On Tamil Militarism - a 11 Part Essay
Part 2: Tamil Military Castes
Lanka Guardian, [pp.17-19]
[prepared by Sachi Sri Kantha,
for electronic record]
15 May 1992
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
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 disenfranchised 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 further erased their martial
legacy and that of the Tamil South from the military ethnography of
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 other hand 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 Congress 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
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
“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.
Foot Notes -
(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,
(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
(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.