Girish Mahajan

1956 Ceylonese riots

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Location  Dominion of Ceylon
Deaths  150
Weapons  Knives, sticks, fire
1956 Ceylonese riots
Date  June 11–16, 1956 (+6 GMT)
Target  Primarily Tamil civilians
Attack type  Decapitation, burning, stabbing

The Gal Oya riots or Gal Oya massacre were the first ethnic riots that targeted the minority Tamils in the Dominion of Ceylon. The riots took place from June 11, 1956, and occurred over the next five days. Local majority Sinhalese colonists and employees of the Gal Oya Development Board commandeered government vehicles, dynamite and weapons and massacred minority Tamils. It is estimated that over 150 people lost their lives due in the violence. Although initially inactive, the police and army were eventually able to bring the situation under control.

Contents

Background information

In British Ceylon, most civil service jobs (roughly 60%) were held by minority Tamils who comprised approximately 15% of the population. This was due to the availability of Western style education provided by American missionaries and others in the Tamil dominant Jaffna peninsula. The overrepresentation of Tamils was used by populist Sinhalese politicians to come to political power by promising to elevate the Sinhalese people. The pro-Sinhalese nationalist Freedom Party came to power in 1956 promising to make Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhalese people, the sole official language. The so-called Sinhala only policy was opposed by the Tamil Federal party which conducted a nonviolent sit-in protest on June 5, 1956, in front of the parliament in Colombo, the capital city. About 200 Tamil leaders and politicians took part in this protest. But the protestors were attacked by a Sinhalese mob that was led by a junior government minister. The same mob, after listening to a speech by populist Sinhalese politicians urging them to boycott Tamil business, went on a looting spree in the city. Over 150 Tamil owned shops were looted and many people were hospitalized for their injuries. But these disturbances were quickly brought under control by the police.

Gal Oya settlement scheme

Gal Oya settlement scheme was begun in 1949 to settle landless peasants in formerly jungle land. Gal Oya river in the Eastern province was dammed and a tank was created with 40,000,000 acres (160,000 km2) of irrigated land. In 1956 the settlement had over 50 new villages where over 5,000 ethnic Tamil, Muslim, Indigenous Veddha and Sinhalese were settled. The Sinhalese were approximately 50% of the settlers. Sinhalese and others were spatially separated from each other as Sinhalese were settled at the more productive headwaters of the Gal Oya tank and the Tamils and Muslims at the down rivers closer to their former native villages. Settlement of large number of Sinhalese peasants in what Tamil nationalists considered their traditional Tamil homeland, was a source of tension within the settlement area.

The massacres

As information about disturbances in the capital Colombo reached the outlying area, the riots began on the evening of June 11, 1956, when agitated mobs began roaming the streets of Gal Oya valley looking for Tamils. Properties owned by Tamils, including those of Indian Tamils, were looted and burned down. In the following days a number of rumors began to spread. The chief amongst them was that a Sinhalese girl had been raped and made to walk naked down the street in a nearby Tamil dominated town, Batticalao, by a Tamil mob. Although this later proved to be false, the rumor inflamed the passions of the mob and led to further massacres and property destruction.

There were further rumors that an army of 6,000 Tamils armed with guns were in the process of approaching the Sinhalese settlements in the Gal Oya valley. This led local groups of Sinhalese men to commandeer government vehicles to travel to outlying Tamil villages. According to journalist W. Howard Higgins and Manor well over one hundred Tamils were massacred by the mob. At first the local police made no attempt to control the mob as they said that they were outnumbered by the rioters. It was only after the arrival of army reinforcements and stern action taken by them that the killings and destruction were suppressed.

References

1956 Ceylonese riots Wikipedia


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