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SWRD Bandaranaike - a political assessment

In the early hours of the morning of September 26, 1959, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the then Prime Minister, was assassinated by a monk, Talduwe Somarama. With this event, perhaps a new political culture of assassinations emerged in Sri Lanka's political horizon. It also created a fear among his assassins, that Mr. Bandaranaike dead would be more powerful than Bandaranaike alive.

S W R D Bandaranaike

Mr. Bandaranaike's popularity had begun to be on the wane at the time that he was assassinated, but by this act the assassins gave him a new lease of life and his widow emerged as the world's first woman Prime Minister. The early childhood and life of Mr. Bandaranaike is well-known.

He made his bow to public life when he won the Maradana Ward in the Colombo Municipal Council against A.E. Goonesinghe of the Labour Party, a veteran trade union leader. Later he entered the State Council in 1931 as the member for Veyangoda.

He became the Minister of Local Government in 1936 and continued in this post until 1947, to the end of the Doungoumore constitution. Under the Soulbury constitution he became the Minister of Health and Local Government in Ceylon's (as the country was then known), first Cabinet and the Leader of the House in Ceylon's first Parliament. The Sinhala Maha Sabha, the party that he led merged with the newly formed United National Party (UNP), headed by the late D.S. Senanayake, thus giving added strength to the UNP, both inside and outside Parliament.

As Minister of Health, he was sympathetic to the Ayurvedic physicians and he was contemplating on setting up a separate Department for Ayurveda to replace “The Board of Indigenous Medicine,” that was in existence at that time.

Sri Lanka Freedom Party

The great depression and the malaria epidemic received the earnest attention of Mr. Bandaranaike as a member of the State Council and later as the Minister of Health. Speaking in the State Council in reference to the malaria epidemic, Mr. Bandaranaike stated, “usually the man is dead in a week or two, unless he has the constitution of a horse. Malaria followed by dysentery would probably end the problem before the problem is considered.”

As a historical figure, Mr. Bandaranaike would be remembered for two events, the electoral victory of the MEP led coalition in 1956 and the formation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, his creation, which is in power today, almost 60 years after its inauguration. Both events are over 50 years old and scholars can assess them now with access to the government archives.

Mr. Bandaranaike, who had a personal and political battle inside the UNP took the momentous decision of his life, when he left the UNP led by D.S. Senanayake and sat in the Opposition in Parliament. When he left he was accompanied by D.A. Rajapaksa, George R. de Silva, D. S. Gunasekera, Jayaweera Kuruppu and A.P. Jayasuriya, all of whom were Members of Parliament. Those who left were all members of the Sinhala Maha Sabha. Many thought that he had ended his political life, but destiny proved otherwise.

The events that led to his crossing the floor of the Parliament on Budget Day with D.A. Rajapaksa resulted in the formation of the SLFP and under his leadership, the political earthquake of 1956 became a reality. Mr. Bandaranaike was perhaps the only political leader who could crossover, retain his seat and lead the people.

The Bandaranaike Samadhi in Horagolla

The SLFP was formed as a democratic alternative to the UNP. Thereafter, the SLFP has formed governments at various times alternatively with the UNP. A political leader who saw this trend tried to prevent it by the Executive Presidency and a system of proportional representation introduced by the J.R. Jayewardene constitution.

The SLFP had a solid base among the Sinhalese and especially the Buddhists and the only way to prevent this advantage that they had was to have the entire island as the electorate. Then the minorities can play an important role and with these minority community votes the UNP could be made victorious. Soon the SLFP was able to adjust to this system and become victorious again.

To the SLFP, Mr. Bandaranaike was theoretician, financier and guiding figure. His devout followers were prepared to support him in his endeavours to lead the country to a new horizon as he did in the year 1956. His strength always came from the affection that he had from the common people. His funeral drew large crowds as the people thought that a harmless man had been assassinated without any reason. His assassination prevented him from writing his version of 'Remembered Yesterdays', as was done by his father.

The electoral victory of 1956 was a political tsunami. The events of the year 1956 and the forces behind the victory shaped the destiny of the island in the years ahead. The new government that he formed in 1956 gave emphasis to the concept of 'Apey Anduwa,' identifying itself with the people. The ministers of his government wore national dress, national culture was respected, foreign honours bestowed by the Queen of England were abolished. The Sinhala language was made the official language. Ayurveda was promoted and the dormant Sinhala intelligentsia was prominent in their support for the government.

Foreign policy

Centuries of foreign rule which had led Sri Lanka to become a colonial outpost was gradually dismantled. No change in an island is possible without foreign influence. Sri Lanka became independent after the Indian Independence Movement was completed.

The Indian leaders laid emphasis on the National Languages, national dress as opposed to English and British attire.

This was the period of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was helping liberation movements all over the world. The concept of Non-alignment remained. Sri Lanka established close links with India and Indo-Ceylon ties were at its height. A new chapter in foreign policy was begun and Ceylon commenced diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and China. Ceylon opened up to the entire world and laid emphasis on playing an important role in the Commonwealth. The British bases at Katunayake and Trincomalee were terminated.

These changes in foreign policy laid the basis for socialism with the concept of nationalization or state ownership. The transport industry, mainly the buses, was nationalized and the Ceylon Transport Board was formed.

This was a great success and the island was coordinated into one unit through the resultant expansion of islandwide bus services. This mitigated rural migration into urban areas as people could travel to Colombo and other cities from faraway places.

The port was nationalized and its associated private enterprises became state owned. The capitalist economy was gradually eroded and Ceylon moved towards socialism. Gambling was not encouraged and horse racing was abolished. Mr. Bandaranaike, a great liberal and democrat resisted all attempts to interfere with the judiciary.

He was a champion of Human Rights and he treated his opponents with respect. He wanted to forgive his assassin. Sir John Kotelawala of the UNP, remarked that, “he was courageous in defeat and magnanimous in victory.” He travelled all over the island and maintained his links with the people.

Public service

Buddhism which had been fighting for survival under colonial rule was openly promoted by the state. The Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas were elevated to university status.

The Buddhist priests became great supporters of the government which they had helped to create. He showed no pain in dismantling the very foundation on which his early life was built. A Christian from an aristocratic family with a British education, whose family had received many favours from the British, changed his religion from Christianity to Buddhism and started the process of dismantling the colonial past. What Anagarika Dharmapala had started he completed.

He was Prime Minister only for three years. He pivoted change that led to successive Bandaranaike governments. He was for devolution of power and he initiated the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact which was very far-reaching as it advocated wide devolution of power through the creation of Regional Councils. He realized the dangers of leaving the Tamil problem unsolved. English had to be replaced in the administration but, this should be done gradually. Sinhala people should have equitable access to the public service which was dominated by minority communities under colonial rule. All these changes led to violence, which he contained democratically.

If the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact had been implemented early, the ethnic problem may not have escalated.

In his attempt to fight corruption he failed and a group of persons from his own party assassinated him. The old principle of 'et u Brute' was given a new dimension and renamed as the 'Budharakita principle.' Mr. Bandaranaike was a man who commenced the transformation of the colonial past to the modern Sri Lanka of today. However, what Sri Nissanka QC offered him in 1947 at the 'Yamuna Conference,' he achieved prior to his unfortunate death in 1959 and became Prime Minister in 1956. Mr. Bandaranaike died a martyr to the causes that he advocated. He was a Banyan tree under which all other trees grew. Indeed, he was an outstanding political figure of modern Sri Lanka.

 

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