Looking back at Kandy in 1915
Posted on March 17th, 2018

Courtesy The Island

The recent clashes in Digana and other places in the Kandy District brought back memories of what my mother narrated about the 1915 ‘Muslim riots’ as they called the disturbance in Kandy and surrounding areas. She was a child living in a village in Peradeniya when the carol cart with persons singing Vesak gee was stoned when it passed the Meerakkam Palliya at the rear end of (then) Castle Street on Vesak night. A clash ensued. This was after the trouble in Gampola a couple of years earlier. It was ascertained that Muslim fanatics had collected in the mosque ready to create trouble and the Buddhists too had courted trouble by routing the singers by the mosque. Mother said they feared the Muslims would invade villages. Rumour that rampaging Muslims were approaching had them dousing the hearth, clutching valuables and some clothes, food of course, and retreating to the pan kele behind the mahagedera. Plenty of village women were at hand to carry goods and Mother’s younger siblings. The men, including her father, the Korale Mahattaya, were on the main road ready to defend their village. Their fears were unjustified; rumour-mongers were to blame.



In Volume One of Dr P V J Jayasekera’s detailed research study Confrontations with Colonialism: resistance, revivalism, reform under British rule in Sri Lanka 1796-1920, (Vijitha Yapa 2017), he details the Gampola clash. He was at one time Head of the History Department, University of Peradeniya.

“At Gampola the old religio-economic conflict between the Muslims and the Buddhists had become acute since 1907 with the building of a new mosque by the Coast Moors on the customary route of a traditional procession conducted by the Wallahagoda Devale. The police, on the request of the Muslims, laid down that music accompanying the procession should stop at a distance of hundred yards on either side of the mosque. The Buddhists refused to conduct the procession under such restrictions and legally contested the right of the government to regulate customary practices. They claimed that traditional rights were guaranteed by Clause 5 of the Kandyan Convention and those subsequent ordinances and regulations controlling religious processions were invalid.” The Court verdict was in support of the Buddhist petitioners. Thus the intensified anti–Muslim feeling and boycott of Muslim traders et al. This intensification of sentiments culminated in the 1915 clashes in Kandy.

I obtained two chapters from Dr Jayasekera’s forthcoming Volume Two. They are comprehensive in-depth studies of his subject and detailed analysis, which I largely condense quoting the following paragraphs:

“The clash at Kandy was outwardly the culmination of over two decades of religious conflicts between the Buddhists and Muslims in several locations on the question of the right to play religious music in front of a place of worship although there was strictly no traditional procession that could claim protection under the Kandyan Convention. However, the setting itself was overwhelmingly religious. Kandy, as the place associated with Buddha’s Tooth relic was a sacred city and obstructions to religious functions in the city naturally had greater religious significance than the isolated conflicts of the past. More important perhaps was the day; Wesak, being the most sacred day of the Buddhists, the time of the disturbances coincided with the height of Buddhist festivities and enthusiasm throughout the country. Thus the attacks on the Muslims were bound to assume predominantly religious overtones and follow the pattern set at Kandy.

“In 1915 the spread of violence being more contagious in character, there was no organised agent carrying the torch of insurrection. The newspapers carried reports of events, but did not act as agents of mobilisation. The Buddhist press which had earlier campaigned against the Muslims deplored the violence on them and even tried to dispel rumours that inflamed communal ill-feeling. The Wesak pilgrims from Kandy and from other places like Kelaniya no doubt diffused the news and hostile feeling in remote areas. The railway was an important agency in precipitating action at different places. Though there was no gang movement, excited crowds travelling by train from Colombo were instrumental in stirring up violence against the Muslims at places like Moratuwa, Panadura, Angulana, Ambalangoda, Veyangoda and Mirigama. The fact that violence broke out with least instigation and almost on the news of riots in other areas also illustrates the presence of highly charged grievances.”

What happened in 1915 in Kandy “illustrates certain vital features that cannot be overlooked in understanding the nature of ethnic violence. Active crowds were always composed primarily of different categories of workers, both urban and rural, and the peasants. In most instances the leadership appear to have come from the crowd itself, but where leaders could be identified the presence of men of higher social and economic standing of the same localities is clearly evident. However, their leadership does not point to any outside organisation or pre-arrangement behind the riots but illustrates the fact that crowds do accept leaders outside their class or social standing only as long as they collaborate with them in implementing their chosen program of action. The primary target of attack was the commercial property of the Muslims but this distinction between property and person was ignored wherever destruction of property was resisted. Neither was any exception made to Muslim places of worship; wherever the mosques were found in close vicinity of centres of violence they were subjected to destruction and arson. All these features illustrate that the riots were essentially a sudden outburst of violence primarily on the part of the subaltern classes among the Sinhalese against the Muslims as a community. The understanding of the motives behind such widespread ethnic violence requires not merely religious and ideological developments but a more in-depth examination of the socio-economic implications of the colonial ‘forced march’ and their cumulative effects on ethnic identities and relations.”

The ‘forced march’ here connotes the transition from pre-colonial to colonial economic systems with resultant deprivation, restrictions, taxes etc which impacted more on the Sinhalese peasant than on the minorities. It was forced progression decreed by the colonial rulers imposing their systems on people of Ceylon, which so far had been mostly feudal

Thus it was mainly colonial strictures and influences and prejudices that precipitated trouble like taxes that benefited the Muslim traders. World War 1 had its repercussions in this island colony of the British with people suffering economic deprivation, more so the Sinhala peasant than the successful Muslim trader. Very many more underlying issues caused the 1907-15 conflict. It is edifying to draw parallels between then and now, which are starkly present; also contrasts.

Reasons advanced by the man on the street

Talk to a Sinhalese three wheeler driver or a boutique keeper and his complaints against the Muslims are far from religious. They are economic and cultural. Says Sampath a three wheeler owner: “You get one small shop, grocery or otherwise, opened by a Muslim and in no time the entire road is theirs.” A well-to-do resident of Colombo 7 or 5 will exclaim: “See how the houses and property are all snapped up by the Muslims. They have limitless resources.” A cry of some Buddhist monks was: “The Muslims produce so many children while the Sinhalese practise birth control.”

Remedies to my mind are: economic competition and take it when the better trader succeeds.

Demography (the study of statistics such as births, deaths, income, or the incidence of disease, which illustrate the changing structure of human populations) is definitely changing. I need not spell out the fact that the percentage of the Sinhala population and its number are decreasing while the Muslim population is increasing, not only in Colombo or traditional Muslim areas like the East but across the land. You cannot pass rules nor kill people. One has to move with it and live and let live.

A foreign resident quoted education of women as a remedy for excess procreation; a woman will have more control over her body. This may or may not work since religion and perhaps male dominance and even the Koran may intervene.

It is with trepidation that I mention the newish trend of Wahabism, defined as “a puritanical form of Sunni Islam and is practiced in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although it is much less rigidly enforced in the latter. The word. ‘Wahhabi’ is derived from the name of a Muslim scholar, Muhammad bin Abd al Wahhab, who lived in the Arabian peninsula during the eighteenth century (1703-1791)”. His influence, given a boost by petrodollars, has turned extreme and fundamental, and is widespread in Sri Lanka and could result in confrontation.

These and other forces are getting stronger and thus lead to conflict; destructive of life, resources and the reputation of the country. However, the most important is: stop enmity from growing and blighting the country. Catch and deal with trouble inciters, whether in religious garb or civilian.


One Response to “Looking back at Kandy in 1915”

  1. Christie Says:

    Padma Rao and Indian Imperialists know how to get their subjects to kill each other so they can run the place. Padma Rao and WION.

    The recent Muslim-Buddhist clashes is a good example.

    Both Buddhists ad Muslims are oppressed by the Hindu Parasites.

    1915 Kandy violence and 2018 are similar occurrences.

    Indian Parasites started to colonize the Hill country from mid 19th Century.

    By early 20th century the hill country Sinhalese and Muslims lost their and their lively hood to the non violent invaders who arrived in hundreds of thousands.

    The Buddhists and Muslims did not have the power to kick the Indian parasites out because the parasites were protected by the British guns. So the Buddhists and Muslims turned on each other like any other oppressed groups of people.

    The same is repeating today. The only difference id India has replaced Britain.

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