Revisiting Tarzie VittachI’s EMERGENCY ’58

Michael Roberts

In re-visiting an assortment of historical episodes in Sri Lanka’s past in unsytematic fashion I have been led to Tarzie Vittachi’s Emergençy ’58 (published in 1958) by Sugath Kulatunga’s detailed and invaluable recounting of his experiences as a government official in Polonnaruwa in the 1950s (an item still being processed).

While Vittachi was an experienced journalist, we cannot take every ‘fact’ that he presents as indubitable. However, this pointer towards his slim volume should, hopefully, bring new generations of Sri Lankans and outside observers into reflections on the consequences of the political currents unleashed in the general election in 1956 — notably the upsurge of the underprivileged classes and the demand for Sinhala Only.

This focus, however, should not promote currents of denunciation which throw the baby out with the bathwater. The inequalities of the pre-existing dispensation must be clinically drawn out as well.

Tamil civilians being assaulted and chided by [Sinhala] çitizens on Galle Road

Tarzie Vittachi …. (1959 Ramon Magsaysay Award Winner for
Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts)
Published 1958, Copyright Tarzie Vittachi

PREFACE: The people of Ceylon have seen how the mutual respect and good will which existed between two races for several hundred years was destroyed within the relatively brief period of thirty months.

This book, most of which was written during those long, tense curfew nights of May and June 1958, is a record of the events, passions and undercurrents which led to the recent communalcrisis, and of the more remarkable instances of man’s inhumanity to man in those hate-filled days. It is also an account of the rapid disintegration of the old-established order of social and economic relationships in so far as it contributed towards the disaster which overtook the

Social and economic change was perhaps inevitable and probably necessary. Unfortunately the men who had been given a popular mandate to initiate and carry out the change proved to be incapable of preventing the process from degenerating into nation-wide chaos. The new order could have been brought about without bloodshed and searing religious or communal bitterness by the firm application of the law of the land without fear or favouritism and by
statesmanship which resolutely withstood the temptation to yield to the shrill dictates of expediency.

When a Government, however popular, begins to pander to racial or religious emotionalism merely because it is the loudest of the raucous demands made on it, and then meddles in the administration and enforcement of law and order for the benefit of its favourites or to win the plaudits of a crowd, however hysterical it may be, catastrophe is certain.

At the risk of losing the monumental support of the anti-Muslim Congress sympathizers, Mahatma Gandhi once said: “No cabinet worthy of being representative of a large mass of mankind can afford to take any step merely because it is likely to win the hasty applause of an unthinking public. In the midst of insanity, should not our best representatives retain sanity and bravely prevent a wreck of the ship of state under their care?”

Can anyone doubt that if this glorious principle of statesmanship had been applied in Ceylonthe bloodbath of 1958 could have been avoided? Many Ceylonese—Sinhalese and Tamils—lost their lives in the riots of May and June. Many of them lost their children, their property, their means of livelihood and some even their reason. In Colombo, Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Batticaloa, Eravur, Kurunegala and many other places where the two communities clashed the ugly scars will remain tender long after time has buried the physical signs of chaos.

There is no sense in putting the blame on one community or the other. A race cannot be held responsible for the bestiality of some of its members. Neither is there any sense in trying to find a final answer to the question: who started it—was it the Sinhalese or the Tamils? The answer depends entirely on how far back in events you want to go—a never-ending and unrewarding pastime.

Emergency ‘58 ends with a question: ‘Have we come to the parting of the ways?’ Many thoughtful people believe that we have. Others, more hopeful, feel that the bloodbath we have emerged from has purified the national spirit and given people a costly lesson in humility.

There is, perhaps, a more practical way to think about it. The problems of Ceylon—social, economic, political, religious and racial—are minute compared to those faced by India or Indonesia. This is a small country with a relatively tiny population. The physical difficulties of distance which confront the governments of large land masses are absent here. Ceylon isone of the few count ies in the world which is not squashed economically by a heavy

What is lacking is responsible leadership among both communities and statesmanship at the centre of government. We now know the cost of postponing decisions and surrendering wretchedly to political expediency when problems, which often thrive on neglect, assume massive proportions. Is it not possible for a small people like us to throw away the labels which have divided us, one group from another, and work towards a national rather than a sectional ideal? There is no dearth of men who have the intelligence and the desire to work for this aim. Is it impossible to get them tog ether?

Emergency ‘58 is not likely to please every reader. On the contrary, it is certain to displease many. I do not know how to write with text-book discretion about the suffering we saw around us and the terror and the hate on the faces of people we had known all our lives. Human history can never be a chronological festoon of events held together by nicely defined causes. The story of a man is the story of a succession of states like love, fear, hate, indecision, self-assurance, ecstasy, depression. The story of the race riots of 1958 is a story of violence, unreason, anger, jealousy, fear, cynicism, vengeance and many other states of heart and mind which the people of Ceylon experienced. I have presented it like that and, therefore, I will freely admit that Emergency ‘58 is opinionated. But I make one claim for the book: it has been written with the old journalistic saw in mind: facts are sacred, comment is free.

Many friends helped me to write this book because they believed that the facts must be recorded. I shall not list their names, as is customary, for the very simple reason that I would prefer not to involve them unnecessarily in any official reaction which Emergency ‘58 may provoke.

T.V. ……………….. Colombo ‘58.


  Varindra Tarzie Vittachi … 1921-1993 was a Sri Lankan journalist. He was born in ColomboCeylon. Vittachi authored two popular columns “Bouquets and Brickbats”, and “Fly by Night” in the Ceylon Daily News. He later became the youngest editor (at 32) of the oldest newspaper in Asia, The Ceylon Observer, which was founded in 1834.[2] He wrote a book known as Emergency 58[3][4][5] about the country’s race riots in 1958 that won him the Magsaysay Prize in 1959.[2] From 1957 he was chairman of the World Subud Association for 25 years. From 1960 to 1965 he was Asian director of the International Press Institute, an organization of editors devoted to promoting the freedom of the press. He was, at the same time, a correspondent for The Economist, the BBC and The Sunday Times of London and wrote a column for Newsweek. A book about the role of the Children’s Fund in arranging truces to protect children in time of conflict, called “Between the Guns”, was published posthumously.[6]


  • Emergency ’58: The story of the Ceylon race riots (1959) Andre Deutsch
  • The Brown Sahib (1962) Andre Deutsch
  • Trials of Transition in the Island of the Sun. A political satire (1962)
  • A Reporter of Subud (1963) Dharma book Co.
  • Times of Transition (1964)
  • The Fall of Sukarno (1967)
  • The Brown Sahib Revisited (1987) New Delhi: Penguin ISBN 978-0-14010784-5
  • South America, Central America and the Caribbean. 2nd ed. (1987) Europa Publications International

*A Memoir of Subud (1988) Subud Publications International


  • Fruitful Droppings: From the Legacy of Tarzie Vittachie by Matthew Barry Sullivan (1997)

Subud Publications International ISBN 978-1-86982270-5



Burnt out shops in Fort – The Ravaya Collection …..

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One response to “Revisiting Tarzie VittachI’s EMERGENCY ’58

  1. Sachi Sri Kantha

    Michael, in my view, you did hit the nail straightly on Tarzie Vittachi’s journalism, by noting, “we cannot take every ‘fact’ that he presents as indubitable.” You may disagree with me on this point. 50 years ago, I considered Tarzie Vittachi’s ‘Emergency ’58’ as a brave expose of Ceylonese politics of Solomon Bandaranaike regime. After reading a little more about Vittachi’s post-Ceylonese period positions held in a few of CIA-sponsored ‘front agencies’ that propagated the Uncle Sam’s view of the world, I had come to doubt his sincerity.

    In case, if you haven’t seen my perception of ‘Emergency ’58’ written five years ago, the link is as follows:

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