Sri Lanka: The Untold Story, Chapter 3

Muslim riots and communal rumblings 

This history series by K T Rajasingham is no longer available on the Asia Times website, so the links provided at are no longer active.  As time permits, we will be re-posting this series, along with that by T. Sabaratnam, which has some chapters missing.  Sachi Sri Kantha’s biographical series is available at — Editor]

by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asia Times, Singapore

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

After 1910 a number of Sinhala leaders gradually emerged who were to leave an indelible mark on the political life of the country. Similarly, Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism took hold, in the beginning led by reformers in the name of religion.

One of them was Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933). His original name was Don David, a clerk by profession. He was the son of Mallika Hewavitarne and Don Carolis. His father was a furniture dealer from Pettah, Colombo, who became an apostle of protestant Buddhism.

Anagarikas are lay preachers who wore yellow robes, take a vow of celibacy and withdraw from most of the commitments of lay life. Dharmapala was a dynamic orator and attracted a large following among the middle class and in villages. He began a tireless campaign to safeguard Buddhism and Sinhala nationalism.

Dharmapala preached that Sinhalese – the Lion Race – are a superior people descended from pure Aryan stock. “No nation in the world has had a more brilliant history than ourselves. There exists no race on Earth today that has had more triumphant records than the Sinhalese,” he wrote, even though his claims were based solely on myths and legends. His exhortations brought about a fanatical Sinhala-Buddhist national consciousness. The new wave of Buddhist awakening began to turn against non-Buddhists in general, and against non-Singhalese in particular.

This Buddhist revival in fact illustrated the birth of a new breed of chauvinistic Sinhala nationalism rather than a religion. It was argued that it was the way to make people feel about their language, customs and of their history.

Religious-ethnic preaching, however, gradually emerged as a communal hatred campaign against minorities. Sinhalese leaders decided to celebrate the centenary of the March 2, 1815, Kandyan Convention, which had already been dubbed as a “Charter of servitude” and was a very political instrument. It had brought the Kandyan kingdom, the last free territory in Ceylon, under the rule of the British.

After the Kandyan Rebellion of 1817-18 to overthrow British rule, the British, by a proclamation dated November 21, 1818, greatly reduced the privileges granted to Sinhalese chiefs and changed the guarantees on religion given in the Kandyan Convention. Consequently, it was absurd that the Sinhalese wanted to celebrate a clause in a convention that was no longer in force.

Also, the government agent of Kandy had informed the trustees of the Gampola Buddhist temple that in taking their annual perahera (procession) in Kandy they would not be allowed beat drums or play any musical instruments within 100 yards of a new mosque in Castle Hill Street.

The trustees turned to the courts, arguing that a peraheraof the old Kandyan kingdom was permitted in terms of the Kandyan Convention of 1815. The District Court of Kandy decided in their favor, but on an appeal by the government the Supreme Court reversed the judgment. The trustees then appealed to the Privy Council in England.

In the meantime, Buddhist preachers went about the country urging Buddhists to demonstrate against Muslims. Incidentally, the anniversary of the birth of The Lord Buddha fell on May 28, 1915, and a procession began that night. The celebrations were marred by an incident near the mosque, where some 25 men were arrested on charges of housebreaking and rioting.

Sinhalese attacks on Muslims continued, spreading from the central province to the western and northwestern provinces until June 6, 1915. Muslims sustained heavy losses. According to available records, losses sustained included 86 damaged mosques, more than 4,075 looted boutiques and shops, 35 Muslims killed, 198 injured and four women raped. Seventeen Christian churches were burnt down.

This was going on while Britain was at war with Germany. Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, the Under Secretary of State for Colonies, told the House of Commons that, “It is quite possible that German intrigues were at the bottom of the rising in Ceylon.”

Sir Robert Chalmers (1913-16), the British Governor, and his Colonial Secretary, Edward Stubbs, interpreted the unrest as a rebellion against the British and martial law was declared, bringing the riots to an end.

The colonial government arrested many prominent men on charges of treason and their houses were searched. Those arrested included D C Senanayake, his brothers, F R Senanayake, D S Senanayake (later the first prime minister of Ceylon), D B Jayatilaka, W A de Silva, F R Dias Bandaranaike, E T de Silva, Dr Casius Ferreira, C Batuvantudawe, D P A Wijewardene, John de Silva, W H W Perera, Martinus Perera, John M Senivaratne, H Amarasurya, D E Weerasuriya, Reverent G D Lanerolle, E A P Wijeyeratne, Harry Mel, A H E Molamure, D B Jayatilaka, A E Goonesinha, Battaramulla Unanse – a monk, Edmund and Dr C A Hewavitharatne, the brothers of Anagarika Dharmapala, who was also interned in Calcutta, where he had been during the unrest. After the arrests, riot compensation was exacted under threat of force.

Edmund Hewavitharatne died in prison while several Sinhalese were summarily executed inside Welikade prison. Punjabi soldiers were brought from India, and many innocent Sinhalese were shot on sight.

At the time of the outbreak of the riots, Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan, the Educated Ceylonese Member of the Legislative Council, was recovering his health at Sivan Adi, his holiday home in Kodaikanal, South India. Sinhalese friends and leaders sent numerous telegrams updating him of the situation, urging him to return immediately to Colombo.

This he did, and immediately appealed to the governor for an interview, which was initially denied. Later, he was given an appointment, where he gave his views on the causes of the riots to the governor, as well as to Stubbs, the Colonial Secretary. Sir P Ramanathan subsequently delivered a series of six memorable and impassioned speeches in the Legislative Council denouncing the ill-considered and the high-handed measures taken by the government to suppress the riots and the tyrannical and oppressive conduct of the officers.

Sir P Ramanathan met the Sinhalese leaders in prison and obtained sworn affidavits from them. Subsequently, he laid the whole blame for the outbreak and the subsequent spread of the riots squarely at the doors of the government for mishandling the entire tragic episode.

Anagarika Dharmapala wrote to Sir P Ramanathan, on October 21, 1915: “Please accept my sincerest congratulations for the historic speech you made at the Ceylon Legislative Council. The day you are taken away from Ceylon, from that day, there will be none to defend the poor, neglected Sinhalese. They are a doomed people, with none to guide and protect them. Unhappy Sinhalese. It is time to commence agitation in Ceylon to have Ceylon brought under the Government of India. Without the protecting shadow of India, Ceylon would decline. Ceylon should be brought under the India Office and made part of Madras or Bengal. You will, I hope, do all you can to save the poor Buddhists for you are trying to save the people from injustice.”

As the situation worsened, Sir P Ramanathan decided to take his case to England, against the advice of his wife, who was concerned for his health. He sailed for England on the M M Paul Lecat on October 30, 1915, braving German mine-infested seas and submarines.

When he reached England, he published an article, “Riots and Martial Laws of Ceylon, 1915”, for the benefit of the British public. He had number of personal interviews with Bonar Law, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, other ministers of state as well as with leading Members of Parliament.

He pleaded for the repeal of martial law by describing the atrocities committed on his Sinhala brethren by the Punjabis, the local police by led the Inspector General of Police, Sir Herbert Dowbiggin, and British troops. Much popular indignation and resentment were aroused and questions were asked in parliament

Soon after Sir P Ramanathan’s representations, Governor Chalmers was recalled, martial law was repealed and Sir John Anderson (1916-18) was sent to Ceylon as the new governor. The Sinhalese leaders and people honored Sir P Ramanathan, for he had served them with selfless gallantry and single-minded devotion in their hour of dire need.

Sir P Ramanathan returned to Ceylon after his successful mission from England on February 17, 1916, on the P&O Malawa. Sinhalese leaders organized a grand welcome and a reception committee of Sinhalese leaders was formed at Colombo harbor. Accordingly, A E Goonesinghe, A W P Jayetilake, R E W Perera, P N Jayanetti and Lionel Kotelawala (later Sir John Kotelawala, the third prime minister of Ceylon) were on hand with garlands to greet Sir P Ramanathan. Sinhalese leaders carried him all the way on their shoulders to his residence, Sukhastan, at Colpetty, a fitting gesture accorded to a hero.

Muslims, however, took the Singhalese attacks hard, and since then, they have remained a subdued ethnic group, subservient to the majority communities. Indeed, they have, from then, preferred to change their political colors according to the demands of the current political situation.

Anagarika Dharmapala wrote months after the riot, “What the German is to the Britisher, the Mohammedan is to Sinhalese. He is an alien to the Sinhalese by religion, race and language … to the Sinhalese without Buddhism, death is preferable. The British officials may shoot, hang, quarter, imprison or do anything to the Sinhalese, but there will always be bad blood between the Moors and the Sinhalese. The peaceful Sinhalese have at last shown that they can no longer bear the insults of the alien. The whole nation in one day has risen against the Moor people.” (As quoted on page 541 in Return to Righteousness by Ananda Guruge.

Nevertheless, over the years there are no records of open conflict on a large scale between Muslims and Sinhalese-Buddhists. When trouble did flare, inevitably the Muslims were on the receiving end and were subdued.

The Tamil language is the mother tongue of almost all Muslims in the country. Unfortunately, strong forces within the Muslims have rejected any possibility of an ethno-cultural unity with Tamils. Muslim leaders have rather relied on their religion for unity, thereby ruling out a collective identity with Tamils through their spoken language.

In 1917, elections for the Ceylonese Educated Member in the Legislative Council were held, and Sir P Ramanathan stood again. He faced a semblance of opposition from Justus Sextus, the younger brother of Hector Jayewardene, but Sir P Ramanthan romped home, improving on his 1911 margin.

In the meantime, Sir Ponnampalam Arunachalam’s (1853-1924), emergence on the political landscape needs to be mentioned. Unlike his elder brothers, Mudaliyar P Coomaraswamy and Sir P Ramanathan, Ponnampalam Arunachalam had his higher education at Cambridge University. He was the first Ceylonese to gain admission to the civil service by open competition.

In 1906, he was nominated to the Legislative Council as one of the Official members. In 1912, when holding the office of registrar-general, he was appointed as a member of the Executive Council. Though an official, he had remarkable courage and independence. He retired from public service in 1913, and in the same year was knighted, receiving the award from King George V at the Buckingham palace.

From 1908, P Arunachalam was the vice president of the Royal Asiatic Society and in 1916 he became its president, the first Ceylonese to achieve this distinction. He was the pioneer of the labor organization in the country and through his Social Service League he continued to highlight the inequities of the Master and Servants Ordinance of 1865. Under this, plantation workers, who were Tamils of Indian origin, could be charged in a court of law for breach of contract and returned to their former employees, if they left their original estate.

In 1916, he spoke against the conditions of the indentured Tamil laborers of the Indian origin, holed in the estates describing them as “poor, ignorant, helpless, the Indian Tamil workers who are unable to protect themselves against the cupidity and tyranny of unscrupulous recruiters and employers”.

The Ceylon Workers Welfare League was organized by Sir P Arunachalam, of which Periannan Sundaram, a Cambridge University graduate and a Tamil of the Indian origin, became the secretary. In later years, Periannan, alias Peri Sundaram, played a leading role in promoting the welfare of the plantation workers, who had been brought to Ceylon by the British, as indentured laborers to work in the coffee, tea and rubber plantations owned by them

Sir P Arunachalam launched an island-wide crusade for national freedom, making it the burning issue of the day. His relentless political campaign led to a quick succession of constitutional reforms. The Montagu Declaration of 1917, which had proposed the progressive development towards self-government in India, kindled the imagination of leaders in Ceylon. In 1917, Sir P Arunachalam founded the Ceylon Reform League with the object of securing self-government.

In April, 1917, Sir P Arunachalam, in an address on “Our Political Needs”, set out what he considered to be Ceylon’s ultimate objectives in forthright terms, “The inherent evils of a Crown Colony administration remain. We are deprived of all power and responsibility, our powers and capacities are dwarfed and stunted, we live in an atmosphere of inferiority, and we can never rise to the full height to which our manhood is capable of rising.

“The Legislative Council, as it is at present constituted, hardly answers a useful purpose. It provides, no doubt, seats of honor to a few Unofficials and an area for their eloquence or for their silence. But they are little more than advisory members and their presence in the council serves to conceal the autocracy under which we live. The swaddling clothes of a Crown Colony administration are strangling us. They have begun even to disturb the equanimity of our European fellow subjects. None are safe until all are safe.”

He concluded by demanding “We ask to be in our own country as self-respecting people – self-governing, strong, respected at home and abroad, and we ask for the grant at once of a definite measure of progressive advance towards that goal. Ceylon is no pauper begging for alms. She is claiming her heritage.”

The appeal created a deep impression among the educated Ceylonese and led to the formation of the Ceylon Reform League, with Sir P Arunachalam as the president.

Again, in September 1919, Sir P Arunachalam delivered an address on the “Present Political Situation”. It was a clarion call for constitutional reform and self-government. All his spadework culminated in the inauguration on December 11, 1919, of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC). He was unanimously elected as its first president.

Sir P Arunachalam managed to bring the Ceylon Reform League, the Ceylon National Association and the Jaffna Association into this single national organization – the Ceylon National Congress. This was done during a time when national consciousness was at low levels with little sprit to stir it, and when Buddhist-Sinhala communal aspirations were on the rise.

Sir P Arunachalam was the first leader to have made the freedom movement of the country a truly national one, and he wanted to etch this concept deep into the national psyche. Unfortunately, as events unfolded in the years to come, it was a short-lived expectation.

Chapter 4: The Ceylon National Congress and its intrigues

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