Threads of Moral Puritanism in Sinhala Nationalist Practice

 Michael Roberts ** … a reprint of an article published in South Asia, Vol. XIX, Special Issue, (1996), pp. 205-220. with the title “Teaching Lessons, Removing Evil: Strands of Moral Puritanism in Sinhala Nationalist Practice


Expressions of Sinhala nationalism since the mid-nineteenth century, as one might expect, have been varied and multi-faceted. In this essay, I highlight a thread of moral puritanism which has not only been powerfully inscribed into the pogroms espoused in the period 1880s to 1910s, but also within the altered context of the 1950s-1980s.

 Borella Junction, Colombo, 24.25 July 1983

   A Hindu mob waiting to defend their own from Muslims in Bhagalpur –before becoming a marauding band seeking retribution — in a pattern also seen in 1915 in Sri Lanka during the anti-Moor pogrom

The ideational backdrop for the force of such threads of inspiration and legitimation, even among movements which are ostensibly secular, such as that of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), is provided by the values of a Buddhist civilisation, values which extend beyond the Sinhala Buddhist population.[1] Of the ten principles enjoined on his followers by the Buddha, the three that constitute the Three Refuges: dāna (giving, generosity), sīla (virtue, purity) and bhāvanā (meditation), are central. But among these values, contemporary Buddhist monks accord a fundamental place to sīla — purity, good conduct.[2] Thus, Carrithers concludes that in the systematisation of the Buddhist path the key is purity [which serves as] the master metaphor not only in the monk’s life but in the monastic civilisation which surrounds it’.[3] This emphasis extends (extended) to those Buddhist laymen and women who have taken the path of devotees, and is especially pronounced among those referred to as upāsaka. In keeping with such tenets even those who have not actively taken up the sīla path understand — and thus partially accept as value — that sīla, concentration and wisdom”, constitute ‘the way of disentangling the tangle of craving and desire which binds us to suffering’.[4]

From the mid-nineteenth century during the first phase of Sinhala opposition to British colonial rule the emphasis on moral reform was derived in part from a movement of Buddhist revitalisation in opposition to Christian hegemony.[5] This line of argument was meshed with an upholding of that which was considered to be ‘traditional’ (sirit virit, kulacaritra), traditions which were seen to be disappearing in the face of Western life styles and new commodities.[6] These programs, then, were a response to the advances made by Christian proselytisation, the denigration of the local religions and lifeways by Christian evangelicals and Westerners, and the Westernisation of segments of the local population, especially among the elites.

Westernisation, therefore, was decreed to be a form of ‘denationalisation’.[7] In this view the Western world became the embodiment of materialism — against which the spirituality of the East was invoked. Thus, in 1919, Peter de Abrew depicted the advent of Western civilisation to Sri Lanka as ‘the stage in our civilisation when the pilgrimage of the soul of our people became stationary more or less.’ He argued that ‘Ceylon’s’ emerging culture was a hybrid mongrel product, ‘neither Western nor Eastern in soul, life or form!’ The indigenous purveyors of Western ways were represented as mimetic beings whose educational policies were essentially European. The existing educational system, in this view, was a dangerous force.

It wants you to barter your birthright! It wants you to think in a language which is foreign to you. It wants you to shape your thoughts in a foreign idiom.

De Abrew’s answer was a return to development ‘on indigenous lines’ — in brief to ‘National Education’. Through such measures the ‘Ceylonese’ could ‘take up the threads of our ancient civilisation, and thus give the soul of our people the momentum to start on its pilgrimage’.[8]

In contrasting ‘Eastern spirituality’ with Western materialism, de Abrew was elaborating upon a standard theme in the nationalist writings in India, Burma and Sri Lanka.[9] His article also expressed a theory of degeneration and contamination. As such de Abrew’s pamphlet links up with a consistent theme in the Sinhala newspapers from the 1880s as well as the didactic stories in Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels and John de Silva’s plays.[10]

These themes resurfaced powerfully in the immediate post-colonial era after independence in 1948. A democratic structure based on universal adult suffrage encouraged certain intermediate élites to press forward and effect a major political transformation in 1956. This movement was not only an upsurge of the underprivileged against the privileged. It was also a thrust by the vernacular-speakers against the English-educated and the highly Westernised. Among the Sinhala, the latter were depicted as tuppahi: contaminated mixtures of a lower kind.[11]

Such vocabulary is indicative of the degree to which metaphors of caste directed the language of denigration used both by subaltern classes challenging the privileged as well as Sinhala nationalists objecting to Western colonial overlordship. In the electoral transformation of 1956 both these strands were powerfully combined.

Buddhist associations, including the Eksat Bhikkhu Peramuna, a political front marshalled by Buddhist monks, were heavily involved in the political campaign which brought the Mahajana Eksat Peramuna (MEP) under Bandaranaike to power in 1956. As such, the deployment of cleansing vocabulary may not seem surprising. But such vocabulary has also been embedded in the rhetoric of radical socialists who had launched the Left Movement in the 1930s and who provided one component within the coalition known as the MEP.[12] And there is evidence, albeit fragmentary (see below), that threads of moral puritanism entered the internal constitution and the propaganda of the JVP in the late 1960s-and-onwards. Since the JVP as well as the Old Left are not normally considered to be Buddhist in orientation, such threads suggest that a secularised form of Buddhist ethics has been insinuated into movements which saw themselves as radically revolutionary. This should not be viewed with surprise: it would seem to be a ‘logical’ outcome when Marxist theory takes a populist route in a predominantly Buddhist country.

The force of such strands of thought can be illustrated through two events in the early twentieth century: the temperance agitation in 1904 described by John Rogers and ‘the 1915 communal riots’.[13] Both events occurred in the southwestern districts of the island, the region which contained the majority of the island peoples and which was predominantly Sinhala in composition. The `riots’ occurred over about nine days between 29 May and 7 June and ranged over many districts. With attentiveness to their traumatic effects on the Mohammedan Moors (hereafter shortened to Moors) who were at the receiving end of attacks from (mostly) the Sinhalese,[14] the ‘riots’ merit reclassification as a ‘pogrom’ in the Old Russian meaning of `destruction’.[15]


The investigation of the conditions of possibility which surrounded the anti-Moor pogrom of 1915, the events that led to the attacks on the Moors and the fragmentary evidence on the thinking of the Sinhala activists indicate that in May-June 1915 the community of Moors (marakkala) were being taught a lesson.[16] They were receiving guṭi (blows), a word which in other archaic usages also is a synonym for guli, a medicinal pill.[17]

In this context of usage, the guṭi which the Moors received were regarded by the Sinhala activists as blows which the Moors deserved. In this view, not only were the Moors a cunning, economically rapacious people who were extracting wealth from the Sinhalese and enticing young Sinhala women into their fold,[18] they were also interfering with and obstructing time-honoured Buddhist ceremonies. Among the ceremonies that were, quite unreasonably in this view, obstructed in this manner was the Äsala Perahära at Gampola and its water cutting rite, annual rituals which ensured prosperity, fertility and harmony through the power of the gods.

The Moor position on the question of processions passing in front of mosques was quite obdurate: they insisted that all processions should cease making their sabda pujā (noise worship) in front of mosques whenever they passed, at all times of the day. In the years 1907-1915 most (but not all) British officials considered this a reasonable request. Not so the Sinhala Buddhists. They considered this inflexible demand to be quite unjust, while a few even considered it to be a harbinger of disaster.[19] It was a hardship (amāruvak), an injustice (ayuttak) and also an insult to their religion.[20]

Some Sinhalese decided to avenge this insult. The pogrom of May-June 1915 was their work, the mobilisation against the Moors being assisted by economic grievances and other motivations of an instrumental nature. In taking this stance the activists did so not only as Buddhists. They did so as Sinhalese. Buddhism was regarded as ‘the religion of the land’ and ‘the national faith‘.[21] And the litany of grievances against the Moors implicated the latter, on both religious and economic grounds, as paradēssakkāra (low and vile aliens). In the heightened nationalist consciousness of the time even some Catholics and Protestants saw the Moors as a threat. From a grand peur (great fear) reminiscent of the French revolutionary crowds as well as Black Friday, 1983,[22] it was a simple step for defensive assemblages to become marauding bands seeking out Moor boutiques, houses and mosques.

These attacks occurred in the Central, Western, North Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces and were spread over nine days. By 1 June the disturbances were said to be in progress in eighty-six centres, on the 2 June in one hundred and sixteen, 3 June eighty-three, 4 June fifty-four (including fresh outbreaks) and 5th June thirty-eight. Official statistics,[23] which probably need revision, estimated that the Moors suffered the following damages.

   Property     Persons
Houses and boutiques looted: 4075    Murdered: 25
Houses and boutiques fired: 350    Wounded: 189
Mosques burnt: 17    Raped: 4
Mosques otherwise damaged: 80


Bland statistics cannot convey the effect of these attacks, especially their effect on the emotions. Some measure of these affective effects can be gleaned by considering three illustrative moments:

  • When, after a Moor had stabbed several Sinhalese (killing one) at Trincomalee Street, Kandy on 30 May evening and a mob had assaulted the Moors and Moor houses in the neighbourhood, Vaughan (Government Agent, Central Provinces) reached the scene and recorded the following impression: ‘I have never seen a crowd so excited — men were crying from excitement, and appeared to be demented.’[24]
  • The scene that greeted Browning (Assistant Government Agent, Matara) when he reached Godapitiya near Akuressa in the Southern Province on 4 June. “Ön arrival I found a terrible scene of ruin, but no sign of the rioters . . . The village was in : flames. The mosque, one of the finest in the district, had evidently been blown up with dynamite, while the surrounding coconut trees had been felled so as to fall on the roof. Parts of it were on fire. There was one dead Moorman in the compound, while 8 others (two of whom died on the way to Hospital) were seriously injured . . . It was most pitiful and one’s sense of helplessness was overwhelming.”[25]
  • The moment when Abdul Rahiman (Mohammedan representative in the Legislative Council), writing a summary report on the ‘riots’ after a tour of the affected areas, had to confront the memory of desecrated mosques.[26]

With regard to Mosques I would ask your Excellency to order [that] those slightly damaged . . . be repaired with the addition of a new floor, as a set off to the pollution of the building and all the walls replastered to a height of 7 feet. Your Excellency may already be aware that the sacred edifices have been polluted in several ways, some of which I can hardly mention.

As at Godapitiya, large crowds were involved in these attacks: crowds of over a thousand were reported at Matale, Wattegama, Kadugannawa, Gampola, Rambukkana and Panadura; while that at Gewilipitiya-Aranayake was variously estimated at eight hundred to four thousand. At Gampola and Panadura the authorities (both police and British civil servants) were forced to retreat and among the missiles they were assailed with (in Gampola) were bottles filled with sand. On at least four occasions the crowds, by the sheer weight of intimidation, effected a release of individuals who had been arrested.[27]

The activists can be sub-divided into the overlapping categories of stirrers, riot captains, assailants and looters. The stirrers were those who stimulated the assembled crowds through oratory. Some of them, who assumed the leadership of mobs, thereby became ‘ringleaders’ (official terminology) or riot captains. In certain localities, these activists included personnel from the middle class and/or bourgeoise: well-to-do landed proprietors, contractors, businessmen, superintendents of plantations, clerks and middle echelon headmen. A preliminary examination of the data indicates that activists were drawn from a wide range of occupational and social categories: (a) landed proprietors; (b) bigger businessmen (mudalālis); (c) boutique keepers and small mudalālis; (d) headmen of various sorts; (e) other government functionaries; (f) teachers; (g) clerks; (h) notaries; (i) plumbago mine-workers; (j) carters; (k) smallholder cultivators; (l) road and rail repair personnel; (m) estate conductors and estate coolies, especially in Sabaragamuwa and the North Western Province, apparently Low-Country Sinhalese; (n) bhikkhus; (o) railway workers in Colombo; (p) stevedores in Colombo; (q) and the amorphous categories of ‘villagers’ and ‘workers’.

Several of these categories shade off into one another (for example (b) and (c)). Others overlap: thus, several headmen were engaged in trade.[28] Overall, though, this evidence reveals the wide variety of people participating in the pogrom and the cross-class linkages that were in operation. In particular, they reveal the critical role of the intermediary or local élites. This classificatory category is derived from my perception of the Ceylonese social order in terms of a two-dimensional, three-tier structure located below the British ruling class (see cha

graph (1)

  arrows in key represent contradictions and / or hierarchies

The distinction between the bourgeoisie and proletariat is drawn in Marxist terms, according to a property relationship. Nevertheless, capitalism in Sri Lanka was modified by status goals and the reproduction of pre-capitalist practices which focused on the control of people rather than capital assets. British colonial rule also fostered an emphasis on fluency in the English language and the force of Westernised life styles. As such one had a distinction between the middle class and the rest (here termed ‘hoi polloi’). One could be in the middle class without being a property owner who commanded labour in production (a capitalist). One could be a capitalist without having the status/power attributes of the middle class. In the early twentieth century, many clerks with the right family connections and attributes were middle class (though other clerks would fall into our intermediary élites).

In the Kandyan region there can be little doubt that low country Sinhalese from all classes, especially the intermediary élites and ‘hoi polloi’-cum­ proletariat, played a significant part in activating the pogrom. The participation of a middle-lower echelon of headmen as well as other government functionaries (clerks, registrars, ‘peace officers’, police vidānēs, fiscals and vernacular-school teachers) was particularly striking; and appears to have been a feature in most localities (thus Kandyan headmen were implicated too).[29] In the Kandyan districts that were affected, low country Sinhalese carters, mineworkers and boutique keepers appear to have been especially prominent. Since Low Countrymen had been moving into the hill country since the 1820s and 1830s, these persons should not necessarily be seen as temporary sojourners. It is safe to assume that several low country Sinhala activists had a two-three generational depth in their hill-country localities. With this diverse cross-class composition and in the many ways summarised above, several Sinhalese qua Sinhalese moved in May-June 1915 towards teaching ‘the Tambies’ (Mohammedan Moors) a lesson for ‘insulting our nationality and our religion’.[30]

In July 1983, too, the Tamils were being taught a lesson by those Sinhalese who participated in the pogrom and those who sympathised with the work of the assailants.[31] It would seem that it was not until the early 1980s that the commitment and strength of the Eelamist forces entered the consciousness of the generality of the Sinhalese.[32] It was from about 1981 that the Tamil militants revealed a capacity to attack police stations in the north in force, at Anakottai in July 1981 and at Chavakachcheri in October 1982.[33]


In contrast to May-June 1915, state agencies appear to have participated actively in the pogrom against Tamils living in the southwestern and central regions of the island. That, at least, is the firm verdict of the Tamil victims of the attacks as well as the opinion of various observers, both middle class and labouring poor, both Sinhalese and Burgher (and Muslim).[34] The focus on sponsored state activity should not, however, be allowed to subsume the considerable popular participation in the work of punishment and pillage that went on during that fateful week in July 1983 — fateful not only for the Tamil victims, but also for Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese because that is precisely what the militants were hoping for[35] — and, indeed, the pogrom increased the support for the Eelamist cause a thousand-fold.

An important aspect of the Buddhist revival and the development of Sinhala nationalism in British Ceylon was the temperance agitation of the early twentieth century. This agitation was multi-faceted. It drew the active support of Ceylonese Christians, especially Protestant laymen and clerics. r, the movement was strongly identified with Buddhism.[36]

From the late nineteenth century the Buddhist revival and Sinhala nationalism was marked by an antipathy to Westernisation. Western customs were said to be producing degenerate Sinhalese. One of these degenerate customs was the influence of ‘the alcohol demon’ (Dharmapala’s words).[37] It was widely believed that the West had introduced drink to the island while the cultural stereotype of the European male depicted ‘him’ as a heavy drinker.[38] The hostility to alcohol, moreover, was in line with a Buddhist precept. Temperance also expressed the values of thrift and respectability so dear to the Sinhala middle class. To emphasise these themes publicly as part of one’s opposition to colonialism and its concomitant, Westernisation, was to affirm one’s cultural identity as a Sinhalese and/or Buddhist.[39]

The temperance agitation had two outstanding phases, 1904 and the 1910s, during both of which there was mass participation and considerable organisational energy. During its brief upsurge in 1904 the agitation spawned about six hundred associations, with perhaps 200,000 members, or one-fifth of the adult male population of the island.[40] The 1910s agitation was ‘a very active and minutely organised’ temperance campaign.[41] It was coordinated by the Colombo Total Abstinence Central Union and at one point in 1915 was said to have two hundred and twenty branch societies with 24,033 members.[42] The conferences organised by the CTACU and its branches were marked by pageantry; so too were the regular weekly political meetings at selected sites (rural and urban) to which CTACU delegates were sent to make speeches. When the Hapitagam Korale Temperance Union, where the Senanayake family and F. D. Dias Bandaranaike were leading figures, held its periodic conferences, crowds of 10,000 and 25,000 were reported to have attended the occasions.[43]

Given such a network and such enthusiasm, it is hardly surprising that some British officials believed that the temperance movement provided the command centre which engineered a pre-planned attack on the Mohammedans.[44] At this stage of my study I cannot essay an opinion on this point with even a modicum of confidence. It appears that, at the local level (in Gampola, Kandy, Rambukkana, Attanagalla, Panadura, Hapitigam Korale and Galapitamada for instance), leading figures in the temperance or religious samagam (associations) took an active part in mobilising and inciting the crowds.[45] Though there was no disturbance in the town of Kurunegala because of the presence of armed police parties and the energy of a no-nonsense G.A., a temperance preacher named Kumara Bandara attempted to incite a riot at about 5.30 p.m. on the 3rd June.

It appears that he shouted to the Sinhalese to come and smash up the Moors saying ‘This is the day to ruin the Moors: if you don’t do it now when will you do it’ and when no one immediately accepted his invitation he abused the Sinhalese for not starting smashing up the Moors etc.[46]

This sort of data does not necessarily indicate an organised conspiracy, but points to the manner in which the specific emphases within the ideology of Sinhala and/or Buddhist nationalism could provide the conditions which inspired several Sinhalese to punish the Mohammedan Moors, the marakkala.

Thus contextualised, the ideological content of the temperance agitation assumes importance. For our purposes today, that which interests me is the thrust of temperance reform as it was pursued in 1904. This agitation worked within the general framework of the espousal of Buddhist values and a hostility to Westernisation. But, as John Rogers demonstrates, unlike the 1910s (where opposition to the Excise Ordinance directed the campaign), the focus was on the demand for arrack and toddy. The leaders ‘sought to change poor people’s social behaviour so that it was more like their own’.[47] One can, therefore, follow Rogers in speaking of a model of bourgeois respectability (bourgeois in the sense ‘genteel’ and ‘middle class’, the eighteenth century French sense) being imposed in hegemonic fashion on the people.

What is specifically significant about this emphasis in 1904 was that it was initiated and espoused by the intermediary élites who started the campaign in the Southern Province in April 1904. These were persons from well-to-do families who were more comfortable speaking in Sinhala and whose influence did not usually extend beyond their own locality.[48] As such, they were precisely the class or status group to whom the writings of Dharmapala, Sirisena, John de Silva et al were likely to have carried an appeal. It was not until June 1904 that ‘men of national importance seized leadership of the movement’; a partial takeover that was, so to speak, facilitated by the localised intermediary leadership insofar as they invited prominent members of the middle class in Colombo, Galle and elsewhere to speak at the meetings they organised.[49]

Throughout the 1904 agitation, however, the modus operandi of these temperance associations was that initiated by P. A. de Silva et al at Koggala and the villages of Talpe Pattu in April 1904. Placed within the broader context outlined above, certain features of their modus operandi are pertinent today. They bear comparison with the cleansing and purificatory ideological thrusts of the JVP. Each temperance association not only adopted the organisational model of Western voluntary associations, but also got the large number of men who joined the association in the first flush of enthusiasm to take pledges promising to abstain from the consumption of alcohol. That was not all. The associations, says Rogers, hired peons to watch nearby taverns; and then tried and punished members who had broken the pledge.

Symbolic punishments . . . were sometimes imposed. Many persons were required to carry sand or flowers to the local temple. In some instances the humiliation was more explicit. Men were marched down streets carrying a placard announcing their offence, or wearing conspicuous headgear or clothing. In urban areas drinkers undergoing public punishments attracted crowds of jeering men and boys.[50]

What is more, in some villages the reformative zeal was extended beyond the voluntary members: those who entered or left taverns were abused. And at Talaramba an ardent headman put up a notice announcing that ‘anyone who takes liquor in violation of rules passed on 1 July 1904 will be seized and punished’.[51]

Those who lived through the interventions of the JVP in the late 1980s will understand the comparison I am drawing. For the benefit of the uninitiated, let me note that I am referring here to the JVP Mach III during 1987-93 and the expressions of their power, power that was didactic, terrorising and, in their view, presumably, ‘liberating’. This power was spatially extensive and, at times, encompassed virtually the whole of the Sinhala-speaking areas. At moments, and especially at night, the JVP reigned in many localities. They were, therefore, referred to as ‘the junior government’: a phrase that aptly captures the dual regimes to which the majority of persons were subject.

Several of the rules imposed by the JVP appear to have been designed to emphasise their strength and their reach. They were meant to permeate every day in ways which etched their (JVP) power on every living soul. The destruction of the electric grid system in certain localities, and the order that no lights should be lit and no radio or television turned on, are among the measures which embodied this design.

Other measures, however, while revealing a similar capacity, were also reformative in object. Thus, it was decreed that people should not smoke, and pressure was exerted against boutiques that sold cigarettes. Likewise, expensive weddings and expensive exorcist ceremonies were banned in certain localities.

This line of emphasis suggests continuities with the ideas of the JVP Mach I (1965-71). On that occasion the JVP also imposed a ‘strict’ regimen on its own members: no girl friends, no drinking, no smoking. This was an organisational code of commitment drawn from the revolutionary asceticism of Marxist Leninist and Maoist exegeses at the same time that it was influenced by the Buddhist revivalist thinking associated with Dharmapala et al.[52] This emphasis was directed at the JVP cadre and not at the populace at large (in contrast with the temperance movement of 1904 and the JVP Mach III). Nevertheless, it may be significant that at one specific moment in 1970 a poster campaign on Peradeniya campus attacked and ridiculed the wearing of the mini-skirt. Conversations with Jayadeva Uyangoda[53] raise doubts as to whether the JVP were behind this campaign — for there were several radical groups on the campus. However, Uyangoda acknowledges that there was a vibrant debate about ‘Western cultural imperialism’ at that stage which was part of what he calls ‘agrarian nationalism’ and that several Sinhala nationalist elements came into the JVP in 1970-71 — for the leader, Rohana Wijeweera, himself had ‘an element of Sinhala chauvinism’.[54]

Wijeweera’s fifth lecture on ‘Indian Expansionism’ was inspired by the theories espoused by the Chinese Communist Party during and after the Sino-Indian War of 1962. As such the argument was considered (by JVP radicals) to be appropriate to a Marxist world analysis of capitalism. However, this internationalist rationale dovetailed neatly with ‘the Sinhalese agrarian antipathy to [the plantations and] the plantation workers’.[55] Such lines of rhetoric indicate that the 1970-71 JVP program of activating a spontaneous mass uprising meant that they had to appeal to the Sinhala masses in their idiom. At that point of time the Sinhala populace was dominated by the legacies of the political and cultural changes of the year 1956. And the JVP Mach I themselves were not only the children of the Samasamājists,[56] Lenin, Mao and Che Guevera, they were also the children of 1956.[57]

It is the JVP Mach III, however, that provides the most striking parallel with the programmatic interventions of the temperance agitation of 1904. In several localities, at some moments, the JVP Mach III had the capacity to enforce their injunctions. Those who broke the rules were either killed or subject to humiliating public punishments. Kasippu (hooch) dealers were among those forced to undergo penance under the sun with placards on their bodies. Criminals were executed or went underground. Thus, among the populace at large, several individuals expressed their support for the JVP regime on the grounds that their domains were crime free: ‘one could leave one’s doors and windows unlocked’.[58] In this view the JVP was a Good. On both occasions, temperance 1904 and JVP today-and-yesterday, the cleansing acts are out of the Buddhist order. They are, accordingly, don’ts, negative injunctions, controls on tanha (craving) and tatvaya (status).

In this sense, they are also drawn from the drawer of the Emperor Asoka’s exemplary kingdom, both as understood in folk historiography and revealed in textual evidence. The edicts of Asoka proclaim the righteous king’s intent to set up a state apparatus which could regulate the lives and ethics of every householder.[59] In analysing the Asokan program, sometime around 1976, S. J. Tambiah was reminded of Orwell’s 1984, with all its totalitarian and Fascist implications.[60] This, clearly, disturbed him. Rather in similar fashion, perhaps, Vernon Gunasekara, sometime Samasamājist, always Western-educated, middle class, proctor and drinker, discerned Fascist potential in the emergence of the SLFP of the early 1950s. Writing well before the year 1956, this was, surely, a remarkable piece of analysis.[61] Its prescience is not only demonstrated in the glimpses of Fascism revealed within the SLFP, both circa 1963-64 when the idea of a junta was seriously entertained[62] and in the 1970s (with Felix Dias Bandaranaike figuring prominently on both occasions); it is rather, and also, demonstrated in the activities of those who may be called ‘the children of 1956’.

The ‘children of 1956’, my coinage, is a phrase that encompasses both the JVP Mach I, II and III as well as the Jatika Chintanaya of today;[63] and the reformed United National Party of the 1970s and 1980s as wel1.[64] What is more, since the UNP party machinery has, ever since J. R. Jayewardene’s overhaul in the late 1950s and early 1960s, generally been superior to that of the SLFP, it has had the capacity to attempt implementations of the Asokan programs.

In being disturbed by the far-reaching implications of Asoka’ s zeal, Tambiah is clearly inspired by the philosophy of Liberalism, whether in its Liberal or liberal-radical variants. Vernon Gunasekara probably embodies the Marxist-inspired humanist radical tradition. In 1904, on the other hand, there were individuals, presumably Buddhist and presumably Sinhalese, who expressed a less philosophically-rooted form of dissent. As ardent drinkers, they resisted the demands of the ardent cleansers, those self-proclaimed saviours of the world in general and the poorer classes in particular, who led the temperance movement. In the result, occasional affrays occurred outside the taverns, sometimes leading to ‘serious stabbings and at least two deaths’.[65] The world, I feel, could be rendered a safer, better place if one were able to link such hedonist practices to the dissent expressed so eloquently by a John Stuart Mill. In other words, I hold that moral puritanism is bloody dangerous.


       *** ***


This article was probably drafted around 1994/95 and should be read in conjunction with the following articles:

1989    “Apocalypse or Accommodation?  Two Contrasting Views on Sinhala-Tamil Relations in Sri Lanka”, South Asia, 12: 67-83.

1993a  “Nationalism, the Past and the Present: the Case of Sri Lanka,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 16: 133-161.

1993b  “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies” in Japanese in The Shinso, Jan. 1993.  (Special edition on Nationalism Today ed. by T. Aoki), pp. 127-50.

1994    “Of Traditions, Memories and Ideological Blockages”, Asian Studies Review, November 1994, 18:71-76.

1996   “Understanding Zealotry”, IIAS Newsletter, No. 7, Winter 1996, pp. 25-26; since reprinted in Fifty Years of Sri Lanka-Australia Interactions, ed. by C A & I H Vanden Driesen, Colombo: Government Printer, pp. 544-48.

More specifically, many of the details here are repeated from my detailed study of the 1915 pogrom viz., the Marakkala Kolahālaya, in a chapter within my book Exploring Confrontation (Harwood, 1994) which is further clarified by another article on “The Imperialism of Silence”.

To the degree that moral fervour seeking to impose retribution on alleged wrongdoers provides one of the motivationSilnces for racial/ethnic/religious violence, readers may also profit from other recent articles. Let me list a few:

The latter two articles highlight the degree to which grief and anguish arising from suffering promotes emotions that encourage rumour-mongering and verbal exhortations (from both women and men) which then stimulate some men to wreak vengeance on an ETHNIC OTHER or religious other, for insults and attacks they are alleged to have committed. In 1915ial sap[rk was provided by the demands from specific mosques (mostly new religious edifices built by Coast Moor migrants) which deployed the Police Ordinance of 1864 to demand that Buddhists in Gampola and elsewhere should cease their sabda puja in front of specific mosques. The British colonial court’s decisions on this issue were deeply felt to be an injustice by those immediately affected by this issue.

Readers are encouraged to move beyond their Sri Lankan enclosures and assess the manner in which anguish sparked attacks by Hindus on Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and on Muslims on specific occasions in the late 20th century. Grief can generate moral fervour that is as relentless as dangerous.

Anguish among Indians outside Teen Murti Hospital where Mrs Gandh had been taken after she was shot

 Assaults on Sikhs in Delhi 


[1] A personal anecdote can be utilised to make this point: the closest that I came to ‘culture shock’ during my residence in Chicago in 1970-71 was my puzzlement at the frequency with which the word ‘positive’ was used. On reflection I concluded that I had been influenced by a Sri Lankan. milieu in which ‘negation’ was a Good — although I am a Christian by background.

[2] M. Carrithers, The Forest Monks of Sri Lanka (Delhi, Oxford Univ. Press), p. 19.

[3] Ibid. , p. 46.

[4] Ibid., p. 48. For illustrations of the influence of Buddhist ideals on contemporary laypersons, see J. Spencer, A Sinhala Village in a Time of Trouble (Delhi, Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 52-96, 165-207.

[5] See K. Malalgoda, Buddhism in Sinhala Society, 1750-1976 (Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1976) and ‘The Buddhist Christian Confrontation in Ceylon, 1800-1880’, Studies in Society and Culture, pamphlet no. 15 (1995); and L. A. Wickremeratne ‘Religion, Nationalism and Social Change in Ceylon, 1865-1885’, Studies in Society and Culture, pamphlet no. 8 (1993).

[6] See M. Roberts, `Elites, Nationalisms and the Nationalist Movement in Ceylon’, in M. Roberts, Documents of the Ceylon National Congress, VoL I (Colombo, Dept. of National Archives, 1977), pp. lxxi-lxxv, xci-xciv; M. Roberts et al, People lnbetween, Vol. I (Ratmalana, Sarvodaya Publications, 1989) chap. 1 and 5; Amunugama, ‘Ideology and Class Interest in one of Piyadasa Sirisena’s Novels: The New Image of the “Sinhala-Buddhist” Nationalist’, in M. Roberts (ed.), Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modem Sri Lanka (Colombo, Marga Institute, 1979), pp. 314-36.

[7] The term ‘denationalisation’ appears to have been promoted by the Ponnambalam brothers in the 1890s and was taken up by A. K. Coomaraswamy. It informed the activities of the Ceylon Social Reform Society (1905-1911). However, this line of argument was also found in the Sinhala newspapers from the 1880s, if not earlier.

[8] De Abrew, Eastern Learning (Colombo, The Times of Ceylon Co., 1919), pp. 14-15. De Abrew was active in the Buddhist Theosophical Society from circa 1890s and was one of the founding fathers of Museaus College. He was also active in the Ceylon Social Reform Society. For the latter see Roberts, Elites, Nationalisms, (fn. 6) pp. xc-xci.

[9] For a recent elaboration which links this theme to gender issues, see P. Chatter jee, The Nation and its Fragments (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), esp. chaps. 6 and 7.

[10] See Amunugama, ‘Ideology’ (fn. 6); Roberts et al, People Inbetween, (fn. 6), chap. 1; S. Amunugama. `John de Silva and the Sinhala Nationalist Theatre’, Ceylon Historical Journal, Vol. 25 (1978), pp. 285-
304; and Neloufer de Mel, ‘Tropes of Nationalism in the Modern Sinhala Theatre’, The Thatched Patio (Mar/Apr. 1993), pp. 8-28.

[11] For the etymology, polysemy and context of usage of the word tuppahi, see Roberts et al, People Inbetween, (fn. 6), pp. 7-21, 140, 145, 147, 210-11.

[12] This was the Viplavakāri Sama Samāja Pakshaya led by Philip Gunawardena (who was one of the most famous users of tuppahi as a searing diatribe). Note, too, that the Communist Party and LSSP assisted the MEP campaign by linking up with the latter through a no-contest pact.

[13] On the 1915 riots, see A. C. L. Ameer Ali, ‘The 1915 Racial Riots in Ceylon (Sri Lanka): Reappraisal of its Causes’, South Asia, Vol. 4, no. 5 (1981), pp. 1-20; P. T. M. Fernando, The British Raj and the 1915 Command Riots in Ceylon’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 3 (1969), pp. 245-55; ‘A Review Symposium on 1915 Riots’ with essays by R. N. Kearney, C. Blackton, P. T. M. Fernando and Kumari Jayawardena in Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 29 (1970); K. P. Kannangara, ‘The Riots of 1915 in Sri Lanka: A Study of the Roots of Communal Violence’, Past and Present, no. 102 (1984), pp. 130-65; M. Roberts, `Hobgoblins, Low-Country Sinhalese Plotters or Local Elite Chauvinists? Directions and Patterns in the 1915 Communal Riots’, Sri Lanka Journal of the Social Sciences, Vol. 4 (1981), pp. 83-126; M. Roberts, Exploring Confrontation (Reading, Harwood Academy Publishers, 1995) chaps. 7 and 8; and P. V. J. Jayasekera, ‘Social and Political Change in Ceylon, 1900-1919’ (Ph. D. thesis, Univ. of London, 1970), chaps. 4, 5, 6.

[14] In a few localities some Tamils were among the stirrers, assailants and looters, but there can be little doubt  that the overwhelming majority of the participants were Sinhalese — including Christian Sinhalese.

[15] M. Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, (fn. 13), pp. 184-85.

[16] This argument is elaborated in my ‘Mentalities: Ideologies, Assailants, Historians and the Pogrom against

the Moors in 1915’ in Roberts, Exploring Confrontations. chap. 8.

[17] Information provided by R. C. W. Somapala of the Sinhala Encyclopaedia Office.

[18] See Jayasekera, Social and Political Change (fn. 13), pp. 100, 111; Ameer Ali, 1915 Racial Riots, (fn. 13), p. 13; Sinhala Jatiya, 1, 9 (30 Mar. 1915 and 1 June 1913); and the series of essays by A. P. Gnanaloka Thera  under the heading ‘Sinhalayā’ in the Hitavadi (7 Jan. 1914 et seq).

[19] Note the general tone as well as specific language of all the letters (in English) sent to the G.A., Central Province (C.P.) by P. B. Nugawela (acting on behalf of the Walahagoda Dēvāla), 17 Aug. 1912 and 1 and 14 Sept- 1912, Dept. of National Archives (D.N.A.), Lot 18/3461.

[20] The word amāruvak (hardship) was used in the only letter in Sinhala presently available, that sent by T.

  1. Keppetipola and the other Basnayake Nilames of the Pitisara Devala (Lankatilaka, Gadaladeniya, Embekke, Wegiriya) to the G.A. C.P., 22 Sept. 1915, D.N.A., Lot 18/3462.

[21] Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, p. 158.

[22] Re the panic in Colombo on the 29 July 1983 arising from stories that the Tigers had landed in the north of the city, see Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, p. 319. One of my informants found the Narahenpitiya road barred by a group of young men armed with rods, waiting to battle the ‘advancing Tigers’. On the grand peur, see A. Soboul, The French Revolution 1787-1799 (New York, Random House, 1974), pp. 144-47.

[23] ‘The Police Inquiry Commission’, Sessional Paper XV1 of 1916, p. 1 and Ameer Ali, ‘1915 Racial Riots’, (fn. 16), p. 2.

[24] Diary entry by Vaughan (G. A., Central Province), 30 May 1915, D.N.A., Lot 18/46.

[25] Diary entry by Browning (A.G.A., Matara), 4 June 1915, D.N.A., Lot 26/174.

[26] W. M. Abdul Rahiman to the Governor, 1 Jul. 1915, encl. in Chalmers to Sec. of State for the Colonies, 8 Jul. 1915, C.O. 54/782.

[27] For references pertinent to this paragraph and that which follows, see Roberts, Exploring Confrontations, pp. 187, 192-93. Also see Roberts, ‘Hobgoblins’, (fn. 13).

[28] Jayasekera, Social and Political Change, (fn. 13), pp. 283, 332.

[29] Jayasekera, ibid., pp. 278 ff., 330-3; and Roberts ‘Hobgoblins’, pp. 121-22.

[30] See Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, p. 204 for the full text of this statement (translated reportage).

[31] An interpretation which is also adopted, independently, by S. J. Tambiah, ‘Presidential Address: Reflections on Communal Violence in South Asia’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 49 (1990), p. 745.

[32] Note the anecdotal evidence in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, p. 23 regarding instances of Sinhala complacency in the 1970s.

[33] M. Narayan Samy, Tigers of Sri Lanka (Delhi, 1994). pp. 74-91.

[34] See L. Piyadasa, Sri Lanka: The Holocaust and After (London, Marram Books, 1984), pp. 78-109. Also see Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, chap. 13, and N. Sanmugathasan, ‘Sri Lanka: the story of the holocaust’, Race & Class, Vol. 26 (1984), pp. 63-82.

[35] By the early 1970s several Tamil youth had reached the conclusion that the Colombo Tamil leadership had let them down. As such, they were ready to write off the Tamils living in Colombo and elsewhere in the south. They had, in brief, reached a position which gave them the power of polarity (see Roberts, ‘Sri Lanka: Ethnic Conflict and Political Crisis’, Ethnic Studies Report, Vol. 6 (Jan. 1990), p. 47-48).

[36] John Rogers, ‘Cultural Nationalism and Social Reform: The 1904 Temperance Movement in Sri Lanka’, Indian Economic and Social History, Vol. 26 (1989), pp. 334-35; Jayasekera, Social and Political Change (fn. 13), pp. 238-42; M. Roberts, ‘The Political Antecedents of the Revivalist Elite within the M.E.P. Coalition of 1956’ in C. R. de Silva and S. Kiribamune (eds), K. W. Goonewardena Felicitation Volume, (Peradeniya Univ., 1989), pp. 195-98 and P. T. M. Fernando, `Arrack, Toddy and Ceylonese Nationalism: Some Observations on the Temperance Movement, 1912-1921′, Modern Ceylon Studies, Vol. 2 (1971), pp. 123-30.

[37] Anagarika Dharmapala, Return to Righteousness, A. Guruge (ed.) (Colombo, Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, 1965), p. 480; also pp. 479-84, 501-18.

[38] Rogers, ‘Cultural Nationalism’, pp. 324, 330. There were British planters’ wives with a penchant for gin. The knowledge that European women drank alcohol probably compounded the repulsion towards the European lifeways among a people whose womenfolk rarely touched alcohol.

[39] Ibid , pp. 321, 324 and 340.

[40] Ibid. ,p. 327.

[41] Bertram, Memorandum on certain arrests and searches made during the period of Martial Law, D.N.A. 65/232.

[42] Jayasekera, Social and Political Change, (fn. 13), citing the Sinhala Bauddhaya, 6 Feb. 1915.

[43] Ibid., pp. 220-21, 223, 225; The Ceylonese, 1 Jan. 1915; P. T. M. Fernando, ‘Arrack’ (fn. ), p. 141 and H. Dowbiggin, ‘The “Temperance Movement” and the recent Disturbances’, D.N.A. 65/229.

[44] Dowbiggin, ibid.; and Roberts, ‘Hobgoblins’, pp. 105-13.

[45] Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, p. 204, and ‘Hobgoblins’, pp. 110-11, 120, 125-26.

[46] Diary entry by Cumberland (G.A., North Western Province), 8 Jul. 1915, D.N.A. 38/21.

[47] Rogers, ‘Cultural Nationalism’, p. 332.

[48] Ibid., pp. 329-31 and 339-41. For the sort of intermediary local élites Rogers is talking about, see M. Roberts, ‘Problems of Social Stratification and the Demarcation of National and Local Elites in British Ceylon’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 33 (1974), pp. 549-77.

[49] Rogers, ‘Cultural Nationalism’, pp. 329, 331.

[50] Ibid., p. 327.

[51] Ibid., p. 328.

[52] This statement is informed by a conversation with J. Uyangoda on 30 Apr. 1991, though he is not responsible for the phraseology. Uyangoda used the phrase ‘Protestant Buddhism’ to describe the nativist strand of influence that promoted the code of abstinence, while emphasising the weight of Marxist thinking behind this emphasis. It is instructive that some of the Tamil militant groups in the 1970’s also attempted to impose puritanical sexual mores upon their cadre (see Narayan Samy, Tigers, pp. 66-67).

[53] Uyangoda was a member of the sub-committee of the J.V.P. leadership which decided on the slogans. J.V.P. slogans, it should be stressed, were formulated centrally and not left to local initiative.

[54] Recorded interview with J. Uyangoda, 12 Feb. 1995.

[55] Ibid. The bracketed words are my insertion.

[56] `Samasamājists’ is used here as synechdochic shorthand for the forces that are widely referred to as the `Old Left’ (in distinction from the ‘New Left’ embodied in the JVP), forces within which the Lanka Samaja Party, formed in 1935, was the most prominent element.

[57] Re the eclectic mix of ideological strands, see James Jupp, Sri Lanka: Third World Democracy (London, Frank Cass, 1978), pp. 302-07. For all the literature on the J.V.P., there has been no comprehensive and detailed exegesis on its ideology and vocabulary. For reasons of economy I do not provide references here to the works by Phadnis (1971), Kearney and Jiggins (1975), Ian Goonetileke (1975), Jiggins (1979), Keerawella (1980 and 1995), Alexander (1981), Alles (1990), Gunaratna (1990), Chandraprema (1991). For most of these references, see Mick Moore, ‘Thoroughly Modern Revolutionaries: The J.V.P. in Sri Lanka’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 27 (1993), pp. 593-642.

[58] This view was communicated to me, independently, by two hiring car drivers in Jul. and Aug. 1989. Both had steady jobs in private firms.

[59] S. J. Tambiah, World Conqueror, World Renouncer (London, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 57-63.

[60] Ibid, p. 63.

[61] I do not have this series of articles before me though I have read them long ago. They were brought to my attention by Mr. W. J. F. Labrooy in the late 1960s and it is his verbal summary that is lodged in my memory.

[62] Interviews with Hector Abhayavardhana, 2 Apr. and 27 Dec. 1967.

[63] Jātika Chinthanaya means Nationalist Thought. It is a term which encompasses a loose network, active on literary, cultural and political fronts. In liberal circles it is seen as an expression of Sinhala chauvinism. Among its leading spokesmen are the University mathematician, Nalin de Silva, and the dentist-cum-­author, Gunadasa Amarasekera — both of a generational vintage older than the J.V.P. of 1965-71.

[64] The references here arc (1) the dharmista (just society) program pressed by the U.N.P. from 1977 onwards; (2) some of the rhetorical postures adopted by Ranasinghe Premadasa when Prime Minister and President (e.g. P. Schalk, ‘The Concept of Concord in President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s Buddhist Political Discourse’, Lanka (Mar. 1990), pp. 22-92); (3) the updating of the Mahāvamsa initiated by J. R. Jayewardene’s government; and (4) state support for a new translation of the earliest Mahāvamsa by Ananda Guruge as well as a book on Emperor Asoka.

[65] Rogers, ‘Cultural Nationalism’, p. 337.


Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, atrocities, communal relations, cultural transmission, disparagement, economic processes, ethnicity, female empowerment, historical interpretation, landscape wondrous, life stories, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power sharing, religious nationalism, riots and pogroms, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, vengeance, women in ethnic conflcits

Leave a Reply