Sri Lankan Independence Day on February 4: History And Significance
Flag of Sri Lanka (Photo Credits: Twitter)

Sri Lanka will celebrate its 71st National Independence Day today. Ending 133 years of colonial rule, Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, gained independence from Britain on February 04, 1948. Sri Lanka will mark the 71st National Independence Day at a gallant ceremony at the Galle Face Green in Colombo. The Independence Day will be celebrated as the National Day, announced minister Vajira Abeywardena.

President Maithripala Sirisena will unfurl the national flag and deliver a nationally televised speech to commemorate Sri Lanka's independence day. Sri Lanka had been under British rule for more than a century. Though it gained independence in 1948, it became the Republic of Sri Lanka under the first Republican Constitution of 1972. Prior to the year 1972, Sri Lanka was known as the Dominion of Ceylon.

Post independence, D S Senanayake, who played an active role in the country's freedom movement, became the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, and Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe served as the last king. The Sri Lankan independence movement started around the turn of the 20th century.

History: In 1505, Lourenso de Almeida's Portuguese fleet was caught in a storm and washed ashore at Galle. The fleet later made it to Colombo (the port nearest to the Sri Lankan capital at the time, Kotte). By this incident, Portuguese made contact with the island and later started trade. During the Portuguese era, the kingdom had split into three factions: the kingdoms of Kotte, Sitawaka and Raigama.

Portuguese took advantage of the power struggle between Sri Lankan princes and established their control over Kotte. Sitawaka, who annexed Raigama, fought several battles with Portuguese. Meanwhile, Vimaladharmasuriya I managed to strengthen the Kingdom of Kandy. By the late 1590s, the Kingdom of Kandy was the last surviving local polity. After the death of Rajasingha I, Sitawaka had disintegrated.

Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Jaffna had become a client state of the Portuguese. The King of Kandy later joined hands with the Dutch East India company and the joint forces managed to drive the Portuguese from all coastal areas by 1658. However, after the victory, the two sides came at loggerheads with each other as Dutch had captured most of the land previously held by the Portuguese.

Dutch rule continued until the late 1790s. Sri Vira Parakrama Narendrasingha, the last native king, died in 1739 without a legitimate heir. His brother-in-law, Sri Vijaya Rajasingha, a Nayakkar prince from South India, then took over the kingdom. In the first half of the 1760s, the kingdom indulged in a series of military confrontations with the Dutch that resulted in the loss of all coastal territory.

The British came to Sri Lanka after the fall of Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. They arrived at a time when the Kandyan Kingdom was on the verge of civil war due to the growing rift between the native aristocracy and the Nayakkars. In 1803, the British tried to invade but were pushed back Kandyan guerilla fighters. The two sides entered into a truce in 1805.

By the end of 1815, the British had managed to conquer Kandy. The King and Queen consort were captured and exiled to Vellore Fort in India. The rebellion against British started from Uva. The Britishers retaliated with full force. Keppetipola Disawe, the leader of the rebellion, was beheaded in front of the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. The protectorate was abolished, and all of Sri Lanka came under direct British colonial rule.

In 1848, Veera Puran Appu led the Matale Rebellion but the movement was crushed. The British attempt at giving a Protestant Christian education to the young men fueled the anger among locals and Sinhala Buddhist Revivalists such as Anagarika Dharmapala launched a campaign to unite Sinhalese Buddhists. In 1915, clashes between Christians, Muslims and Buddhists erupted in Colombo.

The British response was severe as the riot was also directed against them. Dharmapala had his legs broken and was confined to Jaffna. In 1919 the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) was founded, which sought greater autonomy. However, it did not seek independence. The CNC also opposed the grant of universal suffrage by the Donoughmore Constitutional Commission.

The young people who stepped into the shoes of Dharmapala organised themselves into Youth Leagues, seeking independence and justice for Sri Lanka. Several other outfits were formed against the British rule. The Marxist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which grew out of the Youth Leagues in 1935, was the first party to demand independence.

The appointment of British socialist Sidney Webb as the British Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs also played an important role. Webb appointed four British parliamentarians to draft a new constitution for Sri Lanka that would not only satisfy the aspirations of all the groups within the island, including British plantation owners, but also enable Sri Lanka to take its place as a partner in the socialist British empire that Webb envisioned.

In 1931, a new Constitution was effected in Sri Lanka under which the island was given universal suffrage and representative democracy. For the first time, a colony which wasn't dominated by a white populace was given universal suffrage and representative democracy.

In 1944, Sir Ivor Jennings (an authority on constitutional law and the legendary first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ceylon) helped D S Senanayake draft a constitution based on the Westminster model. By 1947 the new Soulbury Constitution was in effect. Subsequently, general elections were held. On February 4, 1948, Sri Lanka gained independence within the British Commonwealth. Sri Lanka gained the status of a republic in 1972, finally becoming fully independent from the British rule.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachchalam, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, A. E. Gunasinha, F. R. Senanayake, E. W. Perera and the monk-poet from Sikkim, S. Mahinda Thero are some of the notable independence movement leaders.