Ethnic Violence in the Trincomalee District in February 1956: Part I

Part II

Published: February 27, 2024

February 5 – 28, 1956

The language issue

In early 1956, the pressing election issue in Sri Lanka was the language issue, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it found its way to the Trincomalee District, where sizeable Sinhalese and Tamil populations resided. A prominent Sinhalese organization in Trincomalee was the Sinhala Jatika Sangamaya,1 “a small and rather loose association of literati and bhikkhus” that took hardline stances on ethnic issues.2 On January 29, the sangamaya held a public meeting on the language question in Trincomalee. Tamils there took offence at some of the utterances in that meeting and, as in other predominantly Tamil areas, decided to boycott Independence Day and raise black flags. The official celebrations were cancelled, but Sinhalese celebrated in their own capacity and raised the national flag. Despite the disagreements, there had been no violence.3

A view of Trincomalee town from Koneswaram Temple. [Source: Pierre André LECLERCQCC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.]

However, the peace did not last for very long. On the evening of February 5, a dispute occurred between a Sinhalese and Tamil boutique. It started as a verbal altercation, but then turned violent. An eating house was broken into and damaged, leading to a fight that hospitalized five or six. While the initial dispute between the boutiques was private, the argument drew others in and the consequent clash was racial. Among the weapons used were sticks, stones, and dynamite.4 Police were rushed in to establish control, but the next day, Tamils at Trincomalee and Kuchchaveli committed assault, arson, and dynamiting against Sinhalese and their property.5

That night, Sinhalese labourers at Kantalai retaliated by stopping the night mail train and assaulting and robbing Tamil passengers. The attacks were severe enough that some passengers fled and, upon return, found their belongings damaged.6 The Trincomalee government agent had warned, in his administration report for 1954, that the labour force on the colonization schemes was an impediment to communal harmony and contributed to a massive increase in crime in the district. A police station had been opened at nearby Mutur that year, but not at Kantalai, despite a specific request by the government agent.7 Armed police arrived to disperse the mob but were attacked, and they in turn opened fire.8 About a hundred riot police from Bambalapitiya arrived at Kantalai to ensure security.9

The trauma of the previous days’ incidents had led to the streets of Trincomalee being deserted on February 7, so much so that the Lankadeepa remarked that the town had not been so lonely since the Japanese aerially bombed it in 1942.10 But the quiet did not hold for long; a further deterioration in Sinhala-Tamil relations ensued, and on a near-daily basis, violence was reported. Then-police superintendent of the Southern Province, F. N. D. Jilla, recounts in his autobiography that migrant Sinhalese fishermen from the southern coast would, from time to time, get into clashes with local Tamil fishermen in Trincomalee. He recalls that two Sinhalese fishermen were killed during these clashes in early 1956, likely referring to the February violence, but the press had complied with a request by authorities to not report on the killings.11 Police presence was heightened and units maintained a strict watch of the town, but the worst had yet to come.12

Pledge default

Meanwhile, the UNP was undergoing a massive political change. Originally a proponent of parity of status between Sinhala and Tamil as official languages of the country, it found demand for “Sinhala Only” too widespread among their primary electors, the Sinhalese, to ignore. By January 1956, it was evident that the shift was approaching, and during its annual convention on Kelaniya on February 18, the UNP switched to a “Sinhala Only” policy.

This incensed Tamils of the North and East, especially given that some of their electorates had returned UNP candidates in the 1952 parliamentary election. The Federal Party, unsuccessful in 1952 but becoming increasingly popular, called for a peaceful hartal the next day in Tamil-majority towns in response to the UNP’s change in policy. On February 19, it took place and was peaceful. The party’s president, E. M. V. Naganathan, declared that the hartal was a success in major Tamil towns, including Trincomalee. However, the Ceylon Daily News reported that efforts to launch a hartal in Trincomalee failed and business carried on as usual.13

Dynamite rampage

Regardless of however successful the hartal was at Trincomalee, the Tamil population there was certainly enraged by the UNP’s switch, and the violence that had plagued the town for a month was about to reach its climax. On the night of February 25, a mob of Tamils, possibly including Muslims, went on a spate of acid, arson, and dynamite attacks against Sinhalese houses and boutiques in the coastal area of Trincomalee. The town was in a frenzy amid dozens of explosions, but police intervention managed to limit the damage. At least two Sinhalese and a Muslim were injured as a consequence of the violence.14

Two nights later, Tamil rioters initiated yet another dynamite rampage on Sinhalese houses, chiefly in the area where fishermen resided. Some Sinhalese had launched similar counterattacks against Tamils. While a governmental press release described the violence as “a few further cases of mischief,” a British navy officer described it as “equal of any real war episode.”15 Around midnight, police allege that the Tamil rioters turned their dynamite attacks on them in a dispersal effort. In response, they opened fire on three different occasions, and only after this did they manage to suppress the rioting. At the end of the violence, two Tamils, Govindasamy and Chandrasekaram, were killed by the police shootings. Around six others were injured by the shootings, and a third man, Siththamparapillai, died over a week later. 16

In his annual administration report, Osmund de Silva, the IGP, specifically credited ASP K. S. Van Rooyen with “conspicuous courage, leadership and an utter disregard of his own safety” on the night of February 27. It was his efforts, generally unassisted, that led to the successful suppression of rioting within a night. Van Rooyen was consequently awarded a medal for gallantry. With this, the violence had plagued the Trincomalee District for a month had concluded, though the situation had not returned to “normal” until mid-March.17

Barraged with bombs

The killings of the three Tamils by police were later the subject of magisterial inquiries. Constable Ismail said that he arrived at Padukkai, a coastal neighbourhood of Trincomalee, in the early night of February 27. About 45 minutes later, three houses were set on fire, though fire brigades extinguished them. An hour after this, another house was set on fire. He and Constable Siriwardena went to the house and put out the fire with the help of a nearby crowd. After this, a stick of dynamite was thrown near the house by a mob and exploded. The two constables rushed in the direction of the dynamite and found themselves barraged with another seven or eight sticks of dynamite, injuring Ismail in the leg. He warned the mob, but still more sticks were flung. Having been asked to keep the peace, he ordered Siriwardena to shoot. Siriwardena fired once, but the mob continued to throw dynamite, so Siriwardena shot once again. It was during this confrontation that Govindasamy was killed. The next morning, they reported the shooting, but Ismail only came to know of the man’s death during the inquiry.18 The magistrate ruled Govindasamy’s death a justifiable homicide.19

At another inquiry, this one on the shooting of Chandrasekaram, Sergeant Francis and Constable Jayakody claimed that they were patrolling the town in a jeep. They noticed a mob throwing dynamite at houses and ordered it to cease. This was to no avail, so they opened fire, dispersing the mob. They claimed that they did not know if the shots actually hit anyone and did not actually check the scene of the shooting themselves. The magistrate acknowledged that while the circumstances would seem to justify the firing, he could not definitively link Chandrasekaram with the violent mob due to the lack of checking by police, and consequently deemed his death a homicide.20

The death of the third man, Siththamparapillai, was deemed a justifiable homicide.21

Continued in Part 2…

Bibliography

de Silva, S. W. O. Administration Report of the Inspector-General of Police for 1956. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1957.

Jilla, F. N. D. Without Fear or Favour. Colombo: Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha, 2003.

Manor, James. The Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

McHeyzer, A. R. Administration Report of the Government Agent, Trincomalee District, for 1954. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1955.

McHeyzer, A. R. Administration Report of the Government Agent, Trincomalee District, for 1956. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1957.

Endnotes

  1. Sinhalese National Association
  2. James Manor, The Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 266.
  3. “People’s Duty to Preserve Their Newly Won Freedom,” CDN, February 7, 1956; S. W. O. de Silva, Administration Report of the Inspector-General of Police for 1956 (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1957), A10.
  4. A. R. McHeyzer, Administration Report of the Government Agent, Trincomalee District, for 1956 (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1957), A188; de Silva, Administration Report 1956, A10; “Kōlāhalaya Valakī,” [Riot Averted] Lankadeepa, February 7, 1956.
  5. “Trouble Brewing,” CDN, February 10, 1956; de Silva, Administration Report 1956, A10.
  6. “Armed Police at the Scene,” CDN, February 7, 1956.
  7. A. R. McHeyzer, Administration Report of the Government Agent, Trincomalee District, for 1954 (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1955), A168-A172.
  8. “15 Remanded,” CDN, March 2, 1956.
  9. “Armed Police at the Scene,” CDN, February 7, 1956.
  10. Tirikuṇāmalaya Pāḷuveyi,” [Trincomalee Has Become Lonely] Lankadeepa, February 8, 1956.
  11. F. N. D. Jilla, Without Fear or Favour (Colombo: Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha, 2003), 323. However, neither the government agent nor the IGP specifically mention two Sinhalese being killed in February. However, the former mentions that “a loss of life… due to arson and dynamiting” was part of the February violence. McHeyzer, Administration Report 1956, A188.
  12. de Silva, Administration Report 1956, A11.
  13. “Jaffna Stages Monday Hartal,” CDN, February 21, 1956. If the Ceylon Daily News report is accurate, the failure is all the more ironic given that Trincomalee was one of two electorates won by the Federal Party, of seven contested, in 1952.
  14. “3 Injured in Clash,” Morning Times, February 27, 1956; “Dynamiters at Work,” CDN, February 27, 1956.
  15. “Ceylon Riots Over Language Issue,” The Times, February 29, 1956; “More Trouble in Trinco,” CDN, February 29, 1956; de Silva, Administration Report 1956, A11.
  16. “Judge on Police Shooting,” CDN, June 14, 1956; “Shooting was Justified,” CDN, June 15, 1956; McHeyzer, Administration Report 1956, A188.
  17. de Silva, Administration Report 1956, A6.
  18. “Inquiry into Police ‘Firing’ Begins,” CDN, March 6, 1956.
  19. “Judge on Police Shooting,” CDN, June 14, 1956.
  20. Ibid.
  21. “Shooting Was Justified,” CDN, June 16, 1956.