Sinhalese – Muslim Riots of 1915
Posted by F.S Mahmood on January 27, 2008
Muslims had been in Ceylon since the eighth century, a composite group of Arabs, Persians and Muslimized Indians who came to be known as Ceylon Moors. The most recent arrivals, Indian Moors from Cochin and Malabar coast labeled ‘Coast Moors’, earned an undesirable reputation among Sinhalese while the older order of Ceylon Moors lived at peace among the Sinhalese, even attaining the status of headmen in some Kandyan villages. The charges against the Coast Moors were that they were unscrupulous, alien (some compared them to Jews; others, in 1915, to Germans), and they loaned money at usurious rates. De Souza notes that before the 1915 riots, Sinhalese had boycotted Coast Moormen’s boutiques (general merchandise shops and food counters) as a warning to them to desist from attempting to seduce Sinhalese girls. He also noted that the buying public of Ceylon blamed the Coast Moors for creating artificial increases in the prices of necessities….”
“…The riots sprang from the religious fanaticism of a small section of the Muslims known as the Hambayas, who insisted that all non-Muslim religious processions should proceed in silence when they passed their mosques. The Hambayas were Mohammedan immigrants from the East Coast of South India and then numbered nearly thirty three thousand. They formed an exclusive community and did not at that time intermarry with other Mohammedans in the island.
The time for the celebration of the great Buddhist festival – the anniversary of the birthday of Buddha – fell on the 28th of May, 1915. With much trepidation of heart, those who had hitherto conducted the carol procession in Kandy applied to the Government Agent, Central Province, for the usual licence, but the Hambayas of Kandy, who owned the mosque at Castle Hill Street, objected to its issue. The elected members of the Municipal Council unanimously recommended the issue of the licence. The Government Agent, having ascertained from the trustees of the Castle Hill street mosque that the hour for closing it on Friday, the 28th May, was twelve midnight, issued the licence subject to the condition that the procession should not enter Castle Hill Street before midnight.
He, however, neglected to take the precaution, suggested by the District Judge of Kandy in the Walahagoda Devale case, of having the aggressive Hambayas bound over to keep the peace. He also failed, as the head of the police in the Central Province, to have a sufficient number of properly armed police officers and constables in the streets of Kandy, so as to prevent any sudden outbreak of riot.
It was about 1 am, when the first carol procession with a band of musicians in a decorated cart turned from King Street into Castle Hill Street. The Sinhalese crowd were amazed to see the Hambayas’ mosque open and lit up, and a crowd of Mohammedans, including Afghans, standing on either side of the street. Inspector Cooray, observing from the junction of King Street the defiant attitude of the Mohammedans, desired the carol party not to go forward, but to pass into a cross street so as to avoid the mosque altogether. The conductors of the procession obediently turned the carol cart into the street indicated.
Just then the Hambayas and the Afghans clapped hands, jeered and boohed, which was more than the Sinhalese could bear. They halted indecisively, looking towards the mosque, when a still larger crowd, headed by another party of carol-singers in a second cart, came and entered Castle Hill Street. The first party then followed the second party.
As they advanced, a number of stones and empty bottles fell on the people, hurled from the upper storeys of two boutiques near the mosque and from the platform of the mosque. The Sinhalese crowd were infuriated. They rushed forward, picked up the stones lying on the street, pelted them at the boutiques and the mosque, chased the Mohammedans, who fled into the mosque, pulled down its iron bars and smashed its glass panes, broke into the adjoining boutiques and flung into the streets the boxes of grain and groceries.
During all this disturbance, there were no more than one Inspector and six constables, who, of course, could not control the crowd. Mr.Cooray sent for help from the Police Station, and a squad of police who arrived seized about twenty-five men on charges of riot and house-breaking. The surging crowd passed into other streets about 2 pm and disappeared with their battered cars. Thus ended the national Wesak festival of the Buddhists in 1915, undertaken in all piety and reverence to celebrate the birthday of the great peace-maker, named Goutama Buddha….
To outline the true dimensions of the disturbances in Kandy town, the first riot occurred between 1 and 2 on the morning of the 29th May 1915, in consequence of the intolerance and aggression of the Hambayas and Afghan Mohammedans assembled in and about the mosque in Castle Hill Street. No lives were lost, nor any serious bodily injury inflicted. Some boutiques were damaged and their contents turned out, which were mostly made a bonfire of in the streets, and the glass shutters of the mosque and some iron bars were also damaged.
The second riot took place between 8 and 10 pm on the same day (29th May) provoked directly by the failure of the police to arrest the murderer of an innocent Sinhalese youth, whom a Hambaya brought down with a bullet from a revolver fired from the upper storey of his master’s shop. No other persons were killed. Some shops and boutiques were damaged, and their contents thrown into the streets to be burnt.