J. R. Jayewardene and the erosion of democracy: Insidious Activities in the Sixties

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 19 2021
Columns J. R. Jayewardene and the erosion of democracy: Insidious Activities in the Sixties

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Having written about J. R. Jayewardene’s chauvinism in the fifties, on top of his obsequiousness to big powers, I move now to his role in the sixties. Initially however, there is some uncertainty about whether he contributed much to the first attempt to undermine the Government Sirimavo Bandaranaike set up in July 1960.

Before that there had been another Election, in March, following the assassination of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and the antics of Wijayananda Dahanayake who succeeded him, Dudley Senanayake was once again leading the UNP. JR was not at all well known and he and the party felt someone with clear leadership qualities should be at the helm. Dudley responded to the call and led the party to victory over the SLFP, as well as Dahanayake’s LPP which was decimated, at the March Election, but he did not have a majority and advised the Governor General to dissolve Parliament when his Throne Speech was voted down. 

It was a pity the opposition was not given a chance to form a Government. The excuse given was the SLFP was prepared to enter into an agreement with the Federal Party whereby they would have made more concessions to Tamil politicians than the UNP thought acceptable. But it is a great pity that another Election was precipitated so soon without allowing for efforts at compromise.

But before the Election C. P. de Silva who had led the party in March yielded to Sirimavo who had been persuaded to enter politics. And the SLFP, now revitalised, won the Election and governed for over four years. But it had to face a lot of challenges. Worst of these was an attempted coup effort by senior military men who disliked Sirimavo’s nationalistic approach, and in particular the takeover of schools which deeply upset the Catholic Church.

Who was involved?

Who exactly was involved in the coup has never been clearly established. The officers who were arrested took on full responsibility, though the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke was thought to have been sympathetic, and had to give up his position. Later the historian K. M. de Silva, who was close to JR when he was President, claimed Dudley Senanayake had been complicit, but this has been forcefully argued against.

That various figures in the UNP were involved is not in doubt, but there is no obvious link to the hierarchy. One was Aelian Kannangara, who approached the former Inspector General of Police, Osmund de Silva, to be told firmly that they were not the Praetorian Guard. He was sent to Italy as ambassador by the Senanayake Government. And the first accused in the coup case was the Civil Servant Douglas Liyanage who was again in the higher echelons of power during JR’s Presidency.  

Averting nationalisation

News of the coup got out before the plotters acted so Mrs Bandaranaike survived the attempt and continued in power until 1984. But then she lost a vote in Parliament after she had entered into a coalition with leftist parties. C. P. de Silva, the most senior member of the party at this stage, did not approve of this shift to the left and he voted against the Government along with several others. A few of them may have done so out of idealistic motives but some were bribed as Esmond Wickremesinghe used frequently to boast. Lake House had been in danger of being nationalised and he had no qualms of using all means at his disposal to avert this. 

The UNP won the Election, but did not have a majority. This time they entered into a coalition with the Tamil parties, though the FP did not take up a Ministry but instead asked that a supporter, Murugeysen Tiruchelvam, be appointed to the Cabinet through the Senate. This was done and the Senanayake Government continued in office for five years, though half way through Tiruchelvam resigned. Tiruchelvam resigned when Dudley Senanayake told the Federal Party that he could not proceed with the reforms he had pledged when he sought their assistance. He did move on provisions for the use of Tamil as S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike too had agreed on, but the main condition, the institution of District Councils,was not fulfilled. Even though Chelvanayakam had agreed that the national Government could give directions to the Councils, this was not enough for those who saw devolution as a dangerous step towards autonomy and perhaps even separation.

The SLFP opposed the provisions, together with its leftist allies, who now abandoned the more pluralistic position they had previously enunciated. And more worryingly for Dudley Senanayake Cyril Mathew, who had been joint General Secretary of the UNP since 1956, resigned from that position in 1967 and campaigned against the proposed District Councils Bill. 

Resignation led to Deputy’s elevation

He had failed to get into Parliament at the Election, having given up his comparatively safe seat at Kolonne so his son could contest it, and moved to Bandarawela. But not being a Minister, his opposition was uninhibited. And Dudley Senanayake could not be sure that JR, who had worked with him to oppose the Bandaranaike-Chelvnayakem Pact, was not behind him at this time too. So in the end Dudley abandoned his attempt, though he did inform Chelvanayakam of his inability and there was less bad blood than when Bandaranaike had torn up his pact prior to informing Chelvanayakam that he had to renege on his commitment. Indeed Tiruchelvam continued in his Ministry though he resigned shortly afterwards, citing a different issue. Incidentally, Tiruchelvam’s resignation from the Cabinet led to the elevation of his Deputy, Ranasinghe Premadasa. 

By this time there was considerable bad blood between Dudley and JR. It had been precipitated in fact by Esmond. The charitable explanation of this was that, when Dudley fell ill while abroad, foreign papers asked for a draft obituary and this caused Dudley to feel the media was preparing for his death. But it was also the case that Esmond had made it clear to Shirley Amerasinghe, who was Ceylon’s Representative at the UN that he felt Dudley was past it and that JR should take over. Shirley reported this to the Secretary to the Prime Minister’s Ministry of Defence and External Affairs, G. V. P. Samarasinghe, who thereupon had JR put under surveillance, and perhaps Esmond too. 

No illusions 

Though I have no illusions about the depths to which JR could sink, and though his ambitions were boundless, I do not think he would have done anything to promote those ambitions in the sixties, or plotted against Dudley Senanayake. But the old friendship between him and Dudley faded away, and there is little doubt that he would not have been unhappy had Dudley failed, or resigned for any other reason. 

Case dismissed

In a context in which the opposition was taunting Dudley as being too close to the Tamils, there were obviously those in the UNP who would have felt a more nationalist leader would have been preferable. Amongst these incidentally was future Prime Minister D. B. Wijetunge, who supported Mathew’s campaign. And of course there was no doubt about JR’s nationalist credentials, given the role he had played against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact in the late fifties. 

Meanwhile JR continued with attacks too on Sirimavo. There were all sorts of allegations about her financial probity, the best known of which was a charge against her brother Mackie Ratwatte of having accepted a bribe. Mackie had been her private secretary while she was Prime Minister and the principal evidence against him came from Bradman Weerakoon who was the Civil Servant who had been her official private secretary. With regard to that Sirimavo simply said that Bradman had not told the truth. In fact then Solicitor  General Victor Tennekoon was reported to have advised against prosecution on the grounds that the evidence was flimsy. But an outsider brought in as Attorney General did prosecute, only to have the case dismissed without a hearing being called. 

Within Parliament also JR persecuted Sirimavo, by initiating a Select Committee of Parliament to look into an allegation that she had accepted a bribe. Fortunately for Sirimavo my father, who was Secretary General of Parliament, decided to look into the evidence and found it was very flimsy. The accusation was that she had been given a car by an insurance company, but in fact the car had been given to her party to collect applications for insurance. Much time had been wasted on the inquiry, and money expended, though in the end parliament ruled that she had done no wrong and noted the care with which my father had gone into the evidence. 

JR simply shrugged and smiled. He had a healthy respect for my father and never tried to challenge him on his own ground. Once when he tried a fast one with regard to parliamentary procedure, and my father advised the Speaker against accepting his argument, he told my father genially that, had he not been there, ‘I would have got away with it.’

He was a very shrewd man but not half as clever as people thought he was. His reputation was understandable however, since the vast majority of his colleagues were not half as sharp as he was, and by the late sixties few of them had anything like the understanding of the English language and its nuances as he commanded – and of course English still continued the language of parliamentary process.

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 19 2021

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