Violence targeting the Muslim community has recently increased in Sri Lanka. The latest outbreak of violence occurred in March 2018. An isolated traffic dispute between a group of Muslims and a Sinhalese man led to the death of the Sinhalese man. In retaliation for the death, militant groups incited others to commit violence against Muslims. Sinhala-Buddhist mobs subsequently attacked Muslim-owned homes, businesses and mosques, causing damage to around 500 properties. Yet the scale of the violence is relatively small compared to events that took place a hundred years ago. In 1915, a dispute over a Buddhist procession near a mosque led to island-wide communal riots in Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). This article revisits this historical event. It explores how the rise of ethno-religious nationalist ideologies in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries converged with British regulation of ‘noise worship’ to trigger the most destructive episode of violence between Sinhala-Buddhists and Muslims to date.

The rise of nationalisms

In the last decades of the 19th Century, Buddhist revivalist and Sinhala nationalist movements fused to form a distinct ethno-religious identity: Sinhala-Buddhism (de Silva 1998: 20). These movements emerged in response to the perception that Sinhala-Buddhists were being alienated from political power (Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988: 211). For example, state-funded English language education was only available at Christian missionary schools. Meanwhile, proficiency in English was a prerequisite for high administrative posts in government (Malalgoda 1976: 32). Some feared that these two factors would incentivise conversion to Christianity and lead to a dilution of local culture (Bartholomeusz 1998: 173). Due to these fears, many Sinhala-Buddhists chose not to send their children to Christian schools; these children struggled to access English education and government employment.

The creation of the ‘Buddhist English School’ in 1886 (and multiple others thereafter) was a response to this problem. Buddhist schools provided a ‘safe’ environment in which Sinhala-Buddhist children could learn English, and improve their employment prospects without the risk of conversion (Malalgoda: 249-250). However, it was at these very schools that an ethno-religious identity was fostered in defiance of British cultural hegemony.

Meanwhile, in the 1880s, an Islamic revivalist movement had reached Ceylon, and a distinct Muslim identity began to emerge as well (Nuhman 2016: 23-24). This Islamic revivalist movement contained certain ultra-conservative strands based on Wahabi ideology, which renounced music – both vocal and instrumental (Roberts 1995: 154).

British Regulation of Noise

Traditional Buddhist worship practices during festivals included the beating of tom-toms – a type of traditional drum – dancing, throwing firecrackers, and chanting (Gombrich 1995: 126). However, the British colonial administration considered ‘native music’ involving the beating of tom-toms ‘noise’. They viewed ‘noise worship’ as a disturbance to the peace, particularly when conducted at night (Roberts: 153). Thus a clash of cultures  between a colonial state that valued silence and a local Buddhist populace that embraced noise ensued.

The British colonial state accordingly adopted legislative and administrative measures to regulate all forms of ‘noise worship’ in Ceylon. Section 96 of the Police Ordinance of 1865 forbade the beating of tom-toms at any time, within any town, without a license issued by the state. Those found guilty of the offence could be fined or imprisoned for up to three months. Regulations published under the Ordinance in 1898 extended the law across Ceylon to include rural areas. This codification of silence reflected British antipathy towards noise in colonial Ceylon.

In the context of emerging Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist consciousness, the British regulation of religious rites was perceived as antagonistic towards Sinhala-Buddhist culture. Since Muslims often shared the state’s attitude towards noise, Buddhist ‘noise worship’ became a fault line for contestation between the Sinhala-Buddhist and Muslim communities. Between 1899 and 1915, at least 14 confrontations over ‘noise worship’ took place between Sinhala-Buddhists and Muslims in areas such as Galle, Gampola, and Kurunegala (Roberts: 160). According to Michael Roberts, a historian of Sri Lanka, British cultural assumptions regarding the virtues of silent worship emboldened Muslims (Roberts: 167). By contrast, the majority Sinhala-Buddhist population came to view the regulation of ‘noise worship’ as discriminatory and an attack on their dominant status (Roberts: 173). These minor clashes between Sinhala-Buddhists and Muslims were ultimately overshadowed by the island-wide riots of 1915.

The 1915 riots

The riots began on 28 May 1915 at the annual Vesak perahera, a Buddhist procession involving elephants, dancers, singing and drumming. A decision by the police to divert the procession away from the Castle Hill Street Mosque in Kandy proved to be the spark for the outbreak of violence (Ali 2015: 1). Sinhala-Buddhists saw the decision to shield the mosque from Buddhist ‘noise worship’ as the British giving preferential treatment to Muslims (Roberts: 176). The Sinhala-Buddhist crowd in the perahera attacked the Castle Hill Street Mosque, and went on to damage Muslim-owned stores in the vicinity (Ali: 1). Attacks on Muslim-owned homes, businesses and mosques spread from Kandy to the rest of the country, affecting five out of the nine provinces (Ali: 2).

The riots lasted nine days. According to official estimates, violence resulted in at least 25 murders, the rape of four women and left 189 people wounded. Furthermore, over 4,000 Muslim shops were looted, and 350 houses and seventeen mosques were set on fire (Ali: 2). The anti-Muslim riots of 1915 were the first of its kind. Moreover, such intense and widespread violence between Sinhala-Buddhists and Muslims has not been witnessed since. At the heart of this violence was a potent mix of contesting ethno-religious nationalist ideologies and British colonial legislation on ‘noise worship’ in Ceylon.

The Aftermath

The regulation of ‘noise worship’ in Ceylon emerged as a result of British prioritisation of silence. The Police Ordinance of 1865 reflected this prioritisation, and was used to silence ‘noise worship’ on the basis of maintaining the peace. Although not necessarily intended as a tool of religious discrimination, the legislation was perceived by Sinhala-Buddhists as specifically targeting their religious rites, such as the beating of tom-toms.

Against this backdrop, and at a time of heightening ethno-religious nationalisms, the diversion of a Buddhist procession in May 1915 triggered violence between Sinhala-Buddhists and Muslims on an unprecedented scale. It remains a stark example of how seemingly benign laws can have devastating repercussions when applied without a deeper understanding of the fault lines that underlie divided societies.

Shamara Wettimuny is a historian based in Sri Lanka, and a political analyst at Verité Research, a Colombo-based think tank. She has a BSc in International Relations and History, and an MSc in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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