From the Hartal of 1953 to Weliweriya: Bala Tampoe and the Inspiration for Struggle

11 Aug 2013 - Commentary

"The government raised the price of rice in the confidence that this measure would meet with no real resistance from the people, even though they may protest against it… On 12 August the workers and rural poor took to the streets, smashed buses, uprooted railway lines and telegraph posts, stopped railway trains, blocked roads, fought the police in numerous places, and demonstrated their power and anger in a hundred other ways. The government, struck with terror, proclaimed a State of Emergency, and then sent the price of rice tumbling down. This was not all. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, shaken out of his senses, resigned soon after… The Hartal taught other and no less important lessons. It taught the urban working class that their brothers and sisters of the village are indeed mighty allies in any direct struggle. It taught both the workers and the rural poor that, together, they are fully capable of challenging and even smashing the forces of the capitalist state. … The masses will enter the next great struggle with the confidence they have gained from the Hartal. But the next struggle will be against a more experienced and better prepared enemy." — Bala Tampoe, ‘Some Lessons of the Hartal’ written in 1956.

On a recent morning, I met again with 91-year old Bala Tampoe, General Secretary of Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU) at his seaside office. I was meeting Bala to learn about the challenges facing trade unions and to understand the history of the labour movement. Some of us, activists and researchers, belonging to the recently formed voluntary Collective for Economic Democratisation, which strives for political economic analysis in solidarity with progressive struggles, have been engaging the legacy of the Great Hartal 60 years ago and its relevance today. In the interview, Bala spoke of the anti-colonial struggle and decolonisation, his entry into the LSSP underground in 1941, his early career as a lecturer in agriculture, his emergence as a trade union leader in 1948 and his decades of organising the working class which continues to this day. He articulated the historical challenges for the trade union movement, their problematic relationship to political parties and the manner in which parliamentarianism serves an exploitative capitalist system.

Rice and Water

In the course of the conversation, Bala referred to the recent massacre in Weliweriya and related it to his experience of the Hartal in 1953. In Bala’s words:

"You have read about the Weliweriya shooting and killing, of the three unarmed people. Did you see that look of that mother, aghast. For a mother, her son matters more than anyone. That son is hers, he is part of herself. People are shot and killed and that becomes the main issue. What led to the killings? Several hundred ordinary villagers got onto the Kandy Road and halted traffic. Why did they do it? I can tell you, because I was also there during the Hartal."

"At that time, J. R. Jayewardene as Minister of Finance had raised the price of rice almost three fold, from 25 cents to 75 cents a measure. And, in Balapitiya, the poor people - their main product is coconut coir and the price of coir had fallen and rice prices gone up - protested. Women, there again mainly mothers, were desperate to feed their children. They have no money to buy rice. What do they do? When people are desperate in any country, they go to the road or somewhere to bring their plight to the notice of the public. That is not picketing, they just go and sit on the road and draw attention to their plight. A group of women from a village in Balapitiya, went and sat on the main Galle – Colombo Road and blocked it. The Ambalangoda police came. A young Sub Inspector went up to a 70-year old woman who was seated there, and he caught her by one elbow and tried to raise her up. With the other hand she slapped him! In the LSSP, I was then in the Politburo, I felt this was a significant development. This is like a spark that can ignite. We had to carry on a big agitation. That group of women getting on the street, and the action of that old woman slapping the Sub Inspector, they had reached a point, where they are ready to defy! That led the LSSP to call a Hartal, a General Strike."

"Because I had organised that Hartal, I ask, what brought the people in Weliweriya onto the road? Water! From water for people in Weliweriya, I think of water for human beings. Because I also studied botany, water is also for plant life. So, water and life are inseparable. Water is fundamental to life. We are going to start a movement with our union. It is the duty of the state that every living person on this island has access to or can utilise pure water. If they have wells, it should not be subject to pollution by chemicals from factories of transnational and capitalist corporations."

"The issue is water. And no amount of cover up can cover the fact that those people were willing to go and face the army, because they verily believed their wells were being polluted by effluence from the factory. This raises another issue, that in this country if you block a highway even for the most elemental reasons, the penalty is death. That is the situation in this country. The penalty is death!"

Oppression and Struggles

Bala has mentored, influenced and fought with many in the trade union movement. And over the 65 years that span his leadership, the trade union movement has fragmented with divisions, politicisation and infighting. Yet Bala, for his long years of dedicated service, is going to be felicitated in a few days by the National Association for Trade Union Research and Education (NATURE) - consisting most of the major trade unions - on the 15th anniversary of their founding. Bala is perhaps being felicitated, because whether one agrees or disagrees with him, it is hard not to be inspired by him. And for generations to come, trade unionists and Leftists, in this country and elsewhere, Bala and his commitment to the working class will be an inspiration.

Indeed, from the posters pasted inside the CMU office in solidarity with trade unions in Egypt and Tunisia in the context of the Arab Uprising, to Bala’s relationship to trade unionists around the world, and his understanding of the destruction brought by the global capitalist system and horrendous imperialist wars, an internationalist perspective is central. And for those of us who are inspired by Bala’s courage and commitment, the question arises, where does Bala find his inspiration? Here is one instance:

"I was in the United States in 1967. I attended the combined Black power and anti-Vietnam War meeting in New York in a big cinema. You must hear those Blacks. People tell me I am a fiery speaker. But I am like warm water to those fellows. There was a man called Rap Brown, a young student, with a group called Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and they were advocating arson. I heard him. Then he was arrested. I saw it on television, a tall fellow, in handcuffs. And the journalists are walking back with him and they are asking questions. So, one journalist asks him: ‘What have you got to say to this charge of arson, Mr. Brown?’ ‘The Blacks have built the United States, the Blacks will burn it down!’ He gets bail and comes to a meeting in New York in a full hall, with one third of the audience White and two thirds Black. That is the Black Liberation movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. I was there in the back. He says, ‘I am out on bail and when they bring me to trial, surround the court house. They send me to jail, break it down!’ Ha. Ha…"

Whether it is the Black movement in the 1960s or the villagers of Weliweriya today, Bala seems to get his inspiration from the oppressed and their struggles. That is also the difference in Bala’s perspective on politics. Politics is about struggles not parties or parliamentarianism:

"Most political parties look upon workers as voters. And the best way to do it is enroll them if possible in trade unions, which are organised and controlled by them. My whole experience and knowledge of parliamentary politics is that the capitalist system has been able to maintain control of the system politically. There have been dictatorships, which arose in exceptional contexts and ultimately could not survive. And they were replaced by electoral parliamentary systems which trapped the majority of the people as voters. And then invariably the government-opposition bi-polar context serves the capitalist system like a switch. It goes on and off. When the pressure rises too much on one, it goes over to the other. It is a safety valve. The parliament has evolved as the complement to the capitalist economic system and capitalist rule."

As the country suffocates under a neo-liberal authoritarian regime, Bala’s insights about the problematic character of parliamentarianism should challenge us to think and struggle deeper for alternatives. In the years and decades ahead, can the younger generations be inspired by Bala’s commitment to class struggle and revive the spirit of the Great Hartal?

This piece was also published in The Island on 10 Aug 2013