64th death anniversary commemoration today (20 October, 1883 – 22 March, 1952)
On the morning of 22 March, 1952, the first Prime Minster of Independent Ceylon, Don Stephen Senanayake was on the Police horse mare Chithra at the Galle Face Green as he was known to often ride for a while in the early hours, after he wakes up every day at 4 a.m.
Another known daily ritual was, immediately prior to setting off for official work of the day, he would visit his orchid house situated at the front of his home in Woodlands, where he had a large and rare collection of orchids which he treasured and tended himself. He would pick on an orchid that would secure pride of place on his buttonhole that day.
But he couldn’t make it to his orchid house on this fateful day of as he fell off the police horse Chithra, after suffering from a stroke brought on by vigorous riding. His riding companion Sir Richard Aluvihare, riding behind him, a witness to the fateful incident, had seen the Premier lilt in an uncharacteristic fashion, and then fall off the horse.
He was admitted to the Central hospital Colombo where he died several hours later.He was 67 at the time of his death. The entire country plunged into grief and deep mourning and from all corners of the world, poured words of sympathy and sadness.
Here was a man who, during his lifetime through the giant strides he made, emerged the main architect and strategist of the transition of the country from a colony to self-rule, formed the United National Party and gave this country the pride of nationhood – he gave it independence and became the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon.
The nation, unexpectedly faced with the loss of the Father of the Nation, who’s considered more by them as the great humanist who understood the aspirations of the people and worked for the upliftment of the downtrodden, struggled to come to grips with the news of a man of such strength and vigour making such a sudden exit.
This was one part of the story of the saga of D.S. Senanayake that my uncle P.C. Imbulana, who would speak volumes of him day in and day out, struggled to relate the most. A usually cheerful P.C. Imbulana, a founder member of the United National Party who considered D.S. Senanayake his mentor, visibly re-lived the sadness whenever he spoke of his tragic death, even six decades after his death.
However, his eyes would sparkle with great admiration and reverence when he spoke of the life and times of the man he would describe as an unparalleled colossus and would lose complete track of time when he starts relating stories about him.
It was upon the invitation of D.S. Senanayake that P.C. Imbulana entered politics and it was to D.S. Senanayake that his gratitude lay for the principals and system in which politics was then conducted and one that he based his own success on.
It was this time of year that as the President of the D.S. Senanayake Memorial Society, a position he held until his demise four years ago, that he was busiest in his retired years, meticulously planning the death commemoration of D.S. Senanayake, to military precision. He would be up at the crack of dawn on this day to personally call up all in the DSSMS committee to check on all the arrangements for the remembrance function.
Each year, close upon the death anniversary date, he would sit down to pen the annual tribute to D.S. Senanayake to be published in the newspapers as it was important for the younger generation to know the facts. After his demise four years ago, the DSSM Society invited me to write the article on his behalf. And since then, annually, it has been an honour to have successfully fulfilled this task on his behalf. D.S. Senanayake’s contribution to the country cannot ever be summed up in one small article but with the space that we can utilise I make an attempt to give a peek, a skeleton sketch the least, of the gargantuan life of the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon.
The name sans blemish, one that all generations after him can look up to with great pride. Don Steven Senanayake hailed from the village of Bothale. He was the son of Mudliyar Don Spater Senanayake and Dona Catherina Elizabeth Perera Gunasekera Senanayake. Although brought up in a devout Buddhist family, he entered the prestigious Anglican school S. Thomas’ College, Mutwal.
How true he made the words that the schools at the time “maketh the man”. The education he had with Warden Buck and subsequently with Warden Stone, nurtured his inherent qualities which were reflected in later life. It is reported D.S. Senanayake was witness to Buck’s famous farewell speech: “You have learned the best lessons from STC (S. Thomas’ College) … true manliness and truth, courage, purity and all those things that make a man a gentleman …”
As most in his generation and a few after were to experience and witness later, his college had inculcated a self-confidence in him which had enabled him to deal with statesmen of the highest intellectual levels and to be admired by them for his intrinsic noble and decent character traits in life. D.S Senanayake married Molly Dunuwila, with whom he had two sons, Dudley Shelton Senanayake (June 19, 1911 – April 13, 1973) and Robert Parakrama Senanayake (April 8, 1913 – April 26, 1986).
D.S. Senanayake had two brothers and a sister. The two brothers, Don Charles Senanayake and Fredrik Richard Senanayake were also involved in politics. But it was D.S. Senanayake who went the stretch in politics. Brothers, Don Stephen Senanayake and Don Charles Senanayake were prominent members of the Lanka Mahajana Sabha. F.R. Senanayake shunned the limelight although he became a prominent and a very influential member of the Temperance Movement founded in 1912. With his guidance, D.S. Senanayake entered public life as an active member of the movement, achieving much success in receiving mass support from the people. Fredrick Richard Senanayake and Don Charles Senanayake were also the founders of the YMBA.
Fight for independence
D.S. Senanayake initially worked on his father’s plantation and also the Surveyor General’s Department. When World War I broke out in 1914, he joined the Colombo Town Guard. He was imprisoned without charges during the 1915 riots and faced the prospect of execution.
All three Senanayake brothers were arrested at one given time with the other freedom fighting leaders and held in inhuman conditions in “penal cells” which were worse than the ordinary cells occupied by convicts. The authorities tried their utmost to implicate them in the riots but short of any evidence released them after 46 days of incarceration. Senanayake’s initial role as an independence activist was to support his brother F. R. Senanayake. While on a pilgrimage to Buddha Gaya in 1925, F. R. Senanayake met with his death after which Don Stephen Senanayake took his place in the Legislative Council and led the independence movement.
In 1931, he was elected to the State Council and went on to become the Agriculture and Lands Minister.
He took up the challenges of Ceylon’s agricultural problems effectively, and established the LDO, an agricultural policy that countered Ceylon’s rice problems which earned him much respect. During his tenure as a minister for 15 years, he also enforced agricultural modernisation which reportedly increased production output. During World War II he was a member of the Ceylon War Cabinet.
In 1946, after he resigned from his Cabinet post to fight for Ceylon’s independence, he founded the United National Party the same year by amalgamating three right-leaning pro-dominion parties. Within a year of its formation he succeeded and was elected as Ceylon’s first Prime Minister in the general election held in 1947.
Leading the country
He refused a Knighthood, but maintained good relations with Britain and was a Privy Counsel. He boldly made plans to spread out the population, and his Gal Oya scheme relocated over 250,000 people.
He steered the nation on the path to freedom, geared the country to achieve self-sufficiency in food by restoring almost all the ancient irrigation tanks and initiated colonisation schemes to boost agriculture, which were and still are the main source of income of the rural masses.
Upon his untimely death in 1952, his eldest son, Dudley Shelton Senanayake, succeeded him as Prime Minister followed by another relative, Sir John Kotelawala (1897-1980) in 1953, but this nine-year family dynasty ended with a landslide victory for Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike in 1956, campaigning under the “Sinhala only” slogan. However, Dudley Senanayake regained the Prime Ministership in 1960 and served again from 1965 to 1970. Under his family’s leadership, Sri Lanka’s economy flourished. Incidentally the baton has been passed on to the fourth generation and his great grandson, Vasantha Senanayake is today a legislator and received the highest number of preferential votes in the polls.
I wish to draw the attention of D.S. Senanayake’s feat achieved not only in our island but the world stage. I quote: Of his struggle for independence for Ceylon he gained world recognition. I quote the New York Times: “The Ceylonese statesman possessed a rare blend of determination with benevolence that was in large measure responsible for his country’s obtaining its’ independence with exceptional speed in a friendly atmosphere.”
The Daily Telegraph described him thus: “Kindly shrewd and courageous, he proved an able parliamentarian. He not only wielded his own party with the independents to form a powerful coalition government but conciliated his most formidable opponents, the Tamil Congress, to the point of securing their active support.” D.S. Senanayake was widely respected by Sinhalese and most Muslims. However, there was resentment among the Tamil community due to his citizenship laws, which disenfranchised virtually all Tamils of Indian origin living in the central highlands. His bold agricultural plans and pro-Western policies drew criticism for their modern and untraditional nature. His other plans included the increase of hydroelectric power, but he couldn’t implement same.
Achieving on the world stage
I wish to draw the attention of D.S. Senanayake’s feats achieved not only in our island but on the world stage. I quote The Times of India: “Mr. Senanayake’s passing at this juncture might conceivably shift the delicate balance of power and change the political pattern at a time when stability was never more urgent. By temperament and outlook he was peculiarly qualified to guide the island’s destinies through the critical years which marked the transition from political dependence to freedom.”
The Daily Herald, London: “He will be remembered not only as the ‘Father of Ceylon’ but as a great world statesman”; in Sir Winston Churchill’s words: “The Commonwealth is poorer without him and the wise counsel he always gave.”
Published in The Illustrated London News on 29 March, 1952:
“The Death of a great Commonwealth statesman – A wise statesman looked upon by his countrymen as “The Father of the Nation”; the late Mr. D.S. Senanayake, Prime Minister of the dominion of Ceylon. Who died on 22 March from injuries received when he was thrown from his horse on the previous day.”
Both Ceylon and the Commonwealth have suffered a grievous loss in the death of D.S. Senanayake, Prime Minister of Ceylon since that country became a dominion in 1947. Senanayake, who was 68, was thrown from his horse early on 21 March, and taken unconscious to hospital. The news of his death was received on 22 March, a few minutes before Sir Hugh Cairns, the brain specialist, was due to board an R.A.F. Hastings aircraft at Abingdon Aerodrome to fly to his bedside.
The flight was cancelled. Educated at a Church of England College in Ceylon, Senanayake remained a devout Buddhist. As Minister of Agriculture for fifteen years under the Donoughmore Constitution, which granted a modified form of self-government, he transformed the agricultural system of the country. In 1942 he was appointed leader of the state council, and subsequently organised Ceylon war effort. In 1950 he became the first Ceylonese to be appointed a member of the Privy Council. He came to London in January last year for the meeting of Commonwealth prime ministers. Dr. Senanayake’s sagacity, foresight, judgment and tolerance were unexcelled, and under his leadership Ceylon has been the most untroubled country in Asia.”
Sri Lanka has followed a checkered path in the post-independence era. From being the envy of the world, it has moved to the brink of a failed state, only to inch back to a slow path of progress. Eras of different leaders have brought diverse results to the country. Some have taken the country on the path of progress, keeping the people content while others have driven the country to the brink of destruction. It is a sad fact that those who are responsible for such misfortunes seldom suffer themselves but only expose the innocent masses to unbearable suffering simply because they happen to live at that time.
D.S. Senanayaka is an unparalleled colossus, I join in the thoughts of the statement issued by the Ramanna Nikaya at the time of his death, pondering whether a leader of this stature will ever be born again in this country?”
The writer is the niece of P.C. Imbulana, late senior politician and Founder Member of the United National Party and the former President of the D.S. Senanayake Memorial Society. Charnika, a senior journalist is a member of the D.S. Senanayake Memorial Society and a life member of the reorganised Dudley Senanayake Society. Charnika is the Chairperson of the P.C. Imbulana Foundation and a media advisor to several service-oriented organisations. She has written a number of newspaper articles on the Independence of Ceylon and is also the producer of the only English language TV program telecast on national TV – Rupavahini on the occasion of the Golden Anniversary of Independent Sri Lanka.