Vellala caste fascism disguised as Tamil nationalism
It is curious how the unfortunate Sinhalese, to whom the credit of the decorations (of a dance hall for a visiting British dignitary) was due, are always overshadowed by the more widely known Tamils who are their fellow islanders.” – Ceylon in Early British Times, J. P. Lewis, CMG, Government Agent of the Northern Province. Left Ceylon in April 1910. Printed and published by the Times of Ceylon Company, Ltd.
No community in Sri Lanka has dehumanized their fellow-man and reduced him/her to the lowest depths of wretched slavery as the Vellalas—the dominant casteist elite of Jaffna — who ruled Jaffna with a fascist fist from feudal times. Nor has any other leadership used its powers to massacre its own people on a mass scale as the Tamil leaders. The first mass killer of Tamils was Sankili who marched down to Mannar on the Christmas eve of 1544 and massacred 600 Tamils for not recognising him as sole representative of the Tamils. As Catholics the Mannar Tamils owed allegiance to the King of Portugal. The second mass killer of Tamils was Prabhakaran, the first- born child of Vadukoddai (Batakotte) Resolution, written and proclaimed by the Vellala leadership on May 14, 1976. Based on the Saivite casteist ideology the Vellalas devalued and degraded their own people, the non-Vellalas, to sub-human levels. The Vellala supremacists put the knee to their necks and choked the oppressed Tamils under the hierarchical Saivite casteist system, leaving hardly any oxygen for them to breathe.
Jaffna Tamil political culture born out of (1) systemic oppression and persecution of the non-Vellalas endorsed in the Thesawalamai , (2) Saivite rituals that determined the Jaffna-centric lives from the womb to tomb, and (3) casteist dogmas of the Vellala Guru, Arumuka Navalar who elevated the Vellalas and anointed them as the God-given rulers of Jaffna, enabled the Vellalas to tighten their grip on the peninsula. The Vellalas who monopolised power and leadership – no one else was given space to counter their power – wrote the darkest chapter in the history of Sri Lanka making Jaffna the hell-hole of discrimination and oppression of Tamils by Tamils. In Gramscian terms the Vellala hegemony concretised Vellala power which, in its last days, turned into Tamil mono-ethnic extremism, which in turn turned into “Tamil nationalism” – the last refuge of the decadent and feudal Vellala casteists.
The consequences of extreme Vellalaism had frozen Jaffna into a feudal gulag, fenced by thatched cadjan leaves. Vellalism warped Jaffna society. In the last days of the British raj, the Vellala hegemonists, moving reluctantly out of the decadent and dying casteist framework into a class, were confused and were casting around looking for a solid ideology to hold the Jaffnaites under their hegemony. They realised that the two primary forces that sustained them — feudal casteism and colonial patronage – were slipping out of their grip. Besides, with market forces and modernity creeping into Jaffna, the Vellala power-base run on hierarchical casteism, was losing its validity and the Vellalas were fighting with their backs to the walls for survival. The low-castes too were beginning to assert themselves.
But the numerical superiority of the Vellalas (53%) gave them the upper hand. They were also entrenched in their casteist bases because they owned the land, the kovils, and schools. They were also in control of local councils and as obedient subalterns to the ruling colonial masters, which made them close partners in running the imperial regimes, they had accessibility to preserve their privileges and push their agenda. Being at the peak of the hierarchical Hindu-Saivism, the ruling ideology, also gave them the power to enforce the rituals that controlled the daily behaviour of the Jaffnaites from the womb to the tomb.
But by the second decade of the 20th century Vellala supremacists were beginning to feel the rising heat against Vellalaism. Creeping modernity was undermining its feudal power. Besides the Vellalas were in the process of transiting from a caste into a class. The norms, the bonds and the Hindu-Saivite ideology that gave them power and held them together were coming apart slowly but surely. The rise of the English-educated Jaffna youth in the twenties against casteism and communalism was the first organised resistance to Vellalaism. Retreating from feudalism into modernity was not easy. In the twenties the Tamil youth were ready to make the great leap by abandoning casteism, communalism and feudalism. But the counter-revolution came swiftly from the Vellalas. G. G. Ponnambalam, who was thrown out of Jaffna, returned by shaping the new Vellala agenda. He swung to the other extreme and laid the foundations of anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racism with his demand “50-50” for 12% of Tamils. The very first racial riot was sparked by Ponnambalam’s provocative anti-Sinhala-Buddhist speech in Navalapaitiya in June 1939.
The English-speaking Saivite Jaffna Vellala leaders, who were ensconced comfortably in the British administration, were confused and looking for a way out. They never took to liberalism, humanism, socialism, pluralism, multiculturalism etc. Not even nationalism. They were only out to protect and consolidate the threatened power of the Vellalas. Their first reaction was to ask for one extra seat for the Vellala elite in the Western Province causing the first Constitutional crisis when Governor Manning was in the process of reconstituting the constitution of the Legislative Council. The demand for an extra had nothing to do with “Tamil nationalism”. In fact, one Tamil Legislative Councillor argued that the extra seat was needed to represent the Tamils who had settled down in the Western province to ensure their Thesawalamai rights.
It was a time when nationalism was rising right across the colonised world. It was the rage in India. But the Vellala leaders were obsessed with only preserving their casteist rights encoded in the Thesawalamai – the Bible of the Vellalas. “Tamil nationalism”, which would have meant an independent movement pushing a separatist agenda, never featured either in their rhetoric or their ideology. The Vellala leadership was jockeying for Vellala casteist rights encoded in the Thesawalamai and not for the rights of the Tamils which would have meant going into partnership with the low-castes. Nationalism involved a substantial cross-section of the population. But the Vellalas consistently spoke only for the Vellalas and not for the low-caste non-Vellalas.
As everyone knows, the non-Vellala low-castes were excluded from Vellala society as pariahs, outcasts. Besides, in India, one of the key items in the nationalist movement was against oppressive casteism. Nationalism went all out to embrace all layers of society. The Vellalas wouldn’t have a bar of it. The Vellalas did not demand an extra seat in the name of the oppressed low-caste. They asked for it only as a demand of the Vellalas by the Vellalas for the Vellalas. Later they would classify it as the “grievances, demands and aspirations” of the Tamils. Pro-Tamil propagandists are now trying to interpret this demand for an extra seat for the Vellalas as the first signs of the birth of “Tamil nationalism”. But it was the first move of the Vellalas to demand a disproportionate share of power to be equal with the majority. It was a naked grab for power by the Vellala elite as seen in the demand for “50” per cent share of power for 12 % of the population. In fact, the Vellala leaders who were unable to justify the disproportionality of the demand for 50% for a minority of 12% argued that “50 percent” demand was not for Tamils only but for all minorities. But “Tamil nationalism” as it turned out was for the Vellala elite only.
Consider also the launch of the separatist movement by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the father of Tamil separatism. It was not done in Jaffna – the heartland of the Tamils, as they claim. On December 18, 1949 he launched it in the Government Clerical Service Union in Maradana. He was addressing the English-educated Vellalas who dominated the public service. When he cried “discrimination” he meant jobs for the Vellala boys in the government service and not the Tamils – a medley of Tamil-speaking people with characteristic regional and cultural differences. Chelvanayakam’s “federalism”, “self-determination”, “Eelam” etc., were ideological labels minted to cover-up Vellala hegemony that denied he non-Vellalas their basic rights and rally the oppressed masses around them by pretending to be their saviours when in reality their main political objective was to use them as cat’s paw to retain their traditional casteist power, prestige, positions and perks. When in the last lines of the Vadukoddai (Batakotte) Resolution they urged the Tamil youth to take up arms and never cease until they achieved Eelam they meant that the Vellala elders were going to ride on the backs of the youth to power.
Since they could no longer rule Jaffna on an outdated ideology of casteism in the 20th century the decadent and feudalistic Vellalas latched on to mono-ethnic extremism, crying that the end of the Tamil language and culture is coming. They wrapped themselves round “Tamil nationalism” targeting Sinhala-Buddhist as their bogeyman. They could no longer lay claims to the divine right to rule Jaffna on Saivite casteism. But they could claim legitimacy as defenders and saviours of the Tamil language and culture which cut across caste divisions.
The dying caste resurfaced as a class, retaining their feudal power, as “Tamil nationalists’. It worked for them. They had survived in electoral politics of the post-Donoughmore period only by demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists. Success in Jaffna politics depended on how effective each political party was in demonising their Tamil rivals with anti-Sinhala-Buddhist hate politics. Those who ran the most effective anti-Sinhala-Buddhist hate campaign won the day. No political ideology that went outside the Vellala-dominated, mono-ethnic extremism targeting the Sinhala-Buddhist had any chance of surviving in the electoral politics of Jaffna.
From the beginning of ethnic rivalry, beginning with the one-seat demand in the 1920s, the Vellala leadership paraded on the political stage with unwarranted arrogance. Their arrogance rose to the point of claiming to be one of the two majorities. Prof. K. M. de Silva in his brilliant analysis of the split in the Ceylon National Congress wrote that “Arunachalam shared the prevailing opinion that the Tamils were not a minority but were one of two majority communities.” (p.113 – Ceylon National Congress in Disarray, 1920 – 1: Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam leves the Congress” ; The Ceylon Journal of Hisotiral and Social Studies Vol ii, July-Decemeber, 1972, No.2) , K. C. Nithiyandanda, the Secretary of the then powerful Government Clerical Service Union, (the uncle of Douglas Devananda), summed it up when he told me: “You govern, we rule!”. He meant that the Tamils had the tools of the administration (the executive – the public service) in their hands to rule while the Sinhalese had the political power in the legislatures to govern.
Arunachalam split the National Congress by pushing a claim for an extra seat for the Tamils in the Western province, in addition to the seats given to them in North. (See Prof. K. M. de Silva’s incisive analysis cited above). The Vellala leadership never stopped increasing their demands since then. They had increased their demands from one seat in the Legislature of 1920 to Federalism (meaning 2/3rd of the North-Eastern coastline and its hinterland (Eelam)) in 1940-50s.
Mark you, on the eve of independence (1948) the English-speaking Saivite, Jaffna Vellalas (SJVs) were the most powerful and privileged community in Sri Lanka. Holding key and disproportionate positions in the public service, professions, economy, elevated them to commanding heights of power. When the sun was going down over the British Empire the Tamil father in Jaffna was reaping the harvest of the son shining in Colombo. The young English-speaking Vellalas who colonised Colombo suburbs like Wellawatta(m), were highly priced items in the Jaffna marriage market. In Jaffna the Vellala landowners and political manipulators closed the doors of the peninsula to prevent the “other” (asangha) from entering their domain. When they replaced casteism with mono-ethnic extremism, they withdrew into their domain excluding outsiders behind the ubiquitous cadjan curtain. They resisted the slow but steady invasions of Marxism, which swept the South, and stopped it before it could cross the Jaffna lagoon. They successfully blocked the invasion any non-Vellala ideology from crossing the Jaffna Lagoon into the peninsula.
The Vellalas succeeded in retaining Jaffna as their exclusive domain. But while they kept Jaffna as a mono-ethnic enclave, they had no compunction in colonising the south demanding more jobs, space and power. They were, for instance, demanding pluralism and diversity in the south while excluding any outsiders from stepping into Jaffna. Though the Marxists emerged as the biggest threat to the state in the early forties, the Vellalas soon outstripped them and turned into the most divisive and disastrous force in the post-Independent era.
The Left-wing petered out with the collapse of the Marxist morons in the JVP who misled the Sinhala youth into a premature death. But the Vellalaism gathered momentum as they incrementally escalated their demands pushing mono-ethnic politics to the extreme end of the political spectrum. At its height Vellalaism turned into the most critical factor in the post-independent decades. Though they spread their tentacles down South, going right into the heart of Colombo, they never abandoned Jaffna as their base – the only enclave that gave them all the casteist privileges in the Thesawalamai.
With one foot in the Thesawalamai North, where their laws prevailed, and the other in the South the Vellalas consolidated their power to the maximum possible limit. No other force had challenged the democratically elected state at the centre as the Vellalas. They were the most formidable force that motivated, directed, financed and organised their political children, the Tigers, to form a state within a state. Without the Vellala backing the Tigers would have crumbled soon after they began killing their fellow-Tamils (e.g., Alfred Duraiyappah) in the seventies. Whether it is inside Jaffna, or outside the Jaffna, or even in the Diaspora it is the Vellalas who ran the agenda for the Tamils. At the core of all Tamil politics there is an omnipresent Vellala. The financing, internationalising, propagandising, were all done by the Vellalas, taking cover in safe havens in the West. The non-Vellala Prabhakaran and his gang merely carried out the killing, torturing, persecuting and the general leg work for the Vellalas who were manipulating the Vadukoddai agenda in the background. It is the Vellala global networking and lobbying that enable them to rise as “the deadliest terrorist force” (FBI).
Clearly, no other political group had organised themselves into destructive juggernaut as the Vellalas. The failure to factor in the Vellalas as the overdetermining force that exacerbated the North-South relations distorted the political realities beyond recognition. Their monopoly of power inside the peninsula and their capture of the commanding heights of power in the state bureaucracy, professions and private sector in the South enabled them to manipulate national politics, particularly to project and propagate the Vellala grab for power as the “Tamil nationalism”. Besides, the key issues in the Vellala agenda which were presented as “Tamil grievances,” “Tamil aspirations” and “Tamil demands” had nothing to do with the basic issues of non-Vellala Tamils of Jaffna, nor the Tamil-speaking people in the East, Central Hills or in the Muslim community.
This is only a miniscule fragment of the unwritten, untold history of Jaffna that exacerbated North-South relations. It was the Vellalas who prepared, organised, internationalised and financed the forces that led to the futile war declared by them in the Vadkoddai Resolution. It was they who violated the crime against peace – the first charge faced by the Nazi criminal at the Nuremberg trials. They committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Most of all crimes against their people. And it is the Vellala moralists who are demanding justice from the world. This is like the Nazis demanding justice from the Jews!
Readers would note that the focus so far has been exclusively on the Vellalas and not on the Tamils. Tamils, as defined later by Chelvanayakam to increase his electoral clout, included all Tamil-speaking people. It included the Batticoloa Tamils in the East, the Indian Tamils of the central hills, the Tamil-speaking Muslims located mainly in the East and Western coast. I took care to separate the Tamils from the Vellalas because they had categorised themselves as a superior caste who excluded some of the Tamils. Since they elevated themselves from the rest of the Tamils with their arrogance and with notions of casteist supremacy, ostracising the their fellow Tamils as pariahs / untouchables, they should be considered as a separate society entity with a political agenda of their own. They were the prime decision-makers at the top. They belong to an exclusive political class. As revealed by Jane Russell (Communal Politics Under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931 to 1947) the low castes were kept out of the Vellala political circles that made the key decision. The Vellalas virtually monopolised power, wealth, and privileges, including front row seats in the Church!. Chelvanayakam began his separatist campaign only with the Vellalas in the Government service. Only they had the internal and external political network, manipulative skills, the experience and the connections to organise and pull the levers of power. I use the word Tamil in the larger sense to include the low-castes. The Vellalas I consider to be a parasites who sucked the blood out of the Tamils to protect and nurture their own self-interests.
Even though the Vellalas maintained their distinct identity in practically every area, they were conscious of the political need to liaise with all the Tamil-speaking people to increase their political clout in the electorates. In fact, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, the father of Tamil separatism, realising the need to form a Pan Tamil front to present a formidable Tamil force to confront the Sinhalese, launched the Iyakkum (movement) of Tamil Payasoom Makkal (the Tamil-speaking people) “trying to create a unity of all Tamil-speaking people in the whole island inclusive of the Tamil-speaking Muslims.” (p.70, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism (1947 – 1977), by A. J. Wilson, son-in-law of Chelvanayakam). The non-Vellallas realised soon that the “Tamil grievances”, “Tamil aspirations” and the “Tamil demands” of the Vellala Vadukoddians had no relevance to their political circumstances, grievances, aspirations or needs and they left the Iyakkum for the Vellalas to run it.
This is also meant to be a prelude to examine Dayan Jayatilleka’s political science. Like all political scientists / commentators he has never factored in the most evil and destructive force that came out of Jaffna to exacerbate North-South inter-ethnic relations. In fact, his writings have never shown any in-depth knowledge of the Vellala factor that made all the difference to peaceful co-existence of the nation. He is shedding copious tears to the “Tamil aspirations”, “Tamil grievances”, and “Tamil demands” which originated from the most privileged bloc in Sri Lanka. As a Marxist he is rooting for the most exploitative, cruel, oppressive caste/class in the history of the nation. What is his knowledge of Marxism worth when he can’t distinguish between oppressors and the oppressed? Can he explain how the alleged issue of job discrimination in government service affected the non-Vellala low-castes in Jaffna who were not even allowed to drink water from the Vellala wells? If he were to shed tears should it have been for the Vellala priviligentsia or the persecuted Tamil slaves kept under subhuman conditions by the Vellala oppressors?
The history of the Vellalas dovetails neatly into the Marxist and Gramscian models of a ruling class distorting and exploiting ideology to hang on to power. Clearly, Dayan has shown no originality in his thinking. He is parroting Tamil propaganda which is sophomoronic. He takes to anti-Sinhala-Buddhist hate politics because he has not done his homework. He must have read the Prison Notebooks of Gramsci. But how many books on Tamil history has he read? In expectorating anti-Sinhala-Buddhist hatred, without analysing the dialectics of history which rejects mono-causal theories, he comes down to the level of a perverted intellectual whose best efforts are in displaying his colossal ignorance garnished as profound political philosophy.
What happened to the dialectics of the Marxists whose interpretations of history is based on the clash of thesis and anti-thesis? Dayan, the Marxist, is now writing history as the sound that comes out of a clap with one hand? Like the other commentators he is blaming only the Sinhala-Buddhists. It is time that smug theoretical humbugs like Dayan gave up theorising for the world to regain its normalcy, sanity and peace.