THE GENERAL ELECTION OF 1956 Part 2
Posted on April 19th, 2020

KAMALIKA PIERIS

 In 1956, SWRD formed his last ‘party’ the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). The MEP consisted of Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by SWRD, Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP) led by Philip Gunawardene,   the Samastha Lanka Sinhala Bhasha Peramuna led by W. Dahanayake and an ‘Independent Group.’ These were the four constituent parties mentioned in the MEP   program given in Daily News, March 8.1956.  ‘Bhasha Peramuna’ was an organization of Sinhalese teachers and literati who wanted Sinhala as the state language.

These four parties were joined by the Uda Rata Peramuna led by TB Ilangaratne and TB Tennakoon, and K.M.P. Rajaratna’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.  Two Tamil lawyers of the SLFP, A.C. Nadarajah, and S Thangarajah, as well as ACS Hameed and Badiudeen Mahamud, also joined the MEP.

Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna  was formed in 1956. It was led by Henpitagedara Gnanasiha, with Talpavila Wimalawansa, Mapitigama Buddharakhita, Hewanpola Ratanasara, Kotagama Vachissara, Bambarende Siri Sivali and Madihe Pannasiha. Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna was a major contributor to the success of the MEP at the 1956 General election.

Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna presented a programme of action to the MEP shortly before the 1956 elections. They wanted, inter alia, the implementation of the Buddhist Commission Report and Sinhala made the official language of the country. Ven. Yakkaduwe Pragnarama, Walpola Rahula, Ven. Baddegama Wimalawamsa, and Henpitigedera Gnanasiha of Ratnapura were foremost in this matter.

MEP issued its manifesto in March 1956. The four parties had agreed to the programme. This manifesto was published in the Daily News of March 8.1956.

 The manifesto said, firstly that the MEP wanted the Constitution amended. The MEP objected to Dominion status. MEP wanted Ceylon to be a democratic Republic.  In foreign policy, MEP wanted Non-alignment and the immediate removal of the two foreign bases in Sri Lanka. 

MEP supported the Buddhist Commission recommendations and wanted Buddhism given special recognition as the religion of the majority, but said ‘‘we guarantee the fullest freedom of worship to all. There shall be no discrimination on religious grounds.

Sinhala must be declared the sole official language of the country, said MEP, but this will not involve the suppression of such minority languages as Tamil whose reasonable use will receive due recognition.

If MEP came to power there will be national planning.Key industries would be run by the state. Small industries by the private sector. There would be special emphasis on sugar, textiles, fisheries, salt and fertilizer industries.

Foreign-owned plantations, transport, banking, and insurance companies will be progressively nationalized.  Trade and commerce would ‘go into Ceylonese hands’. Agriculture would be diversified to include cotton and sugar cane.  There was a vast extent of land still uncultivated.

Housing would be the responsibility of the central government. There would be village expansion schemes for the landless and colonization schemes where ownership of land will be vested in the farmer. MEP  wanted to set up regional councils to help with the local government. 

 MEP promised full employment with satisfactory wages and conditions of service, without discrimination on the grounds of language. Full trade union rights will be given to all workers, also fundamental rights such as 8 hour working day, guaranteed minimum wage and pension or provident fund schemes. Full trade union rights to public servants too.  MEP would introduce health and unemployment insurance and old-age pensions. The cost of living would be lowered by reducing the price of necessities like rice and sugar.

We shall repeal the Public Security Ordinance, Police amendment Act, Trade Union Amendment  Act and all undemocratic public service regulations and similar restrictions and invasions of public and personal rights, particularly those affective the freedom of association, assembly and speech, said MEP. Lastly, MEP would complete without delay the new Town of Anuradhapura, see to the preservation of the ancient city of Anuradhapura as well as other ancient cities and monuments.

The General election of 1956 was announced. The UNP had enough money, the backing of the bureaucracy and had won two by-elections just before 1956. UNP confidently dissolved Parliament early.

 The fledgling MEP negotiated a no-contest pact with LSSP and CP  and launched into election work. SWRD had no candidates and no funds for the election, no affluent patrons or mudalalis, observed Meegama. SWRD had gone to the Bank of Ceylon to ask for a loan but the General Manager would not see him and he had to go home empty-handed. General Manager was Chelliah Loganathan.

SWRD mortgaged his properties to pay for election expenses of his candidate since most of them had no money to spend on an election. B.H. Aluvihare deserted MEP just before the election and SWRD nominated Nimal Karunatilleke who had no contacts in Matale, but he won handsomely. In Anuradhapura Sirimevan Godage, an Office assistant contested PB Bulankulame.

SWRD had some of the best Sinhala orators and writers on his side,  such as Somaweera Chandrasiri, a brilliant Sinhala scholar and poet.  He was a fine orator, clever at coining words, and could compose Sinhala verse on the spot. He was a fine addition to MEP, said Meegama.

But the election swung decisively to MEP only when the bhikkhus came out in support. UNP had managed to anger the Buddhists, by its statements and actions.  The Lake House newspaper group had ridiculed the Buddhist Commission report and the monks who were campaigning for it. this had angered the Sangha and the Buddhist public too.

 Sangha sabhas actively came out in favour of MEP and everywhere the saffron robe was seen in vehicles flying the blue and red flag of the MEP. In many areas, monks went house to house campaign urging support for SWRD. 

The night before the 1956 election, Ratnapura town saw on the hill above the road to Potgul vihara, a row of lanterns moving as in a perahera. It was Ven.Henpitigedera and his supporters going from house to house in the distant villages on the hill asking people to vote for the hand symbol of MEP.

SWRD was never considered a winner.  He had no proper candidates and the MEP coalition lacked financial resources. Meegama says SWRD had spoken at a meeting organized by his supporters at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, The audience was very small.

Only the Lankadeepa” newspaper, edited by DB Dhanapala supported the MEP, said Meegama. Lankadeepa ran MEP speeches and gave news of MEP meetings.90% of its editorial staff was sympathetic to the anti-UNP movement.

Lankadeepa played a key role in the UNP years to keep the issues that were stirring the people in the limelight. The paper gave publicity to the demand for the switch over to Sinhala, rightful place for Buddhism, simple living, liberation from servility to degrading foreign customs,  and liberation of people from capitalism. Lankadeepa gave sizzling editorials just before the election. 

Now I know why, in my home, in the 1950s, when everybody else down the street was reading the Dinamina, ‘Lankadeepa’ arrived every day. It had a cartoon by Motagedera Wanigaratne on the front page. That is all I can remember now.

At the election meetings, Philip was wanted everywhere for his thunderous denunciation of UNP. On the last day of the campaign, there were scenes verging on hysteria. When SWRD came to   Kandy, he could hardly be heard, there was cheering and shouting. People were rushing to touch him. Such were the emotions.

The general election of 1956 was spread out for 3 days. A staggered poll was held to help the UNP. The first day the elections were held in key UNP electorates and the rest in the next two days. UNP only secured the 8 seats they won on the first day.  UNP lost all seats on the 2nd and 3 days. in this election for the first time symbols were allotted. Later the SLFP introduced the one day poll. 

 I.D.S.Weerawardana remarked that the electorate displayed a surprising maturity. The electorate voted clearly for the party and not for individuals. Voter turnout was 69% which was considered good for that period of time, said Weerawardene.  It is considered good even today, in most countries.

P.A. Samaraweera observed ‘people took all the money lavishly given by rich UNP politicians, wore the green bush shirts given by them, took the lunch packets, went to the polling booth and voted for the MEP.’ It was said later that they would have voted for even a polpiththa. DRO of Kalagam Palatha in Anuradhapura district had asked an elderly lady how she had voted. She said Mudalali of our village is Christian. He gave each of us Rs.  10, bread and tea and led us to the school. He said we should mark a cross in front of the elephant and put it in the box. I could not go against my religion so I voted for the Sri Hasthaya symbol.

The first result was Matale at 10 pm. Nimal had won with a majority of 2500. Lankadeepa office was jubilant as he had written for it since its inception. Dhanapala said ‘now that Nimal has won, victory is certain for Bandaranaike.’ The MEP won 51 out of the 60 seats it contested.  43 of them were won by the SLFP.  UNP got 8 seats.

MEP got 1,046 277 votes and 39.5% of the votes cast. LSSP came second with 274,204 and 21    seats. The third was Federal Party with 142,758, 5.4 % and 10 seats.  The ranking of a separatist party in the third position in this historic election is significant and should be noted. On a mere 5.4%, they got 10 seats.

The results of the general election were a surprise even to the victors. It baffled even the architects of its victory. The ignominious defeat of UNP was also a surprise, said, analysts. But there was a sense of freedom and liberation in the air among students, peasants, urban workers, and the intelligentsia. It was a time of great happiness, said Meegama.  It was Ape aanduwa.”

I still recall the excitement of listening to the election results,   hearing the words Mahajana Eksath Peramuna spoken over and over again,  very dramatically by an announcer, who could not keep his delight out of his voice. The words  ‘Mahajana Eksath Peramuna” has a lilt to it and that added to the impact.

The Mahajana Eksath Peramuna MPs took their oaths in national costume at the request of the Maha Sangha.  On 20.4. 56 when Parliament had finished its business, the public invaded the chamber. SWRD, as Prime Minister said ‘let them in.’ This should be applauded. This was a once in a lifetime experience for the island and SWRD realized this.

However, a shocked observer reported ‘ the people came like a horde of wild horses, not only that day into the Chamber of the country’s supreme legislature but for days and weeks  and months after that to the other citadels of the government .’

 In 1962, one of the officers   involved in the attempted coup, gave as a reason for his animosity to SWRD, that when he was trying to prevent people rushing to the Parliament chamber after the “ape aanduwa” victory in 1956, SWRD’s order to him, was Let them come in.”  

The General Election of 1956 was a watershed in the modern history of Sri Lanka, said I.D.S. Weerawardena. It changed the political landscape, said Meegama. 1956 was a major landmark in Sri Lanka, said Wiswa Warnapala. The common man for the first time understood that he could change the government of the country peacefully, through the ballot. (Continued)

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