Published: July 1, 2023
July 1, 1954
Mosques and music
Mosques and (Buddhist) music did not mingle well in Ceylonese history. In 1915, anti-Muslim riots broke out in predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist areas throughout the island. Among a myriad of background factors at work, the most proximal was Muslim discontent with the noisiness of Buddhist processions.1 There had been a number of disputes between Sinhalese and Muslims over what the British called “noise worship” in the decade leading up to the riots. The colonial administration, viewing the noise as a nuisance and perhaps not understanding the significance of noise to the processions, issued the Police Ordinance of 1865, which mandated that all tom-tom beatings have a license issued by the state. Many Muslims, influenced by a burgeoning Islamic revivalist movement that renounced music, applauded the regulation. Conversely, Buddhists, influenced by their own revivalist movement, saw it as discriminatory.2
Vesak perahera cancelled
In May 1954, the traditional Vesak perahera was cancelled at Mawanella, a Sinhalese area with a sizeable Muslim population,3 for the first time in recent history. Police required that the perahera refrain from drum beating near the newly erected mosque. Like their predecessors in the colonial days, Buddhists saw it was an infringement of their rights, but consequently decided not to conduct the procession. This precipitated anti-Muslim sentiment amongst Mawanella Sinhalese. Aware of the simmering tensions, Sinhalese and Muslim leaders held discussions, and the general feeling afterward was that there would be no disturbances.4
Unfortunately, such optimism was dashed, though perhaps not in the manner initially anticipated. A perahera was conducted in the Mawanella area on July 1, and was peaceful until the marchers approached the Pattampitiya mosque. A clash between police and marchers took place, and the police consequently opened fire, killing a young man: S. P. Sirisena. Police forces were rushed in to secure the area, and the IGP himself visited the temple at which the procession was supposed to end.5 Three days later, Sirisena’s funeral procession, attended by over five thousand, passed the Pattampitiya mosque, this time beating drums with the permission of the IGP.6
In the magisterial inquiry that followed, the ASP of Kegalle, R. E. Kitto, testified that when the perahera was within thirty yards of the mosque, he ordered the participants to cease the music. The processionists refused and began hurling missiles at the police. After this, the police baton-charged the crowd, but this only led to further aggravation. Kitto ordered the procession to disperse, deeming them an unlawful assembly, but the participants continued violent resistance. The persistence of the crowd compelled him to order the police to fire twice, and the shooting finally dispersed the perahera.7
Police witnesses corroborated Kitto’s story. According to them, the processionists insisted on continuing past the mosque and resorted to throwing projectiles at the police when blocked. Two officers reported that Muslim houses were set on fire after the obstruction by police.8
Attack on Buddhists
The processionists had a different version of events. A Buddhist monk testified that he did not hear the police order to not beat drums near the mosque, but saw policemen nevertheless confiscating sticks from the drummers. The drummers then used their hands, after which the police assaulted them. The processionist holding a casket containing relics too was hit and he dropped the casket. Kitto ordered the people to pick up the casket, and then proceeded to assault the monk. After this, the crowd assaulted police officers. He claimed that he did not see anyone stone the mosque, and also reported that the perahera was stopped about 125 yards away from it. He denied that any houses were set aflame.9
Other witnesses corroborated this story, affirming that the police were the aggressors and that Kitto kicked the casket. The Kegalle magistrate observed that the witnesses were fixated on the casket instead of the actual topic of the inquiry: the shooting. Witnesses asked for protection from police in exchange for testimony on the shooting, and the magistrate asked them to file a complaint to the police station or to himself if they were assaulted by police.10
An aunt of Sirisena reported that she witnessed the police assaulting the marchers, though she did not see any stone throwing. The crowd fled after seeing the police pull out guns, Sirisena being one of those in flight. The officers then opened fire and Sirisena felt down, wounded by a bullet.11
The man who had obtained the permit to conduct the perahera admitted that it stipulated that no music be played within one hundred yards of the mosque, though the police had stopped them before that.12
The Kegalle magistrate returned a verdict of justifiable homicide for the killing of Sirisena. He identified two constables as having opened fire at the crowd under orders from Kitto, though he could not identify which one fired the fatal bullet.13
Summarizing the case, he noted that the permit specified that music was to be stopped within one hundred yards of a place of worship. Despite this, the procession insisted on beating drums as it breached that limit while approaching the mosque. He observed that there were two, competing sympathies among witnesses: one to the procession and the other to police. He dismissed the monk’s testimony as incredible, and went on to deny that there was any evidence that the police assaulted anyone, that the casket was broken, or that any drums or drumsticks were broken. If there were any injuries, he claimed, they were suffered by police. Finally, the mosque was indeed stoned, and Muslim houses were set ablaze.14
In August, Kitto, the two constables identified as those who opened fire, and a police sergeant were charged with “aiding and abetting the murder of Sirisena.” The original plaint was withdrawn and replaced with another that charged Kitto with “abetting the causing of grievous hurt and culpable homicide not amounting to murder and also with wrongly restraining the processionists… [and] offending and offering insult to Buddhist religious feelings by kicking a casket of relics.” The three police personnel were charged with Kitto’s first two charges. The lawyer who filed the plaint argued that the permit for the procession rendered it a lawful assembly. The magistrate responded that Governor-General had to give his sanction to pursue the charges, but he had not.15
Riots against Muslims
As alluded to by police witnesses, police were not the only ones to be attacked. In a reduced replay of 1915, Muslims of Pattampitiya faced the fury of local Sinhalese, a result of the antipathy that arose against them in May. By July 2, eleven Muslim houses were burnt. Some boutiques and part of the Pattampitiya bridge were burned too.16 Around two hundred Muslim families fled their homes.17 On July 6, in parliament, the Muslim Colombo Central MP, Sir Razik Fareed, bleakly recounted how Muslims at Mawanella encountered verbal harassment from Sinhalese thugs. He remarked, “every night houses are set fire to and the lives of the Ceylon Moors are at stake. Every minute’s delay in taking action means loss of property, and maybe even lives.”18 The bulk of attacks took place on July 1 itself, but sporadic arson incidents continued over the next few days until police reinforcements managed to bring calm to the area.19
Fareed alleged that there were certain pamphlets being distributed in the Mawanella area to inflame Sinhalese against Muslims.20 Two years later, Edmund Samarakkody, MP for Dehiowita, accused the then MP of Mawanella, C. R. Beligammana, of having distributed the pamphlets.21
The shooting sent reverberations throughout Buddhists in Ceylon. As far as Polonnaruwa, meetings were held on the shooting.22 Even over a month after the incident, at a government meeting held near Kalutara, a Buddhist monk accused the government of taking sides during the Pattampitiya incident. Panadura MP D. C. W. Kannangara retorted that the government could not and should not tolerate lawbreaking, even when the offenders were Buddhists.23
In a letter to the Ceylon Daily News, Dr. M. C. M. Kaleel, the Muslim minister of labour and social services, expressed his condolences for the police shooting and consequent riot, assuring that “it is not part of [Muslims’] religion to stop music before their places of worship.” He further called for religious leaders to convene to resolve tensions.24 To this end, he formed a committee which featured a number of prominent politicians including the former prime minister Dudley Senanayake, Rajah Hewavitharne, G. P. Malalasekara, and Senator A. M. A. Azeez.25 The committee would distribute hundreds of pamphlets in English, Sinhala, and Tamil, to refrain from violence and, after interviewing Mawanella residents, issue a report to the government with recommendations.26
In parliament, opposition leader S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike condemned the police shooting and subsequent violence, asking the prime minister to form a commission of inquiry and to consider the broader context of legal restrictions on religious processions. Bernard Aluwihare, the Matale MP, asserted that “our existence is only possible if our disputes are settled in a peaceful manner. Hooliganism of any kind coming from any person cannot be tolerated.” As the MP of the affected Mawanella electorate, Beligammana tried to go into the details of the case, but was stopped as the case was sub judice. He denied that the Pattampitiya incident was strictly a Sinhalese versus Muslim one. Rather, it was an incident caused by denying Buddhists their right to conduct their traditions. He too asked for a commission of inquiry to which the public could testify. Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala, due to the sub judice status of the case, did not delve into details, but assured parliamentarians that the government was helping homeless Muslims and that he was collecting inflammatory pamphlets to prosecute mob inciters. He declared:27
“… [W]e forget that this island belong to all of us, whether we be Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or Burghers. We talk always of religious tolerance and say this is a Buddhist country. We, as a Buddhist country, must be tolerant. No particular section of the people should say that this is their country and [that] they must run it according to their wishes.”
Dambadeniya MP R. G. Senanayake, who had recently resigned from his cabinet portfolio, condemned the violence against Muslims at a meeting of Buddhists in Anuradhapura. He spoke of the pain he felt when he heard of the hardships suffered by Muslims, asserting that it was contrary to Buddhist teachings to assault Muslims or set their houses on fire, and urged Buddhists not to engage in such acts.28
Nearly two months after the shooting, a conference of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim religious leaders was held to resolve religious tensions that had manifested in recent times. A bishop and Buddhist monk asked the Prime Minister to remove the law that required police officers to stop the playing of music within one hundred yards of a place of worship. Kotelawala felt that, rather than use the law to enforce religious tolerance, religious leaders should demand that their followers adhere to the precepts of their respective faiths.29
The most immediate cause of the 1915 riots was the blocking of a perahera by police at Kandy near a mosque. The processionists, alleging that the police had taken the side of the Muslims, dispersed and attacked the mosque. Nearby Muslim boutiques were the next targets and, soon after, five out of nine Ceylonese provinces were affected by the riots. Latent hatred towards Muslims, partly based on the Muslim rejection of noisy Buddhist processions, manifested itself into mass violence.30 The riots were suppressed by police in a rather brutal fashion in which many Buddhists had their rights violated.
The parallels to the 1954 Pattampitiya incident are evident. In 1954, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims had most immediately flared after the former were not allowed to conduct a Vesak perahera near a mosque. Over a month later, a perahera was stopped by police near the Pattampitiya mosque, but this time, the crowd appeared to resist. Violence against Muslims soon followed the obstruction, though importantly, in 1954, unlike 1915, the alleged police brutality took place before the bulk of anti-Muslim violence occurred. The scale of the 1954 riot was much smaller, being confined to Mawanella, and the suppression of rioters was less severe.
The (undemocratic) colonial government saw the 1915 riots as a Sinhalese uprising against the government, so they accordingly used repressive measures to end the riots, with little regard for Buddhist grievances. On the other hand, the Ceylonese government in 1954 understood that there were genuine religious convictions that underlay the violence and sought to mediate them though inter-religious discussions.
History was perhaps repeated again in 2001, when Mawanella again saw anti-Muslim rioting. This time around, the violence was rooted in Sinhalese economic and political anxieties and rivalries with Muslims rather than conflicting religious preferences. Like Beligammana in 1954, Maheepala Herath, another SLFP politician, was accused of instigating thugs to attack Muslims, though the SLFP was not the ruling party in 1954. In both cases, a peace committee, consisting of both Sinhalese and Muslims, was formed to address tensions and investigate the incidents. However, the police were accused of acting as bystanders and even participants in the 2001 violence, whereas in 1954, the Buddhists saw the police as acting against their interests.31
The violent outbursts against Muslims of 1915 and 2001 are well known and widely discussed. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the medial incident in 1954 at Pattampitiya.
Haniffa, Farzana and Vijay Nagaraj. Towards Recovering Histories of Anti-Muslim Violence in the Context of Sinhala–Muslim Tensions in Sri Lanka. Colombo: International Center for Ethnic Studies, 2017.
Jennings, W. Ivor. “The Ceylon General Election of 1947.” University of Ceylon Review 6, no. 3 (July 1948): 191.
Wettimuny, Shamara. “Regulating Religious Rites: Did British Regulation of ‘Noise Worship’ Trigger the 1915 Riots in Ceylon?”. LSE International History (blog). The London School of Economics and Political Science. March 31, 2018. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lseih/2018/03/31/regulating-religious-rites-did-british-regulation-of-noise-worship-trigger-the-1915-riots-in-ceylon/
- The more precise term would be “Ceylon Moor” rather than “Muslim,” given that there are non-Moor Muslim groups in Sri Lanka such as Malays. “Muslim” was the more common term to describe Ceylon Moors by the 1950’s, hence it is used here.
- Wettimuny, Regulating Religious Rites
- Ceylon Moors comprised 9.3 per cent of the Mawanella electorate in 1947. W. Ivor Jennings, “The Ceylon General Election of 1947.” University of Ceylon Review 6, no. 3 (July 1948): 191.
- “No Trouble Anticipated During ‘Poson Perahera’,” Indian Daily Mail, June 21, 1954.
- “Police Radio Cars Patrol Riot Area: IGP Asks Public to Help,” Ceylon Daily News, July 3, 1954. Hereafter, Ceylon Daily News will be abbreviated to “CDN.”
- “Peace Committee for Mawanella,” CDN, July, 5, 1954.
- “Procession Resented A.S.P’s Orders,” CDN, July 9, 1954
- “Witnesses Allege ASP Kicked Casket Containing Relics,” CDN, July 6, 1954.
- Ibid. Initially, no one gave evidence to the magistrate. “Police Radio Cars Patrol Riot Area: IGP Asks Public to Help,” CDN, July 3, 1954.
- “She Saw Nephew Fall When Police Fired,” CDN, July 8, 1954.
- “Court Order in Riot Case on Monday,” CDN, July 10, 1954
- “Pattampitiya Shooting Was Justified,” CDN, July 13, 1954.
- “Fresh Plaint But No Process in Kitto Case,” CDN, August 7, 1954.
- “Police Radio Cars Patrol Riot Area: IGP Asks Public to Help,” CDN, July 3, 1954.
- “Peace Committee for Mawanella,” CDN, July 5, 1954.
- Ceylon, House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates, vol. 17, col. 1472-1473.
- “Peace Committee for Mawanella,” CDN, July 5, 1954.
- Ceylon, House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates, vol. 17, col. 1472.
- Samarakkody also claimed that Fareed made the charge against Beligammana in 1954, though Fareed could not produce a pamphlet then. Ceylon, House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates, vol. 24, col. 1368-1369.
- “Riot Meeting is Called Off,” CDN, July 15, 1954. The title refers only to a public meeting; a village committee special meeting discussed the issue.
- “M. P. Answers Charges Made by Bhikkhu,” CDN, August 18, 1954.
- “The Pattampitiya Disturbance,” CDN, July 6, 1954.
- “Peace Committee for Mawanella,” CDN, July 5, 1954.
- “Peace Appeal to Riot Village,” CDN, July 7, 1954.
- Ceylon, House of Representatives, Parliamentary Debates, vol. 17, col. 1473-1479.
- “Ex-Minister Deploys the Mawanella Affair,” CDN, July 19, 1954.
- “Religious Amity: A Pledge,” CDN, August 21, 1954.
- Wettimuny, Regulating Religious Rites
- Farzana Haniffa and Vijay Nagaraj, Towards Recovering Histories of Anti-Muslim Violence in the Context of Sinhala–Muslim Tensions in Sri Lanka. (Colombo: International Center for Ethnic Studies, 2017), 30-41.; W. A. Sunil, “Sri Lankan Muslims Protest Violent Attacks by Racist Thugs,” World Socialist Web Site, May 10, 2001. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2001/05/sri-m10.html. In 2001, police had actually fired at a Muslim mob that pelted the police station, killing two.