When the British announced their intentions

Friday, 3 February 2012 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By D.C. Ranatunga

"Early steps will be taken by His Majesty's Government, as soon as the necessary agreements are negotiated with the new Ceylon Government, to confer upon this country fully responsible status within the British Commonwealth of Nations."

This announcement was made by the Governor, Sir Henry Monk Mason Moore at a special session of the State Council he had summoned, seven and a half months before Ceylon – as Sri Lanka was then known – was granted Dominion Status. Describing Dominion Status as "a very simple concept", Dr Ivor Jennings, Vice Chancellor & constitutional expert quoted the definition in the Cabinet Mission's proposals for India which referred to the Status as "independence within the British Commonwealth of Nations".

The Governor's announcement made on 18 June 1947, referred to the commitment made by the British Government in 1945 "to cooperate with the people of Ceylon in their advance to Dominion Status". He added: "His Majesty's Government recognise that the people of Ceylon are anxious to see this aim realised as quickly as possible and are eager to know how soon they may expect this to come about."

It was on the verge of the 1947 General Election – the first to be held under the Soulbury Constitution which introduced a parliamentary system of government – that the announcement was made. The reference by the Governor .to "the new Government" was the one which was due to take office in October 1947 after the general election (August/September 1947).

The Governor also declared that as an old Civil Servant whose arrival in the Island had more or less synchronised with the first introduction of the elective principle into the old Legislative Council, he took great personal satisfaction in the fact that 36 years later it should have fallen to him as Governor to play some part in assisting Ceylon to reach the final stage of constitutional development within the British Commonwealth. "I should like to congratulate you all on this happy result", he said.  

(Moore had first arrived in 1910 as a Cadet of the Civil Service. He came here as Governor in 1944 – the last of the colonial governors and the first Governor General under the new constitution.)

He mentioned "your Leader's vision and statesmanship (referring to Leader of th House,  D S Senanayake ) who has been giving continuous consideration to the best means of accelerating the evolutionary process." He continued: "In February last he made certain personal representations to the Secretary of State on the matter, which he requested me to transmit. For my part, I felt that Ceylon had a strong case for speeding up the steps necessary for the attainment of her objectives always, provided - and this was inherent in Mr Senanayake's proposals – that ways and means could be devised of securing both her own essential interests as well as those of the Commonwealth of which she desired to become a member…His Majesty's Government has agreed to take immediate steps to assist Ceylon in securing her aspirations to the full."  Thanking the Governor for the announcement, D S Senanayake said that they were all happy to know that as soon as the necessary arrangements were concluded and legislation enacted, Ceylon would enjoy "that full degree of self-government within the British Commonwealth of Nations which the term 'Dominion Status' is generally understood to connote".

Prior to the announcement, the Governor made a brief review of the progress made in the constitutional process in the preceding years. He said that the Donoughmore Constitution that led to the establishment of the State Council in 1931 failed to find general acceptance both within and without the first Council. Much time was spent in both the first and second Council in debating proposals for a more workable and a more acceptable form of Constitution.

Due to the World War II the life of the second State Council was prolonged by two years until 1941. When the British Government made a statement it was met with the strong disapproval of the Board of Ministers who felt that the defects of the existing Constitution were so obvious that its further operation would be detrimental to the best interests of the country. While the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941 completely changed the situation, yet the consequential prolongation of the life of the Council by no means suspended the agitation for reform. In May 1943 the British Government made a further declaration of policy. "It is noteworthy that the 1943 Declaration marked a great step forward in as much as it defined the objective as the grant of full responsible government in all matters of internal civil administration," the Governor said.

Further developments resulted in the appointment of the Soulbury Commission in September 1944.

In the Postscript to H A J Hulugalle's 'British Governors of Ceylon' (1963), Sir Henry Moore writes that the Soulbury Commission's recommendations on the setting up of a Public Service Commission to protect the Civil Service from political pressures, and the appointment of an independent Auditor-General  were of particular importance "if existing bribery and corruption was to be suppressed." Provision was also made to secure the independence of the Judiciary.

"I supported the recommendations though I expressed some doubts whether the minority safeguards would be effective in practice. Also the Commission made no attempt to tackle the problem of the status of Indian Tamil labourers on the estates. In the end the Soulbury Commission was overtaken by events.

Mr Senanayake had shown great courage and determination in accepting the Soulbury Constitution and resisting the demands of the opponents for full Dominion Status, and on at least one occasion he had nearly succumbed to their onslaught," he recalls.

In November 1946, after a two day debate, the State Council adopted the White Paper embodying the reforms recommended by the Soulbury Commission by51 votes to three.

After the first General Election based on the Soulbury Constitution, the new government assumed duties in October 1947. Prime Miniastwer D S Senanayake moved the motion for Independnece which was passed on 3 December by a majority of 59 votes to 11. The Ceylon Independence Act received the Roya l Assent on 10 December 1947 and Ceylon was granted Independence on 4 February 1948.

"We are not paupers asking for alms"

It was the hard work by many far-seeing and public-spirited leaders over several decades that saw the efforts of the Reform Movement in Ceylon bear fruit.

One of the earliest to agitate for self-government was Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam whose address to the Ceylon National Association on 'Our Political Needs' way back in 1917 is often quoted as virtually the starting point for such agitation.

He said: "We ask to be in our own country what other self-respecting people are in theirs – self-governing, strong, respected at home and abroad; and we ask for the grant at once of a definite measure of progressive advance towards that goal. Ceylon is no pauper asking for alms. She is claiming her heritage. The unity and the solidarity of the Empire itself will become a real, living fact when it is based on and derives its strength from the most complete local autonomy and respect for the rights and privileges of all subjects."

"Give us what you promised"

Sir James Peiris addressing the Second Reforms Conference in 1918 said: "And that is just what we ask them – that a reform of the Constitution and Administration is imperatively required, and a vigorous development of self-governing institutions, with a view rto the realisation of responsible government in the country as an integral part of the British Empire. We may be called revolutionaries. We may be called all kinds of names, but we are only asking the British Government to carry out what they have solemnly promised."

"National unity is a 'must'"

Sir Baron Jayatilaka delivering the Presidential Address at the 1923 Sessions of the National Congress said:

"If we are determined to attain responsible government within a reasonable time, we must bestir ourselves and try to bring about that condition of national unity which is indispensable to the realisation of that goal. Full responsible government can only be demanded by, and granted to, a united people. It is impossible to imagine how national unity can be reached along the path of communal representation.    

"Our 2000-year old Constitution of Aryan heritage"

C E Corea in his Presidential Address to the National Congress in 1924 said:

 "We had had a Constitution 2,000 years old, of an unsurpassed stability under which social development brought physical, intellectual and moral progress, a constitution under which  not bodies alone but souls as well were fed and nurtured; which provided not only abundance of fruit and grain to nourish sturdy workers, but also the heavenly nectar of culture and refinement which nourished poets, historians, philosophers and sages, and not alone crawling coolies such as are our masses in this 20th century of grace – a constitution which fostered indigenous arts and industries, today degenerated and despised so that the rare specimens of ancient handicrafts which have come down to present time excite wonder and delight in the world outside, while we ourselves satiate depraved taste with imported rubbish, which we are agonised at the thought of having to forego. That constitution was our Aryan heritage, in common with all Aryan peoples who maintain the Aryan tradition of civic liberty."