Padaviya Tangle

September 9, 1957

Published: September 9, 2023


In the early 1950’s, the Ceylon government opened a colonization scheme at Padaviya, a tank in an area that then-Premier D. S. Senanayake believed to be part of the ancient Sinhalese heartland. Senanayake was reported to have told an early batch of Sinhalese settlers:1

Today you are brought here and given a plot of land. You have been uprooted from your village. You are like a piece of driftwood in the ocean; but remember that one day the whole country will look up to you. The final battle for the Sinhala people will be fought on the plains of Padaviya. You are men and women who will carry this island’s destiny on your shoulders. Those who are attempting to divide this country will have to reckon with you. The country may forget you for a few years, but one day very soon they will look up to you as the last bastion of the Sinhala.

While being uttered in the 1950’s, the statement was only published in the 1980’s and is alleged to have been a racist dog whistle inflaming Sinhalese against Tamils, who are the unstated enemies “attempting to divide this country.”2 Regardless of the authenticity and true meaning of this statement, even in the 1950’s, Padaviya became a sore point in ethnic relations. It occupied land in the Northern Province, North Central Province and Eastern Province, or more specifically, the Vavuniya, Anuradhapura, and Trincomalee Districts. The presence of the scheme in the Trincomalee District led Tamils to view it as an encroachment of their land called Pathavikkulam. As will be demonstrated, the extension of the scheme into the Trincomalee District became a point of contention as the Land Development Ordinance stipulated that government agents had decision-making authority about the colonists selected for schemes within their districts.3

Growing controversies

In June 1957, Padaviya became the hotspot of controversy. Vavuniya MP C. Suntharalingam, in a lengthy letter, accused the lands minister, C. P. de Silva, of planning to settle over a thousand Sinhalese colonists at Padaviya by August. More specifically, they would be settled in the part of the scheme that fell within the Trincomalee District. The majority of the colonists, he alleged, were part of the SLFP volunteer force.4 Continuing, he noted that Tamil labourers at Kilinochchi were not offered applications for employment at Padaviya. Furthermore, he alleged that de Silva had given selection authority for the allotments to the Anuradhapura District government agent instead of his counterpart in the Trincomalee District. Therefore, the minister had violated the Land Development Ordinance. “You have deliberately and maliciously violated the express provisions of the law,” Suntharalingam wrote.5

Suntharalingam would later complain of a number of moves to settle Sinhalese at Padaviya in July. Despite assurances that the government would not settle Sinhalese in the Trincomalee District during negotiations with the Federal Party, he received information that Sinhalese labourers were being settled en masse. He claimed that he had even met several scores of these recruits at the Vavuniya railway station. Later on, he had received reports that the “labourers” were not engaged in actual labour, and some had tried to encroach on a Tamil village in the Trincomalee District.6 Suntharalingam travelled to Padaviya to investigate the “serious allegations made to [him] about the activities, including massing, of handloom [sic.] volunteers at Padavikulam, alias Padaviya.” However, a crowd of Sinhalese protesters at Kebitigollewa stopped his car and he was forced to turn back.7

During a parliamentary session in early August, de Silva clarified a distinction between small and large schemes. Small schemes, he explained, were for the local landless, whereas large schemes were for the landless from all over the country. Padaviya was an example of the latter, hence the government could bring in outside Sinhalese colonists. He went on to note that there were several small schemes in Tamil areas in which the government would not settle Sinhalese as they were not local inhabitants.8

However, in the same session, Suntharalingam remained adamant that de Silva was pursuing a discriminatory policy against Tamils at Padaviya. Beyond the violation of the land ordinances, he alleged that a river in the southern portion of the scheme was diverted to southwards Kebitigollewa. “I shall see to it that not a drop of water goes into Vavuniya,” he accused de Silva of having uttered at a meeting.9

No show

By September, plans were made to settle six hundred families in Padaviya; 434 from the Colombo District, and the remaining 166 from the Anuradhapura District. Each were to receive an acre of highland, three acres of paddy land, a house, and agricultural aid in the form of subsidies and gifts.10 About two fifths of the families were to be settled in the North Central Province; the majority would be in the Trincomalee District.11 On September 9, the first round of colonists, numbering fifty-three families, was stopped at the Veyangoda railway station. The train to take them to Padaviya was cancelled by railway authorities on the instruction of the Colombo District government agent. The government agent had been advised to make the cancellation by the ministry of lands, and the ministry’s permanent secretary claimed that the reception for the colonists was not yet ready.12

However, the government agent of Anuradhapura, S. J. Walpita, had in fact prepared arrangements for reception, and he expressed his surprise over the blockage. The land commissioner, M. Rajendra, protested to the ministry of lands about the decision to stop the colonists, claiming that neither he nor Walpita were consulted beforehand. de Silva called a conference of officials from Anuradhapura, including Rajendra and Walpita. When asked about the pending colonists, he asked the two to “await further instructions.”13 The Ceylon Daily News reported that the colony was not yet ready, with basic features and facilities lacking. In the meantime, squatters took the liberty of setting up two townships in the scheme via a number of small businesses.14

In the Ceylon Daily News’ version of events, dubbing the train incident as the “Padawiya Tangle,” the Federal Party leader, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, and Suntharalingam had made representations to the government noting that the Vavuniya government agent alone had authority over settlement of colonists in the part of Padaviya within the Vavuniya District and that settling Sinhalese colonists in the Vavuniya and Trincomalee Districts violated the spirit of the B-C pact. The government acceded to their request, and consequently, the Padaviya allotments within those districts were then reserved for local peasants, and the Sinhalese settlements were relocated to the Anuradhapura District. Due to this change in policy, the lands ministry had cancelled the train for the Veyangoda colonists.15

The lands ministry then instructed Walpita to settle as many of the colonists from the North Central Province as possible before the Western Province colonists departed. The permanent secretary noted that nearly all encroachment by squatters occurred in the North Central Province, but the lands prepared for the colonists were ready and about two hundred families were settled.16

Political quarrel

The topic of colonization schemes, particularly at Padaviya, became the subject of a political back-and-forth by Sinhalese and Tamil politicians. Being staunch opponents of Sinhalese colonization of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the Federal Party raised complaints about the settlement. In a response to a letter by a Buddhist monk critiquing the Federal Party’s stance on colonization schemes, Federal Party secretary Dr. E. M. V. Naganathan used Padaviya as an example of a settlement scheme that was being used to advance Sinhalese interests. Whereas Tamils who were recently or would soon be unemployed by the closure of the Trincomalee naval base had been given no offer of land in Padaviya, thousands of Sinhalese would be settled in the part of the scheme in the Trincomalee District. To make matters worse, he alleged, the government was actively planting thousands of Sinhalese squatters and encroachers who would contribute substantially to the demographic change. “[T]his gross injustice and attempted genocide both cultural and economic of a national minority is a gross violation of the tenets of democracy and the essential requirements of civilized government,” Naganathan declared.17

de Silva responded to these allegations by explaining that the reason that all the selected colonists were Sinhalese was that the Sinhalese of Anuradhapura had called for the restoration of the Padaviya tank. He acknowledged that there the government was responsible for re-employing Tamils at Trincomalee, though he gave no statement as to how this would be done. “I have asked Mr. Vanniasingham to tour this district and give me the necessary advice,” he urged.18

Naganathan responded to de Silva by accusing him of violating the land ordinance by settling colonists from outside the Trincomalee District, of settling only Sinhalese at Padaviya, of ignoring Tamils in Trincomalee who needed employment due to the closure of the naval base, and of using Australian funds for the scheme to benefit only Sinhalese. He pointed that, if de Silva’s claim about Anuradhapura Sinhalese was true, he would not need to bring in colonists from the Western Province.19

The UNP, which had gone on a campaign denouncing the B-C pact, invoked the Padaviya incident to justify their concerns. J. R. Jayawardene explained that, to the UNP, the most dangerous element of the pact were the regional councils, and more specifically, the powers they had over the colonization schemes. Dudley Senanayake pointed out that, even though Padaviya could hold up to four thousand families, only six hundred Sinhalese families were chosen for the scheme. He described the B-C pact’s stance on colonization as a racial policy that deprived people of the right to settle wherever they wished due to their race.20 E. L. B. Hurulle, the MP of Horowpathana, criticized the stance of Tamil politicians by arguing that Padaviya was supposed to be for Sinhalese displaced by Tamils. “The Dravidian invaders were responsible for the breaching of this tank and that is why several centuries of jungle covered the lands at Padaviya. Now the descendants of these are claiming these lands too, although their ancestors had been driven out of Padaviya,” he complained.21

Unsurprisingly, Suntharalingam inserted himself into the squabbling. In yet another letter to the Ceylon Daily News, he claimed that the government had held land kachcheris for Sinhalese colonists in the Western Province in August, after the B-C pact had been made. He also predicted that the colonists would be entering into a hot spot for conflicts between various communities and factions, warning that “[t]he selectees must be prepared not only for peaceful agricultural pursuits but also for bloodshed.”22

Finally settled

Two weeks after the original date of departure, the colonists from Veyangoda finally arrived at the settlement. However, some had been sufficiently frightened by rumors of trouble at Padaviya such that they left their wives and daughters at Veyangoda. The scheme was, in fact, completely peaceful, and the Ceylon Daily News reported that even encroachers had given free lunch to the colonists. While many colonists were pleased with their new homes, others were not so enthused. “The floor is not cemented. The latrines is made of cadjan. There might be snakes in it,” complained one about her new residence.23

The Padaviya tank. [Source: ShasikapwsCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.]

Prophetic politics

To a degree, Suntharalingam proved to be prophetic. Padaviya would become a centre of ethnic troubles in 1958, and the labourers and squatters who were of much controversy in 1957 would be the principal participants in anti-Tamil action there. In April, they had successfully prevented settlement of Tamil ex-employees of the Trincomalee naval base by occupying the Tamils’ proposed allotments, and in May, they participated in the racial violence. Even in July 1957, they had been warned of an impending Tamil invasion from Trincomalee and Batticaloa by certain political figures.24 In his study of the 1958 riots, James Manor noted that the labourers who participated in violence in the North Central Province were resentful of the fact that they were subordinate to Tamil supervisors and that “their future prospects were grim at a time when other Sinhalese, usually from more favoured castes, were gaining lands all around them.” The squatters similarly had dubious prospects, given that they “eked out a precarious existence on tracts which they knew might soon be taken from them.” At Padaviya more specifically, the squatters themselves were said to have been former irrigation labourers.25

Challenge to the pact

The events of September 1957 challenged the B-C pact that had been hailed as a milestone in Sinhalese-Tamil political relations in Ceylon. A salient feature of the pact, as noted by both its supporters and critics, were regional councils and the control they had over colonization schemes. On paper, the regional councils had “the power to select allottees to whom lands with in their area of authority shall be alienated and also to select personnel for work on such schemes.”26 As noted by Chelvanayakam, the spirit of the provisions for colonization was to reduce the number of Sinhalese settled in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Padaviya settlement in September 1957, after the B-C pact was signed, proved to be a sore point, especially when the government was trying to accommodate Tamil demands.

However, no matter the decision made, some faction opposing the pact would have harped on it as part of a denunciation campaign. Sinhalese opponents would cry foul if the settlement was stopped wholesale whereas Tamil opponents would do so if it was not. Despite the harmony that the pact brought, fractures nevertheless remained existent. Critics would look for any reason to denounce the pact, and the Padaviya Tangle gave them a strong one.


DeVotta, Neil. Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Gunaratne, Malinga H. For a Sovereign State. Colombo: Sarvodaya Book Pub. Services, 1988.

Manor, James. “Self-Inflicted Wound: Inter-Communal Violence in Ceylon, 1958,” Collected Seminar Papers no. 30 (1982): 15-25.

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


  1. Malinga H. Gunaratne, For a Sovereign State. (Colombo: Sarvodaya Book Pub. Services, 1988), 201.
  2. See for example, Nirmanusan Balasundaram, “Sri Lanka: The Intentions Behind the Land Grabbing Process,” Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, April 30, 2013.
  3. Furthermore, Section 23(2) of the Land Development Ordinance of 1935 stated that “in making any selection under subsection (1), the Government Agent shall have special regard to applications received from persons resident in the neighbourhood of the land proposed to be alienated at the Land Kachcheri.”
  4. In response to the Federal Party’s threatened satyagraha, the SLFP announced the creation of a volunteer force that would help the authorities in maintaining peace and harmony. However, others saw the force as little more than a private army. “Volunteer Corps to Prevent Clashes, Explains SLFP,” Ceylon Daily News, May 31, 1957.
  5. “Vavuniya M.P’s Open Letter to Lands Minister,” CDN, June 24, 1957.
  6. “Mr. Suntharalingam on Padaviya Colonists,” CDN, September 17, 1957.
  7. “Hoots and Jeers for ‘Sun’,” CDN, July 19, 1957.
  8. “Minister Clarifies Land Policy,” CDN, August 8, 1957; “No Racial Bias in Land Policy, Says Minister,” CDN, August 7, 1957.
  9. “‘N.C.P. Peasant Better Off Than Those in China’,” CDN, August 6, 1957.
  10. “First Batch to Padawiya on Monday,” CDN, September 7, 1957.
  11. “Colonists From N.C.P. First,” CDN, September 16, 1957.
  12. “First Batch of Colonists to Padawiya Are Stopped,” CDN, September 10, 1957.
  13. “Land Chief Says He Was Not Consulted,” CDN, September 12, 1957.
  14. “Squatters Take Over at Padaviya,” CDN, September 12, 1957.
  15. “Padawiya Tangle,” CDN, September 14, 1957.
  16. “Colonists From N.C.P. First,” CDN, September 16, 1957.; Dalton de Silva, “Colonists Begin New Life in the Promised Land,” CDN, September 21, 1957.
  17. E. M. V. Naganathan, “Colonization and National Minorities,” CDN, September 16, 1957. See “Sauce for the Goose,” CDN, August 29, 1957 for the monk’s letter.
  18. “Lands Minister Answers Federalist,” CDN, September 16, 1957.
  19. “Padaviya: FP Accuses Minister,” CDN, September 17, 1957.
  20. “Consult People Before Legalising the Pact, Says J. R.,” CDN, September 16, 1957.
  21. “F. P. Cannot Claim Padaviya – MP,” CDN, September 21, 1957.
  22. “Mr. Suntharalingam on Padaviya Colonists,” CDN, September 17, 1957.
  23. Dalton de Silva, “Colonists Begin New Life in the Promised Land,” CDN, September 21, 1957.
  24. Tarzie Vittachi, Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots (London: Andre Deutsch, 1958), 34; 64 – 67.
  25. James Manor, “Self-Inflicted Wound: Inter-Communal Violence in Ceylon, 1958,” Collected Seminar Papers no. 30 (1982): 20-21.; de Silva, “Colonists Begin New Life”. However, labourers were reported to have greeted the new colonists at Padaviya and treated them to food. “‘Kavun’ for Colonists,” CDN, September 19, 1957.
  26. “Further Talks on Regional Councils: Premier and Federal Leaders to Meet Again,” CDN, July 27, 1957. However, the powers of the councils would be under the control of parliament, and the minister of lands would have vetoing authority in the selection of allottees for colonization schemes. Neil DeVotta, Blowback: Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay, and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 103-104.