The business of Anagarika Dharmapala


Anagarika Dharmapala wanted to build industries. Today, people invoke his name to build their careers.

Anagarika Dharmapala means a lot of things to a lot of people. Love him or hate him, Dharmapala is big business, his name and legacy frequently invoked for political and academic mileage.

Few have actually read Dharmapala. Fewer still, have read him in his historical moment.

So, let’s put Dharmapala in context. He was born in 1864 – that’s 49 years after the Kandyan Convention was signed, 46 years after Keppetipola was beheaded, and 16 years after Weera Puran Apu was executed by firing squad.

The Kandyan peasantry had been crushed by the Crown Lands (Encroachment) Ordinance of 1840, and the Registration of Temple Lands Ordinance of 1856. The Waste Lands Ordinance of 1897 was passed when Dharmapala was 33.

Dharmapala was born into the Plantation Raj, just three years before James Taylor planted the first tea saplings in Loolecondera. He witnessed the decline of peasant production, and the rise of immigrant merchants and moneylenders. 

He witnessed these contradictions climax in the carnage of 1915, after which his younger brother Edmund Hewavitarne, a member of the Ceylon Defence Force, was  court-martialed for treason against the British Empire and died in prison.

As the locus of anti-colonial resistance shifted from the Kandyan peasantry to the working class in the western and southern coastal belts, Dharmapala witnessed the colonial bourgeoisie’s strategy of encouraging immigration to suppress labor militancy.

Dharmapala died in exile in India in 1933, just a year after young radicals like Philip Gunawardena, S.A. Wickramasinghe and N.M. Perera brought Marxism to Ceylon. The LSSP was founded two years after his death, building on the radical movement he helped start.

“It was well known that Dharmapala was the man the [colonial] authorities feared most,” Kumari Jayawardena wrote in The Rise of the Labor Movement in Ceylon, which was published in 1972.

Today, academics like Professor Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri twist words to argue that Dharmapala was a kalu sudda, for looking West for ideas to modernize and rebuild a colonized nation. Others accuse Dharmapala of being gay, a rapist, or a paedophile.

The veracity of these accusations is besides the point. Like the Danish cartoonists who depicted Prophet Mohamed, these provocateurs are motivated not by a desire to critique, but a desire to offend, attract attention and act out a kind of petite-bourgeois radicalism.

Meanwhile, some white saviors want to rescue Dharmapala from the nation, and some faux-nationalists compare Dharmapala to a roaring lion. Both seek to empty the man of his demand for industrialization as a basis for independence.

Anagarika Dharmapala wanted to build industries. Today, people invoke his name to build their careers.

In today’s political-economic climate, where ministries are made for handcrafted batik and pottery; where politicians talk of self-sufficiency in this, that and the other small-and-medium thing; and where men of business bemoan the rights of traders, some of Dharmapala’s words are more relevant than ever:

“We have lived nearly a hundred years under British rule, and it is a melancholy fact that as yet we have not in the island, even a high grade technical college where industries are taught. We are ignorant of the first principles which regulate the production, distribution and exchange of wealth. Our ancestral wealth we squander in luxuries, and we do not find fresh fields to increase our wealth by industries.”

One thought on “The business of Anagarika Dharmapala
  1. Good one! Dharmapala, as Guruge again recorded, was a proponent of industrialisation admiring the industrial success of Japan after the Meji Restoration of 1868. In fact, in many ways Dharmapala was the father of industrialisation for Sri Lanka. He was thus a contrast to Gandhi whose unbelievably atrocious tract Hind Swaraj (1909) denounced any form of industrialisation…. In rejecting Gandhi’s backward economic policy, Guruge quoted Dharmapala as saynig : one could not use the “spinnnig wheel and the bullock cart” to compete in the modern age – Ananda Guruge: Chronicler of the Buddhist Revival by Susantha Goonatilake

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