Devanesan Nesiah’s Reflections on Tamil Circumstances via Jayaweera and the Scottish Referendum

Nesiah ONE: Reviewing Neville Jayaweera’s Book on Jaffna, viz., Exorcising the Past and Holding the Vision

NEVILLE Jayaweera

When I was asked by Marshall Fernando whether I would review the above, I readily agreed. Neville was several years senior to me in the Ceylon Civil Service. He also served as the Government Agent (GA) Jaffna but 18 years before my turn. I know him well and have some familiarity with his career till he left the Island prematurely. Further, during his three months as GA Badulla, I was his deputy. He is widely regarded as one of the most distinguished of many eminent members of the Ceylon Civil Services. His tenure in Jaffna was particularly well appreciated, even by many who were deeply distrustful of him when he first arrived in there.

 3Loganathan Nesiah (grey hired) at tribute to Late Kethesh Loganathan, who was assassinated by the LTTE

The Indian and Ceylon Civil Services (CCS), inherited from British colonial rule, were enormously prestigious and powerful but nominally nonpolitical institutions. In particular, the office of Government Agent (Collectors in pre-partition India) had authority over almost every branch of Civil Administration. Neville was privileged to have been in the CCS till its dilution in to the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) in 1963, and to have served as a GA for many years. With such authority, comparable to that exercise by the earlier British Civil servants, the powers of the GA were enormous. Further, Neville had the virtually unqualified support of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike. He made use of these powers to a degree that few other Government Agents did. The book I am reviewing is largely about what Neville did in his three years as GA Jaffna, the immediate consequences of his actions and of the subsequent developments over which he had no control as he was not only out of office but also out of favour.

While I have much respect for Neville I have several reservations on parts of his book, particularly on the Appendix which, incidentally, is the largest chapter of his book. My review article is there for in two Parts. My response in part 1 is mostly positive. Part 11, which mainly concerns the Appendix, is much more critical and also includes some of my own views on the caste system. My view of caste ideology is very much in line with Neville’s but I have evidence that he has got some of his facts wrong, particularly in relation to caste in India and Manu Smriti.

I thought my task would be easy; it was not. I would readily endorse virtually all of Susil Sirivardana’s Preface setting out his superlative assessment of the man and his record, and Michael Robert’s Foreword containing a similar assessment except that Michael challenges Neville on a few points including his estimate of the caste composition of Jaffna and related political and socio-economic impact, and Neville’s failure to note the relative autonomy of the Karaiyars (and the corresponding autonomy of the Karavas among the Sinhalese) and their consequent political independence.

Michael also faults Neville for being “prone to emphasise the great man view of history” and neglecting the class forces driving them. I have my own rather different reservations on some of Neville’s views, and these will be elaborated in the course of this paper. For the benefit of those who have not yet read the book, I have included some highlights of his key findings.

The Prologue written in September, 2013 after the first ever election to the Northern Provincial Council comprises 39 pages and is in many ways the most important chapter of this book. It contains the essence of the Neville’s, analysis and recommendations. These are elaborated in greater details in the later chapters including the two Epilogues. The very valuable 42 pages long Appendix is the product of pains taking research, but contains some errors that I deal with in Part II.

The point on Sinhala-Tamil conflict resolution that Neville makes in the opening page of the Prologue is admirable and factually unquestionable except that there is a fundamental asymmetry in Sinhala-Tamil relations over the centuries. The Tamil kings of South India were frequently invaders who repeatedly conquered and pillaged Sinhalese kingdoms and, in Sinhalese literature and history, they are regarded as the enemies of the Sinhalese. On the other hand, the Tamils of India had no reason for any hostility to the Sinhalese whom their kings regarded as people to be plundered at will. In fact I understand from Tamil scholars that there are no signs of hostility to the Sinhalese in Tamil literature and history, whether in South India or in Sri Lanka. In contrast Sinhala-Tamil power relationship within Sri Lanka is weighted in favour of the Sinhalese, who are the dominant population on this Island, and may be regarded by many Tamils in Sri Lanka as oppressors.

Even this conflict is largely a product of the mid- and late 20 and early 21 century. For the greater part of centuries past, Sinhala-Tamils relations had been cordial, marred only by occasional wars between rival kings. Even in these wars, almost in variably, there had been Sinhalese and Tamils on both sides. In fact Sinhala and Tamil identities have been fluid it for centuries till they were gradually frozen on account of the census declaration of ethnic identity required in terms of the administrative procedures introduced under colonial rule.

The problem is that the justifiable grievances that the Sinhalese have against South Indian kings in centuries long past are being visited in recent decades on the Tamils in Sri Lanka, who had no hand in the invasions by the South Indian kings.

Nevertheless in the last few decades Sinhala Tamil animosity within Sri Lanka has become so deep that, as in Neville’s words, “Its resolution will require more than rhetoric and denunciations from either side, or a military triumph of one side over the other. It will require a visionary understanding of history, and willingness on both sides to conciliate on a scale not evidenced hither to”.

It would surely help if great Tamil classics such as Silappathikaram and Manimehalai are made easily available in Sinhalese translations to Sinhalese children. Similarly Rev.

Dharmaratna Thero’s Buddhism in South India should be made easily available in Tamil and Sinhala translations since it underlines the close social, cultural and religious link between Sinhalese and Tamils over several centuries. In fact the Pattini cult, widely prevalent among the Sinhalese is derived from Silappathikaram; andManimehalai, another great Tamil classic written by a Buddhist monk and its heroine is a Tamil Buddhist nun who had at a critical stage found sanctuary in Nagadeepa/Nainativu in Sri Lanka .

Bhikku Dharmaratna wrote of the centuries during which Buddhism was the dominant religion of the Tamils in South India and Sri Lanka. During this period Tamil Buddhist scholars and missionaries set out from centers in South India such as Kanchi, South to Sri Lanka, North to Nalanda and elsewhere and East to every region of South East Asia and beyond to every region of Pacific Asia. Both Sinhalese and Tamils need to understand that the Buddhism was the common religion of their ancestors for many centuries. One of the greatest heads of Nalanda University was Venerable Dhammapala Thero from Tamil Nadu. Buddhism is not an alien religion for the Tamils, nor Hinduism an alien religion for the Sinhalese.

Neville lists five watersheds the Sri Lanka has crossed in recent years that compelled him to publish these memoirs of which the greater part were written around 50 years ago and then consigned to limbo.

These watersheds are:

(1) (The most important), The crushing defeat of the LTTE in 2009 ensuring that there will not be any armed uprising by the Tamils in the foreseeable future

(2) The publication of the report of the LLRC, which he regards as “the most intelligent and balanced analysis of the ethnic conflict ever written by any Presidential Commission in Sri Lanka”

(3) The holding of the first ever elections to the Northern Provincial Council under the 13th Amendment

(4) The visit to Sri Lanka in August 2013 of Dr Navaneethampillai, UNHCHR, and the explosive report she released

The caste question

Neville’s extensive research into caste in Jaffna is admirable. Within a short period he had gained a degree of knowledge of the system that very few, even among Jaffna Hindus and, perhaps, no other Sinhalese possesses. Much of the credit goes to Rameshwara Iyer. But the very valuable and extensive findings are marred by a few factual and conceptual errors.

I am familiar with Jaffna and have some understanding of the operation of Jaffna’s caste system, but have not studied any literature on the subject. However, a good knowledge of the Indian caste system was an essential requirement for my Doctoral thesis at Harvard University written in the four year period beginning mid-1985. Since my work was on “A Comparative Analysis of Preferential Policies in the USA, India and Malaysia”, the Hindu scripture I focused on was Manu Smriti (Laws of Manu). Since Manu means Man in Sanskrit, it is not clear if it is the collective work of a group of Brahmin scholars or the monograph of an individual Brahmin scholar called Manu. It contains a few contradictions and is terrible in its treatment of Sudras (low caste), women and, worst of all, Untouchables. Untouchables were originally referred to as Durjan (evil people), patronisingly renamed Harijan(God’s people) by Gandhi, referred to as Scheduled Castes in the Indian Constitution and now increasingly referred to by their Gujarati name, Dalit (oppressed people).It is interesting to compare the evolution of the term used for US Blacks, from Niggers to Negro, from Negro to Coloured (a patronising euphemism) and now either Blacks or Afro–Americans (the latter misleading in that it excludes Non-Black Americans of African origin, e.g. those of Arab origin).

I confess that Manu Smriti is the only Hindu scripture that I have some significant familiarity with. As a Brahmin who has opted to retain his caste title Iyer (in contrast to Nehru who opted to drop his caste title of Pandit, the Kashmiri equivalent of the Tamil Iyer), Rameshwara Iyer may not be a totally disinterested scholar. He would surely be familiar with Manu Smriti , but would he be willing to publically repudiate it? My reading of Manus Smiritiwas from an excellent translation from the original Sanskrit by E.W. Hopkins (eds), The Ordinances of Manu, 1884, London, Trubner and Co., available at Widener library, Harvard University and many other good libraries across the globe.

The caste system has been evolving in the millennia since the Vedas were written, and the number of caste sub divisions has kept on multiplying for various reasons. By the time Manu Smriti was written in the early part of the First Millennium AD there were very many castes, with regional variations, but all within the Varna system ordained by the Vedas. Now, almost another two millennia later, the number of castes have grown further, again with regional variation. The number of castes in India is of the order of 2000-3000 (Marriott and Inden, 1974,Caste Systems, Encyclopedia Britannica, Macropaedia 3, Chicago, William Benton; Ghurye, 1960, Caste, Class and Occupation, Bombay Popular Prakashan; Hutton, 1961, Caste in India :Its Nature, Function and Origins, Bombay, Oxford University Press; Galanter,1984, Competing Equalities, Delhi, Oxford University Press and Berkeley, Los Angelis and London, University of California Press. In comparison to India the number of castes in Jaffna is miniscule.

Some of the prescriptions of Manu Smriti are too terrible to be fully operational anywhere any time, but the Brahmin orthodoxy retains it as a guide and a model to be selectively cited. On one of the clauses prescribed is that any who leaves the shores of India loses caste. Thus when Gandhi returned from London in the 19 century after qualifying as a Barrister, he had to go through an elaborate ceremony conducted by the Brahmin hierarchy to restore him to his Vaishya status. This clause in the Manu Smriti has not been deleted but is now utterly impractical and no longer observed. In any case by the time Gandhi went abroad the second time he had lost faith in the Manu Smriti .

Regarding caste mobility, “A Sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not redeemed from servitude. Since this is innate in him, who can set him free from it? (Manu Smriti , VIII, 414) under the rule quoted earlier, all of us in Sri Lanka (and in any country outside India) are, at best Sudra, not entitled to wear the sacred thread. This applies to the Vellalars in India who too are not entitled to wear the sacred thread – the hallmark of the high castes under the Varna system, yet prevailing in India.

Neville’s claim that the Vellalars of India acquired wealth and lands may be partly true but contradicts Manus SmiritiManu has decreed that a Sudra who has acquired wealth causes offense to Brahmins (Manu Smriti , X129 ) and that a Brahmin may take possession of the property of the Sudra with perfect peace of mind (Manu SmritiV111 ,147). Untouchables are singled out for the most demeaning and malicious treatment. Manu decreed that the dwelling of Chandalas and Svapakas shall be outside the village, that they must be made apapatras (out castes) and that their wealth shall be dogs and donkeys’ (Manu Smriti X, 51). Their conditions of life are to be as humiliating as possible; they must wear the garments of the dead, use only broken dishes, and any ornaments must be of iron, (Manu Smriti X 52).

The caste system in Jaffna is terrible (I am fully with Neville on this) but that in India is immeasurably worse. Caste related rapes and murders occur frequently, often with the complicity of the Indian police and local political leadership. It is true that the caste system as practised in Sri Lanka is different (milder and less rigid) to that in India. Regarding temple entry, it had been a major problem in India for centuries and was central to Gandhi’s movement for the emancipation of Untouchable.

Gandhi had a long and bitter feud with Dr Ambedkar but in a gesture that was both magnanimous and brilliant, Dr Ambedkar was appointed Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution which is an incomparable model of Affirmative Action, covering even the elections to National and State legislatures but only excluding the private sector. As Sir Ivor Jennings has stated “The ghosts of Sidney and Beatrice Webb stalk through the pages of the text of the Directive Principles [of the Indian Constitution]”. (Jennings, Ivor, 1953, Some Characteristics of the Indian Constitution, Madras, Oxford University Press). All the above quotations from Manu Smriti are in my book Discrimination with Reason? 1997, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

What are the origins of the Low Country and Kandyan Sinhalese and Tamil Caste systems. We can only speculate. Our ancestors, apart from some miscegenation with Arabs, Europeans, Indonesians etc., came from deeply caste conscious India. But those who left India went out of the reach of the Vedas and Manu Smriti and theVarna system. The dominant classes (not necessarily the absolute majority) devised their own caste systems with themselves on the top, with no scriptural justification.

These were the Radalas, other Gowigama elite and Vellalar elite. It is unfortunate that while the state acted against untouchability among the Tamils (that was politically opportune), it did not abolish caste altogether (that would not have been politically opportune). Even the Mahanayakes practice it (“e.g. non Govigama are not accepted for ordination by the Malwatte and Asgiriya Mahanayakas). Many Sinhalese think that the caste is exclusively a Tamil problem, but that is not true as evident in the matrimonial columns of the Sinhalese newspapers. Matrimonial columns of the Tamil newspapers are no better. We have yet to produce a Gandhi or an Ambedkar or, even better, evolve into a people conscious of the need to be a nation with equal rights for all citizens.

The Sinhalese and Tamils caste systems are closer to each other than to that sanctioned by the Vedas and Manu Smriti . Although they lack religious sanction, the Sri Lankan caste systems are backed by the dominant classes in Sri Lanka, whereas in India the high castes (BrahminsKshatriyas and Vaishyas are too small in numbers to retain political power post universal adult franchise. They have already lost their grip on Indian politics and the trend is likely to continue with the mixed category referred to in the Indian Constitution as Other Backward Classes producing most of the leadership, eg: Prime Minister Modi. In Sri Lanka the Gowigamas and Vellalars are yet firmly in control. If for some reasons the top leadership must pass temporarily to some one of the other caste, it will not be a caste that could threaten the supremacy of the Gowigamas, but a caste very low in the hierarchy and dependent on the Gowigama leaders.

The rise of the LTTE among the Tamils is “an exception that proves the rule” in that it rose through the bullet, not the ballot. With their defeat the Vellalars have quickly resumed their grips on Tamil politics as have the Gowigamas on Sinhala politics. Erosion of caste is inevitable but is, sadly, this process is likely to be long drawn out.

Nesiah TWO: “Lessons from Scotland,” courtesy of Groundviews, 7 October 2014, where there now are 11 or 12 pertinent comments

Scotland has much to teach us. The democratic decision of the UK government to hold a Referendum in Scotland in response to persistent demands from a section of the Scottish people for an independent Scotland (to which the government and a large majority of the population were totally opposed) and the happy outcome (a decisive No vote in Scotland by a majority significantly greater than widely predicted) has many lessons for us. To consolidate the vote against secession, the UK Government needs to deliver on its promise of greater devolution. Moreover, to its credit, it is the Scottish National Party rather than the UK Government that mobilized voter participation to a record 84.6%. Irrespective of how they voted, bringing out voters who had never voted before is a service to democracy.


I am not suggesting that there is a need for a similar Referendum in the North or in the Northeast. Neither the Tamil people nor their leaders have ever been seriously interested in secession or asked for such a Referendum. The Vaddukoddai Resolution and other statements made by Tamil leaders in the late 70s under severe pressure from young militant groups were effectively repudiated by every responsible Tamil leader; nor was this the issue on which they gained Tamil votes ever before or thereafter. Proof of this is the full participation of Tamil leaders in the 1981 District Development Council (DDC) Elections, even though those Councils did not have even a semblance of devolution, and comfortably secured all 11 seats in Jaffna district. This was despite extensive (but incompetent) attempts at vote rigging directed by Ministers Gamini Dissanayake and Cyril Mathew and  backed by some police and thugs who came in from outside with a DIG sent for the purpose of securing at least some seats for pro-government candidates. That initiative led to deadly violence including the destruction of the priceless Jaffna Public Library, but failed to gain a single seat in the Jaffna DDC. I should know because I was the District Secretary of that first (and only) Jaffna DDC (mid 1981- mid 83) and Government Agent (mid 1981 – mid 1984). I came in to close contact with virtually every political leader and senior public servant as well as very many senior service personnel serving in that district. As the District Secretary, I also had the privilege of working very closely with two admirable men, viz. my District Minister Hon. U.B. Wijekoon and my DDC Chairman “Poddar” Nadarajah (later killed by the LTTE).

-Scotland --GV from Groundviews

The lessons to be learned from the Scottish Referendum include:

  1. Respond to political opposition non-violently, in a democratic way, which has not been the way of successive governments, still less of the LTTE and other militant groups in Sri Lanka.
  2. Trust the people on all sides to take wise and correct decisions, provided that they have adequate information and are not bullied in to participating in or tolerating violence.
  3. Respect the views and rights of national and regional minorities, especially the right to dissent.
  4. Devolution is not a step towards but, rather, a formidable barrier to secession. This was understood by the UK government (which offered more devolution to Scotland) and the LTTE, which consistently opposed every proposal for devolution (e.g. the Constitutional proposals of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga) as well as the successful functioning of the devolved North East Provincial Council.
  5. National Reconciliation is of the highest priority. Holding the Northern Provincial Council election was a major advance towards that goal but has since been negated by the failure of the State to devolve power. Both in the North and in the East political power lies with the Governors (both military men) who work directly under the President and are not answerable to their Provincial Councils. Even the Chief Secretary works under the Governor and not under the Chief Minister. If a similar situation prevailed in Scotland, the Scots would surely have voted for secession.
  6. There have been some minor advances in recruiting Tamils to State institutions, but their numbers in the public services and, particularly, in the police and armed services are utterly inadequate. This is linked to the language issue on which there has been only very minimal progress. There is no effective alternative to the teaching of both Sinhala and Tamil, and English as well, in every school in the Island, and to adequate ethnic diversity in recruitment to the public, police and armed services.

In any multi ethnic democracy there should be appropriate ethnic diversity at every level of government, the administration and the military. We see this in many countries including the UK, the USA and India. In each of these three countries the current Head of Government is from a minority ethnic group. In fact in India the previous Head of Government was from another minority ethnic group, and the national anthem is sung in the language of yet another minority ethnic group. Such a situation would be unthinkable in Sri Lanka. Even five and a half years after the end of the civil war, progress in implementing the broadly accepted Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report is minimal. We have lessons to learn from many multiethnic democracies around the globe and, most recently, from Scotland.

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