The lesson learnt | Daily News
Sinhala-Muslim communities have demonstrated maturity since infamous riots 105 years ago:

The lesson learnt

It was a couple of days after the Aluthgama attack by hooligans. As I woke up on one Saturday morning in 2014, I smelt some rubber and toxic chemicals being burnt; the first thought was to check the house. Suspicious that something was very wrong outside, I stepped out of the house to witness a deep red /amber western sky: a little distance away, I observed upper ends of flames fluttering up in the air aided by the blowing. A thick black smoke surrounded the area; realize that something across the street was on fire. A few days before this, on Thursday, there was reportedly a clash between Muslim youths and a Buddhist monk’s driver causing minor injuries to the monk; this incident could have been settled easily by the local leaders then and there.

The huge clothing outlet, which belonged to the No Limit chain may be the largest of all clothing galleries outside Colombo and situated just 200 metres to the West of my residence, was up in flames. Since the times were tense and disturbing, the general consensus of hundreds who rushed to the scene was ‘No Limit attacked’. The new building housed the shop that was opened less than a year ago had burnt down to ash and rubble within a few hours. In just less than an hour, many years of hard work was completely gutted down to earth. It was suspected to be the work of some group jealous competitors in the area.

The 1915 throwback

The riots erupted when a group of Moors in Gampola attacked a Buddhist pageant with stones on a Vesak day, the news soon spread across the island. The Sinhala people in turn retaliated; they harassed the Muslims in many areas. Records say that boutiques and shops destroyed and some 20 mosques were attacked, a few Muslims were killed and many injured. Christian churches in some areas were burnt down too. It all happened at a time when the British rulers’ suspicions were aroused by a new emerging class of young entrepreneurs who initiated a temperance movement. It was sparked off by legislation directed at raising government revenue by opening a new arrack and toddy taverns in all parts; the colonial rulers kept an eye on the leaders.

When the Legislative Council met for the first time after the riots under the chairmanship of Governor Sir Robert Chalmers on August 6, 1915, the governor addressing the members stated:

“…Ceylon has suffered a great calamity…one section of His Majesty’s subjects have attacked another section. The assailants were Buddhist Sinhalese; the victims were peaceable Muslims… the attack began at Kandy on the night of May 28, the nativity of Gautama the Buddha; like wildfire it spread …to Rambukkana, and thence through Colombo down the coast to Matara …what has befallen the Muslims at Sinhalese hands in the five provinces is that their property has been looted, their houses and shops have been wrecked, their Mosques have been desecrated and destroyed, and they have themselves been wounded, outraged and murdered…”

- Hansard: 6/8/1915 fol. 330

Hate speech: Follow Indian model

Hate speech intimidates a protected individual or group; racial or religious hatred constitutes an incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence based on differences of race, religion, language, political or any other belief. It violates basic human rights, incites discrimination and violence against a person or a group of persons on account of the place of origin, ethnicity, nationality, race and religion. Though freedom of speech and expression is protected by the constitution, an amendment for “reasonable restrictions” can be introduced on freedom of speech and expression like in the Indian Constitution, where the restriction is imposed on speech that advocates or encourages violent acts or crimes of hate; that creates a climate of hate or prejudice. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Sri Lanka is a signatory, explicitly prohibits the advocacy of ‘national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes an incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’.

A government spokesman says they suspect of a ‘hidden hand’; but people know of quite a few hidden hands working behind the scenes on both sides. The government up to now has been slow to act against mischief makers and groups that incite violence.

The then President Rajapaksa, who rushed to the affected area on his return to the island, pledged to hold an investigation into the weekend’s riots and bring perpetrators to account before the law. However, what is more appropriate is a total ban on instigating groups rather than looking for the misguided ‘lower classes…, artisans and the unemployed’.

The proposed high-level commission to investigate violence in Wayamba and Minuwangoda is most welcome, but people have little faith in such investigations as all governments have used committees to hoodwink the masses. What is essential at this stage is to have the rabble-rousers arrested and jailed by enacting new laws against hate speech. The mystery fire that destroyed the shop owned by Muslims, though we doubt acts of violence or sabotage, should be thoroughly investigated.

Racial and religious violence is a curse that needs to be condemned in all its forms. By banning alone won’t help tackle the problem; the government must ensure that all criminals responsible and those engaged in hate speech are brought to book.

Execution of Captain Pedris

Henry Pedris, the 27-year-old military officer was court marshalled for alleged incitement of communal violence during the riots and executed by a firing squad. Sir Robert Chalmers, the British Governor and Edward Stubbs, the Colonial Secretary, advised by British officials that the unrest as a revolt against the King, compelling them to enforce martial law. Both the execution of Pedris on trumped-up charges and, using the opportunity to ‘teach a lesson’ to other Nationalist leaders of the time, was due to the fear of birth of a freedom movement under the disguise of ‘Temperance movement’.

The charges against Pedris were subsequently proven false. The colonial authorities did not stop at that, the blood splattered chair used in the execution was taken to the prisons where the national leaders like Senanayake brothers; FR and DC and DS (Later first Prime Minister), were detained along with D. B. Jayatillake, H. Amasuriya, A. E. Gunasinhe, John de Silva, F. R. Dias Bandaranaike, Edwin Wijeratne were detained for an ‘exhibition’, proving their savage upbringing. Edmond Hewawitarana, brother of Anagarika Dharmapala died in prison, while several Sinhalese were executed.

Kumari Jayawardene says in her book: Nobodies to Somebodies – 2007, “They were jailed for 46 days…for allegedly organising anti-Muslim rioting in 1915. This propelled them into national prominence, leading S. C. Obeysekere to denounce them as ‘Nobodies’ trying to be ‘Somebodies’ but nobodies were soon on their way to the top of the political ladder”.

In 1915 at a Cinema Hall, a top British official purposely walked in demanding the seat from Henry, which he bluntly refused. This insult plus the jealousy over his marksman skills made the Englishmen become resentful of the handsome young man. The conspirators found an opportunity when the riots broke out. The charges were based on a fictitious story created by the British officials and their Sinhala henchmen that Pedris opened fire at a gathering of Muslims and instigated the Sinhalese to walk towards the city of Colombo from Peliyagoda.

Secret memorandum

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and E. W. Perera, a lawyer from Kotte visited the Sinhalese leaders in prison and obtained affidavits from them. Subsequently, they made submissions to the British authorities accusing the government officials of the catastrophe. E. W. Perera carried a secret document hidden in the sole of his shoe addressed to the Secretary of State to the Colonies in England. Martial law was repealed, the charges were probed, Governor Chalmers summoned to England and he was replaced with Sir John Anderson.

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