MEERA LEBBE MUHAMMAD REYAL
Meera Lebbe Muhammad Reyal was the oldest son of Meera Lebbe Marikar, one of the most charming personalities amongst the Ceylon Moors and the embodiment of refinement.
MLM Reyal wrote his autobiography was follows:-
I was born in 1894 at No 4, Old Moor Street, Colombo (01100), the house situated next to the Wesleyan Methodist Mission and Pettah Branch of Wesley College, Colombo. I learned my Quran studies at Hameediyah School, attached to the Grand Mosque, New Moor Street, Colombo (01100). I had my early education at Central College and Wesley College and thereafter won the Harward Scholarship and came to Royal College. I passed my Cambridge Senior in December 1914 with exemption from the London matriculation. While at Royal College, during the Principalship of Mr C Hartley, I won the College Championship in Athletics in 1914. I was first in High Jump, Long Jump and the Quarter Mile, and second in the 220 Yards Hurdles. Hector Gunasekera (later Dr. CH Gunasekera) won the Championship in 1913 and previous to that Mr AE Christoffelsz was the Champion. I was to proceed to England to qualify myself as an Electrical Engineer at Faraday House. The first World War broke out and my proceeding to England had to be abandoned.
I then took up to trade and joined as an apprentice to Messrs WG Balls & Co. I later represented this firm, both in Ceylon and India. As time went in I became the sole representative for two firms in Switzerland and three British Firms. I was veery successful in procuring business and the Firms too were well satisfied with my handling of their agencies.
About this time there was the agitation of the Khilafat Movement and the arrival, in Ceylon, of Moulana Shaukat Ali and Dr Kitchlew made me take a prominent part in Politics. The cooperation and backing I received from the late Mr TB Jayah and Kumar cassim – who at that time was the President of the Ceylon Muslim Associtaion – located at Kuruwe Street and thereafter shifted to New Moor Street, Colombo – opposite Bulgarians shop. The Association rendered useful services and supported the war effort. The Turkish Red Crescent Society abroad recognized the services if this institution. The live wires of the Association were the two afore mentioned persons, Razeen Abdul cader and myself. The Islam Mittiran paper was owned, published and edited by M Uthman, a carping critic who would not tolerate any innovations. He dubbed us “London Qunjees”. His abuse and vituperations elderly people dreaded most and some of his statements were even believed to be true. S a result, at a later stage, Messrs NHM Abdul cader and NDH Abdul Ghaffoor, dealt a death blow to the rising generations of Muslim youths by ejecting from the premises the members of the Muslim Association, and throwing out all their furniture, books, and belongings. The young men were unable to find alternate accommodation for the activities of the Ceylon Muslim Association, resulting in its easrly demise. The surviving members (at the time of writing this autobiography) who are in a position to throw more light on this unhappy episode are, AM Fuard, Proctor SL Muhammad JP,, “Pachal” Hussain JP., MAS Marikar Proctor of Kandy, and Mathany Ismail JP, since deceased.
Moulana Shaukat Ali and Muhammad Ali’s Khilafat Movement had a tremendous impact on me. Whenever I was in contact with AE Goonesinghe, Victor Corea, ET de Silva and BF de Silva, we used to discuss, very often, the unfortunate plight of our country under the British Colonial Government and the abject conditions of exploitation under which the workers, particularly in Colombo, both in the public and private sectors, suffered.
We found the only way to solve these problems was to form a Union of Workers. Hence AE Goonesinghe took upon himself the task of doing so and summoned the Harbor Workers. He was compelled to hold secret meetings. There was very strong opposition from the European capitalists who were controlling the trade in the island. The port, at that time, was managed by the Wharfage Company Ltd The head of this was a Parsee gentleman by the name of Mehta – a typical tyrant who treated the workers as slaves. These men revolted and appealed to Mr. Goonesinghe for redress. By now, I was in the thick of the movement and went, even so far as to allow their secret meetings to be held at my office in Al Hambra Building, Front Street, Pettah in Colombo.
The first trouble started from the capitalist firm of Wellawatte Spinning & Weaving Mills Ltd. Some of the workmen were our members and they brought their grievances to the notice of Goonesinghe, who at once reorganized the Working Committee into a Labor Union, known as the Ceylon Labor Union. Mr Goonesinghe unanimously elected as President and I was elected as the Vice President, and fifteen others from different Firms as Committee Members. We now started to work constitutionally and took steps to solve the problems of the downtrodden workers in general, irrespective of the fact of whether they were members or not of the Union. When the Managing Director, Mr Captain, of the Weaving Mills became aware of our activities he started to harass the workers even more. Our just demands were turned down and our Union was refused recognition.
We were driven to desperation and, finding no alternative, launched a strike. All laborers of the Mills – members and non members – stood as one man. Since the strike was getting prolonged, Goonesinghe made endeavors to effect a compromise, but Mr Captain remained adamant and refused to negotiate. At this stage, Mr Goonesinghe gave me a mandate to bring the strike to a reasonable settlement. The chief reason to select me for this task was due to the large number of Muslims employed in this Firm who were very loyal to the Union. I took up the responsibility with enthusiasm. I had many setbacks and disappointments. I did not give in and the strike continued on for a month. At last we brought this matter up to the notice of the Mill owners in Bombay who instructed Mr captain to go into the grievances of the workers and concede their just demands. Consequently, the workers received double wages, overtime pay, better houses, and other amenities to live as human beings. This was a great initial achievement for Mr Goonesinghe and the Labor Party.
Now, the laborers of the other sections began to realize the value of united action by the workers in their dealings with the employer. They found that the only solution to improve their working conditions was to join the Union. Workmen of the Government Factory and Railway joined the Union. E, as members of the Committee, studied and analyzed their grievances and took steps, constitutionally, to save them from their miserable plight. I addressed many a meeting at Price Park whoch was our venue. The demands of the Government Factory men were many. We held a number of secret conferences with the workers in the Government Service. Goonesinghe, after very careful study of their demands, brought their grievances to the notice of the Heads of the respective Departments. He patiently and tactfully pursued the matter to get their just grievances redressed. The Chief Engineer of the Government Factory and the General Manager of the Railway did not pay any heed. The desperate workers had no alternative but to strike. The Labor Union selected Mr Goonesinghe as the leader of the Strike Movement and I was set as his deputy. I was assigned to keep the strikers in peace and cheerful, while Mr Goonesinghe carried on negotiations with the departmental heads. It was a very responsible task for me to keep the strikers in peace and to maintain their morale. In this, I was greatly assisted by Cassim Master of Galle, a man with a highly developed sense of humor. I was very often abused and even threatened with bodily harm by strikers for not giving them the chance to resort to violence. However, I was tactful and patient and bore up all the threats of the impatient strikers for about twenty days, while the President carried on the negotiations. At last, the higher authorities had to give in to the just caus of the workers.
While addressing the workers at meetings, I referred to them as “Kam Karuwo” and Mr Goonesinghe as Labor Leader. Before this a laborer was known as “Cooly”. This change of designation gave a sense of dignity to the working people. Today, the Cooly of yesterday is a “Kam Karuwa”. I do feel proud that I was the first man to change the word Cooly to “Kam Karuwa”. This strike too was practically settled and we continued to pursue the other demands by negotiation in a constitutional manner.
Now, the Government recognized the Labor Union. Encouraged by this, the laborers formed themselves into Unions and demanded their rights and Mr Goonesinghe took up their matters. Here too, I was assigned as a Deputy to Mr Goonesinghe.
At this time, some of the enemies of Mr Goonesinghe harassed him with an order of the District Court. This did obstruct the free movement of our President.
I was put into full saddle to keep the men together in a cheerful mood and to await results, patiently. It was an uphill task. At that time port work was carried being out by sub-contractors. viz; The Ceylon Wharfage Company Limited. The head of this firm, at the time, was Lord Inchcape, and it was manned by twelve Englishmen as executives, well trained from overseas, and, highly paid. They were getting the most work out of these suffering, silent men and doling out a miserable pittance as wages. There were a number of Muslim workers, most of who were “Serangs” Tindals, who were poorly paid. We organized them and demanded their rights to a living wage. In fact, a Muslim laborer was paid 87 Cents a day for 8 hours and Rs 1.75 for night work. When this was brought to my notice, I urged Mr Goonesinghe to work for their emancipation and to fight for a living wage. We approached the Sub-Contractor, Stephen Corera, and demanded that he should pay better wages to his workers. He blankly refused to increase the wages even by one Cent. Our only alternative was to strike. This brought the Harbor to a standstill and continued for about three weeks. Thereafter a better understanding prevailed and the matter was settled. In this instance, I would like to mention that the Muslim Public who were lukewarm towards the Labor Movement began to feel that by supporting the Labor Movement they were contributing towards the progress of the Muslims. At this time Moulana Shaukat Ali, Dr Kitchlew and Dr Mahmoud, visited Ceylon. During their stay, they addressed several meetings on the Khilafat. The organizers of the Labor Movement held the biggest Mass Meeting at Price Park, welcoming the Muslim Heroes, and the Khilafat movement. I had to play a very important part in interpreting their speeches both in Sinhalese and Tamil. Moulana Muhammad Ali evinced great interest in my interpretation and took me wherever he went. I took this as an opportunity to gain the goodwill of all Muslims throughout the island. Slowly, but steadily, the Muslim Community began to recognize me as a Junuior Muslim Leader. Although I was a zealous and ardent worker in the Labor Movement, I always safeguarded the interest of the Muslims in General and Labor in particular. We also agitated for a change in the Government from the Colonial regime to a liberal and enlightened one. The British Government, realizing that the Ceylonese were qualified to undertake some measure of responsibility in affairs of state, sent a Royal Commission, consisting of five members of the British Parliament, to study and report on the political situation in the country and to suggest constitutional reform. The Ceylon National Congress, giving evidence before the Commission, led by Lord Donoughmore, urged for the establishment of a legislature elected by the people; but the suffrage or voting rights should be confined to persons with minimum educational or property qualification. By way of contrast, the Labor Union demanded self Government with adult suffrage. Every institution, including the Ceylon National Congress, which was led by Sir Baron Jayatilleke, opposed adult suffrage. I was the only Muslim who strongly stood by him in support of this demand. Generally, the Muslims were panicky on this issue of universal franchise. They feared that if the Labor Union’s demands were conceded the Muslims would fail to obtain any representation in the new legislature. Even Mr TB Jayah and Hon WM Abdul Rahman stood against the demand for universal franchise of the Labor Union. I stood by the Labor Union in the interest of a united Ceylon. I suffered insults and humiliation at the hands of the more affluent members of the Muslim Community. In fact, some of the conservative Muslims boycotted me. Mr Jayah was even sent to England, after the Donoughmore Commission’s Report to influence the Colonial Office to amend the constitution for the retention of at least three communal seats in the State Council through election by Muslims only. In spite of all these maneuvers the demands of the Labor Union was recommended by the Donoughmore Commissioners. Universal adult franchise and non-communal elected seats in the Legislature became accomplished facts. This is one of the great victories that, by Allah’s Grace, crowned my efforts in the face of strong opposition.
Today, we have no special communal Seats in our Parliament, yet we have twelve elected Muslim Members in the House of Representatives and three Muslim Senators in the Senate. We have had in our Parliament, Muslims as Ministers of State, Speakers, Parliamentary Secretaries, besides several other Muslims in important segments of life. These fruits are in some small measure the result of my efforts to weld the Muslims, along with their sister communities, into a United Ceylon. I would not have achieved these objects had it not been for the overwhelming support I received from members of the Muslim community belonging to the proletariat.
After the unfortunate riots of 1915, between the Sinhalese and the Muslims due to some misundesratnding, some Sinhalese youths under Victor Corea associated with ET De Silva, Advocate CAP Wijeratne, AE Goonesinghe, and others organized the day of Remembrance. This day was known as the “Day of Mourning” to avenge the acts of cruelty committed by the Punjabi soldiers brought by the British Colonial Government during the Dark Days of 1915. This day was being commemorated for four consecutive years.
In October 1919, the Annual Commemoration was held under the presidency of Victor Corea, not merely to commemorate the Day but to move a Resolution to boycott al Muslims by the Sinhalese on the ground that the Muslims were the cause for their sufferings during the Marshall Law period.
This resolution was moved by Mr Victor Corea, himself, and the meeting was attended by more than twenty thousand people. The area surrounding the Tower Hall was a sea of heads all the way up to the Maradana Railway Station.
I was also present at the Meeting , seated in a corner of the platform, listening to the slander and accusations made against the Muslims by different speakers. My blood began to boil. I could not bear it any longer. I darted towards the President’s Chair and requested him to give me an opportunity of speaking a few minutes to refute all the unkind, unjust charges made against the Muslims by the different speakers.
Mr Victor Corea, who was a fair minded man, acceded to my request and introduced me to the audience, and requested that no one should disturb me while addressing; but to patiently listen to my speech. When silence prevailed, I addressed them in Sinhalese, and refuted all the charges and actually told them of their aggressive attitude during the days of the riots. I went on to emphasize that the cause of the riots was a misunderstanding. I even went so far as to prove to them that most of the Moors in Ceylon have Sinhalese blood and always lived peacefully within Sinhalese environments. The Sinhalese loved the Muslims as their own countrymen and the Muslims respected them as brothers and sisters. Thus, we have lived for centuries and can still continue to live with the same feeling of fellowship. In the course of my speech I drew out a sharp knife and cut my left hand, allowing the blood to drip on the floor, and challenged anyone to test my blood and prove that I had no Sinhalese blood flowing in my veins. This dramatic appeal brought cheers among the audience. There were shouts of “Sadu, Sadu”, “Muslims are our brothers”, etc. This small incident is, in my humble opinion, an important factor that made the Sinhalese to reduce their bitterness towards the Moors and heralded the dawn of a new era of mutual confidence and fellowship between the Sinhalese and Moors of Ceylon.
The meeting that was held to pass the Resolution to boycott the Muslims terminated in apologizing to the Muslims and in ushering peace, harmony, goodwill and fellowship between the two communities.
All the people assembled at the Tower Hall and the surrounding areas formed themselves into a procession numbering over fifteen thousand. They then marched, carrying wreaths and flowers in the direction of Dewatagaha Mosque to manifest, in a tangible form, their sincere regrets over the unhappy incidents of 1915. On reaching the Dewatagaha Mosque, the leader, Mr Victor Corea with twelve stalwarts, entered the shrine room and laid the wreaths and flowers at the foot of the shrine, making obeisance.
When they came out, they again addressed the large gathering which came in procession, and exhorted both Muslims and Sinhalese to forget their past differences over the incidents of 1915, once and for all and to unite and work for the freedom and the greater glory of their common motherland, Lanka. Henceforth the two communities were to join hands and work for the emancipation of Mother Lanka and its peoples, the fruits of which the present generation are enjoying.
It would be no exaggeration to state that it was this sudden impulse of mine, born of determination and courage, that led to success in bringing about a reconciliation between the major community and the Ceylon Moors.
Mr Goonesinghe, Labor Leader, was invited by the British Labor Party to a Labor Conference that was held in London. He represented the Labor Union and the Working class of Ceylon in this country. During his sojourn in England, I was appointed to act for the President. This was a time of confusion. The Capitalists were against the program of the Labor Movement. They, with the encouragement of the Colonial Government, were acting in a despotic manner against the wage earners. Taking advantage of the absence of Mr Goonesinghe from the Island, Messrs Hoare & Company Limited, first class British Engineering Firm engaging the services of a large number of workmen, began to harass the members of the Labor Union in their factory. I, as the acting President, tried all peaceful means but failed. The Labor Union Committee, after careful deliberations, decided to strike. Although I was not personally in favior of such action, I had to abide by the majority decision of the Labor Union Workers. The strike was declared. Days passed without any settlement.
The European Engineers of the Firm were adament. We carried on for two weeks without any finance to help the strikers. We had to depend only on our Comrade Workers and some of the well-wishers from the general public. Dr S Muttiah, CHZ Fernando, Proctor Marshall Perera and others helped me substantially during the days of the strike. On their advice I communicated with Mr Shipton, the Managing Director of Messrs Hoare & Company Limited – a fine gentleman, and arranged a conference between Labor representatives and his firm. He readily agreed to the conference which was held at the Hall of the Chamber of Commerce in Fort.
Representatives of the Labor Union were on one side. Mr Shipton, associated with Mr John Tarbat (now Sir) and Mr Whittaker, Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, on the other side.
After discussion of the divergent views of the respective parties, the conference ended in successful negotiation for the Labor Union and the workers joyfully returned to their jobs. It was on this occasion that the capitalists formed themselves into an Employer’s Federation and recognized the Labor Union and the Trade Union Movement. This was a great victory for the Trade Union Movement in Ceylon. It was about this time that Mr Goonesinghe returned from England and I handed back the leadership to him with dignity and honor to the labor movement. Days went by; the small group of members of the Labor Union regularly met and discussed the various grievances of the workmen. We had members from the Government Factory, Port, which was then under the Wharfage Company and the Colombo Municipality.
Our responsibility was to improve the working and living conditions of the workers and their families. They were, in fact, very poorly paid. Housing was an acute problem as they lived in overcrowded slums without minimum amenities; sanitation was deplorable. There was insufficient accommodation in schools to educate their children. There was no old age pensions or provident fund schemes on retirement. In fact, the workman was a slave. He was treated worse than a master’s dog. Mr Goonesinghe and his colleagues had to fight, from time to time, for the welfare of the poor man. At about that time, the Colombo Tramways Limited, whose agents were Messrs Boustead Brothers, challenged the Trade Union Movement in Colombo and took the aggressive and militant attitude towards the Members of the Labor Union. Mr Goonesinghe and his associates endeavoured their very best to get some sort of relief for the voiceless workers in the Tramways. Drivers and Conductors were paid low wages and they were treated as daily paid workers and they had no other benefits to which a normal laborer was entitled in other parts of the world. These men begged for fair play and justice.
However, the British born bureaucrats paid no heed to their reasonable minimum demands, but instead, victimized some of them who openly and constitutionally demanded their birthright. All the patient doggedliness of the workers did not bring about the desired increase in their wages and improvements in working conditions.
In desperation, the workers in the Tramway struck. The traveling public was inconvenienced but they bore the hardship cheerfully. The members of the Chauffeur’s Union, of which I was the President at the time, readily helped us with their hiring cars to transport the office workers. The strike went on, the excitement grew at Maradana Road near the Police Station Headquarters. Mr Goonesinghe visited the spot to console the people who supported the Red Shirts. Police Constables on beat took the upper hand and assaulted the Red Shirts. Mr Goonesinghe protested, vehemently, at the violent behaviour of the Police. The crowd became excited and got out of control and ultimately wreaked their vengeance by attempting to invade the Police Headquarters at Maradana. Mr Goonesinghe, with great presence of mind and extreme patience, appealed to the crowd to keep calm and not resort to violence. He thereafter returned to the Labor Union Headquarters at Fort where I was in charge. We considered the next move that should be taken for a peaceful settlement of the Tramway strike.
The Legislative Council was in session at the time Mr CHZ Fernando, a great supporter of the Labor Movement, with Messrs EAP Wijeratne and Arunachalam Mahadeva, raised the issue at the Council Meeting. The Government contemplated declaring Marshall Law for the Colombo District. Mr CHZ Fernando and Mahadeva pointed out that there was no necessity for such a declaration and that the matter could be settled peacefully. We held a meeting opposite the Consistory Building, Pettah, at which, Mr Goonesinghe and myself advised the gathering to be peaceful and not resort to violence. Messrs Fernando and Mahadeva, after the conclusion of the State Council Meeting, attended this meeting and took both of us to our respective homes. They informed the meeting that Marshall Law was about to be declared and that Mr Goonesinghe and myself may be arrested.. The Police at Maradana were out to shoot both of us. The crowd was, again, collecting and tended to be aggressive. A Police Sergeant, by the name of Adam, was surreptitiously instructed to shoot the two of us at sight. This officer, coming out of the Maradana Police Station, seeing among the crowd near Symonds Road a person resembling Mr Goonesinghe, shot him and the poor man fell dead on the spot. This young man was Mr LP Goonewardene, a newly passed out Proctor, who was an enthusiastic worker in the Labour Movement. He came to see the Tamasha and met with his death. The shooting did not end here. The bloodthirsty Police Sergeant, spying a young Muslim wearing a fez cap among the crowd, shot him dead mistaking the young man, Samad, for myself. They were threatening to burn down the Maradana Police Station and take vengeance for these cold-blooded murders. In the morning the newspapers flashed headline news that Messrs Goonesinghe and Muhammad Reyal were shot dead by the Police. This news upset the working classes. The Government Factory workers and Port Workers reinforced the already agitated crowds determined to retaliate.
The Police retreated to their barracks. Thereupon our Red Shirts, under Wickremasinghe, took charge of Maradana and performed the duties so tactfully and efficiently that there were no further incidents, disturbances or crime in the Maradana area for three days. In fact, it was the first time in the history of Colombo that no case was filed before any magistrate’s Court for criminal offences and the like. These were the days of Peace and Security. The enraged people who were anxious to see whether we were, in fact, safe and sound had to be satisfied; as most of them did not know what had befallen us. Mr Murphy, the Assistant Colonial Secretary of the time, personally called on me and took me round to the disturbed areas around Maradana so that the people may know that no harm had befallen me. Mr FG Tyrell, the Colonial Secretary, likewise, took Mr Goonesinghe around. He made a short speech assuring the crowd that the Tramway dispute will be successfully settled and requested them to disperse. Thereafter, all the strikers returned to work and law and order was restored.
The Committee of the Labour Union sat for days and successfully negotiated with the employers for a just settlement of the workers’ grievances. This was, indeed, a great and hard won victory for the Labor Party in the struggle of the workmen to emancipate themselves from the tyrannical treatment of their master. I have, always, personally given them my unstinted support to achieve their human rights. I must confess that in my close association with the Labor Movement, I was greatly assisted by my Muslim brothers who always felt that the Laborer is worthy of sympathy. I also honestly feel that my humble services in this direction would never have borne fruit had it not been for the wholehearted support and encouragement that I received from the Muslims, particularly the proletariat.
My initial ventures into active politics was when I unsuccessfully contested the three-member all-Island Mohammedan Seat in the Ceylon Legislative Council in September 1924. I finished fourth of the four members who contested the seat polling only 3,629 votes, about 1,600 votes below the third candidate. I was the youngest of the four and my progressive outlook in politics as Vice President of the Ceylon Labor Union did not find support among the more diehard conservatives among Muslims. The election was fought on a restricted franchise based on educational and income qualifications.
However, I was undaunted by this setback and in December 1926 made a successful entry into the Colombo Municipal Politics, being elected on a Labor ticket for the San Sebastian Ward in a predominantly working class district. I repeated the electoral success and continued to serve as a Member of the Colombo Munuicipal Council from January 1927 to December 1943, for an unbroken period of seventeen years.
As my colleague and leader, Mr AE Goonesinghe successfully contested the Colombo Central seat in the State Council and this would have been the only seat which I could have contested with some prospects of success, no opportunity came my way of venturing into Central Government politics.