BY H.L.D. MAHINDAPALA
In their heart of hearts, the Vellalar’s who dominated the history of Jaffna through feudal, colonial, and modern times are ashamed of their past not because they failed to produce a great culture, great heroes, great iconic monuments, great civilization, a great language, — or anything else outstanding or memorable, for that matter — but because they reigned over a culture of inhuman violence and cruelty that reduced their oppressed Tamils to sub-human non-entities for around 700 years.
It is so obscene that the entire political class and Tamil intellectuals, together with pro-Tamil private research centres in NGOs, craftily manipulated to hide it and swing the public opinion to believe that (1) they had a great culture and civilisation when Jaffna was ruled by their kings and Vellalars and (2) and it was the Sinhala-Buddhist majority in the South that stood in their way by denying them their heritage and victimised them with policies of discrimination against the Tamil minority, depriving them of dignity, equality and justice.
In deflecting racist attacks on the Sinhala-Buddhists the Tamil political class and the Tamil intellectuals succeeded exceptionally well in hiding their cruel and oppressive politics against their own people. Internationally and internally, they derived all the benefits of demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists.
They won all the political sympathy claiming to be victims of the Sinhala-Buddhists. Victimology was their trump card. But to triumph they had to hide dark and cruel side of their political culture. This strategy was cultivated craftily and assiduously. In this prelude to Selvy Thiruchandran’s outstanding book, Caste and its Multiple Manifestations, (published 2021), which exposes the horrors of the overwhelming Vellalar culture that ruled Jaffna, I propose to deal with some aspects of the hidden factors of the history of Jaffna.
The hypocrisy of our public intellectual and academics, who went along with the ruling anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideology – a tactic adopted deliberately to deflect attention away from the crimes of the Vellalar political class in Jaffna — is totally unacceptable. They fell in line with the Tamil political strategy of demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists, either to advance their career prospects or increase their bank accounts.
They have been living examples of Karl Mannheim’s conclusion that the intellectuals are venal and can be bought and sold in the market for a price. If their patrons were smokers the Sri Lankan intellectuals were ever willing to carry a lighter.
By turning a blind eye to the evils of the history of Jaffna, they virtually denied the crimes committed by the Vellalar rulers of Jaffna against their own people. Our intellectuals had a right to focus on the misdemeanours and crimes if any of the Sinhala-Buddhists. But they had no right to deliberately avoid probing the heinous crimes of the Vellalar ruling class of Jaffna.
Their decision to focus on a mono-causal theory of blaming Sinhala-Buddhists only excludes the specific political realities that came down from the North and exploded in the South. The dynamics of the South reacting to Northern politics and vice versa have to be factored in to grasp the intricacies of the North-South conflict. Focusing only on Anagarika Dharmapala, or the language issue, or the Sangha ( Example: Buddhism Betrayed? S. J. Tambiah) leads only to a moronic dead-end.
It ignores the multifarious factors that intermeshed to produce “1983” and the Vadukoddai War (a.k.a. Eelam War). Promoting the mono-causal theory of blaming the Sinhala-Buddhists was a calculated political strategy of the intellectuals to advance the cause of Tamils by demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists. The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, (ICES), run by Vellalar intellectuals, is a leading example.
ICES spent millions, probing every nook and corner of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture and history but hardly a cent was spent on the violent Vellalar culture hidden behind the cadjan curtain of Jaffna.
Why? How could anyone arrive at an objective and fair conclusion of the North – South conflict to work out solutions for reconciliation or peace by exploring only the Southern part and not the North? Was the assignment of the hired intellectuals to meditate on the sound of a Buddhist clap with one-hand?
The political objective of this partisan strategy was clear: those with a criminal past lose moral rights and justifications and must pay reparations for the victims. There is another advantage: this strategy of the intellectuals elevates the moral superiority of the Tamils to pursue their claims for reparations on grounds of victimology. In politics losing moral ground debilitates power. Even the mightiest force (e.g: Shah of Persia and Ranil Wickremesinghe) can collapse if it loses the moral foundations.
The intellectuals were consciously playing a partisan role. It is one of the primary reasons which boosted the intransigence of the Tamils and sabotaged attempts at making peace and reconciliation. The Tamils took the high moral ground on victimology demanding a high price for the victims. Oddly enough, even now their political thrust is based on the bogus cry of dignity, equality and justice for the victimised Tamils.
R. Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil front, hop from one world capital to another, demanding dignity, equality and justice. But how much of dignity, equality and justice did he and the other Tamil leaders give the oppressed Tamils?
The well-researched contents of Thiruchandran’s book on Tamil caste debunks the moral superiority of the Vellalars to claim any right to rule Jaffna either as federalists or as separatists. Throughout their history, the Vellalars had a fascist grip on power that determined practically every aspect of life, extending from the womb to the tomb. They had an incorrigible faith in the Vellalar purity and supremacy and committee Vellalar leaders like Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan fought tooth and nail to preserve their supremacy, irrespective of the suffering it caused to the Panchamars (low-castes).
In the highest court of the of the land he defended the right of Vellalars to hammer the Panchamar mourners carrying the coffin of a dead wife accompanied by ritual beating of tom-toms – a privilege reserved only for the Vellalars. During his time, he made several trips to the Governor to retain the rituals and the privileges of the Vellalars. The last mission of Ramanathan to London in late twenties was to convince the Colonial Office that casteism was necessary to maintain stability, law and order.
Their struggle was to retain Vellalarism as long they could without external interventions. They were inextricably wedded to Vellarism and they refused to accept that Vellalarism was not a viable political ideology for the 20th century.
Though modernity was shaving off the rough edges of casteism, political Vellalarism which came out of it was struggling to adapt to the new realities. The history of Vellalarism reveals that its power was omnipresent and overwhelming. Whenever Vellalarism was threatened by internal or external forces, the big guns (.e.g., Ramanathan) fought aggressively to preserve its interests.
There was no breathing space for the “other” to play any role in the decision-making process of Jaffna politics. In other words, Vellalar politics had the upper hand to manipulate and direct events to serve its prime object of preserving, promoting and perpetuating Vellalar supremacy. All politics that came out of Jaffna was to the serve Vellalar interests, as stated by historian Prof. S. Arasaratnam. He divided Jaffna into two parts: the dominant Vellalars and the rest. The rest (meaning the Panchamars) were there to serve the Vellalars, he said. His evaluation sums up the essential nature of Vellarism.
Politics of Jaffna
There was no space for the helpless, oppressed Panchamars to make their presence felt in the political process. In the first place they were excluded as pariahs from the higher circle of Vellalar power-brokers. Furthermore, they had neither the education, political nous nor the organisations to make any impact on the politics of Jaffna.
For instance, it was the Vellalars who forged the two overdetermining forces that came out of the womb of Jaffna: 1. casteism and 2. communalism. Both served Vellalar interests. Both forces were inextricably intertwined and they were used jointly as political tools by the Vellalars to maintain their political supremacy.
Even the Hindu reforms injected by their venerated Vellalar guru, Arumuka Navalar, reinforced the power and elevated the status of the Vellalars. His reformist Saivism elevated the low-caste Sudra Vellalars to the highest peak in the caste hierarchy. In a Hindu land without Brahmins, he made the Vellalars the equivalent of the Brahmins.
This anointment of supremacy reinforced their power to humiliate and oppress the Panchamars with religious sanctions. Their ownership of Hindu kovils enabled them to enforce their belief in purity. To maintain their purity, they prevented the polluted Panchamars from stepping inside their sacred precincts in the kovils.
The earliest reports of the Tamil suffering caused by the Vellalars were recorded by the Dutch. In his Memoirs, the Dutch Commander of Jaffna, Zwaardcroon, has had no qualms in condemning the arrogant and manipulative “Bellales” who made “thousands suffer” under their cruel yoke. (More of their suffering later.)
The Vellalars maintained their supremacy internally, within the peninsula, through the casteist ideology. Their ideology was not worth anything outside it. So, they fought for external supremacy through communalism, disguised as minority rights. Casteism has been a primordial ideology, coming down from feudal times.
Communalism is a latter-day ideology which gathered momentum in the 20th century when the casteist ideology ran out of steam to unite fragmented Jaffna divided on casteist lines. It is these two basic ideologies that mutated to create a Tamil identity in the 19th century and mutated again in the 20th century to create “Tamil nationalism”.
It was an ideology manufactured by the Vellalars to hold on to power internally and to grab power and territory externally. The Vellalar elite who ruled Jaffna on the casteist ideology had to accept reluctantly that the casteist ideology had passed its use-by-date in the 20th century.
The Vellalars needed a new ideology to unite fragmented Jaffna to campaign on a common front against the Sinhala-Buddhist South.
This need produced an overarching political platform based on (1) language / discrimination and (2) “Tamil nationalism” targeting the Sinhala-Buddhists – two ideologies that could unite the North to close the gaps in fractured Jaffna – fractured on caste / class/ religious lines.
It was in the 20th century when casteism had lost its power to reinforce the grip on power of the Vellalars that they turned to “Tamil nationalism”. The ruling class/caste was using cultural norms and revised ideology to retain and legitimise its power
The politics of the post-independent era was dominated by three big ideological forces : 1) Sinhala-Buddhism (2) Marxism and (3) Vellalarism – an arrogant fascist force of the dominant Vellalars that deprived the oppressed Tamils their dignity, equality and justice on a casteist ideology for 700 years, reducing the oppressed to subhuman non-entities with the sole objective of keeping the Panchamar subjugated and humiliated in case they decided to trespass and disturb the casteist borders of Vellalar supremacy.
They tightened the grip on power with aggressive, ruthless tactics when they failed to get consent. It was an ideology that tied the Vellalars inextricably to Jaffna. The Vellalars claimed Jaffna to be their exclusive domain — “homeland” — because Vellalarism and their supremacy that went along with that ideology was not accepted outside the borders of the North which included parts of the Vanni.
Vellalarism is an organic product of the Jaffna soil. It has its roots only in Jaffna. It cannot be transplanted anywhere else mainly because a civilised society would not accept such an inhuman ideology. It has to live or die within its borders. Therefore, holding Jaffna as a separate domain was essential to retain and maintain their supremacy.
Separatism, a concept manufactured by the Vellalars, is not “Tamil nationalism”, though it was wrapped in that tin foil. It is an ideology manufactured to protect the supremacy and survival of the Vellalars. Separatism was designed to create an independent political enclave for the preservation of Vellalarism without any external interventions.
They need autonomy to impose and run Jaffna the Vellalar way. A separate state would be the last refuge of the Vellalar supremacist. The Panchamars did not need separatism. In fact, they were wary of it. The path-breaking Tamil novelist, K. Daniel, who was from the lowest caste of Turumbas, “firmly believed that Tamil Nationalism was a far cry from the interests of the oppressed groups in the Tamils community” (p. 188 – Caste and its Multiple Manifestations). He was at the Panchamar protest staged at the Maviddipuram Temple – the historic protest demanding from the Vellalars dignity, equality and justice for the low-castes.
Where was R. Sampanthan, an MP with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, when the low-castes were beaten black and blue for demanding dignity, equality and justice? The “Sinhala state” had to intervene to protect the Panchamars threatened by the Vellalars.
It is clear by Samapanthan’s behaviour that in a separate state only the Vellalar interests would get priority. Separatism is the only way of hijacking Jaffna to restore and perpetuate Vellalar supremacy. Maintenance of supremacy necessarily leads to denial of dignity, equality and justice to Panchamars.
In making any moral judgment on the national question it is only fair to compare the values, morals and achievements of the Tamil states (including the quasi-state of Velupillai Prabhakaran) with those of the “Sinhala state”, as described by Tamil lobbyists. The morals, values and achievements of the 74 years of the “Sinhala state” in the South should be tested against the morals, values and achievements of Prabhakaran’s quasi-state.
His quasi-state was an extension of the fascist political culture of the Vellalars that ruled Jaffna for nearly 700 years before. The fact that the Tamils could not run a democratic state, with justice, equality and dignity to all, was demonstrated by Prabhakaran. His quasi-state was a state within the “Sinhala state”.
The Tamils are proud of Prabhakaran’s state. Which of these two states upheld democratic and liberal values? The “Sinhala state” fought its longest war— 33 years (1976 – 2009), — within a democratic framework. How did the Tamil state of Prabhakaran fight its war? Why was the Vadukoddai War fought under Tamil tyranny? Wasn’t it the demonised, denigrated “Sinhala state” that gave refuge to the Tamils hunted by the Tamil state?
The worst enemies of the Tamils have been the Tamils who deprived their own people dignity, equality, justice and security. Looking at the issue from another angle, how would nearly 700 years of Vellalarism compare with 700 years of Sinhala-Buddhist political culture? The Vellalars had power. They had a state. But how did they use power when they had a separate state?
Did they not use power consistently to oppress and persecute their own people throughout their history? What did the Tamils achieve other than creating a vile culture of oppression? Considering the inhuman abuse of power, are the Tamils fit to rule the Tamils?
Brutal violence to oppress and suppress the Tamil people was a common feature of Vellalarism. Dehumanising the Panchamars and stripping them of their dignity, equality and justice has been an inhuman practice of the dominant Vellalar political culture of Jaffna. They are conscious of their crimes against their own people.
The obscenity of this inhuman practice makes them feel guilty. They can’t face it. They strive with all their energies to hide it. It is taboo even in the Jaffna University. The Jaffna University, for instance, goes all out to discourage research into Vellalarism.
“At the University of Jaffna,” wrote Mahendran Thiruvarangan, a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of Linguistics and English at the University of Jaffna ”issues related to caste take a back seat in academic conversations. Although the academic community at the University gives prominence to Tamil nationalist aspirations and condemns the ongoing militarisation of the North, open discussions about caste are hardly encouraged, barring a few occasions.
A section of the academic community is warped in its view that discussing caste in public will cause disunity among Tamils.” (The Island — 4/1/22}. Earlier Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole had cited examples of discouraging undergraduates doing research on Vellalarism. The hidden undercurrents of the history of Jaffna need to be explored. As providers of knowledge for the guidance of the nation it is time that at least the Eastern University initiated a research program into this hidden corner of Jaffna.
A knowledge of the hidden history of Jaffna politics is essential for any in-depth analysis of the Northern politics. The roots of Northern politics are buried deep in the history of Vellalarism. Take for instance, their current campaign which is run on their cry for dignity, equality and justice for Tamils. How valid is this claim?
The Vellalars ruled Jaffna, in various disguises, for roughly 700 years. The “Sinhala state” had ruled the nation only for 74 years. Of this, the Tamils were under Prabhakaran’s rule for nearly half of it. So, the total number of years is 700 + 35 years. Did the Tamils get dignity, equality and justice from 735 years of Vellalarism + Prabhakaranism, or from the 74 years of the “Sinhala state”?
For instance, how many Tamil lawyers who were patriotically aligned with the Tamil state of Prabhakaran, went to practise law in Prabhakaran’s courts to deliver Tamil justice? Why didn’t M. Sumanthiram, R. Sampanthan and C. V. Wigneswaran, Tamil champions demanding dignity, equality and justice, practise in the courts of the “Sinhala state” if there was no dignity, equality and justice? If there was dignity, equality and justice in Prabhakaran’s courts why didn’t they practise up North? They know, in their heart of hearts, that no Tamil state ever gave the Tamils the dignity, equality and justice that were due to them.