1915 was the centenary year of the Kandyan convention, under which the entire island of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) came under the United Kingdom in 1815. There was a notable rise of nationalistic movement in the country since early 1915. There was a public interest of the centenary of the convention and a National Day was celebrated in April 1915.This new socio-political developments ceased due to unfortunate incidents which took place in May-June that year, the Riots of 1915.
Riots of 1915, often known as 1915 Ceylonese Riots and 1915 Sinhala-Muslim riots commenced on May 28, 1915, 100 years ago. It was a communal disturbance and was directed against the Muslims.
These riots were against a section of the Muslims living in Sri Lanka, namely the Coast Moors, who were a group of recent emigrants from the Malabar Coast of South India. They were retail traders who penetrated into villages and were ready to extend credit, but they also sold at higher prices. The group had an advantage against their competitors.
Riots were caused by attacking a Buddhist perahera procession held in Kandy on that day, which was followed by an attack on a Muslim mosque and boutiques. This was put under control by the police. Since there were similar attacks in processions earlier in other places like Kurunegala earlier, people were vigilant on this. An event that took place on the next day in Kandy triggered the riots and spread into five provinces of the country – Western, Southern, Central, Sabaragamuwa and North-Western. Muslims were attacked, their boutiques and buildings were looted and damaged. The riots lasted until June 5.
The total death toll of the riot was either 106 or 116, as per the Governor and the military commissioners respectively. According to Armand de Sousa, Morning Leader Editor, who compiled a book titled Hundred Days in Ceylon under Martial Law, 39 of those killed during the riots were either Muslim or Sinhalese. At least 66 persons were killed by the military and the police. The number of total deaths could be different.
The British government headed by Governor Sir Robert Chalmers, took the situation seriously. As the Governor stated later in the Legislative Council, it was a “great calamity” and “the immediate steps demanded by the situation were to punish the guilty and to compensate victims.” Rather than a communal disturbance of simple nature, they treated the riots as an organized conspiracy against the British by the Sinhalese, although there was no evidence to support this ‘conspiracy theory’. It seems that the riots that could be easily handled by the police and authorities were made worse by the military. The most of the atrocities were conducted by the military or the volunteers under the martial law, which was declared on June 2 and maintained until August. The action taken by the authorities to suppress the riots and the method employed to raise compensation from the public are the two important aspects we are concerned with.
Under the martial law, men were ‘liable to be shot at sight’ if they were out of their homes during certain hours. Several people were shot dead, either by the military and Europeans, who volunteered as town guards which included planters and shop-assistants. Punjabi soldiers were also employed in duty. Armand de Souza stated that a large number was shot in cold blood, not in the act of rioting or of resisting authority. He further stated that “deaths that occurred after June 5, suggest a misuse of authority, and require inquiry”. Many were arrested and detained and some were killed with or without a trail, often based on false charges. For instance Edward Hendy Pedris, who was himself an officer of the Town Guard, was shot based on treason charges, which were found as false later. There were many innocent people among the killed, including one or more women.
A large number were detained for their involvement in riots – 4,855 persons were convicted and 3,573 were acquitted by the tribunals. However some of the detainees were not connected to the riots, but were Sinhalese and Buddhists leaders who propelled themselves into action against the British authorities in other fronts – some were among the emerging leaders. Almost all prominent leaders of the temperance movement, which was on stage for about few years, were arrested and detained – this included Senanayake brothers (F.R., D.S. and D.C.), D.B.Jayatilaka, W.A de Silva, C. Batuwantudawe, Hewavitharane brothers (brothers of Anagarika Dharmapala – Dr. C.A. and Edmund – Edmund died while in prison in Jaffna). A.E. Goonesinha was among the arrested leaders of the Young Lanka Movement, a nationalist political association. Several trade union activists were also arrested, such as the 28 workers of the Railway Department who were deported to Eastern Province after the arrest.
There was a call for justice for the innocent people killed and detained. However, colonial authorities continued to refuse to investigate the charges of excesses committed by the military and others during the suppression of riots. The civil and military authorities were behind the reach of the law due to the provisions of ‘the Ceylon indemnity order’. For instance, a commission that inquired into the killing of 10 people in separate incidents in three Korales concluded that “the act of shooting (each) cannot be justified on the ground of the existence of martial law. In short it had no legal justification”. However it further mentioned that “since these executions were done for the maintenance of good order and government and for the public safety of the colony and therefore those ordered directed and done are protected by the Ceylon Indemnities Ordinance.”
The damages caused by the riots were assessed by the government and were to be charged from the Sinhala people. A new ordinance, Riot Damages Ordinance (No 23 of 1915), was passed to provide necessary regulations to collect compensation from all Sinhala community.
Special Commissioners visited the villages and decided on the compensation due from a village. The general procedure was to summon people to a public place such as a school, and they were asked to hand over their title deeds to the government, often without a receipt. Then they were asked to pay a sum decided by the government as compensation within a given period of time. People obeyed this without a protest due to the presence of Punjabi soldiers at the scene, whose action was well known to them. Dwellers in villages where no Moorman were attacked or no property damage occurred or where people didn’t take part in any rioting were even demanded to pay the compensation.
The amount to be paid was generally a large sum, when we consider of that period. The numerous petitions submitted by the poverty-stricken villagers explain their inability to pay the sum. The villagers frequently mentioned that it was possible to them to pay the amount by mortgaging their deeds, but they couldn’t do that since the deeds were already in the custody of the government.
De Souza mentioned that these claims were ‘exorbitant and disproportionate compensation’. Compensation claims by the Moors was sometimes much higher than the real damage and Souza mentions of such instances. Often the compensation demanded from a village was several times higher than the actual damage occurred in that village.
Voicing for Sinhalese
These atrocities were mentioned by some of the patriots of the country in the Legislative Council. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the Ceylonese Member elected by the educated voters, voiced strongly for the Sinhalese, who suffered from the suppression as well as from the demand of compensation. He ‘rose for the defense of the Sinhalese leaders in a series of impassioned speeches’ as mentioned in the Volume 3 of University of Ceylon: History of Ceylon. He condemned the manner in which the disturbances were suppressed and the argued of the refutation of the conspiracy against the British. Ramanathan himself compiled a book titled ‘Riots and Martial Law in Ceylon, 1915’ which also includes his speeches at the Council.
We should note that the support received by Ramanathan, who was a Tamil, from the fellow local members of the Council to protect the rights of the Sinhala and Buddhists was inappropriate. Instead some of the local members seemed to support the British action, as revealed from the Hansards – Some members were fear of the upsurge of the new local political leadership. The outstanding support he received was from the European representative of the Council, Harry Creasy.
Another courageous effort was taken by E. W.Perera and D.B.Jayatilaka, who went to the UK despite the threat of World War I, tried to provoke a public opinion there on the atrocities conducted here in SriLanka and to get a body of commissioners appointed. This effort was unsuccessful as British Government was not willing to go for such an inquiry, as they thought it could hamper British morale, as the country was engaged in a World War.
In such a situation, Armand de Souza wrote that a grave consequence of all this is that the faith of the people in the justice and righteousness of British rule has been sharply shaken. The Governor Robert Chalmers, who was known for his oriental scholarship, was recalled in December 1915 and John Anderson was appointed as the new governor of the country.