HARTAL of August 12th 1953:Powerful People’s Protest That Shook the UNP Govt of Dudley Senanayake


Dr.Tissa Vitarana

The political scene in Sri Lanka has been marked by several extra-parliamentary struggles,perhaps more than any other country which has a parliamentary democratic system. These range from trade union struggles, to achieve workers’ rights or to correct injustices, to armed struggles to achieve separation (like that of the LTTE) or to topple the elected government (like that of the JVP in 1971 or 1988). There have been attempted coups to topple the government like that of 1962. There have been mass racist attacks targeted against minority communities engineered by the elected UNP government, like the Black July of 1983.But the Hartal of 1953 is unique in that it was a mass uprising generated by the broad opposition to the elected UNP Government of 1952 by nearly all sections of society, including the bulk of those that voted for it, though the struggles were limited to areas where the LSSP and the Left were strong.

It is now 60 years after the Hartal and time to look back and try to recognize its true historical significance and importance. There are those who belittle it because only nine LSSP militants were killed by Police fire, though there were many more injured. This contrasts with the tens of thousands killed in the separatist war, about which the whole world has taken notice. On the other hand there are those, like the JVP, who state that the Hartal struggle should have been taken forward to the point of toppling the UNP Government of the time. Such assessments are being made by those ignorant of the situation prevailing at the time.

The limited independence given by the British in 1948, Dominion status, saw political power being handed over to the local elite led by the UNP. But the UNP allowed the British ruling class to continue with its hold on our economy. The banks, insurance, harbor and shipping, and the plantation economy remained in British hands. English continued to be the official language. The head of state was the British monarch. The British army remained on our soil. In judicial matters the final court of appeal was the Privy Council in Britain. It was clear that the UNP was acting as a proxy for the British government with their active support. The feudal – capitalist ruling class continued to play a subordinate and supporting role, a comprador role, to the British ruling class. The entire weight of British imperialism was behind the UNP.

What happened in India

This contrasts with what happened in India, where the national bourgeoisie led by the Congress Party, headed by Nehru and Gandhi, fought for complete independence from Britain, through the “Quit India” movement (which LSSP leaders like Dr.N M Perera, Dr.Colvin R de Silva and Philip Gunewardena joined when they escaped from British jail in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon). That is why within two years of gaining independence in 1947, the Indian Congress Government passed a Republican Constitution that set up a completely independent Republic. In the case of Sri Lanka it was only 24 years later in 1972, when the mass movement that toppled the UNP Government in the form of the SLFP/LSSP/CP Coalition Government came to power, that the failure of the national bourgeoisie here was corrected and a sovereign truly independent Republic was established. But because the socialist parties, the LSSP and CP, were associated with the forces of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism led by the SLFP, Sri Lanka went beyond India to establish a Democratic Socialist Republic, the architect of whose Constitution was Dr. Colvin R de Silva of the LSSP. This outcome,in my view, flowed from the mass struggle, the Hartal, that occurred in 1953.

Let us see what led to the Hartal. Not surprisingly the all powerfulUNP headed by Dudley Senanayake was swept into power with a 2/3 majority in the 1952 General Election. But he gave various promises that he went back on soon after the election. In September 1952 the price of sugar was increased. Subsequently the free mid-day meal and glass of milk for school children were withdrawn. From July 1953 there were further economic blows directed at the people. The increase of the price of a measure of rice from 25 cents to 72 cents was the final straw. All these were being done by the UNP Government while allowing the luxury life style of the elite to continue, using up the World War generated foreign reserves on luxury imports, without devoting it to development as the LSSP and the Left demanded.

Rice price hike

The wave of protests which led upto the Great Hartal began on 21st July, the day after the rice price rise, at the village of Randombe, which lies between Balapitiya and Ambalangoda, with women and men blocking the main road by cooking there. They did not give in to the Police.Dr Colvin R de Silva describes, in his booklet on the Hartal, how it spread day by day to Madampe, Akurala, Thotagamuwa, Balapitiya, Karandeniya, Uragaha and Ahungalla by the 24thwhen the Police used batons and tear gas to disperse the protestors. The workers too joined the struggle. Colombo Port workers struck on the 21st for three hours, the Wellawatte Mill workers on the 23rd for half a day.The Opposition walkedout of Parliament on the 23rdto hold a protest meeting at Galle Face green, which the Police broke up with batons and tear gas.

The anger of the people persisted, and in the lull, the LSSP proposed that a one day protest and general strike be organized, a Hartal. The LSSP,CP and VLSSP together with their allied trade unions prepared for the Hartal to be held on the 12th of August, and made a public statement calling for support and followed up with public meetings. The Federal Party made a statement in support. But the SLFP and CWC however kept out. The UNP Government threatened drastic action against those supporting the Hartal, including dismissal of State employees, and made full use of all the media, which it controlled, to frighten the people.

The LSSP produced more than 100,000 copies of its paper, the Samasamajaya to counter this propaganda. Some union leaders caved in to this pressure but the rank and file continued to support the impending struggle. The urban workers activised the farmers in their villages, a worker-peasant alliance developed for struggle. The attendance at the public meetings soared. The PeradeniyaUniversity students staged a protest meeting and procession on the 11th of August which the police baton charged and dispersed but followed the students into their halls of residence where they continued the assault.

Transport crippled

The 12th of August was marked by transport coming to a standstill with successful strikes of bus companies, railways and trams, and even the rickshaw pullers kept away. Shops and workplaces were closed throughout Colombo and many towns, including Jaffna. Most Government offices did not function, and the telephone and postal services stopped.Black flags were hoisted at the Colombo Town Hall and the Moratuwa UC. There were sitdown protests, processions and meetings at various places, specially where the Left was strong. There was a barricade at Kirillapone which the 80 policemen sent failed to remove when confronted by a crowd of thousands. This is in total contrast with what the JVP did which was to force shops and workplaces to close against the wishes of the workers.

The unprecedented depth of mass hatred stunned the UNP Government. The frightened Cabinet met in a British warship in the Harbour and the final outcome was the resignation of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and his replacement by Colonel John Kotelawela who also held a Minister post. Thereafter an emergency was declared and tough measures were taken against the people, which I shall not go into. A mass scale repression of the people would have demoralized them and crushed their spirit. The LSSP and the Left decided to call off the protest in the context of the Government easing the economic burdens placed on the people.

The wisdom of this course of action was evident in that the masses were ready to throw out the UNP Government at the 1956 General Election, when the UNP was reduced to 8 MPs in Parliament. Unfortunately the LSSP and CP did not benefit from their role in the Hartal, because of the language issue. Their demand that both Sinhala and Tamil shouldbe made official languages, as against Sinhala only which the MEP (SLFP, VLSSP and others) espoused, lost them the support of the Sinhala masses. The MEP led by SWRD Bandaranaike benefited from the Hartal, though the SLFP played no role in it, and came to power.

But it is the momentum of the mass movement that began with the Hartal that has generated the progressive SLFP led governments up to today. This momentum can be maintained only if the SLFP led government of today remains close to the people, and does not alienate them by turning too much towards pro-capitalist policies that lead to unnecessary burdens being placed on the people. Lessons must be learned from the mistakes of the UNP Government of 1952 that led to the Hartal.