Posted by: lrrp | August 31, 2007

Hundred days of terror under British

August 30 marks (today) exactly 92 years after the end of a 100-day rule by the monstrous Martial Law which the British Colonial Government enforced to quell the communal riots of 1915. It was like using a sledge hammer to kill an insect. The violent incidents were a glaring example of divide-and-rule colonial policy – the tragic consequences of which Sri Lankans are suffering to this day.

British policy on the Sinhalas at the time was virtually akin to deliberately provoking a dog to bite everybody in the vicinity so that vilifying and mercilessly beating or killing the poor the animal is then fully justified. The colonialists had done it twice previously – in 1818 and 1848. The third time it was done under a classic divide-and-rule colonial ethnic strategy.

Three years before the communal riots broke out, the Basnayake Nilame of the historic Walahagoda Devale, Gampola, applied for the usual license to conduct the Gampola Esala Perahera. (The licensing system had been introduced by the Colonial Government, although conducting the perahera was a traditional right of the Sinhala Buddhists). The Government Agent, a European, however informed the Basnayake Nilame that the license will be issued only on condition that the Perahera music is stopped 50 yards on either side of the Gampola Mosque.

The Perahera was a Buddhist and national festival. Sinhala Kings and even Tamil Kings (Nayakkars) who later ruled the Kandyan Provinces upheld the tradition without any conditions. The Muslims who were living in these areas too accepted these traditions with no complaints. In fact they had very cordial relations with the Buddhists. Due to such co-operation and understanding of the country’s heritage and traditions there were virtually no incidents of ethnic clashes in Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial history.

When the British took over they too ostensibly undertook under the Kandyan Convention of 1815 to protect Buddhist traditions and the special status the kings had accorded to Buddhism in the country. But in less than century it became crystal clear that the colonialists had treated the Kandyan treaty as a mere scrap of paper.

The Gampola GA’s condition for issuing the license was a clear proof of it. He had made this unfair and unjust order despite the fact that the Buddhists gave to the Muslims the freedom to determine the time at which the procession would pass the mosque.

Reacting to the GA’s decision, the Basnayake Nilame instituted legal action against the then Attorney General Sir Anton Bertram for unlawfully denying him the right to hold the Perahera that had been traditional privilege the Buddhists had enjoyed. Although after a long-drawn out trial at the Kandy District Court the facts turned out to be in the plaintiff’s favour, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment on February 2, 1915.

The Sinhala Buddhists were in utter despair. They considered the SC’s decision as an infringement on their age old rights and privileges.

These developments for which the British were totally responsible hardened the feelings of Buddhists on the one side and the Muslims on the other – two communities who were hitherto living in complete amity.

Trouble first erupted on Vesak night, May 28, 1915 when a minor clash occurred between a Buddhist carol group and some aggressive Muslims at Castle Street , Kandy. Soon wild rumours were spreading throughout the country. Among these were the destruction of the Dalada Maligawa, rape and mutiliation of Sinhala women. Soon Sinhala Christians too joined the fray following rumours of Muslims destroying churches including St. Lucia ‘s Cathedral in Colombo. It was a grand opportunity for criminal elements to fish in troubled waters.

Looting, plunder and bloodshed became the order of the day. But the ill-paid police force did little to arrest the breakdown in law and order.

World War I was raging at the time. And a sensational story that German spies in the guise of Buddhist monks were in league with the rioters, perhaps further alarmed the government. Consequently all German residents here including bhikkus were arrested and deported. Tension had already been high since the German cruiser `Emden’ sneaked into the Bay of Bengal the previous year and attacked cargo vessels plying between Colombo and Calcutta and partly destroyed giant oil storage tanks in Madras (now Chennai).

Panic-stricken, the Colonial Governor Sir Robert Chalmers declared Martial Law, sparking off brutal repressive measures. People, mostly Sinhalas, fell victim to the sadism of half-educated European planters who had volunteered for law enforcement duty. The 100 days of terror they unleashed has become one of the most shameful chapters of colonial rule in Sri Lanka.

The military began to brutally suppress the Sinhalas. Men and women were arrested on all sides. According to Armand de Souza, editor of the English daily, The Ceylon Morning Leader, all who had shown any public interest or participated in any public movement – regardless of whether it was political, social, national or temperance – lived in terror.

Anyone whom the authorities suspected or someone denounced was in danger of his life. Anyone possessing a firearms or a dangerous weapon was similarly liable to be shot. And ‘dangerous weapons’ included even coconut scrapers!

A total of over 60 persons, mostly innocent, are reported to have been sentenced to death by the vengeful and incompetent Courts Martial. But the full story of legalized murder, rape and robbery by the Punjabi soldiers who were brought into quell the riots has never been told. They were unacquainted with the language and customs of the Sri Lankans. Yet they were employed to search the houses of the Sinhala peasantry and the consequences were often tragic.

Among the notable victims of the Martial Law was Edward Henry Pedris, a patriot and officer of the Colombo Town Guard. The only son of D.D. Pedris – one of Sri Lanka’s richest men at the time – he was an outstanding sportsman and a former student of both St. Thomas’ and Royal Colleges. The British suspected that he and his brother Albert were colluding with the Germans. The excuse for arresting him came when he on horseback fired in the air to quell a mob that was attacking a shop during the riots.

He was charged with attempted murder, treason and shop-breaking and executed by firing squad. Pedris was just 26 years at the time. After he was shot on July 7 at 6 a.m. the bloodstained chair on which he was sitting at the time of the execution was shown to others held in Welikada jail at the time. It was meant to be `warning’ to them. Among those in prison then were F.R. Senanayake and D.S. Senanayake.

The funeral of Pedris was held at the Borella Cemetery under martial law at midnight. His body was not handed over to the family and it was the only burial not to be recorded in any official register since 1910.

“Men were shot in cold blood without any form of trial or enquiry, although even during the riots the sitting of a single Court of Justice was not interfered or interrupted. Except in one instance or two, these men were deliberately put to death in the presence of their mothers, wives, children and friends. In some cases the victims were roused from their beds, taken out and shot, notwithstanding their protests and insistent prayers for inquiry. In other cases persons who were arrested, were shot without being allowed the opportunity of proving their innocence.”

The above are excerpts of a memorandum sent on November 25, 1915 by a public committee to the then British Secretary of State, Bonar Law. The committee was appointed at a public meeting held in Colombo on September 25 – three months after the execution of Pedris. (Revolt in the Temple)

Even after the disturbances ceased, hundreds of men were severely flogged, chiefly in the Kelani Valley and Ratnapura districts. But no competent Court of Justice gave orders
to inflict such cruel and degrading punishment.

Men were arrested and threatened, handcuffed and detained in custody solely for the sole purpose of compelling them to give evidence against particular individuals. Women were made hostages until male members accused of participating in the riots surrendered.

Eventually it was left primarily to the `Lion of Kotte,’ E.W. Perera, a Sinhala Christian, to come to the rescue of the Buddhists. He braved submarine-infested seas to travel by ship with a petition concealed in his shoe to London where he succeeded in convincing the British Government the atrocities perpetrated under martial law in Sri Lanka .

As a result Governor Chalmers was recalled to England and a Royal Commission of Inquiry was appointed to probe the atrocities.


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