Memories: International celebrities – Sirimavo Bandaranaike
By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Of all our politicians, it was Sirimavo Bandaranaike who commanded not just the most attention, but also the most affection, from the world at large.
This was not only because she was the first female Prime Minister in the world. It was also because of the dignity with which she bore herself, as also the elegance of her appearance in a saree, arguably the most attractive of female costumes.
I benefited from this, most notably in Yugoslavia where as a student I was greeted hospitably by all those I came across, including two policemen who, enunciating the name Bandaranaike with great enthusiasm (we had hardly any other language in common), found me shelter (one in his own house) when I was desperate for all the hotels I tried were full, late at night, in both Sarajevo and Split. Yugoslavia I should note was special, for its citizens were well aware of the special friendship between their President, Marshal Tito, and our Prime Minister, a couple suggesting through gestures that there was more there than affection. But more recently too, in other places, the name Bandaranaike was evoked when I said I was from Sri Lanka, well over a decade after her death, almost forty years after she ceased to be in power.
Stirring the pot
I cannot claim to have known her well and my interactions with her were fewer than with the others I have written about in this series. But I held her in great esteem, and I know she was fond of me. This was mainly I think because I was the only person to make what was seen as a sacrifice on her behalf, when she was deprived of her civic rights, in 1980. Others, perhaps understandably, were worried about the succession, which was indeed as J.R. Jayewardene wanted, himself stirring the pot in the scramble that occurred as both her son and her daughter tried to stamp their influence on the party, and many of its members chose one or the other as much from ambition as from ideological commitment. The obvious exception to this, I should note, with respect, was Lakshman Jayakody, who had been her Parliamentary Secretary when she was Prime Minister, and who was nominated to take her place when she had to vacate her seat.
I had gone to the debate on the motion to strip of her Civic Rights, and was horrified at the appalling behaviour of the serried ranks of Government MPs. I was also deeply impressed at the dignity with which she faced the hooligans, making a statement about her position and then walking out of Parliament before the circus reached its climax. And I should mention here too the decency with which the TULF behaved, and the thoughtful speech of its leader, Appapillai Amirthalingam, standing up for democracy against the Government, quite unlike his obsequious successors in the current Parliament.
How vicious was the UNP
I felt it important to register my opposition, and the only way I could do this was to resign from the position I held under Government, as an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Peradeniya. The head of the English Department, Ashley Halpe, was deeply upset and tried to argue me out of the decision when I gave him my letter, but when I agreed finally but said I would have to speak against what had happened, he told me he could not allow the Department to be jeopardised. Given how vicious the UNP was in those days, trying for instance to strip Prof. Anuruddha Seneviratne of his position, I could see why he was nervous.
And so I resigned. Interestingly, some of those who thought I was being histrionic in seeing the Government move as evidence of an authoritarian mindset told me when the Referendum was announced that I had been right to react the way I did. And though nothing could prevent the headlong destruction over the next few years of both democracy and the promise the country had shown till then, I felt my gesture had served at least some purpose. The SLFP publicised it, having asked my permission to do so, and it served to make clear that opposition to what was going on was not only on the part of supporters of the former Government.
Certainly, J.R. Jayewardene understood this, for a year later he stopped me being appointed to the post of Director of Studies at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies. Noel Tittawella, one of the judges he had got rid of from the Supreme Court, told me this would happen, for J R could not get over the fact that I was the only person of his class to have, as it were, kicked him in the teeth.
Getting to know her better
Over the next few years I came to know Mrs Bandaranaike better, for I persuaded the Council for Liberal Democracy to work together with her in its efforts to promote reform of the Constitution. Chanaka Amaratunga had been initially opposed to her, claiming that the statist socialism her Government had manifested had ruined the country in the seventies, but he agreed to have her as Chief Guest at the opening of the seminar series, and indeed extolled her democratic credentials in his speech. And when finally her Civic Rights were restored, J.R. Jayewardene claimed that agitation by the Council for Liberal Democracy had contributed to his change of mind.
The newly formed Liberal Party was a lynchpin of the effort initiated by Dinesh Gunawardena to bring opposition parties together for the next election, and Chanaka indeed wrote some of the manifesto for her Presidential campaign in 1988. But sadly she contributed to her own defeat, when she reneged on the arrangement reached with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to ensure its support. During the discussions she had been lukewarm about the idea, and I remember sitting with her privately at Horagolla, at the Bandaranaike Commemoration there on 26 September, to persuade her. She claimed then that the SLMC did not have much support, and the SLFP Muslims were against a deal with them, but I pointed out that even if the SLMC commanded only a few hundred thousand votes, those could be crucial. And I had a long talk with Haleem Ishak, who may not have been happy, but said he would not oppose a deal.
Gift horse in the mouth
I prepared a paper for her on the arithmetic, which Chanaka presented in the last days of negotiation, and in the end, with support also from Anura Bandaranaike, a deal was agreed. But early next morning, Anura rang Chanaka to say that his mother had changed her mind. He said he could not face Ashraff, and asked Chanaka to break the news. When Chanaka did so, he said Ashraff simply said that he would ensure she lost. And his anger was understandable for he had persuaded his party to agree to the deal, and it had been publicised, so the sudden change was most embarrassing. And sure enough, he then entered into a deal with Mr Premadasa, not for much he told me later since he was in a difficult position, but he was given what he wanted and Sirimavo lost by less than 300,000 votes, which was the minimum I had written would be in Ashraff’s gift.
Chanaka was convinced that Sirimavo had been influenced by her elder daughter Sunethra, who lived with her in their family home, whereas Anura had a modern house next door. And this seems to have been the case because at that stage Sunethra was supportive of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the internecine warfare between her two political siblings.
Not long after the 1982 Presidential Election, when Chandrika had had her way in having Hector Kobbekaduwa nominated as the SLFP candidate, she and her dynamic husband Vijaya had lost out within the party to Anura’s supporters. She and Vijaya had then formed their own party, but after he was killed she had gone abroad. Now, when Chanaka went to Sirimavo’s house after the election, Sunethra had greeted him with the assertion that it was essential to bring Chandrika back.
Chandrika takes control
His declaration that was an absurd idea, he claimed, sealed his fate with regard to the National List seat he had been promised, for he was left out. I wrote to her about this, saying that it was a pity she had not abided by her commitment, and got a long letter back, in which she justified her decision. But as the aftermath showed, by sidelining Anura and his supporters, she paved the way for her being sidelined herself, when Chandrika came back and took control.
Still, albeit without any powers, she served as Prime Minister for six years under Chandrika, and until the end was a formidable presence. But I prefer to think of her in her heyday, when she presided over a Cabinet of great talent with sublime equanimity. And I think too of her affection for my father, who was under attack soon after the 1970 Election, on the grounds that he was sympathetic to the UNP, given that one of J R’s chief supporters was his brother-in-law.
One of the complaints to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, to make her remove my father from the post of Secretary General of Parliament, was that my father had not gone to see her after her election victory. “Sam?” she said, “But Sam would come to see me if I lost.”
A natural politician, and an able judge of people, her dignity extended to respect for the dignity of others.