Revisiting Colombo to Kandy Protest March launched by J.R. Jayewardene in 1957
The marathon protest march “Jana Satana Pada Yathra” launched by loyalists of former President and current Kurunegala district MP Mahinda Rajapaksa is currently underway in Sri Lanka. The march organized by pro – Mahinda political stalwarts known as the -Joint Opposition-began in Kandy on July 28th 2016. The five day march is scheduled to conclude in Colombo on August 1st 2016.
The Kandy to Colombo march has revived memories of another Opposition march that was organized almost sixty years ago. Unlike the present Kandy – Colombo march, that historic march commenced in Colombo with the objective of reaching Kandy. It was conducted by the United National Party (UNP) and spearheaded by former President Junius Richard Jayewardene. Although the march itself was aborted within two days due to a variety of reasons, the event has become embedded in the political memory of Sri Lanka.
“JR’s Kandy March” as it came to be known played a very negative role in souring ethnic relations in the Island. At a time, when Mahinda and his followers are marching from Kandy to Colombo, this column intends re-visiting the days of October 1957, when J.R. Jayewardene and his supporters tried to march from Colombo to Kandy.
The Parliamentary elections of 1956 were a watershed in the political history of this Island nation. The United National Party (UNP) that was in power from 1947 was defeated .The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept the polls as part of a coalition known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). Bandaranaike became the fourth Prime Minister of Ceylon.
Sinhala and Tamil Communities
Even as the 1956 victory hailed as a people’s revolution ushered in a new government of the common people described as “Apey Aanduwe” (Our Government) the state of ethnic relations in the country deteriorated drastically. The historic 1956 General Elections had seen a deep polarisation between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.
While the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna joint front headed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept the polls in the south, the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) - known in English as the Federal Party - led by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam won six out of nine seats in the north and four out of seven in the east.
One of the first acts by the new government was the enshrining of Sinhala as the sole official language of the country. On June 5, 1956 Tamil Satyagrahis peacefully protesting at the Galle Face green were beaten up by thugs as the police did nothing. Anti-Tamil violence erupted in several parts of the country. On June 15, Sinhala was made the only official language by a vote of 56 to 29.
With increasing communal tension, the country seemed to be heading for a massive blood bath. S.W.R.D. who was arguably the most intellectual of all Sri Lanka’s Prime Ministers realised that the situation had to be checked and reversed.
He understood that the Tamils had genuine grievances that had to be redressed. Bandaranaike, the man who espoused federalism for Sri Lanka in 1926 knew that effective power sharing was the only solution. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike commenced a political dialogue with S.J.V. Chelvanayagam.
After protracted discussions, the then Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike and Samuel James Velupillai Chelvanayagam, the leader of the Federal party signed an agreement that came to be known as the Banda- Chelva or B-C Pact on July 26th 1957. The B-C Pact, which intended resolving some of the major grievances facing Sri Lankan Tamils, was the first of its kind in the post-independence history of the country.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and S.JV. Chelvanayagam
The agreement signed by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and S.J.V. Chelvanayagam in 1957 was a significant event in the political history of post-independence Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister of the day and the leader of the biggest Tamil political party had come to an understanding which if implemented may have helped contain the ethnic conflict at its nascent stages. The agreement known generally as the “Banda-Chelva Pact” was never allowed to work mainly because of political opposition in the South. The opposition came from hardliners among the Sinhala Buddhist clergy and laity as well as hawkish elements among both the then Government and Opposition.
The United National Party was vehemently opposed to the B- C Pact calling it a sell-out of the Sinhalese. The UNP had only eight seats in Parliament being buried in the landslide victory of S.W.R.D. in 1956. With UNP leader Sir John Kotelawela becoming a mere figurehead after the 1956 elections, it was Junius Richard Jayewardene’s task to revive the UNP’s flagging fortunes.
Just as SWRD rode to power by playing the communal card, JR too resorted to communalist politics to discredit the new regime. Jayewardene seized on the B-C Pact as a vulnerable target and began whipping up communal frenzy against it. The UNP began toying with the idea of organizing a massive road march in protest against the betrayal of the country through the B-C Pact.
The UNP first thought of trekking on foot from Colombo to Anuradhapura and swearing before the Sacred Bo Tree that they would safeguard the Country by opposing the B-C Pact. That plan was shelved because the 119 mile journey was too long and also because the greater part of the route was through sparsely populated areas and jungles.
It was decided then to march to Kandy and take the oath at Dalada Maligawa. The UNP wanted to make a grand spectacle of it and the densely populated areas along the Colombo-Kandy Road as well as the shorter distance of 72 miles was ideal. A public meeting was scheduled at the “Paddiruppuwa” at the end of the march. The Mahanayakes of Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters were persuaded to extend an open letter of invitation requesting people to assemble in Kandy on October 8th and take a vow before the sacred tooth relic that they would prevent division of the country through the agreement between Bandaranaike and Chelvanayagam.
Potential Political Mileage
October 8th was a full – moon Poya Day. JR’s plan was to start a six day march on October 3rd and reach Kandy well in time for the mass rally on the 8th. The marchers describing themselves as pilgrims wanted to cover twelve miles each day. The S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike led MEP Government was perturbed by the potential political mileage the UNP could derive through a successful march. The national press criticised the plan as one that could cause communal unrest and violence. Various pressures were exerted on JR to call it off but he stood firmly by his decision.
One man who anticipated Government instigated violence was former premier Sir John Kotelawela. Sir John was yet the nominal head of the UNP. He warned the party that S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike would not allow the march. Being a pugnacious personality Sir John advised party members to arm themselves to resist and counter violence. This of course was not followed. Dudley Senanayake, who resigned as Premier in 1953 and faded away from active politics, had made a re-entry in 1957. He too joined the march and was in the forefront when it began.
Thousands of UNP stalwarts and supporters including J.R. Jayewardene, Dudley Senanayake, M.D. Banda, Anandatissa de Alwis, Dr. M.V.P. Peiris and Ranasinghe Premadasa began the march from Colombo on October 3rd. Violence was unleashed in the form of stones, slippers and bricks being pelted and marchers being beaten.
Cabinet Ministers like Philip Gunawardena, William de Silva, Stanley de Zoysa and C.P. de Silva were suspected of organizing gangs to attack the marchers. It was believed that Colombo Central MP M.S. Themis also sent his thugs.
The stoning was intense in areas like Grand Pass and Peliyagoda. The Police did nothing as they had been instructed not to intervene. Mobs of Government supporters gathered along the route and began hooting and jeering.
Several traffic jams were caused by the march. Many turned back due to the violence. Some of the UNP “toughies” also retaliated. The marchers walked twelve miles and reached Kadawatte to rest for the night. Once again the Govt. backed mobs began to stone the houses in which UNP marchers were staying in Kadawatte. Again the Police did nothing.
JR’s younger brother and eminent lawyer H.W. Jayewardene queried from Deputy Inspector General of Police C.C. “Jungle” Dissanayake whether the Police would not stop the attacks to which the DIG replied that his orders were not to interfere. H.W. then threatened “Jungle” with a lawsuit for dereliction of duty in the face of a threat to peace. Thereafter the DIG exceeded his orders and extended protection to all the houses.
Buddhist Vihare in Attanagalle
JR hoped to end the second leg of the trek at a Buddhist Vihare in the Attanagalle electorate. Attanagalle then was the pocket borough of the Bandaranaikes. Allowing JR to march in and tarry for the night there was seen as a political challenge and personal affront. Gampaha MP and SWRD’s kinsman S.D. Bandaranaike was assigned the task of stopping the march.
The UNP re- commenced its march early morning on October 4th. Most of JR’s demoralised followers had deserted him overnight. Instead of the thousands of people marching on the first day there were only about 125 -150 people ready to follow the leader. The streets of Kadawatte too were generally deserted and there were no jeering mobs.
Three miles of marching saw the UNP reach Imbulgoda at about 7. 20 a.m. At one point the marchers saw two vehicles parked in the middle of the road. The spot was around a short bend between two embankments on either side of the road. A man was lying on the road between both vehicles. About 150 people were sitting on the road behind the vehicles. More than 500 persons were standing on either side of the road with stones to be thrown at the marchers. The horizontal obstacle was none other than Gampaha MP S.D. Bandaranaike. Of the two vehicles blocking the road, one belonged to SD and the other to his political associate Dr. M. C. Chandrasena. SD’s vehicle was the Volkswagen (1 Sri 1961) presented to him by the people of Gampaha.
Former Assistant Supdt. of Police D.S. Thambaiah was in charge of security in that area. Even as the stone throwing began, he intervened and asked JR and the marchers to stop a while. He then began talking to the Gampaha MP urging him to remove his supporters.SD replied by saying that he had not brought anyone to stop the march and that he was only protesting non – violently to prevent the march as it was likely to disturb the peace and trigger off violence if allowed to proceed unchecked.
The ASP then informed his superiors of the stand-off and placed a Police party in between both groups as a buffer. He also warned the bystanders not to pelt stones. The mobs then ended throwing stones but began throwing paper balls, trash, and sand at the dwindling number of marchers. There was also much hooting and hurling of abuse.
“Jungle”Dissanayake and Sidney de Zoysa Soon DIGs’ “Jungle” Dissanayake and Sidney de Zoysa arrived with a posse of armed Policemen. After palavering with both parties the senior DIGs asked JR to call off the march as a major breach of peace was anticipated.
JR was aware that his followers were deserting him and agreed to call it off. But he told the DIGs that he intended walking alone as a pilgrim to Kandy. A solitary pilgrim could not disrupt peace JR pointed out.
Dissanayake and de Zoysa then asked for time to consult higher authorities about JR’s request. S.D. Bandaranaike was informed that the march was officially banned. SD then made a rousing speech to his supporters and got them to disperse by 10. 30 a.m.
JR meanwhile squatted by the side of the road and told his supporters that he would continue his march and in an exhibition of “gallery sellama” said that he had written his will before starting out. JR requested his supporters to go back. But predictably the UNP supporters would not accept JR’s stance and urged that all of them withdrew together with honour. Subsequently JR was told that the march was totally banned and that no individual would be allowed to proceed further on foot. So, JR called off the march officially.
Four buses of the Ceylon Omnibus Company were called and the remaining 70-75 UNP members, including JR, got in and started out for Colombo at about 12. 30 p.m. Police escort was provided. Thus ended the infamous Kandy march of JR.
“Imbulgoda Veeraya” – SD Bandaranaike
Thereafter SD Bandaranaike was praised on political platforms as the “Imbulgoda Veeraya” or Hero of Imbulgoda. SD himself called it a people’s victory and said that he had initially blocked the march with only twelve people and that gradually hundreds of people had flocked in support voluntarily.
Elaborating about his action plan, SD said that initially he had placed five persons on either side of the road with sacks of “Thambili Komba” (King coconuts without kernel) to be flung at the UNP marchers, while Dr. Chandrasena and the MP waited on the road. SD claimed that the people on seeing what was happening had gathered in their hundreds in support. Some had come with their own “missiles” to be thrown at the marching UNPers.
Though the march from Colombo to Kandy was blocked at Imbulgoda, the scheduled UNP rally in Kandy was held as planned on Oct 8th. Both JR and Dudley Senanayake spoke at the meeting but the attendance was not large. Even though the Kandy march was aborted the event was a watershed in the sense that it focussed negative attention on the B- C Pact effectively. JR’s Kandy march was the forerunner that helped foment adverse public opinion against the B-C Pact. Ultimately Bandaranaike abrogated the Pact unilaterally and tore up a copy of it in front of demonstrators.
Anandatissa de Alwis
When I was working for the “Virakesari” newspaper I used to cover the then Ministry of State. Anandatissa de Alwis was Minister of State then. Being an ex-journalist, de Alwis used to get along well with scribes unlike some in power nowadays. Once I read somewhere that Anandatissa too had participated in the Kandy march. When I asked him about it he seemed very embarrassed.
Anandatissa said that the move seemed very reasonable to him at that time but with the passage of time he had come to regret it. He said that many in the UNP felt remorse about it now. I then asked him whether the then President (JR) too felt that way to which the diplomatic Anandatissa replied he did not know but personally opined that JR would be feeling sorry about it too.
But, I do recall that JR was asked a question about the Kandy march at a rally in the Jaffna esplanade, when he visited as Opposition Leader in 1975.
JR was bold and honest enough to say that he would lead a similar march to Kandy again if similar circumstances warranted it. The then Jaffna SLFP Mayor Alfred Duraiyappa’s supporters then used it as a pretext to disrupt the meeting.
“Jana Satana Pada Yathra”
This then is the story of JR’s Kandy march and how SD Bandaranaike helped stop it and became known as the “Imbulgoda Veeraya”.
The ultimate casualties were the B-C Pact in particular and ethnic harmony in general.59 Years after JR Jayewardene’s Colombo – Kandy march, Mahinda Rajapaksa is leading a march from Kandy to Colombo. What lies in store for Sri Lanka as a result of this “Jana Satana Pada Yathra”?
D. B. S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org