Emergency '58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots


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The Rule of Law
How had this come about? The process by which the MEP found itself in this situation in 1958 is evident in the pattern of the events we have seen. The spinal column of the body poli­tic is LAW; shatter this or damage it seriously and the entire body becomes paralysed. Respect for the law among the people makes for order, without which no government is pos­sible, so that it is the business of the rulers, from the point of view of self-preservation as well as public duty, to enforce the law whenever it is blatantly flouted. In order to maintain order the Government is empowered to use a police force, a civil administration and, at times of extraordinary disturbance, a military arm. Any government that destroys the authority of these services and whips up the suspicion and hatred of the people against them is surely undermining its own strength.
An incident which occurred at the first meeting of the new Parliament gave a clear sign of things to come. There was great enthusiasm when the MEP Government came trium­phantly to the House of Representatives to start the task of bringing the new millennium into being. The crowd stormed the council chamber, clambering over the benches and even sitting on the Speaker’s chair. When the police had tried to block them, they had been ordered to ‘Let the People have their way’. The crowd jeered and hooted at the police. In­spectors and constables looked on shamefacedly while they got their first glimpse of the Apey Aanduwa mentality in action.

Before a month was out some Ministers, still riding high on the wave of popular acclaim, were denouncing the police from public platforms, flinging vile allegations at them and accusing them of being politically opposed to the People’s Government. The crowds loved it, like children watching the Headmaster ticking off the class teacher in their presence.

When the Gal Oya riots of 1956 broke out a few months later the police were already demoralized. Until Deputy In­spector-General of Police Sydney de Zoysa went there and threatened to arrest even Cabinet Ministers if they incited the mob to violence, the politicians made inflammatory speeches against police action.
In Colombo, on that occasion, the police looked on or looked the other way when Tamils were beaten up on the street hardly a hundred yards away from the House of Parlia­ment. They did not move a finger when hoodlums stripped a Federalist politician and chased him all the way across the Galle Face green to the hotel. Police explained that they had been ordered not to interfere.
Soon after the shine had worn off the new Government a series of strikes began all over the country. In two years Ceylon was to experience over 400 strikes. The police were under orders not to interfere with the demonstrators so that the demonstrators were able to break all the laws of peaceful picketing with impunity. The police looked on shamefacedly while rotten eggs or tomatoes and red ink were thrown at staff officers and non-union members who refused to strike.
Politicians rode into police stations and demanded the im­mediate release of this or that suspect, held for questioning or production before a magistrate. They usually had their way.

Things came to such a pass that the Prime Minister had to make a public appeal to the police to remember that the new ruling party was composed of immature politicians who needed time to get used to their position of vantage. But it was not the new men who were making the most trouble. Seasoned campaigners who had suffered at the hands of the police when they were in Opposition were also getting their own back.

The Apey Aanduwa complex spread through the island and deep into the instincts of the mischief-maker and the hoodlums. Their brashness was reinforced by the knowledge that the death penalty had been abolished: the thought that they would not have to swing for it whatever violence they com­mitted was a great source of strength to them.

The manufacture of hand-bombs and other deadly missiles became a widespread cottage industry. The law and its arm, the police, were becoming increasingly hopeless and helpless at the time of the big strikes and the race-riots of May and June.
Politicians were able to get away with major offences without any fear of prosecution. On the contrary they stood a good chance of being nominated as ‘heroes'.
In April 1958 police received information that a major re­ligious conflict was brewing in the Maradana area over the building of a new Catholic Church. The Assistant Superin­tendent of Police of Maradana, A. C. Lawrence, had to place a guard at the church to prevent trouble. The Government’s way of dealing with the situation was to transfer the A.S.P. to another station in order to ‘assuage’ the people who were threatening trouble.
At the police officers’ conference held on June 13 to discuss the emergency the beaten-dog whine of the police is unmis­takable. The fear of political reprisals, such as commissions of inquiry and dismissals, weighed heavily on their minds and the thought of the horrors they had witnessed due to the inac­tivity imposed on them weighed heavily on their conscience as human beings and as trained policemen.
This official verbatim record of that meeting is self-explana­tory.
Secret Proceedings of the Conference held at Police Headquarters

On Friday, 13 June 1958


Mr. S. W. O. de Silva, O.B.E., Inspector-General of Police (in the Chair) C. C. Dissanayaka, Deputy Inspector-General Range One, S.G. de Zoysa, Deputy Inspector-General Range Two, Mr. W. A. R. Leembruggen, Deputy Inspector-General Admin., S.A. Dissanayaka, Deputy Inspector-General Criminal Investigation Department, D.C. T. Pate, Deputy Inspector-General Emergency.

C. P. Wambeek R. Rajasingham
D. S. E. P. R. Senanayake J. F. B. Johnpulle
W. E. C.Jebanasan V. O. L. Potger
T. H. Kelaart N. W. Weerasinghe
H. K. Vanden Driesen J. A. Selvaratnam
R. E. Kitto S. K. Iyer
J. A. A. Perera S. T. Thuraisingham
J. W. L. Attygalle C. L. O. Conderlag
B. W. Perera T. B. Danapala
J. M. H. Toussaint F. H. de Saram
B. C. Wijemanne A. H. F. Caldera
L. H. Bibile S. D. Chandrasinghe
H. R. Hepponstall A. D. Rodrigo
I. D. M. Van Twest G.Jayasinghe
R. A. Stork A. C. Lawrence
D. S. Thambyah D. S. S. Jayatilleke
A.J. Rajasooriya L. D. C. Herath
The IG said that he summoned this Conference to hold a post-mortem on police attitudes and action in connection with the recent disturbances but not for the purpose of fault-finding with any individual officer. The first phase, he said, was over and there may or may not be a second or a third phase. It was, however, best to hold a post-mortem on the first phase to find out whether the police had slipped up and, if so, how, in order that the necessary steps may be taken to prevent a repe­tition of the same mistakes in similar circumstances in the future.
He said that the criticism most frequently leveled against the police was that at the early stages police were not sufficiently firm in their actions and that even after the emer­gency was declared, somehow or other, the police allowed things to drift by not tackling looting and other acts of hooli­ganism promptly and with sufficient force, with the result that things got worse.

Even before the emergency there were re­quests from practically all districts for the assistance of army units and this, the 1G. said, was not a good sign at all. The police had about the same equipment as the army and also greater numerical strength. There was, therefore, no reason why the police should not have relied on their own resources in the first instance and called in the army only after all pos­sible action had been taken but still found that police resources were insufficient.

The IG. said that Mr C. C. Dissanayaka had prepared a few points for discussion and he called upon Mr Dissanayaka to mention them.
Mr Dissanayaka confirmed that this conference was not meant to find fault with anyone. He, however, cautioned that in the course of the post-mortem some hard facts may have to be stated, but they should not be taken as a reflection on any officer personally. It was in that spirit that officers should enter the discussion.
He said that although there were several matters which merited consideration he had selected only the following be­cause they were, by far, the most vital:
1.Was police ineffectiveness due to any weakness at the top, at the centre or at the bottom, i.e. bad officering or leadership, weakness in the inspectorate or weakness in the constabulary?
2.Were the police splitting up into racial groups, reli­gious groups or any other groups?
3.Was the studied inactivity of the police, specially on the 26th of May, due to their acting on instructions from anybody or were the police in sympathy with the thugs or with any other movement, or due to any other cause?
4.The Colombo Division opened fire five times, but no one was hit.
5.What was this new tendency, and how did it arise, of repeated requests being made from all parts of the country for the military and everybody saying that no action was being taken as they were awaiting orders? Orders from whom? The law was quite clear as also were the Firing Orders!
6.There had been allegations, some true, about:
(i) thieving by the police and

(ii) police actively conniving when looting was actually going on in the presence of the police.

7. Should the ‘Take Posts’ scheme be re-introduced?
8. Was the trouble caused by outside gangs or by local thugs? Who organized them? Who led them?

9. Was the trouble over or had the police seen only the shape of things to come?

10. Let us not bluff ourselves. Let us at least be honest by the service and not make excuses such as that police inac­tivity was due to:

(i) fear of commissions or

(ii) the Prime Minister’s orders.
11. The police system of collecting intelligence had miserably failed. How could this be rectified? Or were the other organizations becoming cleverer than the police?
12.How was police morale? How could it be stepped up in order to keep the police as one undivided, efficient and effective unit?
Item No. 1
Mr Kitto said that police morale had hit the very bottom— that the men were just dispirited and that they had confidence neither in themselves nor in their officers. The officers in turn felt that they were being let down by Headquarters like a ton of bricks, even when they acted in accordance with the law. This was what he had been able to gather from a number of officers. He however, wished to make it quite clear that neither he nor the officers were referring to either the I.G. personally or to any particular officer at Headquarters, but rather to the present H.Q. set-up in general.
The I.G. said that if officers entertained such a fear it was unfounded. He quoted several instances to prove conclusively that he never for once hesitated to stand by the Service and by the officers, even at the risk of incurring the displeasure of the Prime Minister or jeopardizing his own position as 1G. The DIG. and some of the other officers knew it.

It was therefore wrong for the officers to feel that their superiors at H.Q. were prepared to sacrifice them in order to curry favour with the powers-that-be, merely because the 1G. had to carry out some unreasonable order such as the transfer of an officer or the release of some miscreants arrested by the police, etc., etc. He wished to assure all present that he was convinced that hardly any of his predecessors would have done what he had done to stand so firmly by the Service and by the officers. If in the future a sacrifice had to be made for their sake, he said that he would be the first to face the music as in fact, up to now, he had been the one who had had to take in all the shocks.

Referring to the recent transfer of Mr. A. C. Lawrence, D.I. G. Range One said that the move was vehemently opposed by H. Q. although unsuccessfully and that beyond that there was little or nothing they could do. Such cases should not, however, lead officers to think that they generally lacked the backing and the support of Headquarters.
Mr. Wijemanne said that possibly one reason for police not acting as fairly as they should have done may be the admoni­tion to ‘use tact’ contained in the order that went out from H.Q. on the declaration of the State of Emergency. He said that perhaps this admonition might have acted as a brake on certain officers who might have acted differently otherwise. This view was shared by several other officers present.
The IG. explained that the real purpose in inserting this harmless clause was to convince the authorities, Parliamen­tarians and Commissions, in the event of the police being later called upon to explain some of their actions that, in spite of the Emergency, the police did not go berserk but acted with firmness and restraint.
[A Superintendent of Police] said that he was personally aware of the extent to which the 1G. had gone to stand by his officers and the Service with no consideration whatsoever for personal repercussions. He felt that the fault lay not with H.Q. but with the Prime Minister who did not permit the police to do a job of work as it should be done.
He referred to the case where he was ordered to move out some police pickets who had been man­ning certain points for a number of days and who, in the pro­cess, had got to know very well the local thugs—the reason for the order being that these pickets were getting rather ‘trigger’ minded whereas the real reason was that, in the event of a show-down, these pickets could easily identify the trouble­makers.

The net result of this unnecessary interference was that when the balloon actually went up the new pickets had no idea of the local ne’er-do-wells and could neither control them effectively nor identify them when they created trouble.

D.I.G. Admin said that his view in regard to inactivity by the police when compared with the army, was that the police probably thought further ahead and realized that they had to be on the scene doing patrols, manning beats, etc., even after the army had withdrawn, and due to their morale having been so badly shattered during the past months, they were compelled to adopt the line of least resistance so that they may not have to face an unfriendly public when conditions reverted to nor­mal and they had to be on their own once again.
DIG. Range Two felt that it was certainly the wrong way to look at it. When the occasion so demanded it, the police had to enforce the law without fear or favour, and the Police Ordinance itself was very clear about the manner cowardly police officers were to be dealt with.
It was because of this and in appreciation of the risks to which they were exposed that very handsome terms of compensation had been promised. If they could not carry out their duties as they ought to, it was better for the relevant section to be cut out of the Police Or­dinance and also give up the claims for enhanced compensa­tion. There was no point, he said, in the police taking action only when they were attacked or when their police stations or homes were attacked, and doing nothing when other people’s persons or property were attacked or looted as the case may be.
Item No. 2
DIG. C.I.D. said that in a service of eight thousand-odd men there were bound to be some officers who were in support of various movements, but generally speaking, he felt that the Service was together and non-sectarian.
DIG. Admin. referred to an incident at one station where certain disruptive elements were at work, and how prompt action was taken to transfer the men concerned. He said that in all such instances prompt and firm action was imperative.

DIG. Range Two said that these were days which called for more and more contact between officers and their OICC Stations, and between OICC. Stations and their men with a view to binding the Service together, apprising the rank and file of the dangers of the psychological warfare going on every­where and which might eventually even affect the Service, and boosting up morale to the highest pitch by way of insulating against the disruptive forces at work. That was the only way of keeping the brotherhood of the Service alive.

Item No 3
Mr Wijemanne referred to May 26 when assaults on Tamils and looting were going on before the very eyes of the police officers on duty near the Fort Railway Station, but who did nothing about it saying that their instructions were to be near the railway station.
DIG. Range Two said that the Service had reached a stage when it was no longer prepared to carry out orders blindly from anybody and that if it was necessary for the police to act in directions convenient to the authorities, the senior officers at H.Q. would be the first to walk out with the rest. He quoted that D.I.G. Range One had made the position quite clear to the highest authorities.
DIG. Admin. said that the police were apt to feel that the military would act as they liked and even run the show on occasions. It was not so. The army should work under the police and the police must see to it that the army did not be­have as they wanted.
The I.G. said that whether there was an emergency or not, when the army went out to a district the S.P. or the ASP. should assume command and it was his business to tell the army what to do and when precisely action was needed.
Item No. 4
The 1G. said that the police must once and for all get out of their heads the question of firing in the air or over the heads of mobs. The experience of every country was that it was worse than not firing at all.
D.I.G. Range Two said that this tendency might possibly be due to a feeling of ‘oneness’ created between the police and the thugs as a result of the latter winning over the goodwill of the police by openly declaring that they were with the police and would not permit any harm befalling them. This was an in­sidious way of getting round the police and the men should be duly warned against this line of approach.

Item No. 5

It was agreed that hereafter the army should be called in only if they were absolutely necessary. It was felt that if the police were firm from the word go the need to call in the army would seldom arise.
D.I.G. Range Two said that the army was doing a good job of work in the present emergency and that in a way they were helping the police to get to the top once again, but the great thing was that once the police got to the top, it should be pos­sible for the police to maintain that position and to be able to tell the army to stand-by.
Item No. 6
D.I.G. Range One said that there were some true cases of thieving and also aiding and abetting of looting by the police and it was up to officers to see that this was never again re­peated; all those detected should be most severely dealt with.
Item No. 7
The I.G. asked officers to consider the feasibility of reviving the ‘Take Posts’ scheme as it had been very effective in the past.
Mr. Vanden Driesen said that patrolling by mobile armed parties would be more effective than ‘Take Posts’.
D.I.G. Range Two stressed that men who were posted at various points should know very clearly what their functions were. He cited the case of some men at a particular post, who, when questioned by him as to what they would do if their post was ‘rushed’, replied that they would go and report the matter to the local police station. The fear to use force must be dis­carded.
Item No. 8

Several officers commented on the fact that in most cases outside gangs of thugs were at work and that it was a well-organized campaign. Everything pointed to that. These thugs had adopted a code of their own to indicate whether the house or buildings occupied by Tamils belonged to Tamils or to Sin­halese, the number of inmates in each house, etc., etc.

Mr Kitto wanted to know what the position of the police would be in regard to Buddhist priests who were participating in mob activities?
D.I.G. Range Two said that this point had already been thrashed out with the Prime Minister himself who had sanc­tioned the action against the Buddhist priests if they continued to flout the police. He said that A.S.P. Bandarawela had already got a priest remanded in a looting case, and that two priests who were wanted by the Kalutara police for interro­gation were absconding. He said that in view of what was happening in the country today the inviolability of the Budd­hist priests could not be retained any longer. He, however, made it very clear that the so-called priests who participated in these activities were not genuine priests but impostors mas­querading in the guise of priests. He referred to two hire-car drivers in Polonnaruwa who had shaved off their heads [sic] and in whose possession the police found Buddhist robes.
Mr Vanden Driesen said that it would be most helpful if the incidents referred to by D.I.G. Range Two were published in the press. The I.G. promised to take up this matter with Mr M.

J.Perera, the Information Officer.

Item No. 9
Mr Hepponstall said that there was a strong feeling that trouble would start again as soon as the Emergency was over. All officers felt that even if the curfew was lifted, the Emergency should go on for some considerable time.
D.I.G. Admin. said that all police stations should now draw up plans for the effective patrolling of all areas where there were minorities.
The I.G. exhorted all officers to instruct their men to shoot without hesitation if looting was going on. He also said that the task of restoring order should be given top priority and that normal police work should take second place for some time.

It was also agreed that sergeants and constables on duty should in future be armed with Sten guns instead of rifles. The I.G. promised to take up this matter.

The I.G. also said that in future refugees should be housed in some camp far from police stations, as the presence of refugees at police stations during the recent disturbances had made things very difficult for the police.
Item No. 10
D.I.G. Range Two asked officers to have no fear about com­missions into police actions. He reminded officers of the Com­mission of Inquiry in connection with ‘Operation Ganja”16 and inquired whether the Department took any steps against the police officers involved? On the contrary, he said that Inspec­tor Liyanage had got his due promotion and was even hand­somely rewarded for his good work.
The I.G. also said that several times he had been asked as to what action he was taking against the police officers involved in ‘Operation Ganja’, now that the report was out, and he had always replied that he was looking into the matter whereas, in actual fact, he had not done so yet in the interest of morale at this crucial period.
D.I.G. Range Two said that if anyone’s uniform was to be taken out, the uniforms of the senior officers at H.Q. would first have to be taken out.
In regard to Orders by the Prime Minister, he said that if they were in conflict with fundamental principles of the police, the Service should stand together and resolutely oppose them, and there was not king for the officers to fear. He agreed with the I.G. that officers should not attach too much importance to events such as the transfer of an officer, appointment of a Commission, etc.
Item No.11

D.I.G., C.I.D. said that the intelligence received from the uniformed police was very poor.

The I.G. said that it was in their own interests for uniformed officers to find out the trouble-makers and what they were up to. He said that no piece of information, however insignificant it might appear to be, should be ignored as these bits and pieces will help to complete the picture eventually.

D.I.G., C.I.D. said that it would be a good thing for gazetted officers and members of the inspectorate to go round some houses and find out what was happening and whether the in­mates had any useful information to pass over to the police in their own interests. The J.G. commended this suggestion, asked officers to make a note of it and to feed D.I.G., C.I.D. with as much information as possible all the time.
D.I.G. Admin. said that there should be a Special Branch attached to every P.I.B. and D.I.B. It was decided to summon a Conference of all provincial officers next week so that D.I.G., C.I.D. may tell them on what lines to work in order to obtain useful information promptly.
Item No. 12
The I.G. said that he sincerely hoped that officers were con­vinced now at least that they would always be backed to the hilt by H.Q. He asked them not to lose heart if, at higher levels, the police were ordered to do certain things. He assured them that no unfair order of transfer, etc., was ever carried out with­out setting out the true position at a couple of interviews with the Prime Minister.
Who is the Master Brain?
D.I.G., C.J.D. said that he was not prepared to answer that question.
D.I.G. 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!17
D.I.G. Range One said that he was following up some infor­mation and would be able to place before the I.G., very shortly, some useful information in regard to the overall plan.

The I.G. said that the fact remained that certain mischief makers were at work to create trouble in the country, and the pattern was more or less the same. Just now the police have the advantage of the Emergency behind them. It was the in­variable practice, whenever there was an emergency, to pass a Bill indemnifying everybody. This would include the priests and so there was nothing for police officers to bother about. However, attempts to create dissension of one kind or another would go on, sometimes even by a few unscrupulous men in the police ranks, but it was up to the Service to see that law and order was maintained at all costs. It was the sacred duty the police owe the country.

Under the emergency the police had extraordinary powers and the police could not talk with their mouths but with their guns. There might be minor unpleasant incidents such as requests to release scoundrels arrested by the police, but these were orders the J.G. was compelled to carry out in the same way as junior officers had to carry out the I.G.’s orders, however unpleasant or unreasonable they might appear to be. But he said that unfair orders were never carried out by him without first putting up a fight.
When the Emer­gency was over, he said, everyone should buckle down to the task of planning for the future. In the meantime he urged all officers to have the fullest confidence in Headquarters. He and the D.I.G. would be with them and, if one had to get out, all officers could rest assured that all would go out together. He asked officers not to take certain unpleasant incidents too seriously to heart, and also to talk to their men and keep their morale always high. If a man had to be rewarded for good work done, he said that the reward should both be handsome and prompt.
In conclusion the I.G. said: ‘Let us be together, deliver the goods, and let the whole country know that we have done our duty. Go and hold your areas now and give your men the

assurance that all of us are together. If we have to go away we go out together.’

These words were received with applause by all present.
Sgd. S. W. 0. de Silva,

Inspector-General of Police.

Police Headquarters,

Colombo, June 16, 1958.

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