Emergency '58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots

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Polonnaruwa Aflame
Polonnaruwa town was buzzing with people and carefully calculated rumours. They huddled en masse in the streets, exchanging stories of a threatened Tamil invasion from Trin­comalee and from Batticaloa. Labourers from the Land Development Department, the Irrigation Department and from the Government farms who made up the Sinhala Hamu­dawa were constantly on the rampage, raping, looting and beating up Tamil labourers and public officers. The rumours that a Tamil army was marching to destroy Polonnaruwa gave the roughnecks a heroic stature. More veerayas (heroes) joined in to share the glory of saving the ancient Sinhalese capital from the Tamil hordes as their ancestors had done a thousand years before them.
A notable feature of these activities was that the Sinhalese colonists who had settled in the area for some years, and there­fore had some stake in general orderliness, took no part in the rioting. The vast majority of the Hamudawa were imported Government labourers and the rest were recently arrived squatters who had no roots yet in the area.
Many of these labourers were marked ‘present’ on the check-rolls while they were busy marauding in the town area. It would have taken a brave supervising officer to refuse to mark their attendance. Some of these men, in fact, had their attendance marked simultaneously in two places—on the check roll at their work places and on the register of the remand jail after they were arrested.

There was some evidence of method in all this madness—it was crudely but effectively planned. The rioters had arranged signals—one peal of a temple bell to signify police, two to signify army and so on. They also had a simple system of hand signals to give their associates in the distance such information as which way a police patrol went. The element of planning was even more evident in the agent provocateur system which was widely used. Many thugs—some of them well-known criminals —had shaved their heads and assumed the yellow robes was bhikku.

A taxi driver known to the police as a bad hat of a stopped on the road. He had a shaven head. Under the cushions of the seat they found two soiled yellow robes. Police reports record that two ‘monks’ arrested for looting and arson were car-drivers by ‘occupation’. These phoney priests went about whipping up race-hatred, spreading false stories and taking part in the lucrative side of this game—robbery and looting.
Whenever the police went after a looter with a shaven head he disappeared into a house and came back in the in­vulnerable robes of a monk. Monks were ordained in Polon­naruwa in those few days faster than ever before in the history of Upasampada, the Buddhist ordination ceremony. They paid no attention to the sacrilege they were committing in the sacred robes that the Buddha Himself had worn. This menace became so bad that the police took a decision to arrest every man with a shaven head. They later discovered that a few innocent Muslims had fallen into their net.
All this went on while Polonnaruwa had no government nor even a Government Agent of its own. The Government Agent of Anuradhapura, Deryck Aluwihare, had been ordered to look after both provinces in perhaps the toughest assignment ever given to a young Civil Servant. With the assistance of a few civil administration officers, a small police force under A.S.P. Bertram Weerasinghe and a small army unit of fifty men (and with no orders yet from Colombo), he was flying between Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, trying to maintain order. He had asked for reinforcements from Colombo but the Government seemed reluctant to take the situation in the North Central Province seriously.

Community life in Polonnaruwa was completely disorgan­ized. The bazaar was seething with frenzied hatred. The first task of the administration, or what there was of it, was to provide a refuge for the Tamils whose lives were in danger— it was quite impossible to protect isolated people with the meagre means at their disposal. The Government Agent organized a refugee camp hard by the Kachcheri. Refugees streaming into the camp soon disorganized the rudimentary sanitary arrangements which had been provided.

Before very long the goondas turned their spite against the Tamil officials in the Government offices. Government Agent Aluwihare then set up a refugee camp for them in an isolated Irrigation Department bungalow, stationing five policemen there for their protection. The people, the Government Agent and the refugees knew deep within themselves how vulnerable they were. How could five policemen defend this house against hundreds of hoodlums demented by blood lust?
The situation of the refugees became worse when the mer­chants, under threat of reprisals from the goondas, refused point blank to sell foodstuffs to the officials looking after the refugees.
A quick decision was taken. Army personnel commandeered whatever provisions were needed under the Government Agent’s receipt.4

The thugs displayed a temerity which was quite unprece­dented. They had complete assurance that the police would never dare to open fire. The Apey Aanduwa (The government is ours) bug had got deep into their veins. As the situation deteriorated, desperate measures were needed. The ring­leaders of the racial revolt and people suspected of using their position and influence to stir up trouble were arrested. Among them were half a dozen chairmen of village committees and a few other parish pump politicians. The goondas had developed a slick technique of throwing dynamite. They carried it in the breast pockets of their shirts, with the fuse hanging out. As the ‘enemy’ approached they struck a match, lit the fuse, pulled out the stick of dynamite and flung it at point-blank range.

On May 24 and 25 murder stalked the streets in broad day­light. Fleeing Tamils, and Sinhalese who were suspected of having given them sanctuary, had their brains strewn about. A deaf mute scavenging labourer was assaulted to death in the Hingurakgoda area—just to see what had made him tick. The goondas burnt two men alive, one at Hingurakgoda, and the other at Minneriya.

On the night of May 25, one of the most heinous crimes in the history of Ceylon was carried out. Almost simultaneously, on the Government farms at Polonnaruwa and Hingurakgoda, the thugs struck remorselessly. The Tamil labourers in the Pol­onnaruwa sugar-cane plantation fled when they saw the enemy approaching and hid in the sugar-cane bushes. The goondas wasted no time. They set the sugar cane alight and flushed out the Tamils. As they came out screaming, men, women and children were cut down with home-made swords, grass-cutting knives and katties, or pulped under heavy clubs.5
At the Government farm at Hingurakgoda, too, the Tamils were slaughtered that night. One woman in sheer terror embraced her two children and jumped into a well. The rioters were enjoying themselves thoroughly. They ripped open the belly of a woman eight months pregnant, and left her to bleed to death. First estimates of the mass murders on that night were frightening: 150—200 was a quick guess on the basis of forty families on an average of four each. This estimate was later pruned down to around seventy, on the basis of bodies recovered and the possibility that many Tamils had got away in time.
The hoodlums were now motorized. They roamed the district in trucks, smashing up kiosks and houses and killing any Tamils who got in their way.
On the morning of May 26, the expected Emergency had not yet been proclaimed. The situation in Polonnaruwa seemed beyond hope. Government Agent Aluwihare, ASP. Weera­singhe and their colleagues had not had a wink of sleep or rest for four days. They had been promised army reinforcements and Bren guns but there were no signs of their coming.

The refugee camps were now overcrowded.

Aluwihare had a hunch that the Irrigation bungalow which gave sanctuary to the Tamil public officers was no longer safe and he had moved its occupants into the main camp near the Kachcheri. The police had received information that the goondas from Minneriya, Hingurakgoda and Padaviya were planning to build tip their forces for a major assault on the night of May 26. The targets were to be the refugee camp and the police station in which the public officials—mostly Sinhalese—--had flow taken refuge. The basis of the war had shifted it was an all—out struggle against the forces of authority who stood in the way of the Sinhala Hamuduwa taking complete control of Polonnaruwa.

That morning at about 8.30 Government Agent Aluwihare and a Land Development Officer, Vasa de Silva, who was doing yeoman service in the district, were jeeping down a long lonely roadway which led to the bund of the Parakrama Samudra. They were on the look-out for a suitable site for a second refugee. camp, away from the main centre of excite­ment. Suddenly they saw signs that the goondas had passed that way. There were three bodies on the road. They stopped the jeep and dismounted to see if there was any life left in the bodies. The first man they looked at was very dead indeed. His brain had spilled out on the roadway. As Aluwihare was turning away he heard shouting and saw a huge truck load of about fifty thugs advancing on them from the front. They were shooting ‘There’s the Government Agent. Kill him. That’s the rascal who is helping the Tamils. Kill him ‘
The two officers whipped their jeep round. It must have been a terrifying ordeal. They managed to escape only because be­tween them and the advancing truck the road had been strewn with new metal which had not yet been rammed down. The truck bobbed up and down, preventing the thugs from shoot­ing, and was delayed just long enough for the officers to turn the jeep and speed to the safety of the police station.
All morning, apparently by prior arrangement, the goondas were building up their forces. From Minneriya, Giritale and Hingurakgoda the gangs converged on Polonnaruwa for a do­or-die attack on the last bastion of authority—the police station. The police station was now crowded with Sinhalese officials against whom the terrorism was now being directed because they were the symbol of law and order.

The defenders were in a desperate plight. The police rank and file were afraid that if they made a fight of it against the terrorists they would be hauled up before a Commission of Inquiry. This fear of a political inquisition had sapped their morale considerably and it was mainly their confidence in their officers which enabled them even to make a show of resistance. The mob was certain that the police would never shoot and their experience of the past two years during which the politi­cians had publicly denounced the police and taken the side of the crowd, right or wrong, increased the fears of the police.

At about noon Government Agent Aluwihare and A.S.P. Bertram Weerasinghe6 and their wives went to lunch at the Polonnaruwa rest house.
About 1000 goondas were lying about on the slope leading to the rest house, recuperating their strength for the Grand Finale they were going to stage that night. About fifty of them suddenly walked into the rest house. The women, including Mrs Miriam Gaskell, the rest house keeper, were asked to stay in. Aluwihare and Weerasinghe met the men in the veranda and asked them what they wanted. They wanted tea. Mrs Gaskell accordingly made tea for her ‘guests’, who departed peacefully enough except that they ignored the regulation that refreshments had to be paid for.
As the day wore on the tension increased. The crowds out­side the police station had grown to about 3,000. The small army unit and the handful of police kept them at bay. But the goondas were enjoying themselves, hooting, hurling obscenities at the police and the officials. They caught a Tamil official mak­ing his way to the station and beat him up to the gates of the station and then withdrew. The police dared not fire and the army said that they had no orders to shoot if there was a charge.
The refugees in the station breathed a huge sigh of relief when they saw the promised army reinforcements coming in. It was 2 p.m. It was only a platoon of twenty-five men—half the unit having been ordered to relieve Hingurakgoda. Things were no longer hopeless, however, because the new platoon had brought a Bren gun.

The arrival of army reinforcements drove the goonda leaders into a frenzied ‘conference’. Later events showed that they had taken the size of the unit as an indication that this was only the advance party of a larger force that would arrive that afternoon to relieve the beleaguered town. Their decision was attack now before the opposition was better fortified.

The Bren gun was mounted near the gate. At 3.20 p.m. the first wave of goondas advanced towards the police station, with sarongs lifted, shouting obscenities and coarse defiance. They were still confident that Apey Aanduwa would not shoot them down.
As they came nearer, the Bren fired a burst over their heads to warn them. This had just the opposite effect. They took it as confirmation that the army was only bluffing. The roar of the crowd became louder and the obscenities more defiant. The entire 3,000 now began to swarm towards the barricade. At this point the army unit commander said that he needed authority to open fire. Aluwihare signed the order. The officer put the paper in his pocket and walked out. On came the mob. They were only a few yards away now. One man in front raised his sarong, displaying his genitals in foul defiance of the army. The Bren opened fire and the passionate exhibitionist fell dead. Two of his comrades shared his fate.
The crowd scattered in all directions as the Bren stuttered briefly. Men who had been borne up by a demoniacal courage reinforced by an assurance that they were politically protected now fled screaming in terror, and forgathered in groups far away from the range of the gun.
Forty-five minutes later the Minister of Lands, C. P. de Silva, M.P. for Polonnaruwa, accompanied by his Director of Land Development, Chandra de Fonseka, arrived at the police station. They had flown in from Colombo and had seen the havoc at Hingurakgoda en route. The Minister’s first com­ment was: ‘This is worse than Gal Oya in 1956."

The goondas accosted their M.P. and demanded his explana­tion for the shooting of their three comrades. The burden of their lament was that the Government Agent, the police and the army had killed Sinhalese veerayas while protecting the Tamils. ‘We did not send you to Parliament to get your army to kill Sinhalese,’ they wailed.

It must have been a devilishly tricky dilemma for the Minister. He knew very well, as he told the officials, that the shooting of the three hoodlums had prevented a massacre of hundreds in Polonnaruwa that afternoon. But it was politically very awkward for him as the M.P. for the area and Minister in charge of the settlements in the district to answer the persistent question: Why is the army killing Sinhalese?
The Horror Spreads
This question was going to loom large in the next few days and twist the entire picture out of focus.
If there had been any chance whatever at this stage of keep­ing Sinhalese tempers under control it vanished completely following the Prime Minister’s broadcast call to the nation of May 26. The call was, no doubt, well intentioned and a state­ment to the nation was, for once, essential and even overdue. But, unwittingly or otherwise, it contained a reference which had the effect of blowing raw oxygen into a fire that was already raging vigorously. By a strangely inexplicable per­version of logic Mr Bandaranaike tried to explain away a situation by substituting the effect for the cause. The relevant portion of the speech was:
An unfortunate situation has arisen resulting in communal tension. Certain incidents in the Batticaloa District where some people lost their lives, including Mr D. A. Seneviratne, a former Mayor of Nuwara Eliya, have resulted in various acts of violence and lawlessness in other areas—for example Polonnaruwa, Dambulla, Galawela, Kuliyapitiya and even Colombo.

The killing of Seneviratne on May 25 was thus officially declared to be the cause of the uprising, although the Com­munal riots had begun on May 22 with the attack on the Polonnaruwa Station and the wrecking of the Batticaloa—Colombo train and several other minor incidents.

No explanation was offered by the Prime Minister for sing­ling out Seneviratne’s name for particular mention from the scores of people who had lost their lives during those critical days. Did the fact that he was a wealthy man rate him a special mention in a Call to the Nation at such a moment?
No effort was made to check whether the Seneviratne killing was a political affair or the outcome of a private feud as sug­gested by Mr S. J. V. Chelvanayakam during the debate in Parliament on June 4. If it was, indeed, a ‘private’ murder, the use of this man’s name in that context was a grievous and costly error.
Almost unnoticeably the tension spread to Colombo and the suburbs. From Pettah, Slave Island, Wellawatte, Dehiwela, Mount Lavinia, Ratmalana and Maradana reports of Tamils being beaten up by hoodlums came in clusters, but they still did not add up to a really massive campaign. Not yet.
Among the Sinhalese people in Colombo at any rate, the general attitude so far was expressed in the words: Garandi marala pau gannawa (Damning oneself by killing harmless rat-snakes). This was the working-class response—among the fac­tory workers, the office boys in mercantile offices—except here and there where the communal bug had nested for long. Among the middle class—the clerks and the English educated people—the distaste for the trend of events was more marked and positive. Weary of two years of increasing lawlessness and with nerves frayed by the industrial and political storms and crises that had driven the nation into a state of perpetual de­mentia, the middle class and the ‘intelligentsia’ of the country felt violently repulsed at this display of racial cannibalism. But worse was to come. A nation, mollycoddled by nature and pampered by Fate, was to undergo its worst ordeal yet.

On Tuesday morning, May 27, at seven-fifteen, a group of citizens7, who had distinguished themselves in various fields of public activity, called urgently to see the Prime Minister and implored him to proclaim a State of Emergency. Mr Ban­daranaike’s answer was that it was an ‘exaggeration’ to call the situation an ‘emergency’. His supplicants later said they were appalled at the insouciance with which the Prime Minis­ter appeared to be taking the mass murders, looting and law­lessness which had broken out everywhere in Ceylon.

It is not difficult to find a likely explanation for Premier Bandaranaike’s calculated astigmatism. The ghosts of a pre­vious regime were haunting Rosmead Place, night and day. The hartal of 1953, one day of mass violence and arson, had coerced Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake to advise the Governor-General to proclaim an emergency. In the resulting military activity nine rioters were killed and an innocent pas­senger in a taxicab was shot by a sentry whose challenge the driver had not heard. The entire episode had left an ugly taste in the mouth of every Ceylonese and there is no doubt that the hartal disturbances, and the consequent increase in the un­popularity of the Government of that time, were the principal causes of the resignation of Mr Senanayake.
‘Emergency’, therefore, was a synonym for ‘confession of failure’ in Mr Bandaranaike’s Thesaurus. Even during the first rash of communal killings that occurred two months after he became Prime Minister in 1956 the reports of at least 150 people being slaughtered by mobs had not impelled him to call an emergency. He had survived that conflict because the police, not yet demoralized by two years of official condone­ment of thuggery, had acted firmly—even against Govern­ment party politicians who were inciting people to riot.
The Prime Minister, presumably, was confident that he would come through the 1958 massacre, too, with a little bit of luck and some judicious ‘tide watching’.8
While this discussion was going on, Colombo was on fire. The goondas burnt fifteen shops in the Pettah and a row of kiosks in Mariakaday. Looting on a massive scale took place in Pettah, Maradana, Wellawatte, Ratmalana, Kurunegala, Panadura, Kalutara, Badulla, Galle, Matara and Weligama.

The cry everywhere in the Sinhalese districts was ‘Avenge the murder of Seneviratne’. Even the many Sinhalese who had been appalled by the goonda attacks on Tamils and Tamil ­owned kiosks, now began to feel that the Tamils had put them­selves beyond the pale. Across the country this new mood of deep-seated racism surged. The Prime Minister’s peace call to the Nation had turned into a war cry.

Another vicious story, fabricated by a ghoul with a keen sense of melodrama, careered through the country leaving a trail of arson and murder after it.
A female teacher from Panadura, the story went, who was teaching in a school in the Batticaloa District, had been set upon by a gang of Tamil thugs. They had cut off her breasts and killed her. Her body was being brought home to Panadura for cremation. On the morning of May 27 the Panadura townsfolk whispered it around that the mutilated body had been brought home. In the bazaar there was sudden pande­monium.
The goondas intensified their depredations. They ran­sacked Tamil-owned shops and beat up shopkeepers and passers-by. A gang of goondas rushed into the Hindu temple, and attempted to set fire to it. In their frenzy they were clumsy and failed to get the fire going. But they had a more interesting idea. They pulled an officiating priest out of the Kovil and burnt him into a cinder. The story of the mutilation and mur­der of a Panadura teacher gained such currency that the Ministry of Education despatched a senior Inspector of Schools to investigate. His report: there was not an iota of truth in the story. He also discovered, when he checked through the records, that there was no female teacher from Panadura on the staff of any school in the Batticaloa district.9

As panic spread, doors were closed in Sinhalese as well as Tamil homes. The Tamils closed their doors to escape murder, rape and pillage. The Sinhalese closed their doors to prevent Tamils running into their houses for shelter. But there were many Sinhalese, living in the midst of thuggery, whose innate decency and humanity triumphed over their natural terror. One family took in sixteen Tamils who came to them for shel­ter. They were fed and accommodated in a single locked room for three days. Neighbours’ or servants’ gossip would have de­stroyed over a score of lives.

Yet another fiendish rumour had been circulated to inflame the Sinhalese. This was the story of the ‘Tar Baby’. In Batti­caloa, it appeared, a Sinhalese baby had been snatched from its mother’s arms and immersed in a barrel of boiling tai~.

The atrocities increased with alarming rapidity.


Among the hundreds of acts of arson, rape, pillage, murder and plain barbarity some incidents may be recorded as ex­amples of the kind of thuggery at work.
Young Annesly Mendis of Moratuwa and a friend of his, both employed as Technical Assistants in the Irrigation Depart­ment at Polonnaruwa, decided to flee the district with their families as the terrorism was now directed against Government officials. They set out from Polonnaruwa in two cars, taking the Giritale—Naula Road, expecting to reach Matale by a cir­cuitous route. Mendis, in his old Ford Prefect, carried his wife, her few months old child, and an ayah. Soon after they set out Mendis’s car developed engine trouble. They managed to sputter into Giritale, but there the Ford packed up.
Here they were advised by Engineer Dias Abasing to take the road through the Elahera Irrigation Department camp to Naula, as he had received information that the more direct Habarana Road would soon become dangerous. Mrs Mendis, the baby and the ayah were transferred to the other car and three friends who had come along for the ride transferred to the Ford. The important thing was to get the women and children away. Mendis tinkered around with the Ford and managed to get the engine working again. As they were about to set out a youth called Leo Fernando—who had changed his name discreetly from the Tamil Fernandopulle after the Gal Oya riots—was offered a lift. There were now five in the car—Mendis, Fer­nando, a young man named Walatara and two others.

The first car, miraculously, got away. The mobs had not yet con­gregated on the road. The Ford limped into Diyabaduma and was promptly surrounded by 200 terrorists. The leaders greeted them with a hostile question: ‘Aren’t you Tamil?’ They protested that they were Sinhalese. Mendis was forced out of the car and asked to recite a gatha—a Buddhist stanza in Pali. Being a Methodist he knew no gathas. He had also a bad stammer and fear made it worse so that he could not explain himself.

The mob began to beat him up. Bleeding from his head and ears Mendis ran down the street. They shot him in the back. Insatiable, they then dragged Leo Fernando out of the car and hacked him to death without any palaver. In the confusion the other occupants of the car escaped into the jungle and reached Colombo two days later. Mendis’s body was car­ried, tied to a pole like a shot animal, to the far side of the bazaar. The goondas poured petrol over the mutilated bodies. Within minutes Mendis and Fernando were two hideous heaps of charcoal. Not satisfied yet, the goondas burnt the Ford and dumped its charred remains in the Elahara irrigation channel.
In the Colombo area the number of atrocities swiftly piled up. The atmosphere was thick with hate and fear. The thugs ran amok burning houses and shops, beating-up pedestrians, holding-up vehicles and terrorizing the entire city and the suburbs.
A Government official’s house was invaded by a gang of hoodlums under the captaincy of one man who was obviously drunk on the perverse delight of seeing other people suffer. Under his orders his stooges began stripping the window cur­tains and piling up the furniture to make a bonfire. The family huddled in a room waiting for the worst—father, mother and five little children. The chief thug broke into the room and saw them standing hypnotized by terror. Sweating, panting, his eyes bloodshot with frenzied hate, he paused to look at the family he was about to destroy. Then, suddenly, something seemed to click in his mind. He asked, pointing to the children:
‘Are all these yours?’

The father nodded, a great sob cracking his throat. The thug clapped his hand to his forehead and said: ‘Anney—I have two myself,’ and walked out of the room. Calling his gang together he left the house still intact.

Another Tamil officer working in the same Government de­partment was not so fortunate. The thugs stormed into his house and assaulted his wife and grown-up daughter in the presence of his little child. His mind cracked under the shock. In the French liner Laos which took the family away to safety in Jaffna he insisted on reciting large chunks of the Bhagavad Gita to the captain of the ship. All his formal education—he is a Cambridge scholar—had proved useless to him in the face of disaster. His broken mind reached out for the only solace a man has when his own ingenuity and ability have proved futile.

At Wellawatte Junction, near the plantain kiosk, a pregnant woman and her husband were set upon. They clubbed him and left him on the pavement. Then they kicked the woman repeatedly as she hurried along at a grotesque sprint, carrying her swollen belly.
A great deal of property was destroyed in the wave of arson which hit Mount Lavinia and Ratmalana on May 27. Mr R. R. Selvadurai, a former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, was one of those who lost his house. He had at first been reluctant to accept warnings of impending trouble, and had in any case no wish to leave until he had made contact with his sons, who were out.
Fortunately for the family the two young men got home just in time for them all to escape with their lives and take shelter in a police station where over 1000 Tamils had already sought refuge. Mr Selvadurai learnt that night that his house had been burnt. Next morning he and his son tried to salvage at least his books, and a few remaining pieces of furniture, but they were seen by a group of eight thugs who quickly made sure that even these relics of his property should not be left to him.
While the Prime Minister was telling the citizens’ delegation that it was an ‘exaggeration to call the situation an emergency’ in every village from Kalawewa to Nalanda people’s houses were in flames.

When an eye witness reached Dambulla it was still intact. In a few minutes a factory-new Ceylon Transport Board ‘Special’ arrived loaded with ‘passengers’. They disembarked and swiftly set about their business: in ten minutes six houses were blazing. And hell spread through the bazaar.


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