Chapter 6 of Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka dealt with the introduction of Universal Franchise to Sri Lanka, and the beginning of Representative Government. This happened through the Donoughmore Constitution, which gave Sri Lankans a much greater say in government than in any other colony which was not composed largely of European settlers.
The main grievance of Ceylonese politicians with regard to the Manning-Devonshire Constitution had been that while the Legislative Council, in theory, had authority over the government through its financial and legislative powers, it had no executive powers. The two representatives in the Executive Council, without responsibility for any specific area, could not really influence governmental action.
In response to these grievances, Britain sent another commission at the end of that decade to draw up a new constitution. In the 1920s, Britain’s Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, along with at least some members of the cabinet and parliament was keen on reforms in the colonies. 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 opposed by most Sri Lankan politicians such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan, James Pieris, E.W. Perera, D. B. Jayatilaka, D. S. Senanayake and S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike. Only two minor politicians, one of whom was the Labour Party leader, A. E. Goonesinha, spoke in its favour.
The other major change of the Donoughmore Constitution was the amalgamation of legislative and executive functions by the creation of a State Council. Through the State Council ministers were appointed to take charge of the executive departments of the government. However, unlike in the cabinet system in Britain, these ministers were not chosen from a ruling party. In fact, though candidates described themselves as members of parties (Congress, Liberal or Labour), they stood as individuals.
Instead then of forming into party blocs, members of the State Council divided themselves into seven committees, with responsibility for specific areas of government. Each committee elected a chairperson, who became a minister. A Board of Ministers thus functioned as a cabinet based on representation of everyone. The state councillors were elected by the people. They in turn elected or selected by mutual consent members of committees, while the members of committees elected their chairperson.
In this regard the Donoughmore system represents a radical departure from the British model of oppositional politics, where a government is formed of members of one particular party and the other most significant party in parliament forms the opposition. Interestingly, such oppositional politics characterises large countries in Europe, like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The smaller countries such as the Netherlands or Denmark have usually adopted a consensual approach, where a number of smaller parties together form the government. Though generalizations may be flawed, given the different characteristics of the various countries and the various parties involved, the model presented by the Donoughmore system may well be worth reconsidering for a small country riven by oppositional politics.
Of the members of the State Council, 50 were elected territorially, while eight others were appointed to represent communities and interest groups such as Europeans, Burghers, Malays etc. who would not ordinarily be able to elect a representative. A speaker and deputy speaker were elected, and the others divided themselves into seven committees in charge of the following areas—agriculture, education, health, home affairs, local government, communications and public works, labour and industry and commerce.
However, the most important functions of government were missing from the list. This indicates the reason why the British were willing to grant such a high degree of self-government to a colony, long before any other colony that did not consist mainly of European descendents received such powers. The key areas of government were reserved for the governor and the 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 the British government in London did not handle these, were looked after by the governor.
The All Sinhala Board of Ministers
Tamil politicians, who felt that they had been denied their share of the power at the centre after the implementation of the Manning reforms, opposed the Donoughmore Constitution. They felt that a system based on simple majorities, without adequate safeguards for minorities, would lead to discrimination. They, therefore, boycotted the State Council elections of 1931. However, the Indian Tamils participated, and from among them Peri Sunderam was elected and then appointed as Chairman of the committee for Labour, Industry and Commerce, and thus became a Minister. The Muslims, who contested the election, selected a single member, Macan Markar, from the Batticaloa seat (though he came originally from Galle) and he was appointed Minister for Communications and Public Works. The first Board of Ministers, in addition to these two representatives of minorities, consisted of 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 the by-elections of 1934. However, the consequences of the election to the next State Council in 1936 proved that their fears regarding majoritarianism were well-founded. Though Vythialingam Duraiswamy, a Tamil, was elected Speaker, when the committees selected their chairpersons there were no Tamils among them. There were no Muslims either. No Muslim had been elected, since the Batticaloa seat this time had been won by a Tamil, though there were Muslims among the appointed members.
There were four 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 absence of representation, doubtless, contributed to the anxieties of Tamil politicians in the negotiations preceding the grant of independence during the 1940s. They were led by G.G. Ponnambalam. He was an eminent lawyer who practised in Colombo, but represented Jaffna, in line with Ramanathan’s earlier move to the north after Tamils were shut out of the system of representation in the south. Ponnambalam’s request for what was termed a fifty-fifty system that gave all minorities 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 realised the gravity of their mistake. In 1942, Jayatilaka was persuaded to retire, and sent to India as High Commissioner. Senanayake took over as Chairman of the Board of Ministers and in place of Jayatilaka Arunachalam Mahadeva, son of Ponnambalam Arunachalam, was selected as Minister of Home Affairs.