ETHNICITY IN SRI LANKA Part 1
Posted on June 12th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

The British who ruled Sri Lanka from 1815-1948 invented three bogus races for Sri Lanka, when they were ruling in Sri Lanka. The three races were       ‘Sinhala’, ‘Ceylon Tamil’ and ‘Ceylon Moor’ . The word Sinhala which indicated a nationality, and which included all the citizens of Sinhaladvipa was now reduced to the status of a race.   The Tamil speaking, landless agricultural labor arriving in Dutch times from present day Tamilnadu became the ‘Ceylon Tamil’ race. Muslims engaged in the carrying trade, who were present in the island when the British arrived, became the ‘Ceylon Moor’ race. The fourth race, Burghers” were those left behind after Dutch rule.  

The Sinhala leaders in charge of ushering in Independence on February 4. 1948, fully believed that the island   was populated by Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors and Burghers, they had been there for centuries and it was the British who kindly pointed this out. The possibility that these were imaginary categories invented by the British did not occur to them. The four races were recognized in a big way on Independence Day.

Ceylon gained independence from Britain on February 4, 1948.  Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore, then governor of Ceylon was sworn in as Ceylon’s new Governor General, at a solemn ceremony at King’s House, Colombo, early that morning. The action then moved to Torrington Place, Colombo. The lion flag was hoisted at a ceremony at the Assembly Hall at Torrington Place, signaling Ceylon’s new status as a free country. I vividly remember the Union Jack coming down, and the Lion Flag being hoisted,” said 96-year-old Edwin Ariyadasa.  

Tissa Devendra also recalled the event in   some detail. A spacious quadrangle had been cleared on the old Spitfire airstrip opposite the former Lunatic Asylum, he said.  Independence Hall sits there today. A towering flagstaff was erected with four clear avenues leading up to it from the four cardinal directions, north south east and west.

From these four avenues, the four races of Sri Lanka came running in to announce independence.  Tissa Devendra recalls this ‘Great Run’. Four messages were brought by four runners from four corners of the Island. Four champion athletes came running in from Point Pedro, Dondra, Batticaloa   and Colombo, bearing scrolls. The runners were Walter May of Richmond, Lakshman Kadirgamar of Trinity, Oscar Wijesinghe of St Thomas and Mohamed Sheriff of Wesley.

The Sinhala scroll came from Dondra via Matara, Galle, Kalutara, Panadura, Dehiwala, Wellawatta and Pamankada, the Tamil one from Point Pedro, through Jaffna, Vavuniya, Anuradhapura, Kandy, Kegalle and Kelaniya. The Arabic message came from Batticaloa through the Uva plantations and Kirillapone. The English one started from Wellawatta.

With synchronized grace, these four athletic young men , Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher ,ran up   and handed over scrolls of solidarity, to four    charming and self-conscious young ladies,  representing Burghers, Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese,  who were standing  facing the four avenues. There were   loud cheers and the ‘ululation of conch shells’.

The messages contained in the scrolls were thereafter read by the four girls. They wore ethnic dress. Kandyan saree, Jaffna style saree, full skirted Muslim garb, and a stylish frock,” said Tissa.   Swarnamali Amarasuriya, Sirimani Ramachandran, Ayesha Zally and Phyllis de Kretser read those messages in their respective languages. The messages were read in the order of Sinhala, Arabic, English and Tamil. The messages were thereafter handed over to Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake to be deposited in the foundation of the Independence pillar.

The three girls representing Tamil, Muslim and Burgher were undergraduates in the university. The girl selected as the representative for Sinhala was unable to take part. The authorities had to come up with a replacement in a hurry. Visakha Vidyalaya     was contacted. Visakha teachers put together 10 presentable girls. J.R. Jayewardene Minister of Finance, and A. Ratnayaka, Minister of Food, Co-operatives and Home Affairs, were entrusted the task of picking a suitable person, heard the girls read the impromptu message aloud. They selected Swarnamali Amarasuriya.

 Swarnamali Amarasuriya, now Salgado is the only one living today, of the four girls. Island interviewed her. Swarnamali and the other three girls were allowed their choice of attire for the occasion. The Burgher girl wore a dress and the Muslim girl a full skirted Muslim garb. At 16, Swarnamali had never worn a saree. “Besides it wouldn’t have been right to wear a saree since the Tamil girl also wore a saree,” Her young age at the time prevented her from wearing a Kandyan. Swarnamali finally decided on the half saree.”Athlete Oscar Wijesinghe handed me the message,” said Swarnamali.

Swarnamali read, in English, a translation of the Sinhala message she delivered on that historic day. Island recorded the message:

 Rejoice, for we conquer! We have come from the four corners of Lanka, from Point Pedro, the Northern most, Batticaloa, the eastern most, Devundara, the Southernmost and Colombo the Western most cities.”In our journey whither to the Independence Memorial, our feet had touched every province, in the land and the chief towns therein.”We recall the glories of our ancient civilizations as we pass through Anuradhapura. The trials and difficulties of the living present impressed themselves on our minds as we approached the capital city of Colombo.”A vision of the future that is to be, appeared before us as we thought of the great irrigation works such as Gal Oya, now under construction.”We the youth of this country drawn from all races, classes and creeds, who have travelled night and day through jungle and town, over hill and dale, seeking you, the leader of our nation, offer a promise of sacrifice, and cooperation in the common task of rebuilding our nation.”On this historic day, when we commemorate the first anniversary of a Lanka, free once again after 133 years of subjection, at this hallowed spot, where the first free parliament of the people assembled, we pledge ourselves as citizens of one nation to combat and defeat the evils that we have inherited from the recent past, so that we too may say, ‘Rejoice, for we conquer!’.

This absurd  ‘Independence ceremony’, featuring non-existence ‘races’ showed that  from the first day of Independence, Sri Lanka  firmly embraced the notion of four separate races in Sri Lanka .The  public   also was encouraged by this ceremony to think in terms of these bogus races.

The Independence Day Great Run” presented all four bogus races as equal. But they were NOT equal. The ethnic percentages given in the Census of 1946 were Sinhala 69.4%, Ceylon Tamil 11.02%, Ceylon Moor 5.61% and Burghers 0.63%.  The total population of Ceylon in the Census of 1946 was 46,205,00. (Continued)

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