JR’s Kandy March and the tale
of ‘Imbulgoda Veeraya’
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)