Midweek Review
‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ and other Tamils – II

by D. G. B. De Silva
The influx of South Indian labour in the 19th century was, perhaps, responsible for the search of a new identity for the earlier Tamil immigrants who had made Sri Lanka their home since they were brought here or induced to come over by the Dutch for the expansion of tobacco cultivation in the Jaffna peninsula. Spearheading this movement for a new identity were men like Mudliyar Rasanayagam and Fr. Gnanaprakasar and others who wrote the history of the Jaffna Peninsula to establish the missing ‘historical link’ for the Vellala hegemony. The historical truth that there was no link between the 17th and 18th century Vellala and other migration with evidence of early South Indian presence was ignored. Tamil historians like Indrapala who wrote history observing that there was no link between the present day Tamils and those referred to in history became unpopular. That is not what they wanted to hear.

While the groups settled in the Jaffna peninsula constituted the Vellalas, who were originally a South Indian agricultural caste who were adept in cultivating irrigated land between pastures and dry land under the Indian hierarchical system each of these types of land was utilised by a specific caste or tribe [Hutton] - such other groups like the weavers the Dutch had brought and settled at about the same time in areas like Chilaw, Mannar, Jaffna and Eastern coast were later recruited as labourers in cinnamon plantations. [See N. S. G. Kuruppu: ‘A History of the Working Class Movement in Ceylon.’]. As a result of assimilation with the Sinhalese these original weavers gained social mobility whereas in the Jaffna peninsula the caste hierarchy became even more hardened with the Vellalas, by their numbers and economic power gained from ‘tobacco gold’ becoming the dominant caste, applying a hegemonic role over other castes of slaves who were imported and the Sinhalese who became degraded and dispossessed when the lands of Vanniyas were taken over and distributed, and relegated to serfdom as agricultural and other labourers. This was the phenomenon that Hutton observed, i.e., people lower in the Indian caste hierarchy adopting same attitudes towards others below them.

The preoccupation of the Jaffna high caste Tamils were more with the labouring class of Tamils and Sinhalese who lived among them in order to perpetuate their bondage through the application of social barriers and making them dependent on living on marginal lands of the Vellala overlords from which they could be evicted at pleasure. What went on behind the cadjan curtain has hardly been studied except by an occasional Dalit writer, but not in a scholarly manner as Dr. S. J. Tambiah set about studying the Sinhalese and Buddhist organisations.

In the search of the new identity of the Jaffna Tamil, separated from his origins in South India where there were other castes dominating above them in the caste and social hierarchy, in their new home in the Jaffna peninsula the Vellalas were left alone to themselves without anyone above them to impose and apply the hegemonic role over them. The royal line had ended and the Tanjore army had returned a century or two earlier with the Portuguese occupation and the power of the Jaffna Vanniyars had been broken by the Dutch by this time.

As the Indian Census Superintendent observed, it was a case of ‘adopting exactly the same attitude as the higher castes do towards them’. The newly gained economic influence arising from tobacco sales in Tanjore and to visiting Sumatran merchants also helped them in their uncontested social mobility. Otherwise, how could there be a difference between the Sinhalese agriculturists, the ‘Goviyas’ [Koviyas] and the Vellala agriculturists from South India? Did the possession of the technology of the Persian well give them higher social status over the Sinhalese ‘goviyas’ who may have practised cultivation under the monsoonal rains or dry farming under Jaffna conditions. There is a point, however, that in the districts in South India the cultivators who were engaged in dry farming were considered lower in status to those who farmed under irrigated conditions, such as the Vellalas but did such cultural practices give them the social distinctions that the Jaffna Vellalas claimed over others, in matters like temple entry, burial, [an attempted cremation of an old woman [Dalit] led to the gunning down of a Dalit in 1944], use of public wells, seating in schools [Dalit children had to sit on the floor or be outside the school building] and observation of distance?

The upper caste Jaffna Tamils have tried to fortify their position as ‘indigenous Tamils’ by juxtaposing a time space between their claims to antiquity in the island and that of the 19th century new comers to the plantation districts and for public work, into the already existing concept of hierarchical difference and social barriers based on caste.

That claim was fortified externally, by citing an inheritance well beyond the historical space of their recorded contributory association with Sri Lanka as tobacco farmers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The inheritance claimed by them in Sri Lanka did not confine itself in space of time to the days of the Cola occupation in the 11th and 12th centuries either, of which there is undeniable historical evidence that men of fighting tribes were brought to conquer the land [not farmers]; but even went beyond to the days of periodic raids of plunder of the country by South Indian mercenaries recruited from marauding tribes in the employ of adventurers seeking fortunes. Nay, it went further beyond to an uncertain era of a mythical Ravana figuring in the Ramayana story. That the so-called Ramayana was a pure myth fabricated by Brahamins who had time to write such stories whose only historical relevance is that it portrayed the phase of Aryan expansion to the Deccan plateau and further south was of no consequence to the claim of inheritance. Nor was the absence of the Ramayana tradition in the religio-cultural scene in Sri Lanka as observed by Dr. Heinz Bechert a hindrance to it. That Ravana was a worshipper of Shiva was sufficient ground to claim that he was a Hindu and therefore ‘must be’ Tamil, if not a Vellala Tamil. That a practitioner of Shiva worship must be exclusively Tamil is the main argument. The Ravana story is bandied even by intellectuals notwithstanding that even the location of Ravana’s so-called abode Lankapura, the mountain-top city, is still a matter of serious dispute among Indian scholars and it has never been settled that it was Sri Lanka; and also that Ravana represents to this date the evil forces in the Hindu ideology and that his effigy is burnt annually at Dashra [Dasarath] festival throughout north India as a symbolic destruction of evil incarnation.

If the Vellala Tamils could claim the glorious utopian ancestry in the land that Rama won for Aryan forces with the help of tribal people, one is justified in asking if there is any reason why non-Vellala Tamils like Dalits [so-called scheduled castes] of Jaffna and the Indian Tamils in the plantations should not have a share in that claim. No time barrier separated the arrival of the South Indian ‘slaves’ for the tobacco cultivation and the arrival of the ‘Indian Tamils’ for plantation labour separated them from the arrival of the Vellalas and others by only a century or two? That is if one were to give credit to that mythical tradition.

‘Panchamars’ of Jaffna [Dalits]

If the so-called high caste Tamils of Jaffna peninsula who alone claimed to represent Tamil interests economically, socially, culturally and politically, as the refusal by the Tamil Congress led by G. G. Ponnambalam to incorporate the demands of the Minority Tamil Mahasabha in the Memorandum submitted to the Soulbury Commission on behalf of the Tamils demonstrated, that claim remained unchallenged until the LTTE and other militant groups disturbed it during the present two decades.

The Dalits were the real exploited toilers in the Jaffna peninsula whose contribution in sweat has to be recognised more than that of the Vellala landlords whose claims stand on their economic power, their sheer numbers and the claimed superiority over other Tamils. As the Census Superintendent of India [Census 1931] recorded about the depressed classes in the Madras Presidency, these communities "play a large and important part in the life of the presidency"; and it is they "who furnish the backbone of agricultural labour in the chief rice-growing districts". "In one form or another they have been the victims of an agrestic[?] Serfdom wherever they have been." He then goes on to describe how the system works. Doesn’t one see a parallel situation in the northern Province?

How is it that the ‘panchamars’ [Dalits] have been excluded from the Vellala definition of ‘human person’ as pointed to by the exposition of Arumuga Nalavar, the much celebrated Sri Lanka Tamil scholar reformist of the 19th century whose memory even the government of Sri Lanka celebrated by issuing a stamp in his honour. Ravikumar wrote that Nalavar was one who, "echoing Manu, the preceptor of the ‘Varna’ system, declared that the ‘parai’ [Dalit drum], the woman and ‘panchama’ [Dalits] are "born to be beaten". He emphasises that Nalavar is ‘just one among a large company of Jaffna Tamils who stoked castiesm and helped it take strong roots in the island’.

There may be other aspects in Arumuga Nalavar’s Tamil revivalist movement which deserved to be celebrated as a number of scholars have done through their contributions to learned journals and newspapers and the issue of a stamp by the government in his name, human rights aspects of his indictment on women and the Panchama [Dalits] raised by the ‘Dalits’ notwithstanding. The negative attitude of Arumuga Nalavar to social relationship has not been projected by any Tamil or Western scholars or writers until Ravikumar raised the issue, even that as an example but not to condemn his teachings outright. Is there any difference between Nalavar’s attitude to Dalits and women [born to be beaten like the drum] and the contemporary 19th century Englishman’s idea about the Irishman as a ‘non-person; [See my article: "Colonial Role in Tamil Expansionism", The Island, 26/6/2002], and the ideas of Western thinkers like Mirabeau in ‘L’ami des hommes’ that "Our slaves in America are a race apart, distinct from our own species," or Le Trosne’s view "I consider Nagroes simply as animals to be used for tilling the soil." Did these Western thinkers steal a page from Arumuga Nalavar or was it the other way about considering that each party was writing about the same time?

If Richard Armitage, the Deputy U.S. State Secretary during his recent visit to the island was advised on Arumuga Nalavar’s call that women and the Dalits have been born like the drum to be beaten, and that Nalavar is a celebrity among the Sri Lankan upper caste Tamils, I am certain he would have reacted even strongly on the issue of human rights and gender equality in Jaffna? Or, on the contrary, did he have an inkling of the attitude of ‘cultured’ Vellalas, as symbolised by Nalavar’s writings, not to speak of the more murderous LTTE who ‘spared no injury to bone and limb,’ when he demanded the observance of democratic rights, human rights and gender equality in his statements made in Kilinochchi and later in his press briefing in Colombo?

Nalavar’s indictment is a paradox that one has to face considering that Tamil people, at least those in India, who are the inheritors of the tradition that produced the great work "Tiru Kural" of which any nation could be justly feel proud. An Englishman who was a vehement critic of the Tamil people for their disposition wrote in the ‘Kokilai’ Tamil/English newspaper published in the 19th century [Please look up in the National Archives] that any people who could have produced the ‘Kural’ must surely find a place among the cultured people of the world. The significance of the statement is that the observation was made by a person who was no admirer of the Tamil people. How does one account for the paradox? Isn’t the ‘fine flower of humanity’. the Chun-tzu, if I may use that Confucian term, contained in the ‘Tiru Kural’ drowned by calls not just to discriminate but use violence against man and woman, even one who shares the same speech, not to speak of others? Was that the upper caste Sri Lankan Tamil contribution to thoughts on human dignity?

As Ravikumar observed on the Tamil armed struggle, the genesis of the problem goes back to earlier times. He quoted Nalavar’s writings and those of others as laying the foundation for such a situation by helping to create not only a climate of discrimination but also preaching the legitimisation of violence against a section of the Tamil community [and implicitly against women]. As such, he sees in the writings of Nalavar and others the very genesis of the Tamil violence against man and women. In the face of this even the more recent Tissamaharama doctrine would pale into insignificance. But there were apologists for the latter as there might be those who justify Nalavar’s.

Ravikumar quotes the gunning down in 1944 of a Dalit at the attempted cremation of an old woman of his community at the Villoonri cremation grounds in Jaffna as an early manifestation of violence following the Arumuga Nalavar doctrine. How serious the situation in Jaffna even today is, could be seen from the fact that even Ravikumar had to write under what appears to be a pseudonym! That is despite the seeming demolition of the Vellala hegemony under the LTTE dispensation. Ravikumar questions how the situation would develop under a LTTE hegemony. His observations were quoted in Part I of this article.

The writer observes further that "increased participation of Dalits and women in the armed struggle had the paradoxical effect of loosening some of the more rigid structures of Hindu society that are incompatible with the flexibility required by armed combat; but this did not lead to Dalit issues being addressed in any formal or concrete sense. The changes that have taken place are merely pragmatic adaptations dictated by necessity. Even so, caste Tamils, who see themselves as the sole representatives of all Tamils, are uncomfortable with this new state of affairs since they fear that the rigid rules of subordination will be permanently breached. As if to reinforce the orthodoxy, while limited social change has been taking place in the Sri Lankan ‘Tamil homeland’, emigre caste Tamils have reinforced caste distinctions in full in their adopted countries."

Arumuga Nalavar was a product of his time advocating the hierarchical system within the Jaffna society and as the commentaries on him show, the one responsible for Tamil cultural and social revival. His teaching have been accepted like the Thesawallamai as the law of the Jaffna society, despite, in the final analysis, elements of discrimination, hatred and violence constitute some of is significant features. In terms of Ravikumar’s analyses one is to understand that when the Tamil people of Jaffna and the Tamil Diaspora started cheering the ‘boys’ for violence and mayhem it was nothing strange as the Tamil psyche had been nurtured in the Nalavar tradition. Respected leaders with academic excellence like Professor Sunderalingam turned politician were in the lead of the discriminatory temple entry prohibition movement against the Dalits, as the despicable Nallur temple affair showed. And one talk about human right elsewhere! Other politicians like G. G. Ponnambalam rejected the demands of the Minority Tamils even in the face of the need to take joint action to submit the Tamil point of view to the Soulbury Commissioners. He declined to include the demands made in the Memorandum of the Minority Tamil Mahasabha to accept issues concerning eduction, professional rights and eradication of untouchability which compelled the Minority Tamil Mahasabha to submit its own separate Memorandum to the Soulbury Commissioners.

privileges to the upper caste Tamils and their right to discriminate and use violence against a section of ‘Tamil speaking people’ that they were ready to forego a common stand on the constitutional issue. Like the Irishmen and Negroes in the 18th and 19th centuries, the ‘Minority Tamils’ seemed to them to no more than ‘no-persons.’ Negroes were called ‘animals to be used to till the soil,’ and here the ‘Panchamars’ and women are claimed to be "born to be beaten." Is there any difference in the mind-set?

But, Arumuga Nalavar is a much respected reformer in the upper caste Tamil mind. On the contrary, the Tamil scholars and writers as well as Western scholars have castigated Anagarika Dharmapala among the Sinhalese as the arch Sinhala chauvinist. In response to Tamil propaganda his name has entered the records as the progenitor of "Sinhalese chauvinism" in the Chancelleries of Western countries - that includes the European Union and clarifications were sought from me while I represented this country in Europe. There is no record that Dharmapala preached violence or tried to legitimise it against a section of the community, the least of his own, or any one else. His thoughts were deeply immersed in Buddhism of which he was a leading advocate. Even his attacks on aping alien social values and customs did not penetrate the Sinhalese elite. His audiences were in ‘Maria-kade’ in Maradana as the police records show. Even Ponnambalam Ramanathan making a plea to the Governor to let him return to the island on health grounds made the observation that he had no following in the country. Dharmapala’s teachings began to have a force more after his death than when he was alive. If he spoke of the manner the Chettiyars fleeced the Sinhalese he was speaking the truth. As a little child I was puzzled as to how the Chettinad Corporation had come to possess two large rubber plantations in my village, the local owner of which [she was not a Sinhalese either], as my mother used to tell me, had died a pauper in a drain in the nearby town. Dharmapala castigated the upper class Sinhalese for aping the foreigners. That is the type of the lady owner of the properties in my village who, as my mother had seen, changed her horses every month in competition with ‘Rajapaksa boys of Balapitiya’, [as my mother referred to them] whose life-style and mannerism against imitating which, Tamil leaders like Ananda Coomaraswamy and Ponnambalam Ramanathan advised the Sinhalese leadership.

As I quoted in an earlier essay, the Tamil chieftains themselves told Governor McCullum in Durbar [1908] that the Jaffna Tamil was no pioneer; that if he ventured out of his village all that he wanted was to make as much money as possible and return. So, why blame Dharmapala [see S. J. Tambiah: ‘Buddhism Betrayed’] if he repeated this observation? Of course, Tambiah was guided by some Sinhalese historians who overlooked the need to make comparisons in evaluating Anagarika, whose expositions have to be contrasted with that of Nalavar, the latter of whose teachings have had a profound impact on the psyche’ of caste Tamils.

[I had no intention of wilfully downgrading Arumuga Nalavar or Anagarika Dharmapala. Any unfavourable references to the respective roles they played in respect of their respective cultures and communities are for the sake of critical analysis of social issues of the times and undertaken in the spirit, as Dr. Tambiah said, that there could be multiple discourses in the discussion of any subject. May I be forgiven if I have overstepped my bounds in the references to these personalities].