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19 February 1958

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Federal Party starts the ‘anti Sri’ campaign in the North, defacing the letter ‘Sri’ on vehicle licence plates and Sinhala letters on name boards in the North and East with tar.

“The government made the situation worse by sending to Jaffna government-owned buses with the Sinhalese symbol denoting ‘Sri’ on number plates; a crazy innovation that provoked Tamil anger. An anti-Sinhala Sri campaign in Jaffna led to the defacing of the Sinhala Sri letter on buses and substituting of the Tamil ‘Sri’ instead. S. Sivanayagam, Witness to History: A Journalist’s Memoirs (1930- 2004), 2005.

Extract from Emergency ’58: Goondas in Action
“Meanwhile race-hatred was being churned up elsewhere. Several months before the Tamil Federalists in the north, desperately anxious to find a popular gimmick to symbolize their struggle for linguistic equity, had begun to obliterate with tar the Sinhalese character – Sri – which had replaced the English letters on the registration plates of motor vehicles. New cars moving in the north and the east with the offending letter had their plates smeared with tar. The Tamil ‘Sri’ character was substituted for the officially accepted Sinhalese character. The Government took a top-level tactical decision not to prosecute any of the offenders for fear that they would be built up into martyrs. Federal supporters went about in the Peninsular and the east coast with illegal number plates.

“It is quite true that the use of the Sinhalese character for this purpose at a time when language was a sore point was unnecessary and provocative. Nevertheless the tame decision to permit people, however provoked they may have been, to flout the law blatantly and to continue to do so for months with complete impunity brought the prestige of the Government and the police into abject disrepute. The impression among the Sinhalese in the south was that the Government had abdicated its authority in the northern and eastern provinces of Ceylon. In the north the new buses of the Transport Board —inevitably SRI numbered— were daubed with the equivalent Tamil sign. This set off an ugly wave of reprisals in the predominantly Sinhalese areas.”

For a full account of the events leading up to and following the 1958 communal riots, we recommend Tarzie Vittachi’s award winning Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Race Riots, 1959 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts.

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