65th Anniversary of May 1958 Anti-Tamil Riots in Ceylon

by Sachi Sri Kantha, June 7, 2023 

[N.B. Anti-Tamil ‘riots’ in Sri Lanka are more properly called ‘pogroms,’ since they have been ‘an organized massacre of or attempt to exterminate a particular ethnic, racial or religious group.’ — Editor]

In 2018, I covered the May 1958 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka (then, known as Ceylon) in two parts. [see, https://sangam.org/60th-anniversary-1958-anti-tamil-riots-part-1/ and https://sangam.org/60th-anniversary-1958-anti-tamil-riots-part-2/]. Briefly, in part 1, I had collected materials presented by six writers other than Tarzie Vittachi (1921-1993). These six were Howard Wriggins, N. Sanmugathasan, K.M. de Silva, T. Sabaratnam, S. Sivanayagam and V. Navaratnam. In part 2, I presented my thoughts on Tarzie Vittachi’s angle, from his popular 123 page book Emergency ‘58 – The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots (1958), published in London by Andre Deutsch.

My impression was that, whatever the worth of Tarzie Vittachi’s version, he carried his own pro-Sinhalese bias, which reflected in the book contents. As such to temper this bias, we need reports from other sources and other angles. That’s why in part 1 of my previous coverage in 2018, I had collected descriptions of four Tamils (N. Sanmugathasan, T. Sabaratnam, S. Sivanayagam and V. Navaratnam), one Sinhalese (K. M. de Silva) and one American.

To supplement this, now in 2023, I provide additional coverage from three reputed sources: Evelyn Fredrick Charles Ludowyk (1906-1985), a Burgher and first professor of English, University of Ceylon; Bertram Hughes Farmer (1916-1996), a British geographer; and S. Ponniah (1924 – ?), a Tamil advocate of the Supreme Court of Ceylon.

The 1958 anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka deserve remembrance, for one particular reason that has been completely ignored by the Indian politicians, academics, commentators and journalists in their anti-LTTE commentaries. This is what I had inferred in 2011 – Irrespective of whether one fights for Tamil rights nonviolently or violently, strong opposition from the partisan Sinhalese will always be present.” [see, https://www.sangam.org/2011/03/Satyagraha_1961.php] My contention is that the loud-mouth brigade of Indian Tamil commentators (the House of Hindu journalists beginning from Narasimhan Ram and Malini Parthasarathy, politician Subramanian Swamy, actor-journalist Cho Ramaswamy, politician P. Chidambaram etc.), on the Sri Lankan ethnic issue and who were hostile to LTTE’s deeds by design or ignorance never bothered to study the post independent history of Sri Lanka.


Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike (in white) and army chief Brigadier A.M. Muttukumaru

For the uninitiated, those who held the top positions during the anti-Tamil riots in 1958 were Prime Pinister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (1899-1959), Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (1892-1978) and Army Commander Major General Anton Muttukumaru (1908-2001). It should be noted that Mr. Muttukumaru was of Jaffna Tamil origin. He was appointed as the first Ceylonese army commander in 1955, at the age of 46.


Ponniah – in 1963

Riots again, May 1958

In May 1958, the Trade Union Federation had called out a strike. The strikers and Union leaders gathered in the Lipton’s Circus in Colombo and held a series of meetings there. At this time the Federal Party held its annual convention in Vavuniya and decided on passive resistance to the Government in its implementation of the Sinhala Only Act and for winning Tamil rights. To attend the convention, some Tamils from Batticaloa were travelling by train. When the train reached Polonnaruwa, a huge gang of Sinhalese thugs got into it and suddenly attacked with deadly weapons, viz. swords, long and heavy bladed knives, the Tamil passengers who were asleep. Many of them were hacked to death. News of this massacre spread to Colombo and other areas. Tension arose and with every minute it gathered momentum. Lipton’s Circus that was once the centre of trade union activity suddenly turned out to be a hot bed of communal conflagration. Without any provocation the Sinhalese strikers who were there started assaulting the Tamils who were going about in the streets. Thugs, hooligans and looters sized the opportunity. In about an hour riots broke out and the Tamil people in Colombo were being attacked wherever they were found. Every moment, there was danger to life and limb. Tamils’ shops and business establishments were looted and burnt. The rioters forcibly entered the houses of Tamils, attacked innocent children, women and men killing and maiming a good number of them.

No Protection from Government

As the rioters were proceeding with their onslaught, killing and breaking the limbs of the Tamil members of the public, looting and burning their shops and business establishments and as the Tamils, including children and women, were running from house to house for safety, the Prime Minister Mr Bandaranaike and his government did not want to extend the hand of protection to them! Alas! On the contrary, it was learnt, the Prime Minister ordered an Inspector of Police in a Colombo Police Station, who happened to be a Tamil, not to interfere or do any harm to the rioters! The rioters indeed had a free hand. This was not all. Mr Bandaranaike’s radio speeches were highly inflammatory. The shooting of Mr Seneviratne, a Sinhalese mayor of Nuwara Eliya, was not at all connected with the Tamil movement. Later it transpired that no Tamil was responsible for the shooting. The Prime Minister’s reference over the radio that Tamils were responsible for it, had rendered the situation more serious.

Wild rumours too went round the country when it was already seething with communal tension. The story went round that at Batticaloa a Sinhalese woman teacher had been raped and her breasts cut. Although it was later found to be completely false and deliberately concocted by inciters, it formed the basis of deadly riots at Panadura, Kalutara, Kuliyapitiya, Polonnaruwa and several other Sinhalese areas. At Panadura a gang of Sinhalese hooligans dragged a Hindu priest to the centre of the Galle Road, poured petrol over him and set fire to him alive. He was burnt to ashes. They slashed to death a number of Tamil residents in Panadura. They also made an attempt to murder the District Judge of Panadura, who was a Tamil. The timely intervention of the police force saved his life.

At Kalutara, three Tamils not knowing where to go, jumped into a well and hid themselves in water. But the hooligans on finding them in the well poured gallons of petrol over them. As they poured petrol over them the victims screamed aloud and begged for mercy. But that did not soften the hooligans who, without hesitation, set fire to them and with clap of hands watched them as they were consumed by huge flames. At Kalutara, Mr. Viswalingam, fiscal marshal of the Magistrate’s Court, was worshipping in a Hindu temple. Thugs entered the temple and assaulted him fracturing his arms. Then they placed over him a heavy article under which he was crushed to death. It was learnt that at Kiribathgoda some Sinhalese hooligans entered the house of a Tamil man, tied him to a pillar and then raped his wife. A young man from Batticaloa who met the author within a week of the riots told the author how he escaped death at the hands of a few thugs. He ran for his life and was hiding for four days without water and food. He looked pale, scared and horror-stricken.

The worst happened at Polonnaruwa where there was organized hooliganism and robbery. It was understood that a politician had taken deep interest in the matter and had sought to be the hero of the occasion. Mr. C. Vanniasingham speaking in the House of Representatives on 5th June 1958 said, ‘On the 22nd on further enquiries, we had information of the preparations that were made. Large crowds of labourers belonging to the Land Development and Irrigation Departments had gathered there with guns, swords, clubs and all sorts of lethal weapons ready to attack these people. The police did nothing to disperse them. They merely looked on’. When the train from Batticaloa arrived at Polonnaruwa, the hooligans suddenly attacked the passengers with these weapons they had. Several died and many others sustained grievous injuries. The Assistant Superintendent of Police, Mr. Johnpillai was stabbed as he went to fetch his wife and children who were at Batticaloa. On 24th May, three proctors as they were going to attend the Polonnaruwa Courts were assaulted and robbed of their belongings. The Magistrate of Kuliapitiya, who was a Tamil escaped from an attack by hooligans and had to go to the Courts under police protection. Even at Padaviya, it was the Land Department labourers who were let loose.

A railway guard a Tamil was set upon, as he was on duty by a gang of thugs. They battered his head with clubs and he died on the spot. At Ratmalana, Mr Sam Thambyah of Hume Pipe Co. was clubbed and his stomach ripped open. He died leaving a big family of eight children and his widow. At Dehiwala, Mr Arumairatnam, an assistant postmaster, was cruelly stabbed and he died on the spot.

Cases like these were numerous and from 22nd to 27th of May, no Tamil was safe on the road. The Tamil people had to live in mortal fear.

Tamil people in Colombo were compelled to leave their homes and take refuge in police stations. As the number of refugees was mounting further accommodation at police stations became impossible. The Colombo Royal College was converted into a refugee camp. The halls and classrooms were packed with refugees. As the refugees counted more than ten thousand, additional accommodation had to be found. These Tamils had not merely suffered bodily injuries but had lost their properties, their monies and personal belongings. Besides these hardship they did not have a wink of sleep for four to five days until they were shipped and sent to their homes in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

Emergency 1958

Although these atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamil people the Prime Minister and the government did not think it their responsibility to give them protection. While the Tamils were exposed to fear and starvation and were being killed in large numbers, the prime minister Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike sat unconcernedly dismissing the whole situation with an attitude of ‘let them (Tamils) have a taste of it’. Even though advised, he did not make up his mind to declare a state of emergency even at this crisis. The declaration of emergency was delayed by twenty-four hours, every minute of which was packed with moral fear, torture and death of the Tamil people. At last, a foreign diplomat was compelled to remind the Governor General and the government of their responsibility to maintain law and order and the serious consequences that would follow on their failure to declare a state of emergency. Thereupon, the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetileke an independent and courageous personality, prevailed on the prime minister and he declared a state of emergency throughout the country.

Consequent on this declaration, the army and navy were out in full force with powers to shoot or otherwise bring the situation under control. There were gun shots of course. In a few hours the rioters of Colombo disappeared and the situations improved. In the distant areas, too normalcy was restored gradually.

The Prime Minister and his men however sought to make use of the emergency to further disarm the already helpless Tamil community. Legislation was hurried through requiring every Tamil possessed of fire arms in the Northern and Eastern provinces to surrender them to the police. The Sinhalese thugs and hooligans, who had used their firearms against Tamils were, however allowed to continue their use! What a justice in this country!!

Silver lining

There may be thousands of Sinhalese thugs and hooligans, opportunists and communalists, mischief makers and extremists. It is not fair to judge the whole Sinhalese people by this wicked lot. When the helpless Tamils were being chased and massacred by the rioters, hundreds of Sinhalese families gave them refuge and protected their lives. In the black moments of their torture and suffering these Sinhalese people were a light unto them. Every cloud has a silver lining. Several respectable Sinhalese persons received cruel treatment at the hands of the rioters for having sheltered Tamils. The Tamil refugees themselves would bear testimony to this. The Tamil community as a whole should be grateful to them.

Dangers of Unitary Constitution

The outcome of thee terrible incidents was that the confidence of the Tamil people in the Government became considerably shaken and that they could no longer look to government for their protection. The dangers of a unitary government had been made clear to the Tamil speaking people.”


H. Farmer – in 1963

“In April 1958, Mr Bandaranaike, under pressure from a group of militant Buddhist priests, abrogated the pact that he had made with Chelvanayakam – and swung Tamil opinion even more firmly behind the Federalists. But, he protested, he would nevertheless introduce legislation to guarantee ‘fair play for the Tamils’ – and was greeted with protests, louder than ever, from Sinhalese communalists, who began to shout ‘Ceylon for the Sinhalese’. Incident followed incident all over the island, and it seems quite clear that politicians were at work adding fuel to the communal fires, if ot directly encouraging acts of violence. By 24 May there were ‘carefully calculated rumours’ in Polonnaruwa that there was to be a Tamil invasion from Trincomalee and Batticaloa, and rioting became extremely ugly: Tamils were beaten up and their women were raped, not by colonists in the large local colonization scheme, but by members of the foot-loose labour force of the sort which two years earlier had caused so much trouble in Gal Oya. The rioting grew from bad to worse, and many Tamils were murdered. The Government handled the situation badly, and rioting spread to other parts of the island. In many places it was directed not only against Tamils but against government officers who were trying to preserve order. Not surprisingly, there was some retaliation by Tamil thugs in Batticaloa, Jaffna and elsewhere against isolated Sinhalese. Eventually, to cut a long, terrible and disgraceful story short, a State of Emergency was declared, and slowly order was restored: for this great credit is due to the Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, who virtually took the government of the country into his own hands.

With order restored, the Government faced violent criticism all over the country for ‘using the army to help the Tamils’ and for killing Sinhalese to do so; and a scapegoat was sought. It is said that at a meeting of the government parliamentary group demands were made for the arrest of Chelvanayakam and other Federalist leaders on the grounds that they had plotted against the government; certainly on 4 June 1958, with the Emergency in its second week and life returning to normal, the Federal leaders were arrested, with many members of their party; a week later a single member of an extreme Sinhalese organization, K.M. P. Rajaratne, was placed under house arrest.”


F.C. Ludowyk – in 1966

“The UNP though defeated was not to be outdone by any of the victorious groups and made its own violent contribution to racial and religious intolerance. It is a banality that institutionalized religion bears little resemblance to the teaching of its founders. The hostility of bhikkhus and Buddhist leaders to Tamils, Roman Catholics, and all others who drew their fire, was more reminiscent of the fanaticism of Tertullian or Torquemada than of anything which might have been culled out of the suttas….

In April a group of fanatical bhikkus forced the Prime Minister by their sit-down strike outside his residence in Colombo to abrogate any arrangements he had made with the leader of the FP. His formal denunciation of the Pact only encouraged the racialists to go further. The FP had called a Convention for the end of May in Vavuniya. Sabotage of trains carrying Tamils to this Convention in the Northern Province and an explosion in which a number of Sinhalese were killed were the prelude to four days of mob law and racial violence as had not been thought possible in Ceylon.

To dwell on the horrors of those four days in which murder, rape, arson and mutilation were commonplaces is only to court disbelief. But cases still being called at sessions of the Supreme Court reduce the hearers of such excesses of racial hatred to tears. Tamils all over the South, the West and Central Ceylon were the victims of savage treatment at the hands of Sinhalese mobs. In the Eastern Province Tamils set upon Sinhalese in grim retaliation for atrocities in the South. In Jaffna there was no loss of life, but a Buddhist shrine was wrecked. From 24 to 27 May, and even later in certain parts of the island, law and order were maintained only by those who had courage to act. The disturbances were larger in scale and fiercer in intensity than any since the Kandyan ‘Rebellion’ of 1817.


Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (bald head)

Firmness could have prevented the worst excesses, had it been shown on 24 May when the first wave of general violence engulfed the Tamils in various parts of the island. But the police were paralysed as a force because of contradictory instructions given them and the reluctance of most officers to brave the wrath of politicians. In addition the strikes in Colombo were used by racial elements to add confusion to the disaster already imminent. It has to be said, too that there were sections in the police force not averse to indulging in racialism themselves.

Despite appeals to the Prime Minister to have a state of emergency declared, nothing happened and chaos reigned. On Tuesday, 27 May the Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, declared a state of emergency, because of, or following upon, the widely publicized statement of the LSSP that their youth leagues and trade unions would try to take over control of the situation. Whether they would have been able to deal with the desperateness of the situation is doubtful. The state of emergency proclaimed on 27 May 1958 lasted until March 1959.

In a situation which called for quick decision and extreme measures Sir Oliver Goonetilleke undoubtedly saved the country from anarchy. His calmness, the dispatch with which he used the wide powers he assumed, such as no Colonial Governor had ever wielded, were in the best colonial tradition. He measured up to his task, being in the first two months of emergency the administrative and executive head of the country, the Commander-in-Chief of its armed forces and in constant touch with the front line. He was, in addition, chief Press Authority. His action may have been ‘without precedent in the recent history of the constitutional government of this country or of the United Kingdom, but the events he had to cope with were without precedent either. The remarks attributed to him, as he greeted pressmen summoned to Queen’s House on 27 May: ‘When you report the news in future please don’t say that I am running the sh-sh-show. I don’t want all kinds of jealousies to come up, you know…’, were typical of his understanding of the situation and his far-sightedness. Had he not taken over, hundreds more would have lost their lives.

The failure of the government at this juncture was a blot on the Prime Minister’s reputation. His tolerance of the fanatical pressure groups continually haranguing him had been carried to such lengths that the fools he suffered were encouraged into embarking upon courses of dangerous lunacy.

The army and the navy dealt with the situation as it should have been handled when the mob first took the law into its own hands. Quiet was soon restored, but the state of emergency continued.

The greatest sufferers in the four days of violence were the Tamils. A number of them owed their lives to Sinhalese who risked their own to help and protect them. Numerous deeds of quiet heroism have been recounted, but the events of those four days, when everything is considered, brought no credit to the country’s pride in its Buddhist heritage. Nothing is to be gained now by trying to apportion responsibility for the disaster, but a careful investigation into its causes, when passions have died down, is the only office that can be performed in memory of the many hundreds who lost their lives in it. Racial violence had physically divided the two major communities in the island as they had not been divided since the end of the eighteenth century. Refugee Tamils from Colombo and the South had to be transported by sea to the North, because the roads between Colombo and Jaffna were unsafe for them.

The contents of the bulletins broadcast by Radio Ceylon during the disturbances showed a meanness of spirit in keeping with the depths into which the country had sunk. The broadcasting services were a government department; their use by the party in power proved another deplorable result of the incursion of party politics into the administration.”


Fake News – a Sri Lankan version in 1958

Though the theme of ‘fake news’ came to notice in USA and elsewhere quite recently (when President Donald Trump and his cronies popularized the phrase), in the blessed island of Serendip, fake news was a hit in 1958. Now, let us check Tarzie Vittachi’s ‘Emergency ‘58’ book for clear indications. I provide three paragraphs of his descriptions in page 73. The only variant is, in 1958, Vittachi had opted the phrase ‘pre-fabricated news’ for fake news. He had written,

“From the first day of the censorship the public was treated to the finest examples of the kind of pre-fabricated news that they will assuredly get if the press is ever nationalized. The news given by the Competent Authority had not even a nodding acquaintance with the facts. Censors must, when the occasion demands, keep news out – but the Competent Authority went ten times better and altered the facts to suit the purposes of the Government. For instance, a foreign press correspondent in Ceylon filed a cable referring to the fact that a quarter of the population of Ceylon is Tamil speaking. The ‘one-fourth’ was deliberately altered by the Competent Authority to read ‘one-sixth’ [Foot Note in the original: 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.]

The Government was anxious after the first day or two to shift the focus of interest from the events in the Sinhalese areas to Jaffna and Batticaloa. The news was therefore carefully but crudely twisted to suit this purpose. The ‘news’ breaks from the Northern and Eastern Provinces were given exclusive prominence.

The headlines read:

Substantial increases of military strength in Batticaloa area, N.P. (Ceylon Observer – May 30)

No air trips to the North (Times of Ceylon – May 30)

Tighter security measures in North and East.

On May 31 the Competent Authority reported. ‘The situation in the Northern Province is now becoming hourly the chief problem of the Authorities, with a growing suspicion that just as the secret wave-length and calling sign of the police radio has fallen into the hands of a widespread organization, the police secret cipher is also in the hands of the same organization.’

Obviously a Master was at work…..“


To his credit, Tarzie Vittachi had identified the Competent Authority who indulged in scripting ‘pre-fabricated news’s as Mr. M.J. Perera (1915-2002), initials standing for Mapatunage James. This ‘genius of fake news production’ had previously served as the first Ceylonese Director General of Radio Ceylon, from 1952 to 1955. His resume is presented in his entry in the Wikipedia [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._J._Perera; accessed June 7, 2023].

Nearly 30 years ago, Tarzie Vittachi died on Sept 17, 1993. Though given credit by many Tamils for his courage in arranging for immediate publication of his ‘Emergency ‘58’ book, with a subtitle ‘The story of the Ceylon Race Riots’ in London, after repeated reading of this book, I have doubts about Vittachi’s impartiality, beginning from page 8 of his Preface. I’ll write about this, in a few months time.


Cited Sources

B.H. Farmer: Ceylon – A Divided Nation, Oxford University Press, London, 1963, pp. 67-68.

E.F.C.Ludowyk: The Modern History of Ceylon, Frederick A. Praeger, publishers, New York, 1966, pp. 250-252.

Ponniah: Satyagraha and The Freedom Movement of the Tamils in Ceylon, publisher A. Kandiah, Valvettithurai, 1963, pp. 34-39.

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