Democracy developed apace in Britain in the 19th century, and the Ceylonese began to ask for similar rights for themselves. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was impossible for the British government to refuse such demands. The Liberal Party had returned to office in 1906 and many years, on a reform platform that included reducing the power of the House of Lords, in pursuit of its belief that final decisions should rest with the elected representatives of the people. Though they did not extend democracy on such lines to the colonies, they began a process which did lead to universal franchise in Sri Lanka within a quarter of a century after the reform process began.
McCallum Constitution: The Elective Principle
In 1912, the elective principle was introduced in the Legislative Council. According to the principle just one representative was to be elected by all ‘educated’ Ceylonese. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, perhaps in recognition of his contribution, was voted to this position 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. Legend attributes the reaction of the government in Britain to representations made by E.W.Perera, who travelled to England after the riots. But that would have been far too late to save the imprisoned Ceylonese, and in reality it was Ramanathan who did most for the victimised Sinhalese.
Among the prisoners was D. S.Senanayake who later went on to become the first prime minister of independent Sri Lanka. The British administration in Colombo was threatening the severest penalties of martial law against him. It was Ramanathan’s spirited attack against the unjustified violence of the British reaction to the riots that roused the attention of the British government. When the British government was informed by telegraph of his protest, it decided to adopt a more conciliatory approach and to recall the then Governor of Ceylon.
These incidents occurred after the Colebrooke Constitution had been replaced by a constitution implemented by Governor McCallum. The franchise, by now, had been extended in Britain to include all adult males and therefore it was believed necessary to provide some concession to the elective principle in Ceylon. It was seen as one of the more advanced colonies, suitable for experiments because of its small size. The Executive Council remained unchanged, but the Legislative Council was expanded to 21, including ten unofficial members, four of whom were to be elected. Of the four elected members two were Europeans, one a Burgher and one an ’educated’ Ceylonese. The other six—three Sinhalese, two Tamils and a Muslim—were to be appointed by the governor.
Thus, the governor continued to control a majority in the Executive Council. The British government enjoyed strong support among the conservative sections of society which became clear from their response to the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915. One of the appointed Sinhalese members stated that the riots were started by “nobodies trying to be somebodies”.
Manning Constitution: 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 change in the principles on which the Legislative Council was established. But once the process was initiated, the reform was swift.
The Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915, the Governor’s reaction, and the protests against it had led to the formation of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) in 1919.The guiding spirit behind the formation of the party was Ponnambalam Arunachalam, brother of Ponnambalam Ramanathan. He brought together various leagues that had been set up for reform on a regional basis under the banner of the CNC, having convinced them that their interests could be safeguarded in a united body that would advance all their interests.
The first result of this unity was that the McCallum Constitution was replaced in 1920 by the Manning Constitution, implemented by the Governor of the time. It gave the unofficial component of the Legislative Council a majority. In addition, for the first time in Ceylon, the principle of territorial elections was introduced. The unofficial members in the council were increased from 10 to 23 of which 16 were to be elected. Eleven of these members were to be elected from particular areas—three from the Western province and one each from the eight other provinces.
The franchise was still very limited and with seven members nominated by the governor, although to represent particular groups of Ceylonese, the governor could command a clear majority of the 37 members, given that there were also 14 official members. Again, of the other five elected members, there were two Europeans, one Burgher and a representative of the Chamber of Commerce which was basically European. All these members at this stage tended to identify more with the colonial power rather than the emerging Ceylonese political class.
The fifth elected position was given to an organisation known as the Low Country Planters Association (LCPA). The LCPA had less than ten members and it could be argued that this seat was created to accommodate Sir James Pieris, a leading politician of the period. He was the LCPA’s most important member. However, James Pieris allowed his brother-in-law Henry de Mel to have the LCPA seat and decided to contest the election from Colombo. This was a tragic move that had far-reaching consequences.
Ponnambalam Arunachalam, who had brought all leading Ceylonese politicians together in the CNC, had staked a claim on behalf of the Western province Tamils for a seat. Given that the Western province had three seats, and given the large proportion of Tamil and Muslim inhabitants in that province, it was desirable that a seat was allotted to represent these communities. Arunachalam had argued for a reserved seat for Western province Tamils but this was not allowed. Instead a special seat was created for the LCPA which was dominated by the Sinhalese.
Arunachalam was thus left out in the cold. The other Sinhalese politicians did not fight on his behalf. They probably felt that balanced caste representation was more important than balanced representation of 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.
James Pieris belonged to the Karawa caste, so the three castes that saw themselves as the most distinguished amongst the Sinhalese had representation in the Western province. What was forgotten was that the LCPA seat also provided for representation for one of them, while the Tamils were now unrepresented. This began the process of disenchantment of Tamils with national political parties. The final results seemed to make clear to them that they had no share of power at the centre, and were expected instead to retire to the periphery.
Manning-Devonshire Constitution: An elected majority
The Manning reforms did not satisfy the CNC, though they were more concerned with the continuing domination of the council by nominees of the governor (official and unofficial combined) rather than the imbalance in the representation of communities. After further agitation, the Secretary of State for the colonies, Lord Devonshire, introduced some reforms. These came into operation in 1924 through what is termed the Manning-Devonshire Constitution.
Finally, with these reforms, there was an elected majority in the council. Of its 49 members only 12 were officials. Of the others, eight were appointed to represent Indian Tamils, Muslims and others, while there were also former government officials to provide additional expertise. Thus, of the 49 members in the council 29 were elected, 23 of them on the basis of territorial representation. There were between one and five members for each of the nine provinces. The remaining six of the 29 consisted of those who would not obtain representation in a territorial election—three Europeans, two Burghers and, finally, one Western province Tamil. Unfortunately, Ponnambalam Arunachalam had died before this, a disappointed man. The Western province Tamil seat went to his son, Arunachalam Mahadeva. Ponnambalam Ramanathan, having learnt from the lesson of 1920 when the Tamils had not obtained representation in the Western province, contested a seat from the Northern province. The man who had represented the Ceylonese so ably for so long at the centre was thus in effect driven to the periphery.
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. But it was clear, by now, that the Ceylonese were moving towards a greater share in government. A Public Accounts Committee of the council was established to formalise scrutiny of government expenditure. This strengthened the authority 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 and, though they did not exercise particular responsibilities, the right of the legislature to participate in the executive was initiated.