Posted on May 2nd, 2021


The MEP government of 1956 lasted for just three years during which it faced much opposition, but the government   still managed to get things done. What the MEP     achieved in such a situation is truly impressive said Ananda Meegama.  The impact of the 1956 MEP government was such that there was no turning back from its gains, he concluded    

SWRD gave legitimacy to the aspirations of the Sinhala Buddhist public, said Sudath Gunasekera.  Buddhist and Sinhala values were emphasized, said Nayani Melegoda.1956 saw the rise of a viable religious and cultural policy for the nation, said Ananda Guruge. The previous UNP government had failed to make this change.  DS Senanayake had refused to make Sinhala the state language and Buddhism the state religion.

The MEP government gave Buddhism its rightful place”. This was discussed in the preceding essay and does not need elaboration here.

MEP supporters also wanted a return to Sinhala.  The 1956 government made Sinhala the sole official language. This was a historic decision, and a badly needed one. It was also self determination at the highest level and must be recognized as such.

SWRD said in his BBC interview   that he supported ‘Sinhala only’ because Sinhala was spoken by about 75% of the population.  That is not the correct answer. It was not the percentage of speakers that mattered, it was the usage. Sinhala had never been out of use.

Sinhala had been the national language of Sri Lanka for over one thousand years. Sinhala lost this position during colonial rule. The Portuguese and Dutch rulers    administered their segment in the Portuguese and Dutch languages .After 1815, the whole island was administered in English. But Sinhala did not disappear. It continued in local use and it kept pace with modern developments.  When the printing press arrived in Sri Lanka the Sinhala newspaper and other Sinhala imprints started to appear.

Sinhala was not the    primitive backward language that the westernized elite thought it was. In its heyday, Sinhala had been used for administration, business, manufacture, science, technology as well as scholarly pursuits. Due to this, Sinhala had an untapped base of root words, ready for use in the modern period. Sinhala modernized quickly and effortlessly. The vocabulary expanded. Today, the intelligentsia have no difficulty in explaining technical matters in fluent Sinhala on television.

In 1956, Sinhala had to face the issue of relevance in the modern world, both domestic and cosmopolitan. The westernized elite who were vehemently    opposed to Sinhala focused on the cosmopolitan aspect, particularly education but also the cultural aspect of Dickens, daffodils and Shakespeare. Their arguments cannot be ignored, but in 1956, the ‘Sinhala only’ group was not thinking of daffodils or Shakespeare.  They were focusing solely on the domestic component.

During British rule, the domestic administration was in English. Public administration and law courts worked in English. Telegrams were sent in English.   The total number of persons in the Island who were able to read and write English in  1946, according  to the Census of Ceylon 1946  was 367,622, or 6.3% of the population (aged five years and over).  I am unable to get the   parallel statistic from the Census of 1953 due to Covid but it could be calculated to be not more than 10% because in the Census of 2012, only 24 % spoke English.  

This changed in 1956.Thanks to Sinhala only administration and court proceedings were done in   Sinhala. There was now a direct link between citizen and government. This is a basic right of a citizen. This was one of the permanent gains of the 1956 election. It must be applauded. In Parliament too, more debates were conducted in Sinhala.          

The emphasis on Swabhasha brought a hitherto submerged class onto center stage and upward mobility. The 1956 government empowered the Swabasha educated intelligentsia, through its policy on education and language and its emphasis on indigenous culture and science, said Meegama. The urban elite would no longer have a plentiful supply of servants in their homes.

The 1956 MEP government was the first government to see the need for a modern policy of Industrialization for Sri Lanka. There were no local industries when MEP came to power in 1956, everything was imported. The country was importing everything, from a pin, comb, pencil, and biscuit to mammoties, water pumps, agriculture and industrial machinery, reported economists.

MEP had a long term plan for industrialization. The state would lead with a few basic industries whilst the rest were left to the private sector. There were three lists. The first list consisted of items reserved for the state. They included iron and steel, cement, chemicals, fertilizer, salt, mineral sands, sugar, power alcohol and rayon. 

The second list had industries which were open to both state and private sectors. They included textiles, tyres and  tubes, tiles, asbestos products, bicycles, industrial alcohol, acetic acid,   sugar, vegetable oil, ceramic ware, glass ware, leather products, plywood, paper, electric bubs, dry cell batteries, accumulators, barbed wire, lumber, agricultural implements, wood working, furniture and cabinetry,  and concrete products. 

There was a third list of 82 industries ranging from motor car assembly to activated charcoal, reserved exclusively for the private sector.  Persons embarking on these industries would receive tax concessions and tariff protection. Meegama observed that this period therefore saw the beginning of a private sector in industry with government encouragement. Industrialists promptly asked the government to stop imports in the goods they are producing. The first industrial estate was established at Ekala in 1960. 

Those opposed to MEP had raised objections. There had been a debate on large versus small industry. Daily News had said it was a waste of money to invest on big schemes. What was needed for unemployment relief was small industry.  William Silva minister for Industries replied that we cannot treat industry as unemployment relief.  Large industry, especially basic industries are needed to develop a country. Small industry would also be encouraged. The public will be invited to invest in small scale industries with inducements such as tax concessions, and tariff protection.

 This aspect of the 1956 government is important and I have emphasized this repeatedly in this series, because this is the first and only time that Sri Lanka embarked on a modern policy of industrialization. It was immediately scuttled by the right. No industrialization policy was ever attempted thereafter in Sri Lanka, as far as I can see. The industrialization policy of the 1956 MEP government remains an isolated event. (Continued)

One Response to “THE GENERAL ELECTION OF 1956 Part 14”

  1. dingiri bandara Says:

    That is why the reactionary forces got him assassinated. The truth about the plot was never revealed. Same as the assassination of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King. The truth is stranger than fiction and in most cases, will never be known. Only the people directly involved know the truth.! Buddharakkhita unexpectedly passed away in prison. before he could reveal the plot. I vaguely remember that that he threatened talk if he was not released.
    It is so sad that the the country lost the opportunity to see what SWRD had planned for then Ceylon.

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