The Truth about the 1915 Riots


By Rohana R. Wasala

Mr K.T. Rajasingham, editor of The Asian Tribune, carried a part of his evidence given before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in his online daily news publication on September 19, 2010. It contained the following patently erroneous references to the so-called Sinhalese –Muslim Riots of 1915:

After the Kandyan Rebellion of 1817-18 to overthrow British rule, the British, by a proclamation dated November 21, 1818, greatly reduced the privileges granted to Sinhalese chiefs and changed the guarantees on religion given in the Kandyan Convention. Consequently, it was absurd that the Sinhalese wanted to celebrate a clause in a convention that was no longer in force.

Also, the government agents of Kandy had informed the trustees of the Gampola Buddhist temple that in taking their annual perahera (procession) in Kandy they would not be allowed to beat drums or play any musical instruments within 100 yards of a new mosque in Castle Hill Street.

The trustees turned to the courts, arguing that a perahera of the old Kandyan kingdom was permitted in terms of the Kandyan Convention of 1815. The District Court of Kandy decided in their favor, but on an appeal by the government the Supreme Court reversed the judgment. The trustees then appealed to the Privy Council in England.

In the meantime, Buddhist preachers went about the country urging Buddhists to demonstrate against Muslims. Incidentally, the anniversary of the birth of The Lord Buddha fell on May 28, 1915, and a procession began that night. The celebrations were marred by an incident near the mosque, where some 25 men were arrested on charges of housebreaking and rioting.

Sinhalese attacks on Muslims continued, spreading from the central province to the western and northwestern provinces until June 6, 1915. Muslims sustained heavy losses. According to available records, losses sustained included 86 damaged mosques, more than 4,075 looted boutiques and shops, 35 Muslims killed, 198 injured and four women raped. Seventeen Christian churches were burnt down…….

This article is an attempt to set the record straight on the misconceptions that such incorrect and irresponsible utterances might cause among those ignorant of the truth about the 1915 incidents. I am writing in the interests of the unity of our beleaguered nation and the promotion of fellow-feeling among the diverse communities which share Sri Lanka as their home.

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.

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