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Re-visiting the Communal Conflagration in Polonnaruwa of May 1958 Sixty Years After

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When a government, however popular, begins to help racial or religious emotionalism merely because it is a harsh and loud-noised demand made on it, and then interferes in the management and enforcement of law and order for the advantage of its favourites or to win the applause of a crowd, however out of control it may be, disaster is certain.

As rumors spread the town was buzzing with people. They collected in groups in streets, exchanging news about an invasion of Polonnaruwa by Tamils from Trincomalee and from Batticaloa. Land development, Irrigation department and Government farms labour gangs made up a regiment of Sinhalese battalion, and were on the rampage beating up Tamil labourers and officials, looting and raping. Polonnaruwa had just a small police station. Requests for support were not regarded important as the Government seemed unwilling to take the situation in Polonnaruwa seriously. Sinhalese policemen who tried to defend Tamils were attacked by the mobs; a few had severe injuries which proved fatal. However, the colonists who settle down some years ago, under the auspicious of DS Senanayake in 1940s took no part in the rioting. It was mainly the imported labour and squatters who are new to the area.

In 1958 April Ministry of Land and Land Development wanted to transfer 400 labour families of Tamils from Trincomalee displaced by the closing down of Royal Navy Dockyards to be settled in East Padaviya. Sinhala colonists from places like Veyangoda, Kosgoda, Gampaha and some older established Sinhalese who regarded this province as their traditional homeland opposed the idea of Settling Tamils in any part of the Polonnaruwa District.

Tamil labourers in Polonnaruwa farms were attacked by Sinhalese gangs. The Tamils in the Polonnaruwa sugar-cane plantation ran away seeing the enemy approaching and hid in the jungles. The Sinhalese mobs set the sugar cane alight and scared away the remaining Tamils. As the Tamils came out screaming, they were cut down or pounded under heavy clubs. It was estimated that 60 people died in the night of May 25.

Meanwhile, race-hatred was being churned up elsewhere. Federal party men in Jaffna found a way to popularize their anti Sinhala sentiments by applying tar on Registration plates of vehicles where Sinhala ‘SRI’ was used in place of English letters, an unnecessary and provocative action by the government.

The new order could have been brought about without carnage and flaming communal resentment by the firm application of law without fear or favouritism by statesmanship.

The night train from Batticaloa was attacked, and three people killed which when later turned out there were only a few Tamils on the train. The Polonnaruwa station was attacked again on May 24, and nearly destroyed. On May 24, more than 500 hooligans invaded the Polonnaruwa Railway Station and smashed windows of the Batticaloa train in search of Vavuniya-bound Federal party men.

“On Thursday night, passengers intimidated into getting off at Welikanda as news has reached them that a gang of men were on the way to prevent them from making the trip as they felt that passengers must be prevented from getting to Vavuniya for the convention…a gang of men around 500 got on the train damaged equipment looking for Tamils.” –OBSERVER-24/05/1958

Polonnaruwa had no Government agent, GA Anuradhapura, D. Aluvihare was overlooking the district from his station with the assistance of a few administration officers. Community life was completely disorganized. The GA was shuttling between Polonnaruwa and his permanent station; he wanted to organize a refugee camp for Tamils in an isolated Irrigation Department bungalow with five policemen for the protection of refugees that flocked to occupy the place. The boutique owners under threat from the thugs refused to sell provisions for feeding the refugees. The Army took over the task successfully, but as the situation deteriorated, desperate measures were needed. The Army arrested a few ring leaders, rumormongers and some officials who used their positions to stir up trouble.

On May 24 and 25, fleeing Tamils, and Sinhalese suspected of giving sanctuary to Tamils were brutally attacked and killed in broad daylight. The goons burnt alive a man in Hingurakkgoda. The hoodlums roamed the streets in government vehicles creating mayhem; they destroyed anything that belonged to Tamils. The expected Emergency was not declared even on 26 morning; the situation in Polonnaruwa was beyond hope. The refugee camp was overcrowding; GA felt that it was no longer a safe sanctuary for refugees, he took steps to shift them to a location near the Kachcheri. The police intelligence reported that gangs from Minneriya, Hingurakkgoda and Padaviya are planning to gather more crowds for a major assault in the night of 26. They were targeting the Tamil refugee camp and the Police station where Sinhala refugee officials were camping. Their main aim was to attack the Sinhala officers who stood in the way of ‘Sinhala brigade’ and taking full control of Polonnaruwa.

The GA and two of his officers were driving down the Parakrama tank bund looking for a place to set up a new refugee camp when they spotted signs of goons passed that way. Three bodies were lying on the road, they got off to see if there was any life left in the bodies. Aluvihare saw a crowd approaching in a truck—as it came near one of them identified GA, and shouted, “anna Ejantha Hamuduruwo, oka thamai Demalunta udaw karanne, marapiyaw” [there the GA who helps the Tamils, kill him!] the officers turned the jeep and fled the place to safety.

By afternoon tension increased. The crowds outside the police station had grown to over 3000. They were shouting obscenities at the officials until Army reinforcements arrived by evening, the platoon of 25 men had brought a Bren gun with them. At about 3.30 pm the crowd armed with clubs and led by a hero advanced towards the station shouting obscenities and raised sarongs, and as they came nearer, the Commander of the Army unit wanted GA’s authority to open fire, which was readily granted in writing. The mob was a few yards away, when the Bren opened fire, three of the men fell dead. The crowd scattered in all directions. Thus averted a major catastrophe.

Mutual respect and goodwill existed between two major races for over a millennium was destroyed in 1956. The results of distrust surfaced in May/June 1958 communal riots. Man’s inhumanity to man in those hate-filled days overshadowed the social and economic change that immensely benefited the masses in 1956. The change people anticipated by popular mandate proved incapable of preventing the process from worsening into a nation-wide pandemonium. SWRD Bandaranaike’s new MEP government passed an Act making Sinhala the sole official language. This was done in spite of the fact that nearly 25% of the population used Tamil as their mother tongue. The move triggered dissatisfaction among the Tamils, who perceived their language and culture as being subject to an mounting threat.

PM Bandaranaike signed a pact with Tamil leader, SJV Chelvanayagam in April 1957 making Tamil the administrative language in the Tamil-speaking north and east regions plus many other measures to counter the adverse effects of Sinhala only Bill. But he was forced to cancel the pact under pressure from the United National Party, which organized a paada yatra to Kandy and a rigorous island-wide campaign against it led by JR Jayawardene with the blessings of leader Dudley Senanayake. The pressure from Buddhist monks and Sinhala nationalists who backed SLFP at 1956 election for abrogation of the pact was worse than the opposition’s anti-pact campaign.

It is the politicians of all factions who are responsible for creating disharmony among communities. There is no wisdom in putting blame on one community or the other. A race cannot be held accountable for the hostility of a few members who belonged to it. Neither there is any sense in finding who started it; how far back you want to go; a never concluding fruitless pastime.

Walter Fernando from Sirimal Uyana, Ratmalana responding to one of my articles wrote:

“My brother Leo Fernando and Annesley Mendis were the first to be killed in 1958 in Giritale. The killers were subsequently pardoned at the request of C. P. de Silva, Minister and MP for Polonnaruwa. The Sinhala Buddhist goons, aided by the government killed them. The two could not recite the gatha and that is why they were shot and mutilated.

Both were the first technical assistants of the irrigation department. A person named Gunasekara, engineer of the department was my brother’s boss. The men from the irrigation camp were given permission to take whatever and do whatever necessary to protect the Sinhala nation. This was the end result.

The others were Ariyadasa, Walatara, the names I remember. There were six technical assistants. Incidentally engineer Gunasekara was the one who initially trained them at Kalutara. I was also present at the irrigation inquiry where I met Walatara, Ariyadasa and a few others who embraced me and cried and said they were helpless.”

When I sought Fernando’s permission to quote him, he says…, “Every word of what I have written is true and correct. You have my permission to quote me.”

Courtesy:Daily Mirror

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