Crucial Muslim support facilitated the process of Sri Lanka gaining independence from the British in 1948, and helped end almost four and half centuries of European colonial rule in the island.
Many still remember the leading role played by Muslim leaders such as Dr. T.B. Jayah, Sir Razik Fareed, Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel and Dr. Bathiudeen Mahmoud in the constitutional reforms of this country and their enthusiastic support for the demand of the Dominion Status and independence, and their vast contribution to the political progress of the country.
For example, when the demand for independence began gathering momentum, World War II broke out in Europe. The British Government urged all its colonies to support them, assuring they would be accorded independence after the war.
In the aftermath of the World War II, agitation for political reforms and independence began to once again gather momentum. However, the British Government insisted that three quarters of the population should support the demand for independence to ensure the rights of minorities were protected. With the Sinhalese community as a whole constituting less than three quarters of the population, this was an impossible demand to fulfill unless they had the support of the minority communities.
Tamil Congress Leader G.G. Ponnambalam demanded equal representation, better known as the call for ‘fifty-fifty’. However, the Muslims stood fully behind the majority community and helped it meet the British demand for the support of two-thirds of the population, despite past sufferings and disadvantages.
Addressing a gathering at the Zahira College grounds in Colombo, under the chairmanship of Sir Mohamed Macan Markar to protest against the inadequate representation of Muslims in the Legislative Council, Dr. Bathiudeen Mahmoud, the Secretary of the All Ceylon Muslim Political Conference said on 5 March 1939:
“Let me assure my Sinhalese countrymen that I am one among them in demanding complete freedom for our country. They can count on me as one of the most ardent admirers of their legitimate national and cultural aspirations. In me and in my community, let them know that they find the most trusted friends and kind neighbours in this island. They would never find wanting in me or in my community that unflinching loyalty and patriotism that this little island would demand one day from its sons and daughters to carve out a niche of fame for itself as a self-respecting unit in a world federation. Let me also assure my Sinhalese friends that the brave community to which I belong shall never consider any sacrifice too great to make Ceylon a happy, prosperous and glorious country in the world where not one section of its population but every son and daughter of her soil shall legitimately take pride in her glorious destiny.”
In keeping with this policy the three Muslim representatives in the State Council extended their whole-hearted support for the ‘Dominion Status Bill’ – a Sri Lankan Bill sponsored by the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike when it came for the vote on 9 November 1945.
T.B. Jayah and Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel spoke in favour of the Bill while Sir Razik Fareed and Dr. Kaleel voted in favour, as Jayah was not present during the time of voting.
Muslims expressed support
During his speech, Sir. Razik Fareed said: “The All Ceylon Moors Association pledges their support to the resolution of the Hon. Leader under discussion today. Nothing else would at the moment give me great pleasure to do so, and to express my whole-hearted support to the Hon. Leader’s proposal. As my community and I have always stood by them, I must say that in the hour of his triumph, we join hands with him in the forward march to the goal of the proposal to which he aspires…”
Supporting the Sri Lankan Bill despite its disadvantages to Muslims and defining the attitude of Muslims towards the Bill, Jayah said: “I am glad, Sir, that it has been stated that this is not the moment for jubilation or exultation or even for mutual recrimination. I certainly think that this is not the occasion to speak of the discomfiture of the minority communities’ or of the victory of the majority community.
“As far as I am concerned, I speak with the full support of members of the Muslim community. I saw to it that the Ceylon Muslim League, representing the Muslim community of Ceylon, consulted Muslim representatives in different parts of the country on the important issues before the house and I am in a position to say that the Muslim members of this Council have the fullest backing of the Muslim community in this island.
“When the Muslims of the Council decided to take a definite stand at the time the Sri Lanka Bill was introduced, they did so for one, and one reason only. The reason was that where the political freedom of this country was involved, they were prepared to go to any length, even to the point of sacrificing advantages and benefit as a result of such action. As far as I am concerned, Sir, I do not consider any right greater than the right of political freedom and therefore, although I am fully conscious of those disadvantages of the Bill, looking at it from a narrow point of view, yet, I am prepared to support this Bill.”
SWRD expresses gratitude
Expressing his gratitude to the Muslim members on behalf of the Sinhalese community, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike assured that he would consider any reasonable request by the Muslim community. Bandaranaike said: “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 to differ, I say the fullest credit must go more than anyone else among us to the Honorable nominated Member, Mr. T.B. 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 sense of reality to this struggle, however it may shape, that we are going to undertake to obtain a satisfactory measure of freedom.
“What have the three members, T.B. Jayah, Dr. Kaleel and Razik Fareed, done? There is provided in the Bill a Scheme of Representation under which the Muslim community in this country might suffer in the form in which it appears, but yet, he himself so sincerely determined to work for the main idea of freedom that he was prepared to vote for the principle embodied in the Bill.
“But I can give the Hon. nominated member, Mr. T.B. Jayah, this assurance on behalf of, I think, the vast majority, at least the community that I represent, that in the struggle for freedom, whatever may or may not be the recommendation of the Soulbury Commission on our representation, he may rest assured that we will be quite prepared to consider any reasonable point of view that might be put forward.”
Thus the Muslim support provided the required support of the two-third majority of the population, paving the way for the island’s independence on 4 February 1948 when Rt. Hon. D.S. Senanayake lowered the British flag and hoisted the Sri Lankan National Flag and declared the island’s independence from British rile.