Emergency '58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots


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The broad picture is now complete. Race-relationships which had endured for generations were breaking up under the pressure which is inevitable in a country in which economic development had not kept pace with modern needs and the high rate of population increase. Labour relations were crack­ing under the strain of the new social forces which the MEP had released. This second change, no doubt, was necessary and irresistible.
Unfortunately the Government made the mistake of throwing the baby away with the bath water. While repressive legislation and irksome, outmoded attitudes which had kept the masses in thrall had to be hurled away without delay, it was vital for the peace and order of the country, especially in times of rapid social change, to preserve and strengthen the rule of law and the authority of the officers who enforce the law. This salutary rule was ignored and even spurned in the extravagant mood of enthusiasm in which the Government tried to meet the massive problems that chal­lenged its capabilities.
The terror and the hate that the people of Ceylon experi­enced in May and June 1958 were the outcome of that funda­mental error. What are we left with? A nation in ruins, some grim lessons which we cannot afford to forget and a momen­tous question: Have the Sinhalese and the Tamils reached the parting of the ways?



No. 5,444: Wednesday i6 July 1958

No. S.R. 250/58

Mr B. Weerasinghe, Assistant Superintendent of Police,

North-Central Province, and D. D. S. Ranasinghe, Head

Quarters Inspector, Anuradhapura—Award of the Ceylon

Police Medal for Gallantry.

Reference notification appearing in Police Gazette, Part i

No. 5,443 of July 9, 1958, page 75, on the above subject the following correspondence is published for the information of all ranks:

No. S.R.250/58

Police Headquarters, Colombo 1, 2nd July, 1958.

S/D & E.A.

Award of the Ceylon Police Medal for Gallantry to Mr B. Weerasinghe, A.S.P., and Inspector D. D. S. Ranasinghe.

I wish to bring to your notice and, through you, to the

Hon’ble the Prime Minister, the acts of gallantry performed by

Mr B. Weerasinghe, Assistant Superintendent in Charge of

North-Central Province and Inspector D. D. S. Ranasinghe,

Officer-in-Charge, Anuradhapura Police Station.
1. Mr B. Weerasinghe.

(a) During the period of the unprecedented December 1957 floods, North-Central Province was one of the worst affected areas in the island. A very heavy responsibility was cast on the police in the matter of rescue of large numbers of flood victims. Mr Weerasinghe who was in charge, by leading his men in almost every dangerous and risky rescue operation, acted with courage and with utter disregard for his own personal safety in saving valuable lives. In appreciation of the outstanding services rendered by him, the following commendation was awarded:

‘Mr B. Weerasinghe, Assistant Superintendent of Police, North-Central Province, is highly commended by the In­spector-General of Police for setting up a high standard of leadership, initiative and hard work during the entire period of the December floods. The example set by him went a long way towards encouraging his men to renewed efforts. He also displayed courage of a high order in rescue operations under hazardous conditions.’
Shortly after the floods this officer was faced with incidents and problems arising out of the Anti-Sri Campaign and the strike situation. These were dealt with by him in the North-Central Province with firmness and tact.

(b) During the recent Communal Disturbances, Mr Weerasinghe had again to carry the extremely difficult and trying responsibility of suppressing violence and thuggery which broke out in the North-Central Province on an unprecedented scale. In Polonnaruwa, Giritale and Hingurakgoda a critically tense situation unleashed itself into frenzied violence which had never been experienced before in this country, and conditions in these places on the morning of the 26th May, 1958, have been assessed as being infinitely worse than what occurred at Gal Oya in 1956. Hordes of thugs and rioters, armed with shot guns, grenades, explosives, swords, katties and other dangerous weapons poured as if from nowhere into the streets bent on murder, rioting and looting. Hopelessly outnumbered and out-weaponed, this officer did not satisfy himself with merely guarding his police station and his own skin, which admittedly he might have done with some justification.

He decided in the circumstances that his first obligation was to protect the persons who were being murdered and assaulted, and carried the fight right through Kaduruwela Bazaar, dis­persing mobs all along the road. At 9.30 a.m. at Hospital Junction his vehicle was shot at, and the first police shooting occurred when he and Inspector Carolis fired at a man level­ling his shot gun at them. Subsequently Mr Weerasinghe and his men were attacked on numerous occasions. By noon a fair measure of control was gained by the police, but conditions worsened again when a mass attack was made on the Polon­naruwa Police Station.
Mr Weerasinghe averted this attack by personally ordering fire on the rioters. Four were killed and two were injured. By evening, police—with the invaluable assistance of two military units which arrived in the nick of time—were on top of the situation. Resistance, which was met at Giritale, Minneriya and Hingurakgoda, was overcome but without recourse to firing. In all these operations Mr Weera­singhe was in personal command. By the 29th May Polon­naruwa and Hingurakgoda were peaceful again.
On his return to Anuradhapura at 2 p.m. on 30th May, 1958, Mr Weerasinghe received information of a large motorized unit of thugs on the rampage at Medawachchiya. He immedi­ately set out with a military unit under the command of Major McHeyzer. He was just in time to prevent the wiping out of a small police party under Inspector D. D. S. Ranasinghe, who were holding them at bay.

Mr B. Weerasinghe had worked from 23rd May to the 1st of June ceaselessly day and night, leading his men personally throughout the length and breadth of the North-Central Province. He has narrowly escaped death on several occasions. He was in the forefront of the riots at Kaduruwela, Minneriya, Mahadivulwewa in time to rescue a very gallant Inspector and his six men from certain death. By his leadership, initiative and hard work, he has set a splendid example to his men who responded magnificently to true leadership. He has shown out­standing courage and devotion to duty. This officer and his men of the North-Central Province have created a record for gallantry and devotion to duty of which the entire Service is justly proud.

2. Inspector D. D. S. Ranasinghe.

(a) During the period of the floods in December, this officer worked day and night in perilous rescue operations, saving the lives of hundreds of refugees.

His best achievement, amongst numerous acts of bravery, was when he jumped from a helicopter into swollen flood waters to save the lives of thirteen women and children marooned on a rooftop at Ratmalie. Inspector Ranasinghe showed leadership and initiative of a very high order and his actions were characterized by fearless devotion to duty.

(b) During the Communal Disturbances at Anuradhapura, there was large-scale arson in the suburbs. Inspector Rana­singhe actively engaged himself in suppressing this and worked with his men round the clock for many days.

0n the 30th May, 1958, at about 4 p.m., Inspector Rana­singhe and six men encountered a motorized unit of about 6oo thugs armed to the teeth on the Kebitigollewa Road at Mahadivulwewa. His jeep was fired upon and his party was attacked by shot gun fire and sand bottles.

Taking cover behind his jeep, Inspector Ranasinghe and his men held this entire mob at bay with rifle fire until he was rescued by a police and military patrol unit. This motorized unit consisted of 8 Land Development vehicles, 2 Euclids from the Padaviya Scheme, a water bowzer, a vehicle with petrol and an explosives vehicle. An examination of these vehicles revealed huge bombs of dynamite in 4 gallon tins, hand grenades and Molotov cocktails by the hundreds, guns, swords and deadly weapons. These vehicles were manned by about 500 to 6oo Land Development labourers. Mr C. C. Dissanay­aka, Deputy Inspector-General of Police, Range (One) who examined these explosives and weapons commented that never in his experience of 24 years’ police service had he come across such a vast quantity of death-dealing explosives.

In the capture of this armed convoy, 11 men were killed by fire in a police cum military action, whilst 26 others were injured. 393 rioters were taken into custody whilst about 200 escaped.

The plan of this convoy, as revealed by some of the prisoners who were taken into custody, was as follows:

They were to attack Anuradhapura by dark when they would be received by supporters in the town who were ready to cut the power lines. Having destroyed the Police Station, they were next to destroy the Tamil refugees in the protective camp at the Kachcheri. There were over 3,000 Tamil refugees at the time in Anuradhapura and a crowded refugee train. After a blood bath at Anuradhapura, they were next to pro­ceed with added strength to Matale where, after similar orgies, they were finally to attack Kandy.
By this heroic action in combating this army of thugs, Inspector Ranasinghe has prevented the destruction of hundreds of lives and saved Anuradhapura from a blood bath. Without doubt his achievement can be recorded as the bravest incident of preventive action ever recorded in the history of the Ceylon Police Service.
In combating this force which, if properly led, would have taxed a full infantry battalion, Inspector Ranasinghe and his puny force of six men have enhanced the reputation of the Service and earned the gratitude and respect of the law-abiding sections of the public. It is a miracle that this police party is alive today.
I therefore very strongly recommend that these two officers be awarded the Ceylon Police Medal for Gallantry both in recognition of the services rendered by them and as an incen­tive to all other ranks of the Service.
S.W. O. de Silva

Inspector-General of Police.

Queen’s House,

Colombo 1, 7th July, 1958.

Reference No. R.157/51


I am directed by the Governor-General to inform you that, on the recommendation of the Honourable the Prime Minister, His Excellency has been pleased to approve of the award to you of the Ceylon Police Medal for Gallantry.
His Excellency has asked me to convey to you his warmest congratulations and his appreciation of the gallantry you dis­played.
The announcement of the award will be published in the Ceylon Government Gazette on Friday, 11th July, 1958, and I am to request you to make no communication to the press regarding it before that date.
I am, Sir,

Your obedient servant,

N.W. Atukorala Secretary to the Governor-General

B. Weerasinge, Esq, A.S.P., N.C.P.

D. D. S. Ranasinghe, Esq, H.Q.I., Anuradhapura.
Note -
(1) These Gallantry Medals will be presented at a Special Parade.

(2) To be indexed under the above heading. Colombo 1, 12th July, 1958.

‘Apey Aanduwa’ - ‘The Government is ours’

Bhikku - Buddhist monk

Chulu light - Rough and ready torch of dried coco­nut leaves

Dhana - Offerings to the monks

Goonda - Hoodlum, unemployable vagabond

Hartal - A mass disobedience movement

Lokka - The boss

Mahdal - Home-spun deep sea fishing nets

Satyagraha - Civil disobedience movement on the Gandhian pattern

Sri - A word connoting noble, holy or blessed

Upasampada - Ordination ceremony

1 The delegation consisted of Messrs Stanley de Zoysa, S. F. Amarasingha (both Sinhalese Christians) and Raju Coomaraswamy (a Tamil Hindu).

2 On February 25, 1958 the suburban ‘office train’ to Colombo was held up for two hours by a gang of men who lay across the track refusing to dis­perse until their friends who had been taken into custody by the Railway Security Officers had been released. The security men had raided a first-class compartment and discovered many passengers carrying third-class tickets. The Prime Minister ordered the men to be released forthwith and rebuked the railway management for having insufficient third-class accom­modation.

3 On October 4, 1957 a party of ‘pilgrims’—mostly United National Party supporters—led by former Financial Minister J. R. Jayawardene, who were walking from Colombo to Kandy to invoke the blessings of the gods for their campaign against the Bandaranaike—Chelvanayakam Pact, was ambushed at Imbulgoda by a gang of men led by S. D. Bandaranayake, M.P. for Gampaha. A car had been placed across the road. The police would not allow the ‘pilgrims’ to proceed further. The Government party saluted Bandaranayake as the ‘Hero of Imbulgoda’.

4 These I O Us were all redeemed by the end of June.

5 The Home Ministry received at this time a gruesome souvenir from the Government Agent who was trying to wake the Central Government to the danger in the N.C.P. It was a heavy club studded with gramophone needles which had been laboriously set into the wood by a thug who obviously liked to see his victims suffer.

6 Later awarded the Ceylon Police Medal for Gallantry. See Appendix for official record of this officer’s work.

7 The deputation was composed of: Messrs R. E. Jayatilleke, M.P., A. H. Macan Markar, M.P., Sir Razeek Fareed, M.P., Dr M. P. Draha­man, M,P., Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, Messrs Selwyn Sarnaraweera, Chairman, L.C.P.A., R. F. S. de Mel, Chairman, Sinhala Merchants’ Chamber, Devar Suriya Sena, Stephen Samarakkody, J. Tyagarajah and Dr M. G. Perera.

8 ‘A common political game, perfected in newly-freed Asian Countries where Expediency takes the place of Principle, and politicians spend their time watching, like surf-board riders, for the wave which is likely to carry them furthest.

9 ‘When this was brought to the notice of the Competent Authority with a plea that the story should be scotched before it gathered further momentum, his answer was: 'The man who started that rumour is now in jail.’

10 It occurs to me that the Prime Minister himself would have fluffed this examination according to his evidence given at the Theja Gunawardane Trial at Bar in 1954 when he confessed in Court that he could not read Sinhalese fluently.

11 At the Press Conference on the afternoon of May 28, the Competent Authority reported: ‘A preliminary report from Mr Gunascna de Zoysa, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs, sent from the Jaffna airport after meeting Mr P. Kandiah, M.P., states that there have been no Sinhalese deaths in the peninsula. ‘A few Tamil deaths occurred when the police opened fire in connection with two incidents which took place the previous day. ‘The Permanent Secretary will be making a full report to the Prime Minister immediately he returns.’

12 Inspector Daya Ranasinghe was awarded the highest honour for gallan­try in the police service—the Ceylon Police Medal. See Appendix for Police Gazette account of this episode.

13 Until very recently Queen’s House servants referred to the Governor-General as Rajjuruwo (the King). This grated so much on the supra sensible ears of the Secretary, N. W. Atukorale, that he issued a general order laying down a new form of address: ‘Utumwso’ (The Noble One or the Supreme Being).

14 In a population of 9,000,000 there are over 1,000,000 Ceylon Tamils and over 1,000,000 Indian Tamils. Most Moors also speak Tamil.

15 see footnote 8

16 The police, with the aid of the army, had been assigned two years ago to raid a vast tract of jungle land where the villagers were suspected to have grown ganja plants from which a potent narcotic is derived. A Commission of Inquiry revealed later that the villagers had been subjected to inexcus­able brutality.

17 NLSSP:Nava Lanka Sama Samaja Party—the Trotskyite Opposition party.

VLSSP:The Viplavakari or revolutionary Trotskyite party which forms the extreme Left Wing of the Government.

CP:Communist Party.

UNP:United National Party, which formed the previous Government.

MEP:Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, or Tile People’s United Front, now in power.

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