Revolt on the razor’s edge | Daily News

Revolt on the razor’s edge

The Ceylonese Freedom was not really offered on a platter, as some quarters would hasten to comment on the country’s Independence struggle. It was a collective effort amassed over the years if not decades. Some architects of the triumph went down the chronicle, while the rest remain unsung heroes. Some champions of this worthy cause did not even get to see the light of their labour. Seen or otherwise, the fruition of their sweat and toil is alive to this day.

Listed below are some of the luminaries who dared execute a rebellion on a razor’s edge.

Gongalegoda Banda (1809 –1849)

He was seen at the Dalada Maligawa just before the 1848 Rebellion broke out. Gongalegoda Banda led the protest march regarding unjustifiable taxes which was held on July 6, 1848, near the Kandy Kachchery. This rebellion was the first major uprising against the British since the Uva Rebellion in 1818. The anti-colonial movement on the island in 1848 was led by leaders such as Gongalegoda Banda, Puran Appu, Dingi Rala who were supported by many of the local people.

Puran Appu (1812 - 1848)

He rose from among the common people and he dared to challenge the might of British imperialism at its peak of power and glory during the Victorian era. On July 7, 1848, about a century before Ceylon gained Independence, Puran Appu led an attack on Matale. This was successful. However, the other leaders who attacked Kurunegala and Wariyapola failed.

Henry Steel Olcott (1832 – 1907)

Olcott is probably the only major contributor to the nineteenth-century Sinhalese Buddhist revival who was actually born and raised in the Protestant Christian tradition, though he had already left Protestantism for Spiritualism long before he became a Buddhist. His childhood Protestantism is a reason that many scholars have referred to the Buddhist modernism he influenced as Protestant Buddhism.

The American-born military officer, journalist, lawyer and the co-founder and first President of the Theosophical Society is considered a notable hero in the struggle of Sri Lanka’s independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national and cultural revival.

Ponnambalam Ramanathan (1851 – 1930)

Ponnambalam Ramanathan founded the National Reform Association in 1907. He contested the 1911 legislative council election as a candidate for the Educated Ceylonese seat and was elected to the Legislative Council, defeating physician Marcus Fernando. Ramanathan was responsible for the release of the Sinhalese leaders who had been arrested following the 1915 Ceylonese riots, travelling to the UK to make their case. He was re-elected at the 1916 legislative council election, defeating Justus Sextus Wijesinghe Jayewardene.

Ponnambalam Arunachalam (1853 –1924)

Arunachalam got involved in politics during his university days. He agitated for political reform whilst still working in the civil service. In retirement Arunachalam became involved in politics, founding the Ceylon National Association and the Ceylon Reform League, of which he was chairman, in 1917.

He was one of the founders of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) in 1919 and served as its first president from 1919 to 1920.

Arunachalam left the CNC in 1921 following disputes about communal representation in the Legislative Council, which Arunachalam opposed, and the connivance of Sinhalese politicians which resulted in no Tamils being elected from Western Province at the 1921 legislative council election.

He founded the Ceylon Tamil League in 1923.

James Peiris (1856 – 1930)

Peiris was first to propose the creation of a University College in Colombo and the means of financing it. Following the establishment of the University College, Colombo (later to become the University of Ceylon), Peiris was a Member of the Advisory Council of the new University College.

In 1915 Peiris led the campaign for a Royal Commission of Inquiry and the vindication of the reputations of those who had been falsely accused during the riots of 1915.

Peiris was the chairman of the committee which was protesting the British Governor's handling of the riots and the unfair and discriminative treatment being meted out to Sinhala Buddhist leaders.

As a Christian, although he was offered privileges and pressured by the ruling British, he fearlessly refused them and stuck to his principles. Seeing the horror unleashed by the governor and his advisers, he initiated and drafted a memorandum in great secrecy supported by other prominent members of society to bring it to the attention of the King.

It was taken to England hidden in the sole of a shoe by E. W. Perera.

As a result of this the governor Sir Robert Chalmers was recalled.

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864 – 1934)

Born to a devout Buddhist family in 1864, David Hewivitarne became Anagarika Dharmapala, the leading light of the Buddhist Renaissance Movement in Sri Lanka. As a child, Dharmapala was sent to Christian missionary school.

When a mob of Sri Lankan Catholics attacked a Buddhist procession in 1883, Dharmapala left school and turned his intellectual pursuit to Buddhism

Soon afterwards Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, founders of the Theosophical Society in New York, arrived in Sri Lanka and filed suit on behalf of the Buddhists who were injured in the attack. Dharmapala, who felt that the Society’s aims were identical to those of a Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, became a member. Madame Blavatsky took the young man under her tutelage, and he remained her loyal supporter for the rest of his life.

Sir DB Jayatilaka (1868-1944)

Being an activist in the Temperance Movement because of the love he had for Buddhism and the people of the nation, Sir DB was one of the leaders who was victimized and imprisoned through Martial law with false allegation by the British colonial ruling in 1915.

He was a well-respected personality in the country by both the eminent and the common public, therefore was instrumental in the revival and upgrading of the religious, national and cultural values of the nation that had deteriorated due to colonial ruling.

Sir DB had close relationships with intellectual and eminent personnel such as Venerable Rathmalane Sri Dharmaloka, Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala, Migettuwaththe Gunananda, Rathmalane Sri Dharmarama Theras, Anagarika Dharmapala, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, F R Senanayaka, Pandith Batuwanthudawa, Walasinghe Harischandra, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanadhan, D S Senanayaka, SWRD Bandaranaike, CWW Kannangara and TB Jayah. He also understood the pulse of the common man and was a noble personality who spent time with the general public.

EW Perera (1875 – 1953)

Fearing an uprising the inexperienced British colonial Governor of Ceylon Sir Robert Chalmers declared Martial Law on June 2, 1915 and on the advice of Inspector General of Police Herbert Dowbiggin began a brutal suppression of the Sinhala community by giving orders to the Police and the Army to shoot anyone who they deemed a rioter without a trial, it is said the numbers of Sinhalese killed this way were thousands. Many local leaders that included DS Senanayake, DR Wijewardena, Arthur V Dias, Dr Cassius Pereira, Dr WA de Silva, FR Dias Bandaranaike, HM Amarasuriya and AH Molamure who were imprisoned and Captain DE Henry Pedris, a militia commander, was shot for mutiny.

A memorandum was drafted at a secret meeting held at the residence of E W Perera, initiated by Sir James Peiris and presided over by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. Before presenting it to His Majesty's government, the support of the British members of parliament and the press in England had to be obtained.

Sea voyage was dangerous due to the presence of German submarines, which attacked ships and destroyed them.

Abandoning a promising career at the Bar, EW Perera undertook the task of going over to England by obtaining permission saying he was going to do some research in the British museum.

To his advantage, the British treated him as a scholarly Christian Barrister rather than a national patriot. He was accompanied by George E de Silva. In England, he was joined by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and later by Sir DB Jayatilaka and they presented the memorandum 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 mission was a success. The British government ordered the release of the leaders who were in detention. Several high officials were transferred. A new Governor, Sir John Anderson was sent to replace Sir Robert Chalmers with instructions to inquire and report to His Majesty's Government. EW Perera's effort was greatly appreciated and he was thereafter referred to as the Lion of Kotte.

It was also EW Perera who with the help of DR Wijewardena, the press baron traced the location of the banner of last King Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, the last king of the Kingdom of Kandy to the Royal Hospital Chelsea where it was kept since the surrender of the Kingdom to the British in 1815.

The recovered banner became a focal point in the independence movement and it became the flag of the Dominion of Ceylon upon its independence in 1948.

Walisinghe Harischandra (1876 - 1913)

Brahmachari Walisinghe Harischandra was a social reformer, historian, author and revivalist of Sri Lankan Buddhism.

He was a follower of Anagarika Dharmapala, who gave leadership to the Buddhist revivalist movement, after the lead given by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Walisinghe Harischandra is also regarded as the saviour of the citadel of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura.

Fredrick Richard Senanayake (1882 – 1926)

He was a lawyer and independence activist. A leading member of the Independence Movement, he was an elected member of the Colombo Municipal Council.

He was the principle supporter of the early political career of his younger brother D. S. Senanayake.

Don Stephen Senanayake (1883 – 1952)

Don Stephen Senanayake emerged as the leader of the Sri Lankan independence movement that led to the establishment of self-rule in Sri Lanka. A planter, Senanayake became active in the temperance movement which grew into the independence movement.

The three Senanayake brothers were involved in the temperance movement formed in 1912. When World War I broke out in 1914 they joined the Colombo Town Guard. The brothers were arrested and imprisoned without charges during the 1915 riots. They faced the prospect of execution since the British Governor Sir Robert Chalmers considered the temperance movement as seditious. He was released on a bail bound after 46 days at the Welikada Prison without charges. Brutal suppression of the riots by the British initiated the modern independence movement led by the educated middle class. Don Stephen and Don Charles were prominent members of the political party Lanka Mahajana Sabha. Fredrick Richard and Don Charles were committed supporters of the Young Men's Buddhist Association. DS Senanayake played an active role in the independence movement, initially in support of his brother Fredrick Richard.

Arthur V Dias (1886 –1960)

Arthur Vincent Dias was a philanthropist, temperance movement member and an independence activist. A planter by profession, he is known for the jackfruit propagation campaign he pioneered throughout the country, which earned him the name Kos Mama.

Dias also helped a number of educational establishments in the country. Before Sri Lanka gained independence from British rule, he was imprisoned by the colonial government and sentenced to death, although he was later released.

Dias wore a white banian and cloth instead of western clothing, and encouraged writing and signing in Sinhala. He became a national hero after the country gained independence. He had declined a knighthood offered by Governor Andrew Caldecott, as well as a seat in the senate in 1957, offered to him by Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike.

He also contributed significantly to education in the country.

Dias was a member of the first board of governors of Visakha Vidyalaya, and helped Ananda College financially.

Other schools that received help from Dias include the Nalanda College, Dharmaraja College and Dharmasoka College. He also donated a plot of land for the Sri Sumangala College in Panadura, on which the school was built.

D R Wijewardene (1886 – 1950)

In 1913, Wijewardene was elected Secretary of the Ceylon National Association, marking his formal entry into politics and together with its President Sir James Peiris he agitated for constitutional reform and self-rule.

DR Wijewardena and EW Perera traced the location of the banner of last King Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, the last king of the Kingdom of Kandy to the Royal Hospital Chelsea where it was kept since the surrender of the Kingdom to the British in 1815. The recovered banner became a focal point in the independence movement and it became the flag of the Dominion of Ceylon upon its independence in 1948.

Wijewardena was in touch with local events and organised the first deputation to the Secretary of State for the Colonies with HJC Pereira along with EW Perera. As a result of lobbying benefits Ceylonese were given another concession of a seat in the British dominated legislative council. To this seat majority of the Ceylonese elected Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan against Sir Marcus Fernando. He would later organise a second deputation too. He was also instrumental in starting the Temperance movement and the Amadyapa Sabha.

Henry Pedris (1888 – 1915)

Sinhalese Muslim Riots (known as the 1915 riots), which began in Kandy when a group of Muslims attacked a Buddhist pageant with stones, soon spread across the island. The British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Robert Chalmers, feared he might lose control of the colony and, on the advice of Brigadier General Malcolm, came down with a heavy hand on the Sinhalese community. Chalmers declared martial law on June 2, 1915, and ordered the police and the Army to shoot without trial anyone who they deemed a rioter. With the escalation of the violence, looting broke out within Colombo. Pedris, as he was responsible for the defence of the city, successfully managed to disband several rioting groups after peaceful discussions.

TB Jayah (1890 – 1960)

Jayah emerged as a leader of the Muslim community of the country. He entered the politics and became a prominent figure in pre-independence politics of Sri Lanka. He was elected to the legislative council, state council and parliament. He was also a founding member of the United National Party. He became the Minister of Labour and Social Service in the first independent government of Sri Lanka. After retiring from politics, Jayah was appointed as the first High Commissioner for Ceylon in Pakistan. He died in 1960, falling ill on pilgrimage to Mecca.

AE Goonesinha (1891 –1967)

Alexander Ekanayake Gunasinha was a pioneering trade union leader known as the Father of the Labour Movement. He was the founder of the Ceylon Labour Party, Sri Lanka's first labour organisation and former Mayor of Colombo.

The campaign against the tax brought Gunasinha into contact with Ceylonese workers. He found that the workers were poorly paid, with wages averaging between 30 cts. to Rs. 1.00 for a day's work, sometimes as long as twelve hours. He was determined to get the working class better and more equitable wages. As a result, members of the working class looked to Gunasinha as the leader they had longed for.

Gunasinha organised Sri Lanka's first trade union, the “Ceylon Labour Union” in 1922. Initial membership was approximately 25. Gunasinha was the secretary; longtime partner Victor Corea was made President. Some months after the formation of the union, Gunasinha assumed duties as president. That trade union is known today as the Ceylon Mercantile Union (aka “Ceylon Mercantile Industrial and General Workers’ Union”), led by Bala Tampoe. Tampoe is the seniormost trade unionist in the country having been part of the movement since 1948.

SWRD Bandaranaike (1899 – 1959)

In order to promote Sinhala culture and community interests, Bandaranaike founded the Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1936. He introduced the Free Lanka Bill in the State Council in 1945. In 1947, when Leader of the House, DS Senanayake, presented the Soulbury Constitution to the State Council, Bandaranaike seconded the motion stating that he does so as the Sinhala Maha Sabha was the largest party in the State Council.

With Ceylon heading for self-rule under dominion status, DS Senanayake invited Bandaranaike to combine his Sinhala Maha Sabha with other smaller parties into the United National Party (UNP) which Senanayake was forming to contest for the 1947 election under the new Soulbury Constitution. Bandaranaike accepted the invitation, formally dissolving the Sinhala Maha Sabha and merging with the UNP.

Wilmot A Perera (19051973)

The Suriya-Mal Movement was inaugurated at his residence in 1933. In 1935 he became a founding member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, becoming active politics and the Sri Lankan independence movement he was elected to the first post independence parliament in 1947 as an Independent Socialist, defeating CWW Kannangara. He was also a member of the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party for a short while. He was appointed as the 1st Ceylonese Ambassador to China in 1957 when Ceylon established diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China. In 1961 he was appointed to head the 1st Salaries and Cadres Commission (known thereafter as the Wilmot A. Perera Commission). He also served as the Chairman of the Commission for Higher Education. After his death, his ancestral home in Panadura was handed over to the Sri Sumangala Girls’ School.

Dr NM Perera (1905 – 1979)

The work done by Perera (as a member of the Suriya-Mal Movement) in the Kegalle district during the Malaria Epidemic of 1934 and during the subsequent floods gained for him the support of the poor and caste-oppressed people of the area, who called him Parippu Mahathmaya after the dhal he distributed as relief supplies.