Monday, Jun. 16, 1958

A Quarrel of Tongues

CEYLON A Quarrel of Tongues In the eastern part of the island of Ceylon, the bodies of three women, three children and a man were recovered from a well into which they had jumped in a panic-stricken search for shelter. In the capital city of Colombo (pop. 424,816), dozens died and hundreds were injured when police and mobs battled through Lipton's Circus, a tree-shaded plaza where seven roads meet. Trains were derailed, buses overturned and burned; terrified passers-by had to submit to a language test at the hands of mobsters and if they failed, were beaten unconscious.

Buddha's Tooth. This sort of carnage has for weeks swept Ceylon, an island lying like a teardrop below the subcontinent of India. Because of its mountain beauty and the diversity, industry and peaceableness of its 8,500,000 inhabitants, Ceylon has been called the Switzerland of the East. What had transformed this sunny paradise into an inferno?

It was language. Even after independence in 1948, the official language of Ceylon remained English. In their homes and at work, the people of Ceylon speak either Sinhalese, the language of some 6,000,000 Buddhists on the island, or Tamil, spoken by about 2,000,000 Hindus, the descendants of migrants to Ceylon from India over the centuries. The present government of wispy Premier Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, made up of an odd lot of left-wing parties, came to power two years ago, pledged to turn Ceylon neutralist and to make Sinhalese the "national language." When challenged by the Tamil leadership, the Premier conceded that Tamil could be recognized as the language of a "national minority." This roused the fury of the powerful Buddhist monks, who left off praying to the Sacred Tooth of Buddha to demand that the Sinhalese language be reinstated as the sole national tongue.

Daylight Hooligans. While the Sinhalese Premier hesitated, the rioters took over. In the Tamil stronghold of northern Ceylon, crowds attacked government-owned buses that were marked with Sinhalese letters. In response, Sinhalese mobs erupted in the streets of Colombo, obliterating all Tamil lettering on store fronts and signboards. Premier Bandaranaike abjectly reversed himself again and came out once more for Sinhalese as the national language. Disorders swept the country; railway tracks were torn up, telephone and telegraph wires cut. Cities and towns became the scene of communal war. In Colombo 10,000 terrified Tamils were herded into protective camps. In the Tamil country, beleaguered Sinhalese were similarly gathered together and protected by the police and army.

Distressed by the rioting he had caused, Premier Bandaranaike appealed to Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, a tough-minded financier, who took firm command of the situation. Martial law and a rigorous curfew confined the hooliganism to daylight hours. Ships in Colombo Harbor, hastily chartered, were loaded last week with nearly 10,000 Tamil refugees who were then shipped off to the Tamil port of Jaffna, where they can live without daily fear of death. From Jaffna, aboard a Japanese freighter, came some 2,000 Sinhalese whose homes had been destroyed by Tamil mobs, to be resettled in and around Colombo.

The communal war was complicated by a series of crippling strikes of produce workers and government employees, and many on the island believe that the strikes, as well as the fighting, were inspired by conspirators who had other interests than linguistic and religious differences. Even Premier Bandaranaike found the courage to say that the campaign of terror "discloses a certain organization and pattern which certainly leads to the conclusion that it was not merely a spontaneous outburst by bona fide people." But he still did not name the people he meant: the Communists.