Forty ninth death anniversary of Dr. T.B. Jayah
Freedom fighter and national hero
Dr. T.B. Jayah
What comes first, the interests of your community or country?
We may differ in our opinions, but for T.B. Jayah without doubt it
was always the country’s interest that came first. A colossus Muslim
politician of the 20th century, Jayah expressed the following sentiments
when debating on the demands of minorities at the State Council way back
“We might stand up for our community, but it cannot be said that we
have stood against the interests of the country as a whole. I have
always said, and I repeat it today, that I consider the interests of the
country as a whole, to be paramount.”
We are reminded of these words of wisdom of Dr. Jayah when President
Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his address to the nation in Parliament on 19th of
this month, echoing the patriotic sentiments of the people of our
motherland when he declared: “First it is my country, Second it is my
country, third it is my country!”.
Indeed, Dr. Jayah was a man of wisdom and vision above anything else.
The astute politician that he was, Dr. Jayah understood the concept
quite rightly - that the aspirations of the community should not be met
at the expense of the country. It was as simple as that.
This all important statement was made in 1937, but his words are more
appropriate today, as we have just witnessed the end of a protracted war
which has wrought havoc and untold misery to this country for the past
three decades. It is precisely to avoid this type of catastrophe Dr.
Jayah articulated his points of view during one of the most important
debates that ever took place in this country’s legislature. True, we may
have our own grievances, but in seeking redress we must ensure that the
country remains stable. Any action to the contrary means the spelling of
disaster for the entire country as well.
We quite unfortunately have seen it happen, but Dr. Jayah did not
witness those calamities during his time. By then the nation had not
experienced any large scale violence or civil disturbance other than few
isolated incidents. Yet, Jayah had the foresight to realise that
indulging in such politics can only bring disaster.
Communal politics too he shunned due to this reason. There was of
course communal politics during that period, but it was at its
inception, so the country did not go through any of its ill effects that
are prevalent today. Nevertheless he foresaw the banality of indulging
in such politics and promoted the formation of national parties as the
best way forward for the country:
“.....if we are going to have a party system on definite political
and economic lines, we cannot have a communal majority party, under
whatever name it may be disguised. We cannot have a communal majority
invested with plenary powers. Such a majority would prove to be not only
a great tyranny but a curse to the country.”
Many would have disagreed with his view at that time, but now we know
Jayah was correct in his political thinking.
It was also a period when the country agitated for freedom, to which
Dr. Jayah contributed in no small measure. The British expressed
reservations about granting freedom to us on the grounds of possible
discrimination of minorities by the majority. Jayah rose to the occasion
at that most important juncture during our country’s history and said:
“We should fight for national independence without opting for any
This statement was made by him at the State Council during a debate
on the Dominion Bill. He assured the British rulers that there need not
be any cause for concern. For him, self-respect of the nation as a whole
was more important than anything else. Freedom comes first and we are
capable of handling our issues ourselves. His speech had such an impact
on our freedom movement that many prominent Sinhalese leaders
subsequently acknowledged it as an epoch making speech which was made
with regard to our struggle for freedom.
Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was present on that momentous occasion
paid the following tribute to Dr. T.B. Jayah “I say, that if any member
has brought closer the achievement of agreement among the various
sections of the people of the country by an attitude of generosity where
even those with whom he is concerned stand to suffer, I say the fullest
credit must go more than to anyone else among us to the Nominated member
Dr. Jayah. He has made a speech today that will have a great effect in
bringing unity among the people of this country, in bringing some senses
of reality to the struggle.”
Dudley Senanayake, the former Prime Minister issuing a statement upon
Dr. Jayah’s demise in 1960 said.
“I recall particularly the important part he played in bringing the
communities of this country together for the achievement of
That was Jayah the politician, who secured the unwavered support of
his community for the country’s freedom. That contribution alone was
sufficient for him to be acclaimed as a national hero by the State.
However Jayah was not merely a visionary politician, he was a
visionary educationist too. Without his immense contribution in the
field of education, the Muslim community of Sri Lanka would not be
holding its head as high as it is today.
“The supreme need of the hour is education, not merely elementary
education, not mere half hearted education, but an education that will
turn heroes and heroines,” he fervently declared noting that the
community’s backwardness is due to lack of education during the early
`Heroes and heroines,’ yes, Jayah was stressing the importance of
education for Muslim girls as well. This was at a time when the
community was apprehensive of even sending their boys to schools due to
their largely Christian missionary influence. Jayah the educationist
left no stones unturned in trying to allay the fears of Muslim community
in this regard.
Furthermore, he wanted to establish an education system that will not
only help students get jobs, but also produce “leaders and reformers,
thinkers and philosophers, an education that will make us a progressive,
enlightened and powerful minority”. This then should be the true purpose
of education for boys as well as girls.
In keeping with this vision, in 1923 he accepted the Principalship of
Zahira College, Colombo. By the help of the Almighty, he managed to
elevate the college into a brilliant seat of learning within one decade.
The college brought dignity to the Muslim community in no small measure.
Those who learnt under his stewardship rose to highest position in
society: Former Speaker Deshamanya M.A. Bakeer Markar, Ministers Dr.
Badi-ud-din Mahamud, M.L.M. Aboosally, M.H.M. Naina Marikkar, Justices
M.M. Abdul Cader, A.M. Ameen and M.A.M. Hussain, former Attorney General
A.C.M. Ameer, Barrister A.L.M. Hashim (who was Ambassador in Saudi
Arabia and later succeeded Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel as the President of the All
Ceylon Muslim league), Prof. A.M.M. Mackeen of the University of
Malaysia and renowned sportsmen who are too numerous to mention are
among those who achieved greater heights in their respective positions
and were the proud children of Mother Lanka. Today, one would never be
able to mention Zahira College without associating Dr. Jayah’s name with
When he was appointed to the State Council in 1935, Dr. Jayah also
served on the Executive Committee of education. Along with Sir Razik
Fareed, he toured the length and breadth of the country and impressed on
the Muslim parents, the need to give education to their children.
Zahira’s sister schools in Gampola, Matale, Aluthgama, Puttalam,
Mawanella, Slave Island and elsewhere were results of their untiring
efforts to impart both secular and religious education among Muslim
children. Dr. Jayah also fought for the rights of teachers and was
largely responsible for the establishment of a pension scheme for them.
He introduced free education, teaching in the mother tongue, healthcare
and subsidised meals at Zahira College long before the State realised
the obligations towards its citizens (Enver C. Ahlip in `Jaya - a Life
Due to these contributions, he has been described as the Sri Syed
Ahmed Khan of Sri Lanka, who was the founder of the Aligarh Muslim
University in India.
Prior to becoming the principal of Zahira, he taught at leading
Buddhist Schools Dharmaraja, Kandy, Ananda College, Maradana and a
leading Christian institution, Prince of Wales, Moratuwa.
Tutor of Leftist leaders
He joined Ananda College at the invitation of its Principal P. de S.
Kularatne to take up an appointment as Classics Teacher. It is from this
leading Buddhist seat of learning Dr. Jayah’s greatness as an
educationist began to flow. He had the distinction of having tutored
some of the greatest Leftist and Marxist leaders to emerge, viz. Philip
Gunawardene, Dr. N.M. Perera, Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe and Robert
Gunawardene and several other leaders.
The golden-era of P. de S. Kularatne at Ananda also coincided with
the anti-imperialist agitation in Sri Lanka and the fever was felt in
schools as well. Young and radical Philip who later became the father of
socialism in Sri Lanka was debarred from attending classes for his
anti-British campaign. But student Philip was taken care of by his
teacher Jayah, who took him to his house `Fairlight’, at nearby Stafford
Place and gave him tuition for to pass the examinations. Later, when
Philip Gunawardena qualified from Wisconsin University,USA, he wrote to
his mentor Jayah; “Sir, if not for you, I would never have been able to
come to this position....”
Born on 1st January, 1890 at Galagedera, young Jayah was educated at
St. Thomas’ College, Modera. He passed the Cambridge Junior examination
and won a scholarship to study in England. He was a trained teacher by
profession having passed his London Bachelor of Arts in Classics in
Dr. Jayah passed away 49 years ago in the Holy City of Madinah, and
was buried at Jannathul Baqi in the shadow of the Holy Prophet’s mosque.
His life and teachings continue to inspire the Muslim community and in
deed it should be an inspiration for all communities as well. Today we
owe a sense of gratitude to Dr. Jayah for:
i. Teaching us that freedom comes first. It must come without any
pre-condition because to live in freedom is to live with dignity. We may
enjoy all material benefits of life but without freedom they will be
ii. Interest of the country as a whole is paramount. The community
can prosper only when country as a whole prospers.
In fact, the Muslim community should be grateful to stalwarts like
Dr. Jayah, Sri Mohamed Macan Markar, Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel, Sri Razik Fareed
and Al Haj Dr. Badi-ud-deen for steering them on the moderate path
during the time of our independence struggle. If Muslims have enjoyed
peaceful co-existence with other communities, then it was due to the
influence of these giants on the principles of their Islamic faith. Dr.
Jayah was not merely a visionary politician, but was also an
accomplished scholar of Islam. He espoused its teachings so eloquently
at public gatherings to such an extent that the speeches captured the
hearts and minds of people.
To cite one example, in 1936 Dr. Jayah was invited to deliver a
lecture at Jawatte Muslim burial grounds. His subject was the martyrdom
of Imam Hussein and the tragedy at Karbala. Justice M.T. Akbar who was
the Senior Puisne justice of Ceylon, presided at this meeting and
“You have just now listened to Dr. T.B. Jayah, who spoke for nearly
two hours, displaying great erudition and learning on Islam by his
stirring oration. It looked as if Imam Hussein was martyred at the
Jawatte burial grounds and not at Karbala. In other words, Dr. Jayah
re-enacted the tragedy of Karbala at the Jawatte burial grounds.”
Dr. Jayah has left behind a legacy that will indeed inspire us for
generations to come.
May Allah Almighty grant him eternal felicity in Jennathul Firdouse -
The writer is a former Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and Islamic
Affairs and the Senior Vice President All Ceylon Muslim League.