The Legislative Council building in Janadhipathi Mawatha (then called Queen Street), Colombo Fort. The building later housed the Senate (after Independence) and is presently occupied by the Foreign Ministry.

(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).

The main complaint of Ceylonese politicians with regard to the Manning-Devonshire Constitution was that, while the Legislative Council in theory had authority over the government, since it could introduce and amend laws, and controlled the budget and public spending, it had no executive powers. Two representatives on the executive council, without responsibility for any specific area, could not really influence governmental action.

In response to these complaints, and also inasmuch as Britain had in the 1920s a Labour Prime Minister, with at least some members of the cabinet and the parliament keen on reforms in the colonies, another Commission was sent out at the end of that decade to draw up a new Constitution. The Donoughmore Constitution, as it was known after the Chairman of the Commission, Lord Donoughmore, moved in radical new directions. It introduced universal suffrage, which was in fact opposed by most Sri Lankan politicians, Ponnambalam Ramanathan and James Peiris, E W Perera and D B Jayatilaka, D S Senanayake and S W R D Bandaranaike. Only two minor politicians, including the Labour Party leader, A E Goonesinha, spoke in its favour.

Combining the Legislative and the Executive

The other major change of the Donoughmore Constitution was the amalgamation of Legislative and Executive functions by the creation of a State Council, through which Ministers were appointed to take charge of executive departments of the government. However, unlike in the Cabinet system as it functioned in Britain, these Ministers were not chosen from a ruling party. In fact, though candidates described themselves as members of parties (Congress or Liberal or Labour), they basically stood as individuals.

Being elected then as individuals, instead of forming into blocs, all members of the State Council acting as a whole divided themselves into 7 Committees, with responsibility for specific areas of government. Each Committee elected a Chairman, who became the Minister, and thus a member of the Board of Ministers. This was therefore a Cabinet based on representation of everyone all the way up – all the people elected State Councillors, all members of the State Council elected (or rather selected by consensus) members of the Committees, all members of the Committees elected their Chairmen.

There were altogether 50 members of the State Council elected territorially, with 8 others appointed to represent communities and interests (Europeans, Burghers, Malays etc) which would not ordinarily be able to elect a representative. A Speaker and Deputy Speaker were elected, and the others divided themselves into 7 Committees that were for the following subjects – Agriculture, Education, Health, Home Affairs, Local Government, Communications and Public Works, Labour and Industry and Commerce.

The Executive under the Donoughmore Constitution

The most important functions of government are missing from this list. This was the key to the readiness of the British to grant so much self-government to a colony, long before any other colony that did not consist mainly of the descendants of Europeans received such powers. The key areas of government were reserved for the Governor and officials he appointed. The Chief Secretary (who was in charge of the administration), the Financial Secretary and the Legal Secretary were Civil Servants. They were members of the State Council and served in the Board of Ministers, but clearly their first allegiance was to the British government and not to the people represented in the State Council. Besides these, Defence and dealings with foreign governments, insofar as these were not handled by the British government in London, were looked after by the Governor.

Tamil politicians, who had felt themselves squeezed out at the center after the implementation of the Manning reforms, opposed the Donoughmore Constitution. They felt that a system based on simple majorities, without adequate safeguards for the minorities, would lead to discrimination. They therefore boycotted the State Council elections of 1931. However the Indian Tamils participated, and one of their number, Peri Sunderam, was elected Minister for Labour, Industry and Commerce. The Muslims, who contested the election, returned a single member, Marcan Markar, to the Batticaloa seat (though he came originally from Galle) and he too became a Minister, for Communications and Public Works. The first Board of Ministers, in addition to these two representatives of minorities, consisted of Sir D B Jayatilaka (Home Affairs), who functioned as Chairman of the Board, D S Senanayake (Agriculture), C W W Kannangara (Education) T B Panabokke (Health) and C Batuwantudawe (Local Government).

Perhaps encouraged by the composition of the Board of Ministers, the Tamils of the North decided to accept the Constitution, and entered the State Council in by-elections in 1934. Their fears regarding majoritarianism however proved well-founded following the election to the next State Council in 1936. Though a Tamil, Sir Vythialingam Duraiswamy, was elected Speaker, when the Committees selected their Chairmen there were no Tamils amongst them. There were no Muslims either. No Muslim had been elected, since the Batticaloa seat had been won by a Tamil, but there were Muslims amongst the appointed members.

There were 4 new Ministers, in addition to Jayatilaka, Senanayake and Kannangara, who held their old portfolios. S W R D Bandaranaike became Minister of Local Government, John Kotelawala became Minister of Communications and Public Works, W A de Silva became Minister of Health and G C S Corea became Minister of Labour, Industry and Commerce. The pressures from younger politicians to hold executive office had taken precedence over representation of minorities. This doubtless contributed to the anxieties of Tamil politicians in the negotiations preceding the grant of independence during the forties. They were led by G G Ponnambalam, an eminent lawyer whose practice was in Colombo. He was however the member for Jaffna, in line with Ramanathan’s move to the north after Tamils were shut out of the system of representation in the south. Ponnambalam’s request for what was termed 50/50, a system that gave all minorities together representation equal to that of the majority, was based on historical evidence that a simple majoritarian system led to sidelining of minorities.

By then however some of the Sinhalese political leaders had realized the gravity of their blunder. In 1942 Jayatilaka, who was seen as having outlived his usefulness, was persuaded to retire, and was sent to India as High Commissioner. Senanayake took over as Chairman of the Board of Ministers and, in place of Jayatilaka, Arunachalam Mahadeva was selected as Minister of Home Affairs.