Mannar Police Station Shooting

Date published: May 19, 2023
Last updated: August 20, 2023

May 1, 1957

Rogue officers

On the night of May 1, a resident of Mannar telephoned the Mannar government agent, W. Pathirana, to complain of a police sub-inspector, J. M. Harisinghe, who had been driving in his jeep recklessly and nearly ran over the caller. Some other constables had alighted from the jeep and chased and assaulted people on the roads. Pathirana too observed this and asked his servant to request that the officers bring the jeep to his residence. This was unsuccessful.1

Some time later, a crowd of two hundred arrived at Pathirana’s residence, making the same complaint as the caller. One man, Francis, who reported that he was assaulted, also alleged that the sub-inspector was drunk. Pathirana then took Francis to the police station to inquire about the alleged police brutality and asked to come along. At the station, he ordered the constables to go to the charge room where he would record their statements. At that point, the Mannar MP, V. A. Alegacone, and the town council chairman arrived at the charge room.2

“Who the bloody hell are you? You may be GA, but I am the SI in charge of this area”

According to Pathirana, as he recorded Harisinghe’s statement, he noticed that the sub-inspector was indeed drunk. He read out the statement to Harisinghe and asked him to sign it, but Harisinghe threw it away. “Who the bloody hell are you?” Harisinghe angrily asked. “You may be GA, but I am the SI in charge of this area.”3 He then grabbed the telephone as if he was going to strike Pathirana with it; Pathirana moved out of the way. Then Harisinghe prepared to strike with a chair, but Pathirana also avoided that. Alegacone exited the station and yelled to the now five-hundred-strong crowd, “the GA is being assaulted” and “murder!”4

Part of the already furious crowd invaded the station and assaulted Harisinghe. Pathirana eventually managed to get them to cease their attack on the now-fallen sub-inspector. The situation had at this point degenerated to a full-out clash. The crowd started throwing stones at the police and the police opened fire at the crowd. Pathirana asked the officers not to shoot and the crowd not to stone. He also asked the officers to lock up Harisinghe, but they did not comply.5 Given that Pathirana was vested with the powers of an additional superintendent of police, he had the authority to make such orders.6

Pathirana went to the post office and phoned the superintendent of police. He informed the assistant superintendent of police of the incident at the police station and asked that the IGP and an armed police unit from nearby Talaimannar come to the station.7

Fatal shooting

Back at the station, the clash continued and, again, the officers fired. This time, a 24-year-old named Arumugam Thanushkody was shot in the leg. Thanushkody was removed to the hospital where he later died of his wounds. The shooting injured several others, including some in a nearby boutique. The crowd fled after the shooting.8

Pathirana returned to the police station after the shooting and asked Headquarters Inspector Abeyasekara to imprison Harisinghe, to which Abeyasekara complied. After that, he inspected the ammunition and found two cartridges and one rifle missing.9

A funeral was held for Thanushkody at the Mannar Town Hall the next day. Over a thousand people attended, and the entire town observed a day of mourning where shops were closed and black flags were hoisted. Police reinforcements from nearby areas arrived at Mannar to ensure that the situation would not re-deteriorate.10

Personnel shift

The people of Mannar telephoned Pathirana and requested that the Mannar police officers be removed due to the prior incidents. Pathirana forwarded the request to Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Banadaranaike. On behalf of the people, Alegacone sent a telegram to the prime minister asking for an inquiry into the shooting. The police headquarters in Colombo refused to make any statements about the shooting.11

Bandaranaike complied with Pathirana’s request, and the entire Mannar police force was shifted. Harisinghe himself was interdicted and transferred to Jaffna. The policeman who allegedly shot Thanushkody, Constable G. G. Fernando, was remanded.12

Police version of events

At a magisterial inquiry initiated almost immediately, witnesses from all sides gave their versions of what happened that night.

Police Sergeant Munisamy admitted that he ordered the police to fire. He claimed he was neither aware of Pathirana’s arrival at the station nor his order not to shoot. That night, he had been asleep when he was awoken by the commotion at the station. When he went into the station, he noticed that there was damage. Then, the crowd started pelting the station. When he came to the front of the station, he saw three or four hundred armed men making their way towards it. He alleged that one of them had a gun. He then ordered Fernando to issue a rifle and ammunition to Constable Jinadasa and Constable Kahawatta.13

When the crowd was fifty yards away, he warned them in Tamil, Sinhala, and English not to advance. The crowd yelled, “come, we will destroy the police station and kill the policemen.” He warned the crowd again, but the crowd did not take heed. He then ordered Jinadasa and Kahawatta to fire below the knees of Thanushkody, whom he believed to be the leader and alleged was armed with a club. After they fired, he ordered the constables to unload their rifles. The headquarters inspector arrived at the station in a jeep and took charge of the ammunition from the constables. He ordered the injured Thanushkody to be sent to the hospital.14

Jinadasa testified that he had gone to the town that night with other policemen, including Harisinghe. At the bazaar, a crowd of about twenty five hooted at them. Harisinghe ordered them to disperse, but they kept hooting. After that, the police returned to the station.15

While they were at the station, Pathirana arrived with a crowd of about five hundred. He asked the constables to wait on the verandah as he took Harisinghe to the charge room. After some time, he heard noise in the room and saw some people assaulting Harisinghe. He and Kahawatte aided the sub-inspector, claiming not to have heard the instruction to arrest him. After Pathirana left the police station, the crowd started throwing stones at it. Munisamy arrived at the police station and, upon learning of the situation, ordered him and Kahawatte to load their rifles and stand by the gate.16

The crowd continued to stone the station. One man raised a gun, yelling, “we have guns also.” Munisamy warned the crowd, but they retorted, “these are all lies. Come, we shall destroy the police station.” He then ordered Jinadasa and Kahawatte to open fire at Thanushkody.17

Kahawatte claimed that fifteen people accompanied Pathirana into the station and later assaulted Harisinghe. The crowd stoned the station and removed a rifle from the station. He claimed that he was not aware that Pathirana had authority over them.18

Abeyasekara reported that when he arrived, Thanushkody had been shot. He ordered the fallen man to be taken to hospital. When he arrived at the station, he noticed that Harisinghe smelt of liquor. He then asked Pathirana to return, and upon arrival, showed him the rifles and two empty cartridges. In a cross-examination, he admitted that several blank cartridges had not been entered in the armoury inventory, and that anyone could have substituted blank cartridges for live ones.19

Residents’ version

However, the residents, in their evidence, claimed that they witnessed Fernando shooting from behind a window, and that his shot had hit Thanushkody. One witness, who had also been shot, claimed that he heard one shot. When he turned to the direction of the shot, he saw Fernando holding a gun behind a window, and was shot when Fernando fired again.20 This was disputed by Jinadasa, who claimed not to have seen Fernando with a gun.21

Evidence of state experts

The district medical officer, who had inspected Thanushkody’s body, stated that most of his seven injuries were caused by one bullet. The bullet went through his left thigh and also hit his right thigh.22 Consulting the notes of the district medical officer, the judicial medical officer in Colombo concluded that all of Thanushkody’s injuries were caused by a single bullet without any deflection within the body.23

The government analyst, in his testimony, claimed that it was unlikely that a bullet from the gate where Kahawatta and Jinadasa were standing would have struck Thanushkody where he stood and then strike the shutters of the boutique. The straight line that connected different spots struck by the bullets did not lead to the two police constables, but rather, a window on the police station, just as the residents alleged.24

Not justified

In late June 1957, the Mannar magistrate concluded:25

I do not believe the shooting took place from the gate of the police station. On the evidence I hold that the shooting took place through the window. There is reasonable suspicion that Constable Fernando fired the shot. He may have exceeded his right of private defence.

With this, Fernando was charged with culpable homicide and an inquiry was set for July.26 On October 11, he was discharged by the Mannar magistrate.27 However, two weeks later, the magistrate reopened the case at the Attorney-General’s insistence. Fernando had to stand trial once again, this time at the Supreme Court.28

Harisinghe bound

That same month, Harisinghe was found guilty of having used force on W. Pathirana, the government agent and additional superintendent of police of Mannar. Harisinghe was bound over a sum of Rs. 200 with a surety to be of good behaviour for one year, and was also ordered to pay the costs of proceedings.29

He was the only one who testified in his defence at the trial. He confessed to having gotten drunk that night before going on duty. In his version of events, after being alerted that illicit arrack was being taken to Murunkan, he took three constables to the arrack tavern and lay in ambush for bootleggers. When the policemen went to the junction, a crowd hooted at them. They were unable to find the arrack and returned to the police station.30

When Pathirana arrived, he went into the room with him for questioning. Like the other officers, he was unaware that Pathirana had the powers of an additional superintendent of police. He felt humiliated when the government agent telephoned the district medical officer due to his alleged inebriation. He refused to sign the statement and wanted to contact the superintendent of police, Jaffna. As he took up the telephone, he was assaulted by several people in the room and then fell unconscious. He was unsure if the telephone brushed Pathirana.31

Supreme Court trial

The Supreme Court trial took place nearly a year later, in September 1958. Abeyasekera was called as a witness and he repeated the same story he told the Mannar magistrate.32 He claimed that Fernando was a good officer who had no complaints levelled against him by the public. Likewise, as before, resident witnesses claimed that Thanushkody was not shot by Kahawatte and Jinadasa, but rather, by Fernando who was hiding behind a window.33

Alegacone also testified, though unlike the other witnesses, he claimed Fernando shot from the front of the station rather than from a room, and that Fernando fired the first shot. But also unlike the other witnesses, Alegacone was not at the police station when Thanushkody was shot. The deputy solicitor-general felt that Alegacone’s testimony was the most credible. Given that the bullet was unlikely to have been fired from the front of the station, Fernando was acquitted for a second time.34

Back to normal

In his administration report for 1957, Pathirana noted that the new personnel at the Mannar police station brought back normalcy.35


In a speech after Thanushkody’s funeral, Pathirana described the incident as ‘unprecedented in Ceylon,’ likely referring to the attempted attack on himself, being a government agent, by Harisinghe.36 Government agents were generally held in high esteem as administrative authorities, and in the Mannar District particularly, the government agent had additional superintendent of police powers. Jaffna MP and leader of the Tamil Congress, G. G. Ponnambalam, was one of Thanushkody’s representatives in this case. He remarked that it was “a parallel to the Kandaswamy shooting incident.”37 The director of health services considered the case to be one of the “more important cases handled by the Judicial Medical Officer.”38

Despite taking place at a time of ethnic tension between the Sinhalese and Tamils, and in a largely Tamil-speaking town, the case showed many cases of cross-communal solidarity. Tamils, Muslims, and even a Sinhalese of Mannar had complained about police harassment the night of May 1.39 A Sinhalese government agent had represented a largely Tamil and Muslim crowd, and the crowd turned violent when he, a Sinhalese, was attacked. Furthermore, a Tamil police sergeant, at least in his evidence, ordered two Sinhalese police constables to fire at the crowd. However, in his speech, Pathirana contended that the situation was partially mitigated because both he and Harisinghe were Sinhalese.40

The case marked something of a truce between Bandaranaike and the Federal Party, who were otherwise on bad terms. Bandaranaike removed the largely Sinhalese police force from Mannar and asked the Federal Party chief, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, to keep him updated on the situation.41 It was perhaps easy to find common ground in police brutality, especially when it was not necessarily racially motivated, because government politicians had taken anti-police stances, albeit for different reasons.42

Whatever the respite attained in this incident, it would soon disappear as the Mannar police shooting case faded into the background of political consciousness and the ongoing Tamil issue re-arose. In a month’s time, Mannar would see another incident, but unlike the shooting, there was no solidarity achieved in it.


Kahawita, D. L. J. Administration Report of the Director of Health Services for 1957. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1958.

Pathirana, W. Administration Report of the Government Agent, Mannar District, for 1957. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1958.

Vittachi, Tarzie. Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots. London: Andre Deustch, 1958.


  1. “G.A., M.P. Give Inside Story of Shooting: Town Hall Funeral for the Dead Man,” Ceylon Daily News, May 3, 1957. Hereafter, Ceylon Daily News will be abbreviated as CDN.
  2. Ibid.
  3. “GA” means “Government Agent” and “SI” means “sub-inspector.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Sergeant: ‘I Ordered Two P.Cs to Fire at Hostile Crowd’,” CDN, May 7, 1957.
  7. “G.A., M.P. Give Inside Story of Shooting: Town Hall Funeral for the Dead Man,” CDN, May 3, 1957.
  8. Ibid.; “Sergeant: ‘I Ordered Two P.Cs to Fire at Hostile Crowd’,” CDN, May 7, 1957.
  9. “G.A., M.P. Give Inside Story of Shooting: Town Hall Funeral for the Dead Man,” CDN, May 3, 1957.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. “P.M. Orders Transfer of Policemen: Representations by Federal Chief,” CDN, May 4, 1957.
  13. “Sergeant: ‘I Ordered Two P.Cs to Fire at Hostile Crowd’,” CDN, May 7, 1957.
  14. Ibid.
  15. “Two PCs Say as Ordered They Fired,” CDN, May 9, 1957.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. “‘Sub-Inspector Smelt of Liquor’, He Says,” CDN, May 23, 1957.
  20. “Sergeant: ‘I Ordered Two P.Cs to Fire at Hostile Crowd’,” CDN, May 7, 1957.
  21. “Two PCs Say as Ordered They Fired,” CDN, May 9, 1957.
  22. Ibid.
  23. “Magistrate Reserves His Finding,” CDN, June 10, 1957.
  24. Ibid.
  25. “Mannar Shooting ‘Was Not Justified’,” CDN, June 21, 1957.
  26. Ibid.
  27. “Constable Freed in Murder Case,” CDN, October 12, 1957.
  28. “Shooting Case for Re-Trial,” CDN, October 26, 1957.
  29. “Police Officer Bound Over for a Year,” CDN, October 2, 1957.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. “Crowd Attacked Police Station, Says Officer,” CDN, September 17, 1958.
  33. “Witness Heard Three Shots and Man Fell,” CDN, September 18, 1958.; “Witness Describes Shooting Incident in Police Station,” CDN, September 19, 1958.
  34. “Accused Acquitted in Mannar Shooting Case,” CDN, September 23, 1958.
  35. W. Pathirana, Administration Report of the Government Agent, Mannar District, for 1957 (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1958), A169.
  36. Maṉṉār Polīsāriṉ Veṟiyāṭṭattil: Uyiraip Pali Koṭutta Tamiḻaṉ Taṉuṣkōṭi,” [In the Mannar Police Frenzy: Thanushkody, the Tamil Who Sacrificed His Life] Sutantiran, May 12, 1957.
  37. “‘Sub-Inspector Smelt of Liquor’, He Says,” CDN, May 23, 1957. Kandaswamy was a Tamil striker shot by police during the general strike of 1947. He subsequently became a martyr to the leftist parties and trade unions in Ceylon.
  38. D. L. J. Kahawita, Administration Report of the Director of Health Services for 1957 (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1958), B141.
  39. “Sergeant: ‘I Ordered Two P.Cs to Fire at Hostile Crowd’,” CDN, May 7, 1957.
  40. “Furthermore, a speaker saw ethnic overtones in the incident. “Maṉṉār Polīsāriṉ Veṟiyāṭṭattil: Uyiraip Pali Koṭutta Tamiḻaṉ Taṉuṣkōṭi,” [In the Mannar Police Frenzy: Thanushkody, the Tamil Who Sacrificed His Life] Sutantiran, May 12, 1957.
  41. “P.M. Orders Transfer of Policemen: Representations by Federal Chief,” CDN, May 4, 1957.
  42. See Tarzie Vittachi, Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots (London: Andre Deutsch, 1958) for more on political opposition to the police during S. W. R. D. Banadaranaike’s tenure.