1915: A time of riots

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Part IX
In our last eight segments, we tried to bring to you a brief history of Sri Lanka’s recent politics.

Joining us today in conversation to know more about the recent history of Sri Lanka and how it has led us to the mess we are facing today is an expert on this subject, Kaushalya Abeywickrama, who is a journalist, author, and researcher on Political Communication. Below is the conversation we had with her.

Riots, protests, and hartals have become a frequently discussed topic in present-day Sri Lanka. Politicians of Sri Lanka, filled with corruption, selfish motives, and short-sightedness, make the best use of the current situation in Sri Lanka and put their visions and hidden agendas forward, in order to gain power over people. Sri Lanka’s party politics has added nothing but fuel to the country’s burning situation.

Some of these riots seem to be conspiracies twisted and controlled by rulers to stay in power rather than pure public uprisings or authentic public uprisings. When looking back on Sri Lanka’s recent riots and conflicts the 1915 Sinhala-Muslim conflict, the language policy protests, ‘72 LTTE, ‘79 JVP, and 88/89 JVP have done grave damage. Also, especially the 1915 riot, the language policy protests, and the ‘72 LTTE can be seen as planned conspiracies of our own rulers to make them stay in power.

The 1915 riots clearly demonstrate the British’s wretched policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ and it also echoes recent incidents that seem to be deliberate attempts to create a rift between the Sinhala and Muslim communities.

Also, this horrible incident makes us understand the importance of cultural tolerance. The whole 1915 incident began with the mosque demanding the perahera to be silent when passing it. You may be the judge of this demand, but you must remember that the Esala Perahera has been parading for almost 700 years on that route, which was a traditional belief of the locals.

1915 Sinhala – Muslim Riots

The history of this riot goes back to 1912. It happened when Muslims were against the Gampola Wallahagoda Ancient Devala Perahera taking place.

Gampola Vallahagoda Ancient Devala was built by King Parakramabahu of Gampola in the 14th century and the Esala Perahera of this devala is an age-old tradition of the Sinhalese. However, after the British took over the country, they imposed a law that a permit has to be taken to hold the perahera. Till 1912 the permit was offered without any fuss.

The perahera takes place on the Ambagamuwa where there is a Muslim mosque and they demanded the Government to stop all the music played in the perahera while passing the mosque. In 1912, the Basnayake Nilame Alikewala requested the perehara permit. The British agent Saxton informed Alikewala that the permit will only be given if the perahera will stop all music 50 yards before and after the mosque. This was not accepted by the Basnayake Nilame and the Kandy Temple of the Tooth Diyawadana Nilame P.B. Nugawela also had sent letters to Saxton explaining the flaws in his demand, just to be ignored.

The Basnayake Nilame filed a case at the Kandy District Court as this unfair demand was an act of dishonouring a centuries-old religious ritual that did no harm to any living being. The case was examined by Dr. Paul E. Peries and his decision bought justice to the Sinhalese.

The Attorney General appealed and took the case to the Supreme Court and there the decision of the District Court was changed. Then the Buddhists appealed the case to the Royal court of England. However, before the case was even examined, in 1915 the riots began.

On Vesak Day of 1915 (28 May) two Buddhist carol groups at the Kandy Castle Street were attacked by a group of Muslims when they were passing a mosque. Soon, rumours spread that the Muslims were about the attack the Kandy temple of the Tooth and that they have already attacked a Buddhist pageant. Then a large number of villagers gathered in Kandy and stayed around the Dalada Malingawa to protect it.

It is reported that an armed group of Muslims was caught and sent back to Colombo that night who were traveling to Kandy on the night train.

On the night of 30 May, Sinhalese and Muslims attacked each other in Kandy. It is reported that the entire country was in chaos.

Meanwhile, another incident happened in the Railway Factory in Colombo. An employee who had gone to a nearby shop to have tea had an argument over the price of tea with a Muslim worker. The argument became heated and they had a fight. It is reported that this happened close to the Maradana Police Station and that action was not taken to control the situation.

By the night, the situation got worsened. There had been no trains for the labourers to go back home and agitated labourers attacked and destroyed Muslim shops in the area.

By the next morning, more and more terrible rumours (false) were spread such as they were planning to destroy the Kandy Temple of the Tooth and Kotahena St. Lucia Church with dynamite and that the Muslims had killed a large number of Sinhalese men, raped Sinhalese women, and robbed property in Colombo and now they are heading toward the villagers.

Governor Sir Robert Chalmers who was in Nuwara Eliya enjoying a vacation, ignoring the situation, returned to Kandy on 2 June.

He was of the impression that this was an anti-government movement and therefore he imposed martial law. He also thought that Germans were disguised as Buddhist monks and were spying on the British Government and were creating all this chaos.

Martial law prevailed for three months and a large number of Sinhalese were executed after hearings at the court-martial. A larger number was executed without any hearing. And a large number of Sinhala Buddhist leaders who were involved in social services and religious services were arrested for no reason, including D.S. Senanayake and some were executed, such as Henry Pedris.

The behaviour of Chalmers and the Police is highly condemned by later critics. It is also reported that although Chalmers came to know about this on 2 June, on 1 June F.R. Senanayake had gone to the Maradana Police Station to report the situation and ask to control the situation. Following him a number of attorney generals too have gone to the Police to report the situation. Similarly, in Kandy, Sinhala, Tamil, Burger, and Muslims had gone to meet the Kandy Agent requesting to examine and control the situation. However, he did nothing but let the situation get worsen.

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan at the council did a long speech about the innocence of the Sinhalese and the indifference of the British Government.  A public meeting was held at Colombo Public Hall on 23 September 1915 to protest the decision of the Government. The Government had attempted to divide the Buddhists and the Christians saying that the Christians had nothing to do with this incident and had tried to stop them from taking part in this event. However, Sir James Peiris took the lead and united the two communities.

A group of Sinhalese leaders and Ramanadan flew to England to hand over a report requesting to conduct an investigation about the unjust caused on the Sinhalese. Although the majority of the members of the British Parliament supported it, the Government did not allow the request. Instead, the Governor was expelled and a new Governor was appointed.

The new governor, John Anderson did his best to bring justice to the Sinhalese prisoners and punished many British officers who misused the law.

How strange is it that history repeats?

As long as the people of this country don’t change, will the rulers change?

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy