The Vellala struggle to retain power in post-colonial period | Sunday Observer

The Vellala struggle to retain power in post-colonial period

29 November, 2020

What the media and academic analysts have failed to recognise and give due weightage in surveying the tumultuous period of post-independent Sri Lanka are three main factors: First, the identity of a Tamil. Example: Are the Moors Tamils by race as claimed by Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan -- a claim refuted by the Moorish scholar L.L.M. Abdul Azeez.

Also, the low-caste Pallars and Nalavars were not considered Tamils by the high-caste Vellalas even in the seventies. The Indian estate workers too were not considered to be Tamils in the same class as the Jaffna Tamils. Jaffna Tamils also looked down upon the Batticaloa Tamils as an inferior breed. So, who is a Tamil? Is it only an English-speaking, white-collar, dowry-seeking, Vellala supremacist of Jaffna who looks down on other Tamils?

Second, for nearly half of the 73 years of independence the nation was divided into two states, with the Tamils running a one-man state in the North and the other a democratically elected state in the South. Though the Northern de facto state was a state within a state it had all the paraphernalia of a state with an army, navy and air force. The two states represented the two different political cultures which impacted decisively on post-independent events.

Feudal and colonial powers

Third, the violent struggle of the ruling caste elite of the North to retain its feudal and colonial powers, privileges and perks while transiting from the casteist Vellala power elite, the majority in the peninsula, into a mono-ethnic class of Vellalas under British rule.

The invasive forces of overpowering modernity too dismantled, slowly but surely, the Vellala casteist ideology with which they ruled Jaffna from feudal times. As they transited from a caste into a class during the British period in particular, the Vellalas, the Brahmins of Jaffna, lost the ‘the divine power’ of classical Hindu dogma to rule the Panchamars (low-castes) with an iron-fist. In the absence of the Brahmins in Jaffna the Vellalas were elevated to the status of Brahmins by the religious revisionist, Arumuka Navalar, who was also a caste fanatic.

It was in the Dutch period that the Vellalas consolidated their power as the dominant force. They used the Saivite ideology to impose their casteist will on the lower-castes. As the casteist ideology was losing its fascist grip on Jaffna the Vellalas latched on to ethno-nationalism, with an emphasis on mono-ethnic politics than overarching nationalism, to maintain their supremacy and to prevent the fragmentation of Jaffna on casteist fault lines.

The perennial struggle in Jaffna was for the ruling Vellala caste/class to retain their power. It was their struggle that was misrepresented as the struggle of the Tamils. They considered the non-Vellalas, whether inside or outside Jaffna, as a lesser breed. They included the non-Vellalas only when they were necessary for Vellala purposes. Their first struggle from feudal times was against the lower-castes.

They had consolidated their power with the codification of Tesawalamai during the Dutch period – the legal code which turned Jaffna into a slave-owning gulag with powers to control the lives of Tamil slaves from the womb to the tomb. It was a code written by the Dutch in consultation with the Vellalas and endorsed by 12 Vellala mudliyars. The lower-castes, however, resisted the fascist oppression of the Vellalas which was depicted in the classic Tamil novel, Kanal, (Mirage) by K. Daniel, one of the low-caste writers in the eighties.

Initially, it must be recognised that there was no inter-ethnic rivalry or tensions in the Portuguese and Dutch periods. It surfaced only in the British period with the English-speaking, white-collar, Vellala Jaffnaites seeking to grab a disproportionate share in the public services and the legislature. The legislature, which was acquiring more power under constitutional changes, was viewed as a threat to the supremacy of the Vella elite. They shifted their focus from the internal enemy of low-castes to an external enemy by demonising the Sinhala-Buddhists. In the last decades of the British period the Vellala elite took to mono-ethnic extremism as a defence against the Sinhala majority emerging as the next heirs to power in the post-colonial period.

The Vellala elite feared the loss of British patronage and they reacted by accusing the Sinhala majority of discriminating against the Tamil minority. Accusing the Sinhala majority of discriminating against the minority at a time when the British were still the masters of the colony was a contradiction which they could not reconcile with facts and figures.

It was the power struggle of the Vellalas to retain their supremacy that led to the first communal confrontation. Besides, the majority in Jaffna was a minority outside the peninsula. It was the Vellala political ambitions to dominate political and executive power in the administration on a national scale that led to the cry of discrimination.

Cry of 50 percent share

With that came the cry of 50 percent share of power in the centre for a minority of 12 percent Tamils. It was not a representative cry of the Tamil masses. It was a cry raised exclusively by the Vellala elite of Jaffna waging their propaganda wars to retain their feudal and colonial powers. It was not a cry of Tamils in the estates. It was not particularly a cry of the Batticaloa Tamils in the east. It was not a cry of the Tamil-speaking Muslims.

It was a cry exclusively of the English-speaking, white-collar, Saivite Vellala elite who dominated the commanding heights of professions, state administration and the economy. It was their fears, hopes and political demands that were recast as ‘Tamil nationalism’.

When they realised that the numerically disproportionate demand of ‘50-50’ at the centre was not going anywhere they switched over to federalism meaning separate state at the periphery. In short, it was Vellalaism that was transformed into ‘Tamil nationalism’.

What came to be known as ‘Tamil nationalism’ was originated, promoted and propagated by the Tamils of Jaffna and not by the Indian Tamils, Batticaloa Tamils, or Tamil-speaking Muslims. Even among the Tamils of Jaffna it was an ideology confined to the Vellalas who constructed the ethno-centric ideology to mask their caste/class interests. It was not a popular concept even among the Panchamars, the low-castes, who were not in the inner circle of the English-speaking, white-collar professions and jobs.

It was in the British period that the Vellalas who held sway throughout the feudal and colonial periods realised that the constitutional changes were a threat to their supremacy. In this period, they realised that decolonisation and evolutionary democratisation was an inevitable and irreversible process in which their privileged position would be minimised. As in any democracy the sheer weight of numbers would shift the balance of power to the majority. The Vellalas could maintain their majoritarian complex only in a separate state. At this stage the politics of the Vellalas was not based on ‘Tamil nationalism’. They were waging a war to be on par if not superior to that of the majority.

The cry of discrimination against the Tamil minority (meaning the Tamil, English-speaking, white-collar priviligentsia of the colonial period) – a highly contentious issue – was the only excuse they had to whip up mono-ethnic extremism. But this could be achieved only if they demonised the majority and projected them as the inveterate enemy of the Tamils. Thus, manufacturing hate politics labelled as ‘Tamil nationalism’ became the new normal.

It was the best marketable ideology available to the privileged Vellala elite to hang on to their feudal and colonial status. It was at this stage that the Vellala ruling elite began to target the Sinhala majority. History records that the first Tamil-Sinhala ethnic conflict took place in June 1939 when G. G. Ponnambalam, the up-and-coming Tamil leader rising on Tamil communalism, attacked the Sinhala race, their history and their heritage at a public meeting in Nawalapitiya.

Vellala elite

The Vellala elite could survive only by deflecting attention away from the internal evil of casteism. They could not lead a popular Tamil front based on the decadent ideology of casteist supremacy.

Internally they were faced with a disgruntled and oppressed lower-caste and externally they were faced with the numerically superior Sinhalese who were gathering momentum as a rising political force. The Vellalas needed a new ideology which united the peninsula against their internal and external enemies. In particular, they could not fight the external enemy with Jaffna divided on caste lines.

They had to manufacture a new ideology to unite Jaffna against the Sinhalese. But they were stuck in their casteist ideology which they could not abandon either. They needed an ideology to circumvent their casteism to unite against the Sinhalese. The Vellala leadership, however, did not want to embrace liberal ideologies that advocated equality, liberty, and fraternity – all of which were antithetical to the ingrained culture of casteist supremacy. As the only way out the Vellala political elite embraced mono-ethnic politics of demonising an external enemy. It was easy to turn the ‘outsider’ into a bogeyman than to attack the internal casteist evil of the ruling elite who controlled all the instruments of power in the peninsula.


Demonising the Sinhala-Buddhist became the favoured ideology of the Vellala elite to maintain their supremacy inside and outside Jaffna. They had to first unite Jaffna to consolidate their power against the larger external force. It was under these pressures that the Vellala elite of Jaffna took to mono-ethnic extremism, demanding a disproportionate share of power. It began with 12 per cent of Tamils demanding 50 per cent of power at the centre.

The ideological superstructure was manufactured by the dying ruling caste to legitimise its power in the next phase after transiting from a caste into a class. Mono-ethnic Tamil extremism came in handy for the Vellalas to unite the divided Tamils without abandoning their privileges and position in the caste hierarchy.

Directing attention to an external enemy was the most effective means of uniting a divided internal political entity. Fighting an external enemy, whether real or imagined, was also their means of not only covering up their sins but also the means of retaining their political leadership. Claiming 50 per cent of power for a minority of 12 per cent was seen as an act of courageous heroism.

Any attempt to rebel against the caste oppression was dismissed as an anti-Tamil act that betrayed the bigger battle of fighting the external enemy, the Sinhalese. At the same time, the Vellalas realised the necessity of winning the hearts and minds of the low-caste to fight their bigger battles against the Sinhalese. The decadent and anachronistic divine authority of Hinduism was not powerful as mono-ethnic extremism which could silence dissidents.

The original power which the Vellalas derived by codifying their customs in Tesawalamai in the Dutch period turned Jaffna into a slave-owning gulag in which Tamils were persecuted by their fellow Tamils in the most inhuman way. The Vellalas had no qualms about it as oppressive casteism was revised and sanctified by Arumuka Navalar, a caste fanatic who elevated the Vellalas to the level of Brahmins in India. It was a power which the ruling class of Jaffna was not willing to give up. So, when casteism lost its traditional power to sustain the Vellalas they took to ‘Tamil nationalism’ ( read mono-ethnic extremism) as the last refuge.

The Tamil political culture was warped by subhuman Vellalaism that oppressed, suppressed, persecuted and killed more Tamils by the Tamils than any other force. Jaffna Tamil history is the history of the Vellalas. Casteist Vellalas were enthroned as the divinely ordained rulers of Jaffna.

Only they had the power, resources, skills, internet of power connections, education and religiously ordained ideological supremacy to determine every aspect of Jaffna politics. There was no Jaffna without Vellalas. Even the de facto Tamil state established by Velupillai Prabhakaran was a product of the Vellalas. Prabhakaran and Vellalais are two sides of the same coin. Both were fascist,

Post-independent era

Both are, of course, closely interconnected. The symbiotic relationship of these two factors overdetermined and dominated the post-independent era. The anti-Sinhala Buddhist politics of the Vellala elite masked the peninsular mindset of mono-ethnic parochialism that came hurtling down from the North like a juggernaut crushing everything in its wake.

The complexities of the North-South conflict were reduced to a conflict of the majority versus the minority.

This led to the rise of the side issue of victimology – a simplified theme marketed easily in black and white terms without any shades of grey. It was a theme in which the majority was portrayed as oppressing the minority Tamils which gained acceptance in the popular mind with the violence that gathered momentum after the Tamil leadership declared war against the ‘Sinhala state’ in Vadukoddai in 1976.

In summing what needs to be emphasised is the dominant role played by the Vellalas in the post-independent years. It was their political grievances, goals, ambitions and aspirations that were projected as ‘Tamil nationalism’. They radicalised Jaffna politics with communalism and pushed it to the extreme of demanding a separate state. They internationalised it to put maximum pressure to win their goals. They demonised the democratically elected state, which invariably consisted of multi-ethnic Cabinet Ministers, as a ‘Sinhala state’.

With all these accusations levelled against the ‘Sinhala state’ there is one common acid test on which both states should be evaluated. The democratically elected ‘Sinhala state’ of the South should be compared and tested one-to-one with the record of the de facto Tamil state run by the one-man ruler of the North.

Sorry, my mistake. It should go beyond the record of the two post-independent states to the Tamil rulers since they settled in the 13th century in Jaffna and then evaluate the two political cultures to consider how the Tamils have fared under their Tamil rulers and the ‘Sinhala states’.

Going back in time to their tragic past is vital because Tamils rely heavily on their interpretation of history. Even in the latest debate in Parliament on foreign affairs M. Sumanthiran and C. V. Wigneswaran still cite history – not the one based on reality but the one written by Kuppa Thamby. Their partisan narrative tragically echoes the dictum that the only lesson in history is that no one learns from history.

Their rabid bravado in going down the same path of their failed predecessors would send shivers down the spines of those who remember the deaths, destruction and the suffering of the Tamil people who followed their blind leaders. It is the Tamil leadership that led the Tamil people to Nandikadal. Their rhetoric and braggadocio point one again to Nandikadal.

Prof. Kumar David once described the Tamil leaders as ‘congenital idiots’. Considering their leadership role so far, they may not be capable of wiping out both words altogether to give some polish to their image. However, it would be a great credit to their intellectual stature – and to the future of Tamils -- if they can at least advance half way to remove the adjective that precede the noun and leave ‘idiots’ as it is.

Next week I hope to teach them how to read history without dragging the Tamil people to Nandikadal again.