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The struggle for Independence in Sri Lanka

Security Forces personnel

Tag-Point-of-View-2013l.jpgThe only lesson history has taught us is that man has not learned anything from history.

- Anonymous-History

It was reported in the media by the Department of Government Information that all arrangements have been made to hold Sri Lanka's 66th Independence Day celebration in Kegalle which marks the Independence Day of a proud, an independent nation under the theme of "Ekwa Godanagamu-Lowa Dinana Deshayak" (Let us unite to build a world conquering country).

All arrangements have been made to hold all religious observances in Kegalle district in line with the National Independence Day which brings all ethnic communities in Sri Lanka under one flag. Accordingly, Sri Lanka's 66th Independence Day ceremony will be held in Kegalle on February 4, 2014 under the patronage of Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, who will hoist the National Flag.

The military parade of the tri-forces which adds the distinction and elegance to the Independence Day ceremony will comprise of 1,400 Army Officers, 250 Navy Officers, 250 Air Force Officers, 250 Police Officers, 250 members of the Civil Defence Force, 325 Cadets of the National Cadets Force and 300 Members of the National Youth Corps. All arrangements have been made to add 16 beautiful cultural acts for the cultural pageant which showcases the cultural diversity of a rich nation. Moreover, at this ceremony 110 students of the schools in Kegalle district will recite the National Anthem of Sri Lanka, celebrating the nation's pride.

Similarly, 25 students representing four schools in the district will recite the Jayamangala and Prarthana stanzas for the blessings of the country. Buddhist religious observances will be held at Wewaladeniya temple, Kegalle and Hindu religious observances will be held at Kadirawelaudam Kalie Kovil, Kegalle. The Muslim religious observances will be held at Muhiyaddeen Jumma Mosk, Kegalle and Catholic religious observances will be held at St.Marry's Church, Kegalle while, Christian religious observances will be held at Sri Lanka Christian Reformist Assembly, Meepitiya, and Kegalle.

The movement for independence in Sri Lanka was a peaceful political movement which aimed at achieving independence and self rule for Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) from the British Empire. It was initiated around the turn of the 20th z_p07-The-struggle-02.jpgcentury initiated mostly by the educated middle class and ultimately was successful when on February 4, 1948 Ceylon was granted independence as the Dominion of Ceylon. Dominion status within the British Commonwealth was retained for the next 24 years until May 22, 1972 when it was declared a republic by the Constitution of 1972 and was renamed the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

In 1795 the British attacked Ceylon as part of England’s war against the French Republic. The Kandyan Kingdom collaborated with the British expeditionary forces against the Dutch, as it had with the Dutch against the Portuguese. Once the Dutch had been evicted, their sovereignty ceded by the Treaty of Amiens and subsequent revolts in the low-country suppressed, the British began planning to capture the Kandyan Kingdom. The 1803 and 1804 invasions of the Kandyan provinces in the 1st Kandyan War were defeated with much bloodshed.

Uva Rebellion

In 1815, the British fomented a revolt by the Kandyan aristocracy against the last Kandyan monarch and marched into uplands to depose King Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe in the 2nd Kandyan War. The struggle against the colonial power began in 1817 with the Uva Rebellion, when the same aristocracy rose against British rule in a rebellion in which their villagers participated. They were defeated by the occupiers. An attempt at rebellion sparked off again briefly in 1830. The Kandyan peasantry were stripped of their lands by the Wastelands Ordinance, a modern enclosure movement and reduced to penury.

In 1848 the abortive Matale Rebellion, led by Hennedige Francisco Fernando (Puran Appu) and Gongalegoda Banda was the first transitional step towards abandoning the feudal form of revolt, being fundamentally a peasant revolt. The masses were without the leadership of their native King (deposed in 1815) or their chiefs (either crushed after the Uva Rebellion or collaborating with the colonial power).

The leadership passed for the first time in the Kandyan provinces into the hands of ordinary people, non-aristocrats. However, in the words of Colvin R. De Silva, ‘it had leaders but no leadership. The old feudalists were crushed and powerless. No new class capable of leading the struggle and heading it towards power had yet arisen.’

In the 1830s, coffee was introduced into Sri Lanka, a crop which flourishes in high altitudes, and grown on the land taken from the peasants. However, the dispossessed peasantry were not employed on the plantations: The Kandyan villagers refused to abandon their traditional subsistence holdings and become wage-workers in the nightmarish conditions that prevailed on these new estates, despite all the pressure exerted by the colonial state.

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Schoolchildren at last year's Independence Day celebrations. File photo

The coffee economy collapsed in the 1870s, when coffee blight ravaged the plantations, but the economic system it had created survived intact into the era of its successor, tea which was introduced on a wide scale from 1880 onwards. The only significant modification to the colonial economy was the addition of a rubber sector in the mid-country areas. The collaborationist ciompradore elements of the elite, led by S. W. R. D. Banadaranaike, F. R. Senanayake and D. S. Senanayake ganged up against the populists led by Dharmapala and removed him from the leadership of the temperance movement. In 1915 commercial-ethnic rivalry erupted into a riot in the Colombo against the Muslims, with Christians participating as much as Buddhists.

British authorities

The British reacted heavy-handedly, as the riot was also directed against them. Dharmapala had his legs broken and was confined to Jaffna; his brother died there. Captain D. Edward. Henry Pedris, a militia commander, was shot for mutiny. Inspector General of Police Herbert Dowbiggin became notorious for his methods.

E. W. Perera a lawyer from Kotte, braved mine and submarine-infested seas (as well as the Police) to carry a secret Memorial in the soles of his shoes to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, pleading for the repeal of martial law and describing the atrocities committed by the Police led by Dowbiggin. The bitterness among the Sinhalese against the British authorities was considerable.

In 1919 the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) was founded to agitate for greater autonomy. In protest against the proceeds of poppy sales on Armistice Day (November 11) being used for the benefit of the British ex-servicemen to the detriment of Sri Lankan ex-servicemen, one of the latter, Aelian Perera had started a rival sale of Suriya (Portia tree) flowers on this day, the proceeds of which were devoted to help needy Ceylonese ex-servicemen. Doreen Young was elected first president of the Suriya Mal movement at a meeting held at the residence of Wilmot Perera in Horana.

Terence de Zilva and Robin Ratnam were elected Joint Secretaries. There had been a drought in 1934 which caused a shortage of rice, estimated at three million bushels. From October on there were floods, followed by a malaria epidemic in 1934–35, during which 1,000,000 people were affected and at least 125,000 died.

On November 28, 1936, at a meeting in Colombo, the president of the LSSP, Dr Colvin R. de Silva, introduced, Mark Anthony Bracegirdle, a British/Australian former planter saying: ‘This is the first time a white comrade has ever attended a party meeting held at a street corner.’ He made his first public speech in Sri Lanka, warning that the capitalists were trying to split the workers of Sri Lanka and put one against the other. He took an active part in organising a public meeting called by the LSSP on Galle Face Green in Colombo on January 10, 1937 to celebrate Sir Herbert Dowbiggin’s departure from the island and to protest against the atrocities during his tenure as Inspector General of Police. In March, he was co-opted to serve on the executive committee.

Deportation of Bracegirdle

On April 3, at a meeting at Nawalapitiya attended by two thousand estate workers, at which Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya spoke, Dr N.M. Perera said: ‘Comrades, I have an announcement to make. You know we have a white comrade (applause) …. He has generously consented to address you. I call upon Comrade Bracegirdle to address you.’ Bracegirdle rose to speak amid tumultuous applause. The authorities were on hand to note his speech: ‘the most noteworthy feature of this meeting … was the presence of Bracegirdle and his attack on the planters. He claimed unrivalled knowledge of the misdeeds of the planters and promised scandalous exposures. His delivery, facial appearance, his posture were all very threatening (T. Perera, The Bracegirdle Saga: 60 Years After, ‘What Next’, No 5 1997) The British planters were angry that their prestige was being harmed by a fellow white man. They prevailed upon the British Colonial Governor to deport him. Bracegirdle was served with the order of deportation on April 22 and given 48 hours to leave on the SS Mooltan, on which a passage had been booked for him by the Government.

The LSSP with Bracegirdle’s assent decided that the order should be defied. Bracegirdle went into hiding and the Colonial Government began an unsuccessful man-hunt.

LSSP started a campaign to defend him. On May 5, in the State Council, NM Perera and Philip Gunawardena moved a vote of censure on the Governor for having ordered the deportation of Bracegirdle without the advice of the acting Home Minister. Even the Board of Ministers had started feeling the heat of public opinion and the vote was passed by 34 votes to 7.

New constitution

On the same day there was a 50,000-strong rally at Galle Face Green, which was presided over by Colvin R. de Silva and addressed by Dr N. M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Leslie Goonewardena, A. E. Goonesinha, George E. de Silva, D. M. Rajapaksa, Siripala Samarakkody, Vernon Gunasekera, Handy Perimbanayagam, Mrs K. Natesa Iyer and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Bracegirdle made a dramatic appearance on the platform at this rally, but the police were powerless to arrest him.

However, the police managed to arrest him a couple of days later at the Hulftsdorp residence of Vernon Gunasekera, the Secretary of the LSSP. However, the necessary legal preparations had been made.

A writ of habeas corpus was served and the case was called before a bench of three Supreme Court judges presided over by Chief Justice Sir Sidney Abrahams.

The brilliant H.V. Perera, the county’s leading civil lawyer, volunteered his services free on behalf of Bracegirdle; he was made a Queen’s Counsel (QC) on the day that Bracegirdle appeared in court. On May 18 order was made that he could not be deported for exercising his right to free speech, and Bracegirdle was a free man. D. S. Senanayake formed the United National Party (UNP) in 1946, when a new constitution was agreed on. At the elections of 1947, the UNP won a minority of the seats in Parliament, but cobbled together a coalition with the Sinhala Maha Sabha of S. W. R. D. Banadaranaike and the Tamil Congress of G. G. Ponnambalam. It was to this government that the British prepared to hand over power, while preserving as much of a whip hand as possible.

The history of the independence struggle in Sri Lanka indicates that all Sri Lankans of all ethnic communities stood together as one to gain independence for our little island nation and that their struggle was a non-violent cohesive movement.

At the present time when Sri Lanka is faced with a challenge at the UNHRC Sessions in Geneva in March 2014 mounted by the UK and US with their allies at the behest of the diaspora which may result in the destruction of our country by foreign interference as was seen in Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan and presently Syria, all Sri Lankans of all ethnic communities should stand together to protect their motherland and the leaders who defeated the barbaric LTTE and vanquished its diabolical leader Prabhakaran and ushered in peace and tranquility to our motherland.

The Sri Lankans of the present time who will be celebrating the Independence Day in a few days should emulate our great leaders who lived in the past and learn lessons from that experience to settle our disputes peacefully through non violent methods such as consultation, compromise and consensus.