SRI LANKA: The debasement of politics after the 1953 Hartal
by Basil Fernando
February 18, 2013
For the purpose of this article I would describe positive or genuine politics as the attempt of political parties and others involved in politics trying to improve the material conditions of lives of the citizens. By material conditions I mean food, which also would imply employment, shelter which would imply conditions of housing, and sanitation, and clothing, those necessities to allow the people to engage in social life with dignity. To this may be added the conditions of transport, which is in the modern context one of the most basic material needs of any society. The aspect of communications, meaning the right for people to receive quality information and entertainment could also be considered essential aspects of what may be called the basic material needs for the people of any society.
The other most important material need is effective law enforcement and speedy justice. This makes life secure and easy. Social mobility is one of the most important material needs. That becomes possible only in an environment where peace is assured to all through the just and efficient functioning of the legal system.
As against these materials needs, I place those cultural aspects such as those dealing with language, religion and race. These can be manipulated towards creating divisions among the people so that their demands for better material conditions may be defeated through the diversion of political attention into the demands of issues such as language, religion and race. To place the two categories in this manner may be too broad but for the purpose of this discussion, I believe such a basic distinction is useful and valid.
In my view the time at which the basic division took place with politics being engaged in the improvement of the lives of all the people, to more divisive kinds of politics was 1953. The 1953 Hartal which is very little discussed is one of the landmark events in Sri Lankan politics. On the other hand, it brought all the people of Sri Lanka together in a protest action which was mainly geared towards one simple material demand, which was the demand for rice at a cheaper price. The fact that this was about rice is quite important to show that at this stage, the people concentrated their attention directly on basic demands common to all. This action will remain historically a revelation of the tremendous capacity that all the people of Sri Lanka developed to take concerted action as a unified people on an issue which was very fundamental to them.
This manifestation of the political readiness of people to engage in a concerted protest action towards achieving of demands relating to the living conditions had the opposite impact on the entire political spectrum in the country. The political parties, instead of seeing an opportunity for harnessing the effort of the people towards a better future, were frightened by the maturity of the people and began to retreat .Ironically, one of the parties which was thrown into disarray in the 1953 Hartal was the one that played the most prominent role in organizing the Hartal, the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP). While one of the party's leaders, Dr. Colvin Silva, spoke eloquently regarding the Hartal (his pamphlet which was written after the event gives a vivid picture of the said protest), the leadership of the LSSP was severely split. The will of the people clearly showed a demand for a political leadership which would meet their demands but the LSSP did have that political will to lead that movement. By 1956, one of the party's most capable leaders, Philip Gunawardene, whose reputation rested on the organization of the workers at the harbour entered into a coalition politics with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party lead by Mr. SWRD Bandaranayke which diverted the attention of the local politics entirely on the issue of language and left out all the basic material demands the people made.
In period following this, the LSSP entered the period of its decline which brought it into a coalition government by a pact in 1964 with the SLFP, and came into power in 1970. It was that coalition government which brought in the 1972 constitution which had the drastic impact of destroying the most basic legal and political structure of the country which later paved the way for the benefit of their erstwhile enemy, the United National Party (UNP). The UNP came to power with an astounding majority in 1977 and used that majority to bring to an end the liberal democratic structure of the political system by way of a new constitution. The core objective of this constitution was to bring free and fair elections to an end.
Social security in Post-World War Britain (1942-1979)
In contrast with Sri Lanka in Britain, which was the former colonial power that ruled Sri Lanka, the period beginning from the end of the Second World War up to 1979 (when the Thatcher government came to power) , was the best period in terms of social security measures adopted by the government to improve the life conditions of the people. It was a period where improvement of the material condition received priority over all other things.
It began with the Beveridge report published in 1942. This report identified five giant enemies of the people. They were, Want, Ignorance, Decease, Idleness and Squalor (meaning particularly poor housing) fighting these enemies was by way of social security. Social security ranged from basic employers' liability for occupational accidents to comprehensive schemes that include income security in the form of sickness, unemployment, retirement, employment injury, maternity, family, invalidity, and survivors' benefits and medical care. As with other aspects of labour law, a progression from the particular to the general has been characteristic of the development of social security legislation. By the time of World War I, workmen's compensation schemes were general in industrialized and industrializing countries, but they were highly restrictive in their provisions for specific cases. The Beveridge report aimed at expanding the scope of social security.
By social security was meant any of the measures established by legislation to maintain individual or family income or to provide income when some or all sources of income are disrupted or terminated or when exceptionally heavy expenditures have to be incurred (e.g., in bringing up children or paying for health care). Thus social security may provide cash benefits to persons faced with sickness and disability, unemployment, crop failure, loss of the marital partner, maternity, responsibility for the care of young children, or retirement from work. Social security benefits may be provided in cash or kind for medical need, rehabilitation, and domestic help during illness (Encyclopedia-Britannica).
Mr. Beveridge, in an interview given in 1952 said that social security was available from the cradle to the grave or in his wife's words from womb to tomb. He objected to the use of the term, 'social security state'. He said what is meant by social security is a corporation between citizens and the state. Answering a question as to whether people can become dependent on social security, he said that is not the case. What the state provided was a bare minimum to keep the body and soul together. Nobody will want to have only the minimum. They will work to improve their own lives, he said.
This period which is usually referred to as the golden age of social security in Britain was the same period at which the governments of Sri Lanka was progressively fighting against all the measures of social security established during an earlier period. What the governments aimed was not improvement of material condition of lives of the people but removing them. Attacks of the trade union rights symbolized the state treating people as enemies. The 1980 crack down on the General Strike marked the brutal assault on the rights of workers in Sri Lanka.
In the attempt to understand what happened in Sri Lanka in the recent decades, it is essential to understand the mentality of prominent political leaders who saw the people's demand for improvement of their own material condition of life as an antisocial demand. What has today come to be known as national security doctrine is the ideology which combats against the people's demand for improvement of their own material condition of life.
The pretext of fighting against the insurgencies became an easy excuse to fight against the people as a whole. The recent assault on the independence of judiciary is an integral part of the attack on the material condition of live of the people. Judicial protection of individual liberties is an essential condition for people to struggle on to improve their quality of life. Similarly the attacks on journalists is directed towards deprivation of reliable information to the people, which is an essential condition for people to device their own strategies to maintain and to improve their lives.
Today the idea of social security has disappeared from political jargon. Instead words like national security and national sovereignty are been drummed day and night. What would national security means ,when people's social security is denied? What is national sovereignty when people are progressively impoverished and enslaved?
In 1953 people showed their ability to fight for improvement of their conditions of life. Ever since then the political parties have lived in fear of the people. Diverting the people's attention from their own wants is the aim of political propaganda now. Creating tensions on language, race and religion is an art in which the politicians have gained expertise.
The discovery of ways by which people can recreate a political system which aims to improve their condition of lives is the challenge that the people are faced with.
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