Sri Lanka’s independence: falsehoods and hard facts

(Courtesy of the Lankaweb)

The biggest falsehood some of our politicians and some historians have been spreading over the past 70 years is that Sri Lanka won her independence from Britain in a ‘bloodless struggle’.

The hard fact is that there was no independence struggle as such after the Matale uprising of 1848 was brutally suppressed. Thereafter the country saw only agitations for Constitutional reforms.  If there was any bloodshed it was during the 1915 communal riots because the British overreacted to the situation that caused some leaders to be arrested and a prominent patriot to be executed (Captain Henry Pedris).

One noteworthy exception was E.W. Perera, the ‘Lion of Kotte’, who risked his life taking a petition hidden in his shoe against Governor Robert Chalmers. It was at the height of the First World War that Perera went by sea in submarine infested seas to the England. The petition was a condemnation of the declaration of Martial Law that caused the deaths of many innocent Sinhalese. The petition resulted in the Governor being recalled to England.

Also of significance was the Anagarika Dharmapala’s fierce campaign for a national cultural revival and return to traditional values like India’s Raja Ram Mohan Roy, one of the founders of the Brahmo Sabha in the 19th Century (he is considered the “Father of the Indian Renaissance”)).[

After 1848 we had no freedom fighters like Keppettipola or Puran Appu or India’s Mahathma Gandhi, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose among others.

The definition of a freedom struggle means the activists risking their lives one way or the other. Gandhi’s non-violent civil disobedience campaign led thousands of his followers to be baton charged and jailed and also to be massacred as in Amritsar.

Those like Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose who took up arms against the British rule paid with their lives (although there’s a dispute on what really caused the death of Bose).

The external factors that compelled the British to grant independence to India (and therefore to Sri Lanka) and Myanmar much earlier than they ever imagined have been almost totally ignored by our historians.

Likewise were the Freedom fighters of Myanmar, Indonesia, (and after World War II) Cyprus, Kenya, Angola, Algeria etc.

Before 1939, the European colonialists were in no hurry to grant self-rule to these countries despite nationalist movements and uprisings. In Sri Lanka there were no nationalist struggles after 1848 but only appeals for constitutional reforms hoping for greater freedom through the goodwill of the colonial masters.

But it did not take long for the British and other European Imperial powers to wake up from their slumber.   The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 and Japan’s entry to the war in December 1941 heralded the end of the British Raj and the Asian empires of other European powers. Until then its transplanted European life-style had insulated the colonialists from the natives.

Japan’s success in humbling the United States, Britain and the Netherlands in the early days of the Pacific War dealt a mortal blow to the Western prestige in Asia. Japan’s quick victories in 1941-42 proved to the natives that Europeans were not superior to the Asians.

Britain was now fighting with its back to the wall and it desperately sought the loyalty of the natives in conducting the war.  The possibility of sabotage and collaboration with the enemy could not be ruled out.

With the loss of Malaya – now Malaysia – and Singapore, the ports of Colombo and Trincomalee became vital to the British as a link between Europe and the Far East.  The home base of the British Far Eastern Fleet was Trincomalee. This country also played a very significant role as a rubber producer for the Western Allies during the war.

Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon) importance to the British was such that the Allied South-East Asia Command (SEAC) Headquarters under Admiral (later Lord) Louis Mountbatten was shifted from New Delhi to Kandy in 1944.

Fr. S.G. Perera in his Ceylon History states that the unstinted support of Sri Lanka’s conservative leaders to the cause of Britain and her allies was a key factor in the demand for constitutional reforms.

In India patriots were in a dilemma.  According to Indian Author Kushwant Singh the crux of the dilemma was whether to go all out to aid Britain and then demand independence for themselves or insist on a declaration of independence and then put their full weight behind the Western Allies.  To the British India’s loyalty was crucial in winning the war.  Indian soldiers played a major role in the war against Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan).

A section of these troops, however, had joined the fiery Indian Nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose who formed the Japanese-backed Indian National Army to fight the British.

Meanwhile, Mahathma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement – a sporadic outburst of anti-British consciousness – was shaking the British Administration in many parts of the subcontinent. Under pressure from the Opposition within the British National Government, London sent Sir Stafford Cripps to India with an offer of a Constitution-making body after the end of hostilities.

Despite military victory World War II left Britain a battered and impoverished nation and not all the rhetoric of Winston Churchill could disguise it. It was the final blow to the British Empire. The British were realists and knew their game was up. Prime Minister Clement Atlee went ahead with what Churchill would not and drew plans to liquidate the empire on which the sun would never set.”

When India – Britain’s Jewel in the Crown – won her independence there’s no point in clinging to small Sri Lanka.  The failure of our historians, educationists and politicians to admit this fact will only result in misleading the younger generations into thinking that it we won independence on our own in a bloodless struggle isolated from events occurring right round our country. It is beyond comprehension why these external factors that led to Britain leaving India and Sri Lanka are still not acknowledged.

By Janaka Perera

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