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 secon...