Midweek Review
Ceylon Police and Sinhala-Muslim Riots

by A.C. Dep, Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha Publication, 2001.
Reviewed by Haris de Silva,
Former Director, National Archives
The Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915, is a much researched occurrence in the history of Sri Lanka. The riots broke-out on the night of 28/29th May 1915 in Kandy, spread to some neighbouring villages on the 30th, to Colombo and some other towns in other provinces on the 31st and thereafter, was generally suppressed by 6th June, and ended after three final incidents on 7th, 8th sad 11th in Kurunegala, Puttalam and Chilaw respectively.

Martial Law was first declared in the Western and Sabaragamuva Provinces on June 2, extended to few more provinces in the next few days, and terminated on August 30.

Many hypothesis have been put forward to explain its occurrence. They range from a conspiracy to topple the government-treason-to ethnic animosity between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. At the time, the British were in the midst of the first World War, and in the island, Sinhalese were having their temperance movements, and agendas for national reawakening. By and large the Sinhalese were the Sinhala Buddhists, and the leaders of the temperance movements were mostly the low country elite. They were grist for the treason theory. Muslims were the more recently arrived Coast Moors, enjoying a certain British patronage in their trading activities.

The riots stemmed from the issuing of police licenses restricting drumming and music in peraheras, within 200 yards of a mosque (1900) reduced to 100 yards in 1907 [Dep]. In 1912, the Basnayake Nilame of Wallahagoda Devale, Gampola, sought the usual permission to conduct the annual perahera. At first, permission was refused for the perahera to proceed on the Ambagamuva Street, where a Coast Moor’s mosque had been constructed a few years back. Later permission was granted for that traditional route, but music was prohibited within 100 yards of that mosque. The Basnayake Nilamae contested the order in the District Court, Kandy, Judge, Paul E. Peiris in his judgement of 4th June 1914 said that the restrictions imposed were contrary to custom, and ruled in favour of the plaintiff.

That judgement was appealed by the Attorney General, and was overturned by the Supreme Court. The SC decision came on Feb. 12, 1915, and became the immediate ‘casus belli‘. The Moors in Kandy, elated by the judgement, was ready to rub salt on the wounded feelings of the Sinhalese. They had also on 3rd May interfered with an annual Hindu procession called Karawan, conducted by one Perumal Kangany, in Kandy. Thereafter came the occasion for Wesak carol singing on 28th May. Permission was granted for carols to be sung at the house in front of the mosque in Castle Street, after 12 midnight. The carol carts had proceeded down the road past midnight, but trouble erupted. Both sides had apparently prepared for a show of strength, and in the exchange the Moore became the worse off. That was the beginning of the 1915 riots.

In his book Dep -a former Deputy Inspector General of Police- shows what happened between May 28/29th and June 11, gives details of police personnel involved, the directives given by the Inspector General of Police, and in general the sequence of events during and up to the end of Martial Law on 30th August His presentation in seven chapters is based mostly on Police files. That source is apparently used for the first time in a publication, and basically provides the Police point of view. In his last chapter – chapter eight – Dep, too, contributes to the view that there had been pre-planning, and also attributes a certain degree of responsibility to Anagarika Dharmapala and his followers. In fact the book commences with a para on Anagarika Dharmapala, and also refers to the Sinhala Buddhist resurgency.

In chapter eight, he also mentions the rather rapacious activities of Coast Moors, which had made them disliked by the Sinhala villager, but the thrust is on the Sinhala Buddhists, thugs and criminals and unruly elements in the towns and villages. He says that, although Eardley Norton’s remark at the Courts Martial cases, that the Governor and his Advisors were suffering from "Treasonitis" was a smart saying, ‘such a charge was only natural under the existing Law’.

As noted earlier, many reports and studies have been done on the riots. The government itself instituted a Police Inquiry Commission in 1915, consisting of five members, with Alexander Wood Renton, C.J as Chainman: it had one Sinhalese member, S. C. Obsysekera. Their findings are published in Sessional Paper XVI of 1916, which contains their report and recommendations in 14 pages and the evidence given at the inquiry in 201 pages.

Although the Home Government did not appoint a Royal Commission of Inquiry as urged by the Ceylonese and their sympathizers in England, Anderson, who succeeded Chalmers as Governor, appointed a commission on 26th October 1916 to inquire into and report upon the circumstances connected with the shooting of L Romanis Perera, Telenis Appu, Podi Sinno, James Bass, Juvanis Fernando, W G Serahamy, Pugoda Peter, Uduwa Arachchi and Juwanis Appu. The Commissioners were Wood Renton, C.J. and G. S. Schnieder.

The Commission found that, ‘In each of the cases that have been under investigation the act of shooting cannot be justified on the ground of existence of Martial Law; in short, it had no legal justification.’ But, they said, they were bona fide for the maintenance of good order and government and for the public safety of the Colony, and, that action was protected by the Ceylon Indemnity order in Council, 1915. (SP VI of 1917)

At a 1970 Symposium on the 1915 Communal Riots, P. T. M. Fernando contributing a paper remarked that summary justice of Special Commissioners had at least the facade of legality, but what was far worse were the atrocities committed by ‘English volunteers’ - mainly planters of the Tea estates and employees of Colombo Commercial Houses- who flogged and also executed [Sinhalese] without trial.

Although these details are not available in Dep’s book, it gives a picture of what happened and where, the machinery deployed for curbing the riots, finding evidence, the famous Pedris and other cases tried under Martial Law, and as said earlier, his views in retrospect on the occurrence. The given chronological framework of rioting and the chapters reflecting sequential action would be very useful for any researcher wishing to examine or re-examine the event. It is noted that the Administration Reports of the IGP, as well as of the GA, CP for 1915, have hardly anything on the riots: to an extent that reflects the attitude of those officers on that occurrence.

Thus, to have a comprehensive view of the dark days of 1915, while Dep’s book will be important -based as such on police files- it would be very necessary to see the Commission Reports, the official and unofficial correspondence, the press of the period the contributions made by many scholars on the various aspects of this occurrence, and significantly, also understand the idiosyncrasies of the officials/personnel of the day.

Dep has also provided 16 very useful appendices, which include the names of key officials, and a short bibliography. I might add, that the National Archives holds the official correspondence and publications on the riots, some private collection of papers on the subject, and also the newspapers of the period.

We must be thankful to Priyasath Dep, his son, currently the Additional Solicitor General, for bringing out this book as a posthumous publication. It would, no doubt, once again draw the attention of the public and of scholars to an occurrence considered one of the very important and significant landmarks in the island’s march to independence.