Freedom and Nationalism

some insights into the final phase of British rule

We shall primarily touch upon the phenomenon of nationalism and its role in the pre-independence decades and also on the protagonists who prepared the soil of this nation for political emancipation. In other words this essay is purely relative or a narrative of history of the critical years of pre-independence.

l by Jagath C. Savanadasa

(February 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The word freedom in the context of this article is subjective and relates to the freedom we gained from British rule in 1948.
The word nationalism, on the other hand, has been interpreted in many ways in post-colonial literature. This makes it complex, difficult to define. An interesting study first published in 1983 titled Imagined Communities by Prof. Benedict Anderson of the Cornell University states that the definition of nationalism has transformed in a startling manner on more recent times. It is apparent that it is now linked to historical, anthropological, sociological and even feminist movements.
Once again, we wish to avoid all interpretative studies, instead concentrate purely on the outcome of the anti-imperialist development in the run up to the gaining of independence.
We shall primarily touch upon the phenomenon of nationalism and its role in the pre-independence decades and also on the protagonists who prepared the soil of this nation for political emancipation. In other words this essay is purely relative or a narrative of history of the critical years of pre-independence.
4th February 1948 was our date with destiny. On that historic day thousands gathered in front of the old parliament facing the emerald Indian Ocean. During post independent time this building reverberated with the parry and thrust of some of the greatest debaters in Sri Lanka’s history of Parliamentary democracy.
Don Stephen Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Independent Sri Lanka, later called the Father of the Nation, unfurled the national flag, the symbol of an ancient civilisation. The breeze that wafted across carried the cheers of those gathered – dignitaries as well as the average citizen, to the edges of the Galle Face green. It was a dignified yet proud moment, being finally free from the grip of Colonial rule after a long and difficult quest in reaching that elusive goal.
Resistance to the British rule
This part of the presentation acknowledges the fact that the formal leadership in the path to this country’s independence, in the form of D.S. Senanayake, F.R. Senanayake, Sir D.B. Jayatilleke, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, Sir Ponnamabalam Ramanathan, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike and also media baron D.R. Wijewardene among many others interacted effectively with the British with great acumen and finesse so as to gain freedom. There was also however a non-formal agitation conducted at grassroots level by national minded men.
In that praiseworthy endeavour, despite the restrictions placed on their freedom by the administration, they used an effective weapon at their disposal – the medium of mass communication. This enabled the raising of the level of national consciousness.
The three principle figures in this connection, towards the latter half of the nineteenth-century and the early twentieth-century, were Migatuwatte Gunananda, the formidable Buddhist monk who drove the first nail into the Christian missionaries’ coffin in that great debate in 1884, known as the Panadura Waadaya. The second was the greatest Buddhist revivalist in Sri Lankan history of the 20th century, Anagarika Dharmapala, and the third Piyadasa Sirisena, a consummate communicator who was one of the most active nationalists produced by this country. This last part of the presentation will examine in particular his career closely.
Piyadasa Sirisena’s role in the Buddhist revival and the freedom struggle
In the last few years there has been a surge in the study of communications and the media during pre-independent times. In fact this writer was approached by a few doctoral and post-graduate students, primarily to discuss Sirisena’s agitation for independence, through the medium of communication.
Following this, two such students, a young banker and novelist of much promise put out a thesis, yet unpublished, running into 400 pages, which was an excellent and exhaustive study on Piyadasa Sirisena’s great role as a communicator and publisher in those distant times.
Yet another young lady, a doctoral student, too produced an equally fine thesis on Sirisena, probing deeply into his work, primarily as a communicator.
Mervyn Herath, a leading publisher, author and former UNESCO Consultant too agrees with the view that mass-communication is today a favourite field of study.
To give a brief insight into Sirisena’s early life, there is no evidence of genealogical origin to his being a writer or novelist or publisher but there is indeed some evidence that whilst he was in his youth Sirisena evinced interest in early history of this country.
He was born in the Southern coastal hamlet of Induruwa, in 1875 to a middle-class family but the house that he lived in, which stands till this day is indicative of a degree of rural affluence.
The Sinhala media had made its first appearance in the country in 1850, in the southern province. It was a glimmer of light heralding a new medium of communication for the literate few in those distant times. Sirisena was undoubtedly inspired in his early life by Anagarika Dharmapala, whom he came into contact, whilst he was a youth. Recognising the young Sirisena’s talent and his leanings towards Buddhism, Dharmapala had appointed him Sub-editor of a Buddhist tabloid he published. By 1906 Sirisena now on his own began publishing, ‘Sinhala Jathiya’, which in due course became a strong instrument of national awakening and resistance to British rule. Simultaneously, he embarked on writing short stories before proceeding to publish novels. He was a prolific novelist and was easily the most read of his times. He produced nineteen novels, of which Rosalyn and Jayathissa became a landmark in Sinhala fiction. This novel bore all the features of his intention to use the medium of the novel to extol the virtues of Buddhism and condemn the British ways. His views had a tremendous impact on the mass of the Sinhala people. The book sold 35,000 copies in it first two editions, a milestone unmatched in the history of Sinhala fiction. Toward the 1930s he had firmly established himself as a publisher and novelist of considerable mass appeal and obviously attained national recognition.
In the course of this upward career trajectory, it was inevitable that Sirisena was drawn into the vortex of the struggle for freedom which gathered momentum towards the 1930s. He also forged friendships with the leading political figures of his time. Thus the Senanayakes, SWRD Bandaranaike, Hewavitharanas, the numerous other leaders of that era closely interacted with him in their collective pursuit of the goal of freedom. This writer recalls a former President, JR Jayawardene, who was the chief guest at the ceremonial unveiling of the Piyadasa Sirisena statue, stating that it was Sirisena who influenced him to take to politics. Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, one time the leader of the opposition in parliament, who was Chief Guest at a Piyadasa Sirisena commemorative meeting stated that he was inspired by Sirisena’s writings, and called him a hero’s hero.
Merger of the Temperance Movement and the National Freedom Struggle The British policy on liquor was yet another factor that caused a great deal of concern among the Buddhists in the turbulent final phase of British rule. Piyadasa Sirisena too through his publications actively supported the temperance movement, which in due course became a strong platform and merged with the political agitation in the 1930s.
Sinhala Maha Sabha
There is undeniable historical evidence that Piyadasa Sirisena was one of the key movers in the establishment of the Sinhala Maha Sabha. Further proof of this and also of his involvement in temperance activities is given at the newly established National Heroes gallery in the Independence Square.
Sinhala-Muslim riots and Marshal Law
If there was one particularly repressive act that the British engaged in, which raised the level of resistance against their rule it was during the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1916. At the height of the riots, the British imprisoned Sinhala leaders, especially those more visibly engaged in opposing their rule. A daughter of Piyadasa Sirisena, at that time a young student, Mrs Ratnavali Dissanayake, long dead, had recalled to her daughter the terrifying day on which her father was forcibly taken out of his house amidst the gunfire that rang through Colombo.
The riots which began in Kandy quickly engulfed many parts of the country, principally Colombo, the very centre of anti-imperialist activity. When they reached serious proportions, the British had declared Marshal Law.
Trial at bar and facing death penalty
This writer also listened to a story relating to the trial at bar conducted by British judges in which Piyadasa Sirisena was accused of sedition, an act punishable with death under Marshal Law. Sirisena had, in an editorial in ‘Sinhala Jathiya’, against the British administration urged his countrymen to rise against them if they heeded the call of the Muslims in Kandy, to divert the historic Dalada Perahera, from its traditional route, which had been a practice for centuries. The Muslims had stated that the accompanying music of the Perehera disturbed their prayers at the main mosque, which was by the side of the road that the Perahara traversed.
According to Lakshman Sirisena, a leading legal practitioner in Balapitiya, who related this gripping story that he learnt from his father, the one time Crown-Proctor of Balapitiya, Piyadasa Sirisena escaped death penalty on the strength of the firm and convincing evidence given by his wife – Mrs Cecilia Sirisena.
Piyadasa Sirisena died in 1946 after long years of service to the nation. History, when viewed in the backdrop of the above study clearly shows that nationalism too played a vital role in the movement to gain independence from British rule.


Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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