The UNP and the making of the conflict
HISTORY: September is a very significant month in Sri Lankan
political history, 55th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)
was celebrated and the 60th anniversary of the United National Party (UNP)
too. Furthermore the centenary birth anniversary of Sri Lanka's first
Executive President J.R. Jayewardene also falls on September 17.
Yet, I did not have the opportunity to analyze the comments made at
the 55th jubilee ceremony of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party as currently I
am away from the Island.
However, I had the opportunity to read many comments which were as
tributes for the 60th anniversary of the United National Party, but I
have to say, with sadness in heart, that some of these comments have
been made by people who seem to be ignorant not only on the historical
beginning of the UNP but the incidents of the recent past.
It is a commonly known truth that ancient history has to undergo a
certain defacement in every country of the world, but it is not that
easy to change the contemporary history because there can be at least a
handful of persons still alive, who had witnessed the significant events
of recent history.
There is no doubt that the United National Party, which came to life
in the 'Palm Court', mansion in September 1946, had done an invaluable
service to the nation. But I strongly believe that the honour of that
enormous task could be given only to two persons, D.S. Senanayake, and
C.W.W. Kannangara, two genuine leaders of the UNP.
It is because of their great efforts by implementing two plans of
extreme national importance before the UNP was born. After enactment of
the Donoughmore constitution, the above two Ministers held the
portfolios of Agriculture and Education respectively.
D.S. Senanayake had clearly understood that the significant
irrigation schemes in the pre-colonial era and the paddy farming came to
an end with British imperialism which started to plant coffee, which was
followed by tea that led to a deep erosion of the Sri Lanka's fertile
The first step he took when he was elected was prohibiting any kind
of a plantation on an altitude higher than 5000 feet. After doing that
he started an invaluable task of establishing agricultural estates in
northern region of Sri Lanka.
In 1933 when Mr. D.S. Senanayake was out of the motherland for a
while, I, as a school student of 11 years, remember seeing the picture
of his acting minister John L. Kothalawala symbolically axing the first
tree to clear the land for Minneriya irrigation scheme.
This project, which started in Minneriya, then proceeded to Minipe,
Kanthale and Kalawewa, transforming those dry shrub lands to new green
and prosperous estates, thus uplifting the living standards of thousands
of simple and poor farmers.
The great revolution in the arena of education began after the end of
the 2nd world war. It is recorded in black and white in the history when
Education Minister C.W.W. Kannangara submitted the Cabinet paper
regarding free education to usher in a new chapter in Sri Lankan life.
It was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, George E. De Silva, Arunachalam
Mahadeva who supported the bill while the UNP giants D.S. Senanayake and
J.L. Kothalawala opposed it.
At the same time, the many young parliamentarians such as, Dudley
Senanayake, the son of D.S. Senanayake, who represented the State
Council and J.R. Jayewardene, who represented Kelaniya electorate
supported the bill for free education.
Though we saw what happened to the Sri Lankan agriculture and free
education after the disastrous 1977, that is another story, which should
be left for detailed analysis later.
Now, let us reflect on the establishment of the Untied National
Party. According to the Soulbury constitutional reforms it was proposed
to have a House of Representatives, a Senate as an Upper House and a
system of registered political parties.
Thus, it was decided that the political party that gets the majority
of the people's votes and captures the majority seats in the House of
Representatives gets the power to govern the country.
The contemporary powerful parties were the Ceylon National Congress,
which was lead by George E. De Silva, Sinhala Maha Sabha led by S.W.R.D.
Bandaranaike and three leftist parties, Lanka Sama Samaja Party,
Bolshevik Party and Ceylon Communist Party.
The prominent Tamil parties were the Ceylon Indian Congress, which
had the support of overwhelming majority of estate labourers and the
Tamil Congress of North which was led by G.G. Ponnambalam.
In 1942, Minister D.S. Senanayake left parliament even forgetting his
hat after his statement of opposing the proposal tabled by Ceylon
National Congress that the ultimate objective of the Congress should be
to demand total independence and not limited dominion powers as proposed
by Senanayake. However, this proposal of demanding total independence
was approved by the Congress when it was proposed by J.R. Jayawardene
and seconded by Dudley Senanayake.
In 1946, D.S. Senanayake invited the Sinhala Maha Sabha leader
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Ceylon National Congress leader George E. De
Silva, Northern representatives, Mahadeva, S. Natesan, Jeganathan
Thyagarajah, President of the Muslim League, T.B. Jaya and the Yonaka
League Chairman A.R.A. Rasik to establish a new national party. The
invitation being accepted a new party was establish. This new party was
named as the United National Party.
In the 1947 election, a major internal conflict took place in this
party. A number of seats were named as open seats. Even after forming
the party by uniting several fronts, the UNP was only able to win 42 of
the 95 seats. Leftist parties won 20 seats and the Ceylon Indian
Congress won seven seats.
The Tamil Congress, which was led by G. G. Ponnambalam, was able to
win six seats in North and the Trincomalee seat in the East. The
independent candidates won the remaining seats. Most of these
independent candidates were able to gain this victory by campaigning for
the Leftist and Indian voters against the UNP. The parliamentarians of
the North who supported the UNP had to face a huge debacle.
As the UNP was short of six seats for absolute majority, D. S.
Senanayake started several strategies to show the Governor that his
party fulfils the condition needed for a majority government. Thus,
Senanayake invited the Ceylon Indian Congress to join the government.
He wooed the Congress through Peri Sundaram who had been a fellow
Minister with Senanayake since the period 1931 State Council. Although,
the Member of Parliament for Nuwara Eliya Saumiamurthy Thondaman and
George Motha, Member of Parliament for Maskeliya, had agreed to consider
this proposal, five other MPs rejected the proposal stating that being a
labourers party, they could not join the UNP.
There is another important fact that needs to be pointed out here.
That is, C. W. W. Kannangara represented the Mathugama seat in the State
Council at the time he was Minister of Education.
Although the Ceylon Indian Congress had taken a decision to support
the candidates opposed to the UNP, the Congress decided to make an
exception in Mathugama because of Kannangara's service to the Tamil
children by introducing free education. Thus more than 5000 Tamil estate
voters in Mathugama were instructed to vote for Kannangara.
As a much respected philanthropist who was the creator of the Sripali
College in Horana, Wilmot A Perera met Kannangara and informed him that
he ( Perera) had received an invitation to contest Mathugama seat.
However, he said that if Kannangara would resign from the UNP and
contest Mathugama as an independent candidate he (Wilmot A Perera) would
contest Horana, without challenging Kannangara in Mathugama.
However, Kannangara said that he could not break the promise given to
D. S. Senanayake. The end result was Kannangara was defeated in
Mathugama electorate by Wilmot A Perera despite the educational
revolution ushered in by the former. Even the Tamil estate workers
defied the party diktat and voted for Perera who was supported by the
D. S. Senanayake, in his strategy to get absolute majority, started
to woo the Tamil MPs opposed to the Ponnambalam camp. C Suntharalingam,
Vavuniya MP who was always opposed to Ponnambalam's 50-50 demand and
Mannar MP C. Siththappalam, who defeated the UNP candidate Jaganathan
Thyagarajah had agreed to become ministers in D. S. Senanayake Cabinet.
Subsequently, three others, Kayts MP Alfred Thambiah, Kalkuda MP V
Nalliah and Pathiruppu MP Edirimanasingham have joined the government.
The Sinhalese who joined the government were Labour Party's sole MP.
A. E. Gunasinghe, Deniyaya MP Victor Rathnayake, Kadugannawa second MP
H. R. U. Premachandra and Welimada MP K. V. D. Sugathadasa, who narrowly
got through with a mere 22 vote majority, defeating the UNP's
Divithotawila. Sugathadasa's victory was assured by estate voters who en
block voted against UNP.
That is how, D. S. Senanayake formed his majority government.
Two of the UNP Ministers - George E de Silva of Kandy and R. S.
Senarath Gunawardhane of Gampola - were unseated by successful election
petitions field by defeated candidates.
The main charge against Gunawardhane was that UNP gangs had prevented
2000 estate workers from casting their franchise. In the subsequent
by-elections, leftist candidates easily defeated the UNP with the help
of estate worker votes.
What was the UNP strategy when the estate workers voted against the
party? Two top strategists, young J. R. Jayawardene and A. E. Nugawela
advised the party leadership that the UNP could win all the seats in the
central hill country if the estate workers were disfranchised.
They pointed out that the UNP could bag all seven electorates earlier
won by the Ceylon Tamil Congress. DS was convinced that this would be
the best strategy.
However, A Rathnayake proposed that UNP should invite the Tamil
Congress to join the government before the disfranchise Bill is
presented in Parliament. Tamil Congress leader had always emphasized the
imperative need for industrialization of North, including setting up of
a massive cement factory in Kankasenthurai. The UNP decided to use this
as bait to get the Tamil Congress into the government.
As the Industries Minister George E de Silva was unseated in the
election petition, the industrial portfolio was offered to Ponnambalam
and the latter could not refuse this attractive offer.
Hence Minister Ponnambalam was forced to support the Bill for
disfranchise of Tamil estate workers, much against his conscience.
However, two stalwarts in his party, S. J. V. Chelvanayagham and C.
Wanniyasingham decided to vote against the Bill and resign from the
party to form the Federal Party. Minister C. Suntharalingham also
resigned from the Government and voted against the Bill. That was the
beginning of the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka.
It must be recorded here that 20 Sinhalese MPs risked their entire
political future by voting against the estate Tamil disfranchise Bill.
For them the principles were more important than retaining their
parliamentary seats. One of the Sinhalese MPs, in his speech against the
Bill described it as an undemocratic step worse that the apartheid in
The second blow to the ethnic harmony was the adoption of a proposal
at the UNP annual conference to make Sinhala the official language.
This was a part of the strategy to blunt the Bandaranaike's slogan of
Sinhala as official language. Immediate result was all the Tamil
Congress MPs leaving the government.
Three decades later, the UNP, once again passed the infamous 6th
amendment in 1983 and driven away the democratic Tamil leadership from
The UNP, a political party responsible for driving away eight Tamil
estate representatives from Parliament by disfranchising estate voters
in 1948 and forcing 16 Tamil United Liberation Front MPs to vacate their
parliamentary seats in 1983 could not claim to be a national party when
it completes 60 years of existence.
The writer is a Former Editorial Consultant and former Deputy High
Commissioner in Chennai