‘War or Peace…..‘

War or Peace in Sri Lanka,” Chapter 1, part 2

From T.D.S.A. Dissanayake’s ‘War or Peace…..

DS grooms Dudley, SWRD leaves UNP in anger

This Sunday we have pleasure in publishing the third instalment from Chapter I “Sri Lanka: What Went Wrong?” of the forthcoming book “War or Peace in Sri Lanka” (Volume IV) written by T.D.S.A. Dissanayake. The book will be printed simultaneously in Colombo and New Delhi in October 2003.

The author who is currently working behind LTTE lines in the North-Eastern Province is completing Chapter II “Peace: at what cost?” He will greatly appreciate readers communicating their views on the current serial, to enable him to add the final touches to Chapter I. Any correspondence may be sent to his home: 20 De Fonseka Place, Colombo 5. Sri Lanka:

By 1951 Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake and the leader of the House S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike were at loggerheads. These two leaders had two different political philosophies. D.S. Senanayake was pro-Establishment whereas S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was anti-Establishment ever since his days at Oxford. D.S. Senanayake was a visionary. His vision was how to obtain Independence from the British without bloodshed?

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was also a visionary. His vision was what Ceylon should be after Independence? For example he advocated a bloodless revolution with power shifting from the over-privileged elite to the under privileged hoi polloi.

What the Leader of the House S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had learnt at Oxford was intellectually similar to what Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India had learnt at Cambridge, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan of Pakistan had learnt at the London School of Economics (of the University of London) and President Manuel Rozas of the Philippines had learnt at Harvard. However Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake was a high school drop out though he was unquestionably a very able Prime Minister.

Thus he was devoid of an intellectual base which is a priceless asset for any Prime Minister or executive President (Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and President Ranasinghe Premadasa were also high school drop outs. They too were unquestionably able. They too had the safe deficiency, namely the absence of an intellectual base).

Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake and Leader of the House S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike were getting further and further apart since Independence. To compound the crisis, the Prime Minister courted disaster when he began to groom his son Dudley Senanayake a Cabinet Minister since 1947, as the next Prime Minister at the expense of the heir apparent S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, a Minister since 1936 and the Leader of the House since 1947.

Finally Bandaranaike, left the UNP in anger in 1951 to form his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The next General Election was scheduled for sometime in 1952 but before that Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake died suddenly in March 1952, when he suffered a massive stroke while on horseback. He was succeeded by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake who won the emotionally charged General Election of 1952, held shortly after the State Funeral. The victory was by a landslide.

In the context of national unity, a cardinal policy of the late Prime Minister, the UNP and the Tamil Congress received a massive mandate in the Northern Province and the Eastern Province at the General Election of 1952. S. Natesan (UNP) defeated S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (Federal Party) at Kankesanthurai and was made a Cabinet Minister. V. Nalliah (UNP) won Kalkudah and was also made a Cabinet Minister. Most leading candidates from the Federal party for example Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan (Jaffna), A. Amirthalingam (Point Pedro) lost badly.

At the General Election of 1952, like at the General Election of 1947, every political party, large or small, advocated Sinhala and Tamil as the Official Languages of Ceylon. All Parties advocated a gradual change except the SLFP which pledged to do so in 24 hours. Since 1952 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had to languish in the political wilderness,although he was the Leader of the Opposition. However, in 1953 the hartal (stoppage of work) organised by the LSSP to protest against the removal of the rice subsidy became violent.

The Army had to open fire several times and during that crisis Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was taken ill with a chronic stomach ailment which he got during times of stress. He resigned and was taken to London for medical attention. He was succeeded by the Leader of the House, Sir John Kotelawala, who can best be described as a playboy. In fairness to him, he was a good freedom fighter and a capable Cabinet Minister but was totally impervious to the winds of change in Ceylon.

Later in 1953 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of neighbouring India enunciated his language policy in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of the Parliament of India), he said, “Today English is the Official Language of India. It is spoken in every State in the Union. Twentyfive years from now an Indian language has to take the place of English. Today Hindi is spoken widely but only by 42% of our people.

For example Hindi is spoken widely in North India but is hardly spoken in South India. It is only when Hindi is spoken throughout South India that we can perceive it to be the Official Language of India. In my judgement that will take one generation, hence my reference to twenty five years. We cannot do so any earlier.” (Hansard: October 1953)

There was hardly any response in Ceylon to that policy decision except by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. He explained to his audiences what Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said in the Lok Sabha. He then said that whereas in India only 42% spoke Hindi, in Ceylon 72% spoke Sinhala. Therefore, he concluded:

“Mama Aga Methi unoth (If I become Prime Minister)

peya visi hatherakin (in twenty four hours)

Sinhala pamanak, Sinhala pamanak (Sinhala only, repeat Sinhala only)

Apey rajaya bashawa keranawa (will be made our Official Language.)” (Thunderous applause.)

That was the ultimate of being a demagogue but it was the principal theme of campaigning by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1954. He drew massive and enthusiastic crowds wherever he went. It was dearly a populist move amongst the Sinhalese. Therefore at the annual Convention of the SLFP in December 1954, he proposed that henceforth Sinhala Only be made official policy of the SLFP. That proposal was accepted with much enthusiasm.

In direct contrast, throughout 1954 Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala in customary pithy language said repeatedly at public meetings amongst the Sinhalese, “Those of you who want to start a communal racket like the SLFP do not know what it entails. The UNP composes of all communities who inhabit the Island, as reflected in its name. As long as I am head of the UNP the principle of parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil which we adopted when our Party was formed in 1946 will remain.”

Amongst the Tamils, he dropped some bricks in characteristic style, while addressing meetings in Jaffna and in Delft. Quite clearly S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was scoring heavily with his Sinhala Only policy. Therefore within the Working Committee of the UNP there was much agitation led by J. R. Jayewardene, Leader of the House, to change the language policy of the UNP. Sir John Kotelawala resisted those moves but finally yielded to the populist move amongst the Sinhalese. The UNP formally adopted the Sinhala Only policy, proposed at their annual Convention held in Kelaniya in January 1956 by J. R. Jayewardene who was the Member of Parliament for Kelaniya.

That proposal was carried by acclamation. All elected Tamil MPs from the UNP stormed out of the Convention and immediately resigned from the UNP. Sir John Kotelawala wound up the Convention with a political somersault, incompatible with his personality, claiming,

“I want Sinhala to be the sole official language of Ceylon as long as the sun and the moon last.”

Thus in a short space of two years, the two largest political parties amongst the Sinhalese changed their language policy radically by strictly adhering to democratic norms. However both the SLFP and the UNP were unmindful that they had sown the wind and would have to reap the whirlwind. In fact the only political parties which acted with wisdom on the sensitive language issue were the Marxist LSSP and the Community Party. The LSSP campaigned in all nine Provinces on the premise of parity of status for Sinhala and Tamil, which was their language policy since the inception of their Party in 1935. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, earlier Member of Parliament for Wellawatte – Galkissa, went a step further and campaigned on the basis,

“Either we will have two languages and remain one nation, or we will have one language and become two nations!”

In the North and in the East mass support shifted visibly in favour of the Federal Party, which had fared disastrously in the General Election of 1952 and even S. J. V. Chelvanayakam had lost his seat. Now he was looked upon as a prophet for having predicted so accurately the behaviour of the Sinhalese in respect to the Tamils.

At the General Election of 1956 the complex dichotomy of Ceylon, the English speaking elite and the Sinhala and Tamil speaking hoi polloi each living in a world of their own making, underwent a cultural revolution. The UNP Administration under Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala had come under many Western influences both cultural and otherwise. In the prevailing mood of the electorate and a campaign spearheaded by the Maha Sangha, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was swept into power.

In Parliament Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike himself initiated the Official Language Act of 1956. The Bill was supported enthusiastically by the SLFP and allies in Government and the UNP in Opposition. Thus the gunpowder (fifty-fifty) and the fire (Sinhala Only) were put together. The explosion ripped Ceylon apart. Sri Lanka has not yet recovered from that explosion and whether it ever will is largely a matter of opinion.

The first ever Sinhalese-Tamil riots took place when the Official Language Act of 1956 became law. In 1957 it was obvious that a riot at a national level would take place at any moment. It was against that background that Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and S. J. V. Chelvanayakam began negotiating for some kind of equitable solution.

They reached an honourable agreement which was known as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact. That Pact was assailed by the Maha Sangha who had brought Bandaranaike to power in 1956. It was also assailed by a section of the UNP led by J. R. Jayewardene who was not a Member of Parliament because he was trounced in Kelaniya in 1956. On the issue of the reasonable use of Tamil, in the North and in the East, J. R. Jayewardene claimed that Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was betraying the Sinhalese! Therefore he proposed a protest march from Colombo to Kandy which would culminate at the Temple of the Tooth where they would pray for the Sinhalese!! The behaviour of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was even more revolting.

Under relentless pressure, without even consulting S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, he publicly tore up the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact in March 1958 in the presence of hundreds of members of the Maha Sangha who were occupying the lawns of his private residence in Rosmead Place and refused to leave till he abrogated the Pact. Two months later Sinhalese-Tamil riots broke out at the national level. It was fought with savage fury, as reflected in the following citation:


From T.D.S.A.Dissanayake’s new volume of “War or Peace… “: 

Was early universal franchise a disaster?

The well-known author T. D. S. A. Dissanayaka is now writing his fourteenth book “War or Peace in Sri Lanka” (Volume IV) to be released in October 2003. The Sri Lanka edition will be printed in Colombo and the international edition printed simultaneously in New Delhi.

The Sunday Observer has obtained exclusive rights to publish three instalments of Chapter I “Sri Lanka: What Went Wrong?” Our publication is in conjunction with the crucial conference in Tokyo to be held on June 9th and 10th when forty nations and twenty international organisations will gather to pledge economic assistance to Sri Lanka. Chapter I

Sri Lanka – What Went Wrong?

At the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, the British were so fond of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known. That enchantment resulted in the British referring to Ceylon as “The Pearl of the Orient”. The affection the British had for Ceylon was due to several factors. For example, the British raved over our scenic beauty. (Today British tourists to Sri Lanka still do so.) The British admired the stability of the Crown Colony of Ceylon.

Besides the British admired how fluently the Ceylonese spoke English, adapted themselves to the British public school system, played cricket, and appreciated the finer points of the British way of life. By the same token the British could never comprehend a complex dichotomy in Ceylon. The English speaking minority and the Sinhala and Tamil speaking majority lived in two separate worlds, of their own making.

Against this background, a very pertinent reference to Ceylon in 1930 was the internal memorandum prepared by Sir Charles Jeffries, later Under-Secretary for Colonial Affairs.

“Ceylon provides the classic example of how with good sense and goodwill two nations can carry through the extremely difficult and delicate transition from a subject-ruler relationship to an equal partnership.

Ceylon has been the prototype and model for the new Commonwealth hopefully in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In Ceylon we British learnt, by trial and error, the art of Colonial administration. They also learnt the wisdom of learning systematically the art of self-governance, which is essentially a process of trial and error.”

Taking all these encomiums into account, the British decided to give special treatment to the Crown Colony of Ceylon. Therefore in 1931 universal franchise became a gift to Ceylon from the British, under the Donoughmore Constitution. No leaders of Ceylon had agitated for it in the Legislative Council from 1924-1931. At best there were the lone voices of the Labour Leader, A. E. Goonesinghe and George E. de Silva, the Member for Kandy. Nowhere in the British Empire was the experiment carried out in the decade of the nineteen thirties.

The first General Election in Ceylon under universal franchise was held in 1931. The new State Council of Ceylon had fifty seats to be filled by election. Forty six seats returned duly elected Members. In the electorates of Jaffna, Kankesanturai, Kayts and Point Pedro, the Tamil community which accounted for approximately 95% of the voters in those constituencies, boycotted the General Election because they perceived the Donoughmore reforms were inadequate.

For example the idealistic Jaffna Youth Congress led by Handy Perimbanayagam wanted self-rule immediately. Others bemoaned that in the last Legislative Council, which was elected on a restricted franchise based on property and educational qualification, there were eight elected Tamil Members in a Council of twenty nine elected Members. In the new State Council, there were only seven Members in a House of fifty elected Members.

Yet others claimed that universal franchise being introduced so suddenly, just three years after it was introduced to Britain, was a disaster. This created the impression, both amongst the British rulers and the Sinhalese, that the people of the Jaffna peninsula where over 50% of the Tamil population lived according to the Census of 1931, were opposed to universal franchise.

In fairness to the Ceylon Tamil community, it must be added that outside the Jaffna peninsula they participated enthusiastically in the General Election of 1931. For example G. G. Ponnambalam, then a young, up and coming politician who had taken a First at Cambridge and had done brilliantly as a law student at Lincoln’s Inn, wanted to contest either the seats of Jaffna or Point Pedro. He could not do so because of the all pervading boycott.

Therefore he decided to contest the seat of Mannar where he was altogether an alien. He lost narrowly to a candidate who was a resident of Mannar. In Colombo North, Dr. R. (later Sir Ratnajothi) Saravanamuttu won easily. In Trincomalee, M. M. Subramanium formerly an elected Member of the Legislative Council, was duly elected. In Batticaloa South, H. M. (later Sir Mohamed) Macan Markar defeated E. R. Tambimuttu, formerly an elected Member of the Legislative Council.

The Burghers, Christians from all ethnic groups and Ceylon Tamils, in that order, were the pampered minorities in the Crown Colony of Ceylon. They respectively accounted for 0.6%, 9.1% and 11.2% of the population according to the Census of 1931. The British systematically played these minorities against the majority, the Sinhalese Buddhists, who accounted for 64.3% of the population.

With the introduction of adult franchise, the Sinhalese found an equitable representation in the State Council. Nevertheless in the Public Service, the British continued to recruit Burghers, Christians and Ceylon Tamils in large numbers and Sinhalese Buddhists as few as practicable. That pernicious policy of divide and rule continued unabated until Independence in 1948 because it was part and parcel of British policy throughout their Empire. Even after Independence, in the Mercantile sector which was dominated by the British, Company Directors continued the policy of giving favoured treatment to Burghers, Christians and Tamils, be they of Ceylonese or Indian origin. All these considerations filled the hearts of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority with resentment.

For the first time, in 1931 Ceylon had a Legislature which represented a cross section of our population, besides being elected on the basis of universal franchise. The General Election of 1931 was indeed interesting. The Sinhalese accounting for 69.2% of the population were delighted that three quarter of the State Council consisted of their kind. (In the Legislative Council, half were Sinhalese).

The Sinhalese Christians who accounted for approximately 5% of the population were in clover. Twelve State Councillors were Sinhalese Christians. The Muslims could not understand why they won only one seat when their community accounted for 6.9% of the population. The Indian Tamils who accounted for 12.0% of the population also did not fare too well and won only two seats. The Ceylon Tamils bemoaned that adult franchise was not workable in our nation!

Very significantly the Burgher community could not conceivably win a seat because they accounted for only 0.6% of the population. Their sole representative in the State Council was one of the eight Appointed Members. However the Burgher community accepted reality. Some Burghers who went to Britain for higher studies or training, never came back. A small number migrated to Australia. After Independence they migrated to Australia, in large numbers.

The British were embarrassed by the boycott of the General Election in the North. Therefore Sir Edward Stubbs, the Governor of Ceylon, used his influence on the Ceylon Tamil community, and in 1934 by-elections were held in the Jaffna peninsula.

Accordingly Arunachalam (later Sir Arunachalam) Mahadeva (Jaffna), S. Natesan (Kankesanturai), Nevins Selvadurai (Kayts) and G. G. Ponnambalam (Point Pedro) were duly elected.


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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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