Tambiah’s Contemporary Account of the Gal-Oya Riots of 1956: for Vice-Chancellor Attygalle

Stanley J. Tambiah

In writing about the Gal Oya riots, it would not be possible to give a meaningful and chronological account of the happenings if one were to confine oneself to only what one saw with one’s own eyes. I am taking the liberty of presenting an account based on direct knowledge as well as indirect information elicited from persons. However I shall carefully specify and differentiate between statements based on events witnessed by me and statements based on accounts given by others in the valley at the time of the riots. Care will be taken to state the sources of the facts narrated.

sj-tambiahTambiah sir_nicholas_attygalle_photo-210x300 Attygalle

The Gal Oya disturbance cannot of course be treated as an isolated phenomenon. It must be viewed in the general context of communal tensions and political differences existing in the country and also as a continuation of disturbances that started in Colombo during and after June fifth. The account given here however deals only with incidents that happened in the Eastern Province.

The trouble started in the Gal Oya Valley itself on June 11 at Amparai. I remained in the valley for four days (June 11-14) and was evacuated to Batticaloa on the night of June 14.The events related here are those that happened during those four days; however, certain events in the Eastern Province that happened before the eleventh will be referred to to provide the necessary background.


  1. The setting fire to a Sinhalese shop in Batticaloa: a Sinhalese person inside the shop shot with a gun three Tamil persons in the crowd that had gathered to watch the fire (newspaper account).
  2. Subsequently, the Tamils in Karativu on the Batticaloa-Amparai road stoned Gal Oya Board trucks. On the ninth I saw in Amparai town three trucks which had damaged windshields caused by stone throwing.
  3. In Gal Oya Valley itself, the Danish Equipment Company engaged in construction work had labor trouble. From officials I gathered that they were on strike and that their work was discontinued (hearsay).

Comment. These Events Indicate That: (a) Communal tensions (Sinhalese versus Tamil) had by now spread to the Eastern Province; (b) Because the main supply route to Gal Oya was the Batticaloa-Amparai road, and because there were large numbers of Tamils concentrated in Batticaloa and in the colonized areas of the valley, and a large number of Sinhalese in the Gal Oya Valley, what takes place in Batticaloa and its hinterland would have repercussion in the Valley and vice versa.

(c) Because of labor trouble, there were certain elements in the Valley who would prove dangerous during riots.


The Attack on the Tamils in Amparai

At about 2 P.M. the University team left the hospital where they were housed to do field work in the colonized areas. The team was divided into two groups: (a) about 26 Sinhalese students travelling in a converted lorry and working in Unit 32, and (b) about seven Tamil students travelling in a land rover and conducting investigations in Unit 14.

On this particular day I went along with group (b), and returned to the hospital with them at about 10 o’clock in the night, when students came rushing to me and informed me about the communal clashes that took place that evening. Leslie Gunasekere, who was in charge of team (a) on the eleventh, reported that at about 8:30 P.M. when their bus was returning from the field, it was stopped by a mob who asked whether there were Tamils in the bus. On being told there were none, they were allowed to proceed (see Leslie Gunasekere’s account).

Immediately they returned home the Sinhalese students fearing that their Tamil friends in the team who had gone separately were in danger, formed in groups and stationed themselves at points on various roads to warn us of the danger. One such group of students who scouted the Amparai-Uhana road witnessed a mob setting fire to a canteen run by a Tamil (see P. N. M Fernando’s and A. Andarawewa’s and T. D. J. Vitharana’s accounts).

Another group of three students reported that in the evening while they were having tea at Miranda’s (a restaurant and store run by Indian Tamils), a mob gathered outside and stoned the place (see M. L. Wijesekera’s and Manopala’s accounts of incident).

That night victims of physical assault by the mob were brought to the hospital for medical attention. Because the doctor was short of staff, the university students lent a helping hand. I personally saw four victims – all of them were Tamils and two were dangerously clubbed on their skulls.

The Rumor of the Raped Telephone Operator

The next morning (Tuesday) I was told by various persons about the incidents of the previous afternoon. Karunaratne and Podisingho (drivers of the land rover and lorry detailed for our use) said that on Monday afternoon one of the truck drivers whose vehicle had been stoned by Tamils on the Batticaloa–Amparai road, had come to Amparai and propagate the story that a Sinhalese telephone operator (girl) in Batticaloa had been raped and stripped and sent naked along the streets. (This story was later pronounced as untrue by the police and Government Agent–Newspaper account.) This rumor believed by the common people in Amparai inflamed their passions against the Tamils – hence the retaliations. Throughout the riots havoc and panic were created by rumors and in trying to understand the violence one must bear in mind that rumors of atrocities done by one group against the other created panic and fear in the people thus inciting them to retaliatory acts. The rumor of the raped girl is the first of the series.

On Tuesday morning Mr. Kuruthumpala (the Senior Statistical and Public Relations Officer) told me about the incident at the Chinese Cafe the previous night. Some of the Board Officials including Mr. Kuruthumpala – all members of the Y.M.C.A.–were celebrating at the Chinese Café. According to him, a mob collected outside and demanded that the Tamil officials and their wives inside be delivered to them, and that the Sinhalese officials refused to do so. Podisingho (driver of our lorry) told me that three Tamil ladies inside the cafe were stealthily taken through the back of the cafe to safety. According to Mr. Kuruthumpala, when he emerged out of the cafe he was assaulted by the mob, and the cars of the officials were stoned. I also met Mr. Wirasekera (Assistant Commissioner of Local Government) on Tuesday morning, and he said that the mob entered his house, where Mr. Rajavarothiam also lived, assaulted the latter and stole some goods. In general, the assaults on Monday night were against Tamils in Amparai and less frequently against Sinhalese officials who protected Tamil officials.

In discussing the happenings on Monday with various persons I was told that the mob was spearheaded by irrigation and construction workers and truck drivers, etc., living in Amparai and nearby construction sites such as Pallang Oya. I also got the impression that the police made no attempt to prevent the assaults and looting, and that they had looked on. The police force at Amparai and in the Valley was woefully small, but it appears that officers did not intervene where they were actually present at scenes of assault and looting. I must emphasize that this statement is hearsay.


On Tuesday morning the Acting Resident Manager, Mr Abeyawardene, phoned me that because of the previous day’s troubles we should not go out into the field, and he requested me to come to the Circuit Bungalow. (This is the house in which top officials of the Board and other members of the Government reside during their periodic visits from Colombo.) I went there at about to 10 A. M. and found the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Kanagasundram, and the other top officials conferring with persons who I was told were the ring leaders and spokesmen of the Amparai workers. From the conference proceedings that I overheard, I gathered that the latter were demanding that about 50 odd families of Sinhalese workers in Amparai were residing in Batticaloa and that the women and children there were in danger of attack by Tamils, and that therefore they should be transported from Batticaloa to Amparai. I heard the Chairman telephone the Government Agent, Batticaloa, and making arrangements with him for the transportation of the families. Soon afterwards I left for the hospital.

The Siege of the Circuit Bungalow

In the evening started the siege of the Circuit Bungalow. After the previous day’s incidents in Amparai, I gathered that the Tamils in Amparai had gone to the police station and to the Circuit Bungalow to seek refuge. By the evening therefore the Circuit Bungalow was full of Tamils. This site had also become the headquarters of the officials who were dealing with the riots. Therefore it was a strategic place.

I have already referred to the chairman’s agreement to transport the Sinhalese families from Batticaloa to Amparai. I gathered that the actual transportation was delayed, for what reasons I am not sure. By evening, a large mob had encircled the Circuit Bungalow which was under police protection. From Father Wickramanayake (who subsequently gave evidence to the Magistrate with regard to the shooting at the Circuit Bungalow) and Mr. Gooneratne (Agricultural Officer, Extension) I gathered that the police had used tear gas to disperse the mob but were unsuccessful. Then when the mob tried to stop a jeep bringing a bren gun and assaulted the driver, the police opened fire. One man was shot dead through the bowels, another shot through the shoulder (he subsequently died) and the third was shot in the arm. All three were Sinhalese. Then the mob cut off the electricity and water supply to the bungalow, and a group broke into a dynamite dump at Inginiyagala and stole dynamite with the intention of blowing up the bungalow. Fortunately they could not lay hands on the detonators. The military arrived about 11 P.M. and with their arrival the mob dispersed. Early in the morning (3:30 A.M.) the mob set fire to Miranda’s restaurant, and I saw the fire from the hospital.


On Wednesday morning I gathered that the Tamil refugees in Amparai were sent under escort to Batticaloa that morning.

I had repeatedly gotten in touch with the authorities requesting transport for us to get out of the valley, but they said they were unable to do so. On Wednesday morning at about 10:30 A.M. I went to the Amparai Police Station to make further requests. At about 11:30 A.M. when I was about to return to the hospital a lorry arrived with Sinhalese refugees from Bakiela, who said that they had been attacked by Tamil Colonist.

The Mythical Tamil Army

By noon, started the biggest scare which caused pandemonium in Amparai. The rumor spread like wildfire that a Tamil army, 6,000 strong, armed with guns and other weapons were approaching Amparai, having laid waste Uhana, and killed women and children there. Neither the Police nor the Army were able to counter in time this rumor or check its veracity. The panic was so great that a mass evacuation and flight of persons from Amparai took place.

The Seizure of Vehicles and Flight from Amparai

Many of the looters and rioters went to the workshop, took over the vehicles – lorries, mandators, euclids, etc. Some of the vehicles filled with armed men and carrying dynamite went to meet the mythical army which was supposed to be advancing. The others packed with men, women and children evacuated the valley through the Inginiyagala-Moneragala road. (From newspaper accounts we know the subsequent history of these escaping vehicles – many of them were seized by the police all over the country, and some of the looters caused trouble all along the coastal route of the Southern and Western Provinces.)

Fighting Spreads to Colonized Areas

As mentioned before, many rioters got into vehicles and went into the colonized areas. At the same time, the Tamil colonists had taken the offensive in retaliation. That is to say that on the third day the fighting had spread to the colonized areas which had hitherto been peaceful. The marauding gangs in vehicles looted and attacked the colonized areas. The Tamil colonists retreating to their parent villages returned in large numbers armed with guns. Pitched battles began to take place in Bakiela, Vellai Valli, Village Units 11, 16, 14, etc. In Amparai town the Cooperative Stores were looted. (See A. S. Jayawardene’s account of men in vehicles on the rampage and the injured man brought to hospital in a mandatory.)

With this turn of events the Sinhalese colonists now found themselves in great danger and started to flee in the direction of Amparai. On Wednesday night, four Tamil students and I slept in the Circuit Bungalow, which was chockful of Sinhalese colonists seeking refuge there.

The Flight of the Officials

Another paralyzing effect of the panic created by the myth of the murderous Tamil army advancing on Amparai was the flight of many of the Board Officials from the valley. I gathered that many of them left the valley in the Board’s landrovers. Thus after the evacuation of the Tamil officials and the flight of most of the Sinhalese officials, the civil administration was literally reduced to a handful of remaining officials.


On the fourth morning I was present at the Circuit Bungalow where a conference between the police and all remaining board officers was held. The bungalow grounds were swarming with Sinhalese refugees from the colonized areas. Since an armed escort was leaving for Batticaloa I was able to send away the Tamil students. In the afternoon the Sinhalese students were removed to the Technical Training Institute. They left for Badulla in a mandator the next day, and from there returned to their homes by trains.

Batticaloa became the scene of a reverse scare and rumor. The G.A.’s bungalow was mobbed by many residents of Batticaloa who said that a Sinhalese army from Amparai, armed and in possession of dynamite and travelling in Board vehicles was going to attack the town. They requested the G.A. to issue them with rifles and to give them permission to blow up the bridges. The basis of this scare was the fact that earlier in the day a marauding party from the valley was sighted 10 miles from Batticaloa. No army invaded Batticaloa that night.


Various press reports and statements by politicians refer to the breakdown of the Administration, implying that the riots were not handled properly by the officials. Such an allegation is a difficult one to examine, and the reader should take these comments as being purely personal.

The question arises whether the Board could have foreseen the riots, the atrocities and mob passions. Did the government foresee the Colombo riots? Should the Board have anticipated riots in the Valley, after what happened in Colombo a few days previously?

When the riots started the civil administration lost control, but then no civil administration of officials is competent to deal with this kind of sudden violence. A civil administration is ultimately dependant on the police force to maintain law and order and meet violence with force. The police force in Amparai was unpardonably inefficient on the first night. A show of force and might might have made a difference, as vigorous action in Colombo demonstrated, and as the army’s toughness in Gal Oya proved. But then, on the other hand, the police force in the valley was pitifully small and understandably fearful of intervening against hundreds banded into mobs.

Regarding the flight of the officials, it is objectively true that many officials deserted their posts. The Tamil officials were evacuated from Amparai and many of the Sinhalese officials had left by the third day. Anyone who had been in the valley would understand the terror aroused in many and the havoc created by panic. He would be a brave man who was willing to endanger his life and the lives of his wife and children for the sake of national interest. To my mind the question arises as to under what conditions must a civil officer stick by his post. Must a civil officer stick to it if he has reason to believe that his life is in danger? It could be argued that where there is no security of life, there ends occupational responsibility. Whether the flight of the officials was understandable or reprehensible, the fact is that their flight in a sense paralyzed the administration, for they themselves were the administration. Their flight meant that there was no possibility of a volunteer force being organized, and a serious lack of persons for organizing refugee work.

One serious error committed by both civil officers and the military was their failure to demobilize the vehicles in the workshop. The fighting spread to the colonized areas because rioters were able to seize vehicles and travel in them. Marauding gangs were dangerously hostile and difficult to seize once they were in possession of vehicles which enabled them to move and operate in a large geographical area. The failure to demobilize the vehicles would seem to be an administrative mistake and an error of strategy.

The Gal Oya flareup is a superb study of rumor – the panic it creates and its magnification as it passes on from person to person. It is true that neither the civil nor military and police agencies were able to make an effective and timely denial of these rumors and to pacify the terror stricken people. It is of course debatable whether panic stricken and therefore at that moment irrational people would believe official denials, when in this country official denials are based on questionable veracity. Furthermore it is necessary to remember that a rumor to be denied must first be investigated and proven false, and this involves time; the time gap may be necessary but at the same time fatal as we have witnessed in Gal Oya on the third day when the rumor circulated that a Tamil army was advancing. I would like to convey to the reader my own feeling that a more constructive approach to the riots is not to try and see the rights and wrongs but to first understand the phenomenon of civil strife. The rumors and their consequences clearly portrayed that in times of civil strife normal methods of communication are useless and the assumption of a reasonable man unreal. Furthermore, whereas the civil officials are usually not trained to cope with riots, the military and police, though presumably trained in war and defense, were for the first time engaged in actual warfare, and therefore where there is no experience it might be too much to expect precision and speed in action.

I have already referred to the probability that the rioting, assaults and looting were spearheaded by irrigation and construction workers and that subsequently the truck drivers joined in the fray. It is also suspected that a lot of I.R.C.s (Island Reconvicted Criminals) had found their way into the valley. The former persons if not criminal in background were criminally inclined during the riots. They might not have been directly concerned with the language issue, but the political issue and the wave of emotionalism prevailing in the country provided the opportunity and context for these elements to exploit the situation. The recent Colombo riots and the Riots of 1915 showed that civil unrest could be exploited by criminal elements. Furthermore it is very plausible that irrigation and construction workers and truck drivers have a special stamp and possibly a special psychological make up. In the valley, unlike the colonists who are a permanent population, they are transient and move with their mobile jobs. They are footloose, used to working in jungles, cut off from normal family relationships, and therefore prone to violence. Amparai is an explosive town because it is very much like the boom town of the American West. Under these circumstances, foresight demands that these workers be carefully screened and selected. I am not aware of the system of selection practiced by the Board, but a more scrupulous system is recommended. Also, in the presence of such an inflammable population it is strange that a better policing system and a larger police force was not stationed in Gal Oya. Better police action at the initial stages would possibly have squashed the rising or at least mitigated its worst features.

Lastly, the riots demonstrated in sharp relief the geographical isolation of the valley and the paucity of roads leading in and out of it. The difficulty of rushing in police and army reinforcements was a grave problem. Since the major road is from Batticaloa through Kalmunai, which is a Tamil area, there was no possibility of sealing off and isolating the Tamil and Sinhalese areas during the earlier stages. Obviously several other roads leading into the valley and an air service are needed. Civil strife in a fringe area poorly fed with roads is naturally difficult to control.

   This account is derived from Stanley J. Tambiah, Leveling Crowds. Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia, New Delhi, Vistaar Publications, for University of California Press, 1996, pp. 87-94.


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