Bandaranaike and Hartal of 1953

by Batty Weerakoon

(August 16, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Dayan Jayatilleke on the Hartal of 1953 published recently brings up several interesting issues in relation to what may be called the revolutionary left of that time in a bourgeoisie dominant parliamentary set up. Although I have my reservations on almost all the premises on which Dayan supports his basic argument, I shall confine myself to a consideration of what he points to as the LSSP’s disregard of a constructive political relationship with SWRDB in the aftermath of 1947’s independence and in the opportunities offered in the 1953 Hartal. He advances the position that the gave to the Left the needed opportunity to establish working class hegemony over a grand alliance of the class forces that were involved in the Hartal. His aspersions in this regard, as I understand it, is that the, LSSP disregarded the tactic or strategy of the "Popular Front".

The rural scene

It is not denied that the LSSP had at all times refused to be trapped in the popular front tactic promoted from the 1920s by the Stalinist leadership of the 3rd International. But this does not mean that it failed to work with the rural population that had always been the political springboard of SWRDB. The LSSP’s long held popular base in Hewagam Korale, Thun Korale and Sabaragamuva was the result of its dedication to the struggle against feudalists and commitment to rural upliftment.

In a contribution made on the 40th anniversary of the LSSP, NM emphasized that though correctly designated as a working class party the LSSP has been alive to the cultivator and the rural worker that constitute a 75% of the rural population. He mentioned in particular D. M. Rajapakse, "dubbed the lion of Ruhuna" who worked in the State Council with the Samasamajists and "was a powerful factor in mobilizing the cultivator to the cause of Samasamajism."

D. M. Rajapakse was the father of the later day parliamentarians George and, Luxman, and the Mahappa of the present President. In SWRDB’s split with the UNP it was D. M. Rajapakse’s brother D. A. that crossed the floor with him. These were the first steps in the division of the rural petty bourgeoisie vote base between the UNP and the SLFP in parliamentary situations. They drew in the rural poor too. It is in direct struggles as led to the Hartal that the rural poor were drawn to working class struggles with the lower reaches of the petty bourgeoisie too being drawn in.

A large percentage of the rural poor too appear to have voted with the UNP in the May 1952 parliamentary election which returned Dudley Senanayake as Prime Minister with a 2/3rd majority in Parliament. The Opposition exposed the fact that the UNP government had found itself in a dire economic situation and that the early election was being held before implementing the cuts in welfare expenditure demanded by the, World Bank. The UNP hid from the people its commitments to the World Bank and swore to them that there will be no cuts in welfare expenditure.

UNP’s, betrayal

The Throne Speech was on 7th July 1953. It announced the proposed increase of the price of the rice ration from 25 cents to 70 cents per measure as from July 20th. It was shown as a step to relieve the Government of the heavy burden of the subsidy on food in order to utilize the money for economic development. A related measure, the withdrawal of the free mid-day meal to school children was announced on July 10.

Public opposition to these cuts commenced almost immediately. Spontaneous public demonstrations of protest and anger at what was felt as a betrayal commenced in the western and southern provinces. A joint Opposition rally was held on Galle Face green on 24th July which was Budget Day. It was presided over by the Leader of the Opposition, SWRDB. He stated from the chair, "I promise you that within one year, I will form a peoples’ Government."

No Hartal had been planned by then, or even thought of by that time. As to how SWRDB reacted to the idea of the Hartal when it was mentioned among Opposition party leaders has been reported by NM in these words:

"He said, I think, this is a little premature. This was his position frankly stated in front of members of the Opposition. He said, ‘I want more time; I want at least to prepare, to go round the country and inform the people; it must be properly organized.’ That is the point of view he took."

This was in NM’s speech made in Parliament on 1st September 1953 winding up for the Opposition the debate on its motion of No-Confidence on the Government that was moved by SWRDB. NM’s report was in the course of clearing SWRDB on the UNP’s objection to his moving the motion when he and the SLFP had not participated in the Hartal. NM also cited a letter SWRDB had issued to the press on the eve of the Hartal in which he had "frankly and honestly stated that he was in full sympathy with the hartal with the aims and objects of the hartal." That appears to have been the first indication of his position to the public. There is no evidence of DJ’s ‘snapshot’ capture of "a fledgling SLFP" supporting the Hartal in the build up to the 12th August.

So much then for DJ’s suggestion that SWRDB led the Hartal, the Left (the LSSP is really the chip on DJ’s shoulder) called it off despite the opening it had made for a seizure of power, and further, had given an assurance to the Government, as reported in Hansard, that it will not be repeated. This, to say the least, is not supported by any evidence. The reference to Hansard is a misrepresentation.


From DJ’s narrative that in the face of the Hartal the Government had abdicated and retreated to the safety of a ship in the harbour it is evident that he is unaware of the terror the Government unleashed on the people both before the day of the Hartal, on the day of the Hartal, and several days after that. Mass arrests and detention under Emergency Regulations, the sealing of the presses of the LSSP and the CP were all made in anticipation of continuing trouble. On the 13th August NM told Parliament that the one day Hartal called by the three left parties and trade unions for the 12th had ended that midnight. He had the Prime Minister in mind when he said, ‘I can assure him that as far as we are concerned we had a one day Hartal and that is over."

In his speech on the no-confidence motion NM referred to the attempt that had been seriously made to make out that [the Hartal] "was a conspiracy for a revolution; that this was the first step in the revolution." No wonder the. Government withdrew to SS Newfoundland having left the police and the army to deal with the Revolution, to shoot at sight with impunity.

Colvin R de Silva, who defended those charged in the courts with Bala Tampoe taking the overflow, was more articulate in his, HARTAL, a contemporaneous publication. In respect of the law that prevailed he wrote, "The Emergency regime was indeed little distinguishable from Martial Law although the Emergency Regulations were operated through the every-day courts. The police were given the right of detention and the decision on bail. The power of detaining people without trial and the restriction on movement were exercised by the Executive.

There was indeed no abdication, virtual or real, by the government as stated by DJ. The government did no more than abscond leaving the armed forces and the police to defend the capitalist state with the full powers of martial law. Through Parliament NM told the country, that the Government’s continuation of its Martial Law measures was unwarranted. That was his responsibility.

At cross purposes

Colvin in his publication gave his assessment of the event: "The events of August 12th constitute, not an outbreak of ‘hooliganism’ as the Government and the Capitalist press would have it, but a veritable people’s uprising."

He wrote: "The August 1953 uprising is the first mass uprising in Ceylon’s history against Ceylonese capitalist rule. It is the first mass uprising in Ceylon’s history which bears the imprint of the worker-peasant alliance; the instrument of Ceylon’s national liberation and social emancipation. It is the first great uprising in Ceylon which points the way to the mass seizure of power and the emergence of the Workers and Peasant Government."

Were not the Left and Bandaranaike at cross purposes! Was not Sinhala chauvinism used against the Left itself as well as its project!
- Sri Lanka Guardian