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Remembering D S of Botale Walauwa

The gentle farmer of Ceylon who refused a knighthood

By Dinesh Iriyagolle Weerakkody
This article is to commemorate the 124th birth anniversary of the Father of the Nation and the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon Rt. Hon. D.S. Senanayake. He was born on October 20, 1884, to a land owing family in Botale. The property stood on the frontier of the former Kandyan Kingdom.

D.S was educated at St Thomas College. He excelled in cricket and other sports but not in studies. One day young DS brought his school report card to his father, who asked, “What is your position son?” to which DS replied “fourth” without any hesitation and the father was pleased. Only later he discovered that there were only four boys in the class!

DS did not have any substantial academic attainments and professional standing, but dealt with statesmen of the highest intellectual calibre and was admired by them for his natural intelligence, and for his noble and decent character traits. Within the legislature he established a reputation for sound common sense and shrewd judgment of men and policies. DS sought the best advice which he could access on every subject he tackled, but made the final judgment on his own, relying on his common sense, which proved beyond doubt an invaluable asset in decision making.

A giant of a man with a moustache and with a commanding presence, DS had been the kindest of men, and a great lover of children and poor folk. He made a great impression as a leader with foreigners and countrymen. DS had the gift of making friends and influencing people. Lord Atlee, the Labour PM of Britain at the time Ceylon gained independence, spoke of DS’s personal charm while Sir Robert Menzies the Australian PM spoke of his singular personal attraction.

Agricultural activities flourish

DS was Ceylon’s first minister of agriculture and lands. Never since the days of Sinhala Kings, was there so much irrigation and agricultural activity in the dry zone. Minneriya Minipe, Polonnaruwa and several other schemes had begun to yield the bounty of the earth.

DS was also considered an environmentalist and a founding member of the Ceylon Temperance Society which later produced almost all the leaders of the Ceylon independence movement.
His great ability to make the right decision at the right time for the benefit and stability of the newly independent small island nation, which sometimes confused and surprised many at the time, was one of his most admirable qualities, and can be commended even today, more than half a century later.

Incarceration & refusal of knighthood

DS experienced the worst colonial injustice when incarcerated following the riots of 1915, but nonetheless he maintained and continued a cordial relationship with the British. DS refused the knighthood in 1946 but expressed gratitude for that gesture of goodwill. He believed in the Commonwealth. He agreed to keep the British navel base at Trincomalee and the air base at Katunayake. By these decisions DS intended to establish security of a country which did not have a strong naval and air power, was able to keep India at bay. This was another example of his ingeniousness considering the political climate that prevailed at the time.

DS although a Buddhist, opposed any departure from secularism in favour of Buddhism. Though he was a strong patriot and was concerned about the poor, he did not support the communist movement and the leftist parties. DS was against harboring hatred and anger among the people in the society along the class lines. He did not let Ceylon be isolated from the rest of the world soon after the independence. He was concerned about the development, the economy, the poor and the farmer.

The plight of the Kandyans

He was also concerned of the plight of the Kandyans, whose lands were confiscated and taken over forcibly by the British rulers for plantations, and to settle indentured labourers from India.
He was also aware of the fact that most of the Kandyan chiefs were beheaded or shipped to prisons outside the country after the great rebellion in 1818. He identified the Kandyan peasants as the most deprived and marginalised section of the population of Ceylon under British rule, who were specifically targeted to be marginalised by the colonial masters to prevent any uprising for freedom of the country.

DS knew that Kandyan Sinhalese who comprised 28% of the population at the time, held only 3.2%f the professional positions, while Sri Lankan Tamils who comprised only 12.8 % of the population had secured 31.8% of the professional positions, mainly due to British patronage. As a remedial measure in this regard, DS was instrumental in forming the “Udarata gami punaruththapana Comisama,”- the ‘Commission for the Development of Underprivileged Kandyans’.

Development of the country

Unlike some newly independent nations, and later Prime Ministers of the country, DS was not in a hurry to jeopardise the economy by taking over the plantations and confiscating property, even though he understood the great disparity between the have and have-nots. DS understood that at the time, Ceylon depended on the success of these enterprises for its economic stability and development, even though the proprietorship of those still belonged to British subjects even after independence. Instead DS spearheaded agricultural, irrigational and other economic development programmes from the revenues of the above enterprises.
Again we can see the ingeniousness of this great man in making these decisions. DS not only kept the administrative and the civil service of Ceylon from collapsing, but developed it to an extent that these institutions were a model for the British Commonwealth, to the envy even for the developed nations.

Expansion of welfare measures

Under his administration welfare measures were expanded systematically. These measures included free education up to the tertiary level, free health facilities and above all the provision of food, mainly the staple food rice, at a subsidised price for all. In 1950 welfare expenditure exceeded the expenditure over development. However these measures helped the country to maintain its investment in human capital at a higher level, and were responsible for lifting the human development status of the country well above other developing countries, and almost to the level of developed countries.

Having founded Ceylon’s Co-operative Movement in 1923, he emphasised the importance and the development of co-operatives, and attempted agricultural modernisation. DS was against communism but at the same time, an innate pragmatism led him to recognise socialist China, and to allow the sale of rubber to the Chinese on the open market during the Korean war.
In a country without coal, oil or gas deposits, a start was made in developing the hydropower potential of the country with the commissioning of the Lakshapana station in 1950.

The two development programmes prepared during his period, the six year development plan (1951-1957) and the six year investment programme (1954 - 1959), placed major emphasis on investment in agricultural infrastructure. The private sector was expected to play a leading role in the development process. The Central Bank of Ceylon was established in 1958 by replacing the currency board system, to implement an independent and flexible monetary policy.

Passionate agriculturalist

DS was a passionate agriculturalist with close affinity to the rural farmer, and directed much of his formidable energies towards the improving the conditions of the peasantry and boosting food production. Only very few in present generation know that when work for the Gal Oya settlement scheme in the Eastern Province was completed, the first preference was given to people from the same province. It was only after about six months when faced with the paucity of local applicants, that the doors were opened to the applicants from other provinces.
DS was able to command the sections of the Tamil leadership. The first Parliament had over 40% of the seats represented by the candidates from the minorities or left inclined members. There was also a distinct possibility of a coalition Government of the leftist parties. DS was concerned over the strength in Parliament of these members. DS valued democracy and feared being taken over by communist parties. This far sighted leader also saw a danger in this to national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.

Citizenship Act of 1948

These aspects motivated DS to introduce the Citizenship Act of 1948. Following the passing of the legislation, the vote was to be confined to citizens of Ceylon. The Indian and Pakistani residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949, permitted only those Indian and Pakistani residents in Ceylon who satisfied certain stringent conditions, to obtain Ceylonese Citizenship. Almost all of the Tamil elite representing the Ceylon Tamils through both UNP and the Tamil Congress, either voted for, or were not serious about opposing them.

The vote was along class lines

G.G Ponnambalam the leader of the Tamil Congress opposed the 1st Bill but voted for the second Bill. It is correct to say that vote was along class lines disenfranchising the Indian Tamils and was not simply a communal vote. Opposition to this Bill came from the major left parties, and prominent Sinhalese independents who voted against the Bills were Wilmot Perera, R S Pelpola, IMRA Iriyagolle and Lakshman Rajapakse. In this sense it is wrong to say that DS was involved in a deep anti Tamil conspiracy to bring about Sinhalese domination. DS believed in an inclusive nationalism in which minority relations would be ameliorated by moderation on the part of the dominated group.

End of an era

Ceylon’s future took a different turn on March 22, 1952, the day DS was thrown off his horse near Galle Face Green. At ninety second intervals, an SOS for help was broadcast to London by Radio Ceylon. It concerned the life and death of the nation’s precious Prime Minister.
British PM Vincent Churchill gave a personal order to send the fastest plane available with surgeons. Immediately the refuelling crew were roused from sleep and told to take up their stations. But soon another order was given to cancel the flight due to bad news from Ceylon that, “there was no hope for the PM”.
Since this day, Ceylon, the most untroubled country in Asia, has gradually become the most troubled country in the world.
The writer is a resident of Australia and is practicing as an Australian Solicitor & Barrister. He can be contacted on dweerakkody@hotmail.com