1958 anti-Tamil pogrom

1958 Anti-Tamil pogrom and riots
Location of Ceylon
Location Dominion of Ceylon
Date May and June 1958 (+6 GMT)
Target Primarily Tamil, also Sinhalese civilians
Attack type
Decapitation, burning, stabbing, shooting
Weapons Knives, sticks, fire, guns
Deaths 158 (official) to 1500 [1][2][3]
Injured 1,000+

The 1958 anti-Tamil pogrom and riots in Ceylon, also known as the 58 riots, refer to the first island wide ethnic riots and pogrom[3][4][5][6][7] to target the minority Tamils in the Dominion of Ceylon after it became an independent dominion from Britain in 1948. The riots lasted from 22 May until 27 May 1958 although sporadic disturbances happened even after the declaration of emergency on 1 June 1958. The estimates of the murders[8] range, based on recovered body count, from 158 to 1,500.[1][3] Although most of the victims were Tamils, majority Sinhalese civilians and their property was also affected both by attacking Sinhalese mobs who attacked those Sinhalese who provided sanctuary to Tamils as well as in retaliatory attacks by Tamil mobs throughout the Batticaloa and Jaffna districts.[9] As the first full-scale race riot in the country in over forty years, the events of 1958 shattered the trust the communities had in one another and led to further polarisation.


In 1956, Solomon Bandaranaike came to power in Ceylon, on a majority Sinhala nationalist platform. The new government passed the Sinhala Only Act, making Sinhala the sole official language of the country. This was done despite the fact that nearly a quarter of the population used Tamil as their primary language. The Act immediately triggered discontent among the Tamils, who perceived their language, culture, and economic position as being subject to an increasing threat.[10]

In protest, Tamil Federal Party politicians launched a satyagraha (Nonviolent resistance) campaign. This led to an environment of increased communal tensions and to the death of over 150 Tamils in the Gal Oya riots in the east of the country.[2] Eventually Bandaranaike entered into negotiations with them and the Federal party and agreed to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, which would have made Tamil the administrative language in the Tamil-speaking north and east regions. But he was forced to cancel the pact under pressure from Sinhala nationalists and some Buddhist monks, particularly the United National Party, which organised a 'March on Kandy', led by JR Jayawardene.[10][11][12]

Meanwhile, 400 Tamil labourers were laid off when the British Royal Navy closed its base in Trincomalee. The government proposed to resettle them in the Polonnaruwa district. This angered the Sinhalese population there, which began forming gangs and threatening vigilante attacks on any Tamil migrants to the region.[13] An incident took place in Cheddikulam. 300 Sinhalese laborers of the Land Development and Irrigation Department armed themselves with blades and proceeded to a Tamil village in trucks. Before they could reach the village, an armed group of four Tamils had fired at the gang, and the gang retreated.[14]

The Sinhala Only policy led to motor vehicles bearing the Sinhala shri character on their license plates. In response, the Federal Party initiated the anti-Sri campaign which involved smearing tar upon the shri characters. This led to a wave of reprisal tarrings of Tamil offices, shops, houses, and even people in the south by Sinhalese gangs.[13] The anti-Sri campaign also became popular among Indian Tamil youths in the hill country. In Bogawantalawa, the campaign turned violent after the police shot at a restive crowd, killing two men. The now enraged crowd started attacking Sinhalese property and people. The violence had led to Sinhalese reprisals. In the clashes, three Sinhalese were killed and Tamil boutiques were vandalized and burnt.[15] Bandaranaike requested Savumiamoorthy Thondaman, leader for the Ceylon Workers' Congress, to calm down the rioters. Thondaman went to the area and did so successfully.[16]

In the month preceding the riots, there were incidents of Tamils killing Sinhalese in Trincomalee and Chenkalady, further inflaming communal tension.[citation needed] Additionally, in Sinhalese areas, racist pamphlets were sent to government posts and members of the public threatening violence against non-Sinhalese Buddhists if they did not go to the North and East.[17]


Attacks on trains

The Federal Party was to hold a convention in Vavuniya. A small incident occurred in Valaichchenai, but as the story reached Polonnaruwa, the story was twisted into a more serious event having occurred.[18] To retaliate, Sinhala hardliners decided to disrupt party members travelling there by rail. Polonnaruwa station was the first to be attacked, on 22 May. Most passengers of the train had gotten off earlier due to the threat of violence in Polonnaruwa. One man was found in the train, and the mobs beat him despite his insistence that he was not a Tamil. The following night a train in Batticaloa was derailed, its passengers, mostly Sinhalese, were attacked, and three people were killed. Tarzie Vittachi suggests that the derailing was committed by Sinhalese wreckers who made a serious miscalculation, as the passengers were mainly Sinhala and not Tamil.[19] However, this is disputed by historian James Manor suggests that the perpetrators were Tamils who were retaliating for the earlier attack in Polonnaruwa given that the derailment took place in a Tamil-majority area where anti-Sinhalese violence was rising.[18] The Polonnaruwa station was attacked again on 24 May, and nearly destroyed.[20]

Farm massacres

Deadly violence in the Polonnaruwa District began on the 24th. Tamils were killed in the open, as well as Sinhalese who protected them. A deaf, mute labourer of unknown ethnicity was also killed. On the night of the 25th, Sinhalese gangs attacked Tamil labourers in Polonnaruwa farms. The Tamil labourers in the Polonnaruwa sugar-cane plantation fled when they saw the enemy approaching and hid in the sugar-cane bushes. The Sinhalese mobs however set the sugar cane alight and flushed out the Tamils. As they came out screaming, men, women and children were cut down with home-made swords, grass-cutting knives and katties,[check spelling] or pulped under heavy clubs. Those who fled were clubbed down or hit by machetes. In Hingurakgoda, rioters ripped open the belly of an eight-month-pregnant woman, and left her to bleed to death.[21] One woman in sheer terror embraced her two children and jumped into a well. It has been estimated that 70 people died the night of 25 May.[21][22]

Polonnaruwa had only a small police presence. Requests for reinforcements were not heeded as the Government seemed reluctant to take the situation in the North Central Province seriously.[23] Those Sinhalese policemen who tried to protect Tamils were attacked by the mobs; a few had severe head injuries causing their deaths. The thugs displayed a temerity which was quite unprecedented. They had complete assurance that the police would never dare to open fire.

The next morning, a small army unit of 25 men arrived, but found itself confronted by a civilian Sinhalese mob of over 3,000.[23] The crowd dispersed after the soldiers fired a Bren gun at them, killing three.[23]

Country-wide massacres and violence against Tamils

On 26 May, riots had started with the death of Nuwara Eliya mayor D.A. Seneviratne the previous day. Soon gangs began beating Tamils in Colombo and several of its suburbs. Shops were burned and looted.[24] Tamil women were subjected to rape.[6] Widespread rioting along the coast from Colombo to Matara was mainly triggered by the return of Sinhalese fishermen who had been chased to the ocean by Tamil rioters in the Eastern Province.[18] In Kantale, Sinhalese rioters stopped buses that were entering the city and killed anyone who was unable to recite a Buddhist verse, including Sinhalese Christians.[25]

In Panadura, a rumor[24] spread that Tamils had cut off the breasts and murdered a female teacher in Batticaloa. In revenge, a Sinhalese gang tried to burn down the Hindu Kovil; unable to set fire to the building, they pulled out a Brahmin priest and burned him alive instead.[26] Subsequent investigations showed there was no female teacher from Panadura stationed in Batticaloa. Gangs roamed Colombo, looking for people who might be Tamil. The usual way to distinguish Tamils from Sinhalese was to look for men who wore shirts outside of their pants, or men with pierced ears, both common customs among Tamils. People who could not read a Sinhala newspaper (which included some Sinhalese who were educated in English) were beaten or killed.[27]

One trick used by the gangs was to disguise themselves as policemen. They would tell Tamils to flee to the police station for their safety. Once the Tamils had left, the empty houses were looted and burned. Across the country, arson, rape, pillage and murder spread. Though the state police eventually helped to quell the riots, they were accused of being initially inactive and even fanning the riots in several places.[3][6] Some Sinhalese did try to protect their Tamil neighbours, often risking their own lives to shelter them in their homes. Sinhalese who were believed to be hiding Tamils "had their brains strewn about".[21]

Sinhalese laborers of the Land Development and Irrigation Department from Padaviya formed a mob armed with guns and began roaming the northern border areas in trucks on May 29. Though they planned on going to Anuradhapura, they took an indirect route on the Padaviya—Kebitigollewa—Vavuniya Road to outmaneuver the army, attacking whatever Tamils they could find on the way.[28] The army and police intercepted the rioters south of Kebitigollewa. They killed 11 rioters, and arrested 343.[29] Some of the prisoners later confessed that they would have gone further south to Matale and Kandy had they not been stopped.[30]

Attacks on Sinhalese

On May 24, D. A. Seneviratne, former mayor of Nuwara Eliya, was shot near Batticaloa while he was on his way to his estate in Kalkudah, though this is suspected by some to have been a personal issue. On the 25th, a truck and car were blown up and a Sinhalese police officer and two others were killed.[18] Soon after the Polonnaruwa incidents of May 23 and 24 the Tamils in Eravur retaliated against isolated Sinhalese homes and trades people. In Eravur, fishermen from the two communities fought on the seashore. Tamil gangs set up roadblocks, beating up motorists believed to be Sinhalese. A Sinhalese man and his wife were set on fire. Throughout the Batticaloa district, Sinhalese civilians, including children, were mercilessly killed by Tamil rioters. In Valaichchenai, Muslims sheltered Sinhalese who fled from Tamil mobs.[31] 56 cases of arson and attacks were registered in the Batticaloa District, and 11 murders were recorded, but it is believed that the actual number of Sinhalese killed in Karativu alone is far larger than the official statistic.[32] Many Sinhalese had managed to flee by water and land on the southern coast, but others had fled into the jungle, where they had succumbed to hunger and wild animals. The houses and huts of Sinhalese that had already fled were looted and then burned.[33]

No deaths were reported in Jaffna, but some Sinhalese merchants had their inventories burned. Mobs would order Sinhalese out of their properties, loot valuables, and then burn the properties. The behavior of the mobs led politicians in Colombo to suspect that the violence was organized. A Tamil mob attacked the Buddhist Naga Vihare temple, which was rebuilt afterwards. The mob tried to kill a Buddhist monk there, but he was saved by the police. The mob moved onto the Nagadipa Vihare temple at Nainativu and destroyed it, including the dagoba.[34]

Government response

Police and army presence was heightened in the Eastern Province and North Central Province following the violence in the early stages of the riots. On May 26, when the violence began spreading across the island, the army and police suppressed incidents of violence. However, there were many cases of police being inactive due to the anti-police culture fostered by the government in the last two years. Once island-wide violence erupted, on May 27, a state of emergency was declared. Governor General Sir O. E. Goonetilleke gave the security forces permission to shoot rioters if necessary. The army proceeded to sternly suppress rioters, killing them if necessary. The Federal Party and Jatika Vimukti Peramuna were both banned. Most of the country's senior Tamil politicians were Federal Party members and were later arrested. Within two days, the military had restored order in Colombo and eventually the rest of the country. Nearly 12,000 Tamil refugees had fled to camps near Colombo. The government secretly commissioned six European ships to resettle most of them in Jaffna in early June. The army was eventually withdrawn from civilian areas in the rest of the country, but remained present in Jaffna for 25 years.[citation needed]

On 3 September 1958 the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act – which provided for the use of the Tamil language as a medium of instruction, as a medium of examination for admission to the Public Service, for use in state correspondence and for administrative purposes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces – was passed, substantially fulfilling the part of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact dealing with the language issue.[35]


As the first full-scale race riot in Ceylon in over forty years, the events of 1958 shattered the trust the communities had in one another.[36] Both major ethnic groups blamed the other for the crisis, and became convinced that any further compromises would be interpreted as a sign of weakness and be exploited. A partial cleansing of Tamils from Sinhalese-majority areas and Sinhalese from Tamil-majority areas occurred. Thus, the path to the Sri Lankan Civil War was clear. Velupillai Prabhakaran, a small boy at the time of the riots, said later that his political views as an adult were shaped by the events of 1958.[37]

The famous book “Emergency ‘58” records the events of this pogrom. Popular journalist Tarzie Vittachi who published the book was expelled by the Sri Lankan Government soon after the pogrom.[6] The book also explores into the manifestation of Sinhalese nationalism in the form of anti-Tamil movement in a large-scale pogrom as a result of closely coordinated action of politicians, Buddhist monks, and rural Sinhalese.[3]

See also