1958 anti-Tamil pogrom and riots in Ceylon, also known as 58 riots, refer to the first island wide ethnic riots and pogrom to target the minority Tamils in the Dominion of Ceylon after it became an independent country 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 range based on recovered body count from 300 to 1500. Although most of the victims were Tamils, some 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 in Batticaloa and Jaffna. 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.
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. 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.
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.
The Federal Party was to hold a convention in Vavuniya. Sinhala hardliners decided to disrupt party members travelling there by rail. Polonnaruwa station was the first to be attacked, on 22 May. The following night a train from Batticaloa was attacked, and two people killed. It later turned out there were hardly any Tamils on the train. The Polonnaruwa station was attacked again on 24 May, and nearly destroyed.
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, or pulped under heavy clubs. Those who fled were clubbed down or hit by machetes. In Hinguarkgoda, rioters ripped open the belly of an eight-month-pregnant woman, and left her to bleed to death. 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.
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. 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. The crowd dispersed after the soldiers fired a Bren gun at them, killing three.
On 26 May, Prime Minister Bandaranaike said the riots had started with the death of Nuwara Eliya mayor D.A. Seneviratne the previous day (actually the riots had begun three days before). This gave people the impression that Tamils were behind the riots. Soon gangs began beating Tamils in Colombo and several of its suburbs. Shops were burned and looted. Tamil women were subjected to rape and their babies were murdered by dumping them in hot tar.
In Panadura, a rumor 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. 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.
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. The state police is accused of being complicit and even fanning the riots in several places. Some Sinhalese did try to protect their Tamil neighbours, often risking their own lives to shelter them in their homes.
Tamils in the east carried out a few attacks as revenge. In Eravur, fishermen from the two communities fought on the seashore. In the same town, Tamil gangs set up roadblocks, beating up motorists believed to be Sinhalese. 56 cases of arson and attacks were registered in the Batticaloa district. No deaths were reported in Jaffna district, but some Sinhalese merchants had their inventories burned. Several Sinhalese were severely beaten, including members of Marxist parties, who stood for parity of status. A Tamil mob destroyed the Buddhist Naga Vihare temple, which was rebuilt afterwards.
For five full days the government did nothing. Finally, on 27 May, a state of emergency was declared. The Federal Party and Janatha Vimukthi 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.
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-Chelvanayagam Pact dealing with the language issue.
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. 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. 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.
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. The book clearly demonstrates how the riots were one-sided against the Tamils and hence meets the definition of a pogrom. 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.