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

Part I

Published: February 27, 2024

February 5 – 27, 1956

Bloodbaths

The topic of the Trincomalee riot came up during the MEP government’s first parliamentary session in May. Vavuniya MP C. Suntharalingam, a maverick who seldom shied away from controversial statements, mentioned it and prophetically warned that there may be other “bloodbaths” in the year:1

You must not forget what happened at Trincomalee during the hartal last February. It will go down in history for all time. Five lives were lost. That is what the government of my good Friend the last Prime Minister did. We are going to repeat that. We will see. I am sorry that in this year of Buddha Jayanthi there was a bloodbath at Trincomalee. In the same Buddha Jayanthi year, there may be other bloodbaths throughout the country. Mr. Speaker, if we are pressed to do that, if we must do that, we will have recourse to that. Make no mistakes about it.

He also accused Sinhalese colonists in the Trincomalee District of having, in recent times, “committed atrocities on Tamil women and children.”2

However, in general, there was little political discussion on the Trincomalee violence. In June, Vaddukoddai MP A. Amirthalingam also remarked that while the prime minister, now S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, gave much attention to a police shooting of a Sinhalese in May, no government parliamentarian had brought up the issue of the police shootings of Tamils at Trincomalee.3 As the magisterial inquiries into the police firings took place, Trincomalee MP N. R. Rajavarothiam had called for a public commission of inquiry.4

The Sinhala Jatika Sangamaya also passed a resolution asking the government to compensate Sinhalese who suffered losses during the Trincomalee riots if it was to compensate Tamils who suffered losses during the rioting in Colombo in June.5

March to Trincomalee

In late May, the Federal Party proposed a rally in Trincomalee, but Bandaranaike immediately banned it. “There is already a great deal of tension in Trincomalee, and the public might remember previous inter-communal incidents there… It is most undesirable, particularly because there is a large Sinhalese population there,” he justified. But he had “no objection in any other ‘suitable place’ that my friends from the north or east decide upon.”6 He communicated his view to the Federal Party leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam in a letter, after which Chelvanayakam called him. Chelvanayakam then told the Daily News that the party and its supporters had a democratic right to hold a peaceful procession without a permit.7

However, Bandaranaike relented after another round of ethnic rioting, Suntharalingam’s prophesized “bloodbath,” in June 1956. Trincomalee had seen violence during this bout, though not to the same extent as in February.8 In fact, Federal Party leader E. M. V. Naganathan and Rajavarothiam asked the Tamils to protect the Sinhalese minority in Trincomalee, possibly alluding to the anti-Sinhalese violence of February.9 But the ferocious passions ignited in several other parts of the country convinced the government to take a more relaxed approach to Tamil demonstrations, and Bandaranaike permitted the march to Trincomalee.

The Sinhala Jatika Sangamaya attempted to stage a counter-march coincident with the Federalist march, but Bandaranaike persuaded them to desist.10 The premier visited Trincomalee shortly before the march, speaking to both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities there and urging them to be peaceful towards one another. “Be cool, collected, and restrained, for therein lies wisdom,” he advised the Sinhalese. At the meeting with Tamils, one told him that there was no communal tension between Sinhalese and Tamils in the town, save for a small dispute between fishermen. The topic of dynamite, the primary weapon of the rioters, and its undue availability was discussed. Bandaranaike told the meeting that the navy had no dynamite, and that which was used in the riots may have originated from the stores of labour departments.11

After this, the Federal Party held its march and subsequent convention and Trincomalee. While official reports stress that no violence took place,12 Federal Party MP of Kayts, V. Navaratnam, claims that a minor scuffle broke out between marchers and Sinhalese labourers from Padaviya at Nilaveli.13

The troubled district

By September, the Trincomalee District, along with the rest of the country, was relatively calm and free of ethnic violence. In October, a police station was finally established at Kantalai.14 The police station helped to decrease crime, though the government agent still advised that “further efforts by the police at Kantalai are necessary to obtain an appreciable decrease in crime.” Furthermore, ethnic tensions nevertheless remained, and in February 1957, there was yet another spate of Sinhalese-Tamil violence in the Trincomalee District that lasted for at least one month.15 The government agent also requested that a police station be built at Kuchchaveli, another site of violence in February 1956.16

In hindsight, it is not surprising that the Trincomalee District would see ethnic violence. James Manor writes that ministers felt that the Gal Oya riots were exceptional since a “colony of uprooted Sinhalese in a Tamil-majority area seemed particularly explosive.”17 This statement aptly describes the Trincomalee District, a district where, in contrast to most others, several Sinhala-Tamil issues existed in a coincident manner. Within five years of independence, the government built two settlement schemes, Allai and Kantalai, that were predominantly Sinhalese. Tamils and Muslims viewed the schemes with much trepidation as an alien population was transplanted into what they saw as their traditional homeland with the intention of advancing Sinhala-Buddhist interests and diluting the locals’ demographic power. The other issue was clashes between Sinhalese and Tamil fishermen, especially when the former were migrant. With all this cause for tension existing, communal violence between Sinhalese and other groups had already taken place in the Trincomalee District even before 1956.18

The year 1956 as a whole is famous for the Sinhala Only Act and associated ethnic rioting. The explosion of violence saw tit-for-tat attacks by Sinhalese and Tamils, trouble on colonization schemes perpetrated by labourers, and involved two issues between Sinhalese and Tamils: language and settlements. What many do not realize is that of all this started not in the jungles of Gal Oya, nor on the grass of Galle Face Green, but on the sandy soils of Trincomalee.

Bibliography

de Fonseka, D. T. E. A. Administration Report of the Director of Fisheries for 1956. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1957.

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

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 1956. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1957.

McHeyzer, A. R. Administration Report of the Government Agent, Trincomalee District, for 1957. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1958.

Navaratnam, V. The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation. Montreal and Toronto: The Tamilian Library, 1995.

Endnotes

  1. Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, vol. 24, col. 143.
  2. Ibid., col. 139.
  3. “MP Accuses Premier of Partiality,” CDN, June 4, 1956. However, the Trincomalee police shooting happened during the UNP’s rule, not the MEP’s. Bandaranaike generally acknowledged fatal police firings during his premiership, including those of minorities. See Mannar Police Station Shooting and Bogawantalawa Riot for examples where Tamil-speaking minorities were the victims.
  4. “Police Shooting: Homicide Verdicts,” Times of Ceylon, June 14, 1956.
  5. “Sinhalese Thanked for ‘Uniting’ the Tamil People,” CDN, June 15, 1956.
  6. “Premier in Personal Control of ‘Sinhala Only’ Subject,” CDN, May 31, 1956.
  7. “PM Tells F. P. the Trinco Rally Cannot be Held,” CDN, June 1, 1956.
  8. “Renewed Violence in Ceylon,” The Times, June 9, 1956.
  9. “Treat Sinhalese as Brothers, Naganathan Tells Tamils,” CDN, June 11, 1956.
  10. “Perahera to Trinco Postponed,” CDN, August 4, 1956.
  11. Joe Segera, “PM’s Crowded Day in Trinco,” CDN, August 9, 1956. If fishermen participated in the rioting, the preponderance of explosives may be related to dynamite fishing, an illegal practice in which Trincomalee had the highest reported cases. D. T. E. A. de Fonseka, Administration Report of the Director of Fisheries for 1956 (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1957) L8. Fishing nets belonging to both communities were damaged during the rioting, suggesting fishermen involvement. “More Trouble in Trinco,” CDN, February 29, 1956.
  12. McHeyzer, Administration Report 1956, A188; de Silva, Administration Report 1956, A16.
  13. V. Navaratnam, The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation (Montreal and Toronto: The Tamilian Library, 1995), 121.
  14. de Silva, Administration Report 1956, A5.
  15. A. R. McHeyzer, Administration Report of the Government Agent, Trincomalee District, for 1957 (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1958), A209.
  16. McHeyzer, Administration Report 1956, A190.
  17. Manor, The Expedient Utopian, 262.
  18. For example, there was a clash between Sinhalese and Muslims in Mutur in 1954. “Six Injured in Communal Clash,” Ceylon Daily News, September 13, 1954.