Pan Sinhalese board of ministers – A Sinhalese ploy -Chapter 7

Pan Sinhalese board of ministers – A Sinhalese ploy 

By K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore

Chapter 1

Chapter 7
The first State Council, which came into existence on July 7, 1931, was scheduled to be dissolved on June 23, 1935, but its life was extended until December 7 of that year. This was done to provide the Council with adequate time to pass the appropriation bill (budget) for the years 1936-37; also for the preparation of an electoral register for the forthcoming general elections to the Council.

For the registration of voters, a new procedure was adopted by which all persons entitled to vote were automatically registered. In 1931, there were only 1,599,610 registered voters, while in 1936 saw an enlarged electoral register of 2,451,323 voters. The number of Indian Tamil voters rose from 100,000 in 1931 to 143,000 in 1936.

The slow rise in the number of Indian voters was due to the absence of organized trade unions and political organizations, which could have induced all adult Tamils of Indian origin to register their votes. Secondly, at that time, the people of India and Ceylon were under British colonial rule and they all should have been British subjects, regardless of where they lived.

Unfortunately, the British administration that brought the Tamils of Indian origin as indentured laborers failed in their moral duty to enforce the uniform “British subject” rule in Ceylon, a dereliction to appease Sinhalese communal politicians.

However, Sinhalese political leaders and some historians have attributed the slow rate of voter registration among the Tamils of Indian origin to other reasons. They said that the Indian Tamils were not interested in the welfare of the country and that they were not ready to accept Ceylon as their own country. They also alleged that the reason why the Tamils of Indian origin did not opt for certificates of permanent settlement was because of their reluctance to severe ties with India.

The Sinhalese alleged that the Tamils were communalists, while the Tamils alleged that the Sinhalese were chauvinists. In fact, as far as the Sinhalese, who were in the majority, were concerned, the Tamils were trying to safeguard their community interests and protect their racial identity. But it was not so, it was the Tamils who had been at the forefront of the struggle for the independence of Ceylon and for freedom from the British colonial yoke. After taking up the lead set by the Tamils just after 1915, the Sinhalese began to force them out of the political arena.

The first State Council was dissolved on December 7 as planned and the elections for the second State Council were held the following January 6. Seven seats were declared uncontested. One of these winners was Waithilingham Duraiswamy in the Kayts electorate, the first Tamil from the Northern province to be elected uncontested. Similar patterns emerged as in the first State Council elections, where S W R D Bandaranaike from Veyangoda, Sir Don Baron Jayatilaka from Kelaniya and Don Stephen Senanayake from Minuwangoda were elected unopposed. In addition, Sir John Lionel Kotalawela, the scion of the Senanayake family, was elected unopposed.

In the Northern province, R Sri Pathmanathan, who had lost in the previous elections at Point Pedro, successfully contested Mannar-Mullativu. He retained the seat until his death in May 1943. Gnanamuthu Isaac succeeded him; subsequently, Jeganathan Tyagarajah won a by-election held in May 1944, against the formidable C Suntharalingham.

G G Ponnampalam, Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, and Subbaiya Natesan retained their Point Pedro, Jaffna and Kankesanthurai seats. Sinnakutty Udayar Canagaratnam won the Batticaloa South seat and retained it until his death in May 1938. Sabapathipillai Dharmaratnam succeeded him after a by-election in September 1938. E R Tambimuthu won the Trincomalee-Batticaloa seat but was expelled in June 1934, and V Nalliah won the subsequent by-election. Naysum Saravanamuthu, the first woman member, retained her Colombo North seat until her death in January 1941.

Natesa Iyer contested the Hatton electorate, in the process upsetting Periannan Sundaram, who had won the seat in the first State Council election uncontested. Periannan Sundaram declined to contest and called Natesa Iyer “an upstart”. However, Natesa Iyer won and Sidamparapillai Vytilingham registered victory at Talawakele. Moreover, J G Rajakulendram prevailed at the by-election for Bandarawela’s vacant seat in October 1943. Diwan Bahadur Ignatius Xavier, a Tamil of Indian origin and two Muslims – T B Jayah and A R A Razik (later Sir Razik Fareed) were nominated by the Governor. The Governor nominated the Muslims, as no Muslim candidates had won in the general elections. But at a by-election held for Colombo Central in July 1942, a Muslim candidate, Dr. Mohamed Cassim Kaleel, won.

The second State Council elections brought in several new faces, including Philip Gunawardene, Dr N Perera, both leading Marxist members, and members of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Also, Dudley Senanayake, a reluctant campaigner at Dedigama, won the seat. He was the son of D S Senanayake and succeeded his father as the second prime minister immediately after his death.

Dr W W Dahanayaka won the by-election at Bible, held in October 1944. He, too, became prime minister, after the assassination of S W R D Bandaranaike.

At this point, it would be appropriate to recall a relevant discussion the maverick Tamil political leader C Suntharalingham had with Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan about the ultimate threatening scenario that might emerge if the Donoughmore Report on constitutional reform was adopted.

“It was in connection with the discussion on the Donoughmore Report with Ramanathan that I brought to his knowledge a great inherent defect of a possibility of a ‘caucus’ creating the Board of Ministers. It was when I used the word ‘caucus’ that Ramanathan asked me what the word meant and what its origin is. He insisted on my referring to the dictionary. The Oxford Big Dictionary was taken from the shelf and to the surprise of both of us; I read the word ‘caucus’ had been derived from the Indian word Cau-Cau-Asu.Ithuthan engal kusu kusu kootamo? (Is this our secret confab?) said Ramanathan in Tamil. Appadipolthan irrukkirathu – (It seems to be so) I replied in Tamil. Soon after, that word Kusu-Kusu-Kootam was proclaimed in the Legislative Chamber, and since been the current use in our political vocabulary.” – Eylom: Beginnings of Freedom Struggle – Dozen Documents – by C Suntharalingham, page – 58.

On March 17, 1936, Waithilingham Duraiswamy was elected as Speaker of the State Council. The unanimous election as the Speaker of the second State Council demonstrated his popularity across the communal divide, and how he was held in esteem by all sections of the country.

Duraiswamy was born in Velanai on a small island in the west of the Jaffna peninsula on June 8, 1874. He was the son of Aiyampillai Waithilingham, an engineer who spent some time in Malaya.

Duraiswamy founded the Hindu Board of Education and was the secretary with responsibility for the establishment of more than 100 Hindu schools. He was elected to the Legislative Council in 1921. In 1922, he successfully moved a motion in the Council on total prohibition, resulting in all taverns and foreign liquor shops being abolished in the Jaffna district. He was knighted in 1947.

The new Council divided itself into seven executive committees – Home Affairs (Sir Baron Jayatilaka – Minister), Agriculture and Lands (D S Senanayake – Minister), Local Administration (S W R D Bandaranaike – Minister), Labor and Industry and Commerce (G C S Corea – Minister), Communication and Works (J L Kotalawala – Minister), Health (W A de Silva – Minister) and Education (C W W Kannangara – Minister).

The composition of the committees was devised in such a way that all seven ministers were Sinhalese. It was alleged that D S Senanayake instigated the move to demonstrate to the Tamils and other minorities, also to the British, that the Executive Committee system did not provide adequate safeguards to the minorities. Indeed, Sir Baron Jayatilaka and DS Senanayake and their communal-minded Sinhalese cohorts contrived to obtain a majority in each of the Executive Committees and elected a chairman of their choice. It was further alleged that Dudley Senanayake, who was elected for the first time to the State Council, worked out the permutations and combinations of the exercise. They succeeded in capturing the ministerial positions and formed a homogeneous Pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers.

As predicted by C Suntharalingham before the adoption of the Donoughmore constitution on the possibility of creating a caucus by the Board of Ministers, this materialized as feared in 1936, under the very Donoughmore Constitution. Rivals of Suntharalingham blamed him as the architect behind the mathematical permutations. Suntharalingham, who started his career in the Indian civil service, later changed to the Ceylon Civil Service. Earlier, he had been a professor of mathematics of some repute at Ceylon University College.

“All of us were at that time engaged in the struggle to win freedom from the British. By that time F R Senanayake [second eldest brother of D S Senanayake, who died on January 1, 1926] brought his brother D S Senanayake to my house and introduced me, saying that I should be a friend, philosopher and guide to D S Senanayake in his political education and activities. There was nothing that D S Senanayake did those days, which I had not inspired, initiated or taught him. There was not a single day in certain months when burning questions of the day were agitating in the public mind, that he did not come to my house, every morning and often in the evening as well.” Eylom: Beginnings of Freedom Struggle – Dozen Documents by C Suntharlingham, page – 58.

This might amount to a statement of acquiescence, but subsequent statements by the Sinhalese leaders were of a different nature, therefore, it is difficult to entertain any such conjecture, or to place blame on anyone, other than those Sinhalese leaders.

The resurgence of Sinhalese superiority consciousness was the prime reason behind the establishment of the Pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers. According to Sinhalese politicians, by 1936 they had grown impatient with the attitude of the Tamils and Muslims, when these minority communities continued to place their faith in the Executive Committee system, and were cautious with regard to recommendations for the introduction of government by the Cabinet system.

Sir Baron Jayatilaka, the Leader of the State Council, claimed that they adopted the Pan-Sinhalese strategy solely for the purpose of securing unanimity on constitutional reform, on which the colonial office seemed to insist, but this was not so. The Soulbury Commission in 1944 condemned the maneuver, saying that it was ill-advised, it also caused further suspicion and resentment among the minorities.

Earlier, in 1929, Sir Baron Jayatilaka and D S Senanayake had accepted the Donoughmore reform proposals, saying, “Half a loaf was better than no loaf.” One wonders on the rationale behind their manipulations for a pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers. What was their justification for being prepared to run the country all alone, without the assistance and cooperation of the minority communities?

Unfortunately, the legacy of Sir Baron Jayatilaka and D S Senanayake still haunts the country. They set a bad precedent by organizing a Pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers, which continued in the form of Pan-Sinhalese Cabinet governments, and, in addition, after 1978, a Pan-Sinhalese Executive Presidency.

The country’s constitution was replaced twice up to 1978, but unfortunately, it was never amended with an entrenched clause to restore national unity, to state that, in cases where the president or the Chief Executive is from the majority community, there has to be a vice president or a deputy Chief Executive from a minority community, for the sole intention of keeping the country united and integrated. Furthermore, there is no entrenched clause in the constitution, even in the last one adopted in 1978, to specify the composition of the ministers in the government according to the ethnic composition of the country.

The formation of the Pan-Sinhalese Board Ministers was immediately denounced by the organizations representing minority ethnic groups. The Jaffna Association expressed its dissatisfaction. Immediately, the Tamil leader, G G Ponnampalam, pressed for the appointment of a commission of inquiry into the working of the constitution.

In February 1937, an All Party Conference was convened, to which all the members of the State Council were invited, except for the four nominated European members and H R Freeman (the former British civil servant elected unopposed from the Anuradhapura electorate, in the 1936 elections). The Pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers, though invited, did not attend the conference. Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, the member representing the Jaffna electorate, suggested that a committee should be elected to formulate constitutional reform proposals acceptable to the conference and be placed before the Governor. Unfortunately, the conference was unable to draw any conclusions on the matter of reforms. Subsequently, the State Council members representing the minority communities presented a memorial to the Governor, demanding a balanced representation in the State Council.

Meanwhile, the Pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers, without consulting the State Council, prepared a memorandum for further constitutional reforms. In March 1937, they submitted this to the Governor, Sir Reginald Edward Stubbs (1933-37, who was earlier the Colonial Secretary, during the anti-Muslim riots in 1915 and was responsible for the declaration of martial law which paved way for stern action against the Sinhalese). In their memorial they insisted:

  • On the curtailment of the governor’s reserve powers;
  • On the abolition of the post of the officers of state;
  • On the replacement of the Executive Committees by an ordinary form of Cabinet government;
  • On the position of a chief minister, either invited by the governor to form the government or elected by the State Council. While there was general support for the proposals regarding the officers of state and the governor’s powers, the members of the minority communities expressed their inhibition that the proposed Cabinet system of government would shut them off and would deprive them of any chance of participating in government. Governor Stubbs was not in agreement with the first two proposals as it was too early to transfer the functions and powers to the elected ministers. He suggested that a commission be appointed to survey the island’s problems to determine further suitable reform proposals. On the Sinhalese side, the task of advocating and promoting Sinhalese and Buddhist interests was taken up by the Sinhala Maha Sabha (Great Council of the Sinhalese), founded in 1937 and led by S W R D Bandaranaike. At the time when the Sabha was formed, Bandaranaike was a state councilor, minister, and also a leading member of the Ceylon National Congress.
  • Sinhala Maha Sabha was exclusively bent on promoting a communal Sinhalese-Buddhist agenda in the 20th Century. During the last year of Governor Stubbs’s administration, the Bracegirdle incident created a minor furor. It all happened when the Chief Secretary to the government and the Inspector General of Police, on the basis of powers conferred on the government by an Order-in-Council of 1896, served the order of deportation on Mark Anthony Bracegirdle, a young Communist from Australia, originally from Britain. Bracegirdle arrived in Ceylon in 1936 as an employee of a tea estate. He took a lively interest in trade union activity among the Indian plantation workers. He also appeared on the LSSP platforms in the plantation areas. This outraged the British planters’ community. The Inspector General of Police was under pressure from his planter friends, and he took steps to deport him. Consequently, Bracegirdle was fired and served with a deportation order on April 22, 1937.
  • The LSSP arranged for legal action against the police by issuing a writ of habeas corpus. H V Perera, who appeared for Bracegirdle, challenged the validity of the deportation order, before a division bench of Supreme Court judges, compromising the chief justice and a senior judge of the Supreme Court. The court held that Bracegirdle could not be deported for exercising his right to free speech. This was a memorable victory for the LSSP. The matter was then raised in the State Council, alleging that state officers encroached on the functions of the Minister of Home Affairs. A commission was appointed with Sir Sydney Abraham, the Chief Justice, as chairman. Subsequently, the Commission held that the Inspector General of Police was not to be blamed, as he had informed Sir Baron Jayatilaka, the Minister of Home Affairs, of what he proposed to do. The State Council was not satisfied with the findings of the Commission and adopted the following resolution:
  • “The House condemns and regrets that the Report of the Bracegirdle Commission, as being a mischievous political document, whitewashing the permanent officials and embodying decisions against the weight of the evidence, that are designed to undermine the rightful power, position and prestige of the popularly elected representatives and to reinforce the efforts of the white bureaucracy hostile to the people to entrench itself against the popularly-elected Council.”The issue was left to Sir Andrew Caldecott (1937-1944), who had been a popular Governor of Hong Kong, when he assumed the position as the new Governor, to sort out the fallout of the Bracegirdle affair. But Sir Edward Stubbs, who left Ceylon in June 1937, thought that the only practical course left to the British government was to appoint a fresh constitution commission to look into the issues of the Ceylon government, as the Donoughmore Commission had proved a failure. The Secretary of State for Colonies directed the new Governor to examine carefully the views of the sections of opinion on the island and make any recommendations he wishes.
  • Between January and May 1938, Governor Caldecott received 11 delegations on the subject of constitutional reform. G G Ponnampalam, on behalf of the Tamils and the minority communities in Ceylon vociferously demanded 50-50 representation of seats in the State Council, between the majority community and the minorities collectively. The Governor opposed schemes that wanted to restore the so-called, or alleged, communal representation. Another opportunity was lost by the British to restore the status of the Tamils. The Governor in his Reform Dispatch of June 14, 1938, to Malcolm MacDonald, the Secretary of State for Colonies, explained his rejection of the Executive Committee system. He enumerated the principal defects as follows:
  • 1. Administration has become cumbrous and dilatory, and the committee agenda, which I regularly see, are inordinately overloaded, with a resultant loss of perspective. At the meeting, much ado is often made about small things, while big questions receive to summarise a treatment.
  • 2. Administration has become centrifugal; each committee goes its own way without any common direction or control. Where overlapping is recognized and a matter dealt with by more than one committee procedure becomes still more cumbrous and dilatory.
  • 3. The fact that ministers owe ministerial office to their having been elected by the committees as their chairman means that they have no common allegiance. Their authority is not original but derivative, and therefore intrinsically weak.
  • 4. Even though collective responsibility for financial measures has been vested in the Board of Ministers – the initial preparation of the estimates has been entrusted to the responsibility of the Executive Committees. The board wields the blue pencil but it does not mould the Budget.5. To summarize this summary there is no determining, coordinating, eliminating, controlling, or designing force behind the administrative machine; everything depends upon bargaining and compromise. As a result, there can be no fixation and concentration either on policy or responsibility. He added: “The present State Council is a political debating society rather than a government. For years to come parties might be many and some of them wear communal complexion so that Cabinets would probably be a coalition Cabinet. Nevertheless, there must be a political basis for a coalition, and cleavages would cause on other than purely intercommunal lines. I have attempted only a prospectus.
  • It would indeed be a waste of time to elaborate details until judgment has been passed on essentials.”He concluded, “I am under no illusion that the adoption of my proposal will spell the end of the present difficulties or the avoidance of new ones; on the contrary, I foresee mountains of difficulty ahead for ministers, advisers and governors alike.”On November 10, 1938, Malcolm MacDonald dispatched a formal reply to Governor Caldecott by expressing general agreement with the principal recommendation it embodied – the replacement of the Executive Committee system by a Cabinet form of government. The Governor was instructed to publish his reform proposals and to submit them for discussion in the State Council. In 1939, Governor Caldecott’s proposals were embodied in a series of resolutions, such as:
  • No reduction of the Governor’s power;
  • No material variation in the franchise, which was already in effect universal;
  • No deliberate return to a system of communal representation;
  • An increase in the number of seats in the State Council, and redistribution after an inquiry by a local commission, which should consider how more opportunities could be given for the return of representatives of the minority communities;
  • Abolition of the Executive Committees;
  • Withdrawal of the Officers of State from the Board of Ministers and the State Council;
  • Selection by the Governor the Leader of the Council, who should choose his ministers in consultation with the Governor; and other recommendations. These recommendations were introduced in the State Council. They were all adopted after discussion without substantial modification. Once the constitutional reforms had been negotiated, the long-awaited anti-Indian Tamil campaign began to resurface in the State Council. Ranking Sinhalese communalist, A E Goonasinghe, successfully moved a resolution in 1939 calling for the deportation of 15,000 Tamils of Indian origin, despite opposition from the Tamil members. Also, in 1939, the State Council approved another resolution moved by D S Senanayake, demanding the deportation of all Indians appointed to Government service after April 1, 1934, and to discontinue all those Indians with less than 10 years of service. In 1939, the Minister of Transport dismissed 8,000 Indian railway workers. The Government served notice to discontinue the services of more than 800 Indians in Colombo. They also issued a circular to all heads of departments not to recruit any Indians in the future. Immediately, India retaliated in 1939 by imposing a ban on the exodus of labor to Ceylon. This ban made the 750, 000 Tamils of Indian origin in the plantation sector to decided to settle down permanently in Ceylon.
  • Thus, they became permanent settlers in Ceylon. In the early part of 1940, in the plantation areas, clashes between Sinhalese and Tamil workers occurred occasionally. But frequent clashes occurred between rival trade unions representing the plantation laborers. A wave of strikes started towards the end of 1939 and spread to all plantation areas by the early part of 1940. Another tragic incident that took place was the 1940 Mool Oya estate strike, which brought about a political crisis. This arose out of the shooting of a plantation laborer on the Mool Oya estate, Hevavahata, by a police party sent to quell disturbances. According to Governor Caldecott, the shooting was justified; the police sergeant was forced to give the order when the strikers started assaulting the police convoy escorting non-strikers. The State Council passed a resolution demanding a public inquiry and the Home Minister instructed the Inspector General of Police not to oppose applications for the postponement of persecutions before the Magistrate’s Court until the public inquiry was concluded. P.N. Banks, the Inspector General of Police, refused to obey the order. The Governor took the side of the Officials against the ministers. On February 27, 1940, D S Senanayake resigned, after a stormy interview with the Governor and the other ministers followed him. The resignation of the Board of Ministers precipitated a crisis. When the State Council met, the frontbenches in the House were empty as the ministers sat on the backbenches. The Governor’s message to the Council offered a new basis for negotiation. Finally, an honorable settlement was reached. The Board of Ministers who resigned accepted their offices again.In September 1939, Britain declared war against Germany. This turn of events made Ceylon, too, at war alongside Britain. Like the other members of the British Commonwealth, Ceylon cooperated in the war. The next general elections to the State Council were due in 1941, but the Board of Ministers was of the opinion that they should not take place under the existing constitution. Governor Caldecott reported to the Secretary of State for Colonies of the growing unrest in Ceylon and recommended the postponement of the elections and also for the appointment of a Commission on the future constitutional proposals required for the country. The general elections for the State Council for 1941 were put off for two years. The reasons given by Lord Loyd, the new Secretary of State for Colonies, in his dispatch dated June 12, 1940, was the need for more time to reach a decision on the issue of the constitutional reforms and with regard to the delimitation of the electorates.NEXT: Chapter 9: British concordance and concoctions 


Further reading:

  1. Dharmaratnam Sivaram
  2. Vaddukoddai Resolution
  3. Tamil Women Freedom Fighters

Posted April 22nd, 2019.

Filed under History.

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