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Chief Justice Burnside (1882) Rejected Vellala Show of Force And Terror And Confirmed One Law

Once upon a colonial time, when the Vellalas dominated the casteist fiefdom of Jaffna, a husband of a low-caste Tamil decided to bury his wife  accompanied by the ritual of beating the tom-tom. But beating the tom-tom was an exclusive privilege accorded only to the Vellalas, the highest caste. The ritual of beating the tom-tom by low-castes was taboo. It was considered to be an intrusion into the domain preserved exclusively for the Vellalas. Angered by the violation of this ritual a Vellala mob waylaid the low-caste mourners and assaulted them. The triumph  of the Vellalas was in humiliating and putting the low-castes in their place. Any challenge to the supremacy of the Vellalas was resisted fiercely and ruthlessly from the Dutch period. However, in attacking the low-caste mourners the Vellalas had crossed line. The Police of the British Raj decided to act. They charged the Vellala Supremacists with unlawful assembly. The law found them guilty but the Vellalas appealed.

One of the eminent leaders of the Vellalas, Sir Ponnamblam Ramanathan, a disciple of Arumuka Navalar, the demi-god of the Vellalas, appeared on behalf of the Vellalas. He contended in appeal that the accused (the Vellalas) had the right to act in the way they did, in view of Section 8 of Regulation no. 18 of 1806. It was not brought to the notice of the Court that this Regulation had been repealed by Regulation 20 of 1844 (the year in which the British abolished slavery). In Queen vs. Ambalavanar, His Lordship Burnside, CJ.,. assuming that Regulation of 1806 was still in force, said: In  the present, it … But suppose it is conceded that this the law, and that the Supreme Court should be moved for a writ of injunction to prevent a woman from being carried to the grave to the sound of tom-tom, does it follow that a body of men may assemble themselves together, and by show of force and to the terror of the other subjects of the Queen enforce their own edict to that effect against the party who favoured the tom-tom. I apprehend not. I say it with diffidence in the face of the learned Counsel’s contention. I trust that none of the ancient rights of the Malabar inhabitants of Jaffna Patnam will be jeopardised. Notwithstanding the contention and the venerable authority on which it is based, I make, bold to hold that the Malabar inhabitants of the Province of Jaffna Patnam, whoever they may be, must one and all be subject to the universal proposition of law applicable to the whole colony, that the people cannot take the law into their own hands, and seek to administer it after the fashion of Judge Lynch.” (p. 19, Tesawalamai, T. Sri Ramanathan, Lecturer in Law, The Nadaraja Press, 1965).

In this brief paragraph Chief Justice Bruce Lockhart Burnside (1882) summarised succinctly how the Vellalas perverted the socio-political culture of the peninsula with its ideology of casteist supremacy. It was not meant to be a sociological study of the Vellala culture of Jaffna. He was merely analysing clinically the reality prevailing in Jaffna. In the process he paints a grim picture of the human condition under the grip of the Vellalas. In dealing with this incident he goes to the nub of Vellala politics and questions the validity of its ancient rights” and its venerable authority”.  He sees this incident as an attempt by the Vellala Supremacists to take the law into their hands. The violence unleashed on the mourners is nothing but a clear show of force and terror” to impose their will on other subjects.

H. L. D. Mahindapala

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