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Piyadasa Sirisena:

An instrument of silent revolution

In most colonial societies nationalist and religious agitation has been critical in the drive of Independence. If you look at the turn of events in Asia from the early 20th century especially in countries such as India, Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam the rise of nationalism has been an important factor to reckon with in the struggles waged by the leaders of these nations to free themselves from alien rulers.

In Ceylon too similar trends prevailed. But in the instance of this country the nationalist stream of resistance to British rule was a non-formal force that had as its frontiersmen the indigenous leadership. The formal leaderships were largely the English educated who intermixed with the British administrators. During the period of the legislative and State Council, Ceylonese leaders such as D. S. Senanayake, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Sir D.B. Jayatilleke and Sir James Peiris formed the core of the leadership. It was they who were in the forefront of the formal battle for freedom from British rule.

Pre-colonial history

But if history of the pre-colonial era is to be viewed in its proper perspective one has to retrospectively examine the work of the non-formal leaders in the vanguard of the movement for freedom. It is in this context that this presentation will examine briefly one of the key proponents of that drive to freedom. Piyadasa Sirisena, a man of many natural gifts and talents was also imbibed with a genuine love for the country. As a historian and notable legal personality N.E. Weerasooriya observed in his monumental History of Ceylon that Piyadasa Sirisena was an instrument of the silent revolution that swept this land and prepared its soil for political emancipation.

What was the means of reviving nationalism and a love of this land through which, Sirisena wielded a pervasive influence on the minds of the indigenous populace? It is through communication, the most potent weapon in any society whether it be pre-colonial or post colonial. Nothing could be more effective in transforming the mindset of a people.

He not only backed the drive to regain our freedom conducted by the other leaders referred to before, but also engaged himself in the arduous task of restoring their lost cultural identity.

In this regard he used his pen more effectively than any other leader of his time. And what's more, he used it fearlessly and with little care for his own safety against the force of the mightiest imperial power of that era, the British.

Transformation

There were two formidable instruments of communication which Sirisena used with a telling effect to bring about a transformation in the minds of a fallen people. One was the many novels he authored and the other was through his newspaper which he struggled to publish and which had a chequered history.

During the early years of the 20th century in Ceylon Anagarika Dharmapala the peerless Buddhist reformer and nationalist had begun the Mahabodhi Society in Maradana. It issued a number of publications directly connected with the rekindling of Buddhist and nationalist sentiments. Such revivalist work, no doubt, led to a lateral formation in the early years of the freedom movement.

As this second front progressed, it provided support to the leading Buddhist families who joined the nationalist movement as it entered the mainstream of the agitational campaign which took different forms. One of the most important was the temperance drive.

Back in the 1930s when temperance leaders such as the Senanayake brothers D.S. and F.R., the Hewavitharanas and the Wijewardenes worked hard to curb the growing habit of alcohol consumption, Piyadasa Sirisena backed the temperance lobby through his newspapers. Besides this, his novels also attacked the growing menace of alcoholism and its harm to society.

Nationalism

The colonial administration undoubtedly viewed with increasing concern the rising tide of nationalism and anti-colonial activity. They noted with alarm the work of the two principal agitators, Anagarika Dharmapala and Piyadasa Sirisena. Dharmapala had launched an island wide crusade against imperialism and the superimposition of our society with an alien culture. Dharmapala's fiery rhetoric aroused the Sinhalese in a manner that had not been experienced since the first religious debate against the British Christian missionaries in 1873 led by Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda.

Press freedom

The British colonial administration had long before the local campaigns using publications to rouse people, looked at press freedom with concern in India. It was as far back as 1857 that the colonial office enacted Press Laws applicable to both India and Sri Lanka. What induced the British was the first major rebellion against them that was given wide coverage by the Indian Press. The press laws included restraints in circulation of printed books and papers, the requirement for licensing of printing presses and the prohibition of any printed material that incited the public thereby causing hatred towards the British government.

As this country proceeded towards the 1930s certain political reforms had been granted. But it was quite a distance away from its ultimate goal of complete political emancipation. Piyadasa Sirisena continued to use his novels and the newspaper Sinhala Jathiya in a sustained anti-colonial campaign.

By this time he had also a big following and the most influential of the western educated elite working towards constitutional changes collaborated with Piyadasa Sirisena and others of similar nationalistic persuasions to enhance their struggle for political freedom. Many historians are of the view that Piyadasa Sirisena had a definite role to play in the earliest movements presaging political formation. He was one of the proponents of the Sinhala Maha Sabha in which S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike played a key role.

As the freedom drive from British rule progressed one notable development was the merging of the different formal and non formal forces in a combined endeavour which ultimately won freedom for this country.

Popular novelist

Piyadasa Sirisena was also easily the most popular novelist of his era and his books achieved record sales. His other contribution of lasting value is the inculcation of the habit of reading among the literate Sinhalese of his period.

A man who was totally patriotic and nationalistic, Sirisena however never worked against non-Sinhala communities and he had secular objectives throughout his life. Piyadasa Sirisena died at the age of 71 in 1946 just two years before Sri Lanka gained independence from colonial rule. His death prompted D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon to state that Sirisena had departed when Ceylon was at the doorstep of freedom for which he had so unobtrusively made a significant contribution.

 

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