For the second part of this series, I will follow the system of the book that Cambridge University Press published some years back, and deal with practice in Sri Lanka. At the time I wondered whether I was not being unduly simplistic in spelling out in detail the way in which democracy developed in Sri Lanka. But a decade later, I realize this is essential, for, let alone students, many politicians and even academics cannot connect, and see relationships between basic political principles and what happened in this country – which was often the result of the particular convenience of a few individuals in positions of authority or of influence.
The first Chapter of the Second Part, Chapter 5, is about Power Sharing and Representation. It begins with a quick sketch of Early History before moving on to the development of Representative Institutions in the British period.
Sri Lanka, as most countries of the world, had an autocratic form of government for much of its history. Kings (or sometimes queens) ruled Sri Lanka from well before the Christian era. A change of government meant a change of monarch, 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 characterised in different periods as sub-kings or governors.
These kings were given advice and assistance by councils with various responsibilities at the centre. There were also systems of local government, with councils of elders in villages, or councils of various sorts to advise governors of regions. However, all such councils existed at the will of the king, as did the courts. They and the governors were chosen or appointed on the sole authority of the king. Though good rulers took into account the wishes of their people, the idea that the people had a right to choose their rulers never came into play. The only occasions on which the will of the king was not absolute was with regard to succession or appointment of sub-kings, where heredity was crucial. In short, democracy was unheard of as a principle. The Divine Rights Theory of Monarchy based on heredity or conquest held sway in Sri Lanka, as it did in most of the world, for most of its history.
So when the Europeans arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505, and began to take control of the country, they simply continued the practice of monarchy. Don Juan Dharmapala, the last Sri Lankan king to rule Colombo, had no children and left his kingdom to the King of Portugal when he died in 1597. So the coastal areas passed into the hands of the Europeans. A rival kingdom had meanwhile been set up in Kandy by Vimaladharmasuriya, a noble who had served the Portuguese but then declared his independence from them in 1592. In order to reinforce his position, in 1594 he married Dona Catherina, a Sinhalese princess who had been sent to Kandy by the Portuguese who asserted that she had a greater claim to the throne. Vimaladharmasuriya, though he won his kingdom by military superiority, had to legitimise his position by marriage to the princess. When he died prematurely, his brother Senerath who succeeded him did the same by marrying Dona Catherina himself.
The Portuguese were replaced by the Dutch and the Dutch by the British. In the Kandyan kingdom, when there were no direct line of heirs, succession was based on blood relationships, in a system derived from south Indian customs. Uncertainty with regard to the line of succession brought down the last king of Kandy whose throne was then ceded to the British king. In theory, this was done with the acquiescence of the Kandyan nobility through the Kandyan Convention, which preserved the prerogatives of the nobles. In reality however, British rule was based on their military superiority rather than the support of the nobles. This became clear during the rebellion of 1818. The rebellion was caused initially by misgovernment in the Uva area, but it intensified when some nobles took up the cause. When they were defeated, even though many nobles who had signed the Convention had remained loyal to the British, the British abrogated the Convention and made it clear that they would rule as they wished.
From the beginning of the colonial period until the 1820s, the virtual king of the colonial domains was the governor. He was appointed by the European sovereign. He served the sovereign and was answerable only to him and the ministers he appointed at his will and pleasure. In the eighteenth century, however, restrictions on absolute power began to emerge in Europe, and this had its effect in the colonies too. Thus, in the early years of the British rule, a governor was required to consult his council, and issued orders as the governor-in-council. However, built into the system of that period was the governor’s right to ignore the advice that was offered.
Colebrooke Commission: Restricting the executive power
In the 1820s, Britain began to move towards more democratic practices, and the reforms that were spearheaded by the Whigs (known as the Liberal Party in later years) had their impact in Sri Lanka or Ceylon, as it was known then. The Colebrooke Commission, which was set up to suggest administrative reforms for the colony, recommended a formal constitutional structure with a Legislative Council and an Executive Council. The councils came into being in 1833. The Executive Council, the equivalent of the modern-day cabinet, was to consist 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. The first four can be compared to modern-day ministers of defence, justice, finance, and public administration. The fifth was the head of an important region, and it is significant that he was given authority at the centre, indicating that his views too were relevant to national decisions.
The Legislative Council had 15 members, nine of them official members, some of whom were also part of the Executive Council. The other six, that is the unofficial members, were appointed to represent different sections of society. Given the importance of the European community, which would have had easier access to the parent government in Britain, and therefore had to be kept happy, there were three Europeans. In addition there was one representative each for Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers. Burghers were descendants (sometimes of mixed race) of the early European settlers. In 1888, two more unofficial members were included, to represent the up-country Sinhalese and Muslims.
This provision in the Colebrooke Commission can be seen as the first step towards representative government, or rather representation in the legislature. However, all these representatives were appointed by the governor and, even if 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, it should be noted that some of the members of the Legislative Council took strong positions against the governor and debates led to remedial measures. For instance, after the 1848 rebellion, criticism of Lord Torrington’s actions led to his recall.
It was Europeans who took the lead in such matters, with support early on from the Burgher representative. One notable critic of the government in the middle of the nineteenth century was James d’Alwis. However, he was the only Sinhalese representative who challenged the authorities during the period in which the Colebrooke Constitution was in operation, while all others were notoriously passive. The Tamil representatives on the contrary were known for expressing dissident opinion. In particular, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who was the Tamil representative over a long period of time, saw himself as a representative of the people of Ceylon rather than just of a particular community. It was due to him that several measures in the people’s interests were taken, including the introduction of a public holiday for Vesak, the main Buddhist festival day.