remember the day when the remains of our dear departed colleague
Velupillai. Kandasamy, a fellow striker, were taken in a massive
procession of workers from the General Hospital, Borella to the
Fort Railway Station.
The route along McCallum Road (now Wijewardena
Mawatha) was thronged with crowds. Workers from offices,
factories and workshops from the capital and its suburbs -
Ratmalana and Kolonnawa had joined the vast concourse of people
to pay their homage to a martyr, a government clerk who hailed
from Jaffna. The coffin was borne aloft by strikers. In batches
they took their turn as pall-bearers. Kandasamy's final journey
began on the train to Jaffna.
There was not a single constable in uniform to
be seen along the route. On 5th June a procession of several
thousands of strikers, for which permission had been duly
obtained, was proceeding with N. M. Perera at its head, when a
large force of police barred its passage at Dematagoda and baton
charged the strikers. The LSSP leader was knocked down and
beaten while on the ground. The police also fired 25 rounds into
the demonstration: one killed and 18 injured, including Percy
Nanayakkara. (Thereafter he earned the endearment, "Mundaya",
and had to endure life-long a pellet embedded in his body, close
to his spine. Medical specialists advised against surgery to
remove the pellet). The cruel act of repression by the police
had roused the resentment of the working class.
There was Walpola Rahula Thero standing tall in
a jeep; directing the crowds. It was an unforgettable sight!
(Personal recollection of T. B. Dissanayake, then an audit
clerk, 21 years of age. From 1958-64 he served as president of
The General Strike of May-June 1947 is one of
the most significant events in the history of working class. It
was the biggest strike organised up to that time. At its height
fifty thousand workers in the public and private sectors
participated in the strike. At the head of the strikers stood
the Public Services League (PSL), Ceylon Federation of Labour (CFL)
and Ceylon Trade Union Federation (CTUF).
It was the mass rally at Galle Face Greeen that
set off a wave of strikes. Leading members of the PSL who
addressed the meeting were interdicted by the colonial
government. The organised workers came out in their thousands.
Government clerks came out on strike under the leadership of the
GCSU. This was the first time middle class, employees had joined
workers in industrial action.
The British Raj was alarmed. The troops were
brought out; the Royal Navy paraded the streets. The display of
military might was meant to intimidate the working class. It
only served to anger the militant workers.
A Public Security Bill giving the colonial
government sweeping repressive powers was rushed through the
State Council in its dying days. The Council had been elected in
1936 and had long ceased to be representative of the people.
Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore who was Governor of
Ceylon (1944-48) referring to these events in a published
article on his tenure, states: "In 1946 an attempt was made by
the Clerical Service to engineer a general strike in preparation
for the general election under the Soulbury Constitution ... It
illustrated the unwillingness of the Board of Ministers to face
upto to their responsibilities. Despite the threatening
situation, they were conspicuous by their absence. I was in
Kandy at the time and Mr. George E. de Silva urged me to take
immediate action. I went to Colombo and met the Ministers, who
all urged me to declare a state of emergency and exercise
dictatorial powers. Somehow or other they had come to know of
the existence of such an instrument, though it was highly
"I then pointed out to them that they had full
powers to pass legislation of the same character in the State
Council and that if they considered the time had come to take
such action it was their plain duty and responsibility to take
the necessary action themselves. If they did so I would of
course support them in every possible way and they could base
their legislation on the draft in my possession. Eventually they
did so, and indeed provided more severe penalties than in the
original draft in my possession. It was quite obviously an
attempt to leave me holding the baby if such strong action was
criticized." British Governors of Ceylon by H. A. J. Hulugalle,
ANCL, Lake House, Colombo, 1983, p.232.
In the previous year (1946) the country had
witnessed the first General Strike of government workers. It
occurred "at the tail end of a stubborn two months old strike of
bank workers", as a labour historian has recorded.
Government workers struck on 15 October. The
railway strike soon extended to the Harbour, the Gas Company,
Colombo Municipality and various private firms. According to the
official figure, 24,000 had stopped work. But the real figure
was about twice as large. The government refused to negotiate.
Many establishments, were at a standstill. A central strike
committee was formed consisting of representatives of the
participating unions and parties to give effective leadership.
When the stoppage continued the Acting Governor of Ceylon on 21
October agreed to meet a deputation of the Government Workers
Trade Union Federation (GWTUF).
A delegation went to Queen's House to meet the
Acting Governor but refused to come to a settlement in the
absence of the LSSP leader Dr. N. M. Perera, who had been
arrested by the police. It was Pelis Serasinghe, the Govt.
Factory workers' leader who insisted that the LSSP leader should
be released in the first instance. In the end Dr. Perera was
released. He together with the workers' deputation negotiated a
settlement of the strike.
The Government made several important
concessions. But some of the promises were not honoured and
workers joined the second General Strike the following year.
In the 1947 General Strike the workers held out
but in the end the strike petered out. A labour historian said,
"the strike was not only a defeat, it was a smash up." Thousands
of workers in the government and private sectors were victimised.
The General Strike had radicalised sections of
the working class. Dynamic young and energetic leaders to
spearhead the public sector trade union movement emerged. It
would be invidious to single out a few but some names come to
mind. T. B. Illangaratne, Bala Tampoe, who is still with us, G.
H. Perera of the GWTUF, Gladstone Amarasekera and A. Chickera of
the Customs Union, S. R. Yapa of the Surveyors' Union, K.
Vaikunthavasan, A. R. Asirwatham and Geoffrey Gunanayagam of the
GCSU, and Jim Mortimer of the Government Stenographers' Union.
Prins Rajasooriya (later secretary of the CFL)
who also joined the strike, was then attached to the Petrol
Control Department. He recalled that I. J. Wickrama (who became
a leader of the GCSU in the 1950s and 1960s) standing on an
office table, addressed the strikers. K. M. Karunaratne who also
became a GCSU president later, was attached to the Puttalam
Kachcheri then, joined the strike. Last but not least, I would
like to mention that Richard Adhihetty, now 86 years old, then
attached to the PWD, was also a participant.
Many victimised workers joined the campaign
trail during the 1947 elections. They actively supported left
candidates. "The wounds of the strike have been healed but the
scars remain", as one leader reflected.
A strong contingent of the left parties was
represented in the new parliament. Workers in the constituencies
in the western seaboard and on the plantations had voted to
elect 18 left MPs. A campaign for the reinstatement of
victimised workers in the General Strike figured at the hustings.
By the early 1950s workers were on the rise again. They cast off
their passivity to forge vigorous trade unions. This resurgence
was reflected in a shift to the left by the unions.
A make-shift memorial to Kandasamy was erected
at the Albion Road roundabout at Dematagoda. But during the
violent incidents in the mid-1950s the monument was demolished
In a reference to the 1947 incident at
Dematagoda, Premier S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike said, "The shot
that killed Kandasamy sounded the death knell of British