The Labour Monthly
Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 19, July 1937, No. 7, pp. 438-445
Transcriptionp: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian R.
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[LABOUR MONTHLY readers will be interested in the account given below of the condition of Ceylon under British imperialism and of the aims and struggles of the young Socialist Party of Ceylon (Lanka Sama Samaja Party). This statement was submitted by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party to the Conference on Socialism in India and Ceylon held at Transport House, London, on the 5th and 6th June, 1937.]
The mass movement in Ceylon for the establishment of a Socialist State and national independence has taken a different course from that of the Indian movement. In India the National Congress has been the natural growth of a great common front of all elements striving for national emancipation and to-day the Socialist movement has a definite place and a historic mission within it.
In Ceylon there had been no mass movement during the last twenty-five years until the young leaders, who subsequently formed the Lanka Samajaya Party, started agitation and propaganda among the workers and peasants.
Since the British occupation of the entire country in 1815, the methods of repression adopted by British imperialism have been far more effective in Ceylon than in India. Easier accessibility of the entire country and the favourable insular climate for the British exploiter resulted in the complete political and economic subjection of the people. The rulers saw the vast economic possibilities in the exploitation for commodity crops of the fertile hill districts inhabited by the Kandyan peasants. Thus the early Imperial policy was to destroy the semi-feudal and self-sufficient village organisation with its Gensabhawa or self-governing institution and to introduce the wage labour system.
The extreme distress and poverty arising out of the unsettlement of the village economy resulted in a peasant rising in 1818, suppressed with ruthless massacre. According to a British observer: “Whenever a district rose in rebellion one or more military posts were established in it. Martial law was proclaimed. The dwellings of the resisting inhabitants were burnt, their fruit trees were often cut down. The country was scoured in every direction by small detachments and 10,000 Kandyan villagers were killed and most of their cattle and crops destroyed.” Many villages were abandoned and the people fled into the jungle.
From 1818 to 1848 extensive coffee plantations were opened up by British planters on land misappropriated from the villagers. The Governor and other high officials were the pioneer proprietory planters. The Governor enacted a law which enabled him to confiscate without compensation the traditional village pasture lands and forest reserves. This land was sold for a nominal price to the British investors. To benefit the British planter, export duty on estate produce was abolished and every conceivable form of taxation, direct and indirect, was forced on the peasantry. Import duties on all imported goods were introduced. Shops, boats and all vehicles were taxed £1 annually. Every dog in the village was taxed. As the peasants were living on the verge of starvation, sufficient revenue was not forthcoming to enable the opening up of estate roads at Government expense, and for the heavy cost of maintaining the British Administration for the benefit of the planters. All major and minor irrigation works in the villages were abandoned. Forced labour was introduced, and the peasants were compelled to work six days in the year on roads in the plantation districts within a radius of 20 miles round their village.
These oppressive measures resulted in a peasant rising in 1848. Martial law was again declared and the military officers and the planters were put in command and once again the wholesale massacre of peasants was carried on for several months after the rising was suppressed. A few British liberal elements were able to raise protests in the British Parliament. A Parliamentary Committee with Mr. Gladstone as a member was appointed to investigate into the grave charges against British officials. This Committee, being convinced of the guilt of the British officials, refused to send a Royal Commission to Ceylon as it would have undermined the prestige of the Governor.
In 1915 the widespread economic distress among the Sinhalese peasants and workers resulted in sporadic rioting, which took the form of a religious clash with the Mohammedans. After the disturbances had ceased, for several weeks the European planters and the police shot down unarmed and innocent peasants. Under martial law several innocent Nationalists were persecuted.
The morale of the peasantry was so badly destroyed by these repeated acts of terrorism that Imperialist exploitation continued unchallenged for several decades.
The masses are subjected to a double form of exploitation. On the one hand the survival of the semi-feudal headman system is used to keep the peasant in bondage. On the other, the peasant is exploited by all the methods of modern capitalism. Within recent years an English-educated Ceylonese gentry of landed proprietors has come into prominence and become increasingly absorbed into the legislative and executive bodies; and in the absence of a mass movement they enjoyed power and privilege as lackeys of British Imperialism.
In 1937 the wages of unskilled workers in Government factories are the same as in 1857, although the cost of living has risen beyond comparison. The average wage is about 7d. or 8d. per day, and in Colombo the price of a bottle of milk is 4d. or 5d. The wages in British factories and warehouses are even less. The wages of skilled labourers have undergone progressive reduction in all trades and industries. Thus after a hundred and forty years of British rule the people of Ceylon are faced with poverty amidst all the material perquisites of prosperity. People are still attempting to maintain life with primitive and unproductive methods of agriculture. The majority are condemned to live and die in poverty, squalor, ignorance and disease, while a small minority enjoy the comforts, privileges, leisure and opportunities which their disparate wealth affords them.
Six years ago the State Council of Ceylon was elected on a universal franchise. Limited as are its powers under the Donoughmore Constitution, the national leaders did not lack the opportunity to influence policy in the interests of the people. Instead of these opportunities being used, the apathy of the leaders in the face of political crisis, their co-operation with the British in imposing hardship and injustice on the people proved conclusively their readiness to subordinate the national interest to personal gain.
The representatives of popular emancipation became the agents of class domination. Blow after blow has been struck at the standard of living of the poor by heavy taxation of necessary foodstuffs, by Imperial preferences, quotas on cheap Japanese textiles. Two years ago over 90,000 perished in a few months of hunger and preventable malaria, reducing the countryside to a graveyard. Yet National leaders were entertaining Royal Dukes and celebrating Royal Jubilees at public expense, hunting for knighthoods and other honours. They relieved the rich of their responsibilities by repealing the estate duties and lightening the taxes paid by foreign exploiters.
Over 90 per cent. of the population are existing on the verge of starvation. The rural economic survey carried out in Kalutara, the most fertile and richest district in Ceylon, revealed 80 per cent. of the peasant families to be in debt. The conditions in the less fertile and malarial districts need no description. The army of unemployed has mounted to stupendous proportions, uncalculated and unprovided for. Half the children of school-going age have neither the opportunity nor the means of going to school. Over 30 per cent. of the children both in the urban and rural schools suffer from advanced diseases due to malnutrition. Our infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest for the civilised world. Preventable diseases annually take a shocking toll of lives. The normal average span of life in Ceylon when undisturbed by epidemics has not been officially estimated, but is in the neighbourhood of 27 years. When epidemic conditions are taken into consideration the average expectation of life is below twenty.
Recent history has demonstrated that until the Sama Samaja Party was organised there has been no real advantage to the working masses in merely choosing every four years which members of the oppressing class should repress them in Council. In spite of the desperate condition of the masses the National leaders were satisfied with themselves and with the administration. This self-satisfaction was derived from the absence of a genuine opposition basing itself on a coherent body of economic and political principles.
All the world over there is to-day a fundamental conflict between two sets of principles which may form the basis of Governmental policy. They are the principles of disintegrating capitalism and those of advancing socialism. Recent history has amply demonstrated the inability of capitalism to ensure a decent existence to the large majority of human kind, in every country there is an increasing body of informed opinion which has become inalienably convinced that socialism provides the only practicable alternative to capitalism. What is more, it is now being increasingly realised that socialism alone can prevent war and give the universal opportunity of a full life.
The growing volume of socialist opinion in Ceylon coalesced into the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. The primary aim of the L.S.S.P. is the establishment of a socialist society in Ceylon. The essential economic basis of such a society is socialised production, distribution and exchange of commodities. Through socialisation alone can the popular needs be fulfilled.
The struggle for socialisation will inevitably bring to the surface the reality of foreign domination. The fight for popular rights involves fight against the dominant power. The dominant power in our social system is helped by the capitalist class, the predominant section of which are the British exploiters. Behind the British capitalists stand the forces of British Imperialism. The greatest barrier to the establishment of socialism in Ceylon is therefore the existence of Imperialist rule. Accordingly for us the assault on capitalism necessitates the assault on Imperialism by the struggle for full National Independence.
Apart from the fundamental objectives of the establishment of socialist society the L.S.S.P. formulated the following immediate demands:
(1) Abolition of domestic or industrial exploitation of child labour.
(2) Free supply of school books to children in primary schools.
(3) Free meals and milk to all children in primary schools.
(4) Free pasture lands in every rural district.
(5) Supply of seed paddy free of interest, to cultivators.
(6) Permanent abolition of irrigation rates.
(7) Abolition of the assignability of Tea and Rubber Coupons.
(8) Abolition of Forest Laws relating to removal of brushwood and the transport of timber.
(9) Establishment of unemployment insurance for all workers.
(10) Provision of work or maintenance for all in need.
(11) Establishment of a minimum wage so that all workers may maintain a decent level of life.
(12) Establishment of an eight-hour day for all workers.
(13) Abolition of the compulsory registration of Trade Unions.
(14) Factory legislation to ensure decent working conditions.
(15) Introduction of a Rent Restriction Act.
(16) Clearance of slums and provision of better and cheaper housing for workers.
(17) Use of the vernacular languages in the lower courts of law and in records at Police Stations; and the extension of this use to all Government departments.
(18) Introduction of a scheme of National Health Insurance paying:
1. Sick benefits.
2. Old age benefits.
3. Maternity benefits.
(19) Steeper graduation of Income Tax on the higher incomes.
(20) Reimposition of Estate Duty on estates of Rs. 25,000 and over.
(21) Abolition of Imperial Preference and the Japanese Quota.
(22) Progressive abolition of all indirect taxation.
During the last six months three of these demands have been partially or wholly won by agitation in the State Council by the two L.S.S.P. members, backed by the mass campaign among the workers and peasants.
Free meals to all children in primary schools; the use of vernacular languages in the lower courts of law; and the reimposition of death duties on estates over Rs. 25,000 are the remarkable victories achieved. Several other demands are now the subjects for investigation by the Ministers for report to the State Council.
The L.S.S.P. has established cordial relations with the leaders of the Indian National Congress. Whenever circumstances permit the L.S.S.P. work in co-operation with the socialist leaders of India. Our delegates participated in the deliberations of the Congress Socialist Party last year. The lecture tour of Comrade Kamaladevi, member of the Congress Socialist Party, clearly demonstrated the solidarity of the masses in the two countries. Her meetings were attended by over 70,000 people.
The circulation of the official organ of the party was 10,000 six months ago. With the new printing press for which funds are now being raised by public subscriptions, the circulation can certainly reach 25,000.
The greatest internal weakness among the masses has been communal ill-feeling, which was exploited by self-seeking nationalists. The establishment of branch societies of the L.S.S.P. in the north of Ceylon where Tamils predominate has laid a real foundation for true unity among the masses.
The Party’s work for unity among the Indian immigrant labourers resulted in the recent outrageous attempt of the Ceylon Governor to deport one of the Party members. Comrade M. A. Bracegirdle, an Englishman, gave up planting, as the conditions of work of the labourers so revolted him, and joined the Sama Samaja Party to help organise labour. This created such a panic among the European planters that when persuasion by them and threats by the Inspector General of Police failed to compel Comrade Bracegirdle to give up his political activities the Governor intervened. Acting under powers vested in him during Queen Victoria’s time to deal with any state of grave emergency, he ordered Bracegirdle’s deportation.1 A protest meeting in Colombo against the Governor’s order was attended by 50,000 people, about half the total adult male population of the town.
The indignation of the masses against oppression and injustice is now seeking disciplined and organised expression under the leadership of the Sama Samaja Party. The leaders of the Ceylon National Congress who carried on an intensive campaign against the Sama Samaja Party have not only been discredited by the masses, but many of them have found it necessary to fight with the Sama Samaja Party against Imperialism and in defence of civic rights and democracy.
Thus the only elements in our society which can wholeheartedly and effectively carry on the struggle against Imperialism are the working masses. They cannot emancipate themselves without emancipating all society from the tyrannies, superstitions and prejudices of class, race, caste, creed and sex, which keep society divided and enslaved. Thus the need of the hour in our country is for a common front of all elements striving for emancipation in the battle-front of socialism, which alone can lead society to victory. The victory of socialism means the political supremacy of the working masses and therewith the abolition of every form of exploitation by the constitutional use of the new State power.
1. The action of the Governor has since been declared illegal by the High Court of Ceylon.