April 5: 50th anniversary of ’56 General Election
By Reggie Kularatne
The island / 05APR2006
It is widely accepted that the year 1956 was a landmark in Sri Lankan history because the prevailing atmosphere in Ceylon back in 1956, had created a proper climate for taking strong measures against social and religious injustices. In many forms, the necessity of the social changes and reforms was strongly felt and the result of the 1956 general election proved that people had been eagerly waiting to seize an opportunity for it. The religious revival and the language movement were triumphant ultimately defeating anti-social elements, which had hampered the progress of the country.
Language policy was hotly devoted on the platform, and was one of the major issues at the time. English was the only language of administration and higher education, despite that 90% of the population knew no English except for a handful of people, High proficiency in English was the only way to secure employment in the public service other than areas such as the tea and rubber industries that required a large army of semi skilled workers. Top posts of the plantation industry were filled by well- paid British personnel and labour was imported from India. A few English educated Sinhalese descending from well-to-do families were absorbed in to minor posts of the public sector, and that too was a matter of pride under colonial rule. Majority of Sinhalese lagged behind without any substantial position in the society and they were in the forefront of impending changes. Thanks to English medium missionary schools established in the North Tamils had the privilege of learning English and managed to secure 30% of employment in the public service. Leading professional Tamils had the opportunity to work in the English medium in Sinhala speaking areas and to establish a trading empire in and around the city of Colombo.
The position of a large number of intelligentsia such as teachers, Ayurvedic doctors and Bhikkus who were Sinhala educated and brought up under traditional Sinhalese culture was pathetic. They were a neglected lot who demanded a drastic change in society. The language barrier was the main hurdle to catch up with vital social standards. The living standard of the majority of people was far from satisfactory. Increased price of a measure of rice, chaotic education, poor health conditions, inadequate housing, increased rate of crimes and rural and urban unemployment made their situation worse.
Buddhism was the main religion practised in this country from ancient times and its due place had been deprived with the advent of Western powers. People who were brought up under Buddhist values had boundless respect to Buddhism. Western countries, who plundered this beautiful island for more than 450 years, thought that no smooth administration was possible without separating Buddhism from the masses. The commission of inquiry appointed by All Ceylon Buddhist Congress in 1954 to look into the pathetic situation of Buddhism in this country, revealed in its report which was presented in 1956, how bad the main religion was treated by dominion powers.
Under British rule, a gradual destruction of Buddhism was carried out and the ancient pattern of Education in temple schools was neglected. Traditional values and educational systems were allowed to decay. Both education an administration were controlled by Christians, and in course of time, they were able to dominate public life to a great extent. A new class that embraced Christianity and followed English education emerged, and their lifestyles and behaviour sharply deviated from that of the common people of this land.
Dissolution of parliament in mid February 1956, by the then Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawala, was caused by incessant agitation of various organisations that supported the Swabasha or the Sinhala only policy for both education and administration. They vehemently opposed to the policy of parity of status to both Sinhala and Tamil carried out by the United National Party. Even some members of Sir John’s cabinet were in favour of Sinhala only campaign except for Tamil colleagues. However, Lanka Samasamaja Party and Communist Party openly declared their support to the UNP regime for its parity of status policy. In the meanwhile, Viplarakavi Lanka Samasamaja Party (VLSSP) headed by Mr. Philip Gunewardena declared a policy of prominence to Sinhala as the official language and regional status to the Tamil language. Those developments were a matter of dissatisfaction to the Tamils in the north and their cabinet ministers urged the government not to deviate from its original stand of parity status and opposed to an early dissolution of Parliament. However, Sir John was strongly advised against parity status and was compelled to dissolve parliament to seek a mandate for Sinhala only. UNP’s sudden decision to change its language policy was met with drastic challenge by Swabasha leaders in the calibre of L. H. Mettananda who declared that government’s present stand was a farce.
Sir John Kotalawala’s UNP government was charged with acting in a manner unfavourable to both the Sinhala Only Policy and Buddhism. Therefore, it was emphasized that the UNP regime should have been overthrown at any cost to form a government that could defend traditional values of the country. Under prevailing situations Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, (SLFP) was the only accepted leader to fulfil this task and Mr. Bandaranaike having realized that it was impossible to defeat UNP without the support of left parties took the initiative in opening negotiations with major opposition groups to reach a consensus. Opposition leaders were also painfully aware that their disunity had in no small measure contributed to previous UNP victories.
Bandaranaike first opened a dialogue with the LSSP and succeeded in reaching an agreement except on a few minor points. As a result, a no-contest pact was signed between the two parties in September 1955. He then turned towards Philip Gunawardena, the leader of the VLSP, to enter into a joint programme and had been successful in bringing some measure of unity on electoral basis. In the meanwhile, Bandaranaike held talks with the Communist Party and allowed LSSP and CP to avoid a possible clash in some constituencies.
The language policy of LSSP and CP to give parity of status to both Sinhala and Tamil was somewhat disastrous to their popularity because UNP too adhered to a similar policy. However, the UNP was on a changing course under intense pressure from some of its own cabinet colleagues and opted for ‘Sinhala Only’ ultimately. Despite losing popularity of left parties due to language policy, Bandaranaike was vehement in forming an alliance with them and the Bhasha Peramuna and several independent groups came forward to extend their support. Even the Labour Party, which was in close association with the UNP for a long time, was a likely group supporting the alliance except Mr. R. Premadasa. Bhasha Peramuna was operating under the guidance of Mr. W. Dahanayake and Mr. Somaweera Chandrasiri, while the independents mainly comprised Messrs. I. M. R. A. Iriyagolla, T. B. Subasinghe and Mr. Hugh Fernando. Mr. Maithripala Senanayake and Mr. R. G. Senanayake also joined the independent group, which was a party to the talks held together with other left parties in forming the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) on the 21st of February 1956, under the powerful leadership of Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.
The parity policy which the LSSP and CP defended cost them heavily. On 17th October 1955, LSSP meeting held at the Colombo Town Hall, in support of Parity, was broken up and its leaders were given police protection on their way back home. Under prevailing circumstances some members and supporters of the LSSP and CP joined the other existing opposition parties or set up as independents supporting ‘Sinhala Only’ and socialism, to the dismay in the Marxist ranks.
While these events were taking place in the South, the abandonment of parity status by the UNP and other left parties had a bad repercussion in the North. Tamil MPs and Cabinet Ministers demanded Sir John to reconsider its new language policy to no avail, because it was suicidal to the UNP at the forthcoming General Election. They did not hesitate to charge Sri John Kotalawala’s UNP government with linguistic discrimination and tendered their resignation. They also made several attempts to form an alliance of Tamils, but it having been unsuccessful Northern and Eastern provinces were contested by Tamil Parties separately.
Apart from the constituencies in the North and Eastern provinces, there were 75 seats in the rest of the country. Sixty eight seats were contested face to face by the UNP and the opposition parties, and there were clashes in 11 seats, where compromise was not possible due to the thinking that those areas belonged to their own sphere of influence. United National Party, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, Independent Groups, Tamil Congress and Federal Party were the main political parties at the 1956 General Election. The MEP was consisted of SLFP, LSSP, VLSSP, Bhasha Peramuna, CP and several Independent Groups. When parliament was dissolved, it became a fight between Sir John and Mr. Bandaranaike.
Although the Sinhala Only Policy of both parties occupied a prominent place during the election campaign Sir John’s language policy adopted contrary to his previous stand was severely criticised. Sir John declared that 51 seats for the UNP would be an acceptance of Sinhala Only Policy in the parliament but later demanded 65 seats. The opposition seized the opportunity to turn it down as a trick to deny ‘Sinhala Only’. To make matters worse at one point Sir John declared that he would still 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.
The electoral campaign in the North was mainly centered on the Federal Party and the Tamil Congress. The Federal Party was established in 1949 as a breakaway group of Tamil Congress, when the latter entered D. S. Senanayaka’s government. It was not successful at the General Election held in 1952. Only two Federal party candidates were elected, but the Tamil Congress managed to secure four seats out of their contested seven seats. However, the Federal Party was more successful and began to emerge as a powerful political party when Tamil Congress members in the cabinet failed to convince the government to give up its Sinhala Only Policy. The Federal Party had a good opportunity to tell Tamil people in the North that they would become second-class citizens if ‘Sinhala Only’ were made the official language. It argued that in a unitary form of government parity for the languages, or equality of status for the people would not be practical and the only solution therefore, would be to make both Sinhala and Tamil the state languages. If this was accepted it further pointed out that, Sinhala would become the state language of a Sinhala state and Tamil the state language of a Tamil state. English would be the language for interstate and foreign relations.
The Federal Party’s constitution did not support the programme for an independent and separate Tamil state as demanded by some Tamil activists. It declared that it would fight for an autonomous Tamil federal state in a federal country, through constitutional and peaceful methods. The Federal Party also vehemently opposed the government’s land settlement policy and expressed its dissatisfaction regarding recruitments to the public sector, despite 30% of it had already been occupied by Tamils. Its argument was that the public service sector had been closed to the Tamils since UNP came into power.
The Muslim factor was not so dominant during the election time of 1956 because the entire Muslim population of the country was confined to a little more than half a million. Although they were divided on the language issue, the greater part of the Muslim community was in favour of the Sinhala Only Policy. Opposing the Federal Party Mr. A. H. Macan Marker, independent candidate for Kalkudah, openly denounced federalism while independent candidate for Kalmunai, Mr. M. A. Abdul Majid, declared his support to Mr. Bandaranaike. Furthermore, there was a difference of opinion and interests between Tamils and Muslims. Muslims always considered that Tamils had more advantages in the educational sphere than their own community.
The daily press was vitally important in deciding elections of the then Ceylon and the Catholic Church was no exemption. Both the press and the Catholic Church were accused of being favourable with the ruling UNP. Infact the majority of the daily papers were sympathetic to the UNP except one Sinhala daily. Every political party had its own weekly news paper, but when compared to the national news papers their influence was not so powerful. Both Lake House and Times Group of papers were accused of being converted in to an anti-Buddhist front. An election story was circulating to the effect that the Catholic Church had contributed one million rupees to the UNP election fund. However, later events proved that neither of these was effective in 1956 General Election as in 1952.
The result of the General Election was a surprise. Even Mr. Bandaranaike did not think that he could form a government without the LSSP support. Nevertheless, the results proved otherwise. Out of the 95 seats in the parliament, the MEP won 51 against UNP’s eight seats. LSSP and CP won 14 and 3 seats respectively while Independents secured eight seats. The Federal Party won 10 seats while the Tamil Congress was able to retain only one seat.
The Federal Party emerged as a victor, but its popularity in the Northern and Eastern provinces was worth examining. It campaigned for a federal constitution and suggested that Northern and Eastern provinces should be a federal unit. However, it is doubtful whether people of those areas had accepted a federal form of governance to their problems. Federal Party polled 141936 votes against 146541 votes polled by its opponents who won only six seats in the parliament. In the Eastern province it polled 480042 votes, against 65329 votes by its rival parties, and even those figures could be misleading as top Muslim MPs won their seats on Federal Party ticket.
There were several factors behind UNP’s defeat at the 1956 General Election. Heavy economic burdens it placed on the people since 1953 was a major cause as some critics pointed out. However, it is no fair to say that UNP had completely ignored the poor people. It was cautious but slow in meeting demands from the underprivileged. In fact, what happened was the gap between the UNP and the common people widened gradually under Sir John’s regime. It failed to assess the economic forces behind the language movement and the cultural revival. It antagonised the Ayurvedic doctors, vernacular teachers and a large number of Buddhist monks. One UNP parliamentarian had openly declared that vernacular teachers can manage with a lower salary as they did not have to consume cheese and butter like English medium teachers. In short, the UNP involved itself in incidents, which hurt the religious and cultural feelings of the majority of people of this country. That is why the vernacular educated middle class took the leadership in the cultural and religious revival.
The MEP had a strong basis under the versatile leadership of Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. The UNP and MEP stood for ‘Sinhala Only’, but the latter was successful in questioning bonafides of UNP’s language policy. MEP’s language policy was essentially that of the SLFP and it was willing to accord to the Tamil language a fair and reasonable place in the language set up against the policy of parity. Indeed, MEP was radical without being revolutionary. It was democratic while seeking socialism. It was able to attract the rural impoverished as well as the urban liberals. Finally, it was successful in convincing to the masses, to supply the viable alternative that had been lacking in the political arena.