Roots of Ceylonese Nationalism


Was pre-independence Ceylonese nationalism elitist and Western- oriented or was it rooted in the native soil? According to Dr. Michael Roberts of the University of Adelaide, the answer is that it was a mix of both with particular elements gaining salience over others in the long march to freedom.

Roberts’ account is contained in Chapter III in Volume I of the documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon 1929-1950, Department of National Archives 1977.

Roberts says Ceylonese nationalism first manifested itself among the small, relatively wealthy, English educated elite. Its interests were “a blend of self-interest and patriotic hostility to foreign rule.” The elite were a product of the unification of Ceylon by the British in 1833 and the spread of a system of English-based education. The idea of the British was to create a class of collaborators who would do their bidding without claiming equality. Indeed, such a class was created. But soon enough, exposure to Western thought planted an awareness of inequality and injustice which led to dissidence albeit only in a section of the elite. 

In the 19th century, the Ceylonese masses had occasions to clash with the British. The Crown Lands Encroachment Ordinance (No. 12) of 1840 and the Waste Lands Ordinance (No. I) of 1897 were seen as land-grabbing for sale to White planters. Then, there was aggressive proselytisation by Christian missionaries. The anti-proselytisation movement became vigorous in the late 1860’s, with the “Panadura Controversy” of 1873 being the highpoint. The arrival of Col. Olcott, Madame Blavatsky, and other Theosophists in the 1880s, paved the way for a movement to modernise Buddhist thought so the missionaries could be better countered. Buddhist schools in Western style were set up.  There was a movement for social reform such as the Temperance Movement. 

Western Framework

In the 20th century, the elite nationalists’ demands were couched in Western frameworks. They sought rights as per the Western notion. The Irish Home Rule movement had moved labour leader A. E. Goonesinha. To gather support for themselves in World War I, the Allies had promised self-rule to many of their colonies. Ceylonese leaders also demanded self-rule.

But the British did not view self-rule as an automatic right of the natives. It had to be earned by showing that they could run and maintain liberal democratic institutions. The nationalists accepted the idea that they must satisfy the authorities regarding their fitness for responsible Government. Participation in Government was the norm.

In the early 1930s, communism and socialism arrived from Europe. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party went in for Fabian socialism. Then there were leftist fellow-travelers, in the Ceylon National Congress (CNC), whose presence was seen in the drafts of the CNC’s ‘Policy and Programme’ in 1939.

British snobbery, their self-righteous arrogance, the social exclusion of even qualified natives and racial slurs irritated many of the elite. John Kotelawala and Dannister Perera Abeyewardena thrashed individual Europeans who were deemed to have acted arrogantly. When the Lankopakara Press was started in the 1862, its prospectus expressed opposition to the many publications which insulted the Buddha. In 1910, Piyadasa Sirisena said the ‘Sinhala Jatiya’ was started to get rid of “unfounded fears and a sense of inferiority” among the Sinhalese.

Others like Anagarika Dharmapala and John de Silva, were digging up the past for evidence of civilisational glory to claim higher status for the Sinhala-Buddhists. Linguistic, historical and religious studies on Ceylon by scholar-officials like George Turnour, Hugh Nevill, T.W. Rhys-Davids, Thomas Steele and H. C. P. Bell and the works of James Alwis, John Pereira, Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama Thera, gave the Ceylonese a justifiable pride in their past.

Plea for Political Freedom

In 1910, E.T. de Silva went further and demanded not just equality and respect but political freedom. In 1933, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike said the Ceylonese should work for the political emancipation of the country. “Economically, socially, culturally, and in various other ways, they are treated as inferiors. They would be so treated as long as they are under foreign rule,” he said.

Indian Influence

Ceylonese nationalism was also influenced by the Indian freedom movement. From the 1890s some Ceylonese activists attended political conferences in India such as Walter Pereira (1897), M. A. Arulanandan and Dr. Nallamma Murugesan (1918), A. E. Goonesinha (1925 and 1927) and Bernard Aluvihare (1930’s). A delegation of the LSSP attended the Faizpur Sessions of the Indian National Congress in 1936 and official delegations of the Ceylon National Congress attended the Congress party’s annual sessions in 1940 (Ramgarh) and 1943 (Bombay). Much acclaimed visits were made to Ceylon by Swami Vivekananda (1897), B. G. Tilak (1919), Mrs. Sarojini Naidu (October 1922), Mahatma Gandhi (November 1927), and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Gandhi was to the young men of Ceylon what Mao-Tse-Tung was, Roberts says. There is a picture of a young S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike before a Gandhian spinning wheel. Expressions like “soul force,” “passive resistance” and “non-violence,” had entered the political lexicon. Swadeshi began to be emphasized. J. R. Jayewardene called for the rejection of all British titles and even wrote about “An Indo-Lanka Federation.”

In 1920 the establishment of a territorially-elected Chamber of Representatives, provided nationalism with a new momentum, but political leaders also began to appeal to regional sentiments. When Ceylon was granted universal adult suffrage, mass mobilization became the order of the day with all its implications. 

Sinhalese nationalism as opposed to Ceylonese nationalism came to the fore in the 20th. Century. The historical traditions of the Mahavamsa and other such chronicles were framed in terms of a Lanka that was the home of the Sinhala, and destined to preserve the Buddhist doctrine in all its pristine purity and glory, Roberts points out. Sinhalese epic heroes were the kings and princes who defeated or slew the Tamils.

“The patriotic inspiration derived from the past, therefore, carried sectionalist undertones which molded nationalist thinking in problematic forms,” Roberts says indicating the pathway to the present.

By P.K. Balachandran