SWRD – Statesman to all Sri Lankans

official_photographic_portrait_of_s-w-r-d-bandaranayaka_1899-1959The federal cry is not a new phenomenon to Sri Lanka. It was originated by the Sinhalese in 1925. Bandaranaike advocated a federal state in preference to unitary one for he described the federal state as one in which several co-ordinate states could get together to achieve certain common purposes. He stated that there were three main divisions in Ceylon. They were Kandyan Sinhalese, the Low Country Sinhalese and the Tamils. He opined that according to his type of federation, each government, to a greater or lesser extent, must be limited to its own sphere of action and each must within that sphere, be independent of others. Certain matters, for instance, foreign affairs, defence and tariffs, could be within the exclusive sphere of the central government. In respect of the other matters each regional government had to manage its own affairs. At that crucial time, the Tamils preferred a unitary system of government to that of a federal form. The Sinhala leaders vigorously propagated the concept of federal formula, but the Tamils vehemently despised it. The Tamils wanted representation on the basis of communal interests within a unitary state. Today, the irony is that the Tamils want federalism while the Sinhalese look at it with suspicion that federation may be a ploy to separation. The attendant circumstances of this problem mandate that the country should be poised to find a suitable adaptation of a federal system to satisfy the two warring disputants.

Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was born to an elite Sinhalese Anglican Christian family and was the son of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, chief native interpreter and advisor to West Ridgeway, the Governor of Ceylon the Maha Mudaliyar of Horagolla Walauwa in Attanagalla, during British colonial rule, who named his son after the Governor at the time who was his god father. He was privately tutored and sent for sake of records – as it was a requirement to gain admission to a British University one had to be at a formal school to S.Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, where he received his secondary education. His stint at STC was very brief before he went on to study modern greats at Christ Church, Oxford University, where he was Secretary of the famous Oxford Union and later qualified as a Barrister in England.

As a young lawyer Bandaranaike returned Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and converted to Buddhism in order to join politics, became active in the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) and was elected to the Colombo Municipal Council in 1926. A federation was in the mind of mostly educated middle class Sinhala leaders who led the independence movement around the turn of the 20th century. The Kandian Maha Saba in 1927 to safeguard their interest proposed the formation of a three region Federal System of rule with the Costal Low country, Kandian up country as Sinhala regions and North East combined as Tamil Region; it was justified by the demography of provinces and was feasible before the country gained independence in 1948, but the Tamil elite in power who were mainly living in Colombo failed to support this proposal.

Bandaranaike declared that ‘the majority of us feel that in view of the local conditions, particularly racial differences, the most satisfactory method to minimize and gradually remove such differences is a federal system of Government. Such a system of Government has in other countries particularly in Switzerland, tended national unity. We feel that the present arrangements of nine provinces should remain and be the basis of the Federal System’. He said he opposed a unitary Constitution for Ceylon and put forward the Federal Constitution, as it was more suitable for conditions prevailing in Ceylon. He described the difficulties that could project under a centralized system of government. Bandaranaike said that he knew no part of the world where a Government was carried on under such conflicting circumstances as would be experienced in Ceylon. Those would be the troubles if a centralized form of Government were introduced into countries with large communal differences.

Bandaranaike said that in a Federal Government, each unit had complete power over itself; yet, they could stand united and had one or two assemblies to discuss matters affecting the whole country. That was the form of Government in the United States. All the self-governing dominions, Australia, South Africa, Canada had the same system. Switzerland afforded a better example for Ceylon. It was a small country, but three races lived there – French, Germans and Italians, yet, Switzerland was a country where the federal form of Government was very successful. Each canton managed its own affairs. But questions of foreign affairs, commerce defense etc., matter about which differences and controversies would be at a minimum was dealt with by the Federal Assembly. He observed it was easy at the federal centre to declare what languages should be the official languages. It was really in keeping with the federal form of government where each unit could use one language for its work but at the federal centre could use more than one language.

The Progressive National Party had in its Constitution set out in detail the scope and nature of the federal system. It stated among other things that the federal system to be based on the nine Provinces, each Province having complete autonomy and the Federal Government should be controlled by two Houses. The two Houses were to be called “House of Senators’ and ‘House of Commons’ respectively. Bandaranaike received necessary inspiration and strength for his federal scheme from the Kandyan National Assembly led by A.Godamune and from C.E.Corea, a doughty Ceylonese patriot of that time. The aspirations of any one community cannot be suppressed whether by way of force, democratic manipulations or parliamentary mechanisms. The aspiration of the Sinhalese to re-build their rich language, glorious ancient culture and religion is quite understandable, appreciable and commendable. It is equally true that their national tradition is a precious one. It should be preserved and developed but it should not be done on the liquidation of the aspirations of the other communities. For a nation-state we must create a healthy political atmosphere to promote a satisfactory Sinhalese-Tamil-Muslim partnership in the field of political power sharing.

We have past historic evidence of son cementing his father alive for the seat of power: we have record of history of inviting foreign powers to defeat one’s brother or another foreign power to get rid of the foreign power so installed. Let us not continue this disastrous game: we may make the pearl of the Indian Ocean an island of blood by our internecine quarrels and dissensions and petty minded actions. Power sharing is the only solution for all the ills of Sri Lanka. It could only be done effectively and safely through federalism. The atavistic nightmare of Sri Lanka being divided by federalism was well answered by Bandaranaike himself at a mass rally held at Jaffna on 17th day of July 1926 and presided by Dr. Issac Thambyah. Many Tamils gathered at that meeting fired at Bandaranaike several questions challenging the validity of federalism as a solution to Ceylon. Bandaranaike cleared all doubts and professed thereat that “A thousand and one objections could be raised against the system, but when the objections are dissipated, I am convinced that some form of Federal Government will be the only solution’. His prophetic words will remain valid forever. Let us translate his solution into action.

From 1931 to 1947, Bandaranaike served in the State Council of Ceylon and to promote Sinhala culture and community interests, organised the Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1936. In 1946 he backed the United National Party (UNP) and held ministerial posts from 1947 to 1951. Following the gaining of independence for Sri Lanka from Britain in 1948, English continued to be the official language of the country. However sections within the Sinhalese community, who wanted the country to distance itself from its colonial past, began a campaign to have Sinhala made the official language of Sri Lanka. In 1951, Bandaranaike led his Sinhala Maha Sabha faction out of the UNP and established the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). On the sensitive issue of language, the party originally espoused the use of both Sinhala and Tamil as national languages, but in the mid-1950s it adopted a “Sinhala only” policy. The party asserts it is a champion of the Buddhist religion, which had been attacked by local Christians and Tamils alike during the colonial era. The SLFP has customarily relied upon the socially and politically influential Buddhist clergy, the sangha, to carry its message to the Sinhala villages. Since the 1950s, SLFP platforms have reflected the earlier organization’s emphasis on appealing to the sentiments of the Sinhala masses in rural areas. To this basis has been added the anti-establishment appeal of non-revolutionary socialism.

At the 1956 parliamentary elections, the leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike with the support of extremist Sinhalese figures, campaigned on a promise to make Sinhala the sole official language of Sri Lanka. Bandaranaike after a landslide win at the elections as the head of four-party coalition with a no-contest pact with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and the Communist Party of Sri Lanka was named the 4th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. After his government was set up, he made it his priority to follow up on his promises related to the language issue, and introduced the Official Language Act (commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act) on June 5, 1956. As such, he made Sinhala the official language of the country, downgrading the official status of English and promoting socialist, non-Western policies that profoundly changed the course of Ceylonese politics in the following decades. As prime minister, he took a neutralist stance in foreign policy. He removed the British air bases at Katunayake and China Bay and the naval base at Trincomalee. Domestically, he was faced by economic problems and disputes over languages.

In opposition to the act, Tamil People staged a hartal in parts of the country, and demonstrated in front of the parliament at Galle Face Green. In reaction to the legislation, the main Tamil political party in Sri Lanka, the Federal Party (known as the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi in Tamil) put forward four major demands at their convention held in Trincomalee on August 20, 1956, listed below:

  • The establishment of a new constitution for Sri Lanka based on federal principles, with the creation of one or more Tamil states enjoying wide autonomous powers
  • Parity status for Tamil alongside Sinhala as the official languages of the country
  • The repeal of citizenship laws that denied Indian Tamils Sri Lankan citizenship
  • The cessation of state dry land colonization schemes

The Federal Party vowed that if their demands were not met by August 20, 1957, they would engage in “direct action by non-violent means” to achieve these objectives. They also called on their supporters to prepare for a prolonged struggle.

At the same time, Prime Minister Bandaranaike faced pressure from Sinhalese extremist groups who complained about the delays in enforcing the Official Languages Act. Fearing that violence would break out if an agreement between the leaders of the communities was not reached, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike reached out to the Federal Party leadership, who agreed to meet the Prime Minister in April 1957. The first meeting between a Federal Part delegation comprising its leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, V. A. Kandiah, N. R. Rajavarothayam, Dr E. M. V. Naganathan and V. Navaratnam, and a government delegation which included Prime Minister Bandaranaike, Minister Stanley de Zoysa and P. Navaratnarajah took place at Bandaranaike’s ancestral house at Horagolla. A second meeting took place at Bandaranaike’s residence in Rosemead Place, Colombo and the discussions concluded successfully and an agreement, was reached between the leaders at a final meeting held at the Senate building and was described as an interim adjustment by the ITAK as Chelvanayakam was also not entirely pleased that he had been unable to obtain a single, merged, North-Eastern province for Tamils, as he feared a divide could ensue between Tamil people in the north and the east of the country and the pact left out the issue of citizenship for Tamils of Indian origin. Both sides made concessions by agreeing to the pact, with Chelvanayakam accepting less than federalism that had been demanded by the Federal Party, and Bandaranaike agreeing to give regional councils substantial powers. With the agreement, the government was also able to prevent the campaign threatened by the Federal Party across the country. Despite the initial doubts, the agreement was seen as a reasonable compromise by both sides, and it was believed that both Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam had enough credibility amongst their communities to pass it through.

This agreement was signed between the Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and the leader of the main Tamil political party S. J. V. Chelvanayakam on July 26, 1957. It advocated the creation of a series of regional councils in Sri Lanka as a means to giving a certain level of autonomy to the Tamil people of the country, and was intended to solve the communal disagreements that were occurring in the country at the time. The pact later known as the Bandaranaike–Chelvanayakam Pact was a landmark in the history of Sri Lanka, as it marked for the first time a political agreement had been reached between the leaders of the two main ethnic groups of the country.

As an initial step towards implementing the pact, the legislators of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna agreed on a draft of the Regional Councils Bill, which would combine the 22 districts of the country into regions. The councilors of the Regional Councils were to be chosen by urban and municipal councilors. The pact was greeted by mixed reception around the country, and was immediately opposed by certain sections of both communities.The leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, G. G. Ponnambalam opposed the pact, as did Member of Parliament C Suntheralingham, who in a letter to Chelvanayakam wrote that instead of the regional councils promised by the pact, he wanted “an autonomous Tamil state which would constitute a Commonwealth of Dominion of Tamil Ilankai”.

It also sparked suspicion among Sinhalese nationalist leaders, who saw it as a sell out to Tamil people. The main opposition in the Sinhalese community came from the opposition United National Party, headed by J. R. Jayawardene. Following the defeat of the UNP in the 1956 elections, Jayawardene invited former leader Dudley Senanayake to re-enter politics, and UNP used their opposition to the agreement as the basis of their return to active politics. In September 1957, Jayawardene announced a 72 mile march from Colombo to the central city of Kandy in opposition to the pact. He declared that at the end of the march, he would pray against the agreement at the sacred Buddhist shrine the Temple of the Tooth, and invoke the blessings of the gods against the agreement. The proposed march was banned by the government, which cited fears of violence, but the ban was ignored by the UNP.

The march began on October 4, 1957, with Jayawardene and Dudley Senanayake and the head of the procession. At Grandpass junction in Colombo, the march was pelted with stones by supporters of the SLFP. Opposition to the march intensified further as it passed Kelaniya, and S. D. Bandaranaike, nephew of Prime Minister Bandaranaike, squatted in the middle of the road with his supporters to stop the march at Imbulgoda, in Gampaha. As a result, the UNP was forced to give up the march, and they proceeded to Kandy by vehicle, where they declared they would oppose the setting up of regional councils.

As opposition to the agreement was growing, other factors were causing increased tensions between the two communities. In 1957, the government introduced legislation to place the Sinhalese “sri” character on the number plates of all vehicles in the country. This was strongly opposed by Tamil people, and the Federal Party organized an “anti-sri” campaign. Participants in the campaign went around the north of the country applying tar on the sri character on vehicles they came across. This was met with anger amongst the Sinhalese community, who painted over Tamil characters in billboards around the south of the country.

Amid the growing opposition to the pact, Prime Minister Bandaranaike continued his efforts to convince the people of the country that it was the best solution to the communal problems of the country. He equated the pact to the Middle Way doctrine of Buddhism. However the demonstrations continued, and came to a head on April 9, 1958 when approximately 100 Buddhist monks and 300 other people staged a protest on the lawn of Bandaranaike’s Rosemead Place residence. They demanded that the Prime Minister abrogate the agreement he signed with Chelvanayakam.

After listening to the monks and consulting a few members of his cabinet, Bandaranaike publicly tore the agreement into pieces. Upon the insistence of the monks, he also gave them a written pledge that the pact would be abrogated. In response to the abrogation, the Federal Party declared they would launch a direct action campaign in the form of a non-violent Satyagraha to achieve their objectives. The decision was announced at the party’s annual convention held in May 1958. However, before the protests could begin, a series of riots broke out across the country; SWRD is remembered by many minority Sri Lankan Tamils for his failure to use the state’s resources to control the 1958 riots, leading to many deaths of Tamil people at the hands of mobs that resulted in further damaging relations between the two communities.

On August 5, 1958, Prime Minister Bandaranaike introduced the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958, as a compromise measure to appease the Tamil community. The bill act part of the original Official Languages Act, but had been removed at the insistence of Sinhalese extremists. The bill was passed on August 14, 1958, and it dealt with the provisions regarding education, public service entrance examinations and the administration of the north and east of the country. However it did not satisfy the Tamil politicians

The act was strongly opposed by certain sections of both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, and was eventually torn up by Prime Minister Bandaranaike in May 1958. The abandonment of the pact led to tensions between the two communities, resulting in a series of outbreaks of ethnic violence in the country which eventually spiraled into the Sri Lankan Civil War that lasted three decades. Prime Minister Bandaranaike’s later attempts to pass legislation similar to the agreement were met by strong opposition, and it also led Buddhists who worked for Bandaranaike to be increasingly dissatisfied with him. At the same time, the country faced unrelated anti-government strikes organized by the leftist LSSP and other communist parties in the country. In May 1959, leftist members of Bandaranaike’s administration including Philip Gunawardena quit the government and joined the opposition.

Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike had a golden opportunity to solve the ethnic problem when S.J.V. Chelvanayakam as undisputed leader of the Tamil speaking minorities was holding olive branch. Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike almost made it, unfortunately parliamentarian V Navaratnam, a member of the Federal party who took part in the initial discussions later wrote “(Bandaranaike’s enemies) forced him to treat the B-C Pact like Adolf Hitler treated the solemn undertaking which he gave to Neville Chamberlain at Munich. To them the B-C Pact was as much a piece of paper as was the Munich paper to Hitler; and SJV’s proposal to devolve power to the Tamil speaking North East region of the country was scorned off by the state and painted him as a separatist. The Prime Minister’s decision to abrogate the pact was greeted with dismay by moderate Tamil politician Savumiamoorthy Thondaman and called it the “saddest day in the history of Ceylon’s racial relations”.

Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike struggled to keep his party in power, in his fourth year in office died on 26 September 1959, aged 60, at the Merchant’s Ward of the Colombo General Hospital due to wounds received the previous day. A Buddhist monk Talduwe Somarama Thero, called upon Bandaranaike at his private residence, ‘Tintagel’ at Rosmead Place in Colombo. That fateful morning Thero was given free access without any security checks for weapons as he was a Buddhist monk. As the routine meetings with the public began, the Somarama Thero’s presence was intimated to the prime minister, who rose to greet him in the traditional face down manner paying homage to the monk. The assassin plucked out the revolver hidden in his robes and shot Bandaranaike in his stomach at point blank range. The prime minister was rushed to hospital but succumbed to his injuries and died the following day despite six hours of surgery by country’s most skilled surgeons. A commission of inquiry later found that the monk was manipulated by former supporters of Bandaranaike, who helped him get elected in 1956, but now opposed his moves to appease the Tamil population. Sri Lanka was poorer by the loss of a gallant statesman and due to lack of farsightedness of the Sinhala majority and biased actions of subsequent rulers caused many uprisings and the last but not the least led to bloody civil war lasing thirty years which ruined the country. On a day today in 1959 the first political assassination was witnessed in independent Sri Lanka, beginning of a political culture that took the life of many more talented political leaders of mother Sri Lanka.