Reds re-claiming rice rations relegated the Cabinet to a warship
“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it. – Abraham Lincoln
‘Hal potha’ of World War II legacy
The adverse effects of irresponsible fiscal and economic management and policies by1947/53 governments on foreign reserves and balance of trade caused a severe economic crisis in the financial year 1952/53. Further catalysed by the Korean boom, the economy was heading for a crash-landing. The distressing news forced the government to impose a ferocious cutback in rice subsidy. the ‘Hal potha’ [ration card], a legacy of World War II, which was considered by the people as their birthright, became obsolete. This, plus a few other unpopular measures introduced by the government paved the way for the first great uprising in independent Sri Lanka.
The Federation of Traders plan -Hartal 2016
A hartal against a proposed imposition of VAT on small and medium scale traders has been decided on by The Federation of Trader’s Associations who met on Friday with the participation of all districts in the island to decide on the action to be taken regarding the VAT (Amendment) Bill which was scheduled to be taken up on 11 August. A representative from the North-East addressed the meeting saying that he represented the districts of Jaffna, Trincomalee, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vauniya, Batticaloa and Ampara. An official of the FTA produced a copy of a letter that had been sent to President Sirisena explaining the difficulties that medium and small traders would face if the proposal is imposed on the retail trade down to the traders generating a gross turnover of Rs. 33,000 a day. A suggestion that an islandwide one day ‘close shop’ [hartal], black flags, in protest was met unanimously. Sri lanka had never seen people in business united in their opposition to any action by a government in this manner.
The call for ‘hartal’ on August 12, 1953, by the Marxist parties to protest the move, however, turned out to be a aggressive mass uprising that gave jitters to the Government. It caused loss of lives, destruction of state property, and confined the cabinet to- ‘on board a British warship’ and finally to the resignation of the Prime Minister. A mass rally was planned by the leftist parties who controlled 85 to 90 % of the trade unions to protest the abolition of a free midday meal to school children; the pruning of the food subsidy, and new tax proposals, that received publicity ahead of the presentation of the fifth budget by J R Jayewardene, Finance Minister on the afternoon of July 23rd .
At the Galle Face meeting some LSSP, CP and SLFP firebrands made provocative speeches. A segment of supporters and workers, who attended the meeting, marched towards the Parliament screaming and gesticulating, in an attempt to storm the House. The Police baton charged and tear gassed the unruly crowds. Small groups left a trail of hooliganism: damaged public property, stoned buses, an indication of the nastiest to come, as the leaders called a hartal on August 12.
August 12, 1953
A government communiqué on the Food Subsidy, under the theme…, “Subsidized food means disaster”, stated, ‘It would be possible for the government to continue subsidies and cut down expenditure on education and health and other social services and to arrest other economic developments, but eventually lead to disaster. It would result in stagnation, creeping poverty and bankruptcy in the end. The people of Ceylon cannot wish their
government to take this treacherous path…by July 1952 food subsidies were running at the rate of 300 million rupees, or about one-third of estimated revenue in the 1952 / 53 budget… Rice had become the most expensive cereal in the world. As a result if the trade agreement concluded with China in 1952, we were able to ensure an adequate supply of rice at a lower cost…but even so, the financial position was deteriorating…the trade surplus of 345 million rupees in 1951 became a trade deficit of 200 million rupees in 1952 …’.
-Daily News : July 15, 1953.
Left leaders conducted ‘factory gate meetings’ to educate blue collar workers, while others visited villages, taking the hartal call to their strongholds. The two private owned print- media institutions - Lake House and Times, and the state-run Radio Ceylon reported only pro-government and anti- hartal propaganda. The LSSP and CP published special hartal editions of weekly news sheets countering wild allegations. On August 12 there had been a widespread rebellion by a furious crowd who rose in vigorous protest. The leftist strongholds in the Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa provinces recorded the widest protest and violence, while in many other places, Jaffna, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, participation in protest was seen in the form of strikes which resulted in the paralysis of transport. Rallies and closing of shops, display of black flags were other forms of protest.
It reached the level of an absolute mass uprising in Maharagama, Boralesgamuwa, Gangodawila, Kirillapone, Egoda-uyana, Koralawella,Waskaduwa , Karandeniya, Dompe, Akurala, Thotagamuwa , Hikkaduwa and Ratgama. The damage caused to the coastal line railway was tremendous. In Kochchikade, the police opened fire killing two men when they attempted to stop a few buses that defied the hartal. In Panadura, railway wagons carrying fuel were set on fire. Peradeniya University students clashed with police. Street fighting erupted in San Sebastian with police. A striking feature of the hartal was the role played by women folk; women specifically had been rebellious and courageous in Koralawella, Egoda-uyana and Waskaduwa areas.
High-level meetings on board warship HMS Newfoundland
A panic stricken Prime Minister and his UNP Cabinet sought refuge in the British Warship ‘HMS Newfoundland’ docked in the Colombo harbour. The vast surge of masses, the timing of which was only three weeks from Fidel Castro’s guerilla attack on Moncarda Barracks in Cuba and less than three years from Mao Ze-dong’s revolutionary victory in China, received the sympathy of those who did not play an active role. Hartal preceded the East
German uprising on June 16,1953 and Kano riots of Nigeria on 1st May 1953. The response to the hartal call by the Left created confusion in the minds of the ruling class. In the afternoon senior public officials and defence top brass were summoned on board the vessel for an emergency Cabinet meeting. The Cabinet decided to bring certain affected areas under martial law and a 24 hour curfew in a number of administrative districts. Emergency was imposed and orders to the armed forces to ‘shoot on sight with impunity’, a painful decision for the sensitive PrimeMinister Dudley Senanayake, who reluctantly placed his signature on the document. While the rioters stood defiant in spite of continuous ‘tear gassing’ from morning, the Police and Army opened fire causing nine deaths. The nine who died in this incident were:
K. Edwin - Pettah , Almadurage Alwis – Ratgama , S. H. Rabel – Uragaha , T. M. Panagoda
– Dodanduwa , S. K. A. Piyasena – Dompe , K. A. Sadiris – Dompe , S. K. A. Wickremasinghe Perera Dompe , T. Sirisena – Kirulapona , Douglas Nicholas – Modera.
Mischievous elements took advantage of the disturbances and resorted to looting. The leadership called for an immediate cease of protests; this call and the firing brought the momentum down and an end to the hartal. The events of unprecedented mass rebellion created a fear psychosis among the rulers.
The initial violent reaction by the affected sections against the increase in price of rice from 25 to 70cts a measure was not under anybody’s instigation. The Rice-Rubber Pact with China in October 1952, long before we became self-sufficient and initiated by PM, Dudley Senanayake, where China agreed to a barter system was vehemently opposed by JR and the United States. A revision of the proposed cut on subsidy became imminent as the government was compelled to grant a relief of 20cts from arbitrary increase of a 45cts per measure, in spite of the heavy burden on the budget.
“What the working class and the masses that were in the struggle looked forward to not a mere one-day protest action and a return to work…they were in readiness for a struggle to overthrow the hated UNP government. In fact, this direct action of masses continued on the next day also….there was a clear possibility of this hartal action being continued for several days…but the leadership, despite the unmistakable moods of the workers and other sections of the masses, decided against…”.