Sir Don Baron Jayatillaka
Sir Don Baron Jayatillaka

In the early part of the 20th century educated Europeans and especially the Englishmen evinced a great deal of interest in Buddhism due to its non violent, humanitarian and non invasive qualities. Being a brilliant speaker and Buddhist scholar D.B. Jayatilaka had to travel to different parts of England and many European cities to deliver speeches on Buddhism and participate in religious conferences. During his three years in England he wrote regularly to the Sinhala newspapers on a variety of subjects which were widely read and appreciated. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1913 to a hero’s welcome and was sworn in as a Barrister of the Supreme Court. He practiced at the Bar in Colombo and the outstations. He specialized in Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law, Buddhist Temporalities and Constitutional Law.

On his return to the island he found that the nascent national and religious reawakening had gained further momentum. He got down to action immediately and established the Buddhist Education Society and the Buddhist Protection Society. His lifelong ambition was to make Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas premier seats of oriental studies in Sri Lanka. At that time the vast majority of the population resorted to the Ayurvedic System of Medicine as a mode of treatment for all their ailments.

He campaigned for the establishment of the College of Ayurveda Medicine in Sri Lanka. He was also an active member of the Ayurveda Council of Sri Lanka. Through his island wide programmes encompassing Buddhist, Educational, Social, Cultural and Literary activities he became the unrivalled leader of the Sinhala Buddhists while winning the confidence and admiration of people of the other nationalities and faiths. At the same time he was in the forefront of the political reform movement as well, which was meant to obtain freedom from colonial rule.

From the dawn of the 20th century the enmity between the Buddhists and the Muslims was growing due to social, economic and political reasons. On Vesak day in 1915 when a Buddhist procession was passing a Mosque in Kandy it was stoned. Riots broke out. Buddhist leaders were arrested indiscriminately on suspicion of conspiracy and treason. Even D.B. Jayatilaka whose credentials were well known was not spared.

Martial Law was declared and there were mass arrests and indiscriminate shooting without trial. Almost all the Sinhala Buddhist leaders including temperance activists were jailed. The ruthless quelling of the riots by the colonial administration saw Sinhala and Tamil leaders forging greater unity in mounting the struggle for freedom. Thus, at the conclusion of the riots the movement for legislative and administrative reforms gathered momentum and infused greater vigour and vitality,

In 1918, a delegation seeking political reforms with D.B. Jayatilaka as its secretary left for England. The Ceylon National Congress was established and from 1919 it took on the full responsibility for spearheading the political reform movement. The British government had a hideous image of the Sinhalese in particular; obviously coloured by the malicious brush of colonial officials, Europe on planters, foreign businessmen and their local henchmen. The Sinhalese Kandyans were also not fully supportive of the reform struggle. The colonial office remained stubborn and unsympathetic. D.B. Jayatilaka the Oxford educated Barrister who was also a fine debater and a shrewd negotiator stayed behind in England and campaigned for reforms.

The British government published the constitutional reforms in the Government Gazette of September 23, 1920. However the reforms were not favourably received by the people and the leaders. They were far below their expectations. Everyone, other than the colonial masters and their cronies publicly rejected the reform package. However, D.B. Jayatilaka the wise statesman rose to the occasion and managed to douse the fire. He explained that it was not feasible nor practicable to leapfrog from Crown Colony to Independence in one go. He convinced his fellow freedom fighters of the need to exercise caution, stay patient and move ahead step by step. He united the different races and formed a common front to call for a greater measure of self determination and independence.

In response in 1923 the Governor released a white paper on political reforms. It was disappointing for it did not carry any semblance of a democratic form of government. The order in council of 1924 published the reforms which provided for a clear unofficial majority, territorial representation, the Governor ceasing to be the President of the Legislative Council and instead making provision for an elected Vice President to preside.

However, it was a futile exercise as the reforms conferred power without responsibility. At the elections to the Legislative Council in 1924 D.B. Jayatilaka was elected uncontested to the Colombo District seat. Upon the death of Sir James Peiris, D.B. Jayatilaka was unanimously elected Vice President of the Legislative Council. He went on to serve in many committees and commissions of the Legislative Council and the colonial administration with distinction.

Forerunner in the march to self rule

The Legislative Reforms of 1924 did not satisfy the national leaders nor the people and their demand for self rule continued unabated gathering momentum visibly and rapidly. Yielding to greater pressure and persistent agitation the British government appointed the Donoughmore Commission in 1927. The Donoughmore reforms granted a considerable degree of self rule and took Sri Lanka to the door step of independence. It gave self determination in many spheres and subjects.

The granting of universal adult suffrage was a singular achievement. Yet for all, many opposed the new constitution. However, fortunately the Ceylon National Congress was of the view that half a loaf was better than no loaf.

The Ceylon National Congress by majority vote decided to accept the Donoughmore Constitution. This led to the splitting of the congress.

The Tamils were against it as the balance of power would automatically shift in favour of the Sinhala majority. Once again D.B. Jayatilaka had to rise to the occasion as the savior. In the face of mounting opposition and simmering internal dissension, as a last resort D.B. Jayatilaka embarked on an island wide campaign to seek the approval of the masses for the new constitution. Wiser counsel prevailed and in 1929 the Legislative Council by majority vote decided to proceed with the Donoughmore Constitution. The first election to the State Council took place in 1931 and D.B. Jayatilaka was elected as the Member for Kelaniya electorate. Thereafter, he was elected as a member of the Home Affairs Committee as well as its Chairman which automatically elevated him to the office of Minister of Home Affairs. Concurrently, he was elected as Vice Chairman of the State Council and Leader of the State Council; which made him the de facto Prime Minister even though there was no such position under the new Constitution.

To be continued 


Add new comment

Or log in with...