Ministerial Visits to the North and East in June 1957 – Part III: Jaffna

Part II: Kalmunai

Published: June 9, 2023

June 9, 1957

An invitation from the Minority Tamils

The All-Ceylon Minority Tamils Maha Sabha invited the prime minister to attend its fourteenth annual conference on June 9.1 The issue of Tamil casteism had been brought up earlier in the year when the government passed the Prevention of Social Disabilities Act, proposed as a private member’s bill by two Federal Party MPs to outlaw caste-based discrimination.2 Unable to attend, however, Bandaranaike sent the junior minister of labour, housing, and social services, M. P. de Zoysa, on his behalf. By June 8, de Zoysa received a number of telegrams from Jaffna advising him not to attend.3 But he proceeded nonetheless, undeterred and determined to attend the conference.

Greeted by satyagrahis

Demonstrating Tamil youths swarmed the Jaffna train station prior to de Zoysa’s arrival on the morning of June 9. When his train pulled into the station, they started shouting slogans such as “go back Mr. de Zoysa” and “don’t divide the Tamil-speaking nation.” He got into the car of a prominent Jaffna Sinhalese, Arya Pathirana, to leave the station, but the the car was initially blocked by satyagrahis who laid down on the road. Police claim that when they attempted to forcibly remove the satyagrahis, the demonstrators threw stones at them and the car. The stoning caused injuries to six police personnel, one of whom was the superintendent of police. As satyagrahis were removed from the road, others took their place. Some ten demonstrators were injured when police baton-charged the crowd to disperse it. One of the injured was the secretary of the All-Ceylon Tamil-Speaking Youth Front.4

Federal Party stalwart and Vaddukoddai MP Appapillai Amirthalingam then arrived at the demonstration and himself laid down on the road. Police removed him, after which more stones were thrown. Following a discussion with the police superintendent, Amirthalingam made a speech to the crowd, claiming that the Federal Party was not involved in the demonstration, and that it had been independently organized by Jaffna youths. “I came to the railway station to see that nothing untoward happens,” he explained. “I was watching the demonstration when I saw policemen kicking and beating young men who were squatting and lying in front of the car. I had to rush in to prevent the action of the police.” He ended his speech calling for non-violence: “it is your duty as peaceful citizens not to resort to force.”5

Town hall

Attempts to obstruct de Zoysa did not end there. Demonstrators swarmed the town hall, the venue of the conference, to prevent de Zoysa from entering. Several speakers urged the crowd not to relent even if police tried to disperse them. They did not want a representative of a government that “had crushed the Tamils and their language” to speak at Jaffna. After this, Federal Party President C. Vanniasingham entered the hall with two sabha members: Joint Secretary A. M. Sellathurai and an an executive. Vanniasingham was applauded when he announced that Sellathurai would confirm that de Zoysa (and any other party politician) would not participate at the conference.6

In his speech, Sellathurai regretted the disquieting scenes that morning that could be traced back to his invitation of de Zoysa. The minister’s invitation was part of a broader attempt to invite representatives of all political parties. At this point, Vanniasingham urged non-sabha members to leave and attend a procession to call for the eradication of untouchability. With that, the conference began without de Zoysa.7 Things turned tense when a sabha member had proposed a resolution “condemning the Federal Party as being instrumental for the demonstrations at the Railway Station against Mr. M. P. de Zoysa in the morning and for depriving the Sabha of the use of the Town Hall.” Not everyone agreed with the resolution, and one objector left the meeting as a result.8 In a letter sent to de Zoysa after the meeting, another joint secretary expressed the sabha’s appreciation of his attempt to attend the conference and accused Federal Party youth leaguers, led by Amirthalingam, of crowding the town hall.9

Alternative arrangement

de Zoysa attended a conference at the kachcheri which was attended by the Jaffna government agent and the superintendent of police. After this, they went to Pathirana’s house. When the sabha conference ended, he went to the residence of one of its joint secretaries. There, the new sabha president met with him and discussed the plight of Minority Tamils. de Zoysa explained that he had come to Jaffna to attend the conference in lieu of the prime minister, who was originally invited. He brought the prime minister’s message to the sabha committee. “Our Government shall see to it that no minority community is treated differently – be it in the South, North, East, or West. We want all peoples to enjoy rights equally,” he assured.10 He promised that the upcoming budget by the government would help Tamils. Commenting on the morning’s incidents, he contended that the demonstrators were in no way representative of Jaffna Tamils as a whole.11 Following this, he left Jaffna that afternoon.12

When he returned to Colombo, de Zoysa committed to bring a number of grievances of the Minority Tamils to the government’s attention. The education, lands, housing, and local government ministers would all be informed on these issues.13

Clasp knife

On the evening of June 10, Sinnadurai, the driver of Pathirana’s car, visited Jaffna Mayor C. Ponnambalam with a plaster on his cheek. He told Ponnambalam that he wanted to stab Amirthalingam. “Two youths assaulted me for taking Pathirana’s car to drive the minister to the Town Hall. Those youths had been instigated by Amirthalingam,” he explained while gesturing at his cheek.14 Ponnambalam ordered him to leave, and later asked some men to find him.15

Sinnadurai arrived at Amirthalingam’s house, complaining about the assault. Ponnambalam’s men arrived at the house and frisked Sinnadurai, finding a clasp knife on him. They took him to Ponnambalam’s house, where the police were contacted. Upon arrival, they took only Ponnambalam’s statement. Ponnambalam alleged that the police were Sinhalese and did not accurately record his statement. They took away Sinnadurai in a jeep, but returned an hour later and took another statement from Ponnambalam, along with those of other witnesses.16

Parliamentary debate

Over a week later in parliament, de Zoysa and Amirthalingam came to a clash of words. Amirthalingam declared that Philip Gunawardena, the food minister, could not destroy the Tamil language. de Zoysa retorted, “not even you can destroy it.” Amirthalingam replied that he was happy that de Zoysa learned something at Jaffna.17

Satyagraha dubious

The ministerial visits proved to be detrimental to the Federal Party. That three anti-government demonstrations organized by Tamils, one of which was under direct Federalist supervision, became very un-satyagraha-like brought into question its claim that the movement would be perfectly peaceful. The satyagraha was opposed (or at least not supported) by nearly all other political parties, including other Tamil parties and pro-parity Sinhalese leftist parties,18 and the violent manifestations of it in microcosmic form certainly did not help.

Unsurprisingly, the Federalists’ most important opponent, Bandaranaike, used the opportunity to discredit them and their proposed campaign. “We have already seen, when Ministers recently visited Mannar and Jaffna, how non-violent this campaign is likely to be,” he remarked in a radio message to the country.19 Several letters to the Ceylon Daily News reiterated this sentiment.20

But beneath his sardonicism was concern as Sinhalese-Tamil relations were coming to a breaking point. While Tamils in the north and east were showing more militant defiance of the government, Sinhalese nationalists in the south were also drumming up resistance to the government’s concessions to Tamils. Both the Federal Party and the Prime Minister were keenly aware of the acrimony accumulating on both sides of the divide, and this would push them to seek negotiations in late June.


Kearney, Robert. The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). London: Cornell University Press, 1973.

Sabaratnam, T. The Murder of a Moderate: Political Biography of Appapillai Amirthalingam. Dehiwala: Nivetha Publishers, 1996.


  1. The term “minority Tamil” refers to low-caste Tamils, who were traditionally shunned and deemed “untouchable” by the more numerous higher caste Tamils in Jaffna.
  2. Robert Kearney, The Politics of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), (London: Cornell University Press, 1973), 43.
  3. “Jnr. Minister Told ‘Don’t’,” CDN, June 8, 1957.
  4. “Jnr. Minister Given No Hearing: Station and Hall Picketed,” CDN, June 10, 1957.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “The Minority Tamils Discuss Their Future,” CDN, June 12, 1957. The Times also described the demonstrators as “members of the Federal Party youth league.” “Ceylon Official Stoned: Federal Youths Lie in Car’s Path,” The Times, June 10, 1957.
  9. “Mr. M. P. de Zoysa’s Statement,” CDN, June 10, 1957.
  10. “Jnr. Minister Given No Hearing: Station and Hall Picketed,” CDN, June 10, 1957.
  11. “‘Budget Will Help Tamils’,” CDN, June 11, 1957.
  12. “Mr. M. P. de Zoysa’s Statement,” CDN, June 10, 1957.
  13. “Minority Tamils’ Ills: P.M. Informed,” CDN, June 15, 1957.
  14. T. Sabaratnam, The Murder of a Moderate: Political Biography of Appapillai Amirthalingam (Dehiwala: Nivetha Publishers, 1996), 76.
  15. “Alleged Knife Threat to F. P. Leader,” CDN, June 12, 1957.
  16. Ibid.
  17. “Evolution or Revolution?— the Premier’s Dilemma,” CDN, June 19, 1957.
  18. See for example, “Tamil Congress Will Keep Out of Satyagraha: Decision Taken at Three-Hour Meeting,” CDN, June 18, 1957; “LSSP attacks F.P. and Satyagraha,” CDN, June 10, 1957.
  19. “P.M. Calls for Peace, Goodwill,” CDN, June 11, 1957.
  20. For example, “Satyagrahis,” CDN, June 10, 1957; “Persuasion only solution,” CDN, June 13, 1957; “Towards Peace and Harmony,” CDN, June 20, 1957.