Bandarawela Riot

Published: August 25, 2023

August 25, 1963

Ceylon DMK

In 1950, Adappa Illancheliyan, a waiter and cashier in Colombo, founded the Ceylon Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (CDMK) subsequent to legislation that saw Malaiyaha Tamils lose their citizenship and voting rights. The CDMK presented an alternative to the more mainstream trade unions in the hill country like the CWC and CDC.1 The party was evidently inspired by the Indian DMK, but was not officially a Ceylonese branch of it. In 1957, there was a split in the organization, and other DMK-style organizations were formed. Illancheliyan’s group was considered to be radical.2 In 1960, one of the other groups, the All-Ceylon DMK, was a political party though it did not contest any seats in the elections of that year.3

Growing influence

In June 1962, the CDMK became more vocal. The CWC and the Federal Party got into a dispute over the latter’s commitment to the Malaiyaha Tamils.4 The CDMK took the side of the Federalists, asserting that the latter were principled supporters of the Malaiyaha Tamils. It accused the CWC of ineffectiveness and even of assisting Sinhalese racists by keeping the Malaiyaha Tamils divided from Ceylon Tamils in the north and east.5

That month, the government tabled the “Employment on Estates” Bill, which was aimed to increase Ceylonese (Sinhalese) representation in the estate workforce. The CDMK’s president denounced the bill, warning that it would “bring utter destitution to the ten lakhs of estate Tamils who have laboured in this country for generations.”6

Also that month were parliamentary by-elections. Of relevance was one in Welimada, a hill-country electorate contested and usually won by the ultranationalist Jatika Vimukti Peramuna and its leader, K. M. P. Rajaratna. Rajaratna was a rabid communalist who had a long history of expressing fear of Tamil domination and, as such, he harped on the CDMK’s presence in his campaign. He threatened an island-wide campaign to compel the government to ban the CDMK if the former showed no indications of doing so.7 Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike too denounced the CDMK, alleging that it was conspiring with the Federal Party, and called for patriotic Sinhalese to resist this allegiance.8

In July, Rajaratna’s wish came true. On the basis of police reports and ministerial advice, the government invoked emergency regulations to proscribe three DMK-related organizations in Ceylon, prohibiting organizational activities, fundraising, and meetings, among other things.9 However, in 1963, the state of emergency was ended and the CDMK organizations were free again, and in late August, the CDMK was to hold a meeting at the Bandarawela town hall.

Proscription conspiracy

According to Sutantiran,10 certain Sinhalese communalists in Colombo, including some notable individuals, wanted to create disturbances at the meeting and then frame the CDMK so that the government would proscribe the organization once again. For this purpose, lorries were used to ship in five hundred Sinhalese thugs from areas like Badulla, Uva Paranagama, and Welimada, to Bandarawela. Sutantiran noted that local Sinhalese were not party to this conspiracy and did not partake in the resultant disturbances. The thugs used a hotel as their base, preparing for a “war.” A member of the Jatika Vimukti Peramuna was alleged to be the “commander-in-chief” for the Sinhalese in the “Battle of Bandarawela.”11

Battle of Bandarawela

On the day of the meeting, August 25, a procession of over a thousand Malaiyaha Tamils made their way to the town hall, shouting slogans. The slogans shouted by the procession would later become a subject of dispute, though Sutantiran reported that they were about equality and dignity for the Malaiyaha Tamils (who will be referred to simply as “Tamils” henceforth). Most notably, there were slogans that they should be citizens of Ceylon and that Ceylon was their motherland. Along the way, the thugs started shouting insults such as “bloody Tamils” and “sons of whores,”12 mockingly asking the marchers if they wanted freedom. Police intervened and the two groups were separated from each other.13

Even as the meeting was in progress, the thugs attacked Tamil passers-by in the market. After the meeting, the exiting attendees were ambushed by stone throwing from miscreants hiding behind boutiques. After this, the thugs assaulted them, prompting the police to baton-charge the crowd.14

Disturbances spread throughout Bandarawela. The Sinhalese mobs assaulted Tamils and robbed them of money and jewelry at various points. Tamils at the bus and railway stations had stones thrown at them. Tamil shops were attacked, and Tamil-owned vehicles were set ablaze. There were also reports of Tamil women being treated indecently.15

Attacks occurred even during the night, with assaults being reported. Throughout the whole ordeal, witnesses alleged that the police either did little to nothing or, in some cases, even joined in the violence. 16

Tamil workers at Bandarawela did not remain wholly idle. A bus driver reported that some from Poonagala Estate stoned his bus in retaliation for the earlier incidents.17 For this, fifteen people were arrested. At the end of it all, over a hundred people were injured, and by the next day, Tamils were reluctant to walk on the main streets of Bandarawela.18

“Ban the DMK”

The incidents were taken up in parliament. S. Thondaman, president of the CWC, had alleged that police, in general, poorly treated Tamil estate labourers. He reiterated the observations of the meeting’s attendees: police were bystanders when Tamils were assaulted by Sinhalese thugs. Expressing the same conspiracy allegation as Sutantiran, he noted that Basil Silva, a member of the Jatika Vimukti Peramuna, had made his way from Colombo to Bandarawela. He also claimed that the CDMK was considered a nuisance among Malaiyaha Tamils and that the meeting’s criticisms were largely directed towards the CWC and the DWC.19

Rajaratna alleged that the CDMK had distributed pamphlets calling for the seizure of Bandarawela as a citadel. In the following procession, he continued, the marchers shouted slogans such as “Ceylon is part of South India” and “Sinhalese of Bandarawela will be destroyed.” Statements like these were what motivated the Sinhalese to act as they did. After this, about two dozen Tamils refused to obey police instructions, and this led to the ensuing disturbance, though he denied that any Tamil women were molested. He criticized the government for allowing the foreign DMK to engage in anti-national activities in Ceylon and declared that he would fight against those activities. On the topic of Basil Silva, he explained that Silva was in Bandarawela to do some party work.20

Badulla MP B. G. H. Bandara corroborated Rajaratna’s allegations of inflammatory slogans and placards being used in the procession. He defended the police, claiming that he had discussed dispute settlement with the police superintendent and government agent. Then, he alleged that the Tamil labourers had set up a “small Madras” at Poonagala Estate where they were engaged in “guerilla tactics” and warned that a repetition of the 1958 communal riots would neither do good for Sinhalese nor for Tamils. Finally, he alleged that over forty percent of Malaiyaha Tamils in the Uva Province had guns and called for a seizure of the weapons, warning that “one day those very guns might be pointed at us.”21

A common request at the meeting was for the government to ban the CDMK. In support of this, Colombo South MP J. R. Jayawardene, while asking the government to bring peace to the area to ease the fears of Tamil workers, argued that the CDMK had no place in Ceylon. Noting that the original DMK was a separatist outfit in India, he alleged that the CDMK’s goal was to subsume Ceylon within the Dravidian states of South India. He observed that whenever local estate labour parties or organizations held meetings or demonstrations, there was no trouble. The difference this time was that the CDMK processionists held anti-Sinhalese placards. Rajaratna and Bandara also asked for the CDMK to be banned.22

Sutantiran later alleged that certain MPs were lobbying the government to ban political meetings, rallies, and conferences in major cities in the hill country. With police enforcement, this would be an attempt to stifle Malaiyaha Tamil political activity. There was also a rumor of the government considering new legislation to ban the CDMK as, under the current laws, the organization could not be banned without a state of emergency in effect.23

CDMK response

The assistant general secretary of the CDMK, M. A. Velalagan, issued a statement to the Ceylon Daily News, declaring that the procession and meeting were, at all times, law-abiding, peaceful, and in accordance with police permissions. In his version of events, the procession was accosted by Sinhalese hecklers near the town hall. The police did not disperse the hecklers, and after the meeting, the police stood by when the attendees were physically attacked. Velalagan asserted that neither the procession nor the kazhagam were opposed to the Sinhalese people. He denied that the CDMK claimed that Ceylon was a part of India, and went on to assert that the CDMK was not in any way connected to the Indian DMK.24

Town hall

Nearly a month after the riot, the Bandarawela Urban Council, the former chairman (a Tamil) asked that applications for the usage of the town hall for political meetings be first submitted to the council for approval. He expressed a desire to limit CDMK activities as he deemed the organization a nuisance. The current chairman explained that he did not expect the meeting to unfold the way it did. Another council member proposed that the town hall should be rented out at Rs. 50 per hour for political meetings.25

Continuing presence

In late 1964, the Ceylonese and Indian governments entered into the Indo-Ceylon Agreement, or the Sirima-Shastri Pact, under which several hundred thousand Malaiyaha Tamils would be “repatriated” to India over fifteen years, while those who remained would either obtain citizenship or have their status negotiated later. Velalagan denounced this agreement, alleging that “it was concluded ‘to meet the internal and external needs of the capitalist Indian and Ceylon Government.’”26

In 1969, the CDMK became more active and sought to expand beyond the hill country by contesting electorates in the north and east in the upcoming parliamentary election, challenging the very Federal Party that it once defended. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake came under pressure to ban the organization. Though he refused, he “placed the Party under police surveillance to assure that its activities [did] not became ‘anti-national’.” The CDMK was noted to have been militant in its stance.27

In turn, in its manifesto for the 1970 election, the Federal Party referred to the CDMK as a “bogey.”28 The Sinhala Mahajana Pakshaya included banning the organization as a part of its 21-point manifesto for the same election.29 Ultimately, the CDMK contested only two electorates in the north and east and did not come close to winning even one,30 showing that the kazhagam was, for all the consternation and violence blamed on its presence, insignificant.


Abeynaike, H. B. W., and H. P. Ameratunga. Parliament of Ceylon, 1970. Colombo: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., 1970.

Fretty, Ralph E. “Ceylon: Actively Awaiting an Election.” Asian Survey 10, no. 2 (1970): 82–87.

Fukui, Haruhiro and Colin A. Hughes, Political Parties of Asia and the Pacific, Volume 2. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Jegathasan, Mythri. Tea and Solidarity: Tamil Women and Work in Postwar Sri Lanka. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019.

Prasad, Dhirendra Mohan. Ceylon’s Foreign Policy Under the Bandaranaikes (1956-65): A Political Analysis. New Delhi: S. Chand, 1973.

Wilson, A. J. Electoral Politics in an Emergent State: The Ceylon General Election of 1970. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.


  1. Mythri Jegathasan, Tea and Solidarity: Tamil Women and Work in Postwar Sri Lanka (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019), 215.
  2. Haruhiro Fukui and Colin A. Hughes, Political Parties of Asia and the Pacific, Volume 2 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), 1021.
  3. “D.M.K. Federation Dissolves Itself,” Ceylon Daily News, July 23, 1962. Ceylon Daily News will hereafter be abbreviated as “CDN.”
  4. “See “CWC Replies to F.P. on ‘Jobs on Estate’ Bill,” CDN, June 7, 1962; “Chelvanayakam Replies to CWC,” CDN, June 12, 1962; “C.W.C. Replies to F.P. Boss,” CDN, June 23, 1962 for back-and-forth between the two.
  5. “Ceylon DMK on CWC,” CDN, June 11, 1962.
  6. “Ceylon DMKs Call to Estate Tamils,” CDN, June 25, 1962. The Federal Party and CWC also opposed the bill. “F.P. Decries ‘Jobs on Estates’ Bill,” CDN, June 5, 1962.
  7. “Why Doesn’t Govt. Ban DMK? Asks Rajaratna,” CDN, June 25, 1962.
  8. “Premier on ‘Two Evils’: F.P. and Local DMK,” CDN, June 23, 1962.
  9. “Three D.M.K. Parties Are Now Proscribed,” CDN, July 24, 1962.
  10. Sutantiran was a pro-Federal Party Tamil weekly.
  11. Ti. Mu. Ka. Vaittadai Seyya Uruvaana Satittiddam,” [Conspiracy Hatched to Proscribe the D.M.K] Sutantiran, September 8, 1963.
  12. In Sinhala, “para demaḷa” and “vesigē putā.”
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.; “Felix on Incident at Bandarawela,” CDN, September 3, 1963.
  15. Ti. Mu. Ka. Vaittaṭaiceyya Uruvāṉa Catittiṭṭam,” [Conspiracy Hatched to Proscribe the D.M.K.] Sutantiran, September 8, 1963.
  16. Ibid.
  17. “Felix on Incident at Bandarawela,” CDN, September 3, 1963.
  18. Ibid. For a witness account, see “Baṇṭāravalaiyil Tamiḻaratu Tākkiya Sampavam: Kāṭaiyar Aṭṭakācattai Nēril Kaṇṭavar Tarum Takaval,” [Incident of Assault on Tamils at Bandarawela: Eyewitness Account of the Ruffian Ostentation], Sutantiran, September 8, 1963.
  19. “Bandarawela Incidents: Ban D. M. K.—M.Ps,” CDN, September 3, 1963.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Potukkūṭṭaṅkaḷ Ūrvalaṅkaḷ Taṭai? Pōlīs Utaviyuṭaṉ Amulākkappaṭumām,” [Prohibition of Public Meetings and Processions? To Be Enforced with Police Aid] Sutantiran, September 8, 1963.
  24. “DMK Statement on Recent Incident,” CDN, September 7, 1963.
  25. “Bandarawela UC Attempts to Lock Stable Door Now,” CDN, September 20, 1963.
  26. Dhirendra Mohan Prasad, Ceylon’s Foreign Policy Under the Bandaranaikes (1956-65): A Political Analysis (New Delhi: S. Chand, 1973), 299.
  27. Ralph E. Fretty, “Ceylon: Actively Awaiting an Election,” Asian Survey 10, no. 2 (1970): 82–87.
  28. H. B. W. Abeynaike and H. P. Ameratunga. Parliament of Ceylon, 1970 (Colombo: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., 1970), 195.
  29. Ibid., 199.
  30. A. J. Wilson, Electoral Politics in an Emergent State: The Ceylon General Election of May 1970 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 109.