This week, quite unnoticed, amid the current political drama unfolding and the uncertainty playing out in recent times, was the centenary of the 1915 riots which was a watershed event in the history of the Independence movement of this nation. On May 28, 1915 – one hundred years ago, this country was in flames. It had [...]


The flame of freedom, 100 years on


This week, quite unnoticed, amid the current political drama unfolding and the uncertainty playing out in recent times, was the centenary of the 1915 riots which was a watershed event in the history of the Independence movement of this nation. On May 28, 1915 – one hundred years ago, this country was in flames. It had all the ingredients of a disaster; a cocktail of aroused communal passions, intrigue and mismanagement at the highest levels of the then Colonial Government and also heroism. The fallout was in the streets throughout the island, first in Kandy, then in several districts and eventually in Colombo.

Frontline nationalists were arrested in droves, and many of their leaders incarcerated — some even dying in prison. The whole sorry incident became the springboard for the freedom struggle. The British Government panicked, declared Martial Law and sent Punjabi soldiers to quell the riots.

The aftermath was significant. Tamil patriots spoke out in the defence of Sinhalese patriots in public, Burgher lawyers appeared for them before a Court Martial headed by a junior British military officer, Christian lawyers drafted petitions to the British Colonial Office and took letters hidden in their shoes across mine-infested seas to British Members of Parliament in London. All this during World War I raging at the time. These are great stories of heroism of yore.
That was the esprit de corps — the unity and fraternity that existed among senior leaders of an era before this country’s Independence. The determination to march to a single drum — that of freedom for the people.

The events of 1915 saw the Colonial Government in London remorseful over what had happened. It had made its own inquiries and realised it had blundered. Governor Richard Chalmers was recalled, although no punishment was meted out to him. A Pali scholar, his administrative skills were in question. A formal apology was communicated to some members of the families of the patriots who were incarcerated.

Young men like D.S. Senanayake, who were part of that historic struggle, later went on to see the transition from Colonialism to Independence in 1948. They worked on the momentum the elders gave this movement starting from 1915, first through the Legislative Council and then the State Council and to the House of Representatives.

The 1915 riots also came in the centenary year of the 1815 capitulation of the island of Ceylon to the British with the fall of the Kandyan kingdom. The Kandyan Convention that followed, signed between the conqueror and the conquered gave to Buddhism, the religion of the majority, protection guaranteed under the new dispensation.

It was because this hallowed clause in the Convention was ignored by the British Government Agent in Kandy at the time, that the 1915 riots were triggered. Animosity had built up between Indian Moors (as opposed to the indigenous Ceylonese Moors) and the Sinhalese Buddhists due to various orders, both administrative and by court. Even to call it the 1915 Muslim riots is a misnomer as the local Muslims were never a part of it. Eventually, it ignited into a full blown issue with the shooting of a man.

One is left mystified as to why the 1915 riots are, therefore, not commemorated today. It is an occasion to hail those courageous men and women who inspired and gave leadership to Sri Lanka’s quest to be a free nation. Part of this mystery may be laid at the door of recent anti-Muslim sentiments that were whipped up by groups that frenetically launched a campaign against all things Muslim under the guise of nationalism.

Ironic as it was, one of the firebrand leaders in robes of that hate campaign was released on bail this week after being arrested earlier for being part of a banned street protest recently. He was, however, allowed to act with impunity during the previous administration, not just causing fear and anxiety among a minority community, but also instigating violence against them.

Such behaviour did not win the support of the vast majority of Sri Lankans, but it had the nod of approval of the powers-that-be at that time. Such acquiescence turned out to be their very downfall. All the minorities, to a man and woman, voted against them at the January 8 Presidential election.

We wrote last year (June 24) in the backdrop of the mob attacks on Muslim houses and businesses in Aluthgama, Beruwela and Dharga Town that just five years after the end of a bloody and agonising ‘civil war’, do we really want to drag ourselves into this morass again? Fortunately, the violence was viewed with revulsion by the majority of the people and did not spread, though the Government was accused of delaying in bringing it under control.

This week, the focus shifted to the North. The new Government was quick to react following demonstrations against Police inaction over the rape-murder of a schoolgirl. The President went to Jaffna this week to console the girl’s family and to reassure the people of the area that the Government in Colombo is in charge of the situation. He was also keen to ensure that rabble-rousers did not exploit the volatile situation to further their own agendas.

It was a good omen to see politicians from the North join the President in defusing the situation without aggravating it. The incident that flared up did not take an ethnic or religious flavour; it was a straightforward, spontaneous act of expressing displeasure with the law enforcement authorities, but it could have so easily spiralled into something bigger and more dangerous.

The world is advancing on the one hand, with technology and new innovations. Scientists are exploring the possibility of opening up other planets for man to use in the future, and at the same time, some societies are regressing into almost medieval times with ethno-religious wars all around the world. Multi-ethnic, multi-religious Sri Lanka must avoid at all costs the dangers of falling into the second category. One of the most unfortunate aspects of our contemporary political history has been the establishment of race-oriented political parties.

In this context, it is worth going into the past, a hundred years ago, when Lankans of all races and religions joined hands to fight for justice, for freedom, and for self-rule. The citizens of this country, and their present leaders are enjoying the fruits of that struggle. Their theme then would have been ‘united we stand; divided we fall’. That rings true even today. We must pay homage to all of them.

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