Overview of the Anti-Tamil genocidal pogrom ´58

The pogroms during pre-armed struggle phase (1956 – 1983)
There were four major island wide pogroms over a period of nearly six decades. The last and the biggest of these pogroms was in 1983. Scant perusal of the recorded evidence will show that the violence in all the four events was one sided, well organized and had the backing of the state armed forces. Thus these events are more accurately referred to by the term pogrom which refers to the violent massacre of one particular group. Evidence of rapes, massacres and property destruction during these pogroms are poorly recorded. Yet, that these took place is incontrovertible based on the scant records that are available.

In 1956 the Sinhala Only language Act replaced the earlier three official languages of Sinhala, Tamil and English. This effectively made Tamils illiterate overnight because the state was fully centralised and Sinhala became the only language with which citizens could communicate with the state. Tamils staged homeland wide protests over this.

This Sinhala Act when seen in the context of what followed as described below is a precursor to the genocide which followed. 1958 Pogrom: The famous book “Emergency ‘58” records the events of this pogrom. It was written by a journalist Tarzie Vittachi soon after the pogrom. He was expelled from the island by the Sri Lankan state for publishing the book. The violence resulted in the loss Tamil lives, rape of many Tamil women and destruction of Tamil property throughout the island. (Bremen Tribunal – 2014)

(Photo : Fast unto death by Prof. J. E. Jayasuriya in 1956, to force Bandaranaike government to implement the Sinhala as the only State language excluding Tamil language of masses in the Island’s north and east provinces)

Solomon Bandaranayakke was able to capture power through a landslide victory in 1956. Fulfilling its electoral promises, the legislature started debates on the ‘Sinhala Only Act’ in June of 1956, which dethroned English as the official language, while denying the same privileges to extend for the Tamil language.

Debated and accepted on 5 June 1956, with overwhelming support in the Parliament, the Sinhala Only Act was incorporated into law. The Sinhala Only policy led to motor vehicles bearing the Sinhala sri character on their license plates. In response, the Federal Party initiated the anti-Sri campaign which involved smearing tar upon the sri characters. This led to a wave of reprisal tarrings of Tamil offices, shops, houses, and even people in the south by Sinhalese gangs as part of a pro-Sri campaign.

Opposing this motion, Selvanyakam and his colleagues of over 200 from ITAK (Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katsi) engaged in a Non-violence protest in front of the capital.This event was quickly disturbed by a Sinhalese mob that eventually went on a looting spree of Tamil merchants in Colombo. While none could speak of the true intentions of this piece of legislature, it is rather undeniable that the Sinhalese majority took this opportunity to exert its dominance in the national political fraternity. It is this tension that embodied violence after six days in Pattippalai Aru.

Pattippalai Aru (Later changed as Gal Oya) was a State-commissioned Sinhala colonisation area. Primarily belonging to the Tamils, the area was subsequently apportioned to Sinhalese, while the Tamils and the Moors were resettled in the lower basins. Upon hearing the developments in the capital, local Sinhalese organised themselves together as lynch mobs and hunted down Tamils in the area, while false rumours of a Sinhalese girl being raped and forced to walk naked in Mattakalappu with that of the gathering armed Tamils in the lower basin, further aggravated their rampage. Unable to subside the mob alone, the local law enforcement awaited the arrival of the military before controlling the mob by dusk. More than 150 Tamil souls lost their lives that day, while many more sustained injuries.

The Anti Tamil genocidal pogrom started in Polonnaruwai on 22 May 1958, with the destruction of the railway station and the stack on the train from Mattakalappu to Vavuniya, which rumoured to carry Tamils to a convention. To the surprise of the mob, the train did not carry as many Tamils as they hoped and so, they turned their attention to the sugar cane farms in the area. Tamil workers who hid themselves in the farm were flushed out when the farms were lit alight, where most did meet their unfortunate end. Witness accounts predominantly state of mass desecrations and mutilations of the dead. Yet to the surprise of everyone, the Government failed to take this Pogrom, which originated in the same region as in 1956, seriously, which could have prevented further bloodshed.

With the death of the mayor of Nuwara-Eliya on 25 May, Solomon informed the nation of ongoing chaos the following day. This incident stirred up Pogrom all over the country under the presumption that the Tamils themselves started them. Many Tamil individuals were murdered through various means, such as, immolation, decapitation, arson, and multiple means of trauma, with some daring to take their own life fearing torture at the hands of the mob. Even some Sinhalese who were misidentified using the common stereotypes and those who sheltered and aided Tamils escape were violated.

A high priest of the Pananthurai Saivaite Temple was dragged out, beaten to death and burnt in a tar barrel. Also in Anurathapuram, many Tamil children were burnt in tar barrel, who return to home from school. The belly of a pregnant Tamil woman was cut open, the yet unborn child pulled out and dashed to the ground.In fear and desperation a Tamil mother of there clasped her children and jumped in to the well. 

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.

Mr. Viswalingam, fiscal marshal of the Magistrate’s Court in Kalutura, 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 Srilankan  police officers are the people who have done the greatest possible damage in going round and spreading stories, putting people in vans and taking them to the police stations and exposing their belongings to be looted.

In this connection, a police officer stationed outside the Colombo municipal limits has been carrying on a systematic campaign against the Tamils. He was preaching from the police station premises itself saying: “Have you not heard the latest? The Tamils in Jaffna have actually killed a number of Sinhalese, disembowelled them, cut the bowels in the shape of “Sri” and posted them to people in all parts of the country.”

Although these pogrom 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.

Official numbers for the pogrom account for deaths between 300 and 1,500. more than 20,000 Tamils had become homeless refugees – men, women, children and babes in arms, crowding in two refugee camps in the City of Colombo. Their lives were in such constant danger from the Sinhala mobs that they moved by ships to their homeland in Thirukonamalai and Yaalppanam to save their lives.

(For the uninitiated, those who held the top positions during the anti-Tamil genocidal pogrom 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 a Tamil origin from Yaalppanam. He was appointed as the first Ceylonese army commander in 1955, at the age of 46.)

(Photo: SL Army Commander Major General Anton Muttukumaru is with Srilankan Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranayke )


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