Sri Vikrama Rajasinha (1780 - 1832)

(This simplified version of the fifth chapter of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, presents the constitutional history of Sri Lanka in light of the principles discussed in the earlier chapters)

In common with most countries, Sri Lanka had an autocratic form of government for much of its history. Kings (or sometimes queens) ruled in Sri Lanka from well before the Christian era, and changing the government meant the king had to be changed, often through violence or invasions. Sometimes the country was divided into several small kingdoms, with different kings who were independent of each other. More often it was unified, with one king dominating other rulers who were characterized in different periods as sub-kings or as governors.

Of course these kings needed the advice and assistance of others to rule, and there were Councils with various responsibilities at the Centre. There were also systems of local government, with Councils of elders in villagers, or Councils of various sorts to advise governors of regions. However, all such Councils existed at the pleasure of the King, as did the Courts. They, and governors, were chosen or appointed on the sole authority of the King. Though obviously good rulers took into account the wishes or preferences of their people, there was no accepted principle that the people had a right to have whom they wanted in authority over them. The only occasions on which the will of the King was not absolute was with regard to the succession or to sub-kings, where heredity was crucial.

In short, democracy was unheard of as a principle, and a doctrine that may be characterized as the Divine Right of Kings held sway in Sri Lanka, based on heredity or conquest, as it did in much of the world for much of its history. Thus when the Europeans arrived, they simply took over the rule of the King. Don Juan Dharmapala willed his kingdom to the King of Portugal, a succession facilitated by the fact that there were no direct heirs in his line. Conversely, when a rival kingdom was set up in Kandy, though it was by virtue of military skill and superiority, Vimaladharmasuriya legitimized his position by marriage to Dona Catherina who had a claim to the throne based on birth. 

George III (1738 – 1820)

The Portuguese were replaced by the Dutch, and the Dutch by the British. In the Kandyan kingdom, when the direct line died out, succession was based on blood relationships, albeit an indirect version that derived from South Indian customs. Uncertainty in this regard helped in the downfall of the last King of Kandy, whose position was then ceded to the British king, in theory with the acquiescence of the Kandyan nobility through the Kandyan Convention. In reality however this was on the basis of force, as became clear when the British crushed the 1818 rebellion and abrogated the Kandyan Convention.

From the beginning of the colonial period, until the 1820s, the virtual King of the colonial domains was the Governor, appointed by the European sovereign whom he served, and answerable only to him, and to Ministers he appointed. In the eighteenth century however restrictions on absolute power began to emerge in Europe, and this had its effect on the colonies. Thus, in the early years of the British, a Governor was required to consult his Council, and issued orders as the ‘Governor-in-Council’. However, built into the system was the Governor’s right to ignore the advice that was proferred.

Restricting the executive power

Flag of the Governor of Ceylon

In the 1820s however Britain began to move towards more democratic practices, and the reforms that were spearheaded by the Whigs (the later Liberal Party) had their impact also in Ceylon, as it was then known. The Colebrooke Commission recommended a formal constitutional structure, with a Legislative Council and an Executive Council, both of which came into being in 1833. The latter, the equivalent of the Cabinet, consisted of the Governor and five senior Civil Servants, namely the Officer commanding the Troops, the Queen’s Advocate, the Treasurer, the Colonial Secretary and the Government Agent for the Central Province. These can be compared to modern day Ministers of Defence, Justice, Finance, Public Administration – and the head of a significant region, who thus had authority at the Centre too.

The old Legislative Council Building, Colombo fort. Today houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Sri Lanka).

The Legislative Council had 15 members, 9 of them officials including those who formed the Executive Council. The other 6, the unofficial members, were appointed to represent different sections of society. Given the importance of the European community, there were three Europeans, with one representative each for Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers, the descendants (sometimes of mixed race) of the earlier European settlers. In 1888 two more unofficial representatives were added, for the Up-country Sinhalese and for the Muslims.

This provision in the Colebrooke recommendations can be seen as the first step towards representative government, or rather representation in the legislature. However, all representatives were appointed by the governor – and even if they thought their first allegiance was to the people they represented, rather than to the person who appointed them, they could always be outvoted by the officials, who worked directly for the governor.

Thus, the first statutory bodies limiting the power of the Chief Executive were in effect rubber stamps, since their members owed him their allegiance in greater or lesser measure. Nevertheless some at least of the members of the Legislative Council took strong positions against the Governor, and debates led to remedial measures, as after the 1848 rebellion when criticism of Lord Torrington’s actions contributed to his recall.

Generally it was the Europeans who took the lead in this, and the Burgher member, though the Sinhalese member in the 1860s, James d’Alwis, was also notoriously independent. He was however the only Sinhalese representative who challenged the authorities, and all others during the period in which the Colebrooke Constitution was in operation were notoriously passive.

The Tamil representatives were quite different however, in particular Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who was in the Council over a long period He saw himself as representing the people of Ceylon, and it was due to him that several measures in the people’s interests were taken up, including for instance the introduction of a Public Holiday for Vesak.

The Elective Principle

It was perhaps in recognition of his contribution that, when in 1912 the elective principle was introduced to the Legislative Council, with only one representative to be elected by all ‘educated’ Ceylonese, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan won by a substantial majority in what was a largely Sinhalese electorate. He justified this faith in his representative capabilities when he argued passionately on behalf of the Sinhalese imprisoned by the British after the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915. Though legend attributes the reaction of the government in Britain to representations made by E W Perera, who traveled to England after the riots, that would have been far too late to save the imprisoned Ceylonese (including D S Senanayake) against whom the British administration in Colombo was threatening the severest penalties of martial law. Rather it was Ramanathan’s spirited attack on the unjustified violence of the British reaction to the riots that roused the attention of the British government, when reported through the telegraph, and which led to a more conciliatory approach and the recall of the then Governor.

By this time the Colebrooke Constitution had been replaced by a Constitution implemented by Governor McCallum. The Executive Council remained unchanged but, with the franchise having by now been extended in Britain to include all adult males, some concession had to be made to the elective principle in what was seen as one of the more advanced colonies, suitable for experiments because of its small size. So the membership of the Legislative Council was expanded to 21, to include 10 unofficial members, 4 of whom were to be elected – 2 Europeans, 1 Burgher and one Educated Ceylonese. The other 6, 3 Sinhalese, 2 Tamils and a Muslim, were appointed.

Thus the Governor continued to control the vast majority of the Executive Council and indeed the reaction of one of the appointed Sinhalese members to the event of 1915, that the problems were started by nobodies trying to be somebodies, makes clear that the executive power could count on the conservative elements of society to support it, regardless of whom or what they were meant to represent.

Territorial elections and an unofficial majority

However the winds of change could not be resisted. It took nearly 80 years after the Colebrooke Constitution for there to be a change in the principles on which the Legislative Council was established, but after that reform was swift. The McCallum Constitution was followed in 1920 by the Manning Constitution, implemented by the Governor of the time. The 1915 riots, the Governor’s reaction, and the protests against it, had led to the formation in 1919 of the Ceylon National Congress, the moving spirit behind which was Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s brother, Ponnambalam Arunachalam. He brought together various Leagues that had been set up for reform on a regional basis, having convinced them that the interests of all could be safeguarded in a united body that would advance their common interests further.

The first results of this unity were the Manning reform of 1920 which gave the unofficial component of the Legislative Council a majority. In addition, for the first time in Sri Lanka the principle of territorial elections was introduced. Of the 23 unofficial members, 16 were elected. 11 of these were for particular areas, 3 for the Western Province and 1 each for the other 8 Provinces.

Of course the franchise was still very limited and, with 7 members nominated by the Governor, albeit to represent particular groups of Sri Lankans, he could command a clear majority of the 37 members, given that there were 14 official members. Again, of the remaining 5 elected members there were 2 Europeans and 1 Burgher, and 1 represented the Chamber of Commerce which was basically European. All these by this stage tended to identify more with the colonial power rather than the emerging Sri Lankan political class.

But perhaps the most significant contribution to political developments at this time on the part of Governor Manning was the 5th elected position, which was given to an organization known as the Low Country Planters Association. This had fewer than 10 members, and this seat was perhaps created to accommodate Sir James Pieris, a leading politician of the period, who was the LCPA’s most significant member. However, that seat was obtained by his brother in law, Henry de Mel.  James Pieris instead contested the Colombo seat.

This was a tragic move that had far reaching consequences. Ponnambalam Arunachalam, who had in effect brought all leading Sri Lankan politicians together into the Ceylon National Congress, had staked a claim for that seat. Given that the Western Province had three seats, and given the large proportion of Tamil and Muslim inhabitants in that Province, it made sense for them to have some sort of representation. Arunachalam had argued for a reserved seat for Western Province Tamils, but this had not been allowed, and instead a special seat had been created for the Low Country Planters Association which was dominated by Sinhalese.

However when James Pieris allowed his brother in law to have that seat, and put himself forward for Colombo, Arunachalam was left out in the cold. Unfortunately the other Sinhalese politicians in the Congress did not fight on his behalf. Perhaps they thought balanced caste representation was more important than balance with regard to communities – of the other two seats in the Western Province, one went to Mudaliyar Rajapakse, of the Salagama caste, and the other to E W Perera, of the Govigama caste.

This began the process of disenchantment on the part of Tamils with national political parties. The final result indicated that they had no share in power at the center, and should instead retire to the periphery.

An elected majority

The Manning reforms did not satisfy the Congress, though they were more concerned with the continuing domination of the Council by nominees of the Governor (official and unofficial combined) rather than the problem noted above. After more agitation the Secretary of State for the colonies, Lord Devonshire, introduced some adjustments. These came into operation in 1924 through what is termed the Manning-Devonshire Constitution.

At last, with these reforms, there was an elected majority in the Council. Of its 49 members only 12 were officials. Of the others, only 8 were appointed, to represent Indian Tamils and Muslims and others including former government officials to provide additional expertise. 29 were elected, 23 territorially with between 1 and 5 members for each of the 9 provinces. 6 more were elected for those who would not obtain representation on a territorial election, 3 Europeans, 2 Burghers and, finally, 1 Western Province Tamil.

Unfortunately Ponnambalam Arunachalam had died before this, a disappointed man. The Western Province Tamil position went to his son, Arunachalam Mahadeva, but more significant is the fact that Ponnambalam Ramanathan, understanding the lesson of 1920, had contested a seat from the Northern Province. The man who had represented all Ceylonese so ably for so long at the Centre was thus in effect driven to the periphery.

Though it could be argued that the governor still maintained some degree of control, since the official and the appointed members, together with the Europeans and Burghers, gave him a slight majority, by now it was clear that the Ceylonese were moving towards a greater share in the government. A Public Accounts committee of the Council was established, to formalize scrutiny of government expenditure, thus lending weight to the power of the Council to allocate funds through the budget. Moreover, for the first time since the Colebrooke Constitution, there was a change in the composition of the Executive Council. Two representatives of the Legislative Council were added to its membership. Though they did not exercise particular responsibilities, the right of the Legislature to participate in the Executive was initiated.