[lg policy] Si L anka: Prelude to 1956 General Election

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Nov 2 11:19:24 EDT 2018

Prelude to 1956 General Election
SLFP and UNP competing to Champion social causes:
Friday, November 2, 2018 - 01:00
Print Edition
Features <http://www.dailynews.lk/category/features>
[image: SWRD Bandaranaike-Sir John Kotelawala]
SWRD Bandaranaike-Sir John Kotelawala

The infamous speech by a junior minister in the UNP government that
vernacular teachers can afford to live with a lower salary as they did not
eat cheese or ham-bacon like ‘refined, extraordinary’ teachers in the
English medium, cost them heavily with Sinhala educated middle class voting
en masse for Bandaranaike, while Tamil teachers voted for Federal party.
The schools then had been categorized language-wise as Sinhala and English.
Teachers in English schools were placed on a higher scale compared to the
rest, compelling the aggrieved to agitate for parity.

policy was keenly committed on the stage. For the first time in country’s
history communal feelings among the different communities was deliberately
instigated by Sinhalese politicians for gaining political advantage. The
move was spear-headed by the SWRD Bandaranaike led SLFP campaign in 1956.
The consequences of this campaign contributed to the flare-up, decades
later to a civil war.

*UNP’s response to salary anomaly of Sinhala teachers*

The UNP government of John Kotelawala in 1956 had been fast losing
strength. Poor economic performance, neglect of rural masses, Kotelawala’s
elitist style of governance contributing to it. The general mood back in
1956, had fashioned a proper atmosphere for taking strong actions against
religious and social injustices to village folk. A neglected lot who
expected a change in society were a number of intelligentsia such as
non-English speaking teachers, Ayurvedic practitioners, peasants and
Bhikkus who were brought up under conventional local culture.

The people had been eagerly waiting to grab an opportunity for social
transformations and restructuring. Almost all top posts of the plantation
industry were packed with well-paid Europeans. A minority of English
educated affluent Sinhalese and Tamils descending from high-class families
in Colombo and Jaffna were absorbed in to positions of the public sector,
which was considered a matter of pride. The living standards of the people
was far below the satisfactory level. Withdrawal of rice subsidiary in
1953, which the ordinary masses considered their birth right, poor health
conditions, inadequate housing, messy education, unemployment made the
situation worse. In his report to the UNP annual sessions, Sir Ukwatte
Jayasundera, the party secretary stated, “Everything is ready to face the
election, we have adequate resources, and the backing of the bureaucracy,
with the men, machinery and necessary spirit.” He said, “Sir John, is an
undisputed leader, terror of the idler.” The Matara Local Government polls
and the Buttala and Aluthnuwara by-election victories gave them confidence.
This prompted Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala to dissolve the Parliament
an year ahead of scheduled date early in February 1956.

Bandaranaike’s new party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party championed a popular
socialist platform, promised to make Sinhala the official language. The UNP
who hitherto defended the rights of Tamil speaking minority, mader the
biggest blunder by changing its stance in early 1956 to fall in line with
SLFP. Bandaranaike responded with a ‘smart’ slogan; “Sinhala only in 24
hours.” The Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party campaigned for
parity of status between Sinhala and Tamil, with both to jointly replacing
English as the official language.

The Tamil parties supported the Marxist in claiming parity of status or to
keep English as the official language. Bandaranaike was passionate in
forming an alliance with the Bhasha Peramuna of W. Dahanayake and several
independent groups like IMRA Iriyagolla, T. B. Subasinghe who came forward
to extend their support. SLFP entered into a coalition with a group of
small parties that included Philip Gunawarden’s VLSSP forming the Mahajana
Eksath Peramuna (MEP) on February 21, 1956 under the leadership of SWRD
Bandaranaike, the defected former UNP second-in- command.

Addressing a rally on the eve of election, PM Kotelawala said, “the UNP is
the only party that can implement Sinhalese only but in implementing this
programme still ensure justice and fairplay for all communities, as it has
built up traditions of tolerance and fairplay. The MEP on the other hand,
has within its ranks fanatical and dangerous ultra-nationalists who will
plunge this happy country of ours into a communal strife and discord.”

*New language policy*

Bandaranaike having realized that it was impossible to defeat UNP without
the support of left parties took the initiative to open negotiations with
major opposition groups to reach a consensus on a no-contest pact. Tamil
MPs and Cabinet Ministers demanded Sir John to review its new language
policy to no avail, since it was suicidal to the UNP at the impending
General Election. They did not falter to accuse Sir John Kotelawala’s UNP
government with linguistic bias and tendered their resignations. Under Sir
John’s premiership 1952--1956, the space between the UNP and the ordinary
people widened. He failed to evaluate the emergence of economic, language
and cultural revival movement.

At one point Sir John declared that he would continue to be the Prime
Minister even if he won only 10 seats in the parliament. The opposition did
not hesitate to point out that Sir John had already admitted his defeat and
accused him of planning a fascist coup.

In the North and parts of East the campaign was centred on the Federal
Party [established in 1949 by S. J. V. Chelvanayagam as a breakaway group
of Tamil Congress-TC] and TC led by G. G. Ponnambalam. The reason for this
division was GG’s decision to enter D. S. Senanayaka’s Cabinet. In 1952
only two Federal party members entered Parliament, but the Tamil Congress
secured four seats out of seven. However, by 1956 the FP became more
popular and it emerged as the most powerful Tamil Party. The Federal Party
used this opportunity to convince Tamils on the harmful effects of ‘Sinhala
Only’ official language.

There were many differences in political interests between Muslims and
Tamils. Muslims at the time considered that Tamils enjoyed more privileges
in the educational sphere than the Muslims. M. A. Abdul Majid the
independent candidate for Kalmunai declared his support to Bandaranaike’s
party and he openly condemned Federalism. A. H. Macan Marker, an
independent contestant for Kalkudah opposed the Federal Party. However, the
Muslim factor was not so dominant during the election time of 1956. The
majority of Muslims was in favour of the Sinhala Only Policy.

The majority of the daily papers were sympathetic to the UNP except one
Sinhala daily.

The Eksath Bhikku Peramuna led by dynamic Buddhist monks, Ven. Yakkaduwe
Pragnarama Thera, Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera, Ven. Baddegama Wimalawansa
Thera, Ven. Henpitigedera Gnanasiha Thera of Ratnapura and Buddharakkitha
of Kelaniya were the leaders of the Bhikku Peramuna. They presented an
action programme shortly before the election to Bandaranaike advocating:

‘Implement the Buddhist Commission Report; promote the revival of our arts
and craft; take steps to make Sinhala the official language of the country;
bring about a fair distribution of wealth; promote Ayurveda and all other
aspects of our national heritage and the return to a simpler way of life
and refuse government assistance to all institutions that promote communal
disharmony or which destroy peace and equality among the people’.

The MEP had a setback when two members of Parliament, Bernard Aluvihare,
grandfather of present two UNP junior ministers, and a former Secretary of
the party and H.B. Tenne left the party shortly before the handing over of
nominations for the 1956 elections to contest on the UNP ticket and lost
the seat. In fact Matale was the first result to be announced.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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