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JR’s Kandy March and the tale of ‘Imbulgoda Veeraya’

Last month saw the golden jubilee of a shameful event in the political annals of this country. October 3, 1957 was the day on which the United National Party (UNP) organised a protest march to Kandy from Colombo under the leadership of Junius Richard Jayewardene. JR’s ‘Kandy March,’ as it was known, played a very negative role in souring ethnic relations in the island.
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 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 government and opposition.

Communalist politics
The UNP 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 Sir John Kotelawela becoming a mere figurehead and Dudley Senanayake inactive, it was J.R. Jayewardene’s task to revive the UNP’s flagging fortunes.

Just as S.W.R.D. 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 organising 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 the 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 ‘Pattiruppuwa’ at the end of the march.
A recurring political phenomenon in this country has been the conduct of politicians using the Buddhist clergy as a cover to pursue divisive racist politics. These politicians manipulate sections of the Buddhist clergy and use them as a front for their selfish political projects.

Six-day march
So in 1957 the Mahanayakes of Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters were persuaded to extend an open letter of invitation requesting people to assemble in Kandy on October 8 and take a vow before the Sacred Tooth Relic that they would prevent division of the country through the agreement between Bandaranaike and Chelvanayagam.

October 8 was a full-moon Poya Day. JR’s plan was to start a six day march on October 3 and reach Kandy well in time for the mass rally on October 8. The marchers, describing themselves as pilgrims, wanted to cover 12 miles each day.

The government was perturbed by the 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. 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.

Thousands of UNP stalwarts and supporters including J.R. Jayewardene, M.D. Banda, Anandatissa de Alwis and Ranasinghe Premadasa began the march from Colombo on October 3. Violence was unleashed in the form of stones being thrown and marchers being beaten.

Cabinet Ministers like Philip Gunawardena, William Silva, Stanley de Zoysa and C.P. de Silva were suspected of organising gangs to attack the marchers. Colombo Central MP M.S. Themis also sent his thugs.

Under attack
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. The marchers walked 12 miles and reached Kadawatha to rest for the night. Once again, government-backed mobs began to stone the houses in which UNP marchers were staying in Kadawatha. 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.

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 was seen as a political challenge and personal affront. Gampaha MP and kinsman of S.W.R.D., S.D. Bandaranaike was assigned the task of stopping the march.

The UNP recommenced its march early morning on October 4. 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 people ready to follow the leader. The streets of Kadawatha too were generally deserted and there were no jeering mobs.

Horizontal obstacle
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. 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. Bandaranayake.

Having heard of the Kandy March and how it was stopped at Imbulgoda, I was very curious to see the exact spot it happened. Though I travelled frequently along that road, I could never locate it.

Finally in the ’80s, my friend Yapa Karunaratne from Divaina took me to the exact spot. I found the road to be on an embankment and around a short bend. S.D. Bandaranaike had chosen the ideal place to launch his attack. The mobs would have had a field day pelting stones down.

Former Police Assistant Superintendent D.S. Thambaiyah 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 S.D. Bandaranayake, 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 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 stoning but threw paper balls, trash, and sand at the dwindling number of marchers.

Breach of peace
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. Bandaranayake 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. However, predictably, the UNP supporters would not accept JR’s stance and urged that all of them retreat with honour.
Subsequently JR was told that the march was totally banned and no individual would be allowed to proceed 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.
Thereafter S.D. Bandaranayake was described 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 12 people and that gradually hundreds of people had flocked in support voluntarily.
The scheduled rally in Kandy was held as planned on October 8. Both JR and Dudley spoke but the attendance was not large.

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.

When I was working for Virakesari, I used to cover the then State Ministry. Anandatissa de Alwis was State Minister then. Being an ex-journalist, de Alwis used to get along well with scribes, unlike those in charge of media nowadays.
Once I read somewhere that Anandatissa too had participated in the Kandy March. When I asked him about it he seemed very embarrassed.

He 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 President (JR) too felt that way, to which the diplomatic Anandatissa replied he did not know.

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. Jaffna SLFP Mayor Alfred Duraiyappa’s supporters then used it as a pretext to disrupt the meeting.
This then is the story of JR’s Kandy March and how S.D. Bandaranayake 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.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj@federalidea.com)