|Tuesday, 17 September 2002|
A concise biography of JR Jayewardene
by Padma Edirisinghe
Today is the 96th birth anniversary of this great statesman whose life spanned from 1906 to 1996. This article sketches briefly the main events of his life. A seminar and exhibition of photographs and documents connected to his life will be staged today and tomorrow at the JRJ Centre. Writer is a co-organizer of the exhibition.
The cultural paradigm of the Orient is structured in such a way that no biography of anyone (of any rank) denizening the eastern hemisphere is complete without some salient details of the family background. Sensationalism is the fashion of contemporary times especially where news coverage is concerned and in keeping with this vogue let this account begin by the comment that the Jayewardene family initially is not of pure Sinhala descent. And let myself take coverage for this revelation under this passage quoted from 'J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka' by K.M.De Silva and Howard Higgins.
"Don Adrian.. (the first recorded ancestor of the Jayewardene
family).. was descended from a family of the Chetty community of traders
which had migrated from the Cormondal coast in India.... in mid 17th
Century and settled in the vicinity of Colombo. Two or three generations
before the birth of Don Adrian a male of his family had married a
Sinhalese by the name of Jayewardene from the village of Welgama, Hanwella
and taken on the Sinhala nomenclature.
Perhaps the source of their own information of this matter is the Govt. Gazette of 15th May, 1830 that not only publicized the death of Don Adrian Wijesinghe Jayewardene, the powerful progenitor of the family line but in an unprecedented way went on to eulogise him.
Here is a quote from the Gazette, "The Mudaliyar was descended from a respectable and wealthy family of the Chitty (Chetty) and merchant caste who migrated from the Cormondal coast and settled in Colombo".
To mitigate any sense of hurt that those close to the Jayewardene family may be subject to, by this revelation let it be stated that the hybrid character of many members of this island race is more often the rule than the exception. At the upper strata a sample can be given from the Bandaranaike family whose ancestor had come over from South India only a century earlier (according to same source) while progenitors of thousands of people from the South West littoral now calling themselves pure-bred Sinhalese have become more Sinhala than the Sinhalese of the highlands, had simply crossed the waters from different regions of South India at various periods of our history some as late as the 12th and 14th Centuries.
The writer detailed the above information as it is very relevant to the issues of the times, by way of exploding the Myth of Race to which phenomena millions of human lives are sacrificed all over the world including the thousands of Tamils and Sinhalese in our own country dead on the same grisly and meaningless altar these last 20 years. No more would be said of the history of the Jayewardenes, of which 10 generations have been traced for the forthcoming exhibition on the "Life and Times of JRJ", (a family history that could fill a whole book) except to mention the more significant milestones.
It is a family saga that throws up some admirable traits, especially the value of family solidarity that provided impetus to the continuous economic and social progress of the family, the courage not to sink in times of acute distress but to conquer the circumstances and the discretion of sorting out the correct values to emulate.
It must also be mentioned that Don Adrian became a convert to the Anglican religion and the "Buddhistanisation" of the family subsequent to the Sinhalisation came almost two centuries later with the marriage links with the Wijewardene family of Sedawatte.
The first recorded character Don Adrian Jayewardene (Guide Mudaliyar or Thombi Mudaliyar) and his son Abraham Wijesinghe Jayewardene were both professionally involved in statecraft (the latter, a very independent character withdrawing his support to the British spurred by Lord Torrington's role in the 1848 rebellion) but in the next generation the sons take to law as a profession, a family propensity that continued up to the life and times of JR. Two of Abraham's sons become solicitors cum proctors and one of them was James Alfred whose son E.W. Jayewardene who went onto become Judge of the Supreme Courts fathered JR subsequent to his marriage to Agnes Helen Wijewardene. She was the daughter of the famous Helena Wijewardene, daughter of Mohandiram Phillip Wijewardene and sister D.R. Wijewardene, founder of Lake House who ended up the chief benefactress of Kelani Raja Maha Vihara.
JR was the eldest in a family of 10 and the courage and foresight he displayed when his father died suddenly leaving a very young and huge family he carried onto his later role in the administration of the country that was to show similar vicissitudes of fortune. Though not a financially distraught family his father had died just after building the huge mansion of Vaijayanthi for which building he had had taken a massive loan. JR not only was able to repay the loan later but saw all his younger brothers through Law College while himself working his way through University College and Law College to end up as an advocate. His very lucky alliance with Elena Bandra Rupasinghe Suryabandara, a much sought after beauty and heiress of the times in the upper circles, brought in such a fortune that made his career as an advocate almost superfluous and left him ample time to dabble in politics, a passion that had engulfed the initial members of the family.
Perhaps it was Don Adrian's extreme fidelity to the British (maybe some would call it opportunism and rightly so) that earned the Jaywardene family the uncomplimentary epithet of being stooges of the imperialists. In the same way that the Ge name Thombi (Guide) Mudianselage was interpreted by mud-slingers to ascribe Moorish antecedents to the family, the 1830 Govt. Gazette's glowing tribute of Adrian was used to discredit the family as almost having contributed to sell the Sinhala race to the British and naturally JR was not spared the abuse. But a careful study of his career throws up the startling fact that contrary to popular belief that JR was far from being a pawn of the West. India and her leaders especially Mahatma Gandhi were his beaconlights. The uproar he created by hanging a picture of Gandhi in the Law College library when the latter was almost being persecuted for anti-British activities and the episode of using his father's car to transport tramcar drivers for their strike are unpublicised history. Another hidden bit of news is that JR hated his name.
Junius Richard and began to use the name Ravindra. Of course no one used it but himself ! His friends called him Dick. But he mollified himself later when he named his son Ravindra.
For the sake of clarity and brevity the other contents of this article will be considered under these headings.
School career:- JR's alma mater was Royal College (1913-1925) after a short stint at Bishop's Primary. He excelled in sports (cricket, rugby etc.) drama, oratory and writing - often writing to the College magazine. Gradually he began to show academic prowess too and ended up the College Prefect.
Threshold of the Law career:- Entered University College and then entered Law College and ended up as an advocate. Stopped practice in 1942 to enter full time politics.
Threshold of politics:- Though he entered active politics in the 1940s his political leanings began as early as 18. In 1938 he became a member of the Ceylon National Congress and in 1940 took part in the Annual General Meeting held in Ramagahr, India.
First phase of political career:- Was elected uncontested for the New Bazaar electorate of the CMC. In 1943 after defeating the popular figure E. W. Perera entered the State Council via the Kelaniya seat. In 1947 was re-elected through the same seat and was appointed Finance Minister of the first cabinet of D. S. Senanayake.
In 1956 was appointed Minister of Agriculture and Food cum Leader of the House of Representatives under the second cabinet of Sir John Kotelawala. In 1956 became acting PM.
The defeat of the UNP in 1956 saw him out of power for 4 years but he again came back with UNP winning the 1960 General Election and was appointed Minister of Finance and Local Govt. in the Dudley Senanayake cabinet.
Between 1970 and 77 when the UNP was again out of power JR was the Leader of the Opposition. Second phase of political career:- UNP won the elections again and JR took his oaths as Prime Minister and Minister of Finance both posts which he relinquished to take over the post of the First Executive President on February 4, 1978. In 1978 a new constitution was formed. The Mahaweli scheme got going. On January 18, was inaugurated the free distribution of school texts to children.
March of the same year saw the introduction of Television Technology. On February 15, 1982 the Rupavahini Corporation was opened. April 9th saw the opening of the New Parliament Complex at Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte under him, bringing back the old glory of this area. In 1983 took his oaths as the Executive President of the Sri Lanka for the second time. In 1987 signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord with the late Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi. On January 1, 1989 retired from the Presidentship handing over the reins of power to Ranasinghe Premadasa, the first commoner outside the "Charmed circle or the Anglicised caucus" to come into such a position in the island.
Produced by Lake House