January 8, 1966 Strike – Part I

Part II

Published: January 8, 2024
January 8, 1966

Language concessions

The National Government elected in March 1965 contained a host of political parties of a variety of flavours. The second largest party in the new government was the leading party among Ceylon Tamils, the Federal Party. The furtive quid pro quo for the Federal Party’s co-operation was the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam pact. It was an agreement created in the image of the scrapped Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (B-C) pact of 1957, with concessions to the Tamil-speaking people on the matters of language, devolution, and colonisation schemes, arguably with even greater concessions than those of the earlier pact.1 On May 30, the Federal Party leader, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, announced that the government’s concessions would make Tamil the language of administration in Northern and Eastern provinces, and Tamils living in the rest of the country would be able to use Tamil in correspondence with the government.2 Then in August, Minister of State J. R. Jayawardene announced that the government would frame regulations under the existing language act that had been enacted in 1958 without besmirching the integrity of Sinhala Only.3

Unsurprisingly, the opposition parties, principally consisting of the SLFP-LSSP-Communist Coalition, went on a tirade against the government, accusing it of undermining Sinhala Only to appease the Federal Party out of electoral necessity.4 The predominant opinion in SLFP circles was that the party was not opposed to “reasonable use of Tamil” per se, but rather, the specific legislation proposed by the government that would give the Tamil language equal status for a long time. 5 An SLFP press release noted that while section 5 of the Special Provisions Act of 1958 allowed for Tamil to be used for administrative purposes, the permissions for Tamil usage in section 2a of the 1966 bill went far beyond that.6

The opposition was found not only in the Coalition parties, but also in their trade unions. In 1965, the Sri Lanka Rajaye Lipikaru Sangamaya7 (SLRLS), a Sinhalese union of general clerical staff formed in support of Sinhala Only in 1956, formed a front of other, small Sinhalese trade unions “with the declared objective of protecting the Sinhalese language from the actions of the National Government.”8

As the government announced the proposals for the Tamil language in more detail in late December, there had been calls for a general strike in opposition to the legislation at a Ceylon Federation of Trade Unions meeting.9 The idea of a strike gained traction among pro-Coalition unions. Among the chief proponents of the strike were the SLRLS and a larger committee it joined, the Joint Committee of Trade Union Organisations. The proposition was then recommended to Coalition leaders who accepted the idea.10 Finally, on January 5, the strike move was made official at a Coalition meeting at the Colombo Town Hall. The date of the strike was to be January 8, the day the regulations would be debated in parliament.11

Union division

However, the working class was not united over this issue. Prominent unions such as the CWC, Union of Post and Telecommunication Officers, and Ceylon Mercantile Union openly rejected participation in the strike, claiming that the workers were not pawns for communal politics. Other public sector unions joined them in their rejection. The Daily News furthermore claimed that other large unions, normally loyal to the LSSP or Communist Party, were divided over the issue and saw a large number of defections due to the opposition of those two parties to the language regulations. Among those unions that decided to strike included the General Clerical Service Union (GCSU) and several pro-Coalitionist unions. In the former’s case, it faced mixed responses within all its sub-unions.12

Some weeks earlier, a longstanding Tamil officer of the GCSU angrily resigned, accusing the union of now being “a complete stooge… to [the leaders’] political masters.” The GCSU had originally been dominated by clerks proficient in English (and only English), regardless of ethnicity. However, since the introduction of Sinhala as the only official language in 1956, the union became more Sinhalese and Sinhala-speaking. Robert Kearney speculates that GCSU leaders “may have also considered that within the next decade almost the entire service would presumably be proficient in Sinhalese. A failure to identify with and champion the interests of the Sinhalese-educated clerks might spell the future decline of the organization.” Union officers felt that the regulations would be inimical to said interests.13

Stern measures

Police, through various sources, had learned that the demonstrations would involve thousands of participants, including Buddhist monks, assembling at several locations and attempting to converge at the House of Representatives. The prime minister would be asked to rescind the concessions for Tamil.14

The IGP, S. A. Dissanayake, held meetings with the superintendent of police (Colombo), I. D. M. van Twest, and Colombo OICs on January 4-7, where he issued instructions to them on handling the demonstrations. No written instructions had been given except for a letter assigning the OICs to anticipated troubled spots and sources and informing them of increased resources at their disposal. van Twest later explained that, unlike prior occasions, there was no precise information as to what exactly would occur on January 8, so he could not issue detailed, written instructions. He asked for military assistance and additional police forces, the latter of which could not be given to him.15

The Ceylon Daily News reported that the IGP had given instructions to senior police officials to prevent processions, hoisting of black flags, and tarring. Vehicles to Colombo would be searched for weapons, and the CTB was asked not to hire out buses or transport people by lorries.16 On January 7, the treasury announced that any public servant who was unjustifiably absent from work or incited others to abstain from working the next day would be disciplined.17 Police claim to have received reports that violence was in the repertoire of the demonstrators, and security forces were moved to “action stations” and sites in Colombo that were anticipated to be potential trouble spots. Some two hundred additional police constables at the training school had their refresher courses interrupted so that they could be stationed in Colombo.18 Police in Colombo were especially stationed at areas where Tamils resided so as to give them assurance that no harm would come their way.19

Meanwhile, a clandestine movement called “Apiyi Sinhala,” led by servicemen, claimed to have recruited nine hundred volunteers to perform satyagraha at the houses of the Coalition leaders if there was any communal violence.20

The night before the strike, Senanayake claimed that he would “not barter the just rights of any community for the glory of political office.” He noted that the government was simply enacting the regulations that were passed by parliament in 1958.21

Hartal 1966

On the morning of January 8, police received reports that strikes were occurring throughout Colombo and that some strikers had obstructed non-strikers. Despite the police warning, black flags were hung throughout the city. Crowds of demonstrators congregated at Vihara Maha Devi Park to take the oath against the act, and Buddhist monks began pouring into the city in cars. Police forces at the park were woefully small, and despite a subsequent increase in policing, senior officers felt that their priorities were in other areas and left their subordinates to monitor the gathering. The crowd then went in procession to Galle Face Green. At first, it was orderly, such that an officer was not sure how to handle it. However, as the protestors moved towards the Galle Road junction at Kollupitiya, they upturned dustbins, cut trees, and stoned buses, until they encountered the police opposite the police station. At this point, a clash broke out between the two parties.22.

Meanwhile, a group of bhikkhus walking along Galle Road to Galle Face Green were asked to disperse at Temple Trees by police, and they complied. At Galle Face Green itself, a crowd had already gathered and was later dispersed by security forces. It regrouped at the Kollupitiya police station and started throwing stones and explosives at it. This, along with an attempted break-in of the UNP headquarters nearby, prompted police to baton-charge and fire tear gas at the crowd.23

The crowd was eventually dispersed from the Kollupitiya police station. It then went on a rampage in the environs of Galle Road, attacking trains, houses, and shops. By 2:45 p.m., the situation became so severe that bus drivers abandoned their vehicles and refused to drive unless they were given armed protection. Police had fired on several occasions.24 The violence affected foreigners as three members of the Diplomatic Corps received slight injuries and vehicles belonging to the British and American embassies were damaged in Kollupitiya. The first secretary of the British High Commission, John Watts, recounted that as he was driving down Galle Road, his car was badly stoned by the mobs. A group of people had surrounded his car, and upon realizing who he was, apologized for the trouble. He believed that “the crowd was at least partly organised and the leaders were trying to keep it under control but there were a number of hooligans out to do damage to anything and create trouble.” At Serendib Road, he heard shots, likely the police firing, and took three injured men to the hospital.25

Though the violence was concentrated in Kollupitiya, some other parts of Colombo also saw violence. At Kelaniya, hundreds of undergraduate students stopped buses and tarred Tamil lettering. Police arrived and clashed with the students, resulting in injuries to both sides.26

Senanayake promptly declared a state of emergency, arguing that “law and order must be preserved” and declared that “we will shoot, if necessary.” He went on to ask whether he was “to stand by when people are attacked, bombs thrown at trains, and bus drivers are pulled out of the buses?”27 Authorities clamped down on the riots, and there were subsequently fewer violent incidents, though not a complete absence of them.

Official figures put the number of violent incidents against property at 66, and police estimated that the total damage by the riot was Rs. 1M.28 The government conceded that twenty thousand public servants had joined the strike, though the opposition estimated at least twice that number.29

Dambarawe Ratnasara Thero

While 91 were injured (four seriously so), there was one fatal casualty. The deceased was Dambarawe Ratnasara Thero, a 19-year-old monk killed by police fire during one of the clashes in Kollupitiya.30 He had worn a vest with a document with details of Vidyalankara University, leading to rumours that he was an undergraduate there, but the university confirmed that he was not.31

A three-day inquiry was held on the young monk’s death and the AJMO stated that Ratnasara Thero was killed by a bullet that had ricocheted off a hard surface. Sub-Inspector T. J. Samarasinghe testified that he had been part of a three-strong armed police unit in Kollupitiya near a petrol shed on the afternoon of January 8. A crowd arrived and, following this, the petrol shed was aflame and the crowd was hurling projectiles at the police, becoming more aggressive as the unit ordered the crowd to desist. The police opened fire twice, and the crowd fled. Then he moved to the railway station, the new object of mob violence. Another two rounds were fired, but this time, this did not immediately cause the crowd to disperse. When the mob eventually moved on, it started attacking vehicles at Sea View Avenue. The same sequence of firing-dispersion occurred again, and the mob was still hellbent on mayhem.32 Likewise, ASP Gamini Jayasinghe recalled that he had encountered a crowd of several thousands at Galle Road, including about three hundred monks. He asked them to leave, and when they refused, ordered tear gas to be fired. Far from disperse the mob, the firing led the mob to fling back the shells.33

A subsequent official press release further speculated that the goal of some of the strike leaders was to provoke the crowds to cause deaths by the mob violence.34


Parliament was in session on the day of the strike. Senanayake was called “minimaruwa” (murderer) by opposition politicians dressed in black. He walked up to them and asked them “who is the murderer?” A tense scene arose as opposition and government parliamentarians, possibly including the premier himself, seemed to be preparing for a brawl, but other MPs restrained them. When Kusuma Rajaratne, the only parliamentarian of the Jatika Vimukti Peramuna, a government party, and junior minister of home affairs walked in, she resigned from her position, and was met with applause from the opposition.35 Senanayake faced heavy flak for the killing of the monk. N. M. Perera reported that two people, one of whom was Dambarawe Ratnasara Thero, were killed and fifty others were hospitalized for injuries. Prins Gunasekara produced a bloodied robe, claiming to have been present at the shooting incident. 36 During the debate, the first member for Ambalangoda-Balapitiya, M. H. Saddhasena and the member for Nawalapitiya, Chandra Karunaratne, recounted that they were chased by mobs on their way to parliament.37

On the other hand, Prins Gunasekara claimed that the police had intimidated him, but the speaker of parliament, Alfred F. Peiris, said that they had to inform him before making complaints. Peiris then assured the house that he would protect them from insult and injury and that the parliamentarians could complain to him if there were breaches.38

The next day, Senanayake justified his invocation of emergency laws and censorship as being “to save this country from the very horrors Dr. Perera had visualised” in 1955. He noted that he was following precedents set by Mrs. Bandaranaike and her husband before her. Nearly three weeks later, he claimed that there were still acts of violence in the country. “It is our duty to govern, to take every measure to save this country from what happened in 1958-59,” he reasoned.39

Dudley Senanayake in the 1950’s. [Source: MediaJetCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.]

The regulations were debated in parliament, and on January 11, they were passed by a house majority of 43 and a senate majority of 11.40

In late January, the opposition moved a motion to end the state of emergency. The motion was debated for nine hours but was ultimately defeated by a majority of forty. Senanayake recounted the violence on January 8 and alleged that, had that strike been successful, more strikes would have followed. While he conceded that the police may have been at fault, to a degree, for the violence, he was steadfast in the maintenance of emergency.41 Following the rioting, government backbenchers pushed for special legislation to punish communal inciters, publishers, and propagandists.42 On January 26, Jayawardene announced the drafting of new legislation specially designed to handle communal incitation, and until the drafting was complete, the emergency would last. Furthermore, there would be action against political leaders who incited violence.43

In parliament, he argued that the government did not curb peaceful protests or meetings against the regulations but the strikers abused their rights.44 Recounting the events, he postulated that there was evidence of pre-planning of the violence, demonstrated by specific signals that the strikers had used. He felt that the government had an obligation to ensure that its citizens could walk through the streets safely, even if it meant that armed forces had to be called in. He recounted that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike had invoked emergency in 1958 and reminded parliament of the allegation of state excesses during that time.45

Continued in Part 2…


Kearney, Robert N. Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon. Durham: Duke University Press, 1967.

Kearney, Robert N. Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon. London: University of California, 1971.

Rajendra, M., Gunawardena, D. J. R., and S. J. Walpita. “Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Inquire into and Report on the Police Arrangements on the 8th January, 1966, in Connection with the Motion in the House of Representatives on the Regulations under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act.” Ceylon Sessional Papers, V (1966).

Wilson, A. J., S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977: A Political Biography. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.


  1. A. J. Wilson, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977: A Political Biography (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 105. Ironically, Senanayake was a strong opponent of the B-C pact.
  2. “Concession for Tamils,” The Times, May 31, 1965.
  3. Tamiḻ Moḻi Upayōkam Viraivil Caṭṭamākum,” [The Use of the Tamil Language Will Soon Be Legal], Eela Nadu, August 20, 1965.
  4. Robert N. Kearney, Communalism and Language in the Politics of Ceylon (Durham: Duke University Press, 1967), 132.
  5. “Opposition Dilemma Over Tamil: Coalitionists Allies Twist and Turn,” CDN, January 2, 1966.
  6. “Statement by Five S.L.F.P. Leaders,” CDN, January 8, 1966.
  7. All-Ceylon Government Clerks Union
  8. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon (London: University of California, 1971), 133.
  9. M. Rajendra, D. J. R. Gunawardena, and S. Walpita, “Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Inquire into and Report on the Police Arrangements on the 8th January, 1966, in Connection with the Motion in the House of Representatives on the Regulations under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act.” Ceylon Sessional Papers, V (1966): 3.
  10. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 86.
  11. Rajendra, Gunawardena, and Walpita, Sessional Paper V, 1966, 3.
  12. “Big Unions Are Against Strike,” CDN, January 7, 1966.
  13. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 104.
  14. Rajendra, Gunawardena, and Walpita, Sessional Paper V, 1966, 2-3.
  15. Ibid., 10-11.
  16. “Police Will Ensure Peace on Jan. 8: Troublemakers are Warned,” CDN, January 5, 1966; Rajendra, Gunawardena, and Walpita, Sessional Paper V, 1966, 6.
  17. “Public Servants Are Warned: Disciplinary Action Against Absentees,” CDN, January 8, 1966.
  18. Rajendra, Gunawardena, and Walpita, Sessional Paper V, 1966, 8.
  19. Ibid., 12.
  20. Satyagraha to Counter Hate Moves,” CDN, January 3, 1966.
  21. “‘I’ll Not Barter Just Rights for the Glory of Office’,” CDN, January 8, 1966.
  22. Ibid., 23; “Emergency Declared: Press Censorship and Curfew in Colombo, Suburbs,” CDN, January 9, 1966.
  23. “Emergency Declared: Press Censorship and Curfew in Colombo, Suburbs,” CDN, January 9, 1966.
  24. Rajendra, Gunawardena, and Walpita, Sessional Paper V, 1966, 29.
  25. John Watts Notes for the Record. The National Archives UK (TNA): DO 225/16.
  26. “Emergency Declared: Press Censorship and Curfew in Colombo, Suburbs,” CDN, January 9, 1966.
  27. “‘We Will Preserve Law and Order’ P.M. Tells M.Ps,” CDN, January 9, 1966.
  28. “‘Attempts by Opposition to Rouse Communal Feelings’,” CDN, January 27, 1966; “Damage Put at Rs. 1M.,” CDN, January 15, 1966.
  29. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 151.
  30. There had been reports that he was shot at the Methodist College, but the Methodist Church president denied it. “‘We Will Preserve Law and Order’ P. M. Tells M.Ps,” CDN, January 9, 1966.
  31. “Dead Monk Was Not an Undergraduate,” CDN, January 10, 1966.
  32. “Open Verdict on Monk’s Death,” CDN, January 12, 1966.
  33. Ibid.
  34. “‘Coalition Incited the Crowds’: Govt. Guarantees Citizens Freedom from Mob Rule,” CDN, January 16, 1966.
  35. “P. M. Silences Opposition,” CDN, January 9, 1966. T. D. S. A. Dissanayake, Dudley Senanayake of Sri Lanka (Colombo:  Swastika Press, 1975), 90.
  36. “‘We Will Preserve Law and Order’ P.M. Tells M.Ps,” CDN, January 9, 1966.
  37. “Complains to Mr. Speaker,” CDN, January 9, 1966.
  38. “Racial Amity Aim of National Government, Says J. R.,” CDN, January 9, 1966. Coalitionist MPs later issued a non-confidence motion against Peiris for alleged partisanship during the debate on the regulations. “No-Confidence Move Against Mr. Speaker,” CDN, January 27, 1966.
  39. “‘I Have a Duty to Govern’: PM,” CDN, January 27, 1966.
  40. “Regulations are Passed By Parliament,” CDN, January 12, 1966. See “Racial Amity Aim of National Government, Says J. R.,” CDN, January 9, 1966; “Bid to Put Off Tamil Rules Debate is Defeated,” CDN, January 10, 1966; “Mrs. K.M.P. Rajaratna Speak on Regulations,” CDN, January 11, 1966; and “Senate Discuss Regulations Made Under the Tamil Act,” CDN, January 11, 1966 for the debate.
  41. “The Emergency Stays – By 90 Votes to 50,” CDN, January 27, 1966.
  42. “‘Outlaw Racialism’: Move for Special Laws,” CDN, January 18, 1966.
  43. “The Emergency Stays – By 90 Votes to 50,” CDN, January 27, 1966.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid.