Chapter VII -
The coming to power of Mr. S. W. R.
D. Bandaranaike, and his Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, a hotch - potch
alliance represents a water-shed in the recent history of Sri Lanka.
Although he is most associated with the introduction of the
Only language policy, it would be wrong to suggest that it was
the only issue that affected the 1956 election results. No doubt,
this issue cast its long shadow over the whole election.
But there were other issues. The loose united front that
Bandaranaike had rigged up around his SLFP had as one of its
constituents an organisation of young and radical Buddhist priests,
called the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna. Its members went all out and used
the influence of the Sangha over the people, particularly in the
rural areas to turn the scale in favour of the MEP. Never before or
after in recent times had the Buddhist priesthood played such a
decisive role in Ceylon politics. One of the key figures in this
organisation, Buddharakitta was later to be found guilty and jailed
(he died in jail) for being an accomplice in the assassination of
If Bandaranaike had learned from the mistakes of the UNP and
trimmed his sails to suit the popular wind, he also walked away with
some of the radical slogans which had been popularised by the' left
movement. Even the extremely radical demand for the nationalisation
of foreign plantations found a place in his election programme. Of
course it was never implemented. Immediately on coming to power,
Bandaranaike virtually renounced this demand by announcing that it
had been postponed for 10 years. Perhaps the slogan was never meant
to be implemented. But the point is that this demand never
re-appeared in any subsequent election programme - not even in the
Common Programme, which was drafted by the SLFP in consultation with
the LSSP and the Cotta Road revisionist clique!
Bandaranaike further emphasised his shift to the left by
including in his United Front a splinter group from the LSSP, which
was led by Philip Gunawardena, one of the founder members of the
LSSP. He had also come to no-contest agreements with LSSP and the
CP. I was one of the delegates from the CP who went for this
discussion. The result was that, for the first time, the UNP was
faced with a near-United Opposition and ended in complete rout. From
their former position of 54 seats in Parliament; it was reduced to 8
seats. The MEP won 51 seats and polled 40.7 per cent of the votes.
It was a landslide victory.
It has been claimed by some that the 1956 MEP victory was a sort
of peaceful people's revolution. The claim is not merely an
exaggeration. It is false. There was definitely a shift of power
from the comprador bourgeoisie to the national bourgeoisie, from the
western oriented, English-speaking, pro-imperialist minded section
of the bourgeoisie to the national and anti-imperialist sections.
But there was no revolution in the sense that the class structure of
society was not disturbed. They both remained sections of the
bourgeoisie, nor did the 1956 election victory in any way affect the
strangle hold of foreign imperialism on the economy of the country.
The same exploitation continued as formerly.
It is correct that several radical measures were carried out
during the MEP regime. The bus service and Port of Colombo were
nationalised. The Paddy Lands bill, a mildly agrarian reform law,
was passed. British bases were evacuated from Trincomalee and
Katunayake. Workers had greater freedom to strike. The Employees
Provident Fund Bill became law. Diplomatic relations were
established for the first- time with socialist countries. In foreign
policy, Ceylon began to play what has been described as a
non-aligned role. This meant that we did not always line up
automatically with the imperialists as of old. But all these still
do not add up to revolution - peaceful or otherwise.
In fact, what Bandaranaike did was to contain behind what he
called his middle way policies the potentially dangerous
anti-UNP current, to blunt its revolutionary edge and to divert
it into the harmless channel of bourgeois parliamentary
His greatest influence was on the leadership of the Left
movement. The desire to emulate the 1956 election victory of the MEP
robbed the leadership of the LSSP and CP of whatever revolutionary
pretences they might have had and converted them into faithful
worshipers at the shrines of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. The
further taming of the one - time revolutionaries was to be left to
Looked at from this perspective, the claim of some
commentators that Bandaranaike helped to avert violent
revolution is not exaggerated.
When Mr. Bandaranaike's MEP Government came to power, the CP and
the LSSP were in the opposition. But the CP was soon to change its
position. This was partly a result of the advice given by the
Chinese communist party.
Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe, Pieter Keuneman and myself had gone to
attend the 8th Congress of the Chinese communist party in September
1956. During the Congress, we had the opportunity of having a
discussion with Liu-Shao-shi, then at the height of his power inside
the party but later to be condemned as a capitalist roader and to
fall from power during the Cultural revolution.
His revisionist views were apparent in the advice he gave to us
to the effect that we should not oppose Bandaranaike or be too
demanding and that we should give him time to carry out his policy.
I was the only member of the delegation who disagreed with this
point of view. But I was then theoretically ill equipped to pit
myself against Liu-chao-shi whose views we assumed were those of the
Chinese communist party.
Following this advice, the CP M.Ps in parliament disassociated
themselves from the Opposition and thereafter functioned as an
independent group - being neither -with the government nor with the
I must here say a few words about the 8th Congress of the Chinese
Communist party itself. Being the first congress to be held after
liberation. (the 7th Congress had been held in Yenan) they made it
an extravaganza. This was before the split in the international
communist movement. Every communist party in the world had been
invited and, all of them sent delegates. There were also
representatives from illegal parties. It was a terrific show.
As the cars of the various delegations wended their way one
behind the other to the conference hall, all traffic on the road was
stopped to allow this huge procession of cars to go unimpeded. There
were many bilateral discussions between the delegations from various
parties. But there was no international gathering of all the parties
at the same. time.
The leaders of all the fraternal parties who attended the
Congress were invited to address the conference. The ticklish
question arose as to who should address on behalf of our party. I
decided the question by proposing Dr. Wickramasinghe. During the
Congress Dr. Wickramasinghe suffered his first heart attack and had
to be hospitalised. At the end of the conference, a plane was put at
our disposal in which Keuneman and I toured some of the most
important cities of China along with interpreters and a body guard.
Among the cities we visited were the northern port of Darein, the
beautiful resort of Hangshaw, the industrial city of Shanghai and
the southern capital of Catton from which we departed for home.
But the best proof that the election victory of 1956 did not
solve any economic problem was that the MEP and its supporters had
to rouse communal and language feelings among the Sinhalese to
maintain their support. During the MEP regime occurred the
communal holocaust that Ceylon had so far experienced.
Genesis of the Sinhala - Tamil Conflict
It is just as well, at this point to study the communal problem
as it arose at that time.
One of the main reasons why the Tamils occupied a better place in
the government service and the professions under British rule than
the Sinhalese did was due to the head start they had in the sphere
of learning English although this was by accident and not design.
American Ceylon Mission was started in the Jaffna peninsula by
the American Methodist Missionaries in 1816. In her very recent
"Communal politics under the Donoughmore Constitution" Jane
Russell gives a good account of the services rendered by these
missionaries to education in Jaffna.
According to her, the reason why the Mission chose Jaffna as
the focus of its activities was because "the colonial government
was anxious to avoid a clash with the English Missions and
partly because its strategic position was the key to India which
was the Mission's main target".
By 1822, 42 schools staffed by Americans who were fluent in
Tamil, had been established in the peninsula. In 1823, was set up
the Batticotta (not to be confused with Batticaloa) Seminary at
Vaddukoddai. This was the first English school in Asia. It was a
free boarding school whose standard has been compared to that of a
University, It taught English, Tamil prose, Mathematics, Greek,
Latin History, Geography and. Philosophy.
In 1833, a professor of Medicine arrived and thereafter the
Seminary turned out medical students and potential doctors. The
methods of the American Ceylon Mission was reported to be infinitely
more advanced and the missionaries more dedicated than those in the
English Mission Schools in the rest of Ceylon.
Having learnt Tamil thoroughly, the Americans translated English
text books into Tamil and compiled comprehensive English-Tamil
dictionaries. As Colebrooke pointed out in 1830, the level of
English education imparted in Jaffna was much higher than elsewhere
in Ceylon as a result of the Americans asserting the importance of
teaching English (unlike other missions).
Due to a financial crisis, the colonial government cut down
expenditure on education by half during the end of 1847. This did
not affect the American Ceylon Mission. The effect was that the
governments schools in the South-West were outclassed completely. In
1929 there existed in the Jaffna peninsula 65 English schools, 10 of
them being first/class Collegiate Schools, and 426 Vernacular
schools. In that year, the Northern province had 6 out of 7 children
attending some form schools.
As K. Balasingam said in a speech in 1913, we have cultivated the
only thing that could have been cultivated with profit despite the
aridity of our soil. We 'have attempted to cultivate men'.
The Americans were followed by Catholic and Protestant
Missionaries who all proceeded to set up schools as part of their
aim of proselytising. When
Hindu revivalism started, there was formed the Hindu Board of
Education which, in turn, opened up its schools. Thus, Jaffna became
blessed with many schools. It was said that, at one stage, Jaffna
had more schools per square mile than anywhere else in the world.
This gave a great impetus to the study of the English, a language
which was the language of administration of the British
Colonialists. Naturally, the Tamils obtained more posts in the
governments service and the professions, like law and medicine, out
of proportion to their numbers. But, they were obtained in open
competition and not through the back door. According to Jane Russel,
the Ceylon Tamils constituted over 40 percent of the franchise for
the Educated Members seat in 1918.
A particular reason as to, why the Tamil felt the urgent need for
better and higher education, particularly in English, was his
consciousness that he lived in the most barren and uneconomic part
of Sri Lanka which did not boast of a river, a mountain or forest.
Education was the only passport to a better life. So he studied
It was a slightly different picture with the Sinhalese in the
South. They were blessed with a more fertile land where literally
anything grew. Sustenance was easy. But, the educational facilities
available to them were less than those available to the Tamils.
Besides, till the economic crisis of 1929-1931, the Sinhala middle
classes were not that keen to join government service or the
professions as their lands could sustain them. It was in the years
just before and just after the Second World War that the competition
for jobs between the Sinhala and Tamil middle classes grew.
According to the
Soulbury Commission report, in the year 1938, out of
6002 pensionable officers, 3236 were Sinhalese and 1164 were
Ceylon Tamils. Much of the friction between the two communities
arose over the disputes about the social proportions in certain
departments in the public service. The communal problem,
therefore, is at bottom a competition between the respective
middle classes for entry into government service and the
professions and for trade opportunities.
According to Jane Russel, the "golden age" of the Ceylon Tamils
can be approximately ascribed to the 50 years between 1870 and 1920.
In this period. the excellence of the English school system in the
Jaffna peninsula enabled large numbers of the Jaffnese to find
lucrative employment in the civil and clerical services of Malaya,
India and Ceylon. Economically wealthy, the Jaffna Tamils had become
politically powerful. The Coomaraswamy - Ponnambalam dynasty had
been able to dominate the other communal representatives in the
Legislative Council in the 19th century, and had therefore become
the acknowledged leaders of the English - educated elite of both
Ponnambalam Ramanathan was elected the first all-island
representative in 1912 against the opposition of a Sinhalese, Marcus
Fernando, he acquired de - jure the official recognition as
spokesman of the English educated elite, which had been his de facto
role for over 30 years.
In 1916, his brother,
Ponnambalam Arunachalam entered the political arena. From the
outset of his political career, Arunachalam towered above his
Sinhalese and Tamil contemporaries. Almost immediately he was
recognised as the leader of the English educated elite. The founder
of the Ceylon National Congress, as well as a number of labour
organisations, Arunachalam dominated Ceylon's politics for the
remaining 7 years of his life. When he left the Congress in 1922 it
marked the end of the ascendency of the Ceylon Tamils in Ceylon
Under Colonial rule the Sinhalese and Tamil leaders worked
harmoniously together in pursuit of more and more reforms from the
Colonial power. In 1915, after the martial law riots, it was the
Tamil knight, Ponnambalam Ramanathan who braved the torpedo infested
seas to travel to England to plead the cause of the detained Sinhala
leaders, like D. S. Senanayake. Everyone knows the story of how,
when Ramanathan returned to the island, the Sinhala leaders,
including the then labour leader, A. E. Goonsinha, unharnessed the
horses from his chariot and dragged the chariot themselves.
When the Ceylon National Congress was founded in 1919, it was Sir
Ponnambalam Arunachalam who was elected its first president. In two
consecutive elections, for the Educated Members Seat in the old
Legislative Council, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was elected despite
the fact that a majority of the voters were Sinhalese.
But as the British colonialists gave more and more reforms, the
Sinhala and Tamil leaders failed to agree about how to share the
spoils. The parting of ways came over the refusal of the Sinhala
leaders to support the Tamil demand for a communal seat for the
Tamils of the Western province. The Sinhala leaders wanted
territorial representation because it would favour them while the
Tamil leaders wanted communal representation which would be
beneficial to them. It was over this dispute that the Ponnambalam
brothers resigned from the Ceylon National Congress.
With the advent of the Donoughmore reforms, the situation became
Donoughmore constitution carried within the germs of communal
dissension. By granting adult franchise and territorial
representation, the British ensured Sinhalese majority rule.
That is why Ceylon Tamil leaders, like Ponnambalam Ramanathan,
had vehemently opposed adult franchise. He opposed it for two
reasons. One was that he didn't want to have "mobrule" by the
franchise being thrown open to illiterates. On the other, he knew
that majority rule would mean Sinhalese rule. That fear has been
proved correct. It was for these reasons that the Tamils asked for
communal representation or safeguards for the minorities which was
rejected by the Donoughmore Commission.
In a homogenous society, a full franchise and territorial
representation is the ideal thing. When the picture is complicated
by the presence of racial and religious minorities, adult franchise
and territorial representation would ultimately bring about the
subjection of the minority to the majority. This is what happened in
Sri Lanka. The only alternative would have been a healthy left
movement which would have cut across, racial, linguistic or caste
barriers and concentrated on economic issues which were common to
For a time, before the elections to the first State Council in
1931, there existed in the North a progressive organisation called
the Youth Congress. The Youth Congress was formed in 1924 by radical
Ceylon Tamil youths. Among those who were prominent in its
leadership were; S. H. Perinpanayagam, C. Balasingham, P.Kandiah,
'Orator' Subramaniyam, M. Balasundaram, P. Nagalingam etc. J. V.
Chelliah, Vice Principal of Jaffna College, was elected its first
Between 1926 and 1931Indian independence leaders, Nehru,
Satyamoorthy, Sarojini Naidu and Mrs. Kamaladevi came and spoke at
vast meetings organised by the Jaffna Youth Congress and spurred the
movement on which was to lead to the famous Jaffna Boycott of the
State Council elections, nominations to which were to be received on
May 4th, 1931.
It carried out the boycott of the 4 northern seats to the State
Council during the 1931 elections on the grounds that the
Donoughmore Constitution had not granted full independence (Poorna
Swaraj) for the whole country - not because the Constitution had not
granted special rights to the Tamils. Unfortunately, not one
Sinhalese candidate either joined or sympathised with the boycott.
The Youth Congress was soon to be submerged by communal politics.
In the South, Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, formed the avowedly
communal organisation, the Sinhala Maha Sabha. The Sinhala Maha
Sabha was founded in November 1936. A proposal to call it by that
name was made by Piyadasa Srisena, a famous literary figure of that
time. Bandaranaike tried to get the name changed to Swadeshiya Maha
Sabha (The greater congress of the Indigenous peoples). But it was
opposed by Munidasa Cumaratunga, another famous literary figure, and
others and defeated. By, the late 1930s, both Piyadasa Sirisena and
Munidasa Cumaratunga had left the Maha Sabha and it was developed
into an effective political organisation by Bandaranaike.
In the North
Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam formed the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. The
interesting point is that communalism in the South spawns
communalism in the North and vice versa.
The situation was made worse in 1936, after the elections to the
Second State Council, when
D. S. Senanayake, in search of unanimity inside his Board of
Ministers for his reforms proposals to White Hall, formed a
Pan-Sinhala Board of Ministers, excluding any representative of the
Communal politics had become the order of the day. The Soulbury
Commission has pointed out that the formation of the Pan-Sinhala
Ministry indicated a policy of the majority using its power to the
detriment of the minorities. One of the Commissioners, F. Rees said,
"the minorities were naturally more convinced than ever that the
Sinhalese aimed at domination". It is interesting to note that the
four European nominated members of the second State Council joined
Senanayake in the 'Plot' to elect a Pan-Sinhala board of ministers.
But, Senanayake went back on his promise to make one of them a
minister and the alliance broke up.
On behalf of the Tamils, Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam, through his All
Ceylon Tamil Congress, put forward his cry of fifty-fifty. Reduced
to simple terms, this demand meant that electorates must be so
delimited that in a Council of 100 members, 50 members would be
Sinhalese while the balance should be distributed between the
minorities (25 to the Ceylon Tamils and the balance to the other
minorities). This demand was not acceptable to the Sinhalese leaders
although it was rumoured that just before parliamentary elections of
1947, through his party man, A. Mahadeva, who had been Home
Minister, D. S. Senanayake agreed to accept a proposal of 60:40.
But, G. G. Ponnambalam was not statesman enough to accept it.
But, what was tragic in this situation was that these conflicting
claims of the two major communities were. used by the colonial power
to perpetuate its domination -the classical imperialist strategy of
divide and rule. How much better it would have been for the Tamil
leaders to have joined forces with their Sinhalese brethren in a
common demand to the imperialist master. But that would have been
statesmanship of a stature to which the bourgeois leadership of
neither was equal. The Sinhalese leadership, for its part, was
unable to be magnanimous and accommodate the just demands of the
Tamil people and thus present a united front against British rule.
They tended to identify the Sinhalese with the Sri Lankan nation and
to be unmindful of the legitimate rights of racial, and linguistic
The British Government appointed the Soulbury Commission to hear
the request for more reforms to Sri Lanka. When the Commission
arrived in Sri Lanka, the different communities made their separate
representation to the Commission. D. S. Senanayake and the Sinhala
leaders did not appear before the Commission but gave their views in
private to Lord Soulbury.
British imperialism was then going through the phase of
transition from direct rule to indirect rule, from colonialism to
neocolonialism. The end of the second World War saw Britain reduced
to the status of a second rate power. It knew that it could not
continue to rule its colonies by direct force as before. It decided
to come to an agreement with the dominant local bourgeoisie and to
transfer political power to it in return for the safe guarding of
its economic interests.
Having held out all sorts of promises to the Tamil minority,
ultimately, the British came to an agreement with the Sinhalese
majority, leaving the Tamils out in the cold. The system of
Parliamentary government, with a prime minister and a cabinet, was
granted to Sri Lanka and the Tamil representatives were reduced to a
permanent minority in parliament.
D. S. Senanayake also struck against the Indian Tamils. These
plantation workers, because of their class position, had supported
the Left movement and helped to elect anti-UNP M. Ps in at least 14
electorates to the first parliament - apart from electing seven M.
Ps through their own organisation.
D. S. Senanayake acted swiftly and, in 1948 by means of the
deprived the bulk of them of their citizenship rights and hence,
their voting rights. This worsened what is being referred to as the
Ceylon Indian problem. In 1964, Premier Sirimavo Bandaranaike went
to India and signed a pact with Indian Premier, Lal Bahadur Shastry,
by which Sri Lanka agreed to grant citizenship to three hundred
thousand people of Indian origin while India agreed to take back
five hundred and forty five thousand. The fate of the balance was to
be decided later.
The acceptance of these figures by Sri Lanka was itself a tacit
admission of the unfairness of the earlier citizenship laws. But,
the major draw back of this Pact was that it said not a word as to
what would happen if these figures were not reached on a voluntary
basis. Supposing five hundred and forty five thousands did not opt
to go to India? Was forced to be used? The question was left
At a subsequent date, both governments agreed to divide equally
between themselves the one and a half million people whose fate was
left undecided earlier. This still left about half a million people
of Indian origin stateless. After every communal violence there are
increasing numbers of people of Indian origin who, are even willing
to forego their Sri Lankan citizenship and return to India. This
figure has increased beyond measure after the 1983 violence.
The communal situation in Sri Lanka became worse after 1956 and
the passing of the Sinhala only act. The newly aroused nationalism
of the Sinhalese, which was set in motion by the populist policies
of Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, was unfortunately directed against
the Tamils instead of against the foreign imperialists and
their economic and cultural subjection of the whole country.
The communal cancer that was festering inside suddenly erupted
into the open in 1955 — in the form of the language controversy. Up
to that time, all political parties, had accepted that both Sinhala
and Tamil (Swabhasha) would replace English as the official
languages. In fact when, in 1943 Mr. Bandaranaike moved his reforms
resolution in the Second State Council, he made this precise
proposal. Incidentally one of the very few to oppose this proposal
in the State Council was the present president, J. R. Jayawardena,
then member for Kelaniya. Suddenly the agitation broke out among the
Sinhalese that Sinhala only should be the State language.
Straight away one peculiar feature of this must be noted. In most
countries, the communal problem takes the form of an agitation by a
minority to safeguard its linguistic or other rights from being
trampled, under foot by a majority. But, in Sri Lanka, it was a
majority who spear headed an agitation to safeguard its language
against what it feared was encroachment by the language of the
minority. The peculiar reasons which make the Sinhalese majority
behave and act as it was a minority must be studied and appreciated
if we are to arrive anywhere near an understanding of this
The reasons that make the Sinhalese behave like a minority in the
land where they are actually a majority are many.
The first is the memory of the ancient Tamil invasions from South
India. The Sinhalese are never allowed to forget this, Which school
boy has not read of the epic battle between Duttugemunu, and Elara?
Every time one goes to view the ruins of Anuradhapura or
Polonnaruwa, he is reminded that all these ancient glories of
Sinhalese civilisation were brought to destruction by successive
Tamil invasions from South India.
Secondly the British imperialists brought over nearly a million
Tamil workers from South India during the last century to work in
their plantations and dumped them in the midst of Kandyan territory.
Thereby, they created the Ceylon-Indian problem — another cause for
Thirdly the increased educational facilities made available to
the Tamils in the North as a result of missionary activity resulted
in Tamils obtaining a higher percentage in government service and in
the professions than their population figures warranted. When, after
the 1929-1931 world economic crisis, unemployment became a serious
problem among the Sinhala middle classes and they started to turn
towards service under government in large numbers they found the
Tamils well entrenched.
It must be pointed out that economic issues were at the bottom of
the language crisis. Before 1956, knowledge of the English language
had been the passport to service under the government. As a result,
the Tamils were able to compete on equal or even better terms with
the Sinhalese. Compelled by the pressure of unemployment the
Sinhalese wanted Sinhala only to be the official language — thus
giving them the best chances of service under the government.
Because, in a non-industrialised country like Sri Lanka, government
is not only the biggest single employer but government service is
also the most gainful occupation, the battle of the languages was in
reality a battle for government jobs for the respective middle
classes. That is also the reason why no solution other than an
economic one can ever bring lasting results.
Fourthly, Tamil happens to be a language spoken by over 53
million people in Tamilnadu across the Palk straits. The Sinhalese
thus feel that the number of Tamil speaking people in the region
(bracketing Tamilnadu with Sri Lanka) out number those speaking
Sinhalese by about 5 : 1. Hence the fear of cultural absorption of
the Sinhalese by the Tamils.
Without an appreciation of these historical realities, it is
impossible to understand the development of the language question of
Sri Lanka. After the MEP victory, Mr. Bandaranaike made one serious
attempt to settle the language question through negotiation with the
Tamil leader, S. J. V. Chelvanayagam. The result of these
negotiations was the famous
Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact. It accepted certain safeguards
for the Tamil language in the Nothern and Eastern part of Sri Lanka
under the general context of the acceptance of Sinhala as the
official language of the whole of Ceylon. It also reached certain
compromises on the vexed question on colonisation in the Tamil
It is necessary here to make some reference to the relationship
between the communal problem and
colonisation. The question of land or territory is intimately
connected with the national or minority problem. Without a
contiguous territory to inhabit, no national group can develop into
a nation. That is why we find in Sri Lanka that, on the one hand,
the Tamils want to protect their traditional homelands from forcible
colonisation by State schemes which would end up by changing the
ethnic character of these areas. On the other hand, we find that
Sinhala bourgeois leaders, from D. S. Senanayake onwards, have
harboured ideas about changing Tamil majority areas into Sinhalese
of state colonisation schemes.
When, after the 1935 Land Commission report which highlighted the
fact that the peasantry in Sri Lanka was dying out as a class, D. S.
Senanayake started his colonisation schemes, most of these were
located in what is called the dry zone. In the beginning most of
these were in the North Central province. But some were also started
in the northern and eastern provinces, which had been claimed by the
Tamils as their traditional home-lands.
Of course, during a greater part of history the island was ruled
by the Sinhalese. But there were intermittent invasions by the
Cholas who had ruled big parts of Sri Lanka. Despite the attempts by
the Sinhalese kings to subjugate them, Tamil Kingdoms repeatedly
made their appearance, in the north. When the Portuguese arrived in
the island in 1505, one such Tamil Kingdom existed in the north and
was overrun by them. Therefore, if we take the last four centuries
or so, the claims of the Tamils to have inhabited the Northern and
Eastern provinces is not far fetched.
D. S. Senanayake, was not only a through going reactionary but a
shrewd Sinhalese leader. He never openly professed communalism
despite the fact that he was responsible for the pan-Sinhala Board
of Ministers in 1936. But he steadfastly worked towards the goal of
Sinhalising the Tamil areas. This fact was revealed by one of his
closest colleagues. V. Ratnayake, in a speech made after the death
of D. S..
The Bandaranaike - Chelvanayagam pact was possibly the best
compromise under the circumstances, But it was not given a chance.
The UNP tried to fish in troubled waters and organised a march to
Kandy to mobolise opposition to the pact. This March was led by Mr.
J. R. Jayawardena who was later to become the president of the
country. The march was aborted at Imbulgoda by the SLFP M. P. for
Gampaha lying on the road with his followers.
Bandaranaike probably rose to his greatest height as a
statesman in his defence of the pact. His famous - probably his best
- speech made at the Bogambara grounds, Kandy, will always be
remembered as embodying all that was best in him. That speech was
recorded and relayed repeatedly over Radio Ceylon. Faced with a
hostile press, which was then entirely privately owned, Mr.
Bandaranaike put his skill as an orator to the best use and used the
state Radio to publicise his views.
But, the chauvinistic elements in his camp also rebelled. Instead
of coming to his help, the leaders of the Federal party chose this
very moment to launch the silly anti-Sri campaign. They did not have
the statesmanship to realise that Mr. Bandaranaike was the only
Sinhalese leader of recent times who had sufficient national
stature and public support to have pushed through a solution to the
Tamil problem. The pact was torn up. The anti-Sri campaign of the
Federal Party was countered by the Tar-brush campaign led by the
Sinhala 'warrior' K. M. P. Rajaratna in the south, in the, course of
which Tamil words on public -places were all obliterated by a
liberal application of tar.
Tension mounted on both sides till it led to the worst communal
bloodbath so far in Sri Lanka's history. A much worse one was to
occur in July 1983.
The 1958 communal violence against the Tamils is an event about
which every right thinking Sri Lankan should hang his head 'down in
shame. It will remain a permanent blot in our country's history.
Overnight, men turned into beasts, and descended to the level that
they could pour petrol over and set fire to people with whom they
had no quarrel except that they spoke a different tongue.
I well remember watching the beginning of this communal violence
on the streets of Colombo from the top storey of the Hongkong and
Shanghai Bank building, seated in the offices of Messrs. Julius and
Creasy Ltd. where I was discussing the terms of the settlement of an
industrial dispute with a senior partner of that firm.
Simultaneously, I received a telephone message from my office to
hurry back immediately. Colombo was going up in flames and it was no
longer safe for Tamils to be on the streets.
I was then staying with a Sinhalese couple in Pitta Kotte. After
spending an uneasy night there, we decided that it would be unsafe
to stay there. With my friends' entire family we went by car to
an estate belonging to a relation of my friend near Getahetta.
There, we stayed for about a week till Colombo came back to normal.
The anti-Tamil violence was a reflection of the political bankruptcy
of both the MEP' and the federal party. The fact that the Tamils
stranded in the south had to be taken to the north by ship,
represented the lowest ebb to which communal relations between the
Sinhalese and the Tamils had fallen up to the time.
The only two parties, with a majority of Sinhala members, who
took up a principled stand on, the language question were the CP and
the LSSP who stood for parity between Sinhala and Tamil and whose
members in parliament voted against the Sinhala only act. But they
took a severe beating among the Sinhala communalists. Their meetings
were broken up. Ultimately they succumbed to Sinhala chauvinism
because of parliamentary opportunism and finally declared their
support for Sinhala as the only official language. The rot of
revisionism and reformism had already set in inside these parties.
It is time to continue the story of the question of the national
problem. The passing of the
Sinhala Only Act in 1956 was a watershed in the relations
between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Clearly the Federal party was
faced with a political crisis. Its leaders, who were detained during
the early days of the state of emergency which followed the communal
violence, had proved themselves powerless to protect the Tamils
outside Jaffna. But it continued its sterile course - preaching
communalism in the north and estranging even progressive Sinhalese
opinion, by opposing every radical measure brought forward by the
two Bandaranaike governments e. g. the nationalisation of the buses,
the paddy lands bill, the school take over etc.
Their tactics consisted in hoping that the Sinhalese voters would
divide more or less evenly between the two major Sinhala parties,
the UNP and the SLFP and that they could strike an opportunistic
bargain with whichever party was willing to grant more concessions
to the Tamils. It was nothing but an attempt to trade the rights of
the Tamils at the table of one or the other of the two Sinhalese
parties. Such an opportunity did arise for the Federal Party in
1965. But we will refer to it later.
It was a fact that in the general election in 1956 the Tamils in
the Sinhalese areas had voted for the SLFP as against the UNP. Mr.
Bandaranaike realised that the Sinhala only act had irrevocably
estranged this support. He, therefore, brought forward a bill in
parliament to provide for the Reasonable Use of Tamil. But, due to
the pressure of the die hards in his camp, no regulations were
framed under it and it remained a virtual dead letter. When a
subsequent UNP government tried to frame these regulations, it came
into violent opposition from the SLFP. In any case, the bill was not
acceptable to the Tamils.
In the meantime internal strife had begun inside the MEP. The MEP
was. at its best, only a marriage of convenience between forces
holding divergent views but united under the personality of Mr.
Bandaranaike and by their common opposition to the UNP.
The stress of keeping forces with such divergent views together
proved too much. The split came in early 1959 over the issue of an
Agricultural Cooperative Bank and that of raising the guaranteed
price of paddy - both of which were mooted by leftist Gunawardena.
Philip Gunawardena and his colleague. William Silva quit the
Cabinet. At the Kurunegala sessions of the SLFP which took place
almost immediately after this, Bandaranaike was forced to make his
first anti-communist speech.
Mr. Bandaranaike was left as a prisoner in the hands of the
reactionary elements in his cabinet - some of whose representatives
successfully planned his assassination on 25th of September 1959. As
he bent low to pay his respects to a Buddhist monk, who was seated
on his verandah the monk whipped out a pistol from out of his robe,
and emptied it into the frail figure of the prime minister. It was
the eve of the day on which the Prime Minister was to have left for
the UNO. On the next day, the Prime Minister succumbed to his
The circumstances of his death as well as the spirit of
forgiveness he displayed to his assailant have built a halo around
his name. An attempt was even made to deify him. Under such
circumstances, no sober appraisal of his place in Sri Lankan
politics has been made. A legend has sprung up about the so called
Bandaranaike policies which he is alleged to have followed. But if
anyone is pinned down to explain what is meant by such policies, no
satisfactory answer is forthcoming. Perhaps, the vagueness of the
concept permits each one to interpret it in his own way and do as he
likes, all the while claiming to be a devout follower of the
Bandaranaike policies - which is what is happening now.
But even if one tries to discern any recognisable element in the
policies followed by Bandaranaike, one might say that he thought
that he was a sort of bridge between two worlds - one that was not
yet dead, and the other not yet born. That was why he was fond of
referring to Sri Lanka's present phase as an age of transition. He
tried to outline what he called a middle way, by which he meant the
avoidance of the extremes of both capitalism and communism. This
was, ofcourse, an illogical and unscientific concept.
The choice for Sri Lanka was not between capitalism and
communism. Anyway there is no middle way between the two. The choice
for Sri Lanka was between the slavery of neo-colonialism and genuine
Bandaranaike could not see this. When, he died, the chains of
neo-colonialism were riveted on Sri Lanka even more firmly than when
he took power. The exploitation to which the mass of the people was
subjected remained just as severe. Not a single economic problem had
been solved. The concept of a middle way is really an attempt to
prettify the continuance of the status quo and an explanation for
postponing radical change.
In the realm of foreign affairs, at least, Bandaranaike's policy
of nonalignment meant that Sri Lanka moved away from her position of
being a camp follower of the imperialist powers. But non-alignment
was not a dynamic policy. For the most part, it meant making the
best of both Worlds, and playing one side against other. Still, it
paid dividends up to a point. Beyond that all countries have to
choose sides. Some of the most vociferously non-aligned countries
have today ended up among the most aligned countries. In any case
Bandaranaike's non - aligned policy won Sri Lanka more friends in
the inter- national field than ever before.
One result of Mr. Bandaranaike moving away from the pro-western
attitudes of the previous UNP governments was the opening of
diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and the Socialist countries.
The Soviet Union was the first socialist country to open an
embassy in Colombo. It was soon followed by the People's Republic of
China and then by other Socialist countries of Eastern Europe.
The importance of this significant change can be understood when
one remembers that during Sir John's regime, even a Soviet
Scientists' team to view the solar eclipse and even a Soviet Soccer
team were refused permission to enter Sri Lanka.
It is interesting to note that when during the immediate flush of
his electoral victory in 1956, Mr. Bandaranaike was asked for his
views on the threat of world communism, his characteristic reply
was, "If the world wants to go Communist. who am I to stop it".
In fact, it must be conceded that he was very much to the left of
Pandit Nehru then Prime Minister of India who was even, then a
prisoner of India's right wing forces. This is, in part, explained
by the fact that Bandaranaike came to power at the head of the
progressive forces and by defeating the right wing and reactionary
forces represented by the UNP whereas Nehru, from the beginning,
united both right and left behind his broad back. In fact, Nehru was
so worried at the progressive turn in foreign affairs by the
Bandaranaike's regime that he sent his trouble-shooter, Krishna
Menon, to Sri Lanka to caution Bandaranaike to follow a more
moderate policy. It would seem that Bandaranaike agreed to fall in
One result of the liberal foreign policy, followed by Mr.
Bandaranaike was the first visit to Sri Lanka. by China's Prime
Minister, Chou-en-lai. He was to come a second time during Mrs.
Bandaranaike's SLFP regime. Chou-en-lai's visit was an extremely
popular one and crowds mobbed him where ever he went.
One event that happened during his visit deserves to be
mentioned. The Chinese Prime Minister was here on a February 4 which
was then celebrated as National Day. There was a public meeting held
at Independence Square, Colombo and Chou-en-lai spoke at that
meeting. Professor G. P. Malalasekera translated him into Sinhalese.
During the speech, it started to rain. Prof. Malalasekera who, with
Chou-en-lai, was standing on the open platform, tried to withdraw
into the pavillion in order to avoid the rain. But Chou-en lai held
him firm by the arm and got him to continue the translation while he
spoke in the rain. By this time the crowd was covered oy a sea of
umbrellas. In a spontaneous gesture of appreciation of Chou-en-lai's
action, one and all closed their umbrellas and braved the rain. I
have never seen such a spontaneous and silent tribute to a leader.
In internal affairs, the MEP government's rule was like a breath
of fresh air. After the rigours of UNP repression there was a sense
of freedom which was reflected by the incident of the first day of
the opening of parliament when crowds burst through ail cordons to
swamp the House of Representatives and to feel and touch the seats
on which their representatives sat. It was, to a certain extent, an
identification of the people with the newly elected government on
which they placed so much hope.
In the labour front also it was a reversal of the pro-employer
attitudes and policies of the previous UNP governments. Labour felt
free not only to voice their demands but also to come out on strike
in support of their demands. The inevitable result was a rash of
strikes for which some people have condemned the left movement which
gave leadership to the strikes.
Such people failed to realise that you cannot give freedom to
people and not expect them to use it to obtain their demands.
However, one immediate victory to the working class as a result of
the MEP government coming into power was the reinstatement of all
those who lost their employment from government service as' a result
of the general strike of May-June 1947.
In 1956 our Ceylon Trade Union Federation itself was not
recognised by the Employers' Federation of Ceylon because it was led
by the communist party. They never replied to our letters nor
attended conferences at the Labour Department. This was a serious
handicap, particularly because the LSSP - led Trade unions had no
such difficulty, We were forced to function through the factory
committees at the various work places. I remember well that, soon
after the MEP government was formed, we led a strike at Brooke Bond
Ltd. who were the premier tea exporter of the country. In as much as
revenue derived from the export of tea continued to be the main
source of income for the government, no government could tolerate a
prolonged strike in the tea export industry. Mr. Bandaranaike
immediately called a conference of both parties at his prime
minister's office. I represented the striking workers and was
promptly asked by Mr. Bandranaike why we could not talk to the
employers and arrive at a settlement. I replied that the employer
did not recognise us and that, therefore, we were not on talking
Mr. Bandaranaike showed his disapproval. The English
vice-chairman, of the Employers' Federation, who was mainly
responsible for our non - recognition, was away on leave in England.
The employers were represented at this conference by Mr. Rowan who
was a senior partner of Julius & Creasy, lawyers to the employers.
He took me to a side and assured, me that he would see to it that
recognition was granted. There afterwards the settlement of the
strike was not difficult.
I am mentioning, this incident to prove that Mr. Bandaranaike's
liberal policies and his readiness to permit the organisation of
labour certainly increased its bargaining capacity. It must be
stated on record that Mr. Bandaranaike never enunciated the policy
of refusing to negotiate during a strike. This reactionary position
was to be put forward during the subsequent SLFP govenment, by Mr.
Felix Dias Bandaranaike.
There were two general strike in this period - one in 1957 led by
the LSSP and other in 1958 led by the. CF. The first strike resulted
in the increase of the cost of living allowances to public servants,
while the second one won the extension of these increases to the
private' sector. Of course, this period also witnessed bitter,
internecine rivalry between the LSSP and the CP for leadership of
the Trade Union Movement. This seriously weakened the bargaining
capacity of the, workers. Nevertheless trade union membership
increased several fold during this period. It also saw the
emergence, for the first time, of Trade Unions sponsored by the
government party - thus enjoying official patronage and support - a
kind of company union. This was a most unfortunate development
because it led to the pernicious habit of workers crossing over to
unions sponsored by the ruling party (particularly in the public and
corporation sector) after every general election.
I must mention here that, in 1957, I was appointed General
Secretary of the Ceylon Trade Union Federation- the post in which I
have served ever since. In the preceding years, I had mainly worked
in the party front. Now I devoted the major part of my time to Trade
Union work. This accidental fact was to have a lot of bearing in the
split that developed inside the CP in 1963-1964.
I was General Secretary of the CTUF when it called the general
strike in the private sector in April 1958 over the main demand for
payment of the, government rate of dearness allowance for employees
in the private sector' too. It was a near complete success in the
Tea and Rubber export trade, while workers in several large
engineering establishments also came out. A section of the harbour
workers also struck. The near complete strike in the tea and rubber
export trade brought about the cancelation of tea auctions in
Colombo. The government could not ignore the strike beyond 3 to 4
weeks because the major income of the government was derived from
the export of tea.
Mr. Bandaranaike called the CTUF for a conference. M. G. Mendis
was president of CTUF at this time. For some reason which I have
forgotten, Mendis was persona non grata with the then Commissioner
of Labour, Mr. C. B. Kumarasinghe. The latter telephoned me with the
request that I should be the sole representative of the CTUF. This
was obviously with the intention of keeping Mendis out of the
discussions I was not happy with this condition. But Mendis as well
as the executive committee persuaded me to go alone because they did
not want any chance of placing our point of view before the Prime
Minister to go by default.
The conference was fixed for 10 'o' clock of a morning at the
Senate Office of the Prime Minister. I remember Mr. T. B..
Illangaratne, then Minister for labour, waiting with me for the
Prime Minister's arrival. He eventually arrived at 2 P. M. without
any word of apology for the delay. it would seem that punctuality
was never one of the 'virtues' of Mr. Bandaranaike,
However, the discussions yielded no result. There were other
discussions too, but with the same disappointing results. Employers
met the Prime Minister separately. The strike had ultimately to be
called off because of the outbreak of communal violence and the
declaration of the state of emergency.
I remember that the Labour Commissioner telephoned me and told me
that the Governor-General wanted the strike called off. There was,
of course, no question of continuing the strike under the tense
situation that prevailed in the country. But we stuck out for one
condition. The Employers had declared that all strikers who did not
report to work by a certain date had already been considered to have
vacated post. In fact' some of them had even recruited, new labour.
We told the Labour Commissioner to inform the Governor-General that
we would call off the strike if all strikers were taken back in
employment. The demand was accepted. We called off the strike and no
striker lost his job. Before another year had passed most of the
demands of the strike were won by us by means of a collective
agreement with the Employers Federation of Ceylon.
In other spheres too, Mr. Bandaranaike's government took
progressive steps. Fulfilling a promise made by him during the 1955
South. Western bus strike (led by the CP) he nationalised the bus
services. This was a clear boon to the travelling public. He also
established an Employees Provident Fund to cover the entire private
and semi public sectors. This was a great step forward for the
working class because for the first time it started to receive
compensation for their past services. To the credit of Mr.
Bandaranaike it must be stated that he overcame chauvinistic
objections among his own ranks and succeeded in getting the
plantation workers of Indian origin included in this provident fund
1956 also saw the election, for the first and the last time, of a
left candidate to Parliament from a Tamil area. P. Kandiah was
elected as Member of Parliament to the Point Pedro seat on the
ticket .of the Communist Party. I have already referred to Kandiah
as one of the three who returned to Sri Lanka after studies at
Cambridge and Oxford. He returned during my second year at the
University and played a big part in influencing me towards
He had contested the seat twice earlier and succeeded on his
third attempt. I remember going to Point Pedro to work for him and
speaking at several election meetings. It would, of course, not be
correct to claim Kandiah's victory entirely as a victory for the
communist party. There were a lot of personal reasons for his
victory. Kandiah was a highly respected intellectual who was loved
for his personal traits. In addition, the vote of the sizable
so-called depressed castes came to him as a candidate for the
Kandiah's election to Parliament at. that time was a shot in the
arm for the communist party and increased its influence among the
Tamils. Kandiah was an able Parliamentarian and shone in debates. He
also did a lot of work in his electorate, particularly for the so-
called depressed castes - like building separ ate schools for them.
Unfortunately building separate schools does not abolish the caste
system. It only perpetuates it. Whatever that may be, no future
communist candidate was able to reap the benefit of his work.