Reminiscing: When Chinese and Indian leaders visited Sri Lanka

Saturday, 7 March 2015 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Zhou Enlai addresses Parliament. Speaker H.S. Ismail and Vice Premier He Long are seated     By D.C. Ranatunga At a time when Sri Lanka’s relationship with India and China has created a lot of discussion, I go back to nearly six decades. It was year 1957. Leading a coalition under the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna banner, SLFP Leader S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had won a landslide victory over the UNP in April 1956 and formed the Government. He had announced that the Government would follow a non-aligned policy in foreign affairs. Leaders of neighbouring countries were invited to visit Ceylon, as the country was then known. It was significant that within a space of four months in early 1957, the Prime Ministers of India and China were here as State guests.   Zhou Enlai’s visit First to come was Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (the name was then spelt as Chou En Lai) who was invited to participate at the ninth celebrations of Sri Lanka’s Independence on 4 January 1957. He came with Vice Premier He Long. The visit paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Educationist/Parliamentarian/social worker Wilmot A. Perera was our first Ambassador in China. Being attached to the news desk of the ‘Dinamina’, I was assigned to cover the Chinese Premier’s visit. It turned out to be a wonderful experience travelling with the tour party. Leader of the House C.P. de Silva was the Minister-in-Attendance. Parliamentary Secretary (as Deputy Ministers were then designated) of Defence and External Affairs T.B. Subasinghe was also in the official party. The press corps was quite large. On his visit to Polonnaruwa, I remember how Zhou Enlai wanted the car stopped at Pasyala when the cadju girls started cheering as the motorcade passed. He got down and walked into a small house and spent a little time. The party stayed at Polonnaruwa rest-house which a few years earlier, had been done up for the Queen’s visit. He was keen to see the colonists and walked along the dusty roads to meet colonists. The press photographers had a field day and he was always willing to oblige. In the office Volkswagen we travelled were the big burly veteran photographer Wally Perera and Reggie Siriwardena who was then with the ‘Daily News’. (Reggie never stepped out of office on coverages, but this was a special occasion). Going up Sigiriya was yet another unforgettable experience. Zhou Enlai insisted on climbing to the top. It was a good warm day. He removed his tunic coat and walked up. Though Professor Senerat Paranavitana had retired by then, he was on the spot to explain all about Sigiriya. Civil servant James de Lanerolle had just taken over as Archaeological Commissioner. The highlight of the visit was Zhou Enlai’s address to Parliament. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate attended the event held in old Parliament (present Presidential Secretariat). Speaker H.S. Ismail presided over the special session held in the lobby which was specially arranged for the occasion. Not many heads of State have addressed Parliament. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be the first Indian leader to do so in Sri Lanka.   Nehru greets the crowds     Shri Nehru’s visit The second leader to visit Sri Lanka in 1957 was Indian Prime Minister, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru. He was here in May, the month of Vesak. He was accompanied by daughter Indira, who a few years later became prime minister. The highlight of his visit was a trip to Anuradhapura where a large crowd was present to listen to his address. Along with the Minister-in-Attendance, Cultural Affairs Minister Jayaweera Kuruppu, was Parliamentary Secretary – Finance Ministry, Nimal Karunatilleke. The latter translated Sri Nehru’s speech and did a grand job. (He was himself a journalist at ‘Lankadeepa’ prior to his university career at Peradeniya, and later became MP for Matale at the 1956 general election.) The party went up to Anuradhapura by special train on 18 May. I covered Nehru’s visit too and the press battalion was also taken in the ‘special’. Shri Nehru, who had been fascinated by the Samadhi Buddha statue at Anuradhapura during one of his earlier visits, went there and contemplated for a while. He had the highest regard for the Buddha and is said to have kept a replica of the Samadhi statue when he was in prison. Prime Minister Bandaranaike hosted an official reception at Temple Trees, as he did for the Chinese Premier. Incidentally, Bandaranaike did not occupy Temple Trees though it was the prime minister’s official residence and stayed in his own residence at Rosmead Place. That’s where he held the weekly Monday morning press conferences serving ‘kiribath’ to the journalists. Indian Premier’s address at Anuradhapura. Daughter Nehru is seated on the right