Into the cauldron of Jaffna

( an experience in managing ethnic conflict ) 


Neville Jayaweera

Chapter  7

The Wretched of the Earth

In the early 1960s, a black psychiatrist from Martinique named Franz Fanon wrote an explosive little book titled the “The Wretched of the Earth”. The book, along with the works of Amilcar Cabral,  provided a centre of integration for much of the New Left thinking of that era, and equally, fuelled many of the insurrectionary movements in Africa and Latin America of that time. The “Wretched of the Earth” were the faceless, anonymous, underclass of various societies, who for centuries had been crushed, degraded and marginalised by a dominant class. Generation after generation, the dominant class had programmed their minds to believe that their degradation had been ordained by the natural order of things, and in the case of the Tamil underclass by God himself, so that all self-belief and a sense of self-identity on which they could build their lives had been squeezed out of them.

Fanon’s work was based mostly on data he had collected while working as a psychiatrist in Algeria where the oppression of the local people by the French was one of the most brutal chapters in the history of colonialism. Fanon could as well have written that book had he collected his data from among the so called “low  casts” of Jaffna.

The hyperbole here is deliberate. It is the only way I can draw the attention of my readers to the appalling tragedy of the Tamil underclass, at least as it was in the mid 1960s when I discovered it, and as it had been for thousands of years before that. The Tamil underclass of Jaffna was referred to variously as the depressed, scheduled or pariah castes. However, throughout the rest of this chapter I shall refer to these unfortunate people simply as non-Vellalas because on principle, I do not refer to people by names that connote inferiority or are pejorative of them.  In the 1960s the underclass constituted almost 60% of a population of 700,000 Tamils in the Jaffna District. 

What follows is a narration of how I got drawn into a study of that phenomenon, and a record of my paltry efforts at alleviating it.

Denial of temple entry

Once the political storms had subsided and my administration had resumed course on a seemingly calm sea, I sensed another storm cloud gathering over the horizon. However this time, it was not a conflict with the government that was rearing its head but an internal conflict, between the Brahmin and Vellala owned temple authorities on one side, and the non-Vellala castes on the other.

The Brahmins, who were at the apex of the caste ladder, were primarily a priestly group, mostly officiating in temples, and their numbers among the people of Jaffna were too minuscule to provide a basis for  social or economic power. 

The Vellalas were the next rung on the caste ladder. Although they constituted only about 40% of the total Tamil population, they were the dominant caste, but they were more than merely a dominant caste.  They also constituted an economic class, a formidable power system, owning most of the means of production, and exercising total social, economic and political control.

The non–Vellalas, were all those castes who fell outside the Vellala fold, and according to  Simon Casie Chitty CCS, ( up to that time the foremost authority on the Tamil caste system ) numbered  over 150  and included even the fisher  caste.   They owned little or no land and had no basis for economic or social power.  For thousands of years, first when they lived in India  before they migrated into Jaffna, and later, throughout their sojourn in  the Jaffna Peninsula, the non-Vellalas had been subjected to an existence of anonymity and degradation, and had been  deprived of access to any means whereby to  improve the quality of their lives. One of the most outrageous deprivations they suffered was the denial of access to temples, which was another way of saying that they did not exist even in God’s mind.  They were non-persons!

By the mid 1960s I sensed that the consciousness of the non-Vellalas was hardening and that they had begun to strain at their shackles. The first overt manifestation of unrest was, a demand from them to be given access to all temples, and a readiness to force the issue through civil strife.

The Prevention of Social Disabilities Act of 1957 had made the denial of entry into places of worship on grounds of caste, an offence. However, as late as 1964 the practice of denying the non-Vellalas entry to temples in Jaffna continued, as if the Act had never been passed. Several delegations from these castes began to see me and protest the refusal of temple authorities to give them access to temples and said that if I did not take action to enforce the law they will take the law into their own hands.  Significantly, there were no protests from any of the 11 MPs of my district over my failure to enforce the Social Disabilities Act, and of course they were all from the Vellala caste!  Equally sinister was that all 14 DROs of my district seemed to pour cold water on any move by me to even look into the problem, and needless to say the DROs were also from the Vellala caste! I realised I had to do something, but I was hemmed in, without any space for manoeuvre. Therefore I decided that before resorting to law enforcement procedures, I should do some independent probing.

The responses I got from every leading Hindu citizen of Jaffna whom I consulted was that the denial of entry into temples, and indeed the whole Tamil caste system, was deeply embedded in the Hindu religion, and that any attempt by me to enforce the law will not only be resisted, but will be interpreted as an act of sacrilege, and furthermore, that it will embroil me in a confrontation which will be far more Needless to say, all those whom I had consulted were also Vellalas!! 

On the other hand the Christians whom I consulted were all of the opinion that the caste system was evil but  they also conformed to it willingly and would not violate its boundaries.

I realised that the issue that was now confronting me had potential for turmoil on a horrendous scale, especially because I was a Sinhala, and it was easy to allege that that a Sinhala GA was trying to divide Tamil society for political ends.

On the other hand, I also realised that those whom I had consulted were very sincere in their belief that their religion did really sanction their rigid caste system. However, I was also aware that what they believed was not consistent with the Hindu scriptures that I knew of, but my knowing the truth subjectively was not sufficient. I had to prove it to them objectively. I reasoned therefore that my first priority must be to research the Brahmin/Vellala claim seriously and confront them with my findings before resorting to law enforcement procedures.


During the ensuing two years, i.e. between 1964 and 1966, I spent nearly all of my leisure hours in the Jaffna Library ( that was the one that was burnt down in the 1980s) with a pundit by my side, pouring over Hindu religious texts, most of which were available in English translations, but some only in Tamil.  The outcome of these studies was a monograph running into over 15,000 words in which I proved to any unbiased and rational mind, that the claim that Hindu scriptures sanctioned the Tamil caste system or that they warranted the exclusion of any group of people from temples on grounds of case, had no basis either in the Vedas or in the Saiva scriptures

Just when I had finished my work I received transfer orders, so I did not have the opportunity to use my research as a platform to mount any serious programme of social engineering. However, in order to ensure that it got the widest possible readership I released my work to the press, and the Daily News serialised it in a series of articles during the first week of January  1966. I also released copies of my monograph to all the protagonists of the system, especially to Professor C. Suntheralingam, who was their chief ideologue and theoretician, and sent copies to every one of the non-Vellala delegations who had interviewed me. Thereby I ensured that my research findings had been sown as widely as possible, and hoped that even after I had left Jaffna,  they would bear fruit. 

The monograph setting out my findings on Hinduism and the Tamil caste system, involve references to a great many scriptural texts which will be out of place in the body of this chapter. However, to satisfy the curiosity of those who are driven by a deeper interest, I am attaching the monograph as an appendix to the book in which this  chapter will appear..

The storming of Maviddapuram

My research bore fruit sooner than I expected.  Two years after I had left Jaffna, in June 1968, having armed themselves with the scriptural facts that I had uncovered, the non-Vellalas had finally organised themselves effectively into a mass movement, and stormed the great Maviddapuram Temple, the bastion of Brahmanism in Jaffna.  Vernon Abeysekera who had succeeded me as GA, and R. Sunderalingam, who had succeeded Jack van Sanden as Suptd. of Police, had tried their best to negotiate a settlement between Prof C. Suntheralingam who was the chief protagonist for the temple authorities, and the non-Vellala crowd, but  to no avail. Prof Suntheralingam had stood at the entrance to the temple, flailing his walking stick over his head and threatening anyone who came within striking distance. Eventually, the protestors stormed the temple en masse, carried the day, and once and for all, a terrible injustice that had stained Hindu worship for thousands of years was finally erased.

Even at the risk of  some hyperbole, I would suggest that the storming of the Maviddapuram Temple in 1963 had consequences for the Tamil social structure, similar to the consequences that flowed from   the storming of the Bastille in 1789 for the ancienne regime in France. It set in motion a social ground swell which, within two decades led to the emergence of the Non-Vellala underclass as a formidable political and military force which was to set the parameters for the politics of Sri Lanka for 4 whole decades to come.

The police prosecuted Prof Suntheralingam under the Social Disabilities Act and the Supreme Court fined him Rs 50. In return Prof Suntheralingam filed a private suit against the R. Sunderalingam the Suptd of Police, but the case was thrown out, and Sunderalingam went on to be a Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) and later the Head of the narcotics division of Interpol. 

The temple entry problem was merely the tip of an iceberg, floating on a vast ocean of unrest. Hidden from view, was a mass of people harbouring  deep resentments  which had been accumulating for thousands of  years without an opportunity  for expression, and more than 60% of the  population of Jaffna constituted that mass. No one from the outside world had ever given them a thought. Worse still, no one from inside either!  They were indeed  Franz Fanon’s “The wretched of the earth”.

What it meant to be a non-Vellala

Up until the mid 1960s when I was GA, the non-Vellalas performed all the mundane or menial tasks of Tamil society. They were the artisans, the merchants, the potters, the toddy tappers, the tenant farmers and farm labourers, barbers, road sweepers, etc, and not least the warriors. Even the fisher-folk, who among the Sinhala have a preeminent place, were in the eyes of the Vellalas, outcastes.  According to a classification done by Simon Casie Chitty of the CCS in the 19th century, there were 152 of these non-Vellala castes in Jaffna, all of them categorised as pariah and the workers and their functions were permanently locked to each other by heredity.

The central characteristic of Jaffna’s caste structure was the congruence of heredity with economic and social deprivation. That is to say, if someone was born2��The Wretched of the Earthtes, he was permanently locked into his prescribed role, and was also inextricably tied to his village. He had no opportunities for betterment, or for upward or territorial mobility, however clever or entrepreneurial he may be.

This was in sharp contrast to the Sinhala caste system, where anyone outside the dominant Goigama caste could not only match, but often excel the Goigama in economic and social power. That was not possible within the Tamil caste system, within which no one outside the hallowed Vellala caste could aspire to heights that were the preserve of the Vellalas.

Even in the mid 1960s, the following principles defined what it meant to be a non-Vellala.

  1. Regardless of natural endowments, anyone born a non-Vellala was frozen into his particular station for all of his life, be it fishing, tree climbing, road sweeping or whatever. Heredity was a cast iron frame from which there was no escape.
  2. They dared not marry anyone from the Vellala caste.
  3. They were not allowed into premises occupied by the Vellalas except for doing the tasks they was born into.
  4. They did not have access into temples owned or managed by Brahmins or Vellalas. In other words, they were non-persons.
  5. They did not have access into Hindu schools or to proceed for higher education. This barrier was breached effectively only when missionary schools began to proliferate, much to the consternation of Hindu leaders.
  6. They could not reside outside their villages.
  7. They could not drink at the village well nor use any other public amenity outside their own villages.
  8. They could not wear jewellery, nor ride in carriages nor use drums  at any ceremony.
  9. When they died they could not be cremated or buried on land reserved for the Vellalas.

Perhaps things have changed now ( writing in 2009 ), but in the 1960s, the Tamil caste system was nearly as oppressive as it had been in India for over 4,000 years.  .

The awakening of the non- Vellalas

In the midst of this powder keg of disaffection, the missionary schools were like a slow burning fuse. For the first time in the experience of the non-Vellalas, from as far back as the 1830s, long before the first government schools had been set up, the mission schools opened to them the benefits of education, treated them equally with the Vellalas, and gave them self-respect and dignity.

In the 1860s Arumuga Navalar, the great Hindu nationalist of Jaffna, led a campaign against the mission schools because they were destabilising the rigid Hindu social structure. The non-Vellalas, who obviously found the mission schools a means to liberation from centuries of degradation and anonymity, opposed vehemently Arumuga Navalar’s campaign against the new Christian schools. 

Modern communication technologies fanned the fuse ignited by the mission schools into a leaping flame. Even though the people could not travel physically beyond their villages, the new communication  technologies, especially the local press,  enabled them to travel in their minds and a radical transformation   of consciousness got under way.

Working in tandem, the mission schools and modern communication technologies set in motion a spiral of rising expectations, but because the social and political structures within which the non-Vellalas  were trapped gave them no scope  for fulfilment,  rising expectations rapidly mutated into rising frustrations.  

As the consciousness of the non-Vellalas ignited it was only a matter of time before their rage would burst into a conflagration. The first evidence that the flame was taking hold came in 1970 when two youth organisations called the Marnavar Peravai  and The Tamil Liberation Organisation (TLO) were  founded with the declared purpose of arming their people and one of those who joined them was a young 18 years old school dropout by the name of  Velupillai Pirabakaran.  The flame spread rapidly and by the mid 1980s burst into a conflagration. That fire is still  burning ( written in 2009 ). 

Two Tamil nationalisms

One of the dominant fallacies of our times is the claim that Tamil nationalism is a single, undifferentiated, and all encompassing phenomenon, which can be dealt with at a single level. I think not. There are in fact two Tamil nationalisms, the Vellala-led, bourgeois democratic nationalism which focussed primarily on the language issue and the non-Vellala led, insurrectionary, violent nationalism, which focussed on a much wider set of issues.  Often they are as much in collision with each other, as they are in contention with the state.  Up until about the mid 1980s, the non-Vellala insurrectionary nationalism was content to follow in the wake of the Vellala-led bourgeois nationalism, but as the latter proved increasingly impotent to deliver on the expectations of their people, the former wrested the leadership of the Tamils’ struggle. In a dramatic reversal of roles, the Vellala led bourgeois democratic nationalism started piggy-backing the non-Vellala led insurrectionary violent nationalism.  

Next, I want to look more closely at the hypothesis of  “two Tamil nationalisms”

to be continued