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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.