By D. C. Ranatunga
The media carried many articles and broadcast features to commemorate Mrs. Bandaranaike’s 100th birth anniversary on 17 April. Another major event marked a milestone a week earlier – on 12 April. That was the completion of 60 years since Mr. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister.
The victory of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna led by Mr. B in April 1956 was really the turning point when the Bandaranaikes emerged to dominate the political scene in Sri Lanka, replacing the Senanayakes who were on the scene even before Sri Lanka gained independence in February 1948 and continued to be at the helm until 1956.
“Ceylon, since its independence, had lain for nine years in the womb of history. When Bandaranaike delivered the child in 1956, he slapped it and it cried for the first time for the world to hear. And the world wondered.” This is how D.B. Dhanapala summed up the 1956 victory.
Describing it as one of the most amazing surprise victories in the modern democratic world, he wrote that Bandaranaike tossed over to the people the jealously-guarded fruit of freedom, seasoned with a dash of socialism.
“That flat brown flunkeydom was in the fire. The sizzling of the diehards carrying the white man’s burden by proxy could be heard echoing through the infuriated Press. But Bandaranaike was a man with a mission, a man with a vision. Nothing could deter him from blazing a new trail of freedom for the common man,” he continued.
Dhanapala outlined Mr. B’s achievements during the two-and-a-half year tenure as Prime Minister. He made Sinhalese the Official Language; gave Buddhism an honourable place in the country; revived Ayurveda as a system of medicine under a Commissioner; increased wages all round; gave the workers their legitimate rights; established a Cultural Department to encourage the country’s religion, literature and art; inaugurated a Provident Fund Scheme for all workers; created two new Buddhist Monastery Universities; nationalised the Colombo Port and the omnibus service of the island; rescued the farmers from the clutches of their absentee landlords; established diplomatic reciprocal missions in China, Russian and other Red countries; drove out the British from their bases; and joined India as a neutral force in South East Asia.
“Meanwhile, the opposing forces of brown Colonialism conspired to set the country in flames, create communal riots and bring Bandaranaike to a paralysed standstill. But this uncommon man was not to be deterred.”
He had cleared the way for the reorganisation and reform of the old Colonial system of administration, for making Ceylon a Republic on the Indian model, for changing the island’s wage and salary structure and for making finance facilities available to the rural population, when suddenly tragedy overtook him. Six bullets from an assassin’s weapon on the morning of 25 September 1959 laid him low.
I recall the days when, as a cub reporter in the ‘Dinamina,’ I attended Mr. B’s Monday morning press conferences at his home at Rosmead Place. He came dressed in full suit usually sporting a double-breast coat, the fashion of the day. From a distance we could hear him dragging his feet (he always wore covered shoes).
“Good Morning, gentlemen,” he would greet us. “Enjoy the ‘kiribath.’” We were always served with a ‘kiribath’ breakfast. He did most of the talking, occasionally laughing aloud and also fielded questions, generally by the senior journalists. I can never remember spotting Mrs B.
Period of transition
To him, it was a ‘period of transition’. “We are living today, in fact, in a period of transition, between two civilisations, the old and the new. During a period like this, all kinds of conflicts arise – ideological, national, economic, political. That has happened in the past, and in the past these conflicts were settled by some nice little war here or there. Today we cannot afford the luxury of a war, for we all know what it means,” he once said.
He explained what happened in 1956 was really a peaceful revolution by the votes of the people.
“Amongst various factors that contributed to this result, the chief was an urge on the part of the masses to overthrow a regime which under the guise of freedom, was really continuing a system of colonial thinking and acting, that was primarily concerned with the preservation of various vested interests that paid little attention to the needs of the mass of people and to which independence meant little more than merely a change of rulers. That is what I mean when I say that what happened in 1956 was a victory for the people, a victory for progress against reaction.”
As an orator, Mr. B was far ahead of many others both in and out of Sri Lanka. He was hailed as a good debater during his Oxford University days in the 1920s and the Hansards bear testimony to his prowess from the days of the Legislative Council in the 1930s, through the State Council up to his Parliament days as MP for Attanagalla, Minister and Leader of the Opposition.
Mrs. B in Parliament
As for Mrs. Bandaranaike, she delivered her first Parliamentary speech on 1 September 1960 after being appointed to the Senate following her victory as Leader of the SLFP and becoming Prime Minister. It was during the debate of the first Speech from the Throne of her Government. Her maiden address in the House of Representatives was on 23 April 1965. She was then Leader of the Opposition.
Speaking in Parliament on 16 October 1980 on the motion to disenfranchise her, she described it as “a terrible proposal which has as its objectives, the removal from the political scene by imposition of Civic Disabilities of an individual who is the leader of a major political party in this country, a Member of this Honourable House, and Prime Minister of 12 years by the vote of the people freely exercised.”
She called it an attempt politically to destroy her based on a recommendation of a Commission of Inquiry “so-called and motivated solely by egocentric political ambitions of a vicious few who are the focus of power in the Government of the day”.
To her, it was a deed by a power-hungry minority in the UNP, a political assassination without precedent at home or abroad, in recent times or in the past. “There will come a day when the people would be the judges and the political assassins of today would be the prisoners at the bar of electoral justice,” she said.
During her tenure as Prime Minister, she participated at a number of international conferences and made her mark as an astute leader. At the conclusion of an analysis of her foreign policy in the felicitation publication, ‘Sirimavo,’ Jayantha Dhanapala concludes that she was the most successful foreign minister in modern Sri Lanka.
Going back to the earlier era, reputed Civil Servant Tilak E. Gooneratne, writing in his book ‘SWRD Bandaranaike,’ sees the Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes having much in common. “Mrs. Bandaranaike was closer to D.S. Senanayake in background, equally forthright, with similar conventional moral value, fearless in adversity, not academically trained and impatient with intellectual arguments, but with more practical wisdom than either SWRD or Dudley Senanayake.
“SWRD and Dudley had similar backgrounds; the former graduated from Oxford University and the latter from Cambridge University, and on their return to Ceylon started politics as radicals. They both enjoyed debates and were cast more in the mould of philosopher kings than practical administrators. They never rid themselves of the democratic liberalism they imbibed in Britain.
“They both had the weakness of making concessions when their adversaries had a point and were thus more inhibited in action and sought compromise. They were less successful as administrators than either D.S. Senanayake or Mrs. Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike gave voters a passion for democracy and their self-confidence to protect it for themselves.”
Gooneratne thought the main difficulty of the Bandaranaike Governments was that their economic policies were their Achilles’ heels. He felt that the disputes with Tamils over language with protest demonstrations and violence and a series of strikes complicated the economic problems of the Bandaranaike Government and undermined his administration.
“I believe that one of the most fortunate acts of SWRD’s personal life was to marry Sirima, who is the embodiment of Sinhala womanhood at its best. His greatest political blunder, apart from abrogating the (Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam) Pact with the Tamils, was to yield to terrific pressure dismiss Philip Gunawardena, the Minister of Agriculture, and one of the greatest political leaders of Sri Lanka, from his Cabinet. The Bandaranaikes as Prime Ministers both had their hearts in the right place. They were concerned for the masses and were prepared to give them precedence in attention over their own privileged classes,” he concludes.