Batticaloa Killings Soon after the Polonnaruwa incidents of May 23 and 24 the madness spread to Eravur in the Eastern Province. The Tamils in this area retaliated against isolated Sinhalese homes and trades people. Tamil fishermen waged a sea-shore battle against Sinhalese fishermen who were driven out to sea. They dared not return to the east coast and were not seen for days. Police feared serious loss of life at sea but later reports indicated that the fishermen had landed here and there on the south coast.
Tamil goondas set up road blocks and interrupted traffic. Like their Sinhalese counterparts they cross-examined passengers who were dragged out, beaten up and deprived of their belongings if they were suspected to be Sinhalese.
One Sinhalese driver whose duties had taken him to Batticaloa was returning to Colombo on May 26. They caught him near a causeway and interrogated him. His terror was so great that he could not speak. ‘Who are you?’ they asked. ‘Are you Sinhalese or Tamil or Muslim?’ The man was still speechless. They persisted. Eventually he found his tongue. When they asked him for a tenth time to state his race: ‘Lanji,’ he spluttered, trying to make ‘Lansi’ (Burgher) sound Tamil. Immediately he realized his mistake but the thugs were satisfied. They let him go on his way.
From May 23—when the first train derailment took place— up to Tuesday, May 27—the day on which a State of Emergency was declared—the highest incidence of violence in the Batticaloa district was in the Eravur area.
With the news of the first train derailment, many Sinhalese in the area had already left their homes and begun a hazardous trek to places of safety. Some went into the jungles where many of them gave up their lives to hunger and to the animals.
When the number of police in the area were augmented by military personnel, on May 27 and 28, they drove along the edges of jungles announcing through their mobile loudspeakers that people who were within hearing distance should come out to safety. Those who were still alive accepted this offer. The corpses of the others were discovered in various stages of decomposition. In one case, the police found the bodies of a mother and child whom she had been breast-feeding at the time of death.
The Sinhalese who had not fled their homes or who were intercepted in flight by berserk Tamil goondas suffered a similar fate. In the heart of Eravur a Sinhalese man and his wife were assaulted and set on fire. Their belongings were then looted and their dwelling place burnt down.
Homes which had been evacuated were given the chulu light treatment. First: goods which could be of any use were looted. Then, a liberal dose of kerosene was splashed on the walls of the house, and a chulu light was flung at it. The police were helpless. Their numbers were too small—they did not even have sufficient men to release one or two of them to guard the Public Works Department powder magazine at Batticaloa— and, besides, they had received no orders to shoot and fight back with methods which would give them some hope of getting the Tamil hoodlums under control.
In a few places hand-bombs were thrown at cars. Mercifully, by this time people had been sufficiently scared for many of them to cancel proposed trips to the area. The damage might otherwise have been much greater.
Ironically, in the town of Batticaloa itself—the area chosen as the centre of the Tamil Kingdom of the Eastern Province by Tamil extremists—the damage to Sinhalese life and property was relatively small. In fact, Tamil kiosk keepers closed shop and sought sanctuary in areas where members of their own community were amassed in greater numbers at the very hint of disturbances. During the first few days of the rioting the Tamils who had stayed behind in Batticaloa town, mainly public servants stationed in the area, bought their provisions, groceries and food from Sinhalese shops which plied a brisk and highly profitable trade.
Then, two stories came through from the south to step up the fury of the mobs.
First, there was the rumoured death of a Tamil fiscal clerk at Kalutara. As the story went, a Tamil fiscal clerk who had almost reached the official age of retirement, but who had expressed a wish to work a few months longer so as to qualify for the best possible pension with which he would have to fend for himself, his wife and nine children, had been transferred a few weeks earlier from Vavuniya to Kalutara. He had protested against his transfer, the story continued, but had been forced to accept it. Now, he was dead. One report said that he had been burnt alive; another that he had been hacked to death.
Second, reports came in of what had happened to the Kovil, the Hindu priest, and many other Tamils in Panadura. Even here, the reports varied as did the estimates of the number killed.
But the details were unimportant. Blood was all that the goondas wanted. In the chaos that followed it was almost impossible for anybody to keep a count of who had been injured, who had been lynched, and what had been burnt—so swiftly did the goondas move from area to area, and so ruthlessly did they set about their tasks of destruction.
The official figures are: 56 cases of arson, and ii murders in the Batticaloa Administrative district. But there is reason to believe that more than that number of killings occurred in Karativu alone, where the Sinhalese—many of them migrant fishermen—were massacred.
Men, women and children were pulled out of their homes— wailing, and screaming for mercy—and beaten, more often than not, to death. Houses were set ablaze and law officers were powerless. Meanwhile in other parts of the district houses were still blazing, looting was proceeding apace, and the search for victims was still on.
Many of the migrant fishermen in the area had left their homes earlier. What they had left behind was quickly grabbed and shared among the goondas. Some of this was discovered later and a small-time politician who was found to have a sizeable stock of madhal, or home-spun fishing nets, in his house stated that he had taken all this under his roof for protection.
In the Eravur area there were other incidents of goonda activity and in many cases both the police and the military were fired at when they attempted to intervene. In one instance, police and service personnel had to fire several rounds at a blood-thirsty crowd before they could rescue alive two men who had been set afire.
Despite Mr Bandaranaike’s characteristic attitude of ignoring the presence of a monster in the hope that it would go away or fall dead of its own accord, the pressure for the declaring of a State of Emergency was rising overwhelmingly. The Governor-General had broken with convention to visit the Prime Minister at his Rosmead Place home in order to impress on him the need for firm, urgent action.
Between eight and ten o’clock that morning the situation all over the country, notably in Colombo district, Kurunegala, Polonnaruwa and the Batticaloa—Eravur area had deteriorated so badly that even the stoutest heart and most cynical mind could not possibly help quailing at the continuance of this barbarism. In Colombo Fort, Pettah and Colombo South the thugs ran amok, beating up people who wore their shirts over their vertis, Tamil fashion. They stopped pedestrians and passing cars looking for ear-ring holes in men’s ears. It was impossible to disguise these marks of early parental affection and many Tamils paid dearly for this traditional feature.
When the goondas could not find any obvious distinguishing marks they used the ingenious device of testing people’s race by asking them to read and explain a piece from a Sinhalese newspaper. Very few Tamils and—mirabile dictu!—very few Sinhalese, particularly of the English educated class, could pass this test and they were summarily dealt with for their ignorance of the official tongue.10 Emergency Declared Shortly after noon on May 27, the Governor-General proclaimed that a State of Emergency had arisen in Ceylon. Several units of the army and navy were mobilized. Army units were rushed to Batticaloa district from Colombo and Diyatalawa where the Sinha regiment had just held its passing-out parade. Volunteers were called up for active service. A dusk to dawn curfew was clamped on the whole island.
The Government also took the bold step of proscribing the Federal Party and the Jatika Vimukti Peramuna, which were at the two extremes of the language conflict. It was a bold step, certainly, that had immediately beneficial results—but whether it was a wise one remains to be seen.
The rioters continued their battle in the streets. Fresh fires broke out in Wellawatte, Maradana and Pettah. Looting continued apace.
Gangs of hoodlums in the Ratmalana area appeared to be working according to a predetermined pattern. Thugs disguised as policemen went round Tamil houses warning the residents that the police could no longer guarantee their safety and advising them to take refuge in the police station. Nearly 10,000 people left their homes in terror. Then the ‘policemen’ returned, some now in mufti, others still in uniform, to ransack the empty houses. When they had left the scene, hard on their heels came the ‘firing squads’. They came in vehicles in twos and threes. A bottle of petrol was flung into the house. A stick of dynamite was despatched after it and another house was burning. Others, less efficiently equipped, zealously collected whatever furniture was left behind and used it as firewood to get the flames going.
Even after the emergency was declared the momentum of the island-wide riot continued. The afternoon papers and the radio announced the emergency, and the death penalty for looters, but a mob knows no fear.
From three o’clock that afternoon people rushed back into their homes. The navy took charge of the Pettah area, the army took over Maradana in Central Colombo and Wellawatte in the south, moving out towards the periphery of Colombo. The difficulty was that when a street was cleared of goondas it did not stay clear. Crazed and emboldened by their successes of the past few days they came creeping back to loot and burn as soon as the military had moved past.
By 4.30 p.m. the navy had cleared the Pettah of thugs. Sten guns mowed down goondas and stragglers. No account was taken of the number of deaths that afternoon.
A navy officer told me: ‘We don’t know how many were killed. If in the next few days the Pettah starts smelling of rotting flesh you will know it is not the meat market.’
By 6 p.m. it became clear that the Ceylon army and navy which had never before seen hot action except on newsreels, and had no Battle Honours to their credit, were doing a first-rate professional job. Their orders were to shoot and to shoot to kill.
In what the columnists call ‘high political quarters’ there was some doubt as to whether the military personnel would be willing to open fire on their own compatriots. No one knew how deep the communal bug had eaten into the armed services.
Within two hours of the call out the army and navy had proved that their morale, discipline and training were of a very high order. At 5 p.m. Queen’s House—which had suddenly been converted into a G.H.Q.—received a message that Colombo had been cleared up to Wellawatte, Borella and Victoria Bridge. The fan-out had been relatively easy so far.
Then the army began encountering some large-scale opposition, apparently organized, in the area between Manning Place and 42nd Lane, Wellawatte, where several rows of Tamil kiosks had been looted and burnt and some Tamil homes had been stoned and Tamil residents assaulted earlier.
The goondas held their ground even with the army advancing on them. Hand-made bombs and hand grenades were tossed at the soldiers, who, despite definite orders, were reluctant to shoot into the milling crowd of Sinhalese and Tamils who had gathered at the street corners to watch the activity.
Several ‘warning’ rounds were fired into the air, army and police personnel charged the crowd thrice and by 6 p.m. the area had been cleared.
Meanwhile Tamil homes in the area—notably down Vihare Lane, Hampden Lane and High Street—were receiving goonda treatment. Among the homes which were subjected to a continuous barrage of stones was that of the Chief Clerk to the Superintendent of Police, Colombo. By the time the army reached the spot the hooligans had fled.
At night, several hours after the curfew order had come into force, a hand-bomb was thrown into a home at Ramakrishna Road where several Tamils had gathered for ‘safety’. One Tamil received a direct hit on his arm which removed a large chunk of his flesh.
In the night, despite the curfew and military vigilance, new fires were started in Dehiwela and Ratmalana, particularly in the new housing estate where many new Tamil residents had come to settle during the past two years. Six brand-new houses blazed like giant pyres. Twenty-seven houses were gutted by fire.
The street battle was still raging when people began their regular trek to work. It was quieter at Vivekananda Lane Junction but goondas were still active and an army detachment was still under sporadic attack.
At Ratmalana, near the bus station, there was a pitched battle between the army under Colonel F. C. de Saram and hundreds of Sinhalese zealots fighting grimly on despite the hopelessness of their effort. Their fanaticism had been ignited by the death of a Sinhalese bus driver who, they claimed, had been killed during the night by a Tamil policeman’s bullet. The search was on for a Tamil policeman and the drivers refused to ply the buses. Vehicles were stopped by the crowds who checked them for Tamil passengers. Tamils were pulled out forcibly and attacked. One Tamil lady had her ear lobes torn off because her attackers were in too much of a hurry to give her time to unscrew her ear-rings. A man displayed a long gash in his wrist made by the pin in his strap-buckle when the goondas tore his watch off him in their frenzied haste.
Meanwhile the morning plane from Jaffna had come in and, with it, a crop of five new rumours, hot from the unofficial mint, and all counterfeit. Sinhalese residents in Ratmalana told the drivers at the bus station that the Tamils had murdered hundreds of Sinhalese in Jaffna.
Police records show that up to that date Jaffna was still quiet and that, at this stage, no damage had been done to any Sinhalese there.11But a few Sinhalese residents who could afford the air fare had left Jaffna fearing reprisals—as indeed they might, for the tension was at snapping point.
During the night the navy had brought the Pettah into order. The goondas had moved on towards Maradana and Borella where there were still a few isolated incidents. The goondas displayed uncanny knowledge of people’s movements and an almost incredible temerity. At 4 p.m. on May 28 outside the Galle Face Hotel where a society wedding was taking place, they singled out from many cars, a car belonging to a young Tamil wedding guest. In the presence of hundreds of people, armed policemen on duty and army patrols, they set this car ablaze with complete impunity.
Mercifully, the harbour was still free from arson and race-war. Miraculously the harbour labourers did not carry the war into the port area although many of them, as was discovered later when lists of thugs arrested were published, had joined in the looting and thuggery in the street battles.
The army took advantage of the opportunity to do some slum-clearance too. On ‘top level’ orders they indulged in official arson by burning down the whole row of shanties that disfigures the General Lake’s Road. Politicians who would never have dared to clear them out by allowing the Municipality to impose the by-laws of the city were already tasting the advantages of dictatorship over democracy, the way they had understood and practised it.
Jaffna Reacts Police sources are certain that while shops in Colombo were being looted, people assaulted and killed, and the Prime Minister was being pressed to advise the Governor-General to declare a State of Emergency, the whole of the Northern Province was still comparatively quiet. In some parts, mainly in the town of Jaffna itself, a few stragglers were still around—tar brushes and pots in hand—on the look-out for vehicles bearing the Sri number-plate, and there had, of course, been an increased tension in the atmosphere from the time that rumours of what was happening in the North Central Province started trickling through after May 22. The Sinhalese residents of the area, however, who had lived through the June ‘~6 riots without encountering so much as a jeer, did not feel that either their lives or their property were in danger.
In fact one Sinhalese police officer who was stationed at Jaffna told me that when he spoke to some of his Sinhalese acquaintances and told them that there were some indications that what was happening in other parts of Ceylon might spread to the peninsula, they shrugged it off with a smile and reminded him that in 1956 they had been safer at Jaffna than they could have been anywhere else.
The change came on May 28. By then rumours of what had allegedly been done to Tamils in the south had come through. As with all rumours which were spread during this period, many of them were totally groundless. But nobody stopped to check them. And what finally unleashed the fury of the Tamils in Jaffna was the story—repeated in various forms by different people-of the fate of the Hindu Kovil and its incumbent at Panadura.
At street corners and in market squares the crowds began to gather. First they came in small batches of twos and threes, then in greater numbers. The petty local ‘leaders’ obviously found in this situation a golden opportunity for enhancing their authority. They proclaimed, in all seriousness, that it was their duty to avenge what had been done to their brothers and sisters in the south. The goondas in the crowd, always on the look-out for opportunities to display their prowess lucratively, agreed. The hunt for Sinhalese was on.
In one respect this set of outrages differed from what had gone before. No attempt was made to do bodily harm to the Sinhalese. They were told to leave their homes and their shops, once they proved to the satisfaction of the goondas—by producing their rent receipts—that the buildings which they occupied were owned by Tamils. Then their goods were dragged out on to the road, heaped up, and burnt. This was regarded by the Powers in Colombo as certain evidence that the rioting in the north was organized by some powerful behind-the-scenes interests. It certainly looked like that on what evidence there was at the time.
In Jaffna itself there was one ugly incident on May 29.
That evening a crowd of around 200 goondas were on the look-out for anything—just anything—to destroy.
Earlier they had done the round of homes occupied by Sinhalese; now they were in the heart of the town, boisterous, belligerent and restive but, apparently, with no victims on whom to vent their spleen.
Then they had an inspiration: they would destroy the Naga Vihare.
The idea caught on and the goondas marched on to the Naga Vihare, a Buddhist temple in the heart of Jaffna town which had often been used as a halt by pilgrims en route to the Nagadipa Vihare at Nainativu.
The goondas collected whatever weapons they could find on the way, but by the time they had had their initial stock of brickbats at the Temple the police were on the scene. They prevented a full-scale demolition of the Vihare, but were not in time to check an assault on its incumbent.
By the time the bhikku was removed to hospital he had a four-inch gash on his forehead and was severely bruised.
Later the goondas attempted to storm the hospital and the police opened fire. Nobody was killed.
On May 30, the disturbances took a slightly different turn when Government offices in Kayts and Valvettiturai were broken open, records destroyed and firearms stolen. This, coupled with the organized nature of the rioting, was built up by the Competent Authority into the Northern Rebellion, and it was announced off-the-record—at a press conference held on May 31—that there was a definite attempt in Jaffna to cause a breakdown of the civil administration, to destroy Government property and to establish a separate State.
As a matter of fact, the explanation was much simpler. In Kayts and Valvettiturai smuggling has been, for generations, the natural occupation of the people. The only offices attacked were those of the Customs—the smugglers were making hay! They were destroying for all time their dossiers and the weapons which the Government might use against them.
On the same day, at Kayts, some Government boats were destroyed. And then occurred one of the foulest and most provocative examples of goonda activity in the course of the riots.
The Buddhist Temple of Nagadipa stood on the island of Nainativu, eight miles from Kayts. According to hoary legend Nagadipa has direct connections with the life of Gautama Buddha. In the old days only a shrine existed, but by dint of devoutness the temple had grown to sizeable proportions. Isolated as it was, and lacking financial support from a steady flow of pilgrims, the temple had still managed to survive and preserve its atmosphere of quiet holiness.
In commemoration of the Buddha Jayanti celebrations the Burmese Government had given to the Nagadipa Vihare a magnificent bronze-alloy statue. This image had been taken round various centres in the south so that as many persons as possible could see it before enshrinement in Nainativu.
One afternoon a gang of goondas, suspected to be among those who had earlier destroyed the boats at Kayts (presumably with a view to preventing any chance of being pursued by the police) set out on the eight-mile trip to Nainativu.
There they acted swiftly and skilfully. This act of desecration was, without a doubt, premeditated and planned. With vicious zeal they set about destroying the temple. They dynamited the dagoba, snapping off the tapering top section. They burnt every building except one, an outhouse. A small detachment of the gang wreaked their anger on the Buddha image from Burma. They hauled it off the pedestal and carried it away with them. Perhaps it proved too heavy for them to carry across to the mainland for display as a trophy, because it never reached Kayts. With what surely must have been demoniacal purpose, the goondas sawed through the neck, one arm and some fingers of the image. Their intent was to damage it beyond repair in case it should be recovered later. Then they tossed the truncated body and its smaller parts into the sea at various points.
The news of this dangerous devilry reached Colombo two days later. It was an act of such gross vandalism, with such huge potentialities for rousing the already fermenting South into foaming anger, that the Governor-General and the army command were loath to believe their ears. As each hour passed they expected the story to spread through the Buddhist population, sparking a massacre. But the strict secrecy which had to be maintained until the military had really dug in and established themselves as a formidable force throughout the island was somehow kept unbroken. The Minister of Transport and Works, Maitripala Senanayake, was sent to Nainativu to investigate. He confirmed the earlier reports: destruction was almost complete.
The incumbent bhikku of Nagadipa was invited to Colombo and told that the temple would soon be restored to better shape than it was in before the goonda attack. The bhikku maintained a dignified and discreet silence. The Public Works Department was instructed to start restoration work at once. By the end of July a brand-new temple had risen from the debris of the old edifice. The navy undertook the almost hopeless task of salvaging the image. They had no clue as to where it was dumped but, miraculously, they found the spot. As expected, the damage was irreparable.
With the assistance of the Burmese Ambassador, the Governor-General was able to secure a replica of the destroyed image from Burma. It was brought to Ceylon in early August as a gift of ‘relics’ from the Burmese navy to the Ceylon navy.
The story of the destruction of Nagadipa and the way it was rebuilt in eight weeks will weave itself into Buddhist legend in the years to come. But when the tension dies, people who relate the story will forget its most significant aspect: if its destruction had not been kept a tight secret, all the vigilance and guns of the armed services would not have prevented a wholesale massacre of the Tamils.
Mob fury was then directed at individuals, one of whom, Mr Pathirana, was a resident of Jaffna of very long standing, known and respected by all his neighbours to whom he had always been helpful. He owned the house in which he lived— and on May 31 the mob destroyed it. They then took his car in procession to the esplanade and set fire to it.
By the evening of May 3!, however, the Sinhalese had all been moved to safety, the belongings of almost all Sinhalese residents had been destroyed, and there was nothing left for the hoodlums to work on.
A few sporadic attempts were made to attack single policemen, but when the army, under Colonel F. C. de Saram, reached Jaffna, the whole peninsula was quiet again. The army settled in for the Occupation of Jaffna.