Emergency '58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots

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Emergency '58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots

Tarzie Vittachi, Andre Deutsch, 1958

Copyright Tarzie Vittachi, 1958


Preface
The people of Ceylon have seen how the mutual respect and good will which existed between two races for several hundred years was destroyed within the relatively brief period of thirty months.
This book, most of which was written during those long, tense curfew nights of May and June 1958, is a record of the events, passions and under-currents which led to the recent communal crisis, and of the more remarkable instances of man's inhumanity to man in those hate-filled days. It is also an account of the rapid disintegration of the old-established order of social and economic relationships in so far as it con­tributed towards the disaster which overtook the country.
Social and economic change was perhaps inevitable and probably necessary. Unfortunately the men who had been given a popular mandate to initiate and carry out the change proved to be incapable of preventing the process from de­generating into nation-wide chaos. The new order could have been brought about without bloodshed and searing religious or communal bitterness by the firm application of the law of the land without fear or favouritism and by statesmanship which resolutely withstood the temptation to yield to the shrill dictates of expediency.
When a Government, however popular, begins to pander to racial or religious emotionalism merely because it is the loudest of the raucous demands made on it, and then meddles in the administration and enforcement of law and order for the benefit of its favourites or to win the plaudits of a crowd, however hysterical it may be, catastrophe is certain.
At the risk of losing the monumental support of the anti-Muslim Congress sympathizers, Mahatma Gandhi once said:

"No cabinet worthy of being representative of a large mass of man­kind can afford to take any step merely because it is likely to win the hasty applause of an unthinking public. In the midst of insanity, should not our best representatives retain sanity and bravely prevent a wreck of the ship of state under their care?"

Can anyone doubt that if this glorious principle of states­manship had been applied in Ceylon the bloodbath of 1958 could have been avoided?
Many Ceylonese—Sinhalese and Tamils—lost their lives in the riots of May and June. Many of them lost their children, their property, their means of livelihood and some even their reason. In Colombo, Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa, Eravur, Kurunegala and many other places where the two communities clashed the ugly scars will remain tender long after time has buried the physical signs of chaos. There is no sense in putting the blame on one community or the other. A race cannot be held responsible for the bestiality of some of its members. Neither is there any sense in trying to find a final answer to the question: who started it—was it the Sinhalese or the Tamils? The answer depends entirely on how far back in events you want to go—a never-ending and unrewarding pastime.
Emergency ‘58 ends with a question: ‘Have we come to the parting of the ways?’
Many thoughtful people believe that we have. Others, more hopeful, feel that the bloodbath we have emerged from has purified the national spirit and given people a costly lesson in humility.
There is, perhaps, a more practical way to think about it. The problems of Ceylon—social, economic, political, religious and racial—are minute compared to those faced by India or Indonesia. This is a small country with a relatively tiny popu­lation. The physical difficulties of distance which confront the governments of large land masses are absent here. Ceylon is one of the few countries in the world which is not squashed economically by a heavy defence-budget.

What is lacking is responsible leadership among both com­munities and statesmanship at the centre of government. We now know the cost of postponing decisions and surrendering wretchedly to political expediency when problems, which often thrive on neglect, assume massive proportions. Is it not possible for a small people like us to throw away the labels which have divided us, one group from another, and work to­wards a national rather than a sectional ideal? There is no dearth of men who have the intelligence and the desire to work for this aim. Is it impossible to get them together?

Emergency ‘58 is not likely to please every reader. On the contrary, it is certain to displease many. I do not know how to write with text-book discretion about the suffering we saw around us and the terror and the hate on the faces of people we had known all our lives. Human history can never be a chronological festoon of events held together by nicely defined causes. The story of a man is the story of a succession of states like love, fear, hate, indecision, self-assurance, ecstasy, de­pression.
The story of the race riots of 1958 is a story of violence, un­reason, anger, jealousy, fear, cynicism, vengeance and many other states of heart and mind which the people of Ceylon ex­perienced. I have presented it like that and, therefore, I will freely admit that Emergency ‘58 is opinionated. But I make one claim for the book: it has been written with the old journalistic saw in mind :facts are sacred, comment is free.
Many friends helped me to write this book because they be­lieved that the facts must be recorded. I shall not list their names, as is customary, for the very simple reason that I would prefer not to involve them unnecessarily in any official reac­tion which Emergency ‘58 may provoke.
T.V.

Colombo ‘58.



The Background
"what a tide of woes

Comes rushing on this woeful land at once!"Richard II

In May and June 1958, the Island of Ceylon, the peaceful tea-garden, burst into flaming headlines in the world’s press. ‘Seven Thousand Britons Ordered to Quit Ceylon’, ‘Hun­dreds Killed in Race-Riots’, ‘State of Emergency Declared’, ‘Dawn to Dusk Curfew Imposed’, ‘Northern Rebel Leaders Arrested’, ‘Strict Press Censorship’, ‘Civil Liberties Sus­pended’, ‘Tea, Rubber Piles High in Colombo Port’, '12,000 Refugees Removed to Safety’ proclaimed the special corres­pondents who had been forced by the severity of censorship to sneak out of Ceylon and file their stories with a Madras date­line.

What had happened to Ceylon—that tranquil, beautiful and profitable island, which had always been regarded in the West as a model among the newly independent countries? The people of Ceylon had seemed really to have assimilated parlia­mentary democracy and the nice forms and conventions that make such a system work. The ugly racialism which had fol­lowed the partition of India and the granting of independence had, mercifully, not touched the island, while the religious fanaticism which had so severely afflicted Pakistan, Burma and India seemed to have by-passed it. Ceylon’s living standards were noticeably better than her neighbours’, so that the spread of communism seemed a remote possibility in spite of the garrulity of the Marxists and the complexity of Left-Wing political parties there. The activities of the Communists, Trotskyists and Bolshevik Leninists who formed groups and united fronts with fervent enthusiasm only to splinter into screaming ‘fractions’ a few months later, were looked upon with tolerance by the Government and its friends abroad, par­ticularly in the Commonwealth
Here was a democratic country where many races and many faiths existed side by side in tolerance and dignity. Modera­tion appeared to be the key-note of this right little, tight little island. No wonder that a High Commissioner for Ceylon in London once publicly boasted at a Guildhall banquet that Ceylon was a ‘little bit of England’. And, superficially at any rate, it was from many points of view.

Ceylon is about half the size of England, about 25,000 square miles in extent. Her economy, like Britain’s, depends principally on her export products. Tea, for which Ceylon is justifiably famous, is still largely owned and grown by the British companies who thereby produce as much as 62 per cent of the island’s foreign income. Rubber and coconut pro­duce are the other major sources of wealth. Plumbago, gems and a few other mineral products have a steady market abroad. There is no large-scale industry and very few and meagre small-scale industries to produce wealth and oppor­tunities for employment. A huge slice of Ceylon’s national in­come—more than a third—goes to pay the annual bill on food imports: rice, flour, dried fish, canned products, meat, fruit, lentils of various kinds and even spices. If the world markets for tea, rubber and coconut are disturbed for any reason and prices fall, Ceylon finds herself in Debtor’s Street. This is the danger of a lop-sided economy, particularly when the greater part of the food requirements of the people is imported.

On this economy about 9,000,000 people subsist. There are 6,000,000 Sinhalese who originally came from Northern India and settled in Ceylon over 2,000 years ago. The Sinhalese settled mainly in what are now called the North Central, North-Western and Southern Provinces. The capitals of the most powerful Sinhalese kings were Anuradhapura and Polon­naruwa, which up to the present day show impressive archaeo­logical evidence of having been centres of a magnificent civi­lization inspired and tempered by the ideals of Buddhism. Later, when these civilizations crumbled and the jungle tide swept over Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the Sinhalese moved south and south-westward towards Kandy and Colombo.
For many centuries the north and eastern parts of Ceylon have been peopled mainly by another race, the Tamils. The Tamils are a people of Dravidian stock who spilled over from South India to the Jaffna Peninsula in the north and worked their way south and south-eastward, setting up a powerful kingdom. In 164 B.C. the epic battle between King Dutuge­munu of the Sinhalesc and King Elara of the Tamils took place. According to tradition the issue was settled by the two kings chivalrously fighting each other on elephants. Elara was killed. This battle settled the final verdict, according to Sin­halese historians, on which race was to predominate in Ceylon. Echoes of this battle of nearly 2000 years ago were to be heard on the same plains in 1958.

By the end of the sixteenth century, when Europe started taking an active commercial interest in Ceylon, the centre of gravity of the Sinhalese population had shifted south and south­westward. The Tamils concentrated in the north and the eastern maritime plains. On the fertile plains of the west which had once been so intensely cultivated by the farmer Kings of Ceylon that they could boast that ‘not one drop of rain water would reach the sea without having grown one grain of rice’, the equatorial forest now grew dense and forbidding. Cities, temples, palaces, massive irrigation works were trampled into the ground by the giant trees.

This gradual process produced many results, one of the most significant being the actual physical isolation of the two main racial groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamil peasantry. The peasantry makes up the vast majority of the population of Ceylon. This separation exists up to the present day and has been, as we shall see, largely responsible for the fact that for several hundred years, the Sinhalese and the Tamils have been able to live peaceably without recourse to the internecine war­fare which had impoverished the ancient kingdoms of the Sinhalese and the Tamils.
But the forest and the scrub which acted as an insulating agent between the two races are being stripped once again under the force of ‘progress’. Bulldozers, tractors and technicians from the Colombo Plan and various other international agencies are helping the Ceylon Govern­ ment to clear the jungle and make the plains fertile and popu­lous once again. It is a strange quirk of destiny and an illu­minating instance of the peculiar polarity of every process, that the recapture of the land from waste, and its resettlement, has also brought about a recrudescence of the economic competi­tiveness and bitterness which caused the inter-racial wars in ancient Ceylon.

There is, of course, more to it than that. The physical sepa­ration that existed between the peasantry was not evident in the middle classes. For many scores of years the biggest ‘indus­try’ in Ceylon has been the public service. The dearest wish of almost every parent is that their sons should find employment in the civil service or the clerical service, or in one of the Government’s technical departments. The Tamils particu­larly, who in the south were not blessed by fertility of soil, always regarded a job in the government service as a kind of sinecure qua non. Sons in the public service, with pension rights and other ‘perks’ to their credit, fetched good prices in the dowry market.

All went smoothly as long as the public services and, as a spillover, the mercantile services, were expanding fast enough to absorb the growing educated population. But by the end of World War Two the public services had reached saturation point. Since 1948, ten years of independence have not pro­duced the industrial and agricultural expansion which was essential to increase wealth and maintain employment levels. The inevitable result has been the creation of a large articulate class of educated, semi-educated and disgruntled young men and women who, as might be expected, are easy prey to the strident seductiveness of racialism, hyper-nationalism or com­munism. The easiest explanation offered for their inability to find employment or gain promotion in the public service was that the Tamils were deliberately and cunningly packing the services with their own kind.
In an economy which is expanding people have no time, desire nor motive for race-hate, class-hate or religious hate. It is only when a country’s economy is on the down—grade that the inner stresses of society begin to make themselves felt. Group relationships begin to break up inexorably when the economy is unable to sustain the pressure of population and insecurity haunts the people. It is also an observable fact that politicians will try to exploit this situation, particularly when they have no foreign political interests of any magnitude with which to distract the people’s attention from domestic problems.

Ever since the grant of independence in 1948, there has been in Ceylon a tremendous churning up of emotionalism—the chief feature being fear of insecurity. Beside the 6,000,000 Sin­halese and the 1,000,000 indigenous Tamils referred to already, there are 1,000,000 South Indian Tamil immigrant labourers who were brought over by the British for cheap labour on the estates.

Their existence in Ceylon was the subject of constant reproach against the Government by the growing population in the hill country, a group which is loosely referred to as the ‘Kandyans’. The first Prime Minister of Ceylon, D. S. Senana­yake, put an end to the open influx of South Indian labour by enacting the Ceylon Citizenship Act which defined the quali­fications for citizenship in Ceylon. Although this Act was specifically intended to limit Indian immigration it had the effect of excluding British and all other foreign people in Cey­lon from citizenship rights and privileges, with the result that even Britons with long-established business interests in Ceylon have to secure temporary residence permits to stay in the island even for a brief period.
The fear of being evicted from their relatively comfortable billets on the tea estates hammered the Indian Tamils into powerful organizations which could paralyse the entire tea trade at will. The fear of unemployment for themselves and their children impelled the Kandyan peasantry to demand the expulsion of the Indians. The fear that this Tamil-speaking group of 1,000,000 indigenous Tamils and 1,000,000 Indian Tamils would join together and form a really formidable minority caused the Sinhalese politicians considerable anxiety. Every community in Ceylon was affected by this fear of in­security.
The Ceylon Moors, numbering over half a million— mainly traders and businessmen—were afraid of being lumped together with the Tamil minorities, particularly because many of them had adopted Tamil as their mother tongue.

The Burghers too—a group of about 45,000 descendants of the Portuguese and Dutch regimes in Ceylon, most of whom had identified their interests with those of the British and had adopted the Western modes of living, even to the extent of regarding English as their mother tongue—reacted quickly to this feeling of insecurity. Many of them could not contemplate a future under different standards from those to which they were accustomed, and the fear that their children would have to live under disadvantages due to their fair colour or their relative unfamiliarity with the Sinhalese language and tra­ditions, drove them away to Australia, Canada or Britain as immigrants.

The British residents, planters and merchants, who just after Independence numbered around 7,000, had soon got over their initial panic and decided that independent Ceylon was progressing steadily enough, and its government was stable enough, to guarantee the safety of their business interests in Ceylon. Until about 1951 they overcame their fears of expropriation—but after the death of D. S. Senana­yake the major efflux of British people and capital began. Present indications are that there are not more than 3,000 Britons in planting and business in Ceylon. During the past two years many of their investments in Ceylon tea estates have been sold to Ceylonese businessmen and speculators who have bought up the control of big companies incorporated in London.
This widespread fear of political, social and economic in­security is at the root of the disorders that Ceylon has been going through recently.
Many observers of the Ceylon scene are frankly amazed that ‘language’ appears to be the issue over which the Ceylonese have been killing each other. Underlying this amazement is the often-expressed opinion that it was a retrograde step from the point of view of ‘Progress’, international relations and national unity, to have removed English as the first language of the country, as Ceylon did in ~ This opinion betrays a profound lack of appreciation of what ‘language’ means in countries like Ceylon, India, Pakistan and Burma.

Those who feel that it was a pity to downgrade English to the position of a second language do not realize that only about 5 to 6 per cent of the population were literate in English even after 150 years of British rule in Ceylon—and the standard of ‘literacy’, in this sense, has been the ability to write a signature in English. The actual number of people who used English as their first language was very small. English was, and still is, the prero­gative of a minute section of the population. But though small, this section of the population—generally regarded as the middle class—has wielded a monopoly of political, adminis­trative and economic power in Ceylon. They have been accus­tomed to speak, write, think and even dream in English. The administration of the country was conducted in English. The law is in English and the Courts are conducted in English, although almost 95 per cent of the people do not know any English at all.

Until last year it was not possible to send a tele­gram unless it was first translated into English. One of the re­markable features of Ceylon is that, unlike in Britain, almost every trade union is directly controlled by politicians. Many visitors to Ceylon have been appalled by this phenomenon and prospective investors bolt when they come across it: it is cer­tainly an unfortunate development but the cause of it, again, was language. The law, as we have seen, was written in a lan­guage that 95 per cent of the people did not understand. Every politician, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and the Communists and Trotskyites were quick to rush in to fill it in the field of unionism by acting as interpreters, guides and advocates of labour. They were responsible for building up a formidable network of trade unions within twenty-five years.
Language, therefore, has been much more complex and sig­nificant a problem than is usually appreciated. The switch-over from English as the official language to Swabhasa, or the Mother Tongue, was thus inevitable with the growth of democracy. The awkward question was: which mother tongue— Sinhalese or Tamil or both?
At first glance the answer seems obvious—8o per cent of the people are Sinhalese. Ergo: Sinhalese must be the national lan­guage. In fact that is decision of the present all-Sinhalese

Government of Ceylon argued when they were campaigning for election in March and April 1956.

The Tamils, however, felt differently. The extent of their participation in public life had been far in excess of their numbers. Tamil leaders had fought shoulder to shoulder with Sinhalese patriots in the struggle for independence. Their lan­guage had a rich heritage and was used as a live language by nearly 50,000,000 people in South India and Ceylon. Why, they asked, should it now take second place to a language which is spoken, after all, by only 6,000,000 people? In any case, they asked, why should not the Tamil language be used in the areas where the Tamils predominate?

The election campaign of 1956 was begun on this issue. The United National Party which had been in power for eight years under three Prime Ministers—D. S. Senanayake, Dudley Sena­nayake, and Sir John Kotelawala—had resolutely refused to create communal disharmony by allowing this dispute to come to a head. But Kotelawala had made the grievous error of publicly stating that his Government would uphold the prin­ciple of parity of status for Sinhalese and Tamil. This made it official and feeling became much more violent and open than ever before. The Government party back-benches were em­barrassed by the demands of their electorates to save the Sin­halese language from the ‘indignity’ of being yoked with a minority language.
The present Prime Minister, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, de­spite—or perhaps because of—his aristocratic background and his Oxford education, found no difficulty in denouncing the status quo. His campaign for power was openly based on the cry, ‘Sinhalese Only’. In the English version of his election mani­festo he squared his conscience by writing in a clause providing for the ‘reasonable use of Tamil’ but this was conspicuously absent in the more significant Sinhalese version. The Kotela­wala Government then made the biggest tactical and moral blunder they could possibly make. Hoping to ride back to power on the popular ‘Sinhalese Only’ wave, they abandoned their policy of parity for Tamil and adopted the Bandaranaike line.

What they had not realized was that the ‘Sinhala Only’ cry was a potent issue only because the Government was oppos­ing it, and that as soon as the Government accepted it too, it ceased to be an issue. Thus Bandaranaike had won his point without a fight and the Kotelawala Government had sacrificed the support of the Tamils and the respect of the liberal-minded middle class. The rest of the campaign was fought on religious issues. The United election front led by Bandaranaike was given massive support by an ad hoc organization of over 12,000 Buddhist monks who came out of their temples and hermitages to canvass openly against the Kotelawala regime which, they claimed, was influenced by the Christians, particularly the Catholics.

Here were the best election agents any politician could wish for—12,000 men whose words were holy to over 5,000,000 people, campaigning for the downfall of the Govern­ment, zealously and, what is more, gratis. Bandaranaike also promised the Kandyan peasants that he would drive the Indian Tamil labourer away from the tea estates.
When, on top of this, he offered a socialist programme of nationalizing foreign-owned tea estates and mercantile firms and of evicting the British from Trincomalee harbour and the Negombo Air-field used by the Royal Air Force, he had every popular dissident element in Ceylon behind him. When the election results came in the Government party had lost fifty-two out of sixty seats and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, Bandaranaike’s People’s United Front, which had offered sixty candidates for election, had won fifty-one seats.
In the predominantly Tamil areas the Federal Party led by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, who advocated a Federal form of government with equal status for Tamil as an official language, swept the polls. They had presented a slate of four­teen candidates, ten of whom were returned.
There was widespread jubilation at the defeat of a Govern­ment which had ruled for eight years without noticeably changing the living conditions of the people. Very soon, how­ever, the new Government, composed largely of tenderfoot politicians who had never been in authority before, realized that there was a vast difference between an election campaign and running a country.

Prime Minister Bandaranaike himself with long years of political experience as a responsible Cabinet Minister behind him, realized this readily enough and tried his best to hold his team of young, inexperienced bucking broncos together. He soon found that the forces which had been released by his victory were too formidable to resist. Labour demands became so vociferous and violent that he was soon compelled to introduce repressive measures which even the Kotelawala Government had not used.

The Commun­ists and the extreme Left Wing members of his own Cabinet, like Food Minister Philip Gunawardene, began putting on the pressure for the nationalization of foreign-owned tea estates, insurance companies and banks. Bandaranaike used his armoury of eloquence to withstand this demand because he realized very well that Ceylon could not risk jeopardizing her best source of income by meddling with the tea estates. He, like his predecessors, also realized that Ceylon could not develop without a considerable flow of new capital from abroad. Ban­daranaike found himself the prisoner of his election promises.
To assuage (one of his favourite words) the militant Sin­halese he enacted the Sinhalese Only Act, thereby setting off a series of disorders two months after the new Government took over. This was the first outburst of racialism on such a scale. The area most seriously affected was the Gal Oya Valley—the newly-opened colony for the reclaiming and settlement of the land on the eastern side of Ceylon. Over 150 people were killed during that brief spell of open race-hate. Religious rivalry grew apace. Fortunately there has been no open religious violence up to the moment of writing, although many a flare-up has seemed imminent. In August 1957 the Tamils threatened an island-wide Satyagraha or civil disobedience campaign.

This danger was averted by the forging of a pact between Bandara­naike and the Federal Party leader, Chelvanayakam. Almost exactly a year later the Bandaranaike—Chelvanayakam (or B—C) Pact was jettisoned, which led to the large-scale riots and bloodshed of May—June 1958. Ceylon is now afflicted by a general malaise which no one can escape sensing. National unity has been shattered. The racial and religious tolerance which leavened our relationships has been sacrificed for poli­tical expediency. Increasing poverty and unemployment have

brought the people to the brink of communism. The next out­break of violence may not be racial or even religious. During the latter days of the 1958 riots the attack was directed noticeably against Government officials and the middle class. The pattern is clear. Unless the Government is able to open up new avenues for employment, increase the productivity of the island quickly and effectively, maintain law and order without succumbing to sectional and separatist demands, when vio­lence breaks out again, it is likely that Ceylon’s system of par­liamentary democracy will be thrown away for something more ‘efficient’ and ruthless.




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