Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sinhalese-Muslim Riots of 1915; A Synopsis

by Sachi Sri Kantha

Front Note

The ‘practically unsinkable’ ocean liner, RMS Titanic sank on April 15th 1912, with the loss of 1,503 high-society passengers and predominantly British crew.  That was a low-note on the then British empire’s prestige.  But the Titanic moment for the British empire in the Indian subcontinent began three years and 42 days later, on May 28, 1915, in Kandy, with the eruption of the Sinhalese-Muslim Riots.  Its tremors and repercussions on triangular [Sinhalese-Tamil-Muslim] ethnic animosity are still being felt in the island, though 90 years have passed since the riots and 57 years since the curtain fell on the island’s muddled British legacy.

If there are any eye witnesses to the tragic events which happened between May 28th and June 5th of 1915 in Ceylon and can recollect their memories, they should be over 93 years old and still kicking alive!  In early 1970s, when I was visiting a kin of mine in Matale, I had occasion to listen to a casual chit-chat in Tamil of an elderly Muslim – then probably in his 60s -, who mentioned that as a young boy he had seen the riots of 1915.  But I could not check on the veracity of his claim.

In a nut-shell, the 1915 conflagration was between the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Muslims.  Indigenous Tamils got sucked into the conflagration because the then-leading Tamil statesman, Sir Pon Ramanathan (1851-1930), held the ‘Educated Ceylonese’ member seat in the island’s legislature.  The then-colonial representatives of the British government panicked and imposed Martial Law and arrested and held in detention quite a number of Sinhalese leaders.  The small and influential English-speaking Anglo community [who made up the law enforcement personnel, plantation owners and even a segment of the Christian missionaries] in the island sided with the then-ruling government.

Ramanathan overtly sided with the Sinhalese, which in turn infuriated the local Tamil-speaking Muslims.  Since then, the distrust between the indigenous Tamils and Muslims in the island has festered, despite damage-control exercises valiantly attempted by succeeding Tamil legislators like S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and A. Amirthalingam.  Though in the 1980s and 1990s, it became fashionable in the half-baked analyses of journalist hacks from Colombo and Chennai to put the blame for the current Tamil-Muslim rift on the LTTE and Pirabhakaran, although this rift has its origin in the 1915 riots and the role played by Sir Pon Ramanathan.

To add insult to the indigenous Tamils, the Sinhalese leaders, who were incarcerated by the colonial British government in 1915 [and on whose behalf Ramanathan pleaded with the colonial government], such as Don Stephen Senanayake (1884-1952; who later became the first prime minister of independent Ceylon) and Alexander Ekanayake Goonesinghe (1892-1967; who later became the first political mentor of President Premadasa), later made political hay on the back of Tamils, with their anti-Indian rhetoric and deeds.  To further confound the irony, since the 1940s, Muslims have sided with the Sinhalese against the indigenous Tamils to protect their political turf and business interests.  What should not be forgotten is that the Sinhalese-Muslim animosity in the island has a deep history, though for political expediency and to spite the indigenous Tamils, both Sinhalese and Muslims pretend that everything is hunky-dory with their relationship and only the LTTE are the troublemakers.

I provide below a synopsis, culled from the extant research literature, on the 1915 Sinhalese-Muslim riots, to mark the 90th anniversary of its occurrence.  For want of time in transcribing the lengthy research papers and book chapters, I provide only excerpts from the studies of Robert Kearney, Kumari Jayewardena, Charles Blackton, P.T.M.Fernando, James Rutnam and M.Vytilingam and cite the sources at the end.

(1) from Robert Kearney (1970)

"It is doubtful that any single event has had a more profound and far-reaching impact on the political history of modern Ceylon than an outbreak of communal disturbances in 1915 and the measures taken by the British colonial government in response to the disorders. The riots of 1915 erupted between Sinhalese Buddhists and a Muslim community, called Coast Moors, recently arrived in Ceylon from India and primarily engaged in trade and moneylending. The riots themselves were hardly of cataclysmic dimensions, and their significance for Ceylonese political development and place in the modern history of Ceylon would surely have been small but for the reaction of the colonial government. The almost universal Ceylonese judgment was that the government responded with totally inappropriate and unnecessarily harsh repression, directed largely against persons who were not responsible for the outbreaks of lawlessness and violence. The interpretation of the riots as contained in a joint statement by two Ceylonese nationalist organizations to the secretary of state for the colonies in 1919 has been accepted and echoed to the present. The statement charged: ‘In 1915 the bureaucracy thoroughly misunderstood some local disturbances such as occur in every part of the British Empire, saw in them a deep conspiracy against British rule, and resorted to violent measures under Martial Law, resulting in the summary execution of scores of innocent persons and the punishment by Courts Martial of hundreds of others."

The events of 1915 became a landmark in Ceylonese history because they served as a catalyst for the growth of demands for Ceylonese self-government. The suppresssion of the riots assumed a role in Ceylon similar to that of the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre for the Indian nationalist movement….The original clashes between Buddhists and Muslims were largely forgotten in the wake of the government’s actions. A.E.Goonesinha, one of the nationalists arrested following the riots, proposed a day of mourning for the dead, both Buddhist and Muslim, ‘who had been murdered by the British.’…

At the time of the riots, the Legislative Council included eleven official and ten unofficial members, the latter consisting of six nominees of the governor, two members elected by the European community, one elected by the Burgher community, and one noncommunal elected member representing the ‘eduated Ceylonese’ (excluding resident Europeans and Burghers). It was this lone representative of the Western-educated Ceylonese, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who, although, a Tamil Hindu, became the principal champion of the Sinhalese Buddhists and one of the most outspoken critics of the government at the time of the riots…."

(2) from Kumari Jayewardena (1970)

"The Buddhist-Muslim riots of 1915 are often depicted as an eruption of religious animosity and friction between Sinhalese Buddhists and a section of the Muslim population. According to this viewpoint, the riots were sparked by religious fanaticism as the Buddhists saw in the ‘intolerance and aggressiveness of the Muslims, a permanent danger to their religious practices and celebration of their national festivals.’ This interpretation of the riots, however, disregards several signficant economic and political developments which influenced the events of 1915 and leaves unanswered the important question of why, if the riots were merely a reflection of religious tensions, the British colonial officials took such drastic measures during the riots and exacted severe reprisals long after the rioting was over.

In the years before the riots, an awakening had taken place among the Sinhalese Buddhists which was not only a reaction to British political domination, but also an act of self-assetion against the economic power of minority groups in Ceylon. The rioteers of 1915 have often been portrayed as criminals and hooligans out for plunder; but there is evidence that in Colombo it was not the criminal and rootless elements who led the riots, but the skilled, better-paid, more militant segments of the working class. The government was aware of this potentially explosive facet of the Colombo rioting, which turned into an expression of revolt against economic exploitation. Furthermore, many British officials in Ceylon, alarmed by the spread of nationalism and industrial unrest in both India and Ceylon and perhaps apprehensive about the prospects of German intrigue in Asia during the First World War, were convinced that the rioting was directed against British rule…"

(3) from Charles Blackton (1970)

"…From a communal clash up-country, disorders spread into six of Ceylon’s nine provinces, causing the deaths of 140 people, the arrests of 8736, imprisonment of 4497 and at a cost of Rupees 7,000,000. British-Ceylonese relations were severely impaired and Sinhalese nationalism suddenly came of age. It happened, but why?….

Of a population of 4,106,350 in 1911, the Sinhalese made up 66.13% (24.32% Kandyans and 41.81% low-country people), 23.79% were Tamils (half recent immigrants), and 6.45% were Muslim Moors of which 1/7 were Indian Moors. The remaining 3.5% included Burghers and British. The early years of the twentieth century recorded a few anti-Western riots, some aimed against the Roman Catholic Church (in Anuradhapura, a Buddhist shrine city) and other demonstrations reflecting Asian pride in the victory of Buddhist Japan over the Russian giant in 1905. Anti-Muslim violence directed against the Moors (the term is a survival of Portuguese rule) was, however, not unknown.

Muslims had been in Ceylon since the eighth century, a composite group of Arabs, Persians and Muslimized Indians who came to be known as Ceylon Moors. The most recent arrivals, Indian Moors from Cochin and Malabar coast labeled ‘Coast Moors’, earned an undesirable reputation among Sinhalese while the older order of Ceylon Moors lived at peace among the Sinhalese, even attaining the status of headmen in some Kandyan villages. The charges against the Coast Moors were that they were unscrupulous, alien (some compared them to Jews; others, in 1915, to Germans), and they loaned money at usurious rates. De Souza notes that before the 1915 riots, Sinhalese had boycotted Coast Moormen’s boutiques (general merchandise shops and food counters) as a warning to them to desist from attempting to seduce Sinhalese girls. He also noted that the buying public of Ceylon blamed the Coast Moors for creating artificial increases in the prices of necessities…."

(4) from P.T.M.Fernando (1970)

"…The colonial officials, scarcely aware of the growing tension between the Buddhists and Muslims, mistook the disturbances for a ‘rebellion’ against British rule. The government’s ruthless handling of the riots brought the Western-educated Ceylonese to the limelight and led them into political activity as never before…

Martial law was proclaimed in early June and was not lifted until August 30, 1915. Th days of martial law had a terrifying impact on the people of Ceylon…In comparison with the thirty-nine persons killed by the rioters, at least sixty three were killed by the military and the police in suppressing the riots.

When the rioting had been brought under control, the officer commanding the troops, Brigadier General H.H.L.Malcolm, began punishing offenders and assessing the damage to Muslim property so that compensation could be recovered from the inhabitants of the disturbed areas…A total of thirty four persons were executed by order of the military courts. Many of the convictions were based primarily on the testimony of Muslim witnesses, whose perjury was exposed in civil trials…

Far worse than the summary justice of the special commissioners and the military trials were the atrocities committed by ‘English volunteers’, mainly planters from the tea estates and employees of Colombo commercial houses, who were recruite to patrol the areas where rioting had occurred. Many persons were harassed and flogged without being tried at all, and accusations were rampant that many were also executed by these volunteers without trial…"

(5) from James T.Rutnam (1971)

"Foot-note 72a: The word Hambaya derived from sampan-karaya had no sinister connotation. But the member representing the ‘Mohammadans’ in the Legislative Council, N.D.H.M.Abdul Cader (1879-1938) took heated exception to its use by Ramanathan in the Legislative Council on 24 October 1917….

Foot-note 75: Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (1851-1930), Nominated Member representing the Tamil-speaking people, Legislative Council, 1879-1892; Solicitor-General, 1892-1906; Elected Member representing the Educated Ceylonese, Legislative Council, 1911-21. His advocacy of the Sinhalese cause in the Legislative Council in August, September and October 1915 was such that ‘no Ceylonese ever reached that summit of fame before or since.’…"

Like the above-mentioned foot-note 75, historian James Rutnam’s lengthy paper on the role of Rev.Alexander Garden Fraser (1873-1962), who served as the principal of Trinity College, Kandy for two decades (1904-24), in the 1915 riots is notable for the thumb-nail sketches he had provided on the leading actors of that riots. These thumb-nail sketches are worthy of reproduction, in a sequel to this synopsis, since individuals who acted in that political theater for various motives and agendas, deserve exposure. The research contributions of Kumari Jayawardena, Charles Blackton and P.T.M.Fernando, which appeared in 1970, do not provide such vital information on the leading actors.

(6) M. Vythilingam (1977)

"…The riots sprang from the religious fanaticism of a small section of the Muslims known as the Hambayas, who insisted that all non-Muslim religious processions should proceed in silence when they passed their mosques. The Hambayas were Mohammedan immigrants from the East Coast of South India and then numbered nearly thirty three thousand. They formed an exclusive community and did not at that time intermarry with other Mohammedans in the island.

The time for the celebration of the great Buddhist festival – the anniversary of the birthday of Buddha – fell on the 28th of May, 1915. With much trepidation of heart, those who had hitherto conducted the carol procession in Kandy applied to the Government Agent, Central Province, for the usual licence, but the Hambayas of Kandy, who owned the mosque at Castle Hill Street, objected to its issue. The elected members of the Municipal Council unanimously recommended the issue of the licence. The Government Agent, having ascertained from the trustees of the Castle Hill street mosque that the hour for closing it on Friday, the 28th May, was twelve midnight, issued the licence subject to the condition that the procession should not enter Castle Hill Street before midnight.

He, however, neglected to take the precaution, suggested by the District Judge of Kandy in the Walahagoda Devale case, of having the aggressive Hambayas bound over to keep the peace. He also failed, as the head of the police in the Central Province, to have a sufficient number of properly armed police officers and constables in the streets of Kandy, so as to prevent any sudden outbreak of riot.

It was about 1 am, when the first carol procession with a band of musicians in a decorated cart turned from King Street into Castle Hill Street. The Sinhalese crowd were amazed to see the Hambayas’ mosque open and lit up, and a crowd of Mohammedans, including Afghans, standing on either side of the street. Inspector Cooray, observing from the junction of King Street the defiant attitude of the Mohammedans, desired the carol party not to go forward, but to pass into a cross street so as to avoid the mosque altogether. The conductors of the procession obediently turned the carol cart into the street indicated. Just then the Hambayas and the Afghans clapped hands, jeered and boohed, which was more than the Sinhalese could bear. They halted indecisively, looking towards the mosque, when a still larger crowd, headed by another party of carol-singers in a second cart, came and entered Castle Hill Street. The first party then followed the second party.

As they advanced, a number of stones and empty bottles fell on the people, hurled from the upper storeys of two boutiques near the mosque and from the platform of the mosque. The Sinhalese crowd were infuriated. They rushed forward, picked up the stones lying on the street, pelted them at the boutiques and the mosque, chased the Mohammedans, who fled into the mosque, pulled down its iron bars and smashed its glass panes, broke into the adjoining boutiques and flung into the streets the boxes of grain and groceries.

During all this disturbance, there were no more than one Inspector and six constables, who, of course, could not control the crowd. Mr.Cooray sent for help from the Police Station, and a squad of police who arrived seized about twenty-five men on charges of riot and house-breaking. The surging crowd passed into other streets about 2 pm and disappeared with their battered cars. Thus ended the national Wesak festival of the Buddhists in 1915, undertaken in all piety and reverence to celebrate the birthday of the great peace-maker, named Goutama Buddha….

To outline the true dimensions of the disturbances in Kandy town, the first riot occurred between 1 and 2 on the morning of the 29th May 1915, in consequence of the intolerance and aggression of the Hambayas and Afghan Mohammedans assembled in and about the mosque in Castle Hill Street. No lives were lost, nor any serious bodily injury inflicted. Some boutiques were damaged and their contents turned out, which were mostly made a bonfire of in the streets, and the glass shutters of the mosque and some iron bars were also damaged.

The second riot took place between 8 and 10 pm on the same day (29th May) provoked directly by the failure of the police to arrest the murderer of an innocent Sinhalese youth, whom a Hambaya brought down with a bullet from a revolver fired from the upper storey of his master’s shop. No other persons were killed. Some shops and boutiques were damaged, and their contents thrown into the streets to be burnt.

The third disturbance occurred between 3 and 4 pm on the following day (30th May). It was not a riot, but a street fight between three Mohammedans and a few Sinhalese. These events, standing out linked together in the minds of the Buddhists, have operated as causes for the attack on the Mohammedans in various parts of the island during the one week that began on the 29th May and ended on the 5th June 1915….

At the time of the outbreak of the riots, Ramanathan was recouping his health at Sivan Adi, his holiday-home at Kodaikanal, South India. He was completely in the dark about happenings in the island until his Sinhalese friends wrote to him apprising him of the situation and requesting him to hurry back to Colombo. On arriving he found conditions utterly appalling….Ramanathan addressed an appeal to the Governor to grant him an interview and was astonished to receive the reply pleading inability owing to pressure of engagements and requesting a written statement…."

Literature Sources [chronologically arranged]

Kearney, R.N.: The 1915 riots in Ceylon – a symposium; Introduction. Journal of Asian Studies, Feb.1970, vol.29, no.2, pp.219-222.

Jayewardena, K.: Economic and Political Factors in the 1915 riots. Journal of Asian Studies, Feb.1970, vol.29, no.2, pp.223-233.

Blackton, C.S.: The action phase of the 1915 riots. Journal of Asian Studies, Feb.1970, vol.29, no.2, pp.235-254.

Fernando, P.T.M.: The post riots campaign for justice. Journal of Asian Studies, Feb.1970, vol.29, no.2, pp.255-266.

Rutnam, J.T.: The Rev.A.G.Fraser and the riots of 1915. Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, July-December 1971, vol.1, no.2 (new series), pp.151-196.

Vythilingam, M.: The Life of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, vol.2 (1910-1930), 1977, chapters 10 (Riots-1915, pp.229-250), 11 (Riots-Speeches, pp.251-320) and 12 (Ramanathan’s Mission to England – His Return, pp.321-330).

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Posted June 2, 2005