What happened in 1915?
Posted on November 6th, 2014

By Rohana R. Wasala

The following is an updated version of an article of mine entitled The Truth about the 1915 Riots” published in The Island on September 20, 2010. It has been specially prepared here for Lankaweb News and Forum readers. The real cause of the disturbances traditionally described as the Sinhala-Muslim Riots of 1915” has sometimes been deliberately obscured by opponents of Sinhala Buddhists as merely something to do with the native (Sinhalese) capitalist class, just emerging under the auspices of the British, exploiting communalism to advance their interests. The truth about what actually led to the ‘riots’ was otherwise as revealed at the court case instituted in 1913 by the aggrieved authorities of a historic Devale/temple near Gampola important to Buddhists challenging the government’s subjection, at the behest of some members of an extremist Muslim group, the issue of a permit for holding an age-old perahera to the fulfillment of an unjust demand insisted on by the latter.

 The principal source of information about the famous Gampola Perahera Case was the book Studies of Some Famous Cases of Ceylon” by Walter Thalgodapitiya (Formerly of the Ceylon Judicial Service and Commissioner of Assizes), M.D. Gunasena & Co. Ltd, Colombo, 1963. The late Justice Thalgodapitiya had an unblemished reputation as an incorruptible legal functionary and a great human being of impeccable honesty. His analysis of the case is unlikely to be disputed by anyone, in my opinion.

 The Paddy Tax, the Waste Lands Ordinance, and the legislation to permit the opening of  liquor shops across the island – all measures designed to increase the revenue of a rapacious imperial government – added  fuel  to an already burning political agitation in the country around the beginning of the last century. The first two were particularly oppressive to the rural paddy cultivators and small landowners. The Government used the Waste Lands Ordinance to sell what it considered crown lands to capitalists for development. This caused problems for large numbers of  rural villagers who had traditionally owned and cultivated lands for which they did not possess any  legal titles; they were just dispossessed of those lands. The liquor taverns legislation naturally caused much opprobrium among the predominantly Buddhist native population.

 Such arbitrary pieces of legislation and other similar acts of  omission and commission were inflicted on the local people  by  a colonial government in which their participation was negligible. The only gesture towards conceding popular participation was to have one elected member in the Legislative Council to represent the educated classes in the person of Mr Ponnambalam Ramanathan. But the politically aware sections of the country who were not satisfied with a single member agitated for more representation.

 It was in this  context of political ferment that the 1915 Riots broke out. The colonial authorities resorted to some excessively violent repression of the Sinhalese Buddhists during and after the unrest, apparently because of their wrong conclusion that the latter were staging a revolt against the government. There is no doubt that the government’s (over)reaction was, at least partly, yet another manifestation of the colonialists’ well-established ‘divide and rule’ policy. In any case most political activists of the time thought that the obvious insensitivity of the rulers  to the needs and aspirations of the ruled was due to a lack of communication between the two sides. They attributed  the government’s  uncalled for violence against the Sinhalese Buddhists to this alleged  communication gap. In fact  they were being generous to the English rulers by choosing to  explain away their excesses as a result of misunderstanding rather than any deliberate hostility towards the Buddhist Sinhalese. They also knew that the rioting between the Muslims and Sinhalese was due to a sudden flare up of emotions  following  the fanatical conduct of a few irresponsible elements among the so-called  Coastal Moors or ‘hambankarayas’ and that the incidents did not indicate any serious threat to the longstanding amity between the Sinhalese and the Muslims.

 Muslims arrived  in the island many centuries ago as traders. Some of them found permanent residence here . They have lived in this country in complete peace and harmony  with the Sinhalese and other communities. At various times some of them were given  titles of honour by the Sinhalese kings for services done for them. But this state of affairs became threatened with the coming of the ‘hambankarayas’ (Coast Moors) from South India  during British times. Some of these Moors were among the most extremist and intolerant Muslims of India. The local Muslims looked askance at them and treated them with disapproval.

 The incidents that rapidly escalated into  widespread  clashes between the Sinhalese and Muslims originated  at Gangasiripura (Gampola) over a dispute  concerning the  route of the historic annual Esala  Perahera of the Walahagoda Devale about a mile (one and a half kilometers) from the town. The Walahagoda Devale was built by King Parakramabahu in 1236 CE. It was dedicated to God Katharagama.  Four peraheras are conducted  every year at this temple, the Esala Perahera  being the most important one of these.

 The Esala Perahera starts on the 8th day of the waxing moon of Esala and continues for 15 days. The ceremonies are held for fourteen days within the premises of the Devale. The final and culminating 15th day  perahera concludes with a ritual called  the ‘diyakepuma’ (water-cutting) ceremony. The final day perahera  from immemorial times had taken a route from the Devale to a place called Porutota on the Mahaveli Ganga  for the ritual of water-cutting along a road known as the Ambagamuwa Road. The perahera had to pass a number of places of worship belonging to other faiths – some Christian churches, Hindu temples,  and some mosques. Among these there was one mosque built not long ago (in the 1890’s) by the Coast Moors. Until 1912 the perahera had proceeded along its traditional route with the usual music unchallenged by anyone. That year, the Coast Moors threatened to riot if the perahera passed within  100 yards (metres) of their mosque. The Government Agent, presumably on the instructions of the police , subjected the issue of a license for the perahera to the fulfillment  of the demand of the Muslims.

 The Basnayake Nilame of the Devale refused to abide by this unacceptable condition, and cancelled the perahera  for that year. Instead, on legal advice, he instituted action  against the Attorney General on 30th September 1913. The trial of the case came before the District Court of Kandy on 20th March 1914 before Dr (later Sir) Paul E. Pieris, Acting District Judge of Kandy. The learned judge delivered his judgement  on 4th June 1914, declaring the plaintiff ‘entitled to the privilege set out in the second paragraph of his complaint’ (viz. the right and privilege of marching and to and from and through all the streets of the town of Gampola including that portion of Ambagamuwa street……. With elephants to the accompaniment of tom-tom drums and other musical instruments”).

 Although this was an extremely fair judgement by all accounts the British authorities (not ready to accept it for the obvious reason that it was damaging to their prestige as the representatives of the glorious Empire on which the  sun never set) appealed to the  Supreme Court, which duly dismissed the plaintiff’s action. But the Basnayake Nilame and his supporters appealed to the highest tribunal of the British Empire, the Privy Council, and retained the eminent Sir John Simon to argue the appeal. There were signs that justice in this case was  going to be asserted at last.  

 The 1915 riots broke out in this time of indecision.  On 28th May that year, the Vesak Fullmoon Poya  Day,  the traditional Esala   Perahera of the Walahagoda temple was held. The  perahera followed its usual route along the Ambagamuwa  road. But the Police prevented the procession  from passing the disputed place. The Moors, encouraged by what they  assumed to be  support of the Police for their cause started jeering at the Buddhists marching in the procession and threw stones at them from the steps of the mosque. Retaliation was swift and inevitable.  Rioting  between Buddhists and Muslims  spread to other parts of the island.  As usual in such situations criminal elements took to looting  and arson;  shops of Moor traders were attacked and goods  stolen; mosques were set on fire. The  Governor Sir Robert Chalmers declared martial law. By the time order was restored and martial law withdrawn  three months after the rioting had started 63 people had been killed by the Military and the Police. Ad hoc commissions dispensed  summary justice.

 The needless severity with which the British authorities dealt with the situation was partly due to the fact that Britain was at war with Germany, a powerful  and pitiless enemy. The Turkish Empire made common cause with the Germans against the British. The British  Government did not want to displease the Muslims, especially the many millions of them in India, for fear that this might  lead to an uprising among them in favour of their co-religionists of the Turkish Empire.

 Although the hearing of the appeal of the Gampola Perahera Case  before Privy Council began promisingly for the aggrieved Devale authorities,  it did not go on until a final decision was delivered  because the new Governor of Ceylon Sir John Anderson was trying to settle the dispute after 1915 riots by adopting a more conciliatory  attitude towards the Esala Perahera. He gave binding orders that the Perahera was not to be interfered with any restrictions. When the Coast Moors found that the Government was no longer behind them  they gave up their extremist demands. In 1917 the Governor himself attended the Perahera as the Sinhalese kings of yore had done.


2 Responses to “What happened in 1915?”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    The REAL reason is in the Koran.

    “Quran (2:191-193) – “And kill them wherever you find them (non-believers), and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief] is worse than killing. But if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone. But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun (the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)”

  2. Senevirath Says:

    ඉරානයේ බල්ලෙක් පාරේ අරන් ගියොත් කසපාර 75 ය් . මුන් මොන පිස්සොද මේ බල්ලන් අල්ලා බැඳ දාන තුරු ලොවට සාමයක් නැහැ

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