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Sir Baron Jayatilaka



 
CDN Friday, 17 August 2001
D. B. Jayatilaka was born on February 13, 1868, at Waragoda, Kelaniya, and was the eldest male child of Don Daniel Jayatilaka, a government contractor, and his wife Elisiyana. Sir Baron had two brothers and two sisters both of whom died young.

When he was seven years the boy was sent to the Vidyalankara Pirivena, where he learnt Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit at the feet of the famous Ratmalane Sri Dharmaloka Thera. To study English and other subjects in the English medium, he was sent to the local Baptist school from where he was sent to Wesley College in 1881. It was from there that the future philosopher king passed both the junior and senior examinations of the Cambridge University. You will be interested to know that he did the trip from Kelaniya to the Pettah, where Wesley College was situated by cart.

At the age of 22, young Jayatilaka applied for a clerk's job in the Land Settlement Department. The Head of the Department who interviewed him found him too good for the job and advised him to study further. Since there were no examinations of the London University held in Sri Lanka at the time, D. B. Jayatilaka registered for the B.A. Examination of the Calcutta University which he passed in 1896 with honours in English and Latin.

Meanwhile, the young Jayatilaka had come under the influence of Col. H. S. Olcott who had come to the island in 1880 to study Buddhism. He started the Buddhist Theosophical Society and began to open Buddhist Schools in various parts of the country. Ananda was started in 1886. D. B. joined Olcott in this movement and wanted to teach. Together they started Dharmaraja College which was at first called the Kandy Buddhist High School. D. B. became its first Principal in 1890. His salary was Rs. 30/- a month. This he spent on the College. His whole idea was to serve the Buddhists who had no English schools of their own. At that time, the only recognised schools in Kandy were Trinity College and St. Anthony's College which were being patronised by the Kandyan Buddhists.

D.B. went round the neighbouring villages to raise funds for the new school and soon became a household word even in remote villages of the province. Within seven years, he had succeeded in establishing Dharmaraja as a first rate College. A. Ratnayake, a former Minister, observed in his condolence speech "if you go to Kandy, to places like Ampitiya, Walala, Talatuoya, Attaragala and distant Mailapitiya you will see in those remote villages the good work and the hard work Sir Baron had performed when he was quite a young man. We in the Kandyan provinces, can never forget him."

The B.T.S. was so pleased with his work at Dharmaraja that they brought him down to Colombo as Vice Principal of Ananda in 1898. D. B. became Principal in 1900 when A. E. Buultjens, the then Principal retired. He went all over the country by rail, coach, cart, and for the most part on foot, raising money for the school. The journeys were tiring and difficult, He spent the nights at the homes of friends and relatives. With the funds so collected, D. B. improved the College beyond expectations.

The name D. B. Jayatilaka became a household word among the Buddhists of the country. Without his knowing it, D. B. Jayatilaka became a national figure. Meanwhile, in addition to being Principal of Ananda College, D. B. Jayatilaka was appointed to the post of General manager of Buddhist Schools in 1902 and elected to the post of secretary of the B.T.S. in 1908 which gave him considerable scope for advancing the cause of Buddhist education.

Another allied project in which the young Jayatilaka got himself interested was the YMBA which he founded in 1898. A grateful membership continued to elect him as President every year till 1944, the year of his death.

To further equip himself in his efforts to advance the cause of education in general and Buddhist education in particular, Jayatilaka now decided to go to England for further studies and left the island on 14th July 1910. Before reaching England, he visited Berlin where he read a paper on Buddhism at the Congress of Religions, which a well-known daily newspaper published in its entirety in German.

His speech at the Congress made him a scholar of international repute. Thinkers, philosophers and authors who had attended the Congress, it is said, carried back with them the most favourable impressions. Jayatilaka arrived in England on 15th August 1910 and joined Jesus College, Oxford, from where he obtained the L.L.B. degree in 1913 and was called to the Bar. During his stay in England he did not engage himself in any political activity. He wanted to be a scholar and a lawyer. He made a name for himself, however in the social, religious and intellectual spheres.

He was active in the Indian Majlis, the Society of Indian students in Oxford, serving as its Secretary, Treasurer, and President on different occasions. He also involved himself actively in the cause of Temperance and was in the forefront of the Temperance Movement there, addressing Temperance meetings all over England. He returned to his mother country on 10th August 1913, having attended the Congress of Religions in Paris, on his way back.

He was now 46 and was given a hero's welcome on his return. Receptions were held at Ananda College, Vidyalankara Pirivena, and here at Dharmaraja College where he declared that he shall always remember the Kandyan people, the Kandyan areas, and Dharmaraja College "I began my public life first here in Kandy," he declared. For a time, D. B. practised as a lawyer in Colombo, Kandy, Ratnapura and Kurunegala. But soon he got involved in the nationalist movement against Colonial rule, even though his heart was in education. Because, as he once remarked, "there is no greater danger to a country than an ignorant democracy".

His political career commenced from the day he decided to fight the cause of innocents in prison. The local European community made the British Government believe that Buddhist leaders were conspiring against it and were secretly supporting the Germans. Arrests were made without trial. D.B. Jayatilaka himself was arrested on 21st June 1915, allegedly for making seditious speeches and writing inflammatory articles. Along with him, several others including D. S. Senanayake and his brothers F. R. and D. C. Senanayake were also taken in. Martial Law was declared after what is known as the Sinhala-Muslim riots took place on 28th May 1915 and continued till 5th June.

Jayatilaka was released on 4th August. He left for England in December 1915 and arrived there on 6th January 1916, to get riot prisoners released and ask for reforms. He emerged as a politician and freedom fighter overnight. The British Government made him a politician, although he was born to be an educationist and religious and social worker. He now started a reform movement and along with some others like F. R. Senanayake, E. W. Perera and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, asked for a Royal Commission. He remained in England to fight for reforms.

In Ceylon, the National Congress was formed and Jayatilaka became its representative in England. He propagated the view that Europeans, Burghers, Sinhalese, Tamils, and Moors were all one people and refrained from asking for separate rights.

Jayatilaka returned to the country on November 26, 1919. He travelled by ship, but when he heard that numerous receptions were being organized to welcome him back, he decided to avoid them by getting down in Bombay and travelling to Colombo by train via Talaimannar. When he got down at the Fort Railway Station, huge crowds greeted him and a meeting was held at Ananda College to welcome him back. At that meeting he declared "I have decided not to have receptions and processions. I believe in giving of my best to my Motherland without expectation of any praise or demonstration of any kind. I believe in humility and simplicity. I believe in being one with the common man." This was the exact impression I formed of him when I first met him in 1939.

He was unanimously elected President of the Ceylon National Congress on 21st December 1923.

In 1924, under a new scheme of reforms which provided for a Legislative Council with a clear unofficial majority, territorial representation and an elected Vice President, D. B. Jayatilaka was returned uncontested to represent the Colombo District. His name was proposed by an European and seconded by a Burgher.

But these reforms hardly satisfied the Congress. Led by Jayatilaka, its leaders pressed for further reforms. The outcome was the Donoughmore Commission which recommended a new constitution. Elections were held under adult franchise in 1931 and Jayatilaka was elected unopposed for Kelaniya. He became Leader of the House and Minister for Home Affairs on 22nd September, the same year. The next year, D. B Jayatilaka was made a Knight by the British Government in recognition of his services to the country. In December the same year he was struck by malaria and fell seriously ill.

When World War II broke out in 1939 in Europe, D. B. was so magnanimous towards the British, despite their imprisoning him earlier and treating him harshly, that he persuaded the State Council to pass resolution assuring the British government of whole hearted support in the prosecution of the war. It was his nature to forget the past and forgive offenders.

When the Japanese bombed Colombo on 5th April 1942, within hours Colombo was deserted because the city-dwellers fled to remote areas. By mid day, there was no one to unload food ships in the harbour. D. B. rushed to Kelaniya, his electorate, and appealed for help in the crisis. 400 volunteers immediately came forward to unload the ships.

In August the same year there was a food crisis for another reason. India refused to send food to us. D. S. Senanayake, then Minister of Agriculture and Food, followed by G. C. S. Corea, then Minister of Trade and Commerce both went to Delhi to plead Sri Lanka's case. But India was adamant. Sir Baron look up the challenge and went to Delhi himself. He was already known to the Indian leaders as a scholar and a friend of India. Where D. S. and Corea failed, D. B. succeeded and the food was obtained.

S. Natesan, then member for Kankesanthurai in the State Council, speaking on the condolence Motion on the occasion of the passing away of Sir D. B., related to the House how a great public figure of India whom he knew had said that the appointment of Sir Baron as the Representative of the Government of Ceylon in New Delli was an honour done to India by Ceylon. His name was known widely among men of learning and culture in the sub-continent. He took up this post in November 1942 - under pressure, it is said because at that time, the country needed strong leadership and Sir D. B.'s advanced age and hence temperamental unfitness made him unfit for the job of taking the country towards the final goal of complete independence. Sir D. B. was already in failing health. So he made way for D. S. Senanayake who became Leader of the House and Arunachalam Mahadeva succeeded him as Home Minister.

Relations between India and Sri Lanka had already become strained over the problem of Indian immigrants who had come here to work in our tea estates and elsewhere. Nevertheless, philosopher statesman that he was, Sir D. B. maintained cordial relations with our giant neighbour. He emphasized always the debt this country owed to India for the gift of Buddhism and the inheritance of Indian Culture and the existence of the same stock of people in the island as brothers and sisters of India.

Sir D.B's failing health gave way in New Delhi. At first it was malaria. Then it was some other kind of fever. After that it was a stomach ailment for which he had thought local ayurvedic treatment would be the best. So he decided to return home immediately and the Viceory in Delhi placed a special plane at his disposal for the journey. On the way back, the country's most "uncommon common man" as a legal luminary once described him, is said to have had a heart attack and passed away when the plane was over Bangalore, quite appropriately, since in the plane he was closer to the mountain top from where looked at human problems.

When the State Council met to pass a vote of condolence on Sir D.B's passing away, glowing tributes were paid to his memory by all sections of the House.

The then Chief Secretary, a Britisher, said that Sir Baron "had a calmness of outlook on life and its problems, a serenity which was classic....When he spoke as he did on rare occasions with vehemence he spoke from an altitude on which he stood alone".

G. G. Ponnambalam, then member for Point Pedro, observed "starting life as schoolmaster, Sir Baron remained to the end of his days a student; and what is more, a scholar - in the remarkable combination of qualities of scholarship, of statesmanship and erudition I think Baron Jayatilaka will be difficult to be surpassed in the near future".

Siripala Samarakkody, then President of the Ceylon National Congress, who was a severe critic of Sir Baron, said that the dead leader was "a superb statesman who took criticism in the proper light and never carried a vendetta or animosity against his critics".

D. S. Senanayake, who succeeded Sir Baron to the leadership of the country mentioned that his erstwhile leader "had the courage of his convictions, that it was not popularity,that he sought, but that he should act in the way which he thought was in the best interests of the country.... personal considerations never weighed with him. The interests of the country were all that he was concerned with".
 

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