Three events that shook first Independence Day – February 4, 1948
Three separate political events that gathered momentum and ran in three different directions to dominate the political landscape in the post-independent era took place simultaneously on February 4, 1948 — the first Independence Day — in the city of Colombo. Oddly enough, all three events occurred in between Galle Face Green at the top end and Wellawatte at the bottom end. None of the leaders of the triple events knew how the forces they unleashed would unfold in the remaining part of the 20th century. As these events spilled over to the 21st century only the democratic centre of the state survived, more or less like a limping soldier covered in blood-stained bandages. The other two events went their separate ways into violence which had disastrous consequences, putting the clock back by at least half a century.
This is a brief outline of how political events moved from what were seemingly normal events on the very first Independence Day into gigantic historical forces. The post-independent movement of these three events unravelled in unpredictable ways baffling even those who presumed that they possessed the keys to unlock the hidden forces of history (e.g., Marxists) and direct them to predetermined goals.
In the following account I have focused only on three events which foreshadowed the future that was waiting to blow up into volcanic eruptions. I have sketched only the three main events that cast their long shadows right across the 20th century, exposing the ignorance and folly of leaders who unleash forces, particularly forces that lead to violence, without knowing that the ideologies spun by them and spearheaded by them would spin out of their control. No one had an inkling of the unintended consequences of the interplay of the three events they engineered would explode the way it did as they rolled down the post-independence decades.
The intertwining triple forces sometimes coexisted in relative / uneasy peace and sometimes clashed head-on in the streets, parliament and other political arenas. Eventually, the three events spiraled down, lurching from crisis to crisis, sucking the peripheral forces into cataclysmic violent forces in the south and in the north. Each in their separate ways exacerbated the other as they flowed down the passage of time until all three forces, interacting with each other, conflated at a confluence streaming with blood.
It need not have happened the way it did. But those who were in it made it happen. There are always alternatives available at the open-ended frontiers of history struggling to find a way out of the haunting past. It is the road not taken that made all the difference to the post-independent tragedy from which we are yet to recover.
History is always pregnant with the seeds of the coming events. Independence Day brought with it the seeds of all the forces that were to break out later. February 4, 1948 dawned as any other halcyon day of the dying British Empire without any signs of the violence that was to surface in the subsequent years. Two of the major events of the Independence Day took place on the city end of Galle Road.
In the geographical order of the events, the Marxists can be placed at the head of the three events because they held a mass rally at the Galle Face Green. The other two events took place further down the Galle Road. The protest mass rally against Independence Day, organized by the Marxists, began around 2.00 p.m. and the stage built for the stellar speakers of the Left was located at the lower end, closer to the beach, right in front of Galle Face Hotel, overlooking the length and breadth of the open space filled with a sea of heads, as I remember it.
The Marxists assembled to condemn “the fake independence” (eeniya nidahasa) granted by the departing British colonial masters to their agents in the United National Party which, in their parlance, was the oppressive and exploiting capitalist class, led by D. S. Senanayake. This was the main message conveyed by speaker after speaker. Their story was that it was “fake independence” because the semi-feudal and semi-capitalist Senanayakes and the Bandaranaikes had sold their souls, estates and the nation’s strategic bases, like Trincomalee, to the departing colonialists and the imperialists of the West.
The politics of the day was divided into two sharp polarities. On the one hand, there were the radical returnees from Western universities, disembarking from European ships loaded with the baggage of revolutionary Marxist ideologies. And, on the other, there were the seasoned political elite trained by the British to play cricket and parliamentary politics. The revolutionary Marxists rejected totally the Westminster model of parliamentary politics. They argued that parliamentary politics was a deceptive tool of the “Brown Sahibs” class to oppress and suppress the masses. The Marxists claimed that they were in parliament only to make use of it as a propaganda platform. Once they capture power they promised to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat which would usher in the socialist utopia. That would solve all the problems of the nation, they said.
They demonized the “Brown Sahibs”, the ruling elite that replaced the White Sahibs, as stooges of the West. Tying up the post-independent leaders with the West was one way of demonizing the new elite who stuck to the traditional culture arising from the grass-roots. This was at a time when nationalist movements were sweeping Afro-Asia and Cold War politics was reigning supreme in the West. It was also the time when Left-Right ideologies coloured every shade of politics. There was nothing in between the Right and the Left. The Right saw a red under every bed. And the Left raised the cry of the imperialists/capitalists waiting round every corner to plunder the Third World and oppress the natives.
The political landscape in Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was known then) too was divided right down the middle into Right-wing UNP, led by D. S.Senanayake and the Left-wing headed by a group of ideological Marxists who were gouging each other’s eyes more than fighting their common class enemy in the UNP. The choice then was between the UNP and the Marxists. The battle lines were drawn clearly between the two diametrically opposed forces. There was no middle ground on Independence Day.
At Galle Face the setting sun was hitting the eyes of the seething mass of Left-wing believers who were facing the sea. They were squinting at the ball of blazing white heat, changing colour incrementally into a rosy tint, as it took its own time to sink into the back of the darkening horizon. I was among them, a 17-year-old teenager, waiting patiently in the wilting sun to take in every word that fell from the lips of legendary Marxist leaders, some of whom had attained the status of heroic revolutionaries for having challenged the might of the British Empire. Our heads were filled with romantic tales of the legendary Marxists slipping out of British jails at the height of World War II. Having come out as heroes they were respected for the sacrifices they made on behalf of the people yearning for independence. It was a time in which they had gathered sufficient public support to be the most formidable political force outside the first independent government headed by D. S. Senanayake.
The Marxist leaders came from the upper-middle-class plantocracy. Some were also city-based professionals, academics and intellectuals. But they were fragmented into bitter ideological camps. In the main, they were divided into rival Stalinist and Trotskyite parties. The Trotskyites too were divided into Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI) headed by Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, Bernard Soyza etc., and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party led by Dr. N. M. Perera – Philip Gunawardena faction. Later, in the fifties, Philip Gunawardena, who was also known as “the father of Marxism”, split from the Lanka Sama Samaja Party when Dr. N. M. Perera decided to merge with the BLPI. Philip formed the Viplawakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party.
The Stalinists were led by Dr. S. A. Wickremesinghe, the loquacious doctor from Matara, ably assisted by Pieter Keuneman, the son of a Supreme Court judge, and N. Shamuganathan etc. Pieter, a Burgher whose Dutch ancestors were also from Matara, returned from Cambridge University indoctrinated to the gills with Stalinism. Cambridge, of course, was the fertile breeding ground for Stalinists. For instance, the British establishment was shocked when they discovered one morning that Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, the two noted British spies for KGB, too were products of Cambridge.
On the first day of independence the fragmented Marxists decided to suspend their ideological differences temporarily to hold a united rally against the United National Party-led government headed by D. S. Senanayake — a coalition of multi-ethnic, multi-party leaders who had joined hands to set sail on uncharted waters. Building a new nation was the main mission of the new ruling elite. Their task was to define the identity of the new nation and charter a constructive course for the future as they stepped somewhat confidently into the future. The upper-class Tamils, the Muslims, the Burghers and the European remnants left behind rallied round D. S. Senanayake who had earned the coveted status of being “the Father of the Nation”. Even G. G. Ponnambalam, the acknowledged leader of the Tamils, dropped all his anti-Sinhala-Buddhist charges and joined the government as a Cabinet Minister.
- S. Senanayake was a Thomian who failed to pass even the equivalent of the O-level at the time. The boy from the village of Botale was better known for his down-to-earth nativism. Cartoonist Aubrey Collette would often depict him as “Kalay John” (John from the Jungle), swinging as a simian from branch to branch.
One day “DS” came home with his report card which had placed him third in the class. When his father asked him how many were in the class he said three! Naturally, his father was worried about his future.
His son, Dudley Senanayake, the second Prime Minister, told me – I lived with him from January 1960 to May 1960 as the Lake House’s embedded reporter covering the two election campaigns to elect a prime minister after the assassination of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike – that his grandfather was very worried about his son’s future as he was not so bright in his studies. So he went on a long journey, all the way from Botale to Hambantota, in a bullock cart – the most popular form of transport in the fin de siècle years — to get his horoscope read by a prominent astrologer. His grandfather returned after three days and told his wife, in a cynical tone, throwing the horoscope on the bed, that their son would be king of Lanka one day. It took some time for this rather unlikely prophesy to come right. But that’s another story of how history moves stealthily to pick leaders from the least expected corners of the earth to play public roles thrust upon them – roles they never thought they had in them. Or is it a case of the hidden hand of history picking up the right man from the mass of men and placing him/her to fit into the right place at the right time?
Whatever those forces may be, “DS” displayed an extraordinary talent for politics. He took to politics like duck to water. Instinctively, he played his role with consummate political skill to fulfill the astrologer’s prophesy. He excelled in his negotiations with the British to win independence and outwitted his local rivals to retain power in his hands as the first prime minister of independent Ceylon.
After engaging in community work, particularly the temperance movement, Don Stephen Senanayake entered the Legislative Council in the twenties and soon mastered the art of manipulating politics within the colonial framework. His pragmatism and political craftsmanship proved that he had all the qualities to wear the crown once the mud was washed off his back. His innate leadership qualities, combined with his gift for handling people, helped him to steer his way through the colonial maze and even to beat the double-doctors who came from the Western universities. It was a bit incongruous though when he appeared on Independence Day dressed in a top hat and tails. But that was his way of saying that he is the equal of the white masters.
His heavy, imposing physique exuded a commanding presence. By the time he became Prime Minister in the forties he had acquired a wealth of experience having fought his way through the Legislative Council in the twenties and the State Council in the thirties. Whether we like him or not, he was the man picked by the invisible hand of history to lay the foundations for a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, tolerant democracy. The elitist attendees at “Temple Trees”, dressed in their best finery, had a sense of pride in gathering round the first Ceylonese Prime Minister of a nation that had won independence after nearly 500 years of colonialism. But I wasn’t impressed then. Blinded by ideology and the rhetoric of Dr. Colvin R. de Silva I was leaning more towards the BLPI, the more theoretical wing of the Trotskyites.
The glitterati celebrating independence at “Temple Trees”, the official residence of the Prime Minister, D. S. Senanayake, was the other event that marked the Independence Day. In the geographical order of events, this was the second big event of the day happening down Galle Road, though officially it was the No.1 event to celebrate independence. In my estimation I thought that they were lotus-eaters drifting in a dream world of their own. Ensconced in the Right-wing bastion, they did not hear the thundering of the Left going on at the Galle Face Green, which was only a stone’s throw away from “Temple Trees”.
As I saw it then, the two big forces of the coming class war were packed into these two spaces – the Galle Face Green and “Temple Trees”. Their collision seemed inevitable since there were no other formidable political forces in the arena. D. S. Senanayake, like all Right-wing leaders of the world, was focusing all his energies in fighting the menace of the Reds. There was nothing whatsoever to indicate that an ethnic tsunami was coming over the horizon to drown everything in its wake. On the surface, everything seemed calm as the sea which looked like a sheet of shining glass lying still on its back all the way to the horizon.
The Galle Face meeting was over around 8 p.m. and I still remember the opening words of Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, always the last speaker because his sparkling verbal fireworks was the piece de resistance that kept the crowd going till the last minute. He opened his speech with a rhetorical flourish. Speaking in English he said : “If there are enemies in this Galle Face Green I address them also. Therefore, I say comrades, friends and enemies!” It reverberated in my ears like a clap of thunder. These words were still ringing in my ears as I boarded the bus that took me home that night. The bus went pass the “Temple Trees”, illuminated like a Wesak lantern. It did not inspire any nationalist fervour in me. I was more in tune with the revolutionary, anti-establishment Marxists at the Galle Face Green. I was a Trotskyite, though not a card-carrying member. To me “Temple Trees” looked like a den of decadent debauchees doomed to disappear down the road to the future.
I was drifting in the political currents of the time. As they said later, there would have been something wrong with my heart if I was not a red in my salad days. Later – much later – I learnt that something would have been wrong with my head if I continued to be a red. My disillusionment came when the LSSP abandoned all Marxist principles and, after an agonizing debate at the New Town Hall, opposite Vihara Maha Devi Park, decided to accept portfolios in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government. Leslie Goonewardene had flown down a representative from the Fourth International in Paris to oppose any coalition with the feudal-bourgeois regime. I was among the pack of reporters waiting anxiously for the outcome of the divided LSSP debating whether to join Mrs. Bandaranaike or not. Dr. Perera, who had packed the Hall with his ‘catchers’ from his Ruanwella electorate won the day, beating the Colvin-Bala Tampoe-Edmund Samarakkody revolutionaries. One of Dr. Perera’s main arguments to defeat the revolutionaries was that there has been no revolutions in democracies.
From then onwards they were submerged in the diluted politics of compromise which took their shine away. Their politics were directed more at defending their ministerial seats than fighting the hard battles for socialism. Dr. Perera, as Finance Minister, was seen as a good managerial CEO refining the status quo of the capitalist system rather than laying the foundations for a new social order. Revolutionary theoreticians like Dr. Colvin R. de Silva and Doric de Souza to whom religion was the opium of the masses were photographed taking mal wattiyas (bamboo trays of flowers) to pay pooja at the Temple of Tooth Relic in Kandy. The fact that they were arm-chair revolutionaries was confirmed when Doric de Souza found greater pleasure in playing cards at the Twentieth Century Club in Havelock Town than getting his hands soiled in the sweaty grime of his “working class comrades”. Dr. Perera was vying for presidency at the Otters Swimming Club, dealing with controversial issues of whether to serve or not to serve arrack in the premises. They ended their careers as middle-class reformists allied to the ruling elites of the SLFP or the UNP. But on Independence Day they were the most formidable opposition. They were the only organized political parties that could challenge the power of the UNP. In fact, they stood as the only alternative to the Right-wing UNP.
The Marxists formed the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1935. It was not only the vanguard of the leftist movement in Sri Lanka but also earned the reputation of being the first major Trotskyite party in the world. When Dr. N. M. Perera won the mayoralty of the Colombo Municipality The New York Times ran a page-one story to announce it. At the height of World War II when Stalin joined the Western Allies the anti-British Trotskyites threw out the local Stalinists in 1940.
The Stalinists broke away and formed the Communist Party. The LSSP remained loyal to Trotsky’s Fourth International, which was nothing more than a hole-in-wall somewhere in Paris, something which I discovered later. Their anti-British activities, however, caught the imagination and the spirit of the times. Dr. N. M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Philip Gunawardena emerged as folk heroes when they broke jail on April 7, 1942 and fled to India. Earlier they had slipped out of jail to attend secret Politbureau meetings. Their heroism was infectious and inspirational. When they came out of jail after the governor released them unconditionally on 24 June 1945 they were national heroes. The Marxists also had emerged as the alternative political force in the opposition, waiting in the wings to capture power, after the 1947 election.
In the rural areas they had managed to win the hearts and minds of the village folk in some selected electorates not because the peasantry took to Marxism with doctrinal conviction but because the Marxists came before them as social workers serving the victims of malaria which was the scourge in the thirties and forties. In fact, Dr. N. M. Perera was known among the villagers as “Parippu Mahathya” for distributing dhal among the poor. As in other parts of Afro-Asia, the peasants rallied behind the Marxists because they represented two key factors : 1. anti-imperialist nationalism and 2. the new political morality of being protectors and defenders of the underdogs. The vast mass of Asians hardly understood the subtleties and the complexities of Marxist economics and dialectics. The unquenchable and everlasting thirst in politics has been the search for renewal with purity, shedding the corrupted past, and the Marxists represented that element which promised to take them to the everlasting cornucopia in their new utopia.
Though the Left represented both these forces, they failed to break into the villages either as a revolutionary force or even as an electoral force. When I interviewed Dr. N. M. Perera and asked him about the failure of the Left to win the hearts and minds of the peasantry he shot back saying : “Why not? I have always won in Ruanwella – a village constituency!” The Marxists always deluded themselves with rationalisations that consoled them. He refused to accept that he won in Ruanwella only because he had earned reputation as a caring social worker, distributing “parippu” (lentils) to the needy in the midst of the malaria epidemic and not as a doctrinaire Marxist. I’ve seen Pieter doling out a few rupees to the poor who came to his home, looking for some means to tidy over the day. He would also not hesitate to ring the Police station on behalf of his constituents who were invariably in some scramble. It was this caring attitude that won them their place in the electorate. They misread the personal loyalty they won from grateful people as a rising working class force that would overthrow the capitalist system. This was the fundamental flaw in the Marxists. In their theoretical analyses they failed to recognise that Sri Lanka was neither Russia nor China. The dynamic dialectics necessary for class war was not there.
Despite this, they were hoping to re-enact the Russian drama sooner than later even though the Sino-Soviet conditions were not there for them to ride into power. There was no formidable working class outside the estates to overthrow the semi-feudal, semi-colonial, semi-capitalist establishment. In any case, the Indian estate workers were following their community leaders and not the Marxists. Besides, there was no industrial growth to produce the oppressed, poverty-stricken, Dickensian working class necessary for a revolution as prescribed by Marx. The biggest working class, outside the estates, was not in factories but in houses where men and women and even children were employed as domestics. They were hardly the stuff of revolutions.
Kumari Jayawardena, a scholarly researcher, described this in her thesis on the working class in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy of it to track down the figures. From memory it was around 90,000. So there was neither a formidable working class nor a decadent ruling class for the Marxist leaders to re-enact the Russian Revolution. They failed to read the signs of the time correctly. They were lost in the theories of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin and believed that the Russian experiences and theories were applicable directly to Sri Lanka. They were expecting history to repeat itself, neither as a comedy or a tragedy, but as an inevitable extension of evolving Marxist history. Overwhelmed by these theories they ignored the forces rising from the depths of history and driving the nation in a totally different direction.
They dismissed the rising grass root forces with Marxist clichés and it was too late when they realised that history had passed by, leaving them in the middle of nowhere. Their faith in Marxism was greater than the ground realities that were undercutting them. They sincerely believed that the theories they brought home from Western universities would take root and grow into a red-red revolution. They touted class warfare but the working class – the white collar and the brown collar ones – did not go along with them. They were with them only to get welfare benefits like higher wages and not for a revolution.
In the meantime, the Trotskyites and the Stalinist waged a war of their own in a desperate bid to grab and hold the helpless workers in their respective camps as a tool to strengthen their political bases. One of the main focal points was the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills, in Havelock Town, located by the side of the canal which ran to the sea. Both parties were competing to grab total control of the workers at the Mills. It was the LSSP that managed to gain control of the larger section of workers.
The Marxists were hoping to capture power through the trade unions. They were using strikes to paralyze and, if possible, overthrow the ruling regimes. In the absence of a dynamic revolutionary working class they also focused their attention on the white-collar workers in the Government Clerical Service Union and the mercantile sector. Bala Tampoe was the iron-fisted trade union Tsar of the mercantile sector. He ran a show of his own, allied to the extreme theoretical wing of Trotskyism which refused to have any truck with the mercantile / bourgeois / comprador / feudal class.
This motley gathering was hardly a force for a Trotskyite Revolution. But the Trotskyite leaders like Dr. Colvin R. de Silva believed in it. In my salad days I too believed in the coming revolution which I hoped would usher in the Doop-pathun Nathi Lokaya (World without the Poor), the title of the short story book of one of my favourite writers, G. B. Senanayake. But the subterranean forces moving the electoral bases of power were drifting away from theoretical Marxism and heading towards their historical roots.
In the meantime, the Marxists were splitting theoretical hairs about what Lenin or Trotsky would do and not what Punchi Banda and Sinnathamby would do. Their best chances, if any, were in an electoral victory. They came close to defeating the UNP in 1947. Even in 1952, when Dudley Senanayake swept the polls on the sympathy vote of his father’s sudden death, they remained as a potential force. But then in 1956 S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike emerged as the third force sweeping the Left into a margin from which they never regained their prestige or political clout. Bandaranaike emerged as the democratic alternative to the Left which made all the difference to post-independent politics.
The Left was dying. Though they claimed proprietary rights to the social reforms that advanced the nation into a welfare state, mainly by the measures introduced by “the reactionary Right”, the legacy they left behind was political violence. They legitimized violence as a means to an end. The ruling class would never give up power without a fight, they said. Revolution was the only way out.
When the revolution they prophesied came they were taken unawares. Ironically, they were sitting in ministerial chairs defending their privileged positions than siding with the Jathika Vimukti Peramuna (National Freedom Front) “revolutionaries” – a bunch of lumpen Marxists who neither possessed the intellectual strength nor the organizational capacity to steer a political revolution for regime change. Tragically, the Marxist fathers produced the first children of the revolution who mistook fascist violence as the birth of a socialist / communist revolution. Shooting, killing, torturing, eliminating enemies ruthlessly became the accepted norm. “Revolutionary justice” justified violence. The nation had to pay dearly, with their lives, for the violence legitimized by the Marxists.
The ominous signs of the next wave of violence too were looming in the shadows hidden on Independence Day. It was the third event that took place on Independence Day.
(See next article.)