The Anti-Tamil Gal Oya Riots of 1956

 tambiah-pic-22Stanley J. Tambiah[1]

My own first hand and indelible experience of ethnic riots happened in June 1956, when as a twenty-seven-year-old social scientist, recently returned from graduate studies in the United States, I took a team of thirty three students (twenty-six Sinhalese and seven Tamils) to conduct a survey of some newly settled peasant colonies in Gal Oya Valley.+ The Gal Oya Multipurpose Scheme was Sri Lanka’s first and largest post-independence development project, whose tasks were flood control, provision of irrigation for cultivating the “maximum acreage of land possible,” and generation of electricity for domestic and industrial use. The Gal Oya Development Board, appointed by the Sri Lankan government in 1949, was modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Damodar Valley Corporation, but was actually more circumscribed in its structure and powers than these two giant corporations. The largest component of the board’s agricultural plan was the settlement of landless peasants from depressed villages with families and some agricultural experience on small paddy and highland allotments. (Provision was also made for larger-scale cultivation, marketing, and processing of cash crops by cooperative agricultural and industrial undertakings.) gal-oya-44

From 1950 to 1958, about 43 village units were created in what was referred to as the Left Bank, where most of the settlement had thus far taken place. The total number of colonists given allotments of land was 5,859. Of these, about 50 percent came from the board’s “area of authority” in the Eastern Province, consisting of local Muslims and Tamils from the east coast and Sinhalese or Sinhalized Veddahs from the interior jungle villages, who had been displaced by the dam and reservoir. The next major group consisted of “Kandyan” Sinhalese villagers from the Central Province (25 percent), the majority coming from the Kandy and Kegalle districts. The remaining 25 percent came from other areas, such as the Southern (8 percent), Western, and Sabaragamuva provinces, and they were all Sinhalese. Although the colonists were ethnically mixed, the Sinhalese colonists were spatially separated from the local east coast Tamils and Muslims. The former were settled on the favored upper reaches of the Left Bank, immediately below the dam, and the latter were allotted less well irrigated lands at the ends of the irrigation channels contiguous with their original settlements.

A phalanx of officials, bureaucrats, and experts running the development program were locally housed in comfortable government-built bungalows in the administrative center, the fast-growing boomtown of Amparai, which was also the locus of a bustling bazaar of shops and of the rooming houses and shacks that accommodated hundreds of construction workers and transport personnel (who, if married, had left their spouses and families behind), as well as casual laborers and other young men in search of employment or making a living because the local mudalalis (small businessmen) and other traders needed their muscle.

The Gal Oya scheme was located some 150 miles by road from Colombo, the island’s capital, in a region that had previously been a jungle sparsely populated by slash-and-burn cultivators. By Sri Lankan reckoning in 1956, it was situated in the deep interior, and it was relatively inaccessible because of poor roads and transport facilities. Except for telephone and radio communications, available primarily to the elite officials and administrative offices, the valley had the air of being sealed off. The residents irregularly got news via the Colombo newspapers and from bus and truck drivers, traveling traders, and passengers in transit.The 1956 riots – which, as we know now, were only the first and smallest in a series of Sinhala-Tamil civilian clashes from that time to the most recent in 1983–were the first ethnic riots in the island after Sri Lanka attained independence. There was a long gap of forty-one years separating these riots from the riots of 1915 between the Sinhalese and Muslims (discussed at length in chapter 3). Although the last decades of British rule and the early years of independence since 1948 had seen labor disputes and trade union strikes, thuggery at elections, and other disturbances of the public peace (ranging from vendettas between traders and merchants and their respective retinues to armed robbery and homicide), there was nothing that in scale, explosiveness, and novelty matched the 1956 eruption (for 1915 was by then only a memory trace).+

Prior to the 1956 riots, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike had been under mounting pressure from his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party to bring in a “Sinhala Only Bill,” and it had been announced that such a bill would be introduced. Bandaranaike had said that provisions for the “reasonable use of Tamil” would come later, but he had also in his speeches maintained that unless a “Sinhalese only” policy were adopted, the Sinhalese “race, religion and culture would vanish.” +

From the point of view of Tamils, certain ominous events that accompanied this projected legislation foreshadowed worse to come. In the same year, the government announced that the leading teacher training college in the country would be reserved for Sinhalese teachers only. Around the same time, the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna (United Front of the Monks) demanded that persons educated in English or Tamil be prevented from taking public examinations until the year 1967.

The Federal Party, whose leader was S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, had made a strong showing in the elections of 1956, especially in the north, emerging as the dominant Tamil party. This result was in strong contrast to its poor showing in the 1952 elections. Its mounting success among the Tamils was because it advocated that the Tamil language should have “parity status” with Sinhalese. What distinguished the Federal Party from other Tamil political parties, besides its advocacy of a federal constitution, was its launching of a campaign of noncooperation and civil disobedience along the lines of Gandhian satyagraha to exert pressure on the government. The most effective of these civil protests was staged in June 1956.

The Official Language (or “Sinhala Only”) Bill, specifying that Sinhala would henceforth replace English as Sri Lanka’s official language, was introduced on June 5, and the Bandaranaike-led MEP government passed it on June 14, 1956, by a vote of 56 to 29.+ The debating of the bill caused a build up of tensions on both sides and the eruption of violence. James Manor notes:

Federal Party Leaders had whipped up feeling against the bill for weeks and on 5 June, the day that it would be introduced in Parliament, a complete “hartal” (suspension of normal business) was held in the Tamil-majority areas. The day before Chelvanayagam had written to Bandaranaike, “members of Parliament belonging to our party will lead a batch of about 200 satyagrahis to sit on the steps of the western entrance to the House of Representatives and there they will remain fasting the whole day…. I write to you asking you for your cooperation… to ensure that the satyagrahis are not disturbed.” +

69a-chelva-gface-satyagraha-05-06-1956Federal Party satyagraha at GF Green, 1956 3b-attacks-on-satyagrahis Attacks on satyagrahis–Pics from ivan-Paradise in Tears

On June 5, the Tamil satyagrahis, who had been refused entry to Parliament, which had been cordoned off with fences and was guarded by policemen, staged a sit-down demonstration nearby, and this led to their forcible ejection and signaled the riot. Some 200 Tamil protesters, including leading politicians, took part in this satyagraha rally on Galle Face Green. A crowd of Sinhalese collected, and several Tamil leaders and volunteers participating were physically injured and had to be taken to hospital.+ Meanwhile, small bands of Sinhalese roamed through the city, looting shops and destroying a few vehicles. The next morning, more serious looting was perpetrated in the Pettah shopping zone. The official estimates of damage done during two days was 87 injuries to persons and 43 lootings of shops. Some 113 people were arrested.

The Tamil sit-down demonstration “led to bitter riots in which over 100 people were injured. In a few days, they had spread to Eastern Province, where Tamils and Sinhalese lived intermingled; in Batticaloa and the Gal Oya Valley there was such violence that between 20 and 200 persons were killed, depending on which side was doing the tallying,” according to W. Howard Wriggins.+ “Sinhalese toughs – inspired as always by fantastic rumors – seized government cars, bulldozers and high explosives and for a few days terrorized the Tamil minority in the colony,” Manor writes. “Scores of Tamils, certainly well over one hundred, were massacred and hundreds more were driven into hiding. The army was sent to quell disturbances.” + In Batticaloa, a mass demonstration by about ten thousand Tamils was fired on by the police, resulting in at least two deaths. In the Gal Oya Valley, violence on a scale hitherto unknown broke out some five days after the turmoil in Colombo, setting a precedent for even more destructive violence two years later.

If one wonders what the relationship between the official language controversy and ethnic violence in the Eastern Province might be, why the rioting leapt from urban Colombo on the west coast to Gal Oya, a bustling enclave of hectic development activity and peasant resettlement, the answer is that around this time, the language issue was also becoming interwoven with the government’s policy of peasant resettlement in the less populous parts of the island. Just as the first issue had implications for the educational and employment prospects of the Tamils, so the second would be construed as causing demographic changes in Sinhalese and Tamil (and Muslim) ethnic ratios in the Eastern Province, and therefore as bearing on the politics of territorial control and of “homelands.” In fact, on the occasion of the inauguration of the Federal Party in December 1949, its leader, Chelvanayagam, had warned that the government’s colonization policy, whose beginning was evidenced by the Gal Oya Scheme, was even more dangerous to the Tamil people than the Sinhala-language policy. “There is evidence” he said, “that the government intends planting a Sinhalese population in this purely Tamil-speaking area.” +

Like the officials and colonists we were interacting with in Gal Oya Valley, my students and I had virtually no intimation of the events taking place in Colombo, or any inkling of the explosion about to happen in our midst. After finding ourselves trapped in Amparai, we were quickly shipped out by the Gal Oya authorities as soon as the violence showed signs of subsiding. Upon my return to the campus at Peradeniya, the vice-chancellor of the university, Sir Nicholas Atygalle, requested that I write him a report on the happenings of Gal Oya as soon as I could, including if possible statements by students who were contactable – this was the period of the long vacation – because the riots in question were a new phenomenon and many people were uncertain as to what to make of them.

I submitted a speedily composed memorandum (together with statements by some of the students) to Sir Nicholas. A few years later, in 1960, I left Sri Lanka, and in the course of several changes of residence and workplace in three countries, Thailand, England, and the United States, I managed to lose my copy of the memorandum. In 1992, to my thankful surprise, Professor Kingsley de Silva of Peradeniya University sent me a copy of the document, which he had received from another professor, who had come across it in the university’s archives.[2] The student reports were not retrieved.

I have decided to reproduce my 1956 memorandum here with minimal changes, despite some interpretive shortcomings. One of its virtues in its pristine state is that it quite self-consciously conveys that the “narrative” was constructed out of various kinds of fragments – my own encounters and conversations, reports from students, newspaper accounts, reports of reports, and so on – which were arranged to provide a connected story. The authorial work is transparent.

A second virtue is that the narrative singled out themes such as the central role of rumors in triggering the violence and also in generating anger and panic among the participants, the slowness to action of the police (themselves drawn from the majority community), and the critical faces in the crowd – in this case, the mobile and volatile labor force and construction workers who unleashed the violence. More than three decades later, when I began my comparative study of riots, I would find these themes to be of recurring import. Some obvious prejudices about “the criminal classes” expressed in this text have been allowed to stand, since a text written many years ago is being reproduced. +

The third significance of this report, which is not underscored in the original writing, because it was taken not to be unusual for those times at the university, is that a lecturer of Tamil ethnic origins was able to lead a team of students, the vast majority of whom were of Sinhalese ethnic origin, to Gal Oya for sociological research. Moreover, it is a mark of the tolerance, friendship, and mutual trust of those times that when the riots broke out, the Sinhalese students took good care to protect me and the seven other Tamils in the team from any possible victimization. The university campuses are much different today.

  *** *** Note that the highlighting in blue is emphasis added by The Editor, Thuppahi


[1] This account was recently brought to my attention by Professor Gerald H Peiris, who indicated that it, taken together with Tambiah’s 1956 report (to follow)  was an excellent account. It is taken from Stanley J. Tambiah, Leveling Crowds. Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia, New Delhi, Vistaar Publications, for University of California Press, 1996, pp. 82-87. The chapter includes footnote references at the end of the book. These have NOT been included here, but the spots are marked with a plus sign.

[2] This “professor” was/is Gerald Peiris. It called for some rooting around in the University offices and was pursued in the aftermath of Peiris’ sojourn spent at Harvard University in the late 1980s where he had convivial exchanges with Professor Tambiah. Peiris handed the document to ICES, Kandy, for despatch so it is possible that Tambiah did not know that the finding was Peiris’s work,



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Filed under accountability, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, economic processes, energy resources, governance, historical interpretation, language policies, life stories, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, power politics, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, social justice, sri lankan society, trauma, unusual people, working class conditions

One response to “The Anti-Tamil Gal Oya Riots of 1956

  1. Pingback: Anguish as Empowerment … and A Path to Retribution | Thuppahi's Blog

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