Public Life
Sir James Peiris by L.J.M. Cooray

A facet of James Peiris life and work which I intend to expose is that he was a man of vision, a pioneer and that on many issues he was ahead of his times. He was a pioneer in that he was often the first to put forward progressive and reform proposals. This is illustrated by the following two quotes, some of the above quotes and by specific examples provided in the course of this lecture.

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (Ceylon Daily News, 30.10.1922) has testified to James Peiris' "...grand document which he wrote and despatched to the Secretary of State for the first time before many of us thought about it". This is an eloquent testimony by a man who with his brother could be regarded as main competitors with James Peiris for the title of Moses of the freedom struggle in Sri Lanka. Sir Ponnambalam concedes that James Peiris' 1908 despatch contained ideas of reform which he and many had not thought about. This must also include his brother, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam.

Mr D B Jayatilaka said shortly after James Peiris's death "... during the past twenty or thirty years no public movement having for its object the progress of the country, either politically or socially, or educationally was started in this country with which Sir James Peiris was not closely and prominently associated". Ceylon Independent, 27.9.1930.

It is my intention to sketch some of the main events in the public life of James Peiris.

Service to the Municipal Council
James Peiris's first entry into politics was as a Member of the Municipal Council. He rendered valuable service to the rate payers of Colombo between 1898 and 1908. He worked along with the late Mr P Coomaraswamy, to clean up the atmosphere which pervaded certain aspects of municipal life, to infuse fresh ideas and thinking and bring about needed reforms.

During this period he had the opportunity to learn about the needs (political and social) of his people.

The main reason for his resignation from the Council was a lengthy absence from the Island, connected with ill health and the writing and submission of the Reform Memorandum (referred to below). The Chairman of the Municipal Council at a meeting held on 20 March 1908 said:

"Mr Peiris devoted a great deal of his time to the municipal matters, which he studied thoroughly. The Council was all the poorer for the loss of his ripe experience and sound judgement. He always took a broad view of the questions that came before him." Keble and Surya Sena, op cit p 32.

The Chairman moved:
"That this Council do place on record its sense of the great loss sustained by Mr Peiris' resignation of a seat which he has filled with so much credit to himself and benefit to the community, for the last ten years, and its regret at the severance of so long and close a connection with the Council." Keble and Surya Sena, op cit, p 32.

Memorandum on Reforms
The Secretary for the State for Colonies, Colonel Seely asked James Peiris to submit a Memorandum on Reforms for Ceylon. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan's comment has been quoted above. The Memorandum is regarded as providing new thoughts and as being a visionary document which paved the way for the independence movement.

The Memorandum provided a scheme for future constitutional development for Ceylon. Two of the important changes suggested were the abolition of the then system of racial representation and introduction of the elective principle in place of nomination.

The system of nomination of representatives enabled the Governor to select the persons of his own choice who would support his policies. Men of independence were therefore excluded.

The Governor's avoidance of nominating James Peiris
There was wide support for James Peiris' nomination to the Legislative Council. On two occasions when nominations had to be made for the position of "an educated Ceylonese" James Peiris was passed over. Many public meetings were held to support his nomination. There was no doubt that he enjoyed the confidence of the overwhelming majority of the educated Ceylonese. He was, however, never to be nominated to a position in the Legislative Council, not withstanding his ability and integrity. Immediately the elective principle was introduced into the Legislative Council, James Peiris was elected unopposed.

The riots of 1915
The riots of 1915 occurred during the great war. Moors had suffered at the hands of some Sinhalese. The British over reacted. Many innocent persons were punished or accused. The finger of blame was pointed at the Sinhala Buddhists. Sir James Peiris led the campaign for a Royal Commission of Inquiry and the vindication of the reputations of those who had been falsely accused.

Lord Chalmers, the British Governor, attempted to bring pressure on James Peiris to step aside from his campaign. He was assured that as a Sinhala Christian there was no question of he or other Christians being implicated. James Peiris treated this offer with disdain.

The consequence of the actions of the Colonial Government was that the people realised that the only way they could avoid the repetition of a similar situations of abuse of power was by obtaining more control over matters of Government.

Service to Agriculture
James Peiris had often expressed to his close relatives and friends that nature had meant him for a farmer, while society was trying to make a politician of him. Though he somewhat reluctantly entered politics, he made a significant contribution to agricultural development.

He played his part along with members of his extended family in the pioneering work of opening up rubber and coconut plantations. In this context I make no more than passing reference to the contribution which he in company with his family made in a pioneering manner to opening up the country and developing it. Succeeding generations of the family and the nation reaped the fruits of this pioneering work.

His contribution to agriculture can be assessed by his active involvement in the Low-Country Products' Association, the Agri-Horticultural Society, the Board of Agriculture, the Committee appointed to inquire into the Immigration of Indian Labour and Labour Laws. He was a Member of a delegation which went to India to confer with Lord Willingdon on the Labour problem.

The Low-Country Products' Association was another of his brainchildren. Mr Francis de Zoysa, KC is on record as stating, "the idea of starting a Low-Country Products' Association originated with him, though others followed him". Ceylon Independent, 27.9.1930.

The sensitivity to tax burdens, especially on the poor

An issue which seemed to arouse James Peiris's indignation and anger was taxation. He was frequently at odds with the British Government over taxation.

His earliest foray into politics was the strong support he provided to the movement to abolish the paddy tax. The "Ceylon Review", September 1894 issue referred to "a very learned and elaborate report of the National Association on the paddy tax, which was the sole unaided work of Mr Peiris". James Peiris' report on the paddy tax was sent to England where it received the commendation of the Cobden Club. Cobden had been a leader of the anti-corn law agitation in England.

The paddy tax was abolished in 1893. James Peiris's report which provided the reasons and focussed on the injustice, no doubt provided the final momentum which led to the abolition.

James Peiris was also associated with the movement to abolish the poll tax. The paddy tax and the poll tax fell heavily on the poor and he was among the first politicians to see the need for their abolition.

He was the Chairman of a massive public meeting, which in 1905 was convened to condemn the Government's excise policy. He was the Chairman of the Committee to make representations to the Secretary of State upon that subject.

Mr Peiris led the fight against the Supply Bill for 1922-1923 which sought to increase taxation in order to provide higher salaries to colonial bureaucrats. He led a walkout from the Legislative Council in protest against the passage of this Bill. The Bill could have been defeated if all the local born Members of the Legislative Council had voted against it. However some of the Governor's nominees voted with the Government.

The walkout in the context of the time was a very provocative and near revolutionary act. It was an act of defiance of the Government. It provided the answer to those who argued that James Peiris was weak and too conciliatory.

Welfare and social services
The inspiration which James Peiris derived from the Indian writer and political activist Gokhale, has been referred to. He decided, about 1910, to launch a scheme for social service. He read extensively on the subject, ordering books from London and India. When his research had been completed he put down on paper his thoughts and more importantly a plan of action. He turned to his friend, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam. At a public meeting on 19 November 1914 it was resolved to form the Ceylon Social Service League. The first general meeting was held on 29 January 1915. Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was voted to the Chair. He said, "I wish especially to record our obligation to James Peiris, the initiator and organiser of this movement". Another recognition of his vision and pioneering efforts - a man who would commence the work of such others were to follow. Mr Francis de Zoysa, KC recognised this: "the Social Service League might be called his petchild". Ceylon Independent, 27.9.1930.

Other activities which James Peiris pioneered included funding from his finances, and establishing, a convalescent home for poor children. He also helped establish, through the then privately funded Ceylon Social Service League, a child welfare clinic, a milk depot, needlework classes for girls, a night school for adult education, a workmen's resort, a creche for children, a slum visiting scheme, health exhibitions and a study of social problems. The State was not involved in welfare and social services at this time. These initiatives provided the impetus to State activity and responsibility.

He was involved in the forming of the Workers' Federation.

The above illustrations may today appear insignificant and unworthy of mention to a radical activist in politics - yet if seen in the context of the era James Peiris lived in they were the acts of a visionary and pioneer.

Mr Peiris accepted in 1925 a Knighthood from the King. He was introduced at Queens House by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir Thomas De Sampayo. The ADC read the Proclamation, and the Knighthood was administered by Sir Hugh Clifford, Governor of Ceylon.

The Ceylon University
The idea for the appropriation of money by the Legislative Council for the university project came from James Peiris. On March 20 1924 he seconded a motion in Council.

"The Colonial Secretary proposed that the sum of Rs 3,000,000 be set aside to form a Building and Equipment Fund for the proposed University of Ceylon.

In his speech the Colonial Secretary said: `I desire, furthermore, to take this opportunity of making public acknowledgment of the services rendered to the cause of the Ceylon University by my honourable friend, the member for the Town of Colombo (James Peiris). He was the first to suggest that a portion of the surplus balances should be appropriated for founding a Ceylon University; and due to his perseverance and enthusiasm in the face of much difficulty that unanimity of unofficial opinion, without which it would have been difficult for Government to take action, has now happily been achieved.'" Keble and Surya Sena, op cit, p 74.

The contribution that Sir James Peiris made to the establishment and funding of the Ceylon University is best explained in a letter written by Professor Marrs, Head of the University College, many years later on 8 August 1939. Professor Marrs says:

"But the agitation for a university cannot be said to have taken shape, until the small body of men of all communities formed themselves into a university association and clamoured, with a conviction of enthusiasts, almost of prophets for a university. Among the most consistent and ardent of these enthusiasts must be counted the great Sinhalese Gentleman, Sir James Peiris."

Professor Marrs refers to Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, Sir James Peiris and Sir Marcus Fernando as the "enlightened band who carried through the beginning of the University project".

Sir James Peiris was a Member of the Advisory Council of the new University College.

Professor Marrs in the above mentioned letter also stated:

"He was far from advocating a University as a political weapon. He knew his Cambridge, and the paradox of the inadvertence of its national importance, too well for that. He desired a University for its intellectual and moral fruits, for the development, of all the latent talent in his people, knowing that the rest of his ambition would follow as an inevitable consequence of their proved capacity. It was such as he that made the work of those on whom the spade work fell seem worth while.

To me as principal of the University College, it was an inestimable privilege to enjoy the confidence and friendship of so good and wise a political leader. I was absent on furlough at the time of his death. I am grateful indeed to have been given this opportunity of paying my tribute to this just, wise, and benevolent personality, and to his consistent and successful advocacy of the University project."

An issue which dominated Ceylon politics in the closing years of Sir James Peiris's life was the battle of the sites - whether Colombo or Kandy should be site of the new University. There were very strong feelings on this issue.

James Peiris was very strongly criticised for participation in a debate in the Legislative Council, where he spoke in favour of the Colombo site. It was argued that as Vice President of the Council he should not have participated. He defended himself on the ground that the rules governing his position had permitted him to participate in a debate. He had never before participated. The reason for his participation was that he saw this as a non-political issue. His mistake was that he participated in the debate at the very end and did not give an opportunity to anyone to answer his comments. He was however very careful on future occasions when the matter was debated to provide opportunity to others to counter his views.

Vice President of the Legislative Council
The Legislative Council was reconstituted in 1924 with a majority of elected representatives. Sir James Peiris was elected as Vice President - a position he held until his death in 1930. The Governor was the President. This in effect meant that Sir James Peiris occupied the highest position available to a Ceylonese - and it was the highest a position which any Ceylonese had ascended to up to that time.

When the Governor was overseas on leave, he acted as Governor. He was the first Ceylonese to act as Governor. He was therefore the first Ceylonese occupant of Queens House — an achievement which is often overlooked by those who regard Sir Oliver Goonetilleke as the first incumbent.

The Donoughmore Commission
The views Sir James Peiris expressed before the Donoughmore Commission caused a furore in the country. He expressed the view that the country was not yet ready to receive full self government and that he was not in favour of extending the franchise immediately. He however clearly recognised the need for extension in the not too distant future.

He took this stand on a point of principle. He anticipated the criticism that would arise. He was warned by family and friends. But he said that he must state what he believed, whatever the cost and whatever the criticism.

He had no personal axe to grind. He was 72 years at the time and would have been 75 when the Donoughmore proposals came into effect. None of his children were involved in politics.

The crux of his argument was that the Ceylonese had not been provided by previous Governors and administrations with experience in government. The immediate preceding governor could have, but did not, permit the local Ceylonese to participate in the executive government. He thus felt that there should be a period of training, with the locals working alongside the administration, before a grant of substantial powers was made.

The Donoughmore Commission granted full internal self government and universal adult franchise. This was only three years after universal franchise was introduced into the United Kingdom. The Commission was unwilling to concede further self government to the colony, unless the Legislative Council was responsible to all the people. The Commission was not willing to hand over the control of the poor to the wealthy class. The Commission also stated that it preferred the horse sense of the masses to the education of a literate city mediocrity.

This was by far the most controversial incident in Sir James Peiris's life. He was criticised far and wide.

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