Leftist parties and language policy in Sri Lanka

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Dec 21 14:28:48 UTC 2005

>>From the Asian Tribune (Bangkok),  2005-12-21

The origin of leftist politics in Sri Lanka
By Para Kumarasamy

Seventy years ago, the oldest left political party of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka
was known then) was formed on December 18th. The party was named Lanka
Samasamaja Party (The Equality Party). This party had made significant
impact on the minds of the people and the political history of the
country. There was greater political awakening among the masses with the
introduction of the universal franchise in Ceylon in 1931. The struggle
for independence in the neighboring country, India also had great
influence on the people. Anti-colonial ideas that were spreading at that
time were also due the visits to country by the Indian Congress freedom
fighters like Jawaharlal Nehru.

There were several youth leagues and associations making demands for the
independence from the British colonial rulers. The organization of native
bourgeoisie, the Ceylon National Congress was pleading with the British
rulers to grant more powers to the ministers in the State council, instead
of a demand for full Independence as in India. The reason for this
difference was the social and economic differences between the Indian and
Ceylonese bourgeoisies. The Indian bourgeoisie was already developing as a
native industrial bourgeoisie and had its investments and interest in the
textile and other industries in India. This was in competition with the
British interests in India. The Ceylon bourgeoisie developed as a
comprador trading bourgeoisie, selling British goods in Ceylon market and
also functioned as junior partners in the plantation economy. Instead of
conflicting interests, there existed an identity of interests.

In 1920s some radicals were protesting that the monies collected on the
Armistice day (November 11th) by the sales of poppy flowers were not used
for the benefit of the ex-service men in Ceylon. In 1931 a Ceylonese
ex-service man named Mr. Aelen Perera started a rival sale of sun flowers
(Suriyamal) on the Armistice Day. The proceeds were used to help the needy
ex-service men in Ceylon. It was in this period; London educated youths,
who returned to the country with the ideas of Socialism and Marxism,
started intervening in the workers struggles in the Colombo harbor and in
the textile mills in the city. These young men and women revived the
Suriyamal movement with an anti imperialist and anti war basis in 1933.
They sold Suriyamal (sunflowers) on the streets in competition with the
poppy flower sellers.  The youth, who collected around the Suriyamal
movement, played an important part in the anti-malaria campaign and did
relief work in the villages that were stricken with malaria in 1934-35.
About 120,000 people died through out the country during this epidemic.

Some of the youth involved in these activities marked their names in the
political history of the country. To mention a few; N.M.Perera, Colvin R.
de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Phlip Gunawardena, Robert Gunawardena,
S.A.Wickramasinghe, Robin Ratnam, Wilmot Perera and M/s Doreen
Wickramasinghe. The social and political activities of these youth
culminated in the formation of the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) on the
18th December 1935.  The party declared as its aims;

* Complete achievement of independence to Ceylon from British rule;

* Nationalization of the means of production, distribution and exchange;

* Abolition of inequality in the society.

The party also agitated for eight hour work day, abolition of child
labour, free school books and the use of national languages in the lower
courts and for entries made at the police stations and gradually to extend
the use of national languages to all government institutions. The party
succeeded in organizing a trade union in the plantation sector and among
the motor, railway and textile workers in the cities. The struggles of the
workers at this time were for the right to organize trade unions at their
work places. There were prolonged strikes for workers rights under the
leadership of the party. The plantation workers, who were treated as
bonded slaves, too conducted several militant strikes to win their rights.
These struggles made deep impression about the party in the minds of these
workers and the common people. But party was unable to consolidate these
gains because of the repression by the state during the war in the 1940s.

International events of that time had their effects on the ideological
development of the party. There were discussions inside the party about
the bureaucratic degeneration of the workers state in the Soviet Union;
Moscow trails and the confessions and executions of the communist party
leaders in Russia; the popular front politics of the world communist
parties, serving the interests of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union;
and the action of the communist parties during the Spanish revolution. The
members had the opportunities to read Leon Trotskys Revolution Betrayed
and other literature. There were difference of opinions with in the party
and they were divided as Trotskyites and Stalinists. The majority of the
members expelled the group that supported Stalins line. The expelled group
formed the Ceylon Communist party in1940.

The LSSP, according to its politics, considered the Second World War as an
imperialist war for the world market and refused to support any efforts to
support the war in Ceylon. This angered the British rulers of the country.
They proscribed the newspapers of the party and sealed its offices and the
press. The party members N.M.Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R. de
Silva and Edmund Samrakody were arrested and taken into prison. More
members were arrested later. Others who escaped arrests functioned as an
underground party during the war years. Some leaders who were in prison
broke jail and went to India and participated in the Indian freedom
struggle, but they were latter arrested in India and brought back to
Ceylon. The Lanka Samasamja party (LSSP) was allowed to function freely
after the war and entered politics as a Trotskyite party and a section of
the Fourth International, formed by Leon Trotsky.

Ceylon obtained its political independence in 1948. The election for the
new Parliament of independent Ceylon was held in 1947. The LSSP obtained
15 seats in the new parliament, which had a total of elected members 95
seats + nominated members. The Ceylon Indian Congress, which represented
the plantation workers, won seven seats and the Communist party five
seats. The conservative party of the bourgeoisie, the United National
Party won 42 seats. It was able to form a government with the help of
other small rightist parties. The LSSP was the second biggest party in the
parliament. The increased representation of the leftists and the
plantation workers in the parliament were danger signals to the
conservatives. The government of the conservatives passed a set of
legislations to disenfranchise the plantations workers of Indian origin.
These plantation workers voted for the Ceylon Indian Congress and the LSSP
in the 1947 election. At the next general election, the plantation workers
were unable to send any representative to the parliament.

Despite these set backs the party progressed in organizing trade unions
struggles and the high light was the Hartal against the rise in price of
rice in August 1953. It was a general strike and an uprising of the people
lead by the LSSP. This upsurge of the masses helped to replace the United
National Party by a centrist party called Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)
in the election held in 1956. But this party came to power with a racist
slogan of making the language of the majority, the Sinhala language as the
official language of the country. The LSSP stood for the parity of two
languages; the language of the Tamil minority and Sinhala language. It has
to face severe opposition in the country due to racist and nationalist
propaganda, because of its political stand regarding the usage of two
languages. This can be said to be the dwindling of the popularity of the
party among the ordinary people, who were duped by the racist slogans of
the opportunist political parties.

Even during this period, the partys influence among the trade unions was
not affected. In 1963, in order to form a United Left Front, the party
compromised on its language policy and in 1964 entered a coalition
government with the centrist party (SLFP). It lost a part of its
membership, which walked out of the party conference, when it decided in
favor of the formation of a coalition government. The coalition proved to
be the ruination of this party. The middle of the road supporters in the
party were taken over by the centrist party and it lost its rural bases to
the newly formed People Liberation Front (Janatha Vimukthi), which staged
an armed revolt in 1971.

Today LSSP remains as a junior partner in a coalition government without
any substantial base in the country. The leftist tradition created by the
Lanka Samasamaja party still remains in the country, but it is weak and


Mr. Para Kumarasamy The author of this article was an accountant at the
Ceylon Fisheries Corporation till 1973.

He was very active in politics with the LSSP from his young days till
1964. He was an activist of the Ceylon Mercantile Union led by Bala Tampoe
from 1966 onwards. Represented CMU as its Northern region Representative
from 1976 to 1982 and organised trade union activities in North of Sri
Lanka. He was one of the founder members of the Jaffna branch of the
Movement for Inter -Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) from 1979. He left
Sri Lanka in 1983 to India and then to Germany. He was in the editorial
committee of the Tamil magazine Sinthanai, which was published from
Stuttgart, Germany from 1985 to 1995. He submitted this article for
publication in the "Asian Tribune."


Harold F. Schiffman

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