In the shadow of SWRD
the five decades since the assassination of
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who first espoused the
nationalistic ethos successfully in
post-independent Sri Lanka, the country has
taken vast strides but has also been through
terrible turmoil. To place this in the
historical context of the 1956 ‘revolution’
ushered by SWRD, though SWRD was opportunistic
enough to pursue a nationalist, pro-majority
community line, had he not been assassinated, he
would have tried his utmost to find an equitable
solution to the grievances of all communities in
the country. Ironically, it is the same
challenge that awaits President Mahinda
Rajapaksa at the end of ‘Eelam War IV’. The
battle to win the hearts and minds of the
minorities and thereby win the peace. Given the
pressures exerted by the international community
and certain vested interests, it is a bigger
challenge for President Rajapaksa. Although the
Bandaranaike dynasty within the SLFP has ended,
the policies and the ideals that SWRD pursued
are alive, and the SLFP itself in a state of
robust political health, perhaps the best
tribute to the man who charted Sri Lankan
politics into a new terrain
Fifty years ago yesterday, independent Sri Lanka’s fourth
Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (SWRD)
Bandaranaike was assassinated. In that half-a-century, the
country has taken vast strides, but has also been through
terrible turmoil, and this is an opportune moment as any, to
assess the impact of SWRD, his legacy to the nation and the
role of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), in the five
decades that has elapsed since his demise.
SWRD it was who first espoused the nationalistic ethos
successfully in post-independent Sri Lanka. He belonged to
an elitist and aristocratic family, with all the trappings
that ensconced him as the local version of a Pukka Sahib in
a newly independent country. Obviously, he fitted in well
with the major political force of the day, the United
National Party (UNP).
Cynics would argue that, had he been given the mantle of
leadership of the UNP after D.S. Senanayake or Dudley
Senanayake, he would have remained in the UNP and
masqueraded as the archetypal ‘Kalu Sudda’. But he was not,
and being the keen student of politics that he was, he
sensed an opportunity to make hay.
This he did by proclaiming to be the Messiah to the
majority, the champion of the Sinhalese community with his
rallying cry of ‘Sinhala Only’. Again, SWRD is often painted
as the villain of the piece, in analysing the subsequent
ethnic strife in this country, for which many see in his
‘Sinhala Only’ policy, the root of all evil.
To be objective on this issue is difficult. Yes, the
‘Sinhala Only’ policies did spur and give momentum to the
Tamil nationalist movement, which was later consumed by
separatism. But at the same time, it must be remembered that
the UNP also made similar promises to the majority community
in the run up to the 1956 general election that swept SWRD
into power. Therefore, it would be unfair to lay all the
blame at SWRD’s doorstep.
Another argument is that, even if SWRD did play the
majority card at the 1956 election, to come into power, it
was perhaps justified. A majority of the majority community,
especially those from the rural areas, who were marginalised
during British rule, felt that independence had done little
to better their lot. For them, SWRD was the antidote that
promised to rid them of their social ills.
However, when in power, SWRD had to contend not only with
his political opponents, but also with detractors from
within his own party, and this perturbed him greatly.
Indeed, his eventual assassination was the culmination of
many a conspiracy from within his own ranks.
If anything, SWRD succeeded in establishing the SLFP as
the only credible alternative to the UNP and, with his
nationalistic policies, also left his watermark on the
identity of the party as a left-of-centre political force,
an image that has endured to this day.
Successive SLFP led governments led by Sirimavo
Bandaranaike- even if they were coalitions which cooperated
with other left leaning allies- pursued this socialist
oriented agenda while in government, the most notable of
which was the 1970-77 coalition styled the United Front.
It was daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Peoples’ Alliance
(PA) government which departed from this tradition.
Kumaratunga spoke of ‘an open economy with a human face’ in
1994, but in practice, hers were essentially capitalist
policies. To be fair by Kumaratunga however, it must be
recognised that by the early ’90s, the world economic order
had changed very much, with even countries such as China
adopting pragmatic adaptations of the open economy, instead
of trying to survive on closed-door policies that were
sustained only because of socialist ideology.
In recent years though, the Bandaranaike stranglehold on
the SLFP which survived the J.R. Jayewardene led
machinations in the late ’70s and early ’80s-appears to have
been broken, with the virtual retirement of Kumaratunga and
the untimely demise of Anura Bandaranaike coinciding with
the meteoric rise of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Indeed, ceremonies to mark SWRD’s 50th death anniversary
have been relatively low key, compared with the halcyon days
when a public holiday was declared to mark the occasion.
There may be some discontent about this, but for those who
wish to perpetuate SWRD’s memory, the airport at Katunayake
and the conference hall in Colombo will surely serve as
lasting monuments to the man.
As for his policies, nearly 50 years after SWRD himself
assumed power, we see the Rajapaksa led SLFP trying the same
tactic and achieving much the same results. President
Rajapaksa too, it will be recalled, essentially catered to
the majority vote at the last presidential election, by
advocating a hard-line stance against the Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The icing on the cake was when he
was, in fact, able to keep his promise and annihilate the
To place this in the historical context of the 1956
‘revolution’ ushered by SWRD, we must note that, although
SWRD the politician was opportunistic enough to pursue a
nationalist, pro-majority community line, SWRD the
individual that those near and dear knew was a very liberal
man. Had he not been assassinated and allowed to rule for a
full term of office, there was every likelihood that he
would have tried his utmost to find an equitable solution to
the grievances of all communities in the country.
Ironically, it is the same challenge that awaits
President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the conclusion of the
military conflict with the LTTE. While the battle for
terrain has been won, the bigger battle to win the hearts
and minds of the minorities and thereby win the peace, is
still in progress, and given some of the pressures exerted
by the international community and certain vested interests,
it is a bigger challenge for President Rajapaksa and his
It would also have been a challenge SWRD would have
relished. In a sense, therefore, although the Bandaranaike
dynasty within the SLFP may have come to an end, the
policies and the ideals that SWRD pursued appear to be very
much alive, and the SLFP itself in a state of robust
political health, perhaps the best tribute to the man who
charted Sri Lankan politics into a new terrain.