Emergency '58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots



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Rural Reactions
With the Federal Leaders under arrest and the refugees re­moved from the danger zone, community life quickly began to return to normality, or so it seemed on the surface. But the re­fugee camps were murky reservoirs of terror and tension, which continued to pollute the entire atmosphere. They were an ugly symbol of national degeneration. The refugee population, both Tamil and Sinhalese, was soon exchanged as hostages of war would be exchanged. This eased the tension immediately so that judging only from superficial appearances things seemed to be settling down. The normality, however, was illusory.
It had been paid for at an exorbitant price by the people in terms of personal and civil liberties. The outward calm that now pre­vailed enabled people to look back and count the cost. What they found was terrifying. The country was being governed under martial law although martial law had not been pro­claimed. Parliament had been forced virtually to abdicate authority to the Governor-General in his role as Commander-in-Chief.
New laws had been passed and old laws protecting the citi­zens’ rights had been suspended with draconian ruthlessness. The ferocity of the new and unprecedented press censorship laws has already been described.
One by one the fundamental rights of the citizens were re­morselessly stripped away. The authority of the Courts to inter­cede in any injustice done against a citizen was removed. Actions taken by the Government and its agents were decreed to be above the law. The right to appeal against harsh or un­fair treatment was taken away without so much as by your

leave. The Government decreed that it was not answerable to anyone in the land: no reason need be given for any of its decisions or acts.

Even the right to life was wrested from the citizen by fiat. A new law proclaimed under amendment on June 30 permitted any officer delegated by the Government to bury a dead body without an inquest, witnesses or even the most perfunctory record. Certain officials were quick to take advantage of their absolute power in order to settle old scores. No one will ever know how many people were speedily despatched in this way, no questions asked.

On the very first day of the emergency the three writs— Habeas Corpus, Mandamus and a Certiorari—which protect the citizen against unlawful or unconscionable action of the State were suspended. Repressive measures were decreed by the mere say-so of the Governor-General and the Prime Minister, and these were applied with a remorselessness unprecedented even in the worst days of World War Two anywhere in the world except in Fascist Europe.

There was one good result which followed from the very harshness of the new laws: people who had taken the benefits of democracy for granted because they had been given demo­cratic forms and privileges without their ever having to fight for them, began to learn to value consciously what they had lost. There was a noticeable change of attitude towards totali­tarian politics and politicians who advocated anti-democratic measures. Many Ceylonese who had watched apathetically, disinterestedly, cynically or fatalistically while the gospel of totalitarianism was spreading far, wide and deep, began to ask awkward questions. They had received their first real taste of a police state and found it too bitter and harsh for their palate. Extremism of all forms—racial, religious or political—was questioned and objected to more often and more vehemently than ever before.
In the Sinhalese rural areas two attitudes were dominant. The ‘People’s’ Government had let them down by taking such harsh, punitive steps against the Sinhalese who, they pointed out with considerable cogency, were only continuing along the logical course that had been set by Premier Bandaranaike him­self when he made ‘Sinhala Only’ his campaign cry.
The other complaint was that emergency regulations such as the curfew ruined business. Vegetable farmers, for instance, were driven to desperate straits when dealers stopped buying because the curfew was driving their usual customers home early. The paddy farmers and the betel growers who are accus­tomed to start work before dawn cursed with increasing venom as the curfew continued.
There were the odd incidents, too, which heightened people’s animosity towards the totalitarian regulations under which they were living.

In the North-Western Province an angry delegation came to Colombo to meet their M.P. They told a pressman that they wanted him to resign from the Government and cross to the Opposition. Their reason? It was a piquant story.

A man in their village was bitten by a deadly snake just after dusk. Two of his relatives ran four miles to fetch a snake-bite specialist. The three men hurried back but the curfew caught them halfway. A police patrol arrested them and placed them in the lock-up for the night. Their pleas were of no avail be­cause the police had no authority under the new regulations to let them off or bail them out. When they returned home the next morning they found that the patient was dead. Anger at the police mounted as the story spread in the district. Finally they had decided that this was but a symptom of a general malaise and had come to Colombo to place their point of view before their M.P. The M.P. concerned was, somehow, not available that day.
Human stories like this were proliferating rapidly. It be­came plain that the tension that had preceded the riots was being wound up again—but against the police state practices adopted to quell the disturbances.
Why did it happen?
The most persistent and most prickly questions were: what had been the cause of the communal troubles? Had they been organized or had they occurred spontaneously without any drive or direction from anyone? The short answer to the first question is that the cause of the communal troubles must be sought in time, circumstances and events far removed from the riots of 1958. The short answer to the second question:
‘Were the riots organized or spontaneous?’ is that the truth lies somewhere between those two explanations.

To expect a simple answer or a single explanation of the events that occurred in May and June would be to presuppose that human beings act rationally and purposefully even when their behaviour is actually sub-human. But from general observation of the forces that operate and events that take place when there are substantial minorities in a country, it is possible to say that the common factor which has been present in race conflicts wherever they have occurred, is discernible in the context of Ceylon as well: the pressure of an economic challenge from the minority on the majority.

Underneath the complexity of events and crises it is this common economic factor that motivates the application of the principle of apartheid in South Africa, and the anti-Jewish attitudes in the West. An illuminating example has been the increasing reluctance in Britain towards the employment of Commonwealth immigrants. The United Kingdom has always shown a much more liberal attitude towards Commonwealth immigrants than the dominions have shown to Britons. But with the threat of the American recession hitting Britain after the usual time-lag there has been a noticeable change of ‘Commonwealth’ consciousness. The huge influx of West Indians in Britain and the fear that British industry would have to retrench have been among the causes of the increasing complaints by ‘coloured’ visitors of unprecedented discrimina­tion against them.
The same factor is at the bottom of the racial disturbances in Ceylon. This is more clearly seen in the open economic war­fare that has been waged between the Kandyans and the Indian immigrant labour population on the tea estates. The Kandyan peasantry, through its articulate representatives, has been pressing for ten years for the repatriation of Indian

labourers so that the Kandyans may fill the vacancies on the estates.


A study of the speeches of most Sinhalese politicians who denounced the Bandaranaike—Chelvanayakam Pact would bear out the fact that the fear that activated their successful struggle was the possibility that the Indian immigrant labourers, numbering over 1,000,000 and the Ceylon Tamils, numbering about the same, would form a powerful alliance with which they could retain economic control of the island.
Even Dudley Senanayake’s speeches against the B—C Pact were based on his avowed antipathy towards allocating the potential economic resources of the North-Central and Eastern Provinces to a separate racial group in perpetuity as contem­plated under the Pact.

This economic pressure—the fear of being elbowed out of employment and business—played a substantial part in the race hatred that came to a crisis in 1958. When ‘liberal minded’ people speak nostalgically of the glorious past of forty to fifty years ago when the Sinhalese and the Tamil leaders such as Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan fought shoulder to shoulder with Sinhalese like F. R. Senanay­ake and Burghers like Sir Hector Van Cuylenburg, they rarely ask themselves the question that must logically follow. What is the difference between then and now? The answer to this question will indicate the real issue at the bottom of the race troubles.

Thirty years ago, or, for that matter, ten years ago, the Sin­halese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers of Ceylon meant the same thing when they spoke of Independence, Freedom, and National Culture. They spoke of being independent of foreign control in managing Ceylon’s affairs, or of freedom from dictation by Whitehall or of an indigenous culture decayed by antiquity and ill-use but uncontaminated by Western modes and forms which had dominated South and South-East Asia for four hundred years.
The Sinhalese and the Tamil peasantry had never mixed or met. The large masses of the two populations lived in separate concentrations—the Sinhalese in the south and west and the Tamils in the north and east. Of course in almost every Sinhalese village and certainly in every town there have always been Tamils, but they were there for the specific purpose of running a kiosk or provision store or pawn-broker’s shop. Or they were public officials employed by the Central Govern­ment or local authority.
Likewise, in predominantly Tamil districts, there were Sinhalese who had drifted there for specific purposes, though in much smaller numbers than the Tamils in the Sinhalese areas. This is easily explained by the fact that there were more economic opportunities in the rela­tively fertile provinces in which the Sinhalese predominated.
The physical separation of the large mass of Sinhalese and Tamils was a major factor in the prevention of racial rivalry for many hundred years. The Sinhalese and the Tamils were also insulated by the vast forests and the scrub wastes that lie between the concentrations of population.

In ancient times it was otherwise. When the Sinhalese Kingdom was centred in Anuradhapura, the proximity of the Sinhalese to the Tamils in the north provided the ideal setting for race warfare, and the agrarian wealth of the region provided the motivation for the economic competitiveness that inevitably led to open conflict. There was constant conflict between the two elements. But when the forest swept over this region and the centres of gravity of the population moved to­wards Kandy and the West Coast, separating the two major races, their internecine rivalry died down.

Looking at recent events from this point of view, it is not surprising that the clearing of the jungles and the resettlement of people in contiguous racial groups in the North-Central Pro­vince led to a re-awakening of the old fires of communal con­flict. The tension and terrorism at Padaviya, Polonnaruwa, Hingurakgoda and Dambulla seem to contain an element of historical inevitability.
Middle Class Tensions
The majority of the Sinhalese and Tamils, as we have seen, never mixed in sizeable concentrations. But while the Sin­halese and Tamil peasants were separated physically, linguisti­cally and economically from each other, the middle classes, the white-collar groups, merged freely in Colombo and the bigger towns, living side by side, working in the same social and economic fields, competing with each other for jobs, in trade and for supremacy in sport. The social and cultural atmosphere in which they were reared tended to blur the racial division between them.
They spoke in English to each other and to their employers. They assimilated Western culture with much greater facility than almost any other Orientals did. At school they studied British and European history. Very little, if any, Ceylon history was taught in the schools. When an ‘educated’ Ceylonese used a phrase such as ‘the extravagance of the sixteenth century’ he was not talking about the era of Buvaneka Bahu VII of Ceylon, but of Elizabethan England. He knew more about the battles of the first Duke of Marlborough than about Ceylon’s war against the Portuguese.
His values were minted abroad in British public schools. The liberalism and humanism of the English Universities was absorbed by him with the same ease as such essentially British phenomena as cricket and rugby football.

Against this background of tolerance it was easy to practise a kind of facile laissez faire in social and cultural affairs. A man was every bit as good as his neighbour if he had been to the same school or at least one of the other five public schools. As long as a man’s table manners, conversation, clubmanship and general background were all right his race, caste and even his origins and financial status could be ignored. Racial integra­tion was widespread and deep in the professions, in trade, in the public service and in sport, but however faint the line of demarcation was, it continued to exist in private relationships.

However liberal and ‘broadminded’ people were, very few of them could bear to contemplate the possibility of their sons or daughters marrying ‘out of’ race. This barrier was of course reinforced by the continuation of caste considerations in marriage. Moreover there was a notable difference between the middle-class English-educated Sinhalese and his Tamil counter­part.
Most Sinhalese who received an English education and adopted Western manners and values as though to the manner born, did so neglecting and even scorning their own traditions, language and forms. Most Tamils, on the other hand, skilfully balanced the two roles. In Colombo or in London they tried to be model Westernized ‘gentlemen’, wearing the correct dress with calculated casualness, speaking the correct tongue with cultivated allusiveness and careful avoidance of the distinctive accent of the denizens of the north.
But, unlike the English-educated Sinhalese they preferred to live closer to their traditional soil. They slipped with accomplished grace from their European clothes into their verti and shawl. How­ever deep their new roots in Colombo may have run they found no difficulty in being cosmopolitan braves in Colombo, and peninsular Tamils when they went to Jaffna (which was quite often, since most Tamils maintained their traditional habitats in their ‘villages’ in the north and the east). And, most significant of all, the average English-educated Tamil was more conscious of his religious tradition than his Sinhalese friends and colleagues were.
Despite this underlying divergence of attitude, the middle classes were able to mix freely and amicably as long as they did not clash in economic competition. While there were employment opportunities in the public and mercantile services for clerks, accountants, junior field officers and executives, middle-class race relations were ideal.

But, by the end of the war and at about the time when Ceylon became politically independent, the pressure on employment began to mount. Thousands who had been employed in war-time service were demobilized and sought employment in the public services or in private firms. Every year the Free schools were turning out tens of thousands of young men and women desperately anxious to earn a living to help their parents out or to start a life of their own. Unfortunately there was no corresponding increase in jobs in the mercantile world or in the Government or municipal services. By 1950 these services were saturated with personnel. The school system had been devised by the British to produce clerks by the hundred. It continued to do so al­though no one wanted clerks any more. There were—and

are - opportunities for technically skilled youths, but the education system does not provide facilities for technical training.

For the Tamils, the public service and the mercantile services had long been the principal means of earning a liveli­hood. Lacking the relatively vast acres of arable land enjoyed by the Sinhalese, they had turned to white-collar jobs for their economic salvation. Almost every Tamil family concentrated on getting their sons—and if possible their daughters—into the Government or mercantile service. They made an aim of it and when they achieved the aim they made a career of it.
They had certain distinct advantages in their pursuit of public service jobs. Jaffna has, per head of population, much better educational opportunities than the rest of Ceylon. Foreign missions had established schools in Jaffna many decades ago and had given the people of Jaffna a tradition of schooling.
Moreover, the Tamil boy is relatively more diligent than the Sinhalese—like the Jew in the West, he has to be to exist. The result was that Tamils did extremely well in public examinations and were able to get the jobs they were qualified to do.
By 1950 the shrinking of employment opportunities became acute. ‘Educated’ unemployment was on the rise and many of these youths, frustrated and articulate, were beginning to join the Marxist parties which gave them promise of jobs and a better standard of living. The Government of the day was fumbling in a futile manner against these problems, expecting people to live on promises of sunshine tomorrow or the next day but never today.
The Sinhalese, being greater in numbers, cried loudest against the Government’s apathy but when they looked about them, many of them saw that if the Tamils were not in the public and mercantile services there would be very much more room for the Sinhalese.

There were politicians ready to encourage this brand of thinking and they lost no time in building this race-awareness into a more erosive force. It began to be widely believed that the Tamils occupied an average of about 6o per cent of the places in the public service. Whenever responsible Cabinet Ministers made this statement it acquired a great deal of credibility.

Indeed, when people examined the race composition of certain sections of the Public Works Department or the Audit Department, the charge that there had been some deliberate ‘packing’ of Tamils in the public service was difficult to refute. Certain Government departments had a large percentage of Tamil personnel. There is no doubt that there was a certain amount of place-fixing and promotion-mongering among the Tamils employed in the public service. This is not unusual, for wherever minorities work they have a tendency to strengthen themselves numerically whenever the opportunity arises.
There is, however, no way of estimating how much of these charges is true. No reliable count has been taken of the racial composition of the Government services. But one fact is certain from common observation: the theory that 6o, 50 or even 40 per cent of the public service is composed of Tamils is patently false. What lends credence to this false impression is the fact mentioned above—the abnormal concentrations of Tamils in particular Government departments.
The most serious mistake that a minority which wishes to he regarded as an integral part of a nation can make is to attract avoidable attention. Huddling together in tight enclaves is perhaps the most dangerous of these mistakes. It is an observ­able fact in the history of racial conflict that ghetto walls are generally built from the inside. This exclusivity hardly ever provokes the envy of people but it always attracts notice and hostility. The Tamil colony in Wellawatte had long been an object of critical and derisive notice among communal-minded Sinhalese in Colombo. When this colony, overcrowded as it was, spread further south into Ratmalana which was fast developing with the widening of the Galle Road and the improvement of the bus services, the derision turned into alarm.

The residents of Ratmalana saw justification for the forebodings of the extremist Sinhalese politicians when they found that this area which had been traditionally a Sinhalese residential district was rapidly becoming colonized by new Tamil settlers. The establishment of an exclusively Tamil college and the increasingly large proportion of Tamils in the new housing estates caused them to wonder whether Ratmalana was becoming a ‘Little Jaffna’. It is not a matter for wonder, therefore, that during the riots the worst damage in the Colombo area was done in Wellawatte and Ratmalana.

Perhaps, to round off this observation, it should be added that there are psychological reasons for this tendency to huddle together in little groups. People with mutual interests, common relatives, similar social and religious habits naturally tend to congregate. It is for these reasons that Ceylonese and Indians traveling 7,000 miles to see London , generally choose to live in Earls Court, now sometimes called ‘Little India’ by British people. Chinatown, Harlem, the Jewish Quarter and the ‘Europeans Only’ residential districts in the East and Africa are all evidence of this natural desire to find comfort in numbers. But this exclusivity is achieved at a price. It attracts unwelcome attention.
No one troubled to investigate whether the charge was true, partially true or false, but many Sinhalese—outside the public service rather than within it—came to believe that the Tamils had formed a secret conspiracy to take control of Colombo and the administration of the country by sinister infiltration.
This charge was widely publicized among Sinhalese speaking people by various propaganda devices. The result was that although the racialist feelings of many middle—class Sinhalese were kept in control by their habit of restraint, goondas broke out in violence against the Tamil officials as soon as the riots broke out in Polonnaruwa and Colombo.
On the very first day of the communal clashes in Colombo the goondas directed their activities against the Tamil public and mercantile clerks who were returning home after a day’s work. Many of the buildings that were burnt in the Ratmalana area belonged to Tamil public servants or pensioners. The heaviest attacks seemed to be on them.
This is what first led the police and the Governor-General to suspect that some organization was behind the race-riots, inviting the goondas and directing their operations.

There could be little doubt that there was organization behind the riots in certain areas—particularly Ratmalana, Polonnaruwa, Kurunegala and Badulla. But who was it? Was it one organization or many? The Government’s intelligence machinery proved to be quite inadequate to provide an answer for these questions. They had little more than hunches and post-rationalizations to justify their theories. The proba­bility, however, was that the riots which had broken out according to the pattern we have seen, provided an opportunity for many groups ready to fish for power in troubled waters.

An observation made by Deputy Inspector-General of Police (Range Two) Sidney de Zoysa at the police officers’ secret conference of June 13, though extravagant, confirms this view. This is the relevant part of the official minutes of that meeting.
Who is the Master Brain?
D.I.G., C.I.D., said that he was not prepared to answer that question. DIG. Range Two, said that, talking of his Range at least, he could see the hand of the NLSSP in some places and at others that of the VLSSP, the CP, the UNP and even the MEP!’
It is surprising that an officer of such experience and acumen should have left out the Federal Party and the Jatika Vimukti Peramuna (the two banned parties) from his reckoning. The explanation for this discrepancy is surely that he was talking in broad, general terms to convey his impression that politicians covering the entire gamut from Right to Left had tried to turn the situation to their own advantage.
The communal fires spread so fast and furiously that no one was able to harness their power and direct its spread to­wards any particular goal. Among the political parties the heaviest losers were those of the MEP. People began to react sharply against the military rule that had suddenly been imposed on them. Many people who had whooped for sheer joy when the United National Party had been trounced in 1956 were heard to remark nostalgically that ‘whatever his faults, Sir John would not have permitted things to get into such a muddle’.

The Government was aware of this reaction and took every opportunity to discredit the UNP and blame the riots on the communalist elements in that party. Never­theless it was clear that the tremendously popular hold that the MEP had on the people two years ago had been violently broken by the same vocal elements that had brought this party to such an overwhelming triumph against the mighty UNP at the 1956 General Election.


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