Vellalas wrote the darkest chapter of Sri Lankan history | Sunday Observer

Vellalas wrote the darkest chapter of Sri Lankan history

6 December, 2020

The single greatest crime, unparalleled in Sri Lankan history, has been the oppression, suppression, persecution, humiliation and the killing of Tamils by the Tamil leadership which consisted mainly of the Vellala migrants who came from South India in the 13th century.

The monopoly of persecuting and killing of Tamils was exclusively in the hands of the Vellalas until they handed over that power mistakenly to the low-caste youth in the Vadukoddai Resolution. The Vellala leadership wrote the darkest chapter in Sri Lankan history by treating a segment of their own people – mostly those imported as slaves from Malabar -- as a breed of subhuman pariahs who were not fit for human society.

The Vellala power to run the peninsula according to their laws and customs, which meant the suppression and oppression of the lower castes, was first legalised by the Dutch. In 1704 the Dutch Governor Simons assigned the task of compiling the laws and customs of Jafffna to Clark Isaakz.

He codified the laws and the customs of the Vellalas, the Tesawalamai, with the advice and consent of 12 leading Vellala mudliyars. In 1708 the Tesawalamai was promulgated by the Governor. It became the cornerstone of Vellala identity, power and supremacy. Since then the Vellalas ruled the people of Jaffna, as loyal subalterns to the colonial masters, with an iron-fist.

The British colonial masters who took over from the Dutch did not disturb the Vellala supremacy. “Jaffna’s Vellalas were already a countervailing force sure of their dominance and capable of coping with low-caste insubordination. … In conformity with Dutch policy, the British government decreed in 1806 that their prerogatives were inviolable and that peasants would be required to fulfil their traditional obligations.


Vellala domination was reaffirmed by the provincial court in the 1820s with explicit rulings that custom (mammul) was to be observed. .…..Extra-legal systems of coercion (read: Vellala thuggery, rape and violence) lingered late into this century.” (p. 119 – The Bible Trembled, The Hindu-Christian Controversies of Nineteenth-Century Ceylon, R. E. Young and Bishop S. Jebanesan, Vienna, 1995.) Since the promulgation of Tesawalamai in 1708 no other rival caste could challenge or overthrow the supremacy of the Vellalas.

Even before the promulgation, the Vellalas were equipped with all the socio-political accoutrement necessary to assert their supremacy.

They had the (1) numerical superiority, (2) the land which was the main source of wealth, (3) the ownership of temples which gave them the moral and religious authority, (4) the administrative power by being the subaltern agents who ran the peninsula for the colonial masters and, above all, (5) highest status in the traditional social order which placed them at the peak of the hierarchy of the ruling caste system.

As subalterns they formed the second tier of colonialism that ruled Jaffna. They had the ear of the colonial masters and as loyal public servants they enjoyed a close master-servant relationship in protecting the interests of the colony which, of course, empowered them with administrative power to swing the laws in their favour wherever and whenever possible. For instance, “(S)lavery was abolished by Ordinance 20 of 1844 still the Tesawalamai code gives legal sanction to slavery.” P.3 – TESAWALAMAI , T. Sri Ramanathan, 1963 Nadaraja Press)).

Of course, the Sinhalese too had their own casteist hierarchy. But Dr. H. W. Tambiah and other authorities on the Tesawalamai law agree that the Sinhala caste system was far more humane than the Vellala-dominated casteist hierarchy that kept Jaffna under their jackboots.

Vellala supremacy was totalitarian which covered every aspect of peninsular society. Its customs, laws, rituals, and norms determined the conduct of the Jaffnaites from the womb to the tomb. The political culture they created gave no space for tolerance, humanism, or pluralism. It was in essence a fascist culture that transited from Hindu casteism to classist communalism to fascist Prabhakaranism. The historical flow moved from one stage to another in one straight line.

The anachronistic Hindu casteist ideology that sustained the Vellala supremacy in the feudal age began to fade in the 19th century. The Vellalas realised that their days were numbered. But like all old ruling orders in history, the Vellalas, refused to die. They refused to give up power.

At the same time, they could not reign supreme on the dying ideology of casteism. As a last resort, the Vellalas shifted from casteism to the more viable ideology of communalism to unite the fragmented base on casteist lines.

Slowly but surely, it transformed and segued into mono-ethnic communalism to energise and sustain the new Vellala class in the 20th century. However, Vellala casteism did not disappear totally under Vellala classism. Lingering traces of casteism continued to influence the new class.

The mono-ethnic extremism of Vellala class was the last ideological refuge left for them to save their dominance and power. ‘Tamil nationalism’ was, in short, a euphemism for the mono-ethnic extremism of the Vellala class struggling to survive in a world without casteism.

In the fin de siecle years the world knew them as Malabaris – i.e, as migrant labourers from Malabar -- and not as Tamils. (Clark Isaakz ‘used the word ‘Malabar’ as synonymous with Tamil’ (Ibid – p.8). ). In the 19th century the Malabaris turned into a turbaned Tamil aristocracy.

Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, in a lecture delivered at the Law Society, gives a hilarious account of one of her ancestors, Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy, a colourful character, posing as a maharaja of Jaffna in St. James Court, attired in the official costumes of a turbaned aristocrat. (I’m unable to quote the reference as I’ve lost the photocopy.)

50 percent power

The power struggle of the Vellalas took a serious turn when the young Turks in the Vellala ranks launched their campaign to oust the turbaned elite of Jaffna in the early twentieth century. The Vellala leadership grabbed by newcomers like G. G. Ponnamabalam had no progressive social program to offer except mono-ethnic politics. Their cry was for 50 percent of the power at the centre advertising in unequivocal terms that their sole political objective was to retain the lion share of power in the hands of the Vellalas. Tamil leadership follow this agenda to this day.

The demand of the Vellala leadership for power sharing had nothing to do with the pressing socio-political issues of the Tamils of Jaffna. The needs of the oppressed people were to get an education, or to sit in the same classroom, to bury the dead without the mourners being assaulted by the Vellalas who objected to the beating of drums, to escape inhuman slavery, to enter the temple to worship the same God/s, to walk in daylight without being killed by the Vellalas, etc.

None of these concerned the Vellala leadership. They were in a privileged position to settle all their Vellala – non-Vellala issues in their favour. So, the social issues of the disadvantaged non-Velalla Tamils were not written into the political agenda of the Vellalas. Nor did the non-Vellala Tamils have the political clout to write their political agenda overriding that of the Vellalas.

Colonial power

The Vellala need was to grab power for them to retain their colonial power and feudal privileges and, if possible, be equal or superior to the majority Sinhalese. To achieve that they had to grab the lion share of political and administrative power.

This explains why they went for 50% of power to be on par with the Sinhalese. With the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideology they managed to minimise the pressures coming from the lower-castes. But the Vellala struggle to be on par with the Sinhalese through constitutional changes from the early twenties was not easy. The only weapon they had to beat the Sinhalese was to demonise them as the enemies of the Tamils.

Initially they began to demonise them as victimisers of a minority, though there was no substantial evidence to justify or substantiate their accusation. The English-speaking Vellala elite were already in possession of a disproportionate share of power in their hands. They were already the overlords of Jaffna ruling it with outdated feudal powers.

As the sun was setting over the British political Raj the Tamil administrators had risen to wield considerable power from their bureaucratic seats in the second tier of the colony.

The popular saying was that while the sun was shining in Colombo the father was reaping the harvest in Jaffna. However, losing the British patronage made them fear that they would lose their power and privileges. It is this fear that they turned into the cry of discrimination without proof or justification.

The competition of the dominant Vellala class to beat the Sinhalese was a struggle of two classes fighting for dominance. The only weapon the Vellalas had was to turn it into a communal war. They demonised the Sinhala majority as the ogre that was waiting to gobble up the minority.

Their main agenda has been consistently to deflect the growing internal crisis threatening the casteist supremacy of the Vellalas into an external threat coming from outside against all the Tamils. It was the only means of uniting all Tamils against one common external enemy. The fear of an external enemy threatening the local homes can be manipulated easily to preserve a class threatened internal forces.

The English-speaking, Saivite Jaffna Vellala elite formed the core of the Jaffna political class. Even the Tamils of Batticaloa who are the closest in historical and linguistic terms were kept apart not only geographically but also by caste.

The Tesawalamai does not apply to the Mukkuvars of Batticaloa. The Vellalas look down upon the Batticaloa, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam referred to them disparagingly as the ‘trousered people of Batticaloa’. (p.32 – S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 – 1977, A Political Biography, C. Hurst and Co., UK) My friend, S. Rasamanickam told me once that he was made the President of the Federal Party just to keep up appearances of a united Tamil front and not because they respected the Batticaloa Tamils.


Their differences remained even in the last stages of the Vadkoddai War. It is the split with Muralidharan ‘Karuna Amman’, the Eastern Commander, that brought down the LTTE of the North.

The ruling class manipulating ideology to retain their power is a common tactic defined well in Marxism. They had to mask the evils of their casteist society that they hired pro-Tamil ideologues in NGOs to conceal the realities to make them look like benevolent Father Christmases, angels. Hiding the hideous obscenities of Tamil political culture that reduced the level of their own people. The Sumanthirans, Wigneswarams and Sampanthans are today posing as great champions of Tamil history.

They did nothing when their fellow-Tamils were beaten, persecuted, dehumanised by their own Tamil leaders. The Vellalas despised their own kind and ostracised them denying them their basic human dignity owed to a fellow-human.

Federal Party

For instance, R. Sampanthan, the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, was an up-and-coming Tamil leader in the Federal Party when the heads of low-castes were cracked with bottles filled with sand by the enraged Vellalas for daring to claim the right to worship Hindu God/s in the Maviddipuram Temple.

Did Sampanthan, who is running around the world shedding crocodile tears accusing the ‘Sinhala State’ of discrimination, lift a finger to save the low-caste victims of Vellala violence? It was the Police of ‘the Sinhala state’ that had to give protection to the low-castes to exercise their democratic rights.

The Vellala cry of discrimination against the ‘Sinhala State’ was based on the claim that the English-speaking, Saivite, Vellala, Jaffnaites (not any other Tamil) were not given a higher share of jobs in the government service. Even if that claim is true, compare that to the ‘discrimination’ of not allowing fellow-Tamils to worship the same God/s in the same temple, or allotting the front pews in the Churches to Vellalas and the back rows to the low-castes?

The Vellalas throughout its fascist reign never gave their people space to breathe freely as human beings. They took their dignity away by throwing them out as outcasts belonging not to the Tamils but to a subhuman species. What kind of human beings are Tamils when they denied their own people the universal right to walk in the God-given sun? They were allowed to walk only in the night in case they polluted the purity of Vellala eyes.

They refused to give a drop of water in their wells because the low-caste Tamils were considered not fit to live in their high-caste society. They forced their fellow Tamils to sit on the floor of the bus while they occupied the seats that were reserved only for the Vellalas.

They gang raped the low-caste women. They waylaid low-caste mourners and beat the daylights out of them for beating tom-toms on their way to a burial. The list of Tamil oppression of Tamils is horrendous.

The irony is that the Vellala fascists who denied the Tamils their dignity throughout their history accuse the Sinhalese of discriminating against the Tamil minority. Accusing the Sinhala-Buddhists is a hackneyed argument which they recycle to gain political mileage.

This is why it is necessary to remind them of their history from time to time to let them know that the best period in their history began on February 4, 1948. Tamils never had it so good as in the post-independent era.

For instance, neither the Dutch nor the British dared to take on the caste issue to liberate the oppressed Tamil low-castes. The only man who confronted them was their bete noir, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. It is the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act which took on the task of dismantling the vicious caste system that warped the Jaffna society for nearly four centuries.

The so-called ‘Sinhala state’ had been in existence for only 72 years. With all its infirmities, its achievements cannot be dismissed. A comparison between the two states is worth undertaking to assess how the Tamils and the Sinhalese have fared in the two political cultures.

I think the Tamils have got the worst of it due to the folly of their leaders. I may be accused of being biased. But I think the Sinhalese have gone out of the way to accommodate the minorities. It’s a long list but let me take a few. It liberated the Tamils twice. First, it liberated the Tamils who were enslaved from 1704.

The Prevention of Social Disabilities Act freed the Tamils from bondage and restored their right to walk in sunlight without fearing the wrath of the Vellala fascists.

Second, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa liberated the Tamils and restored the right of Sampanthan, Vigneswaran and Sumanthiran to walk with dignity and talk freely and walk freely without having to watch their backs all the time.

The Sinhala state gave them security which their Tamil state couldn’t give. The Sinhala state made them human beings again and released them from being robots following obediently the instructions given by the Tamil Pol Pot in Pudukudiurippu.

Within the last 72 years the Tamil dignity was raised to the highest international level ever. There are 193 flags flying at the UN. Of that the only flag that has given the Tamils a place of recognition, respect and honour has been the Lion Flag.

Not even the flag of India, the only homeland of Tamils, have given them that place of honour. When our President or the head of any other state stand or salute the Lion Flag they also salute and honour the Tamils. I am proud to share that place of honour with the Tamils and the Muslims. Who else has given our Tamil brothers and sisters such great honour?

Which other currency, including the Indian currency, has given the Tamil language such global recognition? Which other international airline announces in Tamil? I take great pride in hearing the language of our fellow-countrymen being spoken in international airports.

Recipes for peace

I had tears in my eyes when Arjuna Ranatunga took his ‘Sinhala team’ out of the Adelaide grounds to defend the right of a Tamil team member to play, rejecting the idiotic decision of a misguided Australia to blight the Sri Lankan’s career for good.

I believe that the companionship, the mateship and the friendship I’ve shared with my Tamil schoolmates, relatives, neighbours and friends are the same kind that was shared by those in the armies of Dutugemunu and Elara.

With all the bitterness, hatred, rivalry and the hurt we caused each other I believe that the Tamils have had a far better time in the last 72 years than they had through the centuries under their rulers.

Well, we’ve all tasted a sample of it in our own time. If you take out the partisan politics and consider the quality of the life in both states which one would you prefer, really? Yes, we did commit unpardonable crimes to each other.

Wars leave scars on every skin, even those of the non-combatants. Those that burn the mind are the worst.There are many recipes for peace. It is not forgetting the way out. That is rather difficult because memory plays tricks. The only way out is forgiving to come together and, learning from Covid-19, keeping a distance without infecting each other with hate.

But I’m pessimistic about being optimistic. I’m told that there are many hidden viruses lurking in air waiting to attack. When Covid-19 dies who knows what’s next? And where? And when?