Emergency '58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots

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Evidence of Conspiracy
The Government party was thrown into absolute confusion during the riots. Its members were sensible of the responsi­bility of restoring order, whatever the political cost. One of the younger M.P.s—Mr Pani Illangakoon of Weligama—made a rousing speech in which he told the Prime Minister, ‘Let us govern or get out!’
This was the mood among many members of Parliament who were fed up with the vacillation and volu­bility which had characterized MEP rule for over two years. But as politicians interested in retaining their seats and being returned to power at the next election should there be one, they were unwilling to sacrifice the goodwill of the commu­nalists among their voters. Many of them, who had suddenly and quite unexpectedly found themselves M.P.s, could not face the thought of being flung back into obscurity and rela­tive penury once again.
Confronted with this personal prob­lem they cowered in Colombo waiting for the situation to crystallize in one form or another before they could make up their minds about the direction in which to move. One Cabinet Minister risked a quick visit to his constituency and regretted his rashness. The Government Agent had to provide him with an armed escort to save him from the angry crowds of his one­time political supporters who now clamoured for his blood. Their cry was: ‘We did not send you to represent us in Parlia­ment to take the side of the Tamils against us. The forces of the Government are massacring the Sinhalese and protecting the Tamils.’

Government party men huddled together at the M.P.s’ hostel and in their Colombo homes, terrified at the prospect of returning to their electorates. Not knowing what had hit them, and not daring to probe into their consciences in case they should discover the culprits within themselves, they turned to finding suitable scapegoats. The great question of this period became: ‘Who was at the bottom of the communal riots?’

The Governor-General and the Prime Minister were not taking others into their confidence. News trickled out from Queen s House that the Governor-General had announced, off-the-record at a press conference, that the riots had not been spon­taneous. What he said was: ‘Gentlemen, if any of you have an idea that this was a spontaneous outburst of communalism, you can disabuse your minds of it. This is the work of a Master Mind who has been at the back of people who have planned this carefully and knew exactly what they were doing. It was a time-bomb set about two years ago which has now exploded.’
Speculation snowballed. The Right-Wing elements with­in the MEP were inclined to believe that Moscow had en­gineered the riots by remote control through local agents. Police and army intelligence reports from Batticaloa, Matara and Colombo had pointed to this possibility. Rumour had bruited it about that the Ceylon Air Force had succeeded in locating the pirate radio in the Russian Embassy at Flower Road.
The Rightists in the Government were excited about the possibility of the Communist Party being banned. Naïvely they hoped that this would provide a cover-all explanation which would acquit them of their own responsibility and at the same time force the Prime Minister to make a complete break with Mr Philip Gunawardene and the Left. Police reports of a Communist conspiracy were, in fact, becoming so positive that the Governor-General even sought advice from the At­torney-General about the legal aspect of a raid he was thinking of ordering on the headquarters of the Communist Party. One of the Communist Party branch offices in Colombo was actu­ally raided—but, apart from the discovery of some articles claimed as loot, there was nothing conclusive to implicate the Communists or the Russian Embassy.

In their wild scramble for ‘evidence’ of a Communist con­spiracy they even attributed the second train derailment at Batticaloa to the local Communists. Why had the Communists done this? To distract the attention of the public from their pathetic failure to break the Employers’ Federation in the CTUF strike! This divertissement theory gained rapid currency. The Prime Minister was kept constantly briefed by the Gover­nor-General about the police and army intelligence reports suggesting complicity on the part of the Communists and the Russian Embassy in Colombo.

A certain amount of force was given to this line of specula­tion by an editorial in the Singapore Standard of May 3 which directly pointed an accusing finger at the Soviet Ambassador in Ceylon, Mr. V. Yakovlev:
"There is also another factor in Ceylon’s present chaotic state of which most people in that island are probably un­aware. It will interest them to know that the chief Kremlin Emissary in Ceylon is the same man who was responsible for recommending to his Communist bosses the bloody purge of Poland and Hungary. This revelation will show the people of Ceylon the danger that lies in their midst."
But Mr Bandaranaike was disinclined to accept intelligence reports at their face value. In fact, as we shall see, he had his own private theory about the culprits and the Communist Party was not an integral part of it.
The Left Wingers, for their part, were equally naïve. Their candidate for guilty knowledge about the communal riots was their long-time enemy, the United National Party which had formed the previous Government. The Prime Minister, too, gave out vague hints that he had convincing evidence of a UNP conspiracy against national harmony and racial peace. And indeed there was some circumstantial evidence forth­coming during the riots that appeared—at least on the face of it—to vindicate this suspicion. The first piece of ‘evidence’ connecting the UNP with this crime against the nation was the publication of certain inflammatory pamphlets directed against the Tamils and Premier Bandaranaike’s proposal for enacting legislation to ensure the reasonable use of Tamil.

These pam­phlets appeared under the signature of the printer who pro­duced the UNP Journal and its Sinhalese edition, Siyarata, Sirisoma Ranasinghe. As the Prime Minister told Parliament in the course of his address on the State of the Nation on June 24, Ranasinghe had visited the areas worst affected by the riots shortly before the trouble started. Moreover Ranasinghe was known to have been a close associate of J. R. Jayawardene,

the UNP stalwart who has been hated, distrusted and feared most by the Left politicians.

Soon after the emergency was proclaimed Ranasinghe was arrested and jailed. J. R. Jaya­wardene made the suspected link firmer by visiting him in re­mand prison and trying to bail him out. Another reason for the suspicion that fell on the UNP was the reports that came in from the Trotskyites in the Badulla area who, having been told that many of the Sinhalese rioters were UNP men, assumed that the UNP was solely responsible for the chaos in the country.
And when P. Nadesan, the former Private Secretary of Colonel Sir John Kotelawala (the former Prime Minister), publicized in the press the news that the Gallant Colonel had decided to return home within two days of the announcement, Premier Bandaranaike saw red—or more accurately, green, the colour of the UNP flag. Angrily he told his friends that Sir John was coming back, ‘trying to do a de Gaulle on Ceylon’.
The Prime Minister’s wrath was so widely gossiped about that Sir John’s former subordinates and hangers-on who had invited him to come home so that they themselves (many of them Tamils) could feel safer, hurriedly called Sir John at his home in Kent and begged him to cancel his trip. In fact they were only just in time to prevent a major ‘incident’, because the Prime Minister, on seeing the notice of Sir John’s imminent return in the newspapers, gave a curt order to External Affairs Defence Secretary, Gunasena de Zoysa, to get the Ceylon High Commissioner’s Office in London to impound Sir John’s passport.

At first the Communist Party theory and the United Na­tional Party theory contended for general acceptance. Soon, however, the theory of the UNP’s guilt became less plausible. People realized that if the UNP had indeed created mass riots of that intensity and scale—it must then be still a great power in the land. This was a conclusion that the Left Wing was loath to accept. But their ingenuity triumphed. When Right-Wing conjecture linked the Communist Party and the Russian Embassy as partners in the crime, the Left Wing retaliated by bringing together the UNP and the Americans, as they were fond of doing in the old days. These theories were now sufficiently embellished and extended on an international scale to explain away such awkward questions as, ‘Is there any Cey­lonese with the technological knowledge to construct and operate a short-wave radio transmitter without detection?’ and ‘Who in Ceylon is capable of breaking the police code and secret call sign?’

The Premier Waves his Wand
By June 3, when the Government Parliamentary Group met to assess the situation, their attitudes had crystallized in some definite form. Almost every one of the members knew the depths to which the prestige of the Government had tumbled since the emergency. All over the Sinhalese areas, wherever people had been roused by communal leaders and by the rumours of Tamil atrocities, the charge was that the Govern­ment was using the army to murder Sinhalese instead of to quell the Tamils, as it should have done.
When, therefore, the Government members of Parliament met on June 3 many of them knew their line. They had to find a scapegoat to offer to the Sinhalese whose communal passions had been churned up by the riots.
Prime Minister Bandaranaike obviously did not relish the idea of facing this meeting—a reluctance which had come on him perhaps for the first time since his triumphant election. There was too much to explain. There was much he could not explain.
He was afraid that the Leftist group would ask awk­ward questions about the Governor-General’s activities as Commander-in-Chief. But when the time came to go to the meeting he was in command of his self-assurance again. He knew that the groupers—like their marine counterparts— were only waiting for some kind of direction. He felt confident that his old magic wand—his bilingual tongue—would save him once more and help him to re-establish his party’s con­fidence in him. Besides, the press would not be there, or hang­ing around outside to pick up the story of the meeting from one of the members. And even if a good reporter got his story he was not in a position to publish it.
The Prime Minister decided that he would say precisely what he pleased and, more important than that, what would please his party.

The report below, written by one of the M.P.s present at the meeting and now published here verbatim, shows that even the events of the past month which would have shattered the nerves of any ordinary man had hardly touched the Prime Minister’s self-confidence and his hypnotic power over the back-benchers of the MEP:

‘I will run this country with my army and navy—I have taken certain steps to see that no extremists, either from the north or the south, will ever succeed in undermining this Government. Even if it means running this country for fifty years with my military forces, I am prepared to do so,’ Premier S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike told the Government Parliamentary Group at its emergency session yesterday.
‘Certain people seem to think that the Government is weak and they also expected it to collapse during the last few days. They have been proved wrong, the Government is firmer than ever before. I will show these people just exactly how strong the Government is—as I have proved during the last ten days,’ he said.
The Premier outlined the events that led to the State of Emergency being declared. He began with the Federal con­vention, the Polonnaruwa train hold-up, the Batticaloa derailment, and the shooting of the planter, Mr D. A. Seneviratne. The shooting, he said, had resulted in a number of other incidents in the rest of the country which finally resulted in his advising the Governor-General to declare a State of Emergency.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I have since then got complete control of the situation. All the forces which are against law and order, under the misguided conception that they could overthrow this Government, combined in the events during the last two weeks. The Government did not hesitate to act. We have succeeded in checking law breakers and hooligans.’

Thunderous applause greeted the Premier’s statement.


The M.P. for Gampaha, S. D. Bandaranayake, then said:

‘If the Government had banned the Federal Party, why did not the Government then take the next proper step and arrest the Federal leaders? Why haven’t Messrs Chelvanay­akam and company been arrested? They should be behind bars instead of being free to do as they like! It is the Federalists who have planned this, in a well-organized way— the Government is weak and has brought itself into disrepute by not taking the proper action in arresting these leaders.’

Mr Bandaranaike: ‘It is not only the Federal Party which is responsible for activities against the Government. There are other forces that have worked against the Government.’
Mr S. D. Bandaranayake: ‘Who are they? Name them. We have a right to know! Why weren’t the Government Members of Parliament consulted and told the facts?’
Premier: (Angrily) ‘In a State of Emergency it is not possible to run to every M.P. and seek his advice.’
S. D. Bandaranayake: ‘Who are these “other forces” whom the Government has information about? These forces which are working against the Government?’
Premier: ‘There are certain matters which I cannot place before this group in fairness to the Governor-General. There are certain confidential matters that cannot be publicized now—and certain confidential steps that the Government has taken to protect itself against these same forces. Bear with me for a little while, and I will be ready to place these facts before you. I cannot disclose them to you. I am con­fident that you gentlemen will understand the position. But when this is all over, and you know the facts and the action I took, I tell you, you will have nothing but praise for me.’
The M.P. for Weligama, Pani Ilangakoon: ‘I also want to know why the Federal leaders have not been arrested. All over the country they are saying that the Government is weak. If we cannot govern, then let us get out. The Tamils have worked against us, they have plotted to overthrow this Government, with outside assistance. They will destroy us eventually. Before that happens, I ask that the Tamils be settled once for all. I ask that they be told that Sinhala Only has come to stay—and they must submit. This Government has been too tolerant of these Tamils. The Sinhalese are the laughing stock in the country as a result of the Government’s weak stand against the Tamils.’

Premier: ‘Certainly the Federalists and other forces have planned to overthrow the Central Government and set up a separate administration in the east and the north. But I have thwarted that. Their attempts have been quelled. My military forces are now in the east and the north. There is military rule in these two provinces, each with a military governor, yes, I say they are military governors. With my army I will see that there is no repeated attempt to set up a different administration in these provinces.’

Several Members of Parliament then asked: ‘All over the country they are saying that you have acceded to the Federal request for a Federal State by sending the Tamils back to the north and east. The whole country is under the impression that before long they will exist as separate Tamil Federal States.’
Premier: ‘I will never allow that. I will never allow division of this country. What has happened is that the women and children who were living under very unsatis­factory and inconvenient conditions, have been sent, on their own wish, back to the north. That is all. There was no intention, nor is there any intention whatsoever, that the Government is helping, by this manner, the creation of a Federal or separate State.’
M.P. for Horana, Mr Sagara Palansuriya: ‘The Tamils are gaining strength in all parts of the country where they are. Is this Government going to stand for this nonsense? The Sinhalese are in danger of being liquidated by them.’
An M.P. identified as M.P. for Hambantota, Lakshman Rajapakse: ‘Destroy them!’

Premier: ‘Who said that? Are you seriously thinking that the Tamils must be destroyed? This Government has no such intention. I am surprised that there is such talk and stranger still such talk from the M.P. for Hambantota, who is wedded to a Tamil, for better or for worse—isn’t that so, Lakshman?’


Addressing the group sternly, the Premier said: ‘It is my intention that every inhabitant in this country should live in peace and harmony. It is my intention that we should live together as one brotherhood. I tell you as Prime Minister, I would be inhuman if I did not work for this, and I tell you again, as Prime Minister, this Government will work towards this end. My mind has been engaged on this problem and I have no doubt at all that the Government Parliamentary Group will co-operate in the fulfilling of this task.

‘I will further tell you that I intend appointing Advisory Councils for the north and the east to begin with.

‘Meanwhile the military will stay there until such time that the Government is convinced that they should be with­drawn.’
The Minister of Education, W. Dahanayake: ‘Do a de Gaulle. Do a de Gaulle.’ Another burst of applause from Government back-benchers.
The Government Group then passed a vote of apprecia­tion of the Premier on ‘the tactful way the entire situation had been handled’.
The resolution was moved by W. Dahanayake and seconded by the M.P. for Nattandiya, Hugh Fernando.
Members of Parliament then asked why certain persons had been detained by the police on mere suspicion. Many of ‘their men’ had been either arrested or detained with­out any grounds at all. There was considerable argument on this matter and many of them demanded that these persons in whom they were interested be released.
They asked whether any more persons were to be detained in the interests of security. There was considerable dis­satisfaction in their constituencies as a result of this action.
Further, they asked what assistance the Government would give to some of the constituents who had been injured during the recent events.
The Premier replied that a large number of persons had been rounded up and when the police were satisfied that they could be released, they would do so.
The third M.P. for Colombo Central, M. S. Themis, then complained that certain personnel in the army were ‘throwing their weight about’ and he asked that this be stopped.
Premier: ‘The army is doing a splendid job under very difficult conditions. I dare say there may be such cases. It cannot be helped under the circumstances.’

There is a vast gulf, however, between the spoken word and the bleak fact. Premier Bandaranaike had certainly assuaged the apprehensions of many members of his party but there was that vast, amorphous, mute but powerful body of militant Sinhalese opinion which he could not appease so easily. No verbal sops would satiate this racial monster. It had to be offered raw meat. Preparations were accordingly made to put the Federalists under detention. This gesture alone, it was decided, would be big enough to assuage the outraged racial feelings of the Sinhalese extremists.

Federalists Detained
As the emergency went into its second week the number of in­cidents became negligible, but tension still prevailed. Under­neath the superficial calm, made unearthly by the early curfew and the rigidity with which it was observed in Colombo and the suburbs, race feelings were still taut. There was general acclamation, however, for the efficiency and professional skill shown by the armed services in maintaining order.
The job they did looking after the refugees was magnificent. The refugee population in Colombo had grown to formidable proportions: 12,000 men, women and children of every ima­ginable walk of life were herded together in temporary camps - the bulk of them in Royal College. There were threats of an invasion by hoodlums in the night but the army threw such a heavy cordon round the place that the refugees were soon re­assured.
The Marketing Department kitchens supplied the food. Voluntary organizations managed the general welfare of the refugees. Under Colonel C. P. Jayawardene’s care the re­fugees had few complaints.
But race-hatred even sneaked into the refugee camps. One politician on a tour of inspection noticed a placard pinned over the door of a w.c. saying ‘Men’ in Tamil. He gave orders for the offending letters to be removed and the English equivalent to be substituted.

The social workers in Colombo too had caught the infection. Charitable organizations split down the middle of their mem­bership when some of the philanthropic ladies forgot the time-honoured dictum that Charity, like Peace, is indivisible. They objected to helping out at the Tamil refugee camps, preferring to wait until the Sinhalese refugees arrived from Jaffna before they gave their milk of human kindness a chance to flow in liberal measure. There was even discrimination in the food given to the Tamil refugees and the Sinhalese refugees when they finally arrived from Jaffna.

The Prime Minister never set foot in the Royal College camp for Tamil refugees, but he was one of the first callers at the Thurstan Road camp which accommodated the Sinhalese evacuees from Jaffna. Perhaps it was bad politics for Sinhalese politicians to be seen commiserating with Tamil refugees. Per­haps if they knew what the Tamils in the camps were feeling they would have felt warmer towards them in their plight. Ironically it was much safer for a Sinhalese politician to walk into the Tamil camps than it was for Tamil politicians—of whatever hue they were.
The general reaction among the refugees whenever they saw a Tamil M.P. was: ‘Look! See the mess you’ve got us into with your blundering ambitions. Why can’t you leave us alone even now?’
One Tamil politician, well known for his powers of inter­cession at high levels, was so badly mobbed when he visited the Royal College camp that the army had to fire in the air to break up the mélee.
Even the proscription of the Federal Party did not serve to make martyrs of the Federalists and save their cause. The atti­tude of the refugees towards them spread among their relatives and eventually through most of the peninsula. The Tamil people found themselves, perhaps for the first time, without a leader or a sense of direction. They only wanted to be left alone to lick their wounds and plan their pitiful future.
The Federal Party found itself in a political abyss. At the General Election it had been returned with no less enthusiasm than that which the MEP had inspired in Sinhalese areas. It had therefore considerable claims to represent a substantial section of Tamil interests. Premier Bandaranaike had acknow­ledged this when he entered into negotiations with the party’s leader, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, and had signed the Pact which bound all the Tamil interests to the Federal Party’s programme.

The delay in the implementation of the Pact had drained away a great deal of popular strength from the Federal Party. They needed an issue desperately in order to stay in the spot­light. This was one of the reasons for the anti-Sri campaign de­scribed earlier: a campaign begun against the wishes of Chel­vanayakam, which had proved futile. The issue was too patently insubstantial to rouse any real popular fervour in the north—but it certainly succeeded in provoking the retaliatory tar-brush campaign against Tamil signs in the south. Federal Party prestige had fallen very low by April 1958. It rose a few points when the B—C Pact was torn up by Premier Bandara­naike and the Party became the martyred victims of Premier Bandaranaike’s political manoeuvres, but this trend ceased abruptly when the riots began.

Tamils who had never taken an active role in politics suf­fered so much physically and spiritually that they began blaming their plight on the Federal Party.

The Prime Minister had made a very shrewd assessment of this situation when he decided on the bold step of proscribing the Federal Party on May 27. Many people expected a swing of sympathy towards the Federalists but it did not materialize. Moreover there were many Tamils, like Tamil Congressman G. G. Ponnam­balam, who had preached communalism for fifteen years, and were only too ready to wag an I-told-you-so finger at the Federalists.

Only one shred of prestige still remained—the indestructible reputation for integrity that Federal Leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam had earned. Even in the face of such an over­whelming adversity, this reputation held.


On June 4 he had stood up in the House, his body bent, his face creased with the horror he had seen. At the refugee camp he had broken down and wept. Even the Sinhalese extremists in the Government Party who had demanded the extermina­tion of the Tamils during the previous night were moved to give him a patient hearing.
But he was arguing from a pathetically futile brief and even his client had forsaken him. He found he was defending him­self and the Federal Party who were being indicted by the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese. But one point which he made was vital to any serious evaluation of the cause of the riots. He placed on record his conviction that the murder of D. A. Sene­viratne in Batticaloa had no connection with the race-riots. It was a ‘private’ murder committed at the instigation of Sene­viratne’s personal enemies.

Little did Chelvanayakam or his colleagues suspect that be­hind the Prime Minister’s glasses his eyes were twinkling with dramatic irony. The House adjourned that night at about 10 p.m. As the Federal Party M.P.s left the premises they were accosted by the police and placed under house detention. Chelvanayakam and Party Secretary Dr E. M. V. Nagana­than were held incommunicado in their homes in Kollupitiya. Those who had no homes in Colombo were detained at the Galle Face Hotel ,on the second floor, overlooking the swim­ming pool.

The Federalist leaders arrested were: S. J. V. Chel­vanayakam (Kankesanturai), Dr E. M. V. Naganathan, V. A. Kandiah (Kayts), Dr V. K. Paramanayagam, V. N. Na-. varatnam (Chavakachcheri), N. R. Rajavarothiam (Trin­comalee), C. Vanniasingham (Kopay), C. Rajadurai (Batti­caloa) and A. Amirthalingam (Vaddukoddai).
The demand for their arrest made by members of the Government Group the previous night had been answered. Fifty-two other Federal Party members, including a few Mus­lims, were arrested and placed under detention in Jaffna, Batticaloa and Mannar. The arrests continued to pile up to the impressive figure of I5o. Premier Bandaranaike was ex­periencing the heady taste of absolute power for the first time. The arrest of the Federalists was a smooth operation.

But its slickness was marred by the failure of the Government to give the same treatment to the members of the other proscribed party—the Sinhalese leaders of the Jatika Vimukti Peramuna. This operation took place a week later when K. M. P. Raja­ratne was put under house arrest at Kotte.


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