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Lanka's journey to Independence, in retrospect:

Impact of constitutional developments on nation - making

by D. L. Ubeywarna

Ever since we become independent from British rule, it has become customary to commemorate Independence one way or the other, with or without much celebrations. Under the Ceylon Independence Act, 1947, all authority of the United Kingdom Parliament to legislate for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) ceased from 4 February, 1948, from which date Ceylon was an 'autonomous' 'nation' in the Commonwealth.



Anagarika Dharmapala - for national revival

As recorded by John D 'Oyly in his diary, the last King Sri Wikrama Rajasinghe was captured by some people of Dumbara in association with armed men sent by Ehelepola (who had a resentment against the king) and handed over to the British who deported him (the king). Governor Robert Brownrigg's troops marched on Kandy on February 12, 1815.

Annexation of the Kandyan Provinces to the British Empire took place with the signing of the Kandyan Convention on March 2, 1815, by the Governor on the one part and the chiefs on the other.

(Article 5 of the Convention declared that Buddhism was inviolable and its rites, places or worship etc were to be maintained and protected).

The chiefs were disappointed and disillusioned with the way the British either disregarded or abrogated some provisions of the Convention and their privilege curtailed.

The rebellion which broke out in Vellassa in 1817 spread (its 'tentacles') over the Kandyan territory in 1818. The rebellion collapsed and the heroic leader Keppetipola was executed.

Proclamation

Proclamation of 1818 delegated the general executive and judicial authority to the Board of Commissioners thereby enormously reducing the powers of the chiefs in the Kandyan Province.

The Constitution of 1833 followed by the recommendations of the Colebrooke Commission created Executive and Legislative Councils.

The first Executive Council was composed of the Governor who was chairman and five "official members", while the Legislative Council consisted nine official members and six unofficial members who were nominated by the Governor.

Although the two Councils were purely advisory bodies to the Governor, the 1833 Colebrooke (Cameron) Constitution was an important landmark which contained the seeds of representativeness and responsibility which were to germinate in the future.

During the intervening period from 1833 upto the rebellion of 1848 which was crushed by Governor Torrington, strange as it may seem today, the people who agitated for constitutional reforms were mainly the European and Burghers.

Leaders of the 1848 rebellion, Gongala Goda Banda and Puran Appu were convicted of treason. Ven. Kudapola Thera was shot on a charge of failing or refusing to divulge information relevant to arrest of a rebel etc.

Reform of 1889

In 1889, a reform was made in the Legislative Council by increasing the number of unofficial members to eight by the addition of two members to represent the Kandyan Sinhalese and the Muslims.



Keppetipola - national hero

In the latter part of the 19th century and towards the dawn of the 20th century, the agitation carried on by highly respected patriotic national leaders like Anagarika Dharmapala for a national, cultural and religious revival and rejuvenation had a tremendous positive impact on the movement seeking constitutional reform.

Further, indigenous, patriotic, intelligent national leaders in association with native reformists returned after university education abroad spearheaded the agitational campaign for constitutional reforms.

Constitution of 1910 reconstituted the Legislative Council to consist 11 official and 10 unofficial members. Of the 10 unofficial members, 4 were to be elected.

Constitution of 1920 (Manning Constitution), for the first time increased the Unofficial Membership of the Legislative Council to 23 while the Official Membership was increased slightly from 11 to 14.

Constitution of 1923 (1924) constituted a new Legislative Council consisting of 12 official members and 37 unofficial members of whom 3 were nominated by the Governor and the rest (34) were elected.

Donoughmore Constitution 1931 being a very significant landmark in the constitutional history, introduced many far-reaching changes beneficial to establishing democracy. Universal Adult suffrage was recommended by the Commission under the Chairmanship of Lord Donoughmore.

Several members of the Commission being Fabian socialists, they believed that a wider franchise was needed for social progress and economic development. In the report of the Commission issued on June 26, 1928 they suggested replacement of the hitherto existing Legislative Council by a representative State Council and the abolition of the Executive Council.

Donoughmore constitution

The Donoughmore Constitution which emerged in 1931 made provision for the State Council to have fifty members elected on universal adult (suffrage) franchise, eight nominated members appointed by the Governor and three Officers of State.

The constitution stipulated that the State Council at its first meeting should elect by secret ballot seven Executive Committees to be charged with seven groups of subjects (such as Education) and each committee to elect its chairman (designated as Minister) by secret ballot.

Thus every member of the State Council except the Speaker and the three Officers of State was a member of an Executive Committee.

The Donoughmore Constitution, like all constitutions hitherto discussed, had been the subject of criticism. Nevertheless, it was flexible enough to have continued without a rupture or breakdown during the time of war as well as of peace.

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, the State Council passed a resolution assuring support to the British Government. (This resolution too may have influenced the 'British mind' in the matter of considering grant of Independence).

Further, the 'Freedom Resolution' adopted at the December 1942 Kelaniya sessions of the National Congress changing this earlier stand of attainment of Dominion Status to "Independence" too may have had an impact on later development.

A Declaration was made by His Majesty's Government on 26 May 1943 stating that the post war re-examination of the Reform of the Ceylon Constitution would be directed towards granting full responsible Government relating to internal civil administration and invited the Board of Ministers to submit their proposals for a New Constitution.

Soulbury commission

Henceforth, the Soulbury Commission was appointed and it travelled throughout the island from the latter part of December 1944 to April 1945. Public response was against the Commission's recommendation to retain extensive power by His Majesty's Government especially in regard to defence and External Affairs.

A White Paper was issued on 31 October 1945 embodying the general line of Commission's recommendations with some modifications.

An Order in Council was issued on May 15, 1946 embodying the new constitution. The general election to the First Parliament was held in 1947. The agreement entered into between the Government and the Governor on November 11, 1947 was approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

With the Royal assent of the Ceylon Independent Act on December 10, 1947 and the five documents contained in the Sessional Paper XXII of 1947 taking effect on the February 04, 1948, Ceylon became an independent country within the Commonwealth.

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