. And Prof. A. J. Wilson confirms this: On the whole, the Tamil vellalas have dominated the government service and professions….” (p140 –  S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 – 1977, A Political Biography.)

In other words, the Vellalars had a considerable grip on administrative power in the colonial administration. As subalterns of the colonial masters the Vellalars captured the key posts of mudliyars, vidanes, canecapulles, aratchies, majoorals etc. At these administrative levels they had a certain degree of power which they could use to their advantage. As stated by Zwardecroon, the Commander of Jaffna, his aim in appointing a Madapally instead of a Vellalar to a government job was to break the power of the Vellalars  — a task which he failed to achieve. The census statistics of the time reveal the power of the Vellalars. According to the 1760 census,” wrote historian Murugar Gunasingham, 516 held Mudliar posts in the four provinces of Jaffna Peninsula. Among these there were 317 Vellalars, 127 Madapallys, 17 Chetties, 14 Parathesis, 10 Malayalis, six Karaiyars, three Siviars and two Tankkaras.” (p. 193 – Tamils in Sri Lanka, A Complete History (C. 300.B. C. – . C. 2000 AD). Read together, the Dutch records, Prof. Wilson and historian Gunasingham agree that the Vellalars clung on to administrative power steadfastly from at least 1707 to 1993 – the year in which Prof. Wilson published his father-in-law’s biography. No other political force has reigned for so long, virtually dominating the politics of the Jaffna and the administration of the nation in the post-independent era as the Vellalars. As decision-makers at the centre of power, they managed to corner the best of privileges and the welfare services which made them and Jaffna the most privileged society of the colonial and the post-colonial periods. The PQLI Index which surveyed the quality of life index put Jaffna, in some respects, higher than even Colombo. But blaming the Sinhala-Buddhist was a chronic disease with them. It was another way avoiding responsibility for the consequences of the crimes they committed against their own people during the feudal and colonial periods. It was the Vellalars who had the power to determine the dignity, equality and justice of the Tamils of Jaffna. Not even the magnificient piece of legislation passed by Bandaranaike in the 1957, Prevention of Social Disabilities Act, was able to break through the entrenched power of the Vllalars.

Disentangling the skeins of thread that twines the Tamils and the Vellalars together is another issue which needs a special study. Separating the two strands and identifying the dominant Vellalar force is a prime necessity to grasp the North-South dynamics that meshed and bedevilled national peace and stability. By and large, the conventional wisdom  has merrily gone along with the calculated attacks on Sinhala-Buddhists – a popular target being Anagarika Dharmapala – to demonise Sinhala-Buddhism. This gave rise to the mono-causal theory which blamed only the Sinhala-Buddhists for the national crisis. The inter-action of the inter-ethnic forces that needled each other was seldom factored in. For instance, Vellalarism, the force which overtook other rival forces, is never inter-woven to obtain a fairly comprehensive overview of the multifarious factors that worsened inter-ethnic relations. Keeping the Northern factors out of the picture, or projecting the North as the victims of the South, have been the common tactic that distorted the perspectives of the crisis.

A mono-causal theory can never explain the historical and political forces that combined to explode in the post-1956 era. Hiding the terror and horrors of Vellarism has been a consistent and successful tactic of the Vellala elite. It was a part of the Vellalar campaign to project the elitist priviligentsia of the Sri Lankan society in Jaffna as the victims of majoritarian politics. Simultaneously redressing the imbalances of history, caused by nearly 500 years of imperialism, was touted as communalism. The return to the roots of history was an inevitable and a common feature of all ex-colonies. Undoubtedly, the violence that broke out at the lower-level of ethnic leadership mainly cannot be condoned. The post-1956 violence gained  notoriety because it the targeted the Vellalar elite. Incidentally, no one heard a similar intensity of outrage when the poor and the helpless Panchmars were tortured and persecuted for 700 years by the Vellalars.

The Tamils naturally are shy about their criminal past. But the Tamils and the pro-Tamil lobbies in the NGOs and academia are never shy to attack the Sinhala-Buddhist with every bit of dirt they can find on Sinhala-Buddhists. The Vellalar crimes documented  by Thiruchandran’s is a well-researched, ground-breaking study of the hidden history of Jaffna. Thiruchandan’s book exposes the ideology, practices, rituals and politics of the Vellalars as an evil force that left no space for non-Vellalars to breathe freely. Her in-depth analysis of the Vellalar society is the  best book I’ve read on the subject since I read K. Daniel’s mini-classic, KANAL, a novel on the suffering  the Panchamars under Vellalar oppression. As she says, the common attitude has been for the Jaffnaites to cover up their crimes. Her book reveals a key element of the history of Jaffna that was hidden even by the Jaffna University. The history of Jaffna can no longer be written as a bland account of mainly colonial rulers changing hands, with a few kings preceding them. The central role of the caste relations and the cruel domination and exploitation of the fascist Vellalars is displayed with historical accuracy. And the bloody, gory and inhuman narrative is told with scientific objectivity. Her book  reveals the hidden forces that bloodied the history of Jaffna. She delineates in detail the internal Vellalar characteristics, institutions, laws and customs that warped Jaffna society. It is possible to decipher the internal casteist pressures that pushed the Vellalars to act the way they did.

She argues convincingly that it was the dominant upper-class, land owning Vellalars, of the North of Sri Lanka who constructed the caste system with graded and stratified rules similar to the way the literate hegemonic  dominant group, the Brahmins, laid down the rules of caste in India……it is the Vellalars who are the most beneficiaries of the system.” (p.16 – Ibid). She challenges the religious foundations of the caste system (a la Prof.  Bryan Pfaffenberger). Citing Indian opinion, she states that the caste system is a development from the political and socio-economic conditions.” (p. 17 – Ibid). I think she is right as far as the origins of the caste system is concerned. But later Arumuka Navalar, the caste fanatic, tied the Vellalar hierarchy to Saivism, anointing the hierarchy as a kind of divine  order. His universe consisted of (1) the Tamil language, (2) Saivism and (3) caste. In the 20th century this was also the tripod on which Vellalarism rested. He placed the Vellalars at the peak of the caste hierarchy. His reformist Saivism, however, lacked the Brahmins at the top. I think he was trying to fill the vacancy left by the Brahmins by placing the Vellalars at the top. Of course, he was a Vellalar himself.

Understanding the North in all its dimensions is essential to come to grips with the complexities that obstructs reconciliation.   At last, it is heartening to know that new light is being  shone on the dark side of Sri Lankan history. Selvy Thiruchandran’s book on the caste issue has come as a breath of fresh air.  Her book, CASTE AND ITS MULTIPLE MANIFESTATIONS, breaks the silence on a taboo subject. Her courage in exposing the evils of Jaffna society should be commended. The overwhelming attitude earlier has been to put a lid on the inhuman  history of Jaffna because the perceptive analyses of the horrors and terrors of Vellalarism presents the gruesome realities of Jaffna. The idyllic Jaffna painted by the privileged Vellalar has been torn to bits. The suffering of the Panchamars is vividly depicted. The details are well researched. What is missing, however, is the larger picture. She asks many questions and answers them cogently and thoroughly. But she missed one question: What was the impact of Vellarism on the post-independent political landscape? Out of the 700 years of Vellalarism the elected democratic state ruled only for 74 years. Even out of that Prabhakaran ruled his quasi state for 33 years –( 1976 – 2009). Nevertheless, isn’t the 74 years, with all its infirmities, the best years that gave dignity, equality and justice to all the citizens?

Compare that period to the taboos that ruled Jaffna. Thiruchandran gives a sample of the taboos:

  • Taboo on wearing a shirt or covering the upper part of their bodies, the shawl having to be lowered in the presence of Vellalar.
  • Taboos on tying the tali, and having a wedding  procession or musical accompaniment during weddings
  • Taboo on naming their children with high caste names and using common ponds and common wells
  • Taboo on cremating dead bodies. (They have to be buried , but in their special cemeteries not in the Vellalar cemeteries.)
  • Taboo on equal  seating and equal dining in schools and churches,
  • Taboo on temple entry and on worshipping Gods of the high caste
  • Taboo on entry into cafes, restaurants and equal seating in public transport,
  • Taboo on wearing slippers or any kind of foot-wear and holding umbrellas. (pp. 57 -58 – Ibid)

So in what period of the 700 years of Vellalarism did the Tamils get any dignity, equality and justice? She adds: These taboos are symptomatic of injunctions imposed on slaves. They cover the whole gamut of their existence, their dress, their movements, religious and socio-economic behaviour, to finally their death rites of disposing the dead bodies.” In a passage above she says: What is most distressing is the birth ascribed unchangeable inequalities of the unjust system.” (p.57 – Ibid).

It is inequalities of the unjust system” of Jaffna that makes a mockery of the Vellalar leaders claim for dignity, equality and justice.” The Panchamars, for instance, had to leave Jaffna and come down South to get a fair ride in a bus! On balance, won’t a fair and objective assessment of the two periods lead to the conclusion that Tamil who could get a ride in a bus without being forced to sit on the floor boards had a better deal among the Sinhalese than their arrogant and nasty fellow-Tamils? Comparing the 74 years of the democratically elected state of the South with the 700 years of Vellalarism would expose the hypocrisy of the Tamil leaders who run around demanding dignity, equality and justice. Naturally, Thiruchandran is rather nervous and suspicious about the resurgence of Vellalarism in Jaffna. Considering its past its return does not bode well for the Panchamars. Besides, it is time for the politics of Jaffna to be released from the clutches of predatory Vellalars.  

This is not even a sketchy outline of the excellent study done by Thiruchandran. It is a book that should be on the shelves of those who are concerned about the future of Sri Lanka. Finally, it must be mentioned that the subject of Jaffna casteism has been dealt with the most appropriate scholar. She is the daughter the great Handy Perinbanayagam – the outstanding liberal and enlightened Tamil leader who pioneered the path to peaceful co-existence, the path to the future. At a time when Jaffna was wallowing in the two evils of communalism and casteism he led the very first movement to abolish both evils. If G. G. Ponnambalam did not snuff it out with rabid communalism and casteism Sri Lanka would not be in this plight today. The hypocrites posing as human rights champions can’t hold a candle to the visionary genius of  her father. He held the nation in his palm. He made Jaffna the centre of national politics. Indian and Sinhala leaders flocked to  him following his courageous leadership. The narrow and corrosive politics that came after her father ruined the chances of the nation rising as a model of communal harmony. What Jaffna – and the nation  — needs now is a Handy Perinbanayagam and not a pompous humbug like Rajavarothiam Samapanthan who did not lift a finger to save the Panchamars when their heads were smashed by his fellow-Vellalars with bottles filled with sand at Maviddipuram Temple. The champions who are parading as champions of human rights today should not forget that the right to pray in a temple is a right to live with dignity, equality and justice.   

e-mail: mahindapala8@gmail.com

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