Sir John: A triumphant life
The 110th Birth Anniversary of General Sir John Kotelawala, C.H.,
K.B.E., LLD falls today. This article is a tribute to Sir John, who was
Prime Minister from 1953 to 1956.
Sir John Kotelawala entered politics in 1931 and was
elected to the State Council. As early as 1915 he had become involved
with political leaders such as Don Stephen Senanayake and his brother
F.R. Senanayake, who was married to Kotelawala's mother's sister. They
criticized many of the actions of the British colonial officials.
By the time Sri Lanka received dominion status in
1948, Kotelawala had become an important member of Senanayake's United
National Party and he served in several important positions during
Senanayake's time as Prime Minister (1948-1952) including as Minister of
Communication, Minister of Public Works and Minister of Transport.
When the Prime Minister died in 1952, many expected
Kotelawala to succeed him, but his son Dudley Senanayake was chosen. By
the following year, Kotelawala was the Speaker of Parliament, and was
chosen as Prime Minister when Dudley resigned after the 1953 Hartal.
As Prime Minister, Kotelawala led Sri Lanka into the
United Nations and contributed to Sri Lanka's expanding foreign
relations. In 1955 he led Sri Lanka delegation to the Bandung conference
in Indonesia. His party was defeated in the 1956 elections.
He retired from politics shortly after his electoral
defeat and lived for several years in Kent, United Kingdom. He returned
to Sri Lanka and died at his home in Kandawala.
As a member of the Sri Lankan light infantry from
1922 to 1945, rising to the rank of major, and a member of the War
Cabinet during World War II he was a strong supporter of the military
and was promoted to the rank of General on the night before his death by
President J. R. Jayawardene.
REMEMBERED: Sir John Kotelawala was a politician, gentleman
and soldier. A statesman politician of his day and age, he practised the
profession of politics with the zeal of a successful evangelist. A proud
and self-confessed nationalist, he loved this country and its people.
He had a deep love and respect for his mother Alice Kotelawala but
never had the intimate family life that his brother Justin and sister
Freda had. However, his life was a triumph of discipline over bitterness
dictated by a wisdom drawn from experience.
Anchored in human reality, he would often say, "One needed to go
hungry to appreciate a good meal, know loneliness to yearn for a
mother's love - only then will one break free from shadows and get
permanently riveted to substance."
He had a sneaking appreciation of practical men such as A. E.
Goonesinghe's protege R. Premadasa. Promoting him to contest N.M. Perera,
he remarked that the man knew how to handle time. Time was an obsession
with Sir John.
Every man, he said, "had a credit of 8,6400 seconds every morning and
if he failed to use that day's deposit, there was no going back - time
waits for no one."
Sir John would insist that in Sri Lanka we lived in a society that
based its moral claims on the worth, dignity and talents of the
individual. Sri Lankans were a very talented people.
To each his own. Sinhala - Tamil - Muslim - Burgher, yet all a
lovable lot, who over the years lived amicably together. Friends and
politicians holding varying opinions sat at his famous breakfast table.
There never was indiscriminate indictment of one race. Never.
A crowded breakfast....guests were leaving. The older man on Sir
John's left inquired with a frown. "Sir John, who was that man who just
left?" "Why ask me - men - you know him." Not replying, the man got up,
a glass of water in his hand, stepped out to the adjacent porch, gargled
and spat out violently a couple of times.
"What is that man's rude, crude behaviour in aid of?" "The damn fool
is cleansing himself." "He is what?" Nonplussed and puzzled. A forced
grimace and Sir John's half amused eyes toned down the rawness of his
"The man that left was low caste, and had sat at the same table as
himself, so he had to cleanse himself." It was said. It happened.
Hate and distaste are quenchable, but a mind steeped and anchored in
cultural bias or political rhetoric is often unquenchable.
The communists were Sir John's bogeymen. "Those who forked out their
pennies and pocketed your shilling" in their search for equality. "Equal
division of unequal earnings." - He'd remark the very colour they used -
red - had a sinister quality as though picked from a dying sunset!
Kandawala, a simple but well maintained residence had feudal
overtones. Families, husband, wife and children, lived on the estate in
their own houses. Chattering and laughing children, gossiping adults
were every where on Sunday morning, after the guests had left the
Two hours of cleaning up - breaking cobwebs, polishing brass,
dusting, sweeping the residence. He looked after them down to the
children's uniforms and school books, and they had to reciprocate. There
was no exploitation or violation of human rights. He had not distanced
himself from everyday people. The green lawns, green trees were the
green nutrients of his life.
It was not his money, the background of the large feudal estate that
dominated his way of life. The power was there by force of personality,
very deep knowledge of his subject, his ability to listen to another's
point of view. His very humane approach to anything he said or did. He
understood his supporters as well as his opponents.
Breakfast table again. Jira, the foreign visitor from France was on
his left. Lots of give and take repartee and laughter. Esmond was
leaving. "Sir John is that not the man that worked against you in your
election campaign? The newspaper magnate." "Yes, he thinks himself a
kingmaker - trouble is, he has more heart than head."
Story goes, an editor was very ill and hospitalized. From his own
residence Esmond's personal driver took meals to him everyday for over a
month. He had a loyal and devoted staff.
A soldier to the marrow of his bone, Sir John left his properties to
the Kotelawala Defence Academy which is training men for the Army. He
always had an honest impulse to open up new realms of experience. This
needed a great leap of faith in himself, and that, he had in good
Sir John believed in discipline of a military nature. Enforcement by
law and order. As Minister of Transport, Communication and Works - the
P.W.D. (Public Works Department) - he was fully aware of pilferage and
corruption. Chiselling he always said was part of the Asian ambience.
Blasting a PWD overseer who he valued for his efficient work, but
suspected of corruption, he was startled at the man's reply.
"Sir, if we overseers take or don't take, they say we take - so we
might as well take". Soldiering was his love. Travelling down in jeeps,
once a year with foreign and local friends, relations were his guests at
the Yala game sanctuary for a week. A fiend for daily exercise he'd
march them, late evening, on the drive-way swinging his arms.
"We're the boys of the Army, the mighty CLI, all we have to do-is
fight and fight and die." After this walk one day, Upali, his cousin,
noticing a wild buffalo standing in his path shouted "Lionel Aiya get
back, wild buffalo."
On another occasion the jeeps were confronted by wild elephants
leisurely feeding - cameras started clicking. Some students in a van
from the opposite side rushed past banging their vehicle and shouting.
The elephants disturbed, stampeded.
The jeeps tried desperately to reverse. Rukman in the first jeep
leapt out and faced the elephants - we learnt later - with mantrams the
mahouts use. The elephants turned and slowly wandered away.
Sir John greatly relieved, quipped, "Thank God we have one Senanayake
left who can handle elephants from going berserk."
He had a taste for what was good and strong, a sharpness of vision to
distinguish the true from the false. He died a veteran soldier, on
October 2, 1980.