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The Independence Movement - its early phases

by M. B. Dassanayake

The first phase of the growth of nationalism in Ceylon would be the years 1870-1915. During this period one saw a steady growth in numbers of the Ceylonese elite, a growth which taken as a whole built up increasing pressure behind demands for the reform of the constitution.


Anagarika Dharmapala



Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam

The Ceylon elite, however, was united only in their desire to gain greater power for themselves on the basis of their status as representatives of the people and from the beginning it was possible to see a division among the elite into what may be termed "nationalist" and "constitutionalist" wings.

The latter stood for the very limited programme of political action within the framework of the classical liberal political system - that is, Gladstonian Liberalism without its social conscience - while the former were committed to the regeneration of the traditional religion and the cultural and linguistic elements associated with it.

But while this division existed there was no sharp polarisation of forces such as what occurred in India in the first decade of the twentieth century.

It is noteworthy, however, that there was no positive effort to channel the enthusiasm that the temperance agitation evoked and indeed the discontent it generated among the Buddhist activists into a political force of real significance.

The "Ceylonese" nationalists diffused their energies over a wide range of religious, social, cultural and educational issues and made little effort to consistently focus attention on any clearly defined political objective.

They seemed curiously uninterested in exploiting the grievances of the Buddhists, grievances which they themselves were largely instrumental in delineating and agitating about, for the purposes of a positive programme of political action.

There appears to be two reasons for this; Buddhist organisations were too rudimentary (they were largely ad hoc in fact) for a sustained campaign; and the leadership of the movement was always in dispute.

The most "charismatic" of the Buddhist leaders, Anagarika Dharmapala was at heart a peripatetic religious propagandist who spent a great deal of his time out of the island and even when he was in the island he diffused his energies over a wide range of interests.

His abrasive personality and forthright speeches earned him the suspicions of the colonial authorities and the enmity of other Buddhist leaders many of whom were loath to acknowledge his claims to primacy in the leadership of the Buddhist movement.

Other temperance leaders were also marked men. When the riots of 1915 broke out, they were among the first to be arrested by the British authorities.

In 1915 an association with the temperance movement, past or present, was sufficient proof, so far as the colonial administration was concerned, of "seditious" activity, threatening the security of British rule in the island.

Any study of the origin of the Ceylon National Congress must take into account the lack of enthusiasm of most members of the 'constitutionalist' elite, for such an organization and the positive obstruction of influential groups in it.

Indeed, so strong was the opposition that Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam's sardonic comments on the formation of the Congress made on March 15, 1921, proved on examination to be no more than a mere statement of facts.

Ceylon Reform League

The inaugural meeting of the Ceylon Reform League was held on May 17, 1917. The minutes of the meeting show that there were 19 persons present on that occasion - a tiny group consisting of the "constitutionalist" leadership.

The 19 founder-members were: Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam (President), W. A. de Silva (Honorary Secretary), F. R. Senanayake (Hony. Treasurer), and H. L. de Mel, B. F. de Silva, J. W. de Silva, C. Gnanasekeram, Dr. C. A. Hewawitharana, A. St. V. Jayawardene, Amadoris Mendis, James Pieris, Dr. E. V. Ratnam, E. J. Samarawickreme, O. B. Wijesekera and D. R. Wijewardene.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam's standing in the country made him the obvious choice as President. His election was clearly intended to give the post of president which only he could have conferred on it. W. A. de Silva and F. R. Senanayake were elected Secretary and Treasurer respectively.

The aims of the League were declared to be (1) To secure such reform of the administration and government of Ceylon as will give the people an effective share therein, (2) To encourage the shady questions bearing on the political, economic and social conditions of the people.

Oddly enough, though, the Ceylon Reform League and the Ceylon National Association continued to exist side by side, and indeed worked together, provoking not unmerited sarcasm from the unfriendly critics.

D. B. Jayatilaka and E. W. Perera who were in London in connection with the attempt to persuade Whitehall to appoint a Commission of Inquiry into the riots of 1915, were adopted as agents of the League in London, with instructions to organise a deputation to present and support its representations.

The Donoughmore Commission arrived in Ceylon in 1927 and was looked upon much as an act of God by the political elite of Ceylon at that time.

However, its coming was pre-ordained by the contradictions inherent in the Manning Constitution of 1924, which although theoretically workable, had proved itself a cumbersome vehicle of administration in practice.

A product of the canny but brontosaurian mind of the late Governor Manning, it was an antediluvian constitution in many respects, especially when compared to the constitutional position then prevailing in India.

The Donoughmore Commissioners had been sent by the Colonial Office to inquire into the state of affairs of the island and decide upon the terms of a new, and it was hoped, more workable and politically acceptable constitutions.

The Donoughmore Commission was precisely the opportunity for which the radicals had been looking. It gave them a chance to air their grievances on a well-publicised platform with four eminent Englishmen, the Earl of Donoughmore, Sir Mathew Nathan, Dr. Drummond Shiels and Sir Geoffrey Butler acting as the arbitrating tribunal.

The radicals were singularly fortunate in the Colonial Office's choice for the delicate task of deciding between the contending parties, for all the Commissioners were men of liberal sentiments, the last two-named being members of the British Labour Party.

Arriving from a Great Britain which was then in industrial ferment with the British Labour Movement flexing its muscles for some kind of showdown with the capitalist class, they were particularly susceptible to suggestions of major constitutional reform from the leaders of the Ceylon Labour Movement.

It is not surprising that - George E de Silva and A. E. Goonasinha should have built upon the sympathies of the Commissioners, especially those of Butler and Shiels - by presenting them with a strong and cogent case for manhood suffrage.

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