Part 8: The Twin Narratives of Tamil Nationalism
by D.P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, September 1, 1992, pp.10-12; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]
At the turn of the Twentieth century Tamil nationalism was articulated in terms of two different interpretations of Tamilian identity, propagated by two distinct movements which were politically opposed to each other. The one was the Dravidian school; the other was the Indian revolutionary movement. The former was closely associated with English missionaries and unequivocally supported British rule; the latter strongly opposed the Raj and preached violence as the chief means of national emancipation from foreign domination.
The discourse that may be identified today as Tamil nationalism is constituted at its basis by these two interpretations – or more appropriately ‘founding’ narratives – which contended with each other to offer authentic readings of the Tamilian past and present, of what ‘really’ constituted Tamilian identity. The Dravidian school gave political and academic form to linguistic ethno-nationalism; the revolutionary movement turned traditional Tamil militarism into a liberation ideology, which evolved into militarist ethno-nationalism. The militarist reading has also characterised Tamil ethno-nationalism in the twentieth century not merely because it was "constructed and deployed to advance the interests and claims of the collectivity, banded and mobilized as a pressure group" but also because, as this study intends to show, it appealed to, and arose out of the structures of experience produced and reproduced through folk culture and religion in rural Tamilnadu.
This is how, as we shall see later, MGR became Madurai Veeran, the warrior god of a numerous scheduled caste in Periyar district in Tamilnadu. Jeyalalitha contested from an electorate there in the last election [i.e., 1991 general election]. However, it is essential to understand the politics behind the claims and silences of the early Dravidian school of Tamil revivalism and ‘historiography’ for examining the rise of modern Tamil militarism.
Caldwell and his followers who wrote and spoke about Tamil culture and history endeavoured to show that Tamils were essentially a peaceful people who had achieved a high level of civilization independent of and prior to the arrival of the ‘Aryans’ in the Indian subcontinent. This was the unique Dravidian civilization. The theory of Dravidian linguistic and hence cultural independence also contained in it the idea that the Tamils were originally a class of peaceful farmers. The politics of Caldwell’s teleology compelled him [to] introduce this idea into his writings. (It was seen earlier that it arose from the attitude he shared with the English rulers towards the Maravar.) The views of Bishop Caldwell were found to be extremely useful by the newly arisen Vellala elite which was contending for higher status in the Varna hierarchy of caste. Therefore the ‘histories’ which were written by the Dravidian school of Tamil studies at the turn of the [20th] century were underpinned by,
(a) The political and religious concerns of Caldwell and other missionaries like Henry Martyn Scudder and G.U.Pope(b) The caste politics of Vellala upward mobility.
The interests of both were intertwined. Their express political interest was to show that Tamil culture in essence was pre-Aryan-Brahmin and non-martial. The first non-Brahmin Tamils to take up the Dravidian theory to examine theTamil past belonged to the Vellala elite and were supported and encouraged by Protestant missionaries (and sometimes by English administrators). The writings of Professor Sunderam Pillai of the Trivandrum University on Tamil history and culture inspired many of his castemen who had been seething at being classified as Sudras by the Brahmins, and worse, by the British caste census and courts of law as well.
|Prof. Sunderam Pillai|
Thus, the historical works of the early Dravidian school were produced as "social charters directed toward the census, where the decennial designation of caste status became a major focus for contests over rank between 1870 and 1930. The first Dravidian history of the Tamils, ‘The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago’, was written by V.Kanakasabhai Pillai, a Vellala from Jaffna who was a civil servant in Madras. Edgar Thurston thought it appropriate to quote the following excerpt from that work, in the section dealing with the Vellala caste in his ‘Castes and Tribes of South India’.
"Among the pure Tamils, the class most honoured was the Arivar or Sages. Next in rank to the Arivar were Ulavar or farmers. The Arivar were ascetics, but of men living in society the farmers occupied the highest position. They formed the nobility, or the landed aristocracy, of the country. They were also called Vellalar, the lords of the flood or karalar, lords of the clouds…The Chera, Chola and Pandyan kings and most of the petty chiefs of Tamilakam, belonged to the tribe of Vellalas." (Thurston, 1906: p.367-368)
The efforts of the early Dravidian school of Tamil ‘historiography’ culminated in the work of Maraimalai Atikal – the founder of the Pure Tamil movement which became a powerful force in the anti-Hindi struggles from 1928 onwards. He published a book called, ‘Vellalar Nakareekam’ – The Civilisation of the Vellalas – in 1923. The book was a lecture he had given at the Jaffna town hall on January 1, 1922 on the ‘Civilization of the Tamils’ A contribution of Rs.200 was made in Jaffna towards the publication of the lecture, as a book. The Jaffna Vellala of that time saw his interests as being bound with that of his castemen in South India, who were attempting to rid themselves of the Sudra status assigned to them in the Varna hierarchy of caste by Brahmins.
However, Maraimalai Atikal had decided to publish it as a book in order to refute a claim in the caste journal of the Nattukottai Chetti community, that the Chetties did not marry among the Vellalas because they (the Vellalas) were Sudras. In the English preface to the work, Maraimalai Atikal says that his book
"is written in scrupulously pure Tamil style, setting forth at the same time views of a revolutionary character in the sphere of social religious and historical ideas of the Tamil people…In the first place attention is directed to Vellalas, the civilized agricultural class of the Tamils, and to their origin, and organization…it is shown that at a time when all the people except those who lived all along the equatorial regions were leading the life of hunters or nomads, these Vellalas attained perfection in the art of agriculture…and by means of navigation occupied the whole of India. When the Aryan hordes came from the north-west of Punjab and poured forth into the interior, it was the ten Vellala kings then ruling in the north that stopped their advance."
Maraimalai Atikal goes on to claim that the eighteen Tamil castes were created by the Vellalas for their service; that they (the Vellalas) were vegetarians fo the highest moral codes;that Saivism and the Saiva Siddhantha philosophy nurtured by the Vellalas for more than 3,500 years were the pre-Aryan religious heritage of the Tamils; that the classification of Vellalas as Sudras was the result of an insidious Aryan-Brahmin conspiracy. Maraimalai Atikal was also defending fellow Vellala Dravidian scholars and their claims against attacks and veiled criticisms of Brahmin Tamil academics, M.Srinivasa Aiyangar, a respected Brahmin Tamil scholar who had worked as an assistant to the superintendent of census for the Madras Presidency.
Mr.Stuart, had made a devastating attacking on the claims of the Dravidian school of Tamil historiography, which derived its authority from the ‘scientific’ philological works of Bishop Caldwell. He debunked the theory of the Caldwell-Vellala school that Tamil culture was constituted by the high moral virtues of an ancient race of peaceful cultivators, on the basis of what he had studied of the religion and culture of the Tamil country-side, as an officer of the census, and on the basis of ‘pure’ Tamil works that had been rediscovered towards the latter part of the 19th century.
Srinivasa Aiyangar noted in his ‘Tamil Studies’, "Within the last fifteen years a new school of Tamil scholars has come into being, consisting mainly of admirers and castemen of the late lamented professorand antiquary, Mr.Sunderam Pillai of Trivandrum." Aiyangar argued that contrary to the claims of the new school, the Tamils were a fierce race of martial predators. He wrote,
"Again some of the Tamil districts abound with peculiar tomb stones called ‘Virakkals’ (hero stones). They were usually set upon graves of warriors that were slain in battle…The names of the deceased soldiers and their exploits are found inscribed on the stones which were decorated with garlands of peacock feathers or some kind of red flowers. Usually small canopies were put up over them. We give below a specimen of such an epitaph. A careful study of the Purapporul Venba Malai will doubtless convince the reader that the ancient Tamils were, like the Assyrians and the Babylonians, a ferocious race of hunters and soldiers armed with bows and lances making war for the mere pleasure of slaying, ravaging and pillaging. Like them the Tamils believed in evil spirits, astrology, omens and sorcery. They cared little for death. The following quotations from the above work will bear testimony to the characteristics of that virile race.
(1) Garlanded with the entrails of the enemies they danced with lances held in their hands topside down.
(2) They set fire to the fertile villages of their enemies, and
(3) plundered their country and demolished their houses.
(4) The devil’s cook distributed the food boiled with the flesh of the slain, on the hearth of the crowned heads of fallen kings. With these compare same passages from the Assyrian stories of campaigns: ‘I had some of them flapped in my presence and had the walls hung with their skins. I arranged their heads like crown…All his villages I destroyed, desolated, burnt; I made the country desert.’ And yet the early Dravidian are considered by Dr.Caldwell as the farmers of the best moral codes, and by the new school of non-Aryan Tamil scholars…"
Aiyangar even claims, "We have said that the Vellalas were pure Dravidians and that they were a military and dominant tribe. If so one could naturally ask, ‘How could the ancestors of peaceful cultivators be a war-like race?" He argues that the etymology of the root Vel is connected to war and weapons, that it was not uncommon for cultivating castes to have been martial tribes in former days as in the case of the Nayar, the Pillai, the Bants, etc. He also cites an official census of the Tamil population in the Madras Presidency, which shows that Tamil castes with a claim to traditional marital status constituted twenty six percent of the total number of Tamils in the Presidency. (Srinivasa Aiyangar; 1915, pp.40-58)
Aiyangar’s attack on the Dravidian theory of Caldwell and the Vellala propagandists had political undertones. Learned Brahmins of the day were acutely aware of the political interests that lay behind the claims of the early Dravidian school. Vellala Tamil revivalism and its idea of Dravidian uniqueness were closely related to the pro-British and collaborationist poltical organization that was formed in 1916, by the non-Brahmin elites of the Madras Presidency – the South Indian Liberal Federation. Its proponents were, therefore careful not to emphasise the narratives of the martial reputation of the Tamils that were embodied in the ancient ‘high’ Tamil texts or in the folk culture of rural Tamilnadu. (Tamil revivalism had been promoted by Protestant missionaries and British officials in the latter half of the 19th century, only in as much as it was seen to facilitate the social, economic and religious aims of demilitarizing Tamil society and diminishing the influence of Brahmins in it.)
This was done not only out of a desire to promote Vellala caste culture, as Tamil national culture, but also in conscious deference to the concerns of the Raj about the ‘seditious’ views of Tamil cultural revival that were being propagated by the ‘terrorists’ and their sympathisers which were aimed at stirring the "ancient martial passions" of the Tamils in general and the military castes in particular, by appealing to martial values inscribed in the caste traditions of the Maravar and linking them to a glorious past that had been sustained by, what according to them, was the unique and powerful Tamil martial tradition. The political life of Purananooru, the foundation text of Tamil militarism had been initiated by two Brahmins who were sympathisers of the Indian revolutionary movement at this juncture. (The one was the great Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi; the other was the great Tamil scholar M.Raghava Aiyangar, the court pundit of the Marava kings of Ramnad.)
These concerns, had compelled the Raj to take lines of action aimed at the terrorists and the military castes. One, it carefully sifted through the Tamil revivalist propaganda of the suspected sympathisers of the terrorist movement, to charge them with sedition. Two, it introduced the Criminal Tribes Act of 1911, with the express objective of throughly obtaining knowledge of, supervising and disciplining the Kallar and Maravar who were classified as dacoits and thugs under this act. The political mobilization of the Tamil military castes began as reaction against this act. The political leadership of this mobilization was inspired by the militarism of the terrorists. Modern Tamil militarism as a political force emerged from this conjuncture.
As we shall see later, Karunanidhi, Thondaman, Kasi Anandan and Prabhakaran are all, in varying degrees, products of the notions of Tamilian identity which arose from this conjuncture. Students of Tamil ethno-nationalism’s current phase will find that the martial narratives of Tamilian past and present are at work in two extremes of the Tamil political spectrum. Last month, an audio cassette was released in Jaffna by the LTTE and a commemoration volume was released in Singapore in Thondaman’s honour. Both are politically conscious efforts to root two personalities and their nationalist projects, to what has been portrayed as the most powerful manifestation of the Tamil martial tradition – the Chola Empire.
The LTTE cassette evokes a glorious past associated with Prabhakaran’s only nom de guerre, Karikalan – the founder of the Chola Empire. The commemoration volume, on the other hand seeks to emphasise the ‘continuity’ of a martial caste tradition between the leader of the CWC and the great general of the Chola Empire, Karunakara Thondaman. Thus the examination of Tamil militarism in this study is an exploration of the answer to the question – why does Tamil ethno-nationalism express itself thus and how does it sustain power to appeal to pan-Tamilian sentiments?
Letter of Correspondent R.B.Diulweva [Dehiwela] and Sivaram’s response:
[Lanka Guardian, September 1, 1992, p.24]
I read with wry amusement, and increasing bewilderment, Sivaram’s curious assemblage of ‘facts’ about Tamil ‘military’ castes. The recluse in the Vanni, and his acolytes in the diaspora, should be grateful to the L[anka] G[uardian] for providing a platform for this skewed rewriting of history.
Some random reflections on Sivaram’s thesis. Does he seriously believe that the buccaneering Portuguese had the time to indulge in sociological analysis of Tamil militarism (a la CIA) and strategically decide to erase/Vellalise the ‘military’ castes? This also applies to the Dutch and the Brits. Sivaram’s overall picture is of a truly fantastic war sodden people imbibing blood thirstiness with their mothers’ milk. Weren’t the vast mass of Tamils peaceable farmers, fishermen, craftmen? Or was their sole function to service these magnificent bravos? And whom did these ‘military’ castes fight during the eras of peace when Tamil civilization, in its truest sense, flourished?
Another fact for Sivaram. One of his ‘military’ castes the Maravar has made a contribution to the Sinhala language. To this day, a ‘marava-raya’ is synonymous with ‘thug’. This is, probably, all that these ‘warriors’ were!.
I suggest that Mr.Diulweva go on reading before he finally decides whether it is skewed history or not. He should also study Prof.K.Kailasapathy’s Tamil Heroic Poetry, which describes an earlier phase of the culture that I have tried to analyse. He might find the overall picture there even more gruesome.
I understand Mr.Diulweva’s concerns given the current situation of the country, and hence his wish to think that the vast mass of Tamils were peaceable farmers. His wish and concern have had precedents in the British era. As for the sociological analysis of the buccaneering Portuguese, it was based on Prof.Tikiri Abeyasinghe’s ‘Jaffna under the Portuguese’ (discussed there in detail). I deal with the Maravar in as much as they were a political fact in the rise of Tamil nationalism. A write up in the Sunday Times of 23.8[Aug].92 by its Madras correspondent refers to the political influence of one Mr.Natarajan who he says "belongs to the powerful Thevar (the caste title of the Maravar) community in southern Tamilnadu." Mr.Diulweva will find, if he takes a closer look at the politics of Tamilnadu, still an important political fact.