A 100 days of terror under Martial Law
Posted on August 29th, 2012

Janaka Perera

Today, August 30, marks exactly 97 years after the end of a 100-day rule by the monstrous Martial Law which the British Colonial Government enforced to quell the communal riots of 1915. It was like using a sledge hammer to kill an insect. The violent incidents were a glaring example of divide-and-rule colonial policy – the tragic consequences of which Sri Lankans were to suffer for years to come.

Three years before the communal riots broke out, the Basnayake Nilame of the historic Walahagoda Devale, Gampola, applied for the usual license to conduct the Gampola Esala Perahera. (The licensing system had been introduced by the Colonial Government, although conducting the perahera was a traditional right of the Sinhala Buddhists). The Government Agent, a European, however informed the Basnayake Nilame that the license will be issued only on condition that the Perahera music is stopped 50 yards on either side of the Gampola Mosque.

The Perahera was a Buddhist and national festival. Sinhala Kings and even Tamil Kings (Nayakkars) who later ruled the Kandyan Provinces upheld the tradition without any conditions. The Muslims who were living in these areas too accepted these traditions with no complaints. In fact they had very cordial relations with the Buddhists. Due to such co-operation and understanding of the countryƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s heritage and traditions there were virtually no incidents of ethnic clashes in Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s pre-colonial history.

When the British took over they too ostensibly undertook under the Kandyan Convention of 1815 to protect Buddhist traditions and the special status the kings had accorded to Buddhism in the country. But in less than 100 years it became crystal clear that the colonialists had treated the Kandyan treaty as a mere scrap of paper.

The Gampola GAƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s condition for issuing the license was a clear proof of it. He had made this unfair and unjust order despite the fact that the Buddhists gave to the Muslims the freedom to determine the time at which the procession would pass the mosque.

Reacting to the GAƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s decision, the Basnayake Nilame instituted legal action against the then Attorney General Sir Anton Bertram for unlawfully denying him the right to hold the Perahera that had been traditional privilege the Buddhists had enjoyed. Although after a long-drawn out trial at the Kandy District Court the facts turned out to be in the plaintiffƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s favour, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment on February 2, 1915.

The Sinhala Buddhists were in utter despair. They considered the SCƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s decision as an infringement on their age old rights and privileges.

These developments for which the British were totally responsible hardened the feelings of Buddhists on the one side and the Muslims on the other ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” two communities who were hitherto living in complete amity.

Trouble first erupted on Vesak night, May 28, 1915 when a minor clash occurred between a Buddhist carol group and some Muslims at Castle Street, Kandy. Soon wild rumours were spreading throughout the country. Among these were the destruction of the Dalada Maligawa, rape and mutiliation of Sinhala women. Soon Sinhala Christians too joined the fray following rumours of Muslims destroying churches including St. LuciaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Cathedral in Colombo. It was a grand opportunity for criminal elements to fish in troubled waters.

Looting, plunder and bloodshed became the order of the day. But the ill-paid police force did little to arrest the breakdown in law and order.

World War I was raging at the time. And a sensational story that German spies in the guise of Buddhist monks were in league with the rioters, perhaps further alarmed the government. Consequently all German residents here including bhikkus were arrested and deported. Tension had already been high since the German cruiser `EmdenƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ sneaked into the Bay of Bengal the previous year and attacked cargo vessels plying between Colombo and Calcutta and partly destroyed giant oil storage tanks in Madras (now Chennai).

Panic-stricken, the Colonial Governor Sir Robert Chalmers declared Martial Law on June 2, 1915 sparking off brutal repressive measures. Ironically he was an eminent Pali Scholar who highly valued the research and creative talents of the Venerable Rathmalane Sri Dharmarama Nayaka Thera, then Principal and Director of Vidyalankara Pirivena.

Following the declaration of the Martial Law people, mostly Sinhalas, fell victim to the sadism of British officers ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” many of them half-educated planters ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” who had volunteered for law enforcement duty. The reign of terror they unleashed has become one of the most shameful chapters of colonial rule in Sri Lanka

The military began to brutally suppress the Sinhalas. Men and women were arrested on all sides. Says Armand de Souza, editor of the English daily, The Ceylon Morning Leader says: All who had shown any public interest or participated in any public movement ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” regardless of whether it was political, social, national or temperance ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” lived in terror. Anyone whom the authorities suspected or someone denounced was in danger of his life. Anyone possessing a firearms or a dangerous weapon was similarly liable to be shot. And ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”dangerous weaponsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ included even coconut scrapers!

A total of over 60 persons, mostly innocent, are reported to have been sentenced to death by the vengeful and incompetent Courts Martial. But the full story of legalized murder, rape and robbery by the Punjabi soldiers who were brought into quell the riots have never been told. They were unacquainted with the language and customs of the people. Yet they were employed to search the houses of the Sinhala peasantry and the consequences were often tragic.

Among the notable victims of the Martial Law was Edward Henry Pedris, a patriot and officer of the Colombo Town Guard. The only son of D.D. Pedris, – one of Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s richest men at the time ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” he was an outstanding sportsman and a former student of both St. ThomasƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ and Royal Colleges. The British suspected that he and his brother Albert were colluding with the Germans. The excuse for arresting him came when he on horseback fired in the air to quell a mob that was attacking a shop during the riots.

He was charged with attempted murder, treason and shop-breaking and executed by firing squad. Pedris was just 26 years at the time. After he was shot on July 7 at 6 a.m. the bloodstained chair on which he was sitting at the time of the execution was shown to others held in Welikada jail at the time. It was meant to be `warningƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ to them. Among those in prison then were F.R. Senanayake and D.S. Senanayake.

The funeral of Pedris was held at the Borella Cemetery under martial law at midnight. His body was not handed over to the family and it was the only burial not to be recorded in any official register since 1910.

“Men were shot in cold blood without any form of trial or enquiry, although even during the riots the sitting of a single Court of Justice was not interfered or interrupted. Except in one instance or two, these men were deliberately put to death in the presence of their mothers, wives, children and friends. In some cases the victims were roused from their beds, taken out and shot, notwithstanding their protests and insistent prayers for inquiry. In other cases persons who were arrested, were shot without being allowed the opportunity of proving their innocence.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢

The above are excerpts of a memorandum sent on November 25, 1915 by a public committee to the then British Secretary of State, Bonar Law. The committee was appointed at a public meeting held in Colombo on September 25 ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” three months after the execution of Pedris. (Revolt in the Temple)

Even after the disturbances ceased, hundreds of men were severely flogged, chiefly in the Kelani Valley and Ratnapura districts. But no competent Court of Justice gave orders to inflict such cruel and degrading punishment.

Men were arrested and threatened, handcuffed and detained in custody solely for the sole purpose of compelling them to give evidence against particular individuals. Women were made hostages until male members accused of participating in the riots surrendered.

Eventually it was left primarily to the `Lion of Kotte,ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ E.W. Perera, a Sinhala Christian, to come to the rescue of the Buddhists. He braved submarine-infested seas to travel by ship with a petition concealed in his shoe to London where he succeeded in convincing the British Government the atrocities perpetrated under martial law in Sri Lanka.

Associated with him in making representations to the British Government was Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the eminent Tamil political leader. Their efforts succeeded in securing the unconditional release of imprisoned Sinhala national leaders and a number of others who awaited the hangmanƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s noose

Presentations made by EW were so convincing and forceful that the Governor Chalmers had to relinquish his office and return to England unceremoniously after which a Royal Commission of Inquiry was appointed to probe the atrocities.


9 Responses to “A 100 days of terror under Martial Law”

  1. Sunil Vijayapala Says:

    Thanks for enlightening the Sri Lankans, especially the Sinha+Hela people, more true in enlightening the murderous English speaking/appreciating Colombons. Most of British attrocities have been swept inder the carpet and rarely documentaed and published. The Chapter ‘Under the British Yoke’ in the book Revolt in the Temple gives horrific accounts of British brutality – alas! the gentlemanly race! Our conditioning (we too were at one time) has been so subtle and its so difficult to see the true spectre. Not enough has been written or taught in schools about this subject. I sincerely wish you compile something and publish this as a book, at least on internet. The wisdom of the Old Fool JR who attempted to Anglise our country and the wisdom of the former Minister of education, who believed in opening an English medium in schools and allowing International Schools to appear all over the island with no understanding of the meaning ‘International’, is highly debatable.

  2. Sunil Vijayapala Says:

    The hypocritical Kandyan Concention – on one hand declaring ‘Protecting Buddha Saasana’ and on the other hand taking every measure to wipe it out from the face of Lankadeepa. Pilimatalaawa, skinned as a traitor, was in fact attempting get rid of the Kerala Dynasty of kings, (who establised the Hindu devales in Kandy) and establish a true Sinhala kingdom, with the assitance of British, which backfired.

  3. Dilrook Says:

    The Ambagamuwa Street mosque in Gampola and Castle Hill mosque were deliberately built on the ways used by traditional Buddhist processions by “Coast Moors” and Afghans.

    Coast Moors are a large group of illegal immigrants from Kerala who made their way to the island in the 19th century. Afghans too followed them. These illegal newcomers were totally alien to local practices.

    There is another reason for Ponnambalam’s legal involvement. Days before the riot, Coast Moors and Afghans attacked a Hindu procession near Castle Street mosque where riots later began. It prompted Hindus against these aggressive invaders. It was more the actions of EW Perera that secured the release and end to continued harassment of local leaders. He bypassed the sham local justice system and petitioned England directly. Local justice system was a sham using the divide and rule method to rule the country. It was this very same sham legal system that promted the riot by putting conditions and restriction on a tradition of hundreds of years.

    (Blackturn, Action Phase, Kannangara, AP, Riots of 1915)

  4. Dham Says:

    There was a long period Sinhala and Tamil people worked together harmoniously. True that British appointed more Tamils than Sinhalas for government positions and educate the Tamils more, but there was no major problem with the majority and Tamils.
    It is the Muslims who were aggresive earlier on and are becoming more and more aggresive now.
    If you travel in Colombo you can clearly see the difference. Even in the case of Mannar it is the agression of “Allah hu Akbar” that was emiinent.

  5. Sunil Vijayapala Says:

    Correction Comment 2 – Not Kerala dynasty but Telagu dynasty. Kerala – Malayalam.

  6. Sirih Says:

    This incident and British colonial plunder before that was thought to me by late grand father ( I was 7 yrs old) and was told never to forget about the history since in future use these atrocities against the so called civilised colonials which are nothing but organised thugs. His words are now resonating in my head and past few yrs accusations against us (by the west) was nothing but a control exercise. My grand father told me muslims were encouraged by the brits to agitate knowing what will happen with the “Perahara”.. My father always encouraged muslims to work with the sinhalese saying that patriot has no language or religion except pride and history of the land.
    I used to debate in London uni in 70’s and 80’s since ltte lobby was very strong and left wing brits just saw us as racists… I used to go after every debate with detail british history and its crimes in SL and appalling crimes they used to propagate and that shut the english but they came after me trying to get my exam marks down which they could not do… I still hold the record for the final year Electronic engineering design paper which I got 99%. average on this paper is 66%.
    I hope youngsters learn from our past but avoid carrying the hatred.

  7. Sunil Vijayapala Says:

    Sirih – there are Brits who think they did a good thing by clearing half a million acres of Hill country rain forest cover (mostly virgin) in our small Lankadeepa and replace that with tea and our fools still appreciate what the plunderer did to our motherland and lick their rear ends! Talk to Colompurans (I dread some of my cousins too!)Imagine a billion timber ending in England – what amount of money they would have made, just ignoring tea. The Americans hated them however the Anglo Saxon aliance was formed during 2nd WW. The Canadians take them for a joke but there are elements still with the Royalty crap. Our Australians of course has the stigma of ‘Convicts’ so they tend to some what relate with English and Royalty, although the Irish fraction advocates a Republic. The Aboriginal genocide was swept under the carpet thanks to the WASP propaganda machine, the strongest on this planet. With that they can convince anyone to believe in anything they say.

  8. lingamAndy Says:

    1) E.W. Perera, a Sinhala & Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Their efforts succeeded in securing the unconditional release of imprisoned Sinhala national leaders
    2) We Tamil & with president RP kicked out Indian forces (IPKF) from our mother lanka !

    Ref:Muslims who were aggresive – We Tamil know solution for that ( with out one gun shot We solved Northern Muslim problm in 1987?) We Tamil & Muslim & Sinhalese living in NP happy for ever now !

    We all (i)Lanka(i) putha(lvarkal) !!!

    Unit in diversity ! no short cut !!!

  9. lingamAndy Says:

    patriot has no language or religion except pride and history of the land ! Well said Thanks to your grad father Sirih!
    final year Electronic engineering design paper which I got 99%. average on this paper is 66%- Well done excelled Sirith !!!

    I hope youngsters learn from our past but avoid carrying the hatred !!! Golden words !!!

    We all (i)Lanka(i) putha(lvarkal) !!!

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