Hartal 1953

Hartal 1953 was a country-wide demonstration, commonly known as a hartal, held in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on August 12, 1953. It was organised to protest of the policies and actions of the incumbent United National Party government, and resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. It was the first mass political action in Ceylon.



In the General Elections held in 1952, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s United National Party (UNP) secured a majority in Parliament. However, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), and others, complained about irregularities that took place during the election.[citation needed]

After the elections Finance Minister J. R. Jayewardene introduced a budget which abolished the subsidy on rice, increased the price of sugar, did away with the free mid-day meal for school children and increased postal fees and rail fares. The more than doubling of the cost of rice was the main “battle cry” of the organisers of the hartal.

Sri Lanka leftist parties led the call for the hartal, especially the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which felt that it had lost the most in the 1952 elections. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC) supported protests against the elimination of the rice subsidy, but did not support a hartal. The Communist Party of Ceylon (CPC), who gained a seat in the 1952 elections, together with their allied party the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP), also gave verbal supported to the idea of hartal, but there is disagreement about how much they participated.

On 12 August 1953, a hartal, or work stoppage and demonstrations, were held throughout Ceylon. The main complaint was the proposed elimination of the subsidy on rice, but it also included the disenfranchisement of Tamils in the 1952 election as well as other election irregularities. Some commentators suggest that the hartal only occurred in one-third of the country.

The most incendiary acts on 12 August took place in certain localities along the western and south-western seaboard, e.g., Maharagama, Boralesgamuwa, Gangodawila, Kirillapone, Egoda Uyana, Katukurunda, Koralawella, Waskaduwa, Karandeniya, Dompe, Akurala, Totagamuwa, Hikkaduwa, and Rajgama, where there were widespread riots and extensive damage to communications and transportation facilities. Some of the damage was deliberate anti-government sabotage.

Because of the disenfranchisement of Tamils, the Jaffna Peninsula in particular participated fully in the work-stoppage, although there was no noteworthy violence reported. There were also widespread demonstrations in the 24 divisions of the Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces in which the Emergency Regulations were longest maintained. These areas consist of the Alutkuru Korale South, Meda Pattuwa, Adikari Pattuwa, Siyane Korale, Alutgam and Panawal Korales, Colombo Mudaliyars’ Division, Salpiti Korale, Panadura Totamune, Kalutara Totamune, Bentota Walalawiti Korale, Wellaboda Pattu, Colombo Municipal area, and the Urban Council areas of Avissawella, Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia, Gampaha, Jaela, Kolonnawa, Kotte, Wattala-Mabola-Peliyagoda, Beruwala, Kalutara, Panadura and Ambalangoda.

The hartal was primarily a protest of the labouring classes, and as such there were no exclusions based upon caste, ethnicity or religion, even the Roman Catholics participated, notably in the Negombo, Wennappuwa and Ragama areas.

The acts of sabotage occurred throughout the country. For instance, on the railways, rails and fishplates were removed. In Waskaduwa, the rails, and sleepers with them, were torn up for over a mile, with the telegraph posts toppled over along the whole stretch. In Totagamuwa, the wooden sleepers were set on fire which warped the rails. In numerous places telephone and telegraph wires were cut. In Egoda Uyana, the demonstrators invaded the station, captured a train and uncoupled the engine so that the train could not leave. Buses, particularly those of the Gamini Bus Co. Ltd. and the High Level Road Bus Co. Ltd. were stopped, stoned, and smashed by the demonstrators. The principal bus routes were blocked with felled trees and other barriers so that military escorts were required. Bridges had their planks removed, and in a few cases were dynamited.

The hartal was scheduled for only one day, but in some cases the crowds were so worked up that they continued until the morning of the 13th. Shaun Goonewardene held that there was no intent to continue the demonstrations after the 12th, while Edmund Samarakkody suggested that the demonstrators were ready to go on only if the leadership had given them a signal.

In many areas the police and demonstrators clashed and at least ten people were killed.

On 12 August the Cabinet met on board the HMS Newfoundland, a British warship docked in the Colombo harbour. The immediate result of the meeting was that portions of the country were placed under Emergency Regulations, essentially martial law, and Dudley Senanayake resigned as Prime Minister. The United National Party (UNP) remained in control of the government and elected John Lionel Kotalawela as Prime Minister.

The UNP would go on to lose the 1956 elections to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which contested under the “Sinhala only” slogan. Dudley Senanayake went on to serve as Prime Minister on two other occasions, for 4 months in 1960, and a full term from 1965-70.

The 1953 hartal is, of course, the central event of its history to which Sri Lanka’s Old Left looks back with heroic nostalgia. For many years Hartal Day was an occasion for rousing speeches by the Left. It was an application of the classic Marxist thesis of the general strike but those who called the hartal never intended to take it beyond that stage, whereas in the Marxist playbook a general strike ought to lead to the overthrow of the government in power. But still nursing gradualist illusions of ultimately seeking parliamentary power the LSSP leaders primarily did not envisage anything like such a scenario. In retrospect it has become the traditional wisdom to say that it was not the Old Left but the SLFP which benefited from the hartal in the form of the popular upsurge of 1956 which felled the UNP and brought S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike to power as prime minister.

While those who later broke away from the LSSP have all complained in varying degrees of the LSSP’s failure to mobilize after the hartal for a bigger onslaught against the state, the party’s official historian Leslie Goonewardene offers this explanation: Most important of all, it was the considered view of the LSSP (as well as we believe of the VLSSP-CP United Front) that the mass movement had reached only a stage of protest against the actions of the Government in imposing the burdens it did on the masses, and not at a stage where it was aiming at the overthrow of the Government.

The long-term effect was for politicians in Ceylon, and then Sri Lanka, to recognise that the labouring classes had power, and that in turn increased the coercive effect and hence political power of trade unions.