Published: October 15, 2023
October 15-17, 1950
The Mahavamsa states that when the Buddha visited Sri Lanka, he visited a site called Deegavapi that he consecrated alongside other monks through a meditation. Centuries later, Prince Tissa, Governor of Digamadulla, resided at Deegavapi. When his elder brother Dutugemunu became king, Tissa was re-officiated as governor of Digamadulla. After the death of Dutugemunu, Tissa, now called Saddhatissa, built a vihara at Deegavapi with a cetiya.1 In 1909, British engineer Henry Parker opined that Deegavapi was likely a pagoda that was located forty miles south of Batticaloa by the then-government agent, Simon Sawers, a century earlier.2 The civil auditor had described the building as “gigantic,” with the cone-shaped pagoda being “entirely covered with brick and mortar; its basis is about one quarter of a mile in circumference, and the top and sides are now planted with large trees that have fixed their roots in the ruins.” Local residents identified the building as being erected by giants thousands of years prior.3
In 1916, Kohukumbure Rewatha Thero, apparently on a mission by the Bibile Rajamaha Vihara, erected a temple near the pagoda. A popular but unconfirmed Sinhalese narration of events is that, upon his discovery of the site, he found Muslims taking bricks from the cetiya to construct their own houses, and this led him to staying on site. He claimed that the lands in the vicinity, its villages, cattle, and buffaloes had been donated to the Bibile vihara by King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe in 1756. Consequently, he petitioned the Ceylon governor to restore around three thousand acres of land to the Bibile vihara. Without a response, he sent a reminder in 1924. In the 1930’s, an archaeological team arrived at the site, but rather than accede to his request, asked him to find an alternate site to build the temple with state permission.4
At this point, the conflict was between Buddhists and the state, not between communities. The archaeological commissioner ordered new lands be provided for the Deegavapi temple, a process that required resurveying, and resurveying brought with it communal troubles. A Muslim named Ismail who lived in the vicinity of the temple claimed that his land was unlawfully incorporated into the temple lands due to the resurveying. A property dispute then emerged between Ismail and the temple.5
Gal Oya riot
On October 12, 1950, the monk was shot dead. Rumors spread that he had uttered “Ismail” before dying and, initially, police arrested two Muslims in connection with the murder. Attacks on Muslims in the form of arson, looting, and assaults by Sinhalese labourers at Inginiyagala ensued three days after. Muslims in Kalmunai engaged in retaliatory attacks on Sinhalese there. Armed police were deployed to restore order to the area, and by October 18, they did so successfully.6 The acting IGP maintained that the incidents were generally isolated and trivial, the only exception being a man who was hit with a club on October 15 dying of his injury nine days after. He further alleged that vernacular papers contained exaggerated reports about the incidents.7 Writing on the incident decades later, the then-government agent of the Batticaloa District, V. S. M. de Mel, recounted that he was in contact with the Home Office in Colombo, and even a military unit there had been readied for deployment to Gal Oya if required. Such action turned out to not be necessary, and a month later, things were back to normal.8
However, the incidents were sufficiently impactful such that three hundred Muslim workers left Gal Oya to go to their homes in Akkaraipattu, and Pottuvil MP Mudaliyar Ebrahim received complaints that the police did not do their duties.9 Likewise, several Sinhalese labourers at Amparai, originally from Nuwara Eliya, returned home owing to the tension in the area.10
de Mel credited the efforts of the Kalmunai MP, M. S. Kariapper, for restoring harmony between Sinhalese and Muslims. Ebrahim also acknowledged Kariapper’s role in easing tensions in the Gal Oya area. Kariapper himself thanked both Sinhalese and Muslims for aiding him in preventing a major conflagration in the area.11 Six years later, after more severe rioting between Sinhalese and Tamils broke out in Gal Oya, Kariapper lamented that he alone had warned then-Premier D. S. Senanayake about tension in the Gal Oya area in 1950, but his warnings went unheeded. He asked that the government consider compensating the victims of the 1950 violence.12
Kalendar Ismalebbai and his son, Ismalebbai Adamlebbai, were the two Muslims who were remanded as initial suspects in the murder of the monk. The Batticaloa magistrate discharged them, noting that the police had no evidence to implicate the two. However, Ismalebbai pled guilty to possession of an unlicensed gun and was fined Rs. 35.13 According to de Mel, the actual killer was a Sinhala Buddhist.14
Muslims of Gal Oya
Much attention has been given to tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils at Gal Oya due to the vocal opposition by Tamil politicians to Sinhalese settlement there and the fact that the first major Sinhalese-Tamil clash occurred there in June 1956. However, as Deegavapi demonstrates, Muslims of the area too were an important factor. Even in 1950, tensions were acute such that violence ensued, though clearly not to the scale of the 1956 riots. The tensions between Sinhalese and Muslims over land cultivation in the area continued after the riot for decades.15
Of particular consternation was the fact that, shortly after independence, the government began a colonization scheme at Gal Oya, and Tamils and Muslims in the area saw it as part of Sinhalese interests. The 1950 riot was an example of trouble in the scheme that led Richard Aluvihare, the inspector-general of police in the early years of Ceylonese independence, to remark on the communal tensions in the scheme in his administration report in 1952, four years before the Sinhalese-Tamil riots took place.16 From the scheme’s inception in the late 1940’s, discontent was seething in valley, and over the next decade, would manifest itself in violent outbursts.
Aluvihare, Richard, Administration Report of the Inspector-General of Police for 1952. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1954.
de Mel, V. S. M. Through the Vistas of Life. Colombo, 1980.
Forbes, Jonathan. Eleven Years in Ceylon Volume 1. London: Richard Bentley, 1840.
Geiger, Wilhelm and Mabel Haynes Bode, trans. The Mahavamsa. London: Oxford University Press, 1912.
Parker, Henry. Ancient Ceylon: An Account of the Aborigines and of Part of the Early Civilisation. London: Luzac & Co., 1901.
Silva, Kalinga Tudor and Shahul H. Hasbullah. “Sacred Sites, Humanitarian Assistance and the Politics of Land Grabbing in Eastern Sri Lanka: the Case of Deegavapi.” Sri Lanka Journal of Sociology 1 (2019): 62-86.
Wijesinghe, Nandana. “Buddhist-Muslim Collision in Sri Lanka: A Partial History.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Universities 7 (2016): 122-133.
- 1.78; 24.22; 33.21 (Mahavamsa).
- Henry Parker, Ancient Ceylon: An Account of the Aborigines and of Part of the Early Civilisation (London: Luzac & Co., 1901), 318.
- Jonathan Forbes, Eleven Years in Ceylon Volume 1 (London: Richard Bentley, 1840), 153-154.
- Kalinga Tudor Silva and Shahul H. Hasbullah, “Sacred Sites, Humanitarian Assistance and the Politics of Land Grabbin in Eastern Sri Lanka: the Case of Deegavapi,” Sri Lanka Journal of Sociology 1 (2019): 68-69.
- Nandana Wijesinghe, “Buddhist-Muslim Collision in Sri Lanka: A Partial History,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Universities 7 (2016): 123 of 122-133.
- “Armed Police Patrol Gal Oya Area,” Ceylon Daily News, October 19, 1950; Wijesinghe, Buddhist-Muslim Collision in Sri Lanka, 68-69. Henceforth, “Ceylon Daily News” will be abbreviated as “CDN.”
- “Inginiyagala Normal: No Incidents Since Oct. 18,” CDN, October 23, 1950.
- V. S. M. de Mel, Through the Vistas of Life (Colombo: 1980), 82.
- “Armed Police Patrol Gal Oya Area,” CDN, October 19, 1950; “M. P. ‘Restored Communal Peace’,” Times of Ceylon, October 24, 1950. Henceforth, “Times of Ceylon” will be abbreviated as “TC.”
- “Labourers Ask to Be Sent Back From Farms,” TC, October 24, 1950.
- “M. P. ‘Restored Communal Peace’,” TC, October 24, 1950.
- Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, vol. 25, col. 361-363.
- “Alleged Murder of Priest, Father and Son Discharged,” TC, October 31, 1950.
- de Mel, Through the Vistas of Life, 81.
- Silva and Hasbullah, “Sacred Sites, Humanitarian Assistance and the Politics of Land Grabbin in Eastern Sri Lanka: the Case of Deegavapi,” 69-72.
- Richard Aluvihare, Administration Report of the Inspector-General of Police for 1952. (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1954), A40.