Posted on March 31st, 2021


The results of the 1956 election baffled even the architects of its victory, said analysts. The MEP was stunned by its victory.  SWRD was not expected to win. He had no proper candidates and the MEP coalition lacked financial resources.   The 60 MEP candidates were facing a solid phalanx of 76 UNP, many of them sitting members.

But MEP did win a landslide victory. The momentum was unstoppable.   We were left speechless, said Bradman Weerakoon. Unlike in previous elections, in this election there had been only a few instances of bribery, violence or impersonation, added Bradman.

The 1956 General election was a historic event in the post-colonial world too. This is not well known. The General election of 1956 was the first peaceful transfer of power from the legatee at independence   to another party, in any part of the British Empire, said historian KM de Silva. (KM de Silva, Sri Lanka, Come wind come weather”. ICES (2015) p xvii)

Bandaranaike became head of state at a time when Ceylon and other post-colonial states were very newly independent. Post-colonial democracy had not yet been tested, and there were few political models around, said analysts. SWRD understood this, and called 1956 a period of transition.

When the MEP government took office, there was a sense of freedom and liberation in the air among students, peasants, urban workers and the intelligentsia, said Meegama. It was a time of great happiness. It was Ape Aanduwa.

 Analysts point out however, that    1956” did not happen overnight. The Buddhist Revival and the Left movement   also helped pave the way. People had worked hard for long years to usher in this change, said Ananda Meegama.

The 1956 Parliament met for the first time on 20th April 1956, amid scenes of unprecedented popular enthusiasm. Supporters of the government,  mainly lower middle and working class crowded the public galleries. There were enthusiastic cheers as Prime Minister took his place.

When Parliament had finished its business, those in the public galleries, came down into the Parliament area and took turns to sit on Speakers seat.  SWRD, as Prime Minister said ‘let them in.’ This was a once in a lifetime experience for the island and SWRD realized this.  This is a historic event and it should be recorded as such. It is not something to be sneered at.

1956 was a major event in the political history of Sri Lanka said Wiswa Warnapala.  A change that this country badly needed at that point of evolution.  it was a watershed in the modern history of Sri Lanka, said I.D.S. Weerawardena.It changed the political landscape, agreed Meegama.Even the Marxist parties saw the 1956 as an advance to further democratic changes in the country.

1956 saw the first real change of regime the young state had ever faced, observed Bradman Weerakoon. it brought about a total transformation in the political culture of the country.  A new political leadership emerged.

A new set of politicians who did not belong to the urban based English educated elite came to the forefront and began dominating the political landscape. They came from the rural intelligentsia  and were Sinhala educated.  Many came to Parliament straight from the village. Their manners, life style and leadership style showed their rural origin.    

The rural intelligentsia, led by the chief priest of the village temple, the village school master and the Ayurvedic physician, also now came to the forefront of the political scene. This intelligentsia had become a political force in the rural areas long before, thanks to the State Council. They now graduated to the national platform.

1956 gave new life to the village. Neglected and impoverished, the village nevertheless had   continued to function as a stable community. Its social values were intact, observed Wiswa. Language, religion and culture were emphasised in 1956 election campaign. This generated a great deal of popular enthusiasm.

In this new political culture, the common man became important. HM Gunasekera recalls that at the opening of the Kelani new bridge in 1957, SWRD invited a highly surprised worker in the audience to perform the opening. There was thunderous applause.

The common man for the first time found that he could change the government of the country peacefully, through ballot. He became a formidable factor. He now found that his grievances were addressed seriously by the politicians. His aspirations were taken into account by the new set of legislators who themselves came from the village and therefore could identify with the ordinary man.

The public institutions became more responsive to the needs of the ‘common man’.  The Police, headmen, and Kachcheri officers now found that they had to treat the ‘villager’ with respect and not roughly as they used to do. 

The 1956 change of government also led to a cultural renaissance in literature, cinema, drama and arts.  The long neglected Sinhala culture got recognition only in 1956, observed Sarachchandra.  Dance, music, kavi and other forms of the arts were given an important place in 1956.

The English speaking intelligentsia had persons who were supportive of Sinhala culture and wanted to strengthen it. Their products also   appeared in 1956.  Rekawa” by Lester James Pieris was shown in cinemas in 1956. Sarachchandra’s Maname” appeared on the stage.  Sinhalese Social Organization by Ralph Pieris, Society in Medieval Ceylon by MB Ariyapala  and Traditional Sinhalese culture” edited by Ralph Pieris,  appeared in  bookshops in 1956. These products were received enthusiastically by an appreciative audience, who saw straightaway what this elite was trying to do.

The 1956 MEP government unleashed a process of change which was unprecedented in the history of Sri Lanka.  A series of people oriented policies were introduced. The reforms were far reaching  and made a fundamental impact on public policy. The changes they introduced reverberate today.  The ideas they initiated are now a part of accepted policy, said analysts.  

The political and social upheaval caused by the 1956 government received a mixed reaction in Sri Lanka society. It had different connotations for different groups.  For the English speaking elites in Colombo  and a large section of the English educated group in the island, the world turned upside down. For the first time since independence Tamils were not included in the cabinet.

To others it heralded the beginning of a new dawn. It ended the privileges of the English speaking minority.  The Sinhala educated had long objected to the ‘Mahaththaya’ culture, which treated them as inferior to the anglicized English educated middle classes. (Continued)

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