This is a reproduction of COMMENTS in a previous Thuppahi Item from 2012 — which presented an article by Rajan Philips in the Sunday Island of 26 February 2012. This unusual step is taken because the information therein: (1) about caste oppression in the Jaffna Peninsula even in the 1970s; (2) data on the politics of the Jaffna Youth congress and its boycott campaign against the Donoughmore Reforms and the 1931 elections in the north; (#) a reading of GG Ponnambalam (4) the contributions to the discussion from R, Sid Perinbanayagam and Nalliah Thayabharan — with Thayabharan’s slashing criticisms of the LTTE and Tamil diasporic supporters evincing a remarkable courage.
I have taken the liberty of highlighting sections in red or blue
THE ARTICLE is by RAJAN PHILIPS ….
14 responses to “Handy Perinpanayagam and the Jaffna Youth Congress”
I met Handy Perinbanayagam on a couple of occasions late in 1973 and early 1974. He was in his mid-seventies and I was a 24-year old British female researcher on a Commonwealth Scholarship, who was regularly compared to Sai Baba because of my Angela Davis-style bushy hair. I cycled everywhere in the peninsula – it being so flat- and it was one of the best ways to get to know this secretive enclave of Tamilian pride (and prejudice). I say prejudice because I was once pulled off my bicycle and dumped in the ditch by two brahmin boys from the temple at Tellipallai. Handy was a quiet man: a little quizzical at being not just located but lionised by a British female Oxford graduate and post graduate student at Peradeniya University arriving out of the blue. I wrote copious notes at our interviews and made it clear that I regarded him as one of the unsung heroes of 20th century Sri Lankan history. He was an unassuming man – a little sad that his stream of unalloyed idealism had run into such a parched desert of prejudice and misunderstanding – but then he acknowledged that that had always been his fate. As he remembered, the Jaffna Youth Congress had miscalculated the drift of Sinhalese politics in the south and presumed that the Youth and Labour Movements in Colombo would immediately support their boycott. Whereas it effectively marginalised Jaffna from all-island politics at a crucial juncture and turned the JYC stalwarts into political pariahs, ridiculed by GG Ponnambalam who used their discomfiture as a springboard for his own career of carefully crafted communalism (highly coloured rhetoric in Jaffna coupled with more
soothing sentiments in round table talks in Colombo). To have lost out to such an obvious opportunist and careerist must have galled him but he was philosophical: he still wore the Tamil national dress of verti and collarless kurta which had characterised the JYC leaders in the late 1920’s and so endeared them to the working classes and students of the peninsula, it had helped them pull off the boycott. Handy was at ease with himself and his fate: indeed far more so than GG Ponnambalam whom I met in 1976 and who was abrasive, mean-spirited and egotistical to an extreme.
So three cheers for Handy and his JYC colleagues: I lauded them in my Ph.D thesis for Peradeniya in 1976 and I laud them again today. They saw
far beyond their time and as Arunachalam noted “where there is no vision, the people will perish”. It is because of Handy Perinbanayagam (and not Pirabakaran) that the Sri Lankan Tamils of the peninsula will flourish once
Many thanks JANE
I sent the following rejoinder to the Sunday Island but they have not puiblished it.
Rajan Phillips esaay on the Jaffna Youth Congress (26 February) gives an accurate and thoughtful analysis of its rise and fall. It nevertheless fails to record two important aspects of its history:
1. It fought a vigorous battle against G. G. Ponnambalam’s infamous call for balanced representation (the so called “fifty-fifty”). It published a widely read booklet denouncing Mr Ponnambalam’s politics (Commmunalism or Nationalism? authored by V. Sittampalam of the Youth Congress). Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress arose to prominence on the ashes of the Youth Congress as the stalwart Samasamjist V.Karalasingham noted In his booklet on the politics of Jaffna, “ The Way out For the Tamil People”(1962) .
2. The Youth Congress may have died but the causes for which it fought were carried forward in the educational field and in the trade union field. In addition, and most importantly, most of the leaders and particularly its more youthful followers, morphed into the Jaffna branch of the LSSP. A couple of them drifted into the Communist Party too and became its leaders in time. Indeed if one examines the biographies of the LSSP candidates in the 1947, 1952, 1956,1960, and 1962 parliamentary elections he will find that they all had a connection to the Youth Congress.
Many thanks Robert Siddharthan
I should have added to my earlier comment that nearly all of them were students of SHP at Jaffna College
I just saw this posting of my article first published in the Sunday Island (26 February 2012) and I appreciate the comments by Jane Russell and Siddarthan Perinbanayagam. I was in Colombo in Februray/March and attended the book launch and later participated in a discussion on JYC and its continuing relevance to Tamil society and politics. I plan to expand on what I have written for a journal publication and will be happy to incorporate the comments expressed by Ms. Russel and Mr. Perinbanyagam. Kind Regards. Rajan Philips, Waterloo, Canada.
I wrote at length about the rise and fall of the Jaffna Youth Congress in my Ph.D thesis for the University of Peradeniya (1976). I subsequently published my research on the JYC in an article for the Journal of Historical and Social Studies (which during the 1970’s was being energetically edited by KM de Silva and Michael Roberts) under the title of “The Dance of the Turkey Cock”, the sobriquet used by the Sri Lanka press – Jaffna press included – to ridicule the Jaffna boycott as being a grotesque mimicry of the Indian National Congress boycott which had occurred a few months earlier. I no longer have any copies of that reprint (Colombo floods of 1992 having done their worst) but I’m sure it is available in some library or other. When I finally found a publisher for my thesis in 1982 (Tisara Prakaskayo), it emerged as Volume 26 of the Ceylon Historical Journal “Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution 1931-1947” and Chapters Two and Three recount the history of the boycott and the JYC at some length. This book is out of print but is usually available in university libraries with South Asian departments. I want to make the point that the History Department of the University of Peradeniya -KM de Silva and Michael Roberts in particular – encouraged me strongly to go to Jaffna in 1973/4 and research the late British period, including the history of the JYC and the boycott. They felt this was a blank period in Sri Lanka’s recorded academic history which needed illuminating. The Jaffna Tamils did not seem to find it of any great interest at the time, although Mr Tambiah, the librairian at Jaffna College immediately realised that I was intent on doing something important and opened all the College archives to me. Because I was young, naive, English and female with an Oxford degree behind me, the collusion of events (what the Sinhalese call the nakhad time) gave me an original insight for which I am grateful as it has coloured my life ever since: I was there at the IATR Conference when Mayor Duriappah (whom I also interviewed) was ordered by Mrs Bandaranaike’s government to turn off the lights and walked the many miles home from Jaffna to Kurumpacciddy where I stayed. I was in Colombo when the army burned down Jaffna library and lived through many bombing outrages during the 80’s. I went to Lalith Athulathmudali’s house after he was assassinated and watched the hearse wind round Flower Rd. from the top of the wall which is now the barbed wire encased fortress of the Prime Minister’s Office (or it was the last time I went past there). I was finally deported from Sri Lanka by the Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte in 1996 after publishing a number of articles on atrocities committed both by the army and the Tamil Tigers (I believe that a letter I sent to the Sunday Observer about the Tigers’ recruitment of child soldiers using a previous connection I had with Save the Children Fund UK finally led to the UN sending out their Special Rapporteur to investigate). I am proud that I had enemies in both camps as it is evidence that I was a true neutral, interested only in getting to the truth. Of course, then, as now, many saw this as being a busybody or part of a post-imperialist conspiracy. It was neither: I was just an idealistic, curious onlooker who suddenly realised that I could do something worthwhile. The part that largely Sinhalese academics in the Peradeniya History Department played in this endeavour should not be underestimated: if they had not kept telling me that I was onto something significant, I would not have gone through all the physical misery that living in Jaffna in 1973/4 entailed nor have kept on reiterating to anyone who would listen that the JYC was an unsung harbinger of a new kind of Sri Lankan identity. The fact that I have ended up as a college teacher in London, trying to enlighten teenagers from all over the ex-British empire and beyond that there is something better than mere materialism or naked power to keep a life together over its allotted span is a subtle tribute to Handy and his fellow teachers in the JYC. It was only after I had written my thesis in 1976 and later published the article on the “Dance of the Turkey Cock” that Jaffnese historians started to take the JYC andf the boycott seriously. “Sod’s law” as they say but it does sometimes take an outsider to see the wood for the trees.
You may quote me as much as you wish in your articles but I have a Ph.D. from Peradeniya of which I am proud so, please, call me Doctor
During the colonial time Vellalar and the Madapalli castes who provided most of the Mudaliyars to village headman who owned most of the arable land. Below the Vellalar were the Koviar who were also involved in agriculture. The people of the fishing castes, collectively known as the Karaiyar, were independent of this social structure to which the landed communities were bound. The Chettys were well known as traders and owners of Hindu temples and the Pallar and the Nalavar composed of the landless labourers who tilled the land. Other castes composed of traditional barbers, washers, potters and general service providers. In Jaffna Paraiyar lived in segregated settlements and were the untouchables, just as in the modern Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Under Tamil leadership in Jaffna Thurumbar – washers for toddy tappers and other low-caste families were not allowed to walk in daytime just in case their sighting would pollute the pure eyes of the Vellalar. The Thurumbar had to drag a branch behind to wipe the footsteps they leave when they walk at midnight so that the feet of the Vellalar would not be polluted next day by treading on low-caste footprints. Schools attended by low-caste children were burnt and low-caste students physically assaulted.
Velupillai Prabhakaran perfected the fascistic culture of Tamil violence with his cult of violence that was not restrained by basic values of humanity. Torture, murder, incarceration, kangaroo courts, feeding Tamil dissidents to crocodiles in the Iranamadu tank, kidnapping teenage school children from the care of their parents and throwing them as sacrificial lambs to a war he could not win were all a part of his cult of violence which was glorified by the Tamil Diaspora. The Tamil Diaspora wallowed lustily in Velupillai Prabhakaran’s violence. The sadism of the Tamil Diaspora was demonstrated by the increase in the collection of funds abroad each time Velupillai Prabhakaran went on a killing spree. Their heroism was expressed in filling the war chests of Velupillai Prabhakaran led LTTE. Each time the Tamil Diaspora oiled the killing machine of Velupillai Prabhakaran led LTTE it was the Tamils left behind who had to pay with their lives. The Jaffna Tamil culture gave no choice to the Tamils: it was either fascism of Vellalar or fascism of Velupillai Prabhakaran. In the north the Jaffna Tamil leadership failed the Jagffna people under both regimes. They never qualified to be just and fair leaders/rulers of the Jaffna people. The violence directed against their own people has condemned the Jaffna Tamil leadership as the most unbearable, unacceptable Pol Pots of our time. With all its infirmities there was democracy and liberal space in the south. In the north, fascism and violence became a common existential experience of daily life.
The evil in the Tamil culture, which was transmitted to Velupillai Prabhakaran, is represented precisely and accurately in the LTTE flag flown by the Tamil Diaspora as their symbol of pride and glory. It is the most obscene flag under the sun. There isn’t a single redeeming feature in it to project the Tamils as members of a civilized race. Its violent symbols – a snarling tiger putting his carnivorous head out of a ring of thirty-three bullets placed against two crossed guns fixed with bayonets – represent only a barbaric, blood-thirsty violence culture inherited from the Vellalar. Every inch of the LTTE flag questions the values of the Jaffna Tamils and their capacity to co-exist with other communities in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious world.
The misguided Tamils might read it as a sign of their power. But where have their tigers, bullets, guns and bayonets taken them? It is a flag that is comparable only to the skull and cross-bones of the marauding pirates. It is a flag that can only lead the Tamils to further deaths and destruction under another fascist leadership. And yet the Tamil Diaspora continues to hero worship Velupillai Prabhakaran, the designer of the hideous flag. Tamil Diaspora seems to be possessed by the fascist DNA of their Tamil forefathers who despised their own people and kicked them around as if they were pariah dogs. In a sense, it is fitting that Tamil Diaspora should fly this flag because it not only exhibits their vile past but guarantees that the future will be no different.
The confrontations, aggression and violence came only from the racist Jaffna Tamils, who exploited the issue to drag Jaffna deeper into mono-ethnic extremism. They succeeded in disguising their economic and class interests and promoting it as an act of discrimination against the Tamil-speaking Sri Lankans. The Tamil language issue was driven aggressively only by the racist Jaffna Tamils and not by the Tamil-speaking plantation workers, Tamil speaking Muslims or the non-Vellala Tamils of the eastern province.
The aggression and violence of the racist Jaffna Tamils proved the Karl Marx’s theory that the ruling class will not give up power without a struggle. And true to the barbaric character of the Jaffna Tamils they declared war on the rest of Sri Lanka by passing the Vadukoddai Resolution in 1976 – the period when Tamil supremacy was in its last legs.
Racist Vellalar of Jaffna were the founders of the fascist culture in Jaffna. Despite the civilized veneer presented to the outside world, Jaffna Tamils ran a fascistic regime reducing the depressed Tamils to slaves. Jaffna Vellalar’s cruel caste system has no other parallel in any other part of Sri Lanka. Jaffna Vellalar virtually had a free run of the Jaffna peninsula because the colonial rulers turned a blind eye to the subhuman Jaffna Vellalar culture of violence. Thesavalamai legitimized slavery and the Jaffna Vellala slave-owners ruled the peninsula with an iron fist, with the Portuguese, Dutch and English colonial administrators often refusing to interfere in the laws and customs of the ruling caste and class.
Thesa (land) walamai (laws and customs) legitimized the land-owning Jaffna Vellalar as the slave-masters of Jaffna peninsula. From feudal and colonial times until May 18, 2009 when the Tamil cult of violence sank in Mullivaykal, Jaffna peninsula was under the jackboot of, first, Vellala fascism followed, second, by their equally brutal fascists – Velupillai Prabhakaran led LTTE. Both Vellalar and Velupillai Prabhakaran led LTTE oppressed and subjugated Tamils and denied their victims the fundamental right to live with even a modicum of dignity and self-respect. The LTTE took over from where the Vellalar left and perpetuated the cult of fascist violence which reduced the Jaffna Tamils to subhumans.
There are elements of fascism in every society — the class system in the UK, although ameliorated by a welfare state, still bears a strong resemblance to the brutal Victorian class structure which condemned millions to poverty, misery and death 150 years ago: the underclass in the USA today live in conditions akin to outcastes in Asian societies: in Africa, south and central America, China and Russia, there are millions of victims of proto-fascist social structures –everywhere human beings are divided, either by class or race or religion, and this enables one powerful group to abuse less powerful groups and to justify this abuse on the grounds that members of other groups are less human and deserving. If you want to find an example of modern social fascism, look no further than the gun lobby in the US… but there are so many examples.. the treatment of homosexuals in certain African states, the mistreatment of Shia by Sunnis in Bahrain, the systematic murder of tribal peoples in central America… the list is endless and endlessly enduring.
Jaffna in the 1970’s condoned old women from certain castes to go around in public without a jacket. I was amazed and ashamed for my fellow humans when I first saw such a woman on a bus in Jaffna ….just as I realised that certain castes were not permitted by custom to take a seat in the bus but had to sit on the floor. The first time I cycled through the deserted area at the top of the peninsula where a village of the outcastes was situated and realised that they would never appear inside any constituency boundary and that the children had no school to go to nor bus route to take them out of their ignorance, I did not know whether to laugh in triumph that I had discovered them (I was assured by many Jaffnese that outcastes were a thing of the past) or grit my teeth against the overwhelming feeling of shame that they really did exist.
The Sinhalese are fond of gloating about their less brutal caste system but look at the youth insurrections they have fostered in the past 40 years and the means they have used to put them down…severed heads placed so carefully around the lotus pond in Peradeniya University; young mens’ bodies squashed under road- rollers – treatment justified on the grounds of serving as an ‘example’ to frighten others. Is this the result of 2500 years of buddhist civilisation? The British are pompously proud of the Elizabethan Age which produced Skakespeare but that same age saw the decimation of the Catholic population of Britain and justified the later, virtual extermination of the Catholic population of Ireland.
The bitterness that arises in the victims of social and political fascism is understandable but violence as the response to such violations can never be the answer — something Gandhi profoundly understood and practised. He saw how the cycle of violence can only be ended by passive resistance. Note how the Israeli state treats its Palestinians neighbours –in the same brutalising fashion as the Jews were treated by the Nazis. It is similar to the way an abused child grows up to abuse its own child in turn. Is there any educated child on this planet who has not heard of Gandhi and his ideas – yet how many people know the name of his assassin or his motivation?
Peaceful resistance, the insistence on reform over time, is a slow painful process but it is the only sure way of arriving at a more socially evolved plane. It requires that everyone loses in the present but that society as a whole gains in the future. Patience to play the long game is the key. Immediate gratification is the enemy.. that burst of delight at having inflicted revenge is inevitably followed by further misery as the act of revenge is avenged. The deep Christian and Hindu faith of the leaders of the Jaffna Youth Congress (their Gandhian ideals) sustained them through their years in the political wilderness and the knowledge of an unremarked passing: Handy Perinpanayagam was serene in his old age despite his life appearing to be a failure. He knew he had acted correctly (in the buddhist sense of “right action”) and that time would bear this out.
Today the whole of mankind faces this dilemma in regard to saving the planet’s present eco-system – a system which has been so hospitable to the evolution of our species – from man-made destruction: either we start curbing our myopic greed and ruthlessness or this Earthy homeland will reject homo sapiens as a healthy body rejects a virus. It is apt that the Gaia thesis is named after a Hindu Goddess…Gandhi would have nodded in approval. A man who lived on lentils, rice and fruit, regularly fasted one day a week and also practised non-speaking every Wednesday is the best antidote role-model for today’s consumerist and media-obsessed excesses. “Homo Sapiens” means the “Wise Man” — but how few in our species achieve that human wisdom? Gandhi did and his followers in Jaffna in the JYC in the 30’s and 40’s also achieved that: they lived out the remainder of their lives in obscure semi-poverty, teaching, reflecting, being wise.
I wrote a poem in a small pamphlet called “Ganga” published in Colombo in 1978: it was aimed at the boasting men of violence everywhere –the Warriors of Terror whom in the guise of Freedom Fighters were inflicting further violence on already violated communities:
To Aloysius-Ludovico (The Terrorist)
I am tired of hearing you sing
the anthems of Freedom and War…
How joyously you crack the whip
and bellow out the tune above the drums!
But the faces of my friends haunt me
in the mornings when I see Death’s Armada
With its pirate’s flag of torture trailing….
what does it matter, your Freedom?
They are dying, my friends and their children…
Nalliah Thayabharan, thank you for reminding me of this poem written in despair in Colombo 30+ years ago. A whole generation has grown up since then but the same (better) poem is probably being written today in Syria by some unknown idealist ….. as the song goes “When will we ever learn?”
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- Nalliah Thayabharan January 3, 2013 at 11:12 pm Edit
For several centuries, “Brahmins” – the “priestly caste” – were religious and spiritual figures, educators, thinkers and philosophers in Indian society. Among Brahmins gotras are reckoned patrilineally and each gotra takes the name of a famous Rishi (or sage) who was the patrilineal fore bearer of that clan.The Brahmins belonging to the same gotra are related to each other patrilineally, and there may be very little else in common between them. According to the Vedic system, a man and a woman belonging to the same gotra are considered to be a brother and sister, so a wedding between a man and a woman belonging to the same gotra (known as sa-gotra) is forbidden as it will cause anomalies in the progeny that come out of such a wedding.. A married woman takes up the gotra of her husband. Ambalavaasi people (living in (by) ambalam or temple – temple inmates) and Vishwakarma (acharis) caste people also now claim that they are Brahmins.
The Bhagwad Gita states that caste is a birthright! A Brahmin is one who is educated and knowledgeable of the scriptures and leads a holy life and is not a birthright!. I understand an immigrant’s need to connect to his or her roots. But in western countries Brahmins have their sons go through the sacred thread ceremony and that child grows up to be a meat eater, drinker with no knowledge of the scriptures. What is wrong is that in the age of ‘Kali Yuga’ anyone is claiming Brahmin as a birthright even when they eat meat, indulge in alcohol and live arrogant materialistic lives. My Bengali Brahmin friends made never made any qualms about relishing various fish and chicken delicacies. Most of the Brahmins in North America to celebrate their teenage boys’ sacred thread ceremony which is a coming-of-age ceremony held only for brainwashed impressionable Brahmin boys into thinking within the narrow walls of their caste. Sacred thread ceremony is a ritual for initiating a boy in to the spiritual life and as per Vedas, all Hindus (except the Shuthras) have the right for sacred thread ceremony. For most of the Brahmins in North America caste is an important part of their identity as if it is the 24th pair of chromosomes and wear their Brahmin identity on their lapel. Indians keep on making pathetic efforts to tell the world that they belong to the “Brahmin” – upper caste. There is nothing to be proud about one’s so called upper caste. One contributes nothing to be born in a particular caste. It is a chance occurrence. No human being is born superior. In fact, there is nothing to be proud of a system, which is blatantly discriminatory. The caste system is a very backward culture. Indians not only embrace but also tout their upper caste while living in USA which has fought two civil wars against discrimination. It is a disgrace!
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