Published: June 1, 2023
June 1, 1957
The Ceylonese government and the Federal Party were at the height of tensions by the end of May 1957. The Federal Party was preparing for its mass satyagraha across the Northern and Eastern Provinces in August as the government had not sufficiently met its demands on the Tamil issue. In turn, the government was warning that it would send army and police to ensure there would be no chaos. To augment authorities, the government was building a hundred-thousand-strong volunteer force of pro-SLFP youth for the ostensible purpose of assisting the police and army in monitoring the satyagraha and keeping the peace.1 In response, the Federal Party assured that its movement would be strictly peaceful.2 What happened in June 1957 would challenge its claim.
In late May, the Muslim National Assembly invited several cabinet ministers to visit the Mannar District. These ministers were C. P. de Silva, Minister of Lands; Maithripala Senanayake, Minister of Transport; Wijayananda Dahanayake, Minister of Education; R. G. Senanayake, Minister of Trade and Commerce; C. A. S. Marikkar, Minister of Posts; and Vimala Wijewardene, Minister of Health.3 de Silva saw the visit as an opportunity to tour and promote his irrigation schemes in the drought-stricken district. The schemes, he claimed, offered benefits to residents of the Mannar District.4 Three of these ministers, de Silva, Maithripala Senanayake, and Marikkar, could speak in Tamil.
Dahanayake and Wijewardene declined the invitation.5 In their places, Minister of Finance Stanley de Zoysa and Minister of Home Affairs A. P. Jayasuriya would visit. Also in the party was Badiudin Mahmud, the principal of Zahira College in Gampola and a Muslim member of the SLFP planning commission.6
Meanwhile, the Federal Party was making arrangements to protest the visit. It saw the visit as a ruse to divide the Muslims and Tamils of Mannar. C. Vanniasingham, the Federal Party president, argued that the government was responsible for the depletion of the Giant’s Tank, a water body on which many Mannar District farmers relied, by favouring the Mahakandarawa tank in Mihintale that served Sinhalese.7 Due to the police shooting in May, there was tension in the Mannar District, and the Mannar MP felt that it was an inappropriate time for the ministers to visit.8
On June 1, the ministers (except Jayasuriya) arrived at the Mannar District. They faced a mix of positive reception from Mannar District residents of all ethnicities and negative reception from Federalist protestors in various villages.
The largest demonstration occurred at the Giant’s Tank. Five hundred farmers gathered at the tank to give de Silva a petition outlining the troubles they had. Another five hundred Federalist demonstrators came with party MPs, out of whom two hundred were waving black flags, accusing de Silva of depriving the Giant’s Tank of water. de Silva addressed the crowd in Tamil, claiming that the tank could not hold the full amount of water supplied to it by the Malwattu Oya river. The Mahakandarawa tank that was alleged to deprive the Giant’s Tank of water held only thirteen thousand acre-feet of water, whereas the Malwattu Oya had a flow of 226,000 acre feet. He also promised to consider widening the Giant’s Tank.9
Issues pertinent to Tamils, particularly language and Sinhala colonization, were addressed by the ministers. de Zoysa assured Tamils that the government “would do no harm to [Tamils’] beloved tongue.” Furthermore, de Silva promised that only Mannar peasants would be settled in schemes in the district. Maithripala Senanayake further explained that at least four thousand labourers were needed for the schemes, and all would be recruited from the district.10
“We came to help you and you greet us with stones”
But the most severe Federalist reaction occurred at Mannar town. The ministers were travelling by jeep to attend a public meeting at the junior public school. According to the Ceylon Daily News, at the esplanade, the demonstrators assembled with four MPs, waving flags and hurling abuse. As the convoy approached, some of them threw flagsticks at the jeeps, one hitting de Zoysa. He came out of the jeep to ask them about their intentions, a number of stones were thrown. He was hit once or twice, sustaining a knee injury, and those in the jeeps were also struck.11
At the meeting, de Zoysa acknowledged the ambivalent reactions to the ministerial visit. “We came to help you and you greet us with stones,” he complained about the behavior at the esplanade. He promised to set aside two hundred thousand rupees for development works in the Mannar District, claiming that the government “did not think in terms of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims… freeing you from your poverty and hunger is something that goes beyond language.” He contrasted the positive reception the Muslims gave the ministers with the negative reception from some Tamils.12
de Silva also spoke at the meeting, promising that a river scheme would be completed to irrigate another seventeen thousand acres of paddy land in the district. He accused the Federalists of doing nothing except for stirring racial hatred, and that they did not represent the peasantry. He promised to come back to Mannar, giving “smiling fields and tanks full of water” in return for the stones thrown at him.13 According to R. G. Senanayake, Federal Party MPs apologized for the stoning incident after the meeting.14
The next day, the ministers concluded their visit. The Federalist demonstrators left, and prominent Mannar residents apologized to de Zoysa for the stoning incident, though he previously claimed that he was not hurt.15
The ministers portrayed the visit as a victory for the government. They claimed that it showed that they had the support of ordinary Tamils and Muslims. On a radio broadcast, de Silva asserted that the ministers “visited many villages, both Muslim and Tamil, and were everywhere received with kindness and with gratitude,” and that “[a]ll the decorations were blue, there were blue flags and even the ladies turned out in large numbers dressed in blue sarees.” He accused the Federal Party of using volunteers from Jaffna and local schoolboys for its demonstrations rather than genuine, representative Mannar residents.16 This view was supported by The Times, which reported that “[t]he people of Mannar were indifferent to the political nature of the visit and incidents would have been unlikely if Federal Party leaders had not brought supporters from other constituencies to whip up the enthusiasm of the Tamils at Mannar.”17
The Federal Party also portrayed the visit as successful, but for its own causes.
“The people showed the Ministers of the M. E. P. Government in no uncertain terms their resentment and the opposition they received was spontaneous,” it proclaimed. But the party, especially its MPs who partook in the demonstrations, found the stoning incident deeply troubling. “[T]he only thing we express our regret was over the incident in which Mr. Stanley de Zoysa figured,” it continued.18
Chavakachcheri MP V. N. Navaratnam, one of the demonstrators, averred that the flag that hit de Zoysa in the jeep initially was swung by accident. He alleged that de Zoysa alighted from the jeep and rolled up his sleeves, which the crowd interpreted as a sign of aggression. They consequently threw pieces of cow dung at him. He affirmed that, unlike the Mannar protestors who came from all walks of life, the satyagrahis in the August campaign would be handpicked and trained volunteers who would not engage in such unruly behaviour.19
On the subject of the stoning, Vanniasingham argued, in a press statement, that the incident was exaggerated and, like Navaratnam, accused de Zoysa of inflaming the crowd by exiting the jeep. He also noted a contrast in behavior. When Tamil satyagrahis were ruthlessly assaulted at Galle Face Green the year before, MEP politicians gazed on without intervening. However, when de Zoysa was stoned, the Federalist politicians swiftly brought the situation under control.20
Among several arguments in the same statement, he disputed that the Muslim National Assembly was at all representative of ordinary Muslims at Mannar. He also alleged that the ministers had not initially considered going to the Giant’s Tank when asked to do so by the president of the Mannar-Mantota Farmers’ Association, but only after several requests by the Federal Party were made. Contrary to ministerial claims, he asserted, none of the protestors, save for the MPs, came from Jaffna. Finally, he accused the ministers of trying to divide Muslims and Tamils of Mannar by only visiting Muslim villages.21
The Muslim National Assembly deemed the ministerial visit a success and asseverated that the Muslims of Mannar did not support the demonstrations. “[W]e cannot welcome Mr. Vanniasingham and the Federalists as liberators as they fondly think they are,” it asserted in a press statement.22 In a meeting held soon after the visit, the assembly’s president claimed that the visit was not held to spite Tamils at Mannar. Rather, it was to bring attention to the degradation of the Giant’s Tank, which had been neglected by prior governments. He accused the Mannar MP of prioritizing “high politics of the Federal Party” and declared that the assembly was opposed to federalism.23
de Silva returned to the Giant’s Tank nearly two months later to inaugurate the widening of the scheme and was received well by the Farmers’ Association. Buoyed by the general feeling of reconciliation in the country due to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact, the association’s president remarked that “[t]here is to be perpetual peace between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.” He outlined the farmers’ needs and asked de Silva to give relief work to those farmers who saw crop failures due to the drought. de Silva announced that Rs. 1,000,000 would be dedicated to improving the Giant’s Tank while another Rs. 150,000 would be used to desilt the inlet channel. At the end of the project, he claimed, the Giant’s Tank would hold four to six times more water than it did initially. While against relief work, he was willing to give jobs to affected farmers that would pay around Rs. 5 per day.24
In his administration report for 1957, the government agent noted that work was being done to widen the inlet channel to the Giant’s Tank and increase its capacity. Malwattu Oya scheme surveyal was also done, something that had been delayed for some twenty years. However, he also observed that another river, the Parangi Aru, was neglected despite the fact that, even in times of drought, it had a supply of water.25
Unfortunately, much of the progress on irrigation schemes had been set back by the severe flooding experienced by the Mannar District in December 1957. Whereas before the farmers suffered from drought, they now suffered from excess water.
Mannar was not the only ministerial visit to the north and east of the country that month. Dahanayake, who was originally invited to Mannar, would go to Kalmunai in the east, while M. P. de Zoysa, the junior minister of housing, would go to Jaffna in a week’s time. Both would face hostile reactions as the ministers at Mannar did.
Pathirana, W. Administration Report of the Government Agent, Mannar District, for 1957. Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1958.
- In response to accusations that the SLFP was amassing a private army, Joint Secretary Nimal Karunatilleke explained that the volunteers’ function would not be militaristic, but rather, propagandistic. To keep tensions at a minimum, it would disseminate propaganda explaining the government’s “Reasonable Use of Tamil” policy and to and to ask people to keep the peace. “Volunteer Corps to Prevent Clashes, Explains SLFP,” Ceylon Daily News, May 31, 1957. Hereafter, “Ceylon Daily News” will be abbreviated as “CDN.”
- “Volunteers: FP Condemns SLFP Move,” CDN, May 27, 1957.
- “Six Ministers Will Tour District,” CDN, May 21, 1957.
- “Drought-Hit Farmers to Be Put on Irrigation Works,” CDN, May 31, 1957; “New Irrigation Works Will Cost Rs. 2m.,” CDN, June 1, 1957.
- “Dahayanake Will Not Go to Mannar,” CDN, May 29, 1957.
- “5 Ministers for Mannar,” CDN, May 31, 1957.
- “F. P. Ready for Demonstration in Mannar,” CDN, June 1, 1957. Both tanks receive water from the Malwattu Oya river.
- “F. P. Chief on Mannar Visit,” CDN, June 6, 1957.
- A. B. Mendis, “Flag-Waving Took Ugly Turn,” CDN, June 3, 1957.
- “Ministers End Mannar Tour Well Pleased: C. P. de Silva Will Go to Jaffna Next,” CDN, June 3, 1957.
- “Ceylon Cabinet Ministers Stoned: Stormy Reception by Tamils,” The Times, June 3, 1957; A. B. Mendis, “Flag-Waving Took Ugly Turn,” CDN, June 3, 1957.
- A. B. Mendis, “‘We came to help you and you greet us with stones’—Minister,” CDN, June 3, 1957.
- “‘Mannar Mission a Success’,” CDN, June, 4, 1957.
- “Ministers End Mannar Tour Well Pleased: C. P. de Silva Will Go to Jaffna Next,” CDN, June 3, 1957.
- “C. P. de Silva Advises F. P. to Think Again,” CDN, June 5, 1957. See also “‘Mannar Mission a Success’,” CDN, June, 4, 1957.
- “Ceylon Cabinet Ministers Stoned: Stormy Reception by Tamils,” The Times, June 3, 1957.
- “Federal Party Statement on Mannar Visit,” CDN, June 4, 1957.
- “‘Crowd Provoked’, Says Tamil M.P.,” CDN, June 3, 1957.
- “F.P. Chief on Mannar Visit,” CDN, June 6, 1957.
- “Muslim Assembly Refutes Federal Statement,” CDN, June 7, 1957.
- “Muslim Assembly ‘Not Hostile to the Tamils’,” CDN, June 3, 1957.
- “No black flags for Minister,” CDN, July 27, 1957; “Procession this Time in Mannar for C. P. de Silva,” CDN, July 27, 1957.
- W. Pathirana, Administration Report of the Government Agent, Mannar District, for 1957 (Colombo: Government Press, Ceylon, 1958), A179-180.