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The caste factor in the Tamil nationalist uprising

Jan 22, 2011 3:28:02 PM- transcurrents.com

By Neville Jayaweera

The opportunity to pose this question in writing came my way when Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan’s book, "Public Writings on Sri Lanka" arrived on my desk about three months ago with an invitation to review it. Without denying the familiar "The Sinhala majority oppressing the Tamil minority" narrative, which I concede remains central and true, I am offering a complementary narrative, a different set of spectacles through which to look at the ethnic conflict.

When viewed from the latter perspective it will be evident that the complete story about the origins and causes of the ethnic conflict has yet to be told and that it was a more complex phenomenon than popularly believed. This is not to say that the familiar narrative is false, but that the reality was more complex.

The author and the book

Sarvan seems to have been a pupil of Prof. E. F. C. Ludowyke of the English Department of the University of Peradeniya, and that is evidenced by the quality of his prose. However, I do not know the author personally because he was up at Peradeniya several years after I, and after graduating he has been living abroad since 1963. Consequently, our paths never crossed.

The book is a collection of articles contributed by Sarvan to various newspapers and journals, articulating the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils as they experienced it between 1956 and 2009. One may not agree with everything Sarvan says, but one cannot help feel the sadness and the pain, the humiliation and the tears, that seep through every page of his book. However, it must be said to Sarvan’s great credit, he writes without rancour or vituperation, which is rare on either side of the ethnic divide. If anything, he communicates his views with subtlety and balance, and even with compassion towards those who he feels have harmed his people over the decades. Within the polemics that have swirled around the ethnic debate over the past six decades, that is indeed a very rare quality, much to be commended and emulated. Sarvan’s writings are characterised by stature and dignity, and I urge that as many Sinhala as possible read his book

The central narrative

Sarvan’s central narrative is a familiar one. It has been said again, and again, by liberal intellectuals both at home and abroad, and there is nothing new there, except the nuanced tones in which Sarvan expresses it.

hat the Tamil uprising was largely a response to the discrimination perpetrated against them by the majority community is the version commonly accepted among most intellectuals and scholars, both in SL and abroad. One has to be unintelligent or dishonest, to deny that claim. More particularly, to deny that the events of 1956 and 1983 catalyzed and accelerated the conflict is even more perverse.

Having conceded all that, I want to say that there is another narrative, another explanation for the Tamil uprising, which neither Sinhala nor Tamil scholars have so far recognized, except that it has been articulated in a strong polemic by H. L. D Mahindapala, a Sri Lankan journalist domiciled in Australia, and also fully researched and set out coherently in my own memoirs of my time as the Government Agent of Jaffna in the mid-sixties, four chapters from which, titled "The wretched of the earth" "Two Tamil nationalisms" , the "Twilight of the Vellalas " and the "Non-Vellalas unbound" were published in four editions of the Sunday Island through November 2008.

The complementary narrative

In order to grasp the complementary narrative which I want to present here very briefly, we have first to gain an understanding of the structure of Sri Lankan Tamil society.

Tamil society, both of Tamil Nadu and of Sri Lanka, is the most minutely structured pyramidal society one can encounter anywhere in the world, virtually set in concrete, and allowing hardly any space for vertical mobility. It is the classic caste society, governed by the principle of heredity, whose parameters, according to Hindu mythology, had been defined over two thousand years earlier by Manu, the Hindu equivalent of Adam, the first man. The Hindu myth claims that these Laws (Manusmriti ) had been handed down to Manu ( the mythical first man and law giver ) by Brahman himself, like the ten Commandments had been handed down to Moses by Jehovah, and were therefore unalterable and inviolate.

As prescribed by Manu, at the top of the caste pyramid were the Brahmins, the priestly caste, but within Jaffna society itself, being very few in number, they did not constitute a substantial power group. Next down the pyramid were the Vellala caste, the repository of real power within Jaffna Tamil society. When I was working in Jaffna in the mid-sixties, the Vellalas did not constitute more than 35% of the population but they owned almost 95% of the land and exercised almost all of economic, social and cultural power.

The rest of Tamil society, i.e., 65% of the Tamil population, were lumped together as "low caste", or "pariahs", and lived on the margins of Tamil society, as faceless non-persons. For over two thousand years they had been, oppressed, humiliated and denied the right even to worship in the same temples as the high caste Vellalas, or even to drink water from the common village well. What was worse, for over 500 years since 1560, even the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British colonial powers also connived at the system, and co-opted the Vellala caste into their colonial structures, making of them a text book comprador class.

Even after Independence, the Sinhala dominated governments in the South, hardly knew of the existence of the Tamil underclass. As far as the Sinhala leaders were concerned the Tamils whom they met in Colombo, the leaders of Tamil Congress and the Federal Party, the Tamil professionals and academics, and the Tamil public servants were the real Tamils, indeed they were only Tamils, and of course they were all from the Vellala caste!!

Even the academic and intellectual community in the South, who wrote copiously about the ethnic conflict and argued the need to be fair by the Tamils, had only the Vellalas in mind, and hardly knew of the extent of the problem of the Tamil underclass. The fact that, back in Jaffna, the Vellalas were more oppressive of the Tamil underclass, than the Sinhala were of the Tamils in the South, was not even whispered around. In the Vellala mind, the oppression of the "pariah" castes belonged in another universe, and the only oppression that needed talking about, was their own oppression by the Sinhala majority!

The cauldron of discontent

Unbeknown to the rest of the country and hardly suspected even by the Tamil Vellala leaders, a cauldron of discontent was bubbling up from below. For over 1,500 years the "low castes" and "pariahs" had had no access to education of any kind. The first defection from the system came around 1850 when Christian mission schools started taking in "low caste" Tamils, and after baptizing them, started giving them western names so as to erase their "low caste" identities. Sensing a serious threat to the hallowed system, the great Hindu nationalist Arumuga Navalar launched a campaign to deny "low caste" Tamils access to mission schooling, but his campaign failed to win support from the British rulers. After government schools started proliferating in Jaffna during the early 1900s, fault lines began to develop in the old social structure, and the C.W.W. Kannangara reforms that came to Jaffna in the mid 1950s, accelerated the disintegration.

During the 1950s and 1960s the "low caste" youth started coming out of Central Schools in Jaffna in droves and went looking for employment, which meant trying for government jobs. Sadly however, just when it seemed as if, after 1,500 years the Tamil "low castes" were about to emerge from bondage, the Sinhala Only Act slammed the door in their faces. While the children of Vellala parents went abroad, the "low caste" youth were turned away to languish in their mud huts.

They had no land to cultivate, no jobs, no income, and no political or social power. By the mid 1960s, the "low castes" who comprised nearly 65% of Tamil society were fast turning into a cauldron of unrest and hate, and the lid had to blow.

Breaching the caste ramparts

The first major breach in the ramparts the Tamil caste prison occurred in June 1968 when the "low caste" Tamils stormed the Maviddapuram Temple, the great fortress of high caste dominance. That event had an impact on the Tamil caste system analogous to the impact that the storming of the Bastille had had on the ancient regime in 18th century France. The flame ignited at Maviddapuram in 1968 took hold rapidly, and by the early 1970s the "low caste" youth had begun to think in terms of an armed struggle, aimed not merely against the government, but at the hated Vellala caste as well. They formed two youth organizations committed to armed struggle, the Marnavar Peravai and the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, (TELO) of which a leading member was an 18 years old school dropout named Velupillai Pirabhakaran!

Following the 1983 tragedy in the South, the armed youth groups proliferated rapidly, principally among the "low castes", with the common goal of finally liberating all of the Tamil people. They felt that there was no point in tilting merely at the Vellalas because, in their minds, the Vellalas were collaborators who would be propped up by the state. They decided therefore that the only way to shake off the common yoke was by setting up an independent Tamil Eelam.

The assassination of high caste Tamils, such as Alfred Duraiappah, Amirthalingam, Neelan Tiruchelvam and Lakshman Kadirgarmar was only one aspect of that strategy.

The Sinhala oppression in context

When the Vellala Tamils refer to the oppression that Tamils have suffered at the hands of the Sinhala majority, they have in mind primarily the privations their caste suffered at the hands of the Sinhala majority in 1956,1983 and thereafter. The Sinhala Only Act took away from them one of the most important sources of their power, which was their unfettered access to government jobs.

It is significant that to this day not a single "high caste" Tamil intellectual or politician talks openly about the problem of the Tamil underclass. To this day, the Tamil underclass remains a nation of non-persons, useful as cannon fodder in an armed struggle, but non-persons, notwithstanding.

Several Vellalas have told me how secretly they were hoping that the SLA would obliterate the LTTE forever. It seems as if the SLA had fought a proxy war on behalf of the high caste Tamils!!

Even today, within the diaspora, though the "high caste" Tamils join the "low castes" at demonstrations, they move in their own respective orbits, hardly talking to each other, much less socializing with each other, and holding each other in absolute contempt. Such is the hostility engendered through centuries of caste antagonism.


I am saying therefore that, given the violent mood of an awakened Tamil underclass in the 1960s/70s, and given that there were no opportunities within Tamil society itself, or outside, for their fulfillment, an explosion from within was inevitable. The triggers of 1956 and 1983 were only just that, only triggers, and not the real causes.

It is also relevant to mention that the Tamil underclasses were by heredity and lineage ferocious fighters. They are the descendents of the Vellakkaras and Maravars, the mercenaries whom the Sinhala Kings, especially King Manavamma of the 7th century AD, and his heirs for three hundred years thereafter, had employed to defend their thrones against rival Sinhala claimants. They were not intellectuals, they had no negotiating skills, and the only thing they knew was fighting. It is therefore my contention that even without oppression and persecution by the Sinhala, a rebellion from within Tamil society was inevitable. A cocktail of free education, lack of employment opportunities, grinding poverty, centuries of oppression, an inviolable caste structure, an acute awareness that the principal enemy ( the high caste Vellalas) were living within their camp, and a tradition of militarism going back over a thousand years, had to combust and explode, and it did!,

By the very nature of the case the validity of this claim cannot be tested against written records or other empirical data as historiography would require and the hypothesis must therefore remain only as conjecture. However I must claim that this hypothesis is not just empty speculation spun out in a library. Rather, it has grown out of my personal experiences, working among the Tamil people for seven years in the 60s and 70s, in Jaffna, Trincomalee and Vavuniya. At least it offers scholars, politicians and analysts another paradigm through which to look at the ethnic conflict.

Towards a fascist state?

In an article he wrote to the Island paper in 2005 Sarvan had raised the question whether Sri Lanka was drifting towards being a fascist state. Nowadays, one hears this question being bandied around quite frequently and I have read academics and journalists use the word as cliché and rhetoric when discussing the current political climate in SL.

There is no universally accepted definition of a fascist state except of course to point to Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Reich and Pinochet’s Chile as ostensive definitions.

However one may safely say that there has to be a conjunction of certain minimum conditions before it may be said that a fascist state has come into being. Among these conditions are - an undergirding myth of racial superiority, the gradual eviction of minority groups from the political landscape, total state control of media and the suppression of all free expression, suppression of all political opposition, the suborning of the judiciary, the use of brutality and assassination as political tools, the emergence of a charismatic leader, and above all, a state military apparatus committed personally to the charismatic leader and his caucus, rather than to the Constitution or Parliament.

For many centuries the Sinhala polity has indeed been undergirded by the myth of racial superiority. That is not something new! Furthermore, most of Sri Lanka’s institutions of governance have been corrupted over the decades and the democratic process has sometimes come under threat. However, to talk of Sri Lanka as a fascist state is to indulge in irresponsible rhetoric and hyperbole. I am glad that Sarvan has not gone down that road.


Sarvan’s book is not without blemishes. Upon first skimming through the book my immediate reaction was to put it aside, so appalling was the Indian publisher’s editing and production of it throughout. If anything will put off readers it is the shabbiness of the production. It is amateurish and unworthy of any professional publishing house. I honestly think that Sarvan should ask for a refund from his publishers.

Also, the longest chapter in the book, comprising about half its length is titled "Reign of Anomy". What is "anomy"? It is not a word that appears in any of the English dictionaries I consulted, and neither does Sarvan define it even in a footnote. By "anomy" did Sarvan mean "ennui" which commonly means weariness resulting from lack of work, but that would hardly apply in the context! The failure to define "anomy" when almost half the length of the book flows from it is a serious omission.

Then, there is the bibliography which is a whole library by itself. Sarvan has fallen into the trap, common among some intellectuals, of wanting to impress the reader with the breadth of their learning, rather than with adducing facts to support their thesis. His book is about the injustices perpetrated upon the Tamils by the Sinhala majority, and all that was required were facts, evidence and logic.

Quoting extensively from authors and writers who merely share his opinions and values, but are not authorities on the subject on which he writes, has not added depth or conviction to what he has written. Considering that the facts at Sarvan’s disposal could speak for themselves, and considering that he was not writing a research paper, what was the need to resort to a mountain of references and quotations? In his lack of restraint on this matter Sarvan has exposed himself to the charge of pedantry.

Lastly, like most intellectuals and scholars who have written on the ethnic conflict, Sarvan has chosen to keep his blinkers on and think strictly within the box, thereby failing to notice that there is another narrative, another hypothesis, another paradigm, which can explain and illuminate the facts.


Nothing I have said in this review is intended to diminish the quality of Sarvan’s writings, which I rate as being of high quality. Even more, I value highly the quality of consciousness back of Sarvan’s writings. True, he has not said anything that we have not known before, but he has said it in prose that is worthy of his teacher E.F.C. Ludowyke. If one can make allowance for its shabby production I would say that Sarvan’s book is definitely worth having in one’s library. I understand that it is on sale at Suriya Bookshop, Suleiman Terrace (off Jawatte Road), Colombo 5.