Ilankai Tamil Sangam
Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA
On Tamil Militarism ; a 11 part essay by D.P.Sivaram written in 1992
Part 2: Tamil Military Castes
by D. P. Sivaram
[courtesy: Lanka Guardian, May 15, 1992, pp.17-19; prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha, for the electronic record]
Thus, towards the latter part of the 19th century, there were large, disgruntled groups with a military past in the Bengal, Bombay and Madras Presidencies. They felt that the vast field of opportunities opened by the expanding Indian army was being unfairly denied to them. This grievance was further exacerbated by views of the British military leadership which relegated them to a non-martial status as races that were not fit to bear arms; in whom fighting qualities had declined.
The reaction of these groups was marked by a compulsion to emphasise the martial credentials of their cultures. Opposition to British rule which emerged among classes affected by the shift in recruitment toward the ‘martial races’ of North western India took shape into an ideology that asserted a national spirit which exalted military virtues and ideals as the cure for the ills of Indian society under the British yoke. Bal Gangadhar Tilak who emerged as a spokesman for the disfranchised military groups became the ideologue of this nationalist Indian militarism. Stephen Cohen has attempted to define Indian militarism in terms of Indian attitudes towards the British-Indian military structure and recruitment.
"There are two fundamentally different sets of Indian attitudes towards the British-Indian military structure, both of which may legitimately be labelled Indian militarism: modern militarism and traditional militarism…emerged in Bengal and western India and spread to other regions. Modern militarism stressed the value of the military as a national universal solvent; as an expression of the national will and demanded equalitarian recruitment. ‘Traditional militarism’ resulted from regional traditions and the recruiting practices of the British. It was confined to those castes and classes which exercised the use of arms as matter of birth right and was unevenly distributed throughout India…"(14)
At the turn of the [20th] century there were two groups in the Tamil region which had a decidedly militarist and anti-British outlook. (a) the adherents of modern Indian militarism – the terrorists – and their sympathizers. (b) the disfranchised traditional military castes. The dispersion of modern Indian militarism’s basic tenet – that the revival of India’s ‘heroic age’ and its war-like traditions and valus was necessary for national emancipation – invested the heroic past and martial cultures of the disfranchized traditional Tamil military castes with a nationalist significance and cogence. Modern Tamil militarism – the political idea that military virtues and ideals ‘rooted in Tamil martial traditions’ is essential for national resurgence and emancipation – was enunciated at this specific conjuncture in the school of Tamil renaissance established by Pandithurai Thevar – a noble belonging to the sethupathy clan of the dominant traditional Tamil military caste – the Maravar.
Tamil militarism then, is the effect of inter-related modern and traditional components; the former as nationalist renaissance ideology, the latter as caste culture. Traditional Tamil militarism in the Tamil region as elsewhere in India was confined to a group of castes which considered "the use of arms as matter of birth and right". The Maravar were, according to the Madras Presidency census report for 1891 "a fierce and turbulent race famous for their military prowess" and were "chiefly found in Madura and Tinnevely where they occupy the tracts bordering in the coast from Cape Comorin to the northern limits of the Ramnad Zemindari."(15) The Dutch found them to be the traditional soldier caste of Jaffna and availed themselves of their caste services as such (16) – one of the earliest instances of a colonial power making use of a specific military caste in South Asia.
Cohen notes two categories of traditional Indian military castes with different grievances at the turn of the 19th century. (a) "members of classes which were no longer recruited or recruited in small numbers", (b) "those classes which constituted the army but sought even greater status as commissioned officers."(17)
The Maravar and their grievances, however belong to a third category. They were a people whom the British attempted to totally demilitarize by depriving them of their traditional status in Tamil society through social, economic and penal measures. This was in direct contrast to the social and economic privileging of such castes and classes in the north, during the same period. They were not only disfranchised but were turned into and classified as a delinquent mass – the subject of a disciplinary and penal discourse – relegated to the fringes of the new social pact which was being established in the Tamil South of the Madras Presidency. The obliteration of their traditions and memory was considered essential to complete the process of demilitarization and pacification of the Tamil region. The martial races theory of recruitment and the subsequent martialization of the north futher erased their martial legacy and that of the Tamil South from the military ethnography of the subcontinent.
David Washbrook argues that "the subvention and protection of the north Indian dominant caste communities, and the martialization of their culture, were but two of the many ways in which south Asia paid the price of liberal Britain’s prosperity and progress."(18) On the otherhand the strategy of emasculating and destroying the hegemony of Tamil military caste communities and the demartialization of Tamil culture were two important ways in which the Tamil South paid the price of India’s development as a nation.
The legacy of these strategies in the north and south of the subcontinent, embodied in the structure of the modern Indian army, is central to the emergence of modern Tamil militarism. The gains of this demartialization were consolidated by favouring and encouraging non-military castes in Tamil society which "contrasted favourably with the Maravar".(19)
The more important of these were the Vellalas, Nadars and Adi Dravidas. The culture and values of the "peace loving" (Madras census, 1871) Vellalas who had "no other calling than the cultivation of the soil" eminently suited the aims of demartialization and suppression of the traditional military castes. In this the British were following local precedents which had been based on the principle that the best way to ensure control and security was to "have none there but cultivators" (21). Thus, under active British patronage the Vellala caste established its dominance, and its culture became representative and hegemonic in Tamil society. The Nadars and Adi Dravidas were considered amenable to conversion. A large section of them had become Anglicans. The recruitment base of the Indian army in the Madras Presidency was constituted strongly in favour of these groups. The Dravidian ideology emerged as the cultural and academic basis for their pro-British politics, led by the newly arisen Vellala elite.
The nascent Dravidian movement was clearly underpinned by the concerns of British administrators and Anglican missionaries (22) in consolidating the social, economic and religious gains of demartialization. This is why the early Dravidian school of Tamil studies and historiography had a strong political compulsion to reject, ignore or play down the dominant role of the traditional military castes in Tamil history and culture, and to assert that Tamil civilization was Vellala civilization. (Maraimalai Atikal, was the chief proponent of this view.)
Thus in the early decades of the twentieth century we find two contending narratives (23) of Tamil national identity – the ideology and caste culture of the anti-British and "turbulent" military castes and the ideology and caste culture of the pro-British and "peace loving" Vellala elite – claiming authentic readings of the Tamilian past and present. The one claiming that the "pure Tamils" were Vellalas. The other claiming that all Tamils are Maravar and that the Tamil nation was distinguished by its ancient martial heritage. How then did Tamil militarism which originally was related to a political and social milieu that was opposed to the Dravidian movement become its dominant feature in the [nineteen] fifties and sixties to the levelof strongly impacting on the Tamil nationalist movement in Sri Lanka’s north and east?
It was related politically to changes that took place in the Dravidian movement and the changes that took place in Maravar – Indian National Congres relations after the 30’s. In the Dravidian movement the change was connected mainly with, (a) the rejection of the pro-British elitist leadership of the Justice Party in 1944. (b) the radical change in the attitude towards British rule and imperialism in 1947048 which gave rise to sharp differences within the movement.
Relations between the Indian National Congress and the Maravar began to deteriorate when the moderate Brahmin leadership of the Madras Presidency Congress preferred not to oppose the harsh measures of the British against the Tamil military castes. The contradiction became sharp when Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar the powerful and influential Marava leader, joined the Indian National Army under Subash Chandra Bose and began organizing the Forward Bloc against the Congress in the Tamil region.(24) The antagonism climaxed in a violent caste conflict in 1957. The Congress government arrested Muthuramalinga Thevar in connection with the riot. The DMK which had very little influence in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu at that time made a strategic intervention at this juncture in Maravar affairs. M.Karunanidhi, the only DMK candidate to be elected in the southern parts at that time, was chiefly responsible for co-opting the Maravar into the DMK; and for making the culture of the Tamil military castes a dominant and essential component of Tamilian national identity.
For many years, until he became chief minister, Karunanidhi wrote under the pen-name Maravan. His weekly letter to party cadres was known as Maravan Madal (25) – the Maravan’s epistle. Tamil militarism thus became integral to the Dravidian movement. The secessionist militancy of the DMK in the [nineteen] fifties and early [nineteen] sixties wad dominated by the vocabulary of Tamil militarism. This was the nadir of the Dravidian movement’s impact on Sri Lankan Tamils. DMK branches were organized in many parts of the north, east and the hill country. It was during this period that ayoung student named Kathamuthu Sivanandan from Amirthakazhi, a small village near the Batticaloa town who was studying in Tamil Nadu took part in the militant agitations of the DMK. Karunanidhi described him as "the appropriate weapon for Tamil upheaval."(26). The student who was later known as Kasi Anandan wrote for a fortnightly called Dhee Mu Ka (DMK) (27) when he came back to Sri Lanka. In it appeared his poem, ‘The Maravar clan’- Maravar kulam (28):
"The Tamil army is a Maravar Army…
the enraged Tamils are a Tiger Army (Pulippadai)…"
These lines of the poem are now part of the history and myths of the Tamil Tigers’ genesis.
(14) Stephen P.Cohen: op.cit, p.58.
(15) Edgard Thurstan, K.Rangachari: Castes and Tribes of South India, vol.V, 1909, Govt.Press, Madras, pp.22-23.
(16) The Maravar’s connections with Jaffna will be examined elsewhere in this study, especially in view of a recent attempt by a Jaffna historian to show that the early colonists of Jaffna were Maravar and that the rulers of Jaffna belonged to the Sethupathy clan of that caste. He has claimed that Vadamaradchi was in former days Vada Maravar Adchi [the domain of north Maravar]; ‘Yazh Kudi-etram’, K.Muthu Kumaraswamippillai, 1982, Chunnakam, Jaffna.
(17) S.P. Cohen: op.cit, p.59.
(18) David Washbrook: op.cit, p.481.
(19) A phrase used by the British to describe castes which were found suitable for the new order.
(20) Edgard Thurston: op.cit, pp.369-370, VII.
(21) The Portuguese had applie this principle to establish their control in Jaffna. Tikiri Abeyasinghe: Jaffna under the Portuguese, 1986, Colombo, p.24.
(22) The father of the Dravidian ideology, Robert Caldwell was Bishop of Tinnevely, the seat of Marava power.
(23) For the idea of ‘contending narratives’ in the formation of national identity in another Indian context, the Ayodhya crisis, see Barbara Stoller Miller: Presidential Address, Journal of Asian Studies, vol.50, no.4, Nov.1991.
(24) The Forward Bloc was found by Subash [Chandra Bose]. I am grateful to Subash Chandra Bose Thevar, the chief subeditor of the ‘Virakesari’, a Maravar himself, for drawing my attention to this phase of Maravar history and for the valuable comments and material on the subject, when I began this study in 1990.
(25) This was also the name a main DMK party paper, in the 60s.
(26) ‘Uyir Thamizhukku’, Kasi Anandan, Fatima Press, Batticaloa; Preface, p.2, 3rd edition, [publication] year not given.
(27) Two other papers called ‘DMK’ were published in Sri Lanka during this period.
(28) DMK (fortnightly), 10.7 [i.e., July].1962, Colombo, editor and publisher Vasantha Appathurai.
Note: I am greatly indebted to Prof.K.Sivathamby for his valuable comments on Tamil history and culture and for drawing my attention two years ago to the role of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu in Tamil renaissance.
Posted May 4, 2005