Bogawantalawa Riot

Date published: April 26, 2023

April 2 – 4, 1958

ශ්‍රී campaigns come to Bogawantalawa

As with many areas of Ceylon, in April 1958, tensions over the deployment of ශ්‍රී (sri)-numbered buses came to Bogawantalawa, a tea-growing area in the hill country. Its population was predominantly comprised of Malaiyaha Tamils,1 who will be referred to simply as “Tamils” hereafter, employed in the tea estates.

Two campaigns emerged in parallel at Bogawantalawa: a pro-ශ්‍රී campaign, where Sinhalese tarred ශ්‍රී over Tamil lettering on signboards, and an anti-ශ්‍රී campaign, where Tamils tarred out ශ්‍රී on bus licence plates. S. Thondaman, president of the Ceylon Workers Congress, further alleges that police ignored Sinhalese campaigners while arresting Tamil ones.2

Police shooting

On the night of April 2, two Tamil labourers were shot dead after a confrontation at the Bogawantalawa Police Station. There are two versions of the preceding events.

The most accepted is that a Tamil crowd at Bogawantalawa had stoned a bus with ශ්‍රී on its license plate and stopped it. They threatened to hurt the driver, so he took the bus to the police station. The crowd followed the bus and started stoning the police station. A clash between the crowd and police followed for about an hour. Two police personnel were injured in the clash.3

The other version, recounted by Thondaman, is that the Tamil crowd had gone to the police station to protest the arrest of Tamil anti-ශ්‍රී campaigners.4

Either way, the police opened fire, killing two labourers, Anthony Frances and Muthu Iyavoo. Two others were injured.5

Crowds run amok

By the next day, the situation deteriorated considerably. Enraged Tamils lined the roads of Bogawantalawa and surrounding areas and barricaded them with rocks and logs. Cars and buses were stoned, telephone posts were uprooted, and Sinhalese and their shops were attacked.6

Murder of Justin

On April 4, two Sinhalese, L. H. Justin and Tilakawansa Silva, encountered a hundred-strong Tamil mob breaking a culvert at Chapelton, about one mile away from Bogawantalawa. A man in the mob assaulted the two Sinhalese. Presumably in anticipation of an ordeal like this, Justin had pre-equipped himself with a knife. He stabbed a mobster and then fled with Tilakawansa. The now enraged mob pursued, shouting that they would kill the two.7

Tilakawansa and Justin split up as they fled. The former sought refuge in a boutique owned by one Selvadurai, who hid him in a box. When the mob came to Selvadurai’s boutique, he denied that Tilakawansa was there. The mob had partially damaged the boutique, but Tilakawansa remained hidden until police reinforcements arrived to rescue him.8

Justin was not so fortunate. As he ran away, he was stoned to death by the section of the crowd that pursued him.9 This marked the first clear-cut mob murder in the racial violence of 1958.


The strongest reactions came from Malaiyaha and Ceylon Tamil parties.

Thondaman asked for all estate labourers to “remain calm and watch developments” and called for a public inquiry into the police shooting. Abdul Aziz, president of the rival Democratic Workers Congress, also appealed to labourers not to engage in violence. Both of them accused police of excesses in their handling of the labourers in general.10

The Federal Party called for a one-day, non-violent hartal in the Northern and Eastern provinces out of respect for Frances and Iyavoo and recommended that a public inquiry into the police shooting be held. It also contrasted the allegedly excessive behaviour shown by the police towards the Tamil workers with the passive attitude they took when Tamils were victims of Sinhalese thuggery in other parts of the country.11 The hartal was held on April 5 and passed with only one incident in Jaffna where a crowd threw stones at a bank that had not observed the strike.12

G. G. Ponnambalam, leader of the Tamil Congress, also appealed for a commission of inquiry into the police shooting. However, being an opponent of the Federal Party and its tactics, he urged Tamils in the North and East to disregard the request to observe a hartal, arguing that it was merely “a much-needed restorative to [the Federal Party’s] lost prestige.”13

The government held an emergency meeting of ministers to discuss the Bogawantalawa shooting. In a press statement, Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike acknowledged that there was violence associated with the ශ්‍රී campaigns and called for peace. He furthermore assured that the government would restore law and order.14

Among the ordinary people in the Bogawantalawa area, thousands of Tamil estate labourers attended the funeral of Frances and Iyavoo.15 Until April 5, estate labour had come to a halt in the Hatton area.16

The grave of Frances and Iyavoo

The grave of Frances and Iyavoo. [Source: P.Vijayakanthan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.]

Likewise, a funeral for Justin was attended by about three hundred. A self-imposed curfew was observed on the evening of April 5 in Hatton, where the funeral took place.17

Calming tensions

The efforts by Thondaman, combined with police and military reinforcements, brought the violence to a halt by April 5.18

Magisterial inquiry

As usual, a magisterial inquiry was called to determine whether the police shooting was justified. After five months, the Hatton magistrate, C. B. Walgampaya, deemed the shooting justified. He concluded:19

“I am constrained to hold that the damage to public property in this incident was quite unwarranted and caused quite wantonly. I hold that this is a case of justifiable homicide.”


Thondaman, S. Tea and Politics: An Autobiography, Vol. 2, My Life and Times. New Delhi: Navrang, 1994.


  1. They are more commonly known as “Indian Tamils,” “Upcountry Tamils,” or “Hill Country Tamils.” However, their preferred name is “Malaiyaha Tamil,” which corresponds closest to “Hill Country Tamil.”
  2. S. Thondaman, Tea and Politics: An Autobiography, Vol. 2, My Life and Times. (New Delhi: Navrang, 1994), 157.
  3. “Premier Appeals to the People: Act with Restraint, Patience,” Ceylon Daily News, April 4, 1958.; “The Tar Brush: Latest Reports,” Ceylon Daily News, April 5, 1958. In subsequent endnotes, “Ceylon Daily News” will be abbreviated to “CDN.”
  4. Thondaman, Tea and Politics, 157.
  5. Ibid.; “Premier Appeals to the People: Act with Restraint, Patience,” CDN, April 4, 1958.
  6. Thondaman, Tea and Politics, 157; “The Tar Brush: Latest Reports,” CDN, April 5, 1958.
  7. “Bogawantalawa Inquiry Held by Magistrate,” CDN, April 7, 1958.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. “Be Calm, Say Estate Leaders,” CDN, April 4, 1958.
  11. Ibid.
  12. “One Incident Only During the Hartal,” CDN, April 7, 1958.
  13. “Ponnambalam Calls for Sanity and Goodwill,” CDN, April 5, 1958.
  14. “Premier Appeals to the People: Act with Restraint, Patience,” CDN, April 4, 1958.
  15. Thondaman, Tea and Politics, 157; “The Tar Brush: Latest Reports,” CDN, April 5, 1958.
  16. “Estate Workers Back at Work,” CDN, April 6, 1958.
  17. “Ibid.
  18. “More Tar but Less Temper,” CDN, April 7, 1958.
  19. “Shooting Justified,” CDN, September 9, 1958.