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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 23, march 16-31, 2009
The Ceylonese who stirred Madras Labour
(Excerpted from an article by C.W. Erwin* in Ceylankan, Sydney, Australia)

On October 8, 2008, Caroline Anthony Pillai, the last living link to the early Socialist movement in Sri Lanka (and in India too), turned 100. Chennai should remember her for the signal contribution she and her husband S.C.C. Anthony Pillai made to the labour movement not only in the city but in India as well.

S.C.C. Anthony Pillai

Dona Caroline Rupasinghe Gunawardena was born in rural Boralugoda in the south of Ceylon. Her father, Don Jakolis Rupasinghe Gunawardena, was a prosperous land-owner who served the British colonial government as the village ralahamy (headman) and vidane arachchi (local police officer). The local folk deferentially called him “Boralugoda Ralahamy”. He gave all his children English names: Harry, Philip, Benjamin (Robert), Sarah, Agnes, Sophia, Emily Angeline, Alice, and Caroline. Yet he also taught them to be proud of their Sinhalese Buddhist culture.

In the late 1920s, Caroline and her brothers Harry and ­Robert became active in nationalist youth groups in Ceylon which were demanding democratic reforms with the ultimate goal of complete independence. In late 1932, her brother Philip returned to Ceylon after a ten-year sojourn in the USA and ­England, where he had been an active member of the British Communist Party until he was expelled for supporting Trotsky against Stalin. Upon his return home, he converted Caroline and Robert to his revolutionary ideology. This was the nucleus of the revolutionary movement in Ceylon.

Caroline Anthony Pillai

In 1935 the British government announced that elections for the Second State Council would be held in early 1936. Philip Gunawardena, N.M. Perera and others launched the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (sama samaja = “equal society”), Asia’s first Trotskyist party.

In 1937-38 a number of Tamil youths joined the LSSP, including S.C.C. Anthony Pillai who was generally called ‘Tony’. The Party leaders felt that he had the potential to become a trade-union leader. However, he couldn’t speak Sinhalese, and that was a major handicap. So Philip Guna­wardena suggested that Tony get some instruction in Sinhala from his sister Caroline.

In many ways, Caroline and Tony were worlds apart. He was cool and calculating, she was impetuous. He was a Tamil, she was Sinhalese. His parents were Christians, hers Buddhist. He was 24 years old, she was 30. Yet the two became close and fell in love. In 1939 Caroline and Tony were married in a simple cer­e­mony.

The LSSP sent the newlyweds to Nawalapitiya, a hill town about 25 miles south of Kandy, surrounded by tea plantations, to organise the Tamil estate workers into an LSSP union. This was difficult and dangerous work. The British planters used their kanganies (foremen) and bazaar thugs to keep out agitators. While living in Nawalapitiya, making speeches and organising meetings, Caroline gave birth to their first son, Mahendran, and then to Ranjit Sen.

When World War II started, the Government arrested four LSSP leaders, seized the Party press, and banned Party activities. Despite the increasing ­repression, Tony and Caroline pressed ahead with their work. In 1940-41 they led strikes by bus workers, harbour workers, and granary workers.

In April 1942, the LSSP ­underground workers carried out a perfectly planned rescue of their leaders from jail. The LSSP had already helped to organise a skeletal Trotskyist organisation in India – the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India (BLPI). Unable to do much in Ceylon, the LSSP leaders decided to escape to ­India and help the BLPI in the impending mass struggle. In July 1942, about two dozen Cey­lo­nese Trotskyists secretly crossed over to India in fishing boats. While most headed for Bombay, Tony went to Madurai. An anxious Caroline stayed behind with the two children. A month later the Quit India revolt erupted. The BLPI, new to the scene, threw its meagre resources into the fight. In Madurai, Tony and the handful of local BLPI members printed leaflets in support of the revolt.

After the Quit India revolt subsided, Tony sent a message to Caroline asking her to join him in Madras. The family might have been reunited, but the situation was trying, to say the least. She and Tony shared their flat with several young party comrades. And the police were looking for all of them.

In July 1943, the police raided the BLPI hideout in Bombay where several Ceylonese Trotsk­yists were staying. The other Ceylonese fugitives in Bombay escaped and fled to Madras, where they too took refuge with Caroline and Tony in a large, two-storey house in Venus Colony in Teynampet. With the police hot on their trail, Caroline and Tony decided that it was best for her to take the children back to Ceylon.

After Caroline left, Tony moved to a new place which he thought would be safer: a modest outhouse behind Ambi’s Café. Ironically, this move backfired. The neighbourhood was populated by strict vegetarian ­Brahmins. And so the young comrades who were living with Tony had to go to another ­section of town for non-vegetarian meals. Someone recognised them and informed the police, who trailed them back to their refuge and arrested everyone. Tony and another Ceylonese comrade were sentenced to two years’ rigorous imprisonment for “possessing ­seditious literature.”

After his release, Tony returned to Ceylon. But he and Caroline had little time to settle back into the political life of their country. The BLPI in Madras sent word that their work in the Buckingham and Carnatic Mills during the War had paid off. The President of the Madras Labour Union, the oldest and largest union in India, representing the mill workers, was willing to pass the mantle of leadership to Tony. That was an offer that couldn’t be declined. And so Tony, Caroline and the children went back to Madras.

On June 6, 1946 Tony was elected President of the Madras Labour Union. The very next day, an incident in the mills ­precipitated a strike. Caroline and her BLPI comrades plunged into strike support activities. ­After 48 days, the Union won its key demands. But in early 1947, the situation in the B&C Mills heated up again. The Union leaders started collecting strike funds, organised a network of neighbourhood committees, and recruited 1,000 volunteers to form a workers’ defence guard. Anticipating that Tony would be arrested once the strike began, the Union formed a secret strike committee in which Caroline was to play a leading role. The Trotskyists were the brains and backbone of the ­committee.

Before dawn of March 10th, the police arrested Tony. The secret committee called a mass meeting that evening. At the meeting, according to one eyewitness, “Mrs. Caroline Anthony Pillai’s speech infused in the workers a new sense of dutifulness and her speech showed them a new path.” She said there would be no negotiations until Tony and the other leaders were released. The next day not a single one of the more than 14,000 workers entered the B&C Mills. Afraid that the workers would march to the jail where Tony was held, the Government transferred him to a remote jail in Andhra, where he was placed in solitary confinement.

On March 28th, more than 40,000 strikers and their families turned out for a Union rally. Caroline, the main speaker, called for a one-day hartal in Madras in support of the strike. More than 100,000 honoured the call. The mood was militant. Workers erected road blocks. The Government deployed troops in a massive show of force.

When the Government banned all rallies and demonstrations, Caroline and her comrades devised ingenious tactics to take the police by surprise.

On June 9th, the Government declared the Union illegal, seized its funds, locked its headquarters, and arrested 49 BLPI members. Night after night, an army of Malabar Special Police terrorised the mill districts and arrested thousands of strikers. The Madras Labour Union had no choice but to end the strike. Even then, nearly 3,000 workers stayed away from the mills in protest.

Though the strike was defeated, Caroline and Tony had earned the admiration and support of the working class in Madras. In 1947 Tony was elected President of the Madras Port Trust Employees’ Union and the following year he and two other Trotskyist officers of the Madras Labour Union were elected to the Madras Municipal Council.

In 1948, Caroline gave birth to their third son, Nalin Ranjan, and two years later to their fourth, Suresh Kumar. As a mother of a large family, she had less and less time and energy for politics. Meanwhile, Tony was becoming more and more consumed by his expanding trade union responsibilities. He became the General Secretary and Vice President of the powerful All-India Port and Dock Workers’ Federation and President of the All-India Transport Workers’ Union. In 1952, he was elected Vice President of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, the Socialists’ all-India trade union federation.

Though she eventually had to take a back seat to his career, Caroline remained very much Tony’s political partner. She advised him, supported him financially in the lean years, assisted with his union work, and sometimes even pushed him to be more militant. She never lost her “Boralugoda fire.”

When Anthony Pillai died in 2000, she returned to Sri Lanka to spend her last years in Boralugoda.

(*Charles Wesley Erwin is the author of Tomorrow is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon, 1935-48.)


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