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National Revival and Independence
from British Rule: The role of Piyadasa Sirisena

Sri Lanka celebrated the 62nd anniversary of independence from British rule on 4th February 2010. The manner in which we achieved independence has been examined by many historians.

Nevertheless it is a useful exercise to re-examine the pre-independent era from about 1850-1940 especially with a view to looking at the main factors and of course the forces that led to the final emancipation of this country from British occupation.

The formal and non-formal strands

There was undoubtedly a formal form of agitation which was more or less conducted by the Western educated Ceylonese at the helm of the political front and the non-normal segment which basically involved the active participation of those who could rightly called the rising indigenous elite of that time.

The latter movement had a gradual build-up in the form of a cultural cum nationalistic resurgence. This began around the middle of the 19th century, gained momentum in the early 20th century and reached a crescendo towards 1940.

Whilst there is considerable knowledge amongst the local intelligentsia about the formal activities leading to independence which are also frequently featured in the media, the contribution of second strand, the role of the leaders of the cultural revival who were equally important has not been afforded the place that it deserved. That seems an injustice to those who made considerable sacrifices and suffered in the course of that journey with little or no personal rewards. As opposed to this the formal leaders and their kith and kin ardently were to reap rich rewards and positions of power after independence.

The present exercise will in these circumstances almost exclusively examine what we may term as the emergence of those who prepared the soil of this land for political freedom namely the national revivalists

In the course of the exercise we will also examine in depth the role of a leader of revival namely, Piyadasa Sirisena, He was undoubtedly one of those at the helm of the agitation against the British along with quite a few others. His contribution especially in terms of changing the mindset of a rather dormant populace of the early 20th century was profound.

Beginnings of résistance to British rule in the 19th century

As a preamble to this part of our presentation it is an undeniable fact that extraction of economic gains following conquest has been a common feature of militaristic and colonial powers over the centuries. But this had been backed by the adoption of other means of subjugation. One such that characterized British Colonial domination were the cultural and religious indoctrination The British realized that if their rule was to be perpetuated it had to resort to methods to convert the subject people to their beliefs and practices. A sort of induced change of religion was a key component of this somewhat insidious exercise. Of course the British did dangle the carrot before baiting the people.

Such practices had also been a feature of both the Portuguese and Dutch periods in this country especially in the more economically robust towns in the Western coast line of Ceylon. Remnants of the influence of Catholicism and certain mannerisms of living practiced by the Dutch and the Portuguese are to be found until this day in places such as Moratuwa, Panadura and even Galle.

The policy of divide and rule

Agents of British administration, principally the missionaries had initiated a process which not only eroded the long established traditions and values prevalent in this country but also supported and assisted ethnic minorities as a result of which there emerged serious internal class divisions.

Following this line of action the Sinhalese Buddhists, more tradition oriented were increasingly marginalized.

Consequent on the Kandyan Convention and the ceding of this country in 1815 the British had gained complete control of Ceylon in very respect. To the credit of the British administration it is a fact that it took this nation towards the modern era. A combination of a plantation cum commerce oriented country, each complementing the other also providing opportunities to tie up with the external world were achievements of considerable merit.

The economy during this time underwent a radical change. The infrastructure and the administrative changes that were introduced by the British contributed to the transformation of this country and the people.

On the other hand in the course of such undoubtedly valuable developments, Sri Lanka like the other colonies provided a conduit to funnel enormous material gains to the British themselves.

Earliest résistance

Whilst there was economic and material progress on the one hand the way in which certain segments of the population who were being subject to religious conversion privatization especially in the Western coastal areas was a cause of rising concern amongst the majority Sinhalese.

The granting of specific material advantages to those who submitted to the British in a passive manner also contributed to the creation of exclusive cultural and religious enclaves and alienation of the Buddhist population. In other words there began the emergence of a form of cultural and religious enslavement by the British.

Ashis Nandy – the noted Indian observer of societal transformation makes this apt comment "Colonialism not only colonizes the mind but it releases within colonized society forces that alter their cultural priorities once and for all. In this process it helps to generalize the concept of a modern West from a geographical and temporary entity into a psychological category. The west is every-where within the west and outside in structures and mind".

Though similar developments in the minds of the local populace appear to have been taking a hold of the people towards the latter half of the 19th century undercurrents of discontent too emerged.

It would at this stage be pertinent to look at the religious and cultural ethos of this island. It is a historic reality that for centuries there was a close and inseparable relationship between the Sinhala Buddhist and the temple. The temples had over the ages provided spiritual guidance to the people. Regular visits to the temple were a feature of life. Also the Buddhist clergy was for long revered guardians of the community.

When attempts were made to breach this confidence and faith in Buddhism it was the Buddhist clergy who provided leadership in resisting it. They came into the open to defend the religion and debated publicly, the virtues of Buddhism. During the late 19th century five open debates between Buddhism Priests and the Christian clergy had taken place.

The most notable of these was the Panadura Wadaya of 1874 which marked a watershed in the struggle for resurgence of Buddhism. This historic debate not only forestalled the advance of Christianity in the Island but was also instrumental in rekindling the thoughts of the Buddhist populace as to their true herritage. Whilst the news of the debate spread far and wide in the country, it also reached other nations. An American named Col. Olcott., all Theosophists, who learnt of it was impressed. In 1875 Olcott exchanged correspondence with the resourceful Buddhist priest who led the Panadura debate.

Col. Olcott deeply taken up with the cause espoused by Migettuwatte Gunanda and in fact came over to Sri Lanka to assist in the furtherance of Buddhist teachings. History records that he was responsible for pioneering a new chapter in Buddhist education in the country, principally in Kandy, Galle and Colombo. This helped to transform education especially among the less privileged Buddhist children. As a consequence of such developments the lot of the Buddhists was on the rise. Later a new generation of Buddhist leaders was ready to take over the great revivalist work conducted by Olcott and Ven. Gunananda.

The most remarkable of these individuals was Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1993). Dharmapala who was first and last a dedicated nationalist. In the course of his career he launched a sustained campaign throughout the country, to restore Buddhism.

Dharmapala was indeed the role model for another budding nationalist of the early 20th century. Dharmapala in fact was the ideal foil for the emergence of Piyadasa Sirisena into the arena of national revival.

Though Sirisena was of not completely in the mould of a Dharmpala he was undoubtedly inspired by the former, at least in the formative years of his public life.

A multi-faceted personality

How did Piyadasa Sirisena enter the mainstream of the Buddhist revivalist struggle spearheaded by Dharmapala who relied on communication to promote Nationalism and Buddhism. But there surely were other personal attributes that would have helped the latter to launch a career in the direction of communications and writing. The body and depth of his work beginning with the sub editorship of a Buddhist tabloid, later the Editorship of the of a similar publication were reflective of a desire to restore the ideals and lost heritage of a fallen people. From the outset Piyadasa Sirisena was determined to serve Buddhist interests whilst rejecting the British way of life which was being increasingly duplicated by the more affluent the Ceylonese of that period.

Piyadasa Sirisena was also one of the first of that era to realize the power and influence of mass communication. The print media which first made its appearance towards 1850 but was not widely utilized was taken advantage of by him from the very outset of his career. In or around early 1900 he pioneered the publication of a Sihnala newspaper, the "Sinhala Jatiya". Sirisena did not show interest in making commercial gains out of this publication. This plunged it into financial difficulties time and again. He used Sinhala Jathiya to frequently castigate the British administration and also the Westernized elite.

Piyadasa Sirisena was also a prolific novelist. He used the novel as his most potent weapon and a propagandistic tool to counter imperialistic influences and Western Culture. Though Sirisena was no novelist to crown he was without doubt the most influential of that period.

But the puritanical approach he adapted to his writings at times defied credibility. His novels were not logical and sequential. Abrupt mix up of a story with attacks against Christianity made Sirisena lose his way in novel writing.

Despite all such cardinal failures the 19 novels and other books that he authored were hugely popular. This was partially due to the fact that the novel in the early years of the 20th century was a new means of communication. They suited the milieu and appealed to a subjugated and crest fallen people. The literate Sinhalese seemingly lapped up everything Piyadasa Sirisena produced. According to Dr. Sarath Amunugama "Piyadasa Sirisena became a landmark in Sinhalese Literature. He was a household name in the island and his works were a major factor in the creation of new Sinhala Buddhist constituency in Sri Lanka" - Collective identities, nationalism and protests in modern Sri Lanka – Michael Roberts.

The temperance movement

The third and yet another dimension of Sirisena’s career and also his role as an agent of change was Sirisena’s contribution to the Temperance drive. The rising agitation against British rule towards the 1930’s was supplemented not only by institutional formations but also by a definitive and mass movement against the British liquor policy. The Buddhists population and prominent Buddhist families some of whom who earned considerable wealth at one time through their involvement in the liquor industry were compelled to fall in line and to forego their interests in this field. Piyadasa Sirisena was a flag bearer in the Temperance movement.

Anagarika Dharmapala and Piyadasa Sirisena enemies of British rule

Dharmapala and Sirisena provided the ground work through their dedicated endeavour to pave the way ]for the final goal of freedom. This is particularly testified by the fact that throughout the early 20th century the British considered both Dharmapala and Sirisena as dangerous elements that stood in the way of the perpetuation of their rule. The twosomes were the defiant ones whom the British disliked intensely. In the pursuit of opposing Piyadasa Sirisena’s activities he was failed on more than one occasion.

The religious riots of 1915

Following religious riots of 1915 Martial law was declared and many leading Ceylonese especially those in the front line of the agitation for freedom from Colonial Rule were jailed or kept under house arrest. Some 60 prominent figures including D S and F R Senanayake the Hewavitharana brothers and Piyadasa Sirisena were failed.

Piyadasa Sirisena was also charged with sedition. According to the charge the "Sinhala Jathiya" the newspaper published by Sirisena had editorialized that citizens should openly oppose the administration if it forced to change the direction of the "Dalda Perahera" the age-old Buddhist procession, from its traditional journey to the Dalada Maligawa.

The trial at Bar was one of the most sensational of its time since Piyadasa Sirisena by then was a rising star in the anti-colonial struggle. Thousands had gathered in Hulsdorf Hill on the final day of the case. The prosecution failed to convince the judge that the editorial under reference was a direct effort to crate an uprising against the government. They had endevoured to convince the judge that Piyadasa Sirisena was a dangerous opponent of British rule and insisted that he be sentenced to death.

Mrs. Cecilia Sirisena the wife of the accused who was the principal witness had defended her husband so convincingly that he escaped with a relatively lighter punishment in the form of a fine of Rs. 1500/-.

The sting in this tale is in the tail. The vast crowd relieved that Piyadasa Sirisena got off lightly decided to pay the fine with moneys collected by them. But when a few of them went up to the Register to pay it, they were told that it had already been paid by an unknown person who did not wish to divulge his identity. Such was admiration that Sirisena evoked among his contemporaries in those distant times. Years later the truth came out and its was revealed that D C Wijewardena himself a Buddhist patriot, and author of "The Revolt in the Temple, a member of the famous clan of Wijewardena’s of Sadawate a great admirer of both Piyadasa Sirisena and Anagarika Dharmapala had paid the fine.

Piyadasa Sirisena died on 22nd May 1946 – two years before Sri Lanka gained freedom from colonial rule. This prompted D S Senanayake who was closely associated with Piyadasa Sirisena to state that he had died on the threshold of freedom for which he had fought so bravely and at the risk of his life. It was D.S who delivered the main funeral oration Sirisena’s funeral.

S W R D Bandaranaike who too was associated with Piyadasa Sirisena especially in the formation of the Sinhala Maha Saba called Sirisena a hero’s hero at the death anniversary, meeting of Piyadasa Sirisena in 1956.

Perhaps the most apt description of Piyadasa Sirisena’s life and work came from N E Weerasooriya in his monumental four volume History of Ceylon. He said the Piyadasa Sirisena was an instrument of the Silent revolution that swept this land and prepared its soil for political emancipation.

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