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From 1951 to 1956: The birth of a party

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Yesterday marked the 68th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It was not the second or even third party to be established here: after the LSSP in 1934, the Communist Party in 1943, the UNP in 1946, and the Bolshevik Samasaja Party in 1948, it was the fifth. Yet within five years it had become more popular than any of these. 1956 marked quite probably the first time a dominant political party had been swept away by a grassroots led movement. If there was no parallel in the other ex-colonies, it was because no one expected, even as late as 1954, that the UNP could be defeated. The SLFP’s victory was the product of fortuitous circumstances which would have favoured any party that incorporated them in its program; in that sense, the UNP failed to take into account what could have helped it.  


To understand how these fortuitous circumstances came about, and how they contributed eventually to the defeat of the UNP, it is imperative to understand the position Sri Lanka enjoyed prior to the 1956 elections. In 1947, foreign assets were decreasing, and the trade deficit had begun to widen thanks to a recession in the US and an earlier decision to devalue the rupee. By 1950 economic prospects had rebounded, and rubber price increases were leading to surpluses which enabled the government to expand welfare schemes. By 1952, the Korean War boom had contributed to an unprecedented rise in foreign assets to Rs.1,209 million, but following the end of the boom they began to decrease at an unprecedented rate of Rs. 30 million a month; they were to reduce soon to an unremarkable Rs. 676 million.  

 

  • In the end, the revival which had been supported by the UNP turned against the UNP


It was against this backdrop that SWRD Bandaranaike resigned from the UNP and crossed over and JRJayawardene announced a substantial cut to the rice ration. The latter decision was taken on the advice of the World Bank, but what is often forgotten was that the rice ration cut was preceded by the halving of the food subsidy vote (from Rs.300 million to Rs.160 million) in the 1952/1953 budget, which was still felt to be too inadequate to achieve the goal of curtailing expenditures and balancing the budget. What is also forgotten that part of the reason for the hartal to erupt in such intensity was that JR refused to minimise the magnitude of the cut when announcing it. In this he was being sincere or rash, but it cost the government dearly, so much so that the subsequent power tussle between JR and John Kotalawala after Dudley Senanayake’s resignation was resolved in favour of the latter partly because the outgoing Prime Minister blamed the former for his downfall.  


Had JR succeeded Dudley, it is possible that SWRD Bandaranaike would have faced a tougher competitor in 1956. Both Bandaranaike and Kotalawala were incongruous figures (more incongruous than JR), but it is to the former’s credit that he made attempts to reach out a section of the population who felt they were being ignored if not sidelined. But with his Buddhist upbringing (unlike Bandaranaike, who renounced it long after he entered politics, JR renounced Anglicanism in his youth), may have made the race tougher for the SLFP. As it turned out, Kotalawala not only misread the mood of the moment but did so despite all advice to the contrary by party seniors and members: this was symbolised, ironically, by no less a figure than Dudley withdrawing his support for any party at the 1956 election.  


In Sri Lanka, political nationalism preceded cultural nationalism, but there was never really a clear demarcation between the two. The situation was not comparable to India because in India, as has been stated elsewhere, the local bourgeoisie led if not took part in both cultural and political agitation. The cultural revival which began here in the 1880s had, by 1951 at the time of the SLFP’s formation, split into two strands: a neo-traditionalist and a reformist. The former aimed at restoring pre-colonial monastic privileges while maintaining a separation between the clergy and the laity, and the latter sought to make all clergymen more aware of social, political, and cultural issues. The UNP had identified and then condemned the latter as political bhikkus; this was only to be expected, given that the bourgeoisie were not in favour of monks agitating for radical changes which could affect their social prestige.  
However, the UNP did play a part in empowering the Buddhist revival. In 1954 monks from Burma convened a Buddhist Council and to this end invited Buddhist leaders from Sri Lanka. Four years earlier, the World Fellowship of Buddhists had been formed at the behest of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC). In 1953, after Kotalawala assumed power, the ACBC urged the government to celebrate the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s birth. Surprisingly for the UNP and even more surprisingly for Kotalawala, the request was readily complied with and a year later, at the time of the Buddhist Council, the Lanka Bauddha Mandalaya was set up. (Together with the ACBC and YMBA, this organisation was to have a decisive impact on 1956 elections).The result was the Buddhist Commission of Inquiry, the findings of which were presented to a massive audience in 1956.  


As a document, and a critical indictment of the status quo, the Commission was probably what influenced sections of the rural petty bourgeoisie and intelligentsia to rally against the UNP and around the SLFP, which by that time was on the cusp of entering into no contest pacts with the Philip Gunawardena led VLSSP. In hindsight and in that sense the LSSP’s and the Communist Party’s mistake was to ignore if not relegate the issue of linguistic equality in the 1950s, especially considering that both them and their erstwhile foe, JR, had raised it in the State Council in the 1940s. It led them to a political crevice where they had no choice but join hands with the SLFP, even though splinter groups challenging these alliances would begin to break away from the mainstream (as they do so today).  


What aggravated this even more was the Commission’s critique of the government’s apathy to cultural grievances, a criticism that could have as validly been aimed at the Left which preferred to fight with the UNP over economic matters. According to Dayan Jayatilleka, in 1952, right after the SLFP had been formed, no less a person than N. M. Perera ridiculed Dutugemunu as gadol modaya at a rally before a by election. The results of that by election despite this were perplexing: the LSSP came second, ahead of the SLFP. Considering that the rally was held in Minneriya (hardly a place where you could say things like that without if you were contesting a local election), this could only mean that in 1952 linguistic nationalism had not gained the momentum that would later empower the SLFP.  

 

  • In Sri Lanka, political nationalism preceded cultural nationalism, but there was never really a clear demarcation between the two


In the end, the revival which had been supported by the UNP turned against the UNP. The SLFP was helped here in no small measure by Kotelawala’s increasing detachment from the world around him; when the Queen visited the country in 1954, for instance, he bent over backwards to ensure she and Prince Philip were kept amused throughout the ceremony. It cannot be said that he was deliberately hostile towards Buddhist interests, as detractors would argue later on: he was being indifferent, if not ignorant. His reading of the issue of linguistic parity, made evident at a speech in Jaffna in 1955, therefore angered Buddhists.  


The SLFP just happened through such circumstances to absorb and vent out the frustrations of a community which, more than any group barring Indian plantation workers (who had been disenfranchised by the UNP to “ward off” the Leftist threat), had been discriminated against and deprived of opportunity in the colonial era. It was not really fortuitous, but it represented, as was to be seen in July 1960 and in 1977, an interlocking of cultural, social, and economic forces that conspired to dislodge the dominant party from power. Moreover, if the SLFP in 1956 defeated the UNP, it did so while empowering JR, the bête noire of the UNP who was to rise in the next two decades and who, had he competed with Bandaranaike, would have given him a tighter race. Two points were in JR’s favour: his Buddhist background, and his zealous hostility to the Left, which would in all likelihood have endeared him to more conservative sections of the Buddhist population. As fate would have it, however, a Jayawardene-Bandaranaike tussle was not, and never, to be.  


The author can be reached on UDAKDEV1@GMAIL.COM   

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