The political sea-change of 1956 – SLFP’s greatest contribution
Posted on July 31st, 2015

S.S. Sahabandu PC (Member Central Committee) Courtesy The Daily News

For a party that had its origins in the early fifties, at its second attempt at a general election, the party captured power under an umbrella called the MEP. The road to 1956 is intertwined with the 25 years of the political life of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, which he completed shortly before the victory of 1956.


President Mahinda Rajapaksa

The relentless march to 1956 has its origins in the struggle for independence, the Buddhist Revivalist Movement, the Temperance Movement and the struggle of the rural intelligentsia of the country to come forward as against the English speaking upper classes that had governed the country during the reforms introduced by the British Colonial rulers.

It was the end of one phase in the history of the country and the beginning of the next phase. All change is accompanied by the good and the bad, but peaceful change through the ballot is more palatable than violent change through conflict.

A.P. Jayasuriya, a former minister and one of the directors of the MEP campaign stated, The victory of the MEP was a turning point in the history of Ceylon. We will form a democratic government truly representative of the people and our government will be fair by all.” (CDN April 1, 1956). The stakeholders of 1956 were many. They included the Sinhala intelligentsia, such as, the teachers, bhikkus, ayurvedic physicians and the vast majority of the peasants and working people. The result of 1956 baffled even the architects of the victory.

The Eksath Bhikku Peramuna led by dynamic Buddhist monks presented a programme of action shortly before 1956 to the MEP coalition. Among the important measures that they advocated were to:

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

Perhaps of all the stakeholders that participated to bring about the political tsunami of 1956, the Buddhist monks were the most prominent.

Bhikku Peramuna

Ven. Yakkaduwe Pragnarama Thera has a special place among the architects of 1956. It was further developed by Ven. Walpola Rahula Thera in his book Bhikkshunge Urumaya. There were others like Ven. Baddegama Wimalawansa Thera and Ven. Henpitigedera Gnanasiha Thera of Ratnapura. The late Buddharakitha Thera of Kelaniya was a leader of the Bhikku Peramuna. Howard Wriggins, the late US ambassador who predicted 1956, commented that, although the language agitation had little impact on the peasantry, the question of Buddhism had deep political importance for them and for many other groups as well.”

The storm which was gathering for sometime, suddenly manifested itself when all stakeholders united against the UNP government in 1956. Mr. Bandaranaike, the main architect of 1956 was never considered a winner shortly before 1956. He had many setbacks and all obstacles were thrown at him. He had no proper candidates and the MEP coalition lacked financial resources. The storm that gathered was a political tsunami and the leaders of 1956 were stunned by the result. The urban proletariat showed its power during the 1953 hartal. Year 1956 was staged by the rural poor and their leaders.

Mr. Bandaranaike had a setback when two members of Parliament, Bernard Aluvihare, a former Secretary and H.B. Tenne left the party shortly before 1956. Mr. Bandaranaike was lampooned and criticized by the press.

The cartoons of Aubrey Collete were used to ridicule him. He was described as the most pathetic political figure of South East Asia. It is stated that Mr. Bandaranaike went to the Bank of Ceylon to meet the General Manager and was unable to get an interview shortly before 1956 (Philip Gunawardena and the 1956 Revolution, p. 95). To all these he replied with humility and he continued to serve the people. His strength was the stature he had in the country and his band of devoted followers which formed the nucleus of his party.

The UNP on the other hand had adequate resources, the backing of the bureaucracy and was overjoyed by two by-election victories shortly before 1956. The results of these victories made the UNP leaders dissolve the Parliament early and seek a mandate from the people. See table

Sir Ukwatte Jayasundera in his annual report to the UNP at its annual session, shortly before 1956, stated, Everything is ready now for us to face the general election with confidence, the men, the machinery and the necessary spirit.” He said of Sir John, and above all, an undisputed leader, Sir John, the terror of the idler, the rogue and the hypocrite. The finances of the party are sound. The victory of the Matara Local Government polls and the winning of the Buttala and Aluthnuwara by-elections have given us confidence.”

Parliamentary system

After dissolution there was a staggered poll. On the first day key UNP seats were to poll and on the last day the Opposition strongholds which included the seat of Mr. Bandaranaike were due to poll.

This arrangement was to help the UNP. Though the Opposition protested it prevailed. The tsunami of 1956 beat all records when the UNP secured only the seats which they won on the first day amounting to eight. The UNP lost all seats on the second and third days. This led to the SLFP introducing the one-day poll in later years to make the poll more democratic.

The 1956 victory led to many changes social, political and economic. There was a drastic change in foreign policy sporting closer ties with India and the opening of embassies in USSR and China.

These changes and events are now part of history to be assessed by historians and political writers who review this period. More than any other, 1956 left a legacy created by the ‘Tamil problem.’ Mr. Bandaranaike gave a solution envisaged in the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact, which had to be abandoned at that time.

The devolution debate goes on with the 13th Amendment, to await a solution acceptable to our people.

Cognizant of the impact of 1956, in recognition of its changes and to ensure that such a situation does not occur again, a political thinker and political leader created the ‘Executive Presidency’ and the Parliamentary system based on proportional representation. The Executive Presidency was to weaken the electoral base of the SLFP and give greater electoral power to the minorities. The system of proportional representation was meant to stop violent changes in Parliament. Year 1956 set the pattern for change, adjustment and new political thinking. The SLFP led by Mr. Bandaranaike was responsible for the events of 1956. It was the moment of the SLFP.

2 Responses to “The political sea-change of 1956 – SLFP’s greatest contribution”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    A sea change is what UPFA must focus on today to turn tables on the UNP. UPFA is too slow to adapt and plays too safe on important national issues.

  2. Christie Says:

    1956 and 2015 January are the same both engineered by Indian Empire. The writer should explore who funded SWRD in 1951 and after.

    “How it happened? Another Indian job. The former President called an early election. The Indian imperialists (India) were ready to correct its mistake in 2005 when it backed Mahinda Rajapaksa over Ranil Wickramasinge. Then, Indian imperialists advised Indian block vote in the island to abstain from voting. The reason for the preference was Indian imperialists thought it will be easier to negotiate with Mahinda an unknown matter for India. Unfortunately for India, Mahinda did not follow Indian directions as former Sri Lankan leaders did since 1956. In 2010 India enrolled General Sarath Fonseka as a presidential candidate against Mahinda and failed. So behind the scene as Indian imperialist always do they were planning for years and got former governor Chandrika Bandaranayake-Kumaranatunge to do the job and succeeded with doing a repeat of what India did with her father Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranayake in 1951. India did not have to wait for four year this time. India managed to divide the non-Indian vote and got the Indian block vote for Maithripala Sirisena the new governor of Sri Lanka who may be the proxy for the real governor Chandrika.”

    Parliament election is simple for the Indian Empire. The objective is to divide the Sinhala vote more so as to deny the Sinhalese a 2/3 majority.

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