The Hartal 1953 was a country-wide demonstration of civil disobedience and strike, commonly known as a hartal, held in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on 12 August 1953. It was organized to protest of the policies and actions of the incumbent United National Party government. It was the first mass political action in Ceylon and the first major social crisis after independence. This event is of historical significance because it was the first people's struggle against an elected government in the country.
Led by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and other leftist parties who called on the public to resist the government and demonstrate civil disobedience and strikes, the hartal was primarily a protest of the labouring class, and as such there were no exclusions based upon caste, ethnicity or religion. The protests saw much sabotage and destruction to public infrastructure, as a means of frightening and halting the government. This occurred mainly in the Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces as well as other minor protests around the rest of the island. The demonstrations lasted only a day with at least 10 people killed, resulting in the resignation of the Prime Minister.
In 1948 Ceylon had gained independence becoming a Dominion, and Don Stephen Senanayake becoming the first Prime Minister of Ceylon. In March 1952 Senanayake died which began a violent tussle between his son Dudley Senanayake and his nephew John Kotelawala for his succession. The Governor General at the time Lord Soulbury arbitrated in favour of his son. In the General Elections held in May later that year, Dudley Senanayake's United National Party (UNP) secured a majority in Parliament giving him the premiership. However the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), and others, complained about irregularities that took place during the election and felt it had lost the most during it.
After the elections the government faced sudden economic difficulties, 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, as world rice prices increased because of the Korean War. In 1952 the UNP government promised to give a measure of rice for 25 cents, but within few months this soon increased to 75 cents. Numerous welfare programmes were also withdrawn. The more than doubling of the cost of rice was the main reason for the organizers of the hartal.
All political parties in the Opposition agitated against these measures brought on by the UNP but only the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party (CP-VLSSP) United Front and the Federal Party called for resistance. The Sri Lankan leftist parties led by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) called for the hartal, mobilizing the masses to resist the direct attack on their standard of living. 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 saw the start of civil disobedience, strikes and demonstrations held throughout Ceylon, launched by the main non-communal trade unions. However participation of employees of the health sector were discouraged knowing that it could affect the innocent patients. 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 Ragama, 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, Ja-Ela, Kolonnawa, Kotte, Wattala-Mabola-Peliyagoda, Beruwala, Kalutara, Panadura and Ambalangoda.
The hartal was primarily a protest of the labouring class, 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.
Acts of sabotage occurred throughout the country. For instance on the railways the rails and fish plates were removed. In Waskaduwa the rails with the sleepers were torn up for over a mile, and 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 trees and other barriers so that military escorts were required. Bridges had their planks removed and in a few cases were dynamited.
In response the government deployed the Army to suppress the armed and the hartal was eventually stopped.
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 badly damaged by the crisis resigned in October of that year. The United National Party (UNP) remained in control of the government while John Kotelawala took over as Prime Minister. The rice subsidy was partially restored, and various foreign policy initiatives were undertaken to brighten Ceylon's image abroad, including entry into the United Nations in 1955.
The hartal would eventually the apparent invincibility of the UNP government which would go on to lose the 1956 elections to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) under S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who 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".
Dr. Colvin R. de Silva had identified 1953 Hartal as a class struggle. The long-term effect was for politicians in Ceylon, and then Sri Lanka, to recognize that the laboring classes had power, and that in turn increased the coercive effect and hence political power of trade unions.