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Caste, Class and Prabhakaran’s struggle
Freedom fighter or megalomaniac?
Born on the 26th November 1954, in the smugglers capital town of Velvettithurai, Prabhakaran is the youngest of four children. Nothing is known of his three brothers. He was an average student and could study only up to the fifth standard. Was it due to poverty or a poor IQ we do not know. It is known however, that his family belonged to lower middle class, in a town of rich businessmen engaged in lucrative smuggling.
Copyright The Island
Feb 25, 2001

Caste, Class and Prabhakaran’s struggle

Vellupillai Prabhakaran has been called many names. They include, megalomaniac, freedom fighter, ruthless terrorist, barbaric murderer and a humane person. Volumes have been written on the LTTE, but strangely not on Prabhakaran. Mao Tse-Tung, the world’s authority on guerrilla warfare quoted Sun Wu Tzu, the great military scientist of ancient China who wrote "know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat." A biographical study of the enigmatic Prabhakaran may therefore be useful since the motivating forces driving Prabhakaran could be discerned.

Born on the 26th November 1954, in the smugglers capital town of Velvettithurai, Prabhakaran is the youngest of four children. Nothing is known of his three brothers. He was an average student and could study only up to the fifth standard. Was it due to poverty or a poor IQ we do not know. It is known however, that his family belonged to lower middle class, in a town of rich businessmen engaged in lucrative smuggling.

He has claimed in one of his rare interviews, that his heroes are Napolean, Alexandar, Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh. It is significant that Mahathma Gandhi and Nehru whose pictures hang in practically every Tamil home in Jaffna, are not Prabhakaran’s role models. So are the Sunderalinghams, Chelvanayakams, Ponnambalams and Naganathans, who fought to preserve the privileges enjoyed by their class and caste, under the colonial rule. Prabhakaran’s hatred of that class and caste is due to his conviction that those high caste affluent leaders exploited the people of Jaffna, (particularly low caste poor people) for them to lead a pukka sahib life style in Colombo. This is not very different from Marxists among the Sinhalese who exploited the workers, for them to lead the bourgeois life style.

As a teenager, Prabhakaran grew up in the highly stratified Jaffna society, with three major handicaps, his caste, class and very poor education. Prabhakaran belongs to Karaiyar or deep sea fisherman’s caste. This caste is way below the dominant Brahman and Vellala caste. This is shown in table one.

As discussed later, due to evolving caste system from the late sixties, even a low caste person could rise with affluence and high academic achievement. Prabhakaran was conscious that these two gates were not open to him. As a low caste, poor youth with very little education, Prabhakaran faced the full impact of the social hostility.

The importance of caste in Prabhakaran’s struggle was best highlighted recently, by no less than a Sinhalese wife of a terrorist leaders Sharmilee Fernando, wife of Jayantha Gnakone, the self exiled LTTE leader and shadow minister of shipping, said the following in a recent interview. "In the Tamil community there is a caste system, they go beyond what you cannot even imagine, they don’t want to talk to the fisherman’s son etc. "Sharmilee’s husband Gnakone like all the other terrorist leaders, belong to the fisherman’s caste. Hence, Sharmilee said " that is why he felt he had an obligation to do something for them, there is a power struggle within the Tamils because PLOTE is headed by the high caste Tamils." In response to the question ‘so it is a caste struggle? ‘Sharmilee replied, "Yes, so if you look at the whole picture the Tamil’s enemy is not the Sinhalese. The enemy is themselves because these are the people supporting the EPRLF and TULF and all the Tamil people sitting in Colombo. "LTTE’s main enemy is them’ before the Sinhalese." These observations cannot be dismissed as frivolous talk of an angry woman. She has the advantage of being an insider as the wife of an LTTE leader, and as a Sinhalese to take a detached view of the motivating forces of LTTE terrorists. To the outside world Prabhakaran is a racist terrorist or a freedom fighter for the Tamils rights against the Sinhalese. But when Prabhakaran attacks and assassinates leading Tamil leaders with equal ferocity as the attacks of Sinhalese leaders, the bewildered political and defence analysts, call him an enigmatic leader.

Sharmilee’s ‘credibility is reasonably established by her comments on her husband’s business activities and frustrations, before he left Sri Lanka in 1983. I am personally aware of his involvement in shipping activities, particularly helping a large number of Tamil youth from Velvettithurai, to secure jobs’ on foreign ships. As an insider, intimately connected to a LTTE leader, she must be privy to discussions on the LTTE activities and their goals. She has correctly identified the highly rigid caste system, particularly the oppression of the low caste by the Vellala, as a principal force which propelled her husband to join Prabhakaran’s struggle. LTTE struggle is much a caste/class struggle, against the socio, politico, economic domination of the Vellala as a rebellion against the Sinhalese governments.

As shown in table 2, the Vellala caste constitute fifty percent and Prabhakaran’s Karaiyar caste only ten percent of the Jaffna population. Prabhakaran’s perception of being oppressed both by the Vellala and the Sinhalese majority is understandable. Yet the prudent Prabhakaran could not disclose to the world that he was fighting against both the high caste Tamils and the Sinhalese, knowing very well that it would unite the high caste Tamils and the Sinhalese, besides denying him international sympathy and support.

Two authors, Peter Robb in his book ‘Caste Today’ (1996) and Bryan Pfaffenberger in his book, ‘Caste in Tamil Culture’ explain with considerable authority, the evolving caste system in ‘Jaffna and in South India. Their observations assist one to gain an insight into Prabhakaran’s motivating phobias and his goal. ‘This goal is clearly not to preserve and protect the caste/class stratified ’Tamil’ culture but to create a classless and casteless society of the type Marxist dreamt of in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. The alleged oppression of the Tamils by the Sinhalese is mostly a defensive garb, to conceal the inner conflicts caused by the caste system among the Tamils.

Brian Pfaffenberger makes the following observation on the intensity of caste ‘conflicts’ "Clearly Vellala domination is most pointedly threatened by the aspirations of the Atimal untouchables, not to destroy the social system that oppresses them, but rather to realise their ambition to become Vellala with whom Pallars claim ancient kinship. Becoming a Vellala involves assuming Vellala customs and gaining control over land. It is precisely for this reason that entire villages may be burnt down and people killed over trivial incident as a Pallar cutting his hair or wearing a shoe. For Vellala much is at stake." (Page 92)

While the high caste Brahmins and Vellalas have sought to maintain their socio, politico and economic dominance, Prabhakaran and his followers are clearly pursuing two escape routes to gain freedom from oppression.

First, Pfaffenberger observes that while the Vellalas claim their great purity as distinct from impure fisherman’s caste etc. they lead a fairly impure lifestyle. For example they do not eat beef, but eat other kinds of meat, drink alcohol (but treat the low caste toddy tappers as impure) supervise-blood sacrifices, remarry widows and throw themselves lustily into the tainting offers of day to day life.

"When measured against the ranking paradigm of Dharma Sutra, the status of Vellalas appear to be both irreligious and artificially inflated" observes Pfaffenberger. He then concludes, that "the temporal powers elevate the rank of the impure and that the dominant Vellalas caste claim to be pure, is little more than artificial and invented to clothe it’s naked power in the fabric of traditional authority."

As an unemployed teenager, lacking the traditional ambition of Jaffna youth to achieve high academic qualifications, Prabhakaran had the opportunities to witness and feel the pain of injustices caused by the Jaffna society. Vellala jealously guard their right to claim respect, honour and services of a wide variety of subordinate castes such as Potters, Barbers and Carpenters. Although the Vellalas held such domineering belief’s, according to Pfaffenberger they do not fancy themselves to be warriors unlike the Kallars and Maravars of south India who maintain a martial tradition. Early Tamil texts (such as Tolkappiyan’s grammar) as well as a Madras census report in early twentieth century described Vellalas as, a peace loving, frugal and industrious people — a description Pfaffenberger-feels applies to Vellalas in Jaffna today. (page 12)

Prabhakaran would have also learned that whereas there has been anti high caste movements in South India, the high castes of Jaffna have not experienced such opposition.

Pfaffenberger observes that the unifying force of Tamil culture, moderated the schism or caste conflicts and reinforced Tamil nationalism. Tamil caste ranking ideology however cannot be isolated from Tamil nationalism, which celebrates that which is purely Tamil.

Prabhakaran has earned the title enigmatic figure largely due to the failure by political analysts to comprehend this mysterious puzzle. As BBC in their web site on Eelam states, Prabhakaran to his followers is a freedom fighter struggling for Tamil emancipation from Sinhala oppression. Tamil nationalism in Prabhakaran is obviously the overriding motivating force when he attacks the Sinhalese and assassinates even an Indian leader like Rajiv Gandhi. His assassination of leaders of other militant Tamil groups such as EPRLF, PLOTE and TULF including democratically elected members of parliament and two mayors of Jaffna, cannot be explained by Tamil nationalism. Nor is it correct to explain such crimes as the work of a megalomaniac who does not tolerate rivals. As Sharmilee explains, caste rivalry is the root cause.

The evolving caste system in Jaffna itself appears to have shown the second escape route to Prabhakaran, namely temporal power elevates the rank of the impure and naked force can make itself felt in the middle rungs of the caste hierarchy.

A British Assistant Government Agent had made the following observations in his report in the late nineteenth century:

Great changes are going on in Jaffna native society, which are bitterly resented by the conservative part of the population. The (so called) ‘low castes’ are becoming more rich, and having acquired property, most of them naturally decline to follow old customs, by which they are prohibited from wearing jewels, riding in carriages, using tom-tome for marriages, and other social functions... the Vellalas know that the next step the progress... will be that of wearing jewellery and assuming Vellala customs (cited in Asumainayagam 1976b:21).

Naturally Prabhakaran and his fellow Karaiyars view the Vellala imposed restrictions as symbols of subjection, which are as oppressive if not more oppressive, than the alleged discrimination against the Tamils by the Sinhalese.

Although the spirit of caste is still operating in Jaffna, socio economic differentiation has occurred in recent times even within caste, largely due to western influences and access to new fields of economic activity. Economic opportunities are accessible due to peoples circumstances or class instead of caste. Thus opportunities exist for people like Gnakone to gain recognition as a big man in Jaffna Tamil society despite his low caste. Peter Robb observes that "while the idea of domination still works as a caste based model for identification, in reality its operation at the local level of the town is no longer absolutely pre-eminent".

Caste system is closely linked to religious rituals - which could offend a sensitive youth exposed to western concepts of equality. Thus Vellalas are the patrons of temples providing funds for construction and maintenance and during religious rituals the priests serve the Vellalas first and rest thereafter. The very low caste, are not allowed even to enter the temple. As is well known even Professor Sunderlingham sued a low caste Tamil for desecrating a Hindu temple by entering it.

The moral and physical support Prabhakaran receives from south India can be explained not only by the common aspirations to create an independent Tamil state, but also by the common culture. The religious ritual organisation reveals that Jaffna is culturally very south Indian. Pffenberger observes that Vellala of Jaffna migrated from south India during the heyday of great south Indian kings between the tenth and fourteenth centuries to create a classic zone of Sudra domination.

The theory that caste oppression by the Vellala is a key element in Prabhakaran’s struggle is further reinforced by the caste composition of south Indian Tamil political parties supporting LTTE. Pattaligal Makkal Katchi (PMK) which won five seats at the last elections and which supports LTTE is a caste based party representing the Vanniyars — the single largest caste grouping in Tamil Nadu. The other strong caste blocs are Dalits or Harijans and Mukkulathor. They are treated as low caste. Unlike in Sri Lanka the Vellala of south India are not politically strong as they are fragmented in all political parties.

The other caste based Tamil Nadu party supporting LTTE is Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazghagham (MDMK). This party with four seats in the Lok Saba is a member of the BJP government.

It is interesting that PMK which has two ministers in the BJP government feels that Indian nationalism is about Brahmin autocracy and Hindu imperialism " therefore we should throw them out, Tamil nationalism in the only answer" says PMK leader. A secret paper circulated among the hard core group of PMK trainees said "India should be declared as a Federation of Independent Sovereign Republic of National Races. The right to secede through self determination from such a Federation should be given legally to such national races"

It is most significant if that the Hindu clergy (who belong to the Brahmin caste) has not extended their support to the LTTE, nor has Prabhakaran sought their support or blessings even the most efficient LTTE propaganda has not shown any pictures of Prabhakaran entering a Hindu temple in order to win support of the devot Tamils. Prabhakaran’s Marxist ideology, which considers religion as the opium of the people may also explain this strange conduct.

On the other hand several senior members of the Christian clergy are actively supporting and working for the LTTE both locally and internationally. The anomaly of Hindu clergy not supporting LTTE which seeks to establish a state for Tamils, while some Christian clergy is actively supporting the LTTE, can only be explained by the caste factor.

Whereas the Hindu clergy is at the apex of the caste structure and are the virtual guardians of the caste system, Christianity does not recognise the caste system and Jesus, preached that all human being are equal before God.

Just as Prabhakaran’s war against the caste system has won the support of the low caste including low caste based political perties of south India, his Maxist ideology has won the support of well known leftists of several western countries. Among them are Ms C.Parker of USA Ms Deidre Mc Connel of UK and Prof. John Neilson of Germany.

Clearly, what Prabhakaran is dreaming of is a casteless and classless state of Eelam. As Prabhakaran has realized, the low caste people of Jaffna could overcome the oppression by the Vellalas by seizing control of the land - a symbol of Vellala superiority - destroying the socio-politico economic domination of the Vellalas (whose leaders living in Colombo have been exploiting the Jaffna waters as pawns to gain political power) and establishing a Marxist state, human rights freedom of expression an independent judiciary, individual ownership of property will have no place in the Eelam of Prabhakaran’s dreams.

Admittedly full justice cannot be done to support the theory advanced in this short essay. It is hoped however that political analysts, particularly LTTE sympathizers will sit back and take a second look dispassionately at the so called ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Is the ethnic garb used to cover caste/class conflicts among the Tamil community? Perhaps Sharmilee’s observations are more accurate and revealing than all the volumes written on the LTTE.


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