Seventy years ago: Great August hartal



A scene during 1953 hartal


By Jayantha Somasundaram

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) founded in 1935 contested the following year’s State Council election and returned two out of the fifty elected members in the legislature. However, the Party’s horizon was extra-parliamentary; its focus being organising workers into unions and leading the unions not merely towards economic and workplace goals, but also towards the political objective of the revolutionary transformation of society.

During the Second World War which commenced in 1939, and which for then-Ceylon reached a climax with the Japanese attack on Colombo and Trincomalee in April 1942, the LSSP was banned, its leaders like N. M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena and Colvin R. De Silva were jailed, and the Party was driven underground by the island’s British rulers.

When the War ended in 1945, the wartime economic boom which had enabled Colombo to accumulate a healthy sterling balance through exports also came to an end. The result was strikes which broke out in October 1946, organised by the no longer proscribed LSSP (Socialist Party), and the newly formed Communist Party (CP). This wave of strikes covered the Public Service, the Mercantile Sector and the Plantations, a successful general strike which secured higher minimum wages, medical leave entitlements and paid-recreation leave among other benefits for wage earners.

In 1947 another round of strikes occurred, again involving workers in different sectors of employment. The leadership was provided once again by the LSSP through its trade unions the Ceylon Federation of Labour and the CP’s Ceylon Trade Union Federation. The Ceylonese Board of Ministers headed by D. S. Senanayake took a hard line and “passed repressive legislation which included the use of the military against the strikers,” wrote US Professor Patrick Peebles in The History of Sri Lanka and “(N. M.) Perera was arrested.” Government forces opened fire in Kolonnawa where they killed Kandaswamy, a protesting government clerk.

General Election 1952

Despite this unrest among urban workers, the General Elections held in May 1952 saw the United National Party (UNP) under Dudley Senanayake win a landslide victory of 54 seats (out of 95 elected members in parliament). The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) got nine seats, the LSSP nine, the CP four, the Tamil Congress four and the Federal Party two. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, leader of the SLFP became Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.

However, not unlike the present, between 1951 and 1953 the island’s economy continued to decline as export earnings fell while living costs spiralled. Consequently, from late 1952 there was once again unrest among wage earners, workplace slowdowns, labour strikes and hunger strikes.

Further, in a response with a familiar ring, an International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) mission which visited Ceylon in 1951, in its report the following year noting that welfare expenditure accounted for a third of government spending, recommended that such welfare spending  be pruned. Consequently the Central Bank proposed to the Government an increase in the price of staples like rice, wheat flour and sugar, an end to the free midday meal for school children and a hike in postal rates, bus and train fares. Cutbacks which the Dudley Senanayake Government implemented in 1953.

The attack on living standards prompted many around the country to stage local protests, but the Government refused to back down, and the protests not only snowballed but became more organised. As events unfolded the LSSP took the initiative to convene a meeting of the Island’s major trade unions and together they decided on a single day of mass protest to demonstrate to the Government the depth of peoples’ anger and despair. Three opposition parties, the LSSP, the CP and the Federal Party (FP), closed ranks and called upon the people to stage an Island-wide anti-Government protest on Tuesday 12th August 1952. This decision was proclaimed at a public gathering in Colombo on 23rd July. The Opposition called for the 12th to be a day of mourning, the hoisting of black flags and a boycott of workplaces, shops, offices and schools; a single day of protest.

Northern Province Joins

In the meantime the tempo of protests and agitation continued, its reach extending with each passing day. “For the first time Tamil workers in the Northern Province joined their comrades in other parts of the country in the demonstrations and decided to take part in the proposed one day-protest,” wrote Political Science Professor Ranjith Amarasinghe. There were protests in front of rice stores and the home of a government minister. These were merely a dress rehearsal for the 12th. Amarasinghe went on, “action such as parading the troops in the streets or the refusal to negotiate only helped to antagonise the workers further and the strikes continued in the urban industrial and plantation sectors.”

At midnight 11th August the Hartal began at the Railway’s Ratmalana Workshop where workers downed tools and effectively brought the facility to a standstill. By dawn on the 12th the transport strike showed itself to be totally effective such that even those who did not join the Hartal could not travel to work. From its Colombo epicentre the Hartal fanned out along the western coastal arteries across the populous Western and Southern Provinces, and then into the population centres in the interior of the country. Public anger was manifested in blocked roads which became impassable for traffic, the felling of telephone poles and the torching of buses cutting communication and transport.

The Hartal now took on a life of its own, no longer being led or limited by party or union leaders and no longer adhering to the planned one day protest. The opposition leadership issued a statement reminding people that it was a one-day protest; this call for restraint would be repeated in the days to come. The people had taken control and the reins of the movement were no longer in the hands of either the political or union leadership. In fact what was envisaged as an urban workers protest broke these bounds and quickly became as much, if not more, the Hartal of Rural Sri Lanka.

Colvin R. de Silva described the Hartal as “the first occasion in the whole history of Ceylon (where) the masses revolted against the domination of the Ceylonese capitalist. This was also the first mass revolt that marked the worker-peasant alliance, the social instrument of the national liberation of Ceylon.”

State of Emergency

The Hartal was the most widespread, popular, militant, peoples’ protest in a century. In fact, it took on a momentum of its own, and an intensity that the leadership of the LSSP, CP and FP had not envisaged. Up until last year’s Aragalaya, it was the most potent act of protest, defiance and direct action on the part of people for radical economic and political change.

 “The Hartal started as a strike but grew into something more, perhaps not a revolutionary upsurge as described by the Sama Samajists, but the first post-Independent movement of mass power in action,” wrote historian Nira Wickramasinghe in Sri Lanka in the Modern Age.

Initially in certain areas, the Police confidently coped on their own. In Maradana for example, Deputy Inspector General Gabriel Rockwood even declined the offer of military assistance. But as the Hartal persisted, and in the face of island-wide strikes, agitation and sabotage, a State of Emergency was declared and the Army was called out to support the Police.

The Ceylon Light Infantry’s B Company under Major Maurice Jayaweera, was deployed in Moratuwa while C Company, under Major Roy Jayatillake, was deployed in Colombo. An artillery detachment, under Colonel Derek de Saram, cleared the High Level Road which passed through the Kelani Valley, a Left stronghold. Colonel Anton Muttukumaru Acting Commander of the Ceylon Army had to resort to the use of recruits in order to provide personnel to quell the Hartal.

The Hartal was most effective and mobilised its largest protesters in the Western, Southern and Northern Provinces. Completely unprepared for the Hartal’s wildfire spread and impact, the Government panicked; opposition party offices were raided and the presses where their bulletins and other publications were printed were sealed. A minimum of ten people, perhaps twelve, were killed, hundreds injured and thousands arrested.

The Government declared a State of Emergency for the first time since the violence of 1915, and ordered a curfew. It then went on to craft a conspiracy theory to explain the inexplicable events that had occurred. The Senanayake Administration produced a document claiming to have been found in the Communist Party’s Kandy Branch office which referred to an ‘army of liberation for the Central Province.’

Only Parliament

Parliament remained the only arena where the Opposition could respond publicly to the developing situation in the country. On 17 August Parliamentarian Pieter Keuneman who was also General Secretary of the Communist Party accused the Government of having “no justification whatsoever for the terrorism it has unleashed against the people of Ceylon who demand food at a price which they can afford…I accuse the Government of declaring a State of Emergency…to cover up their bankruptcy and panic by giving the armed forces legal power to join the police in shooting down people.”

“The Hartal broke the myth of the omnipotence of the UNP and gave the masses a new confidence in their own strength,” wrote Leslie Goonawardene, General Secretary of the LSSP.

When the Aragalaya reached its climax last year the ruling family had to take refuge in Navy bases and on a Naval vessel to escape the peoples’ wrath; at the height of the Hartal recalls LSSP General Secretary Tissa Vitarana in Groundviews two years ago, the Dudley Senanayake Cabinet were forced “to have an emergency meeting of the Cabinet in a British warship in the Colombo Harbour.”

Like the Aragalaya seven decades later, the Hartal shook the ruling party and its leadership to its very core. It resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake in October 1953 and his stepping out of politics; just as its progeny, the Aragalaya of 2022 resulted in the fall from power of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.