Remembrance of the Genocidal Anti-Tamil Pogrom in 1958

The 1958 anti-Tamil pogrom is a bloody expressions of the genocidal process which started well before the British colonialists physically left the island.

This 1958 genocide, also known as the 1958 anti-Tamil pogroms, are one of the first island-wide ethnic massacres directed against the Eelam Tamils in Tamileelam and Sri Lanka.

On this day (22. May) in 1958, Sinhalese mobs began attacking, raping and murdering Tamils across the island.

The atrocities lasted from 22 May to 29 May 1958, although sporadic riots continued after a state of emergency was declared on 27 May 1958. It is estimated that between 300 and 1,500 Tamils were killed during the days of violence, more than thausand were injured, and there was arson, looting and destruction of Tamil homes and businesses. In addition, more than 200 women were raped.

The violence reportedly began on 22 May 1958 in Polonnaruwa when Sinhalese mobs tried to attack Tamils who were on their way to the Federal Party Congress in Vavuniya.

The violence then spread all over the island. In Colombo, a Hindu priest was burnt alive while mobs roamed the streets of Colombo checking whether passers-by could read Sinhala newspapers. Those who could not were beaten up or killed. The government waited five days before declaring a state of emergency.

National Leader V. Prabhakaran stated that the 1958 pogroms were crucial to his political outlook.

The following are excerpts from an interview with National Leader in March 1984.

“The shocking events of the 1958 race riots had a profound impact on me when I was a schoolboy. I heard of horrific incidents of how our people were mercilessly and brutally killed by Sinhala racists. I once met a widowed mother who was a friend of my family, and she described to me her agonising personal experience of this racial holocaust. During the riots, a Sinhalese mob attacked her house in Colombo. The rioters set fire to the house and murdered her husband. She and her children escaped with severe burn injuries. I was deeply shocked when I saw the scars on her body. I also heard stories about how little babies were roasted alive in boiling tar. When I heard such stories of cruelty, I felt deep compassion and love for my people. A great passion came over me to free my people from this racist system. I strongly believed that armed struggle is the only way to confront a system that uses armed force against unarmed, innocent people.”

The long-time leader of the Federal Party, V. Navaratnam (1910-2006), wrote his memoirs, The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation (1991), after he had retired to Montreal, Canada. At the time of the 1958 riots, he was living in Colombo and practising law at the Colombo Bar Association.  He was subsequently elected to Parliament in 1962 on the FP ticket in a by-election in Kayt’s constituency. From memory, he described the dilemma he faced when he was attacked by the mob as follows:

“The day after the Vavuniya convention, the thugs of the Sinhala thug army took over the task of cracking down on the Tamils. They went on a rampage of senseless destruction and wanton brutality. They started with the Pettah area of Colombo, where most of the Tamil business houses and shops were located, and attacked, smashed, looted, torched and destroyed shops, houses, buildings and vehicles. They beat and beat up every Tamil they could get their hands on. By nightfall, the mob violence spread to every corner of Colombo city and its suburbs.

That night, a mob of about 40 or 50 thugs attacked my house at Hulftsdorp in Colombo, even though it was adjacent to the Ministry of Justice and the Supreme Court building and one had to gain entry through the gates of the Court. They hurled at least 25 Molotov cocktails (petrol bombs) and shouted my name with each throw. The front part of the house was smashed and the furniture, doors and frames caught fire and burned…. We gathered our small children, all 14 to 1 1/2 years old, and told them to run wherever they could in case anything happened to us, and we ourselves stood at the door to the living room, ready to expect the worst.

Dr. E. M. V. Naganathan visited me in the evening along with Balasubramaniam, a young officer in the government service with strong sympathies for the Federal Party. He insisted on going to my destroyed house to collect some important items without listening to my protests. He returned an hour later with bloodstained clothes from head injuries. His car was smashed. Some hoodlums had attacked him with burning bricks soaked in petrol.

I quickly took Dr. Naganathan to Dr. Sulaiman’s private hospital at Grandpass and had him treated. In that hospital I saw things that God forbids no man to see. The victims of Sinhala mob violence were writhing in agony, not just fighting for their lives. They bore eloquent witness to the terrible brutality and torture that some people can inflict on their fellow human beings. Who can fail to develop some bitterness towards those who could cause all this suffering for no reason except that the victims were Tamils?

More than 20,000 Tamils had become homeless refugees – men, women, children and infants crowded into two refugee camps in the city of Colombo. Their lives were so threatened by the mob that they were evacuated by boats to their homes in Trincomalee and Jaffna to save their lives… these are the sentiments that gave rise to the Tamil freedom fighters a generation later.”

The above-mentioned Dr Naganathan (1906-1971) was no stranger to mob attacks. Although he was well known and respected in Colombo because of his profession as a family doctor, he was also attacked as an active leader of the Federal Party during the Federal Party’s Satyagraha campaign in 1956. He was an elected FP MP for the Nallur constituency from 1960 to 1970.

In his book Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots, Tarzie Vittachi writes about the pogrom, News leaked out of Queen’s House that the Governor-General had unofficially announced at a press conference that the riots were not spontaneous.

He said, “Gentlemen, if any of you believe that this was a spontaneous outbreak of communism, you can prove them wrong. This is the work of a mastermind who was behind the people who carefully planned this and knew exactly what they were doing. It was a time bomb that was planted about two years ago and has now exploded.”

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