In this 8th Chapter of my book on this subject I look at how the majoritarian system of democracy we had in this country contributed to increasing resentment by those who felt shut out of the decision making process. This played out principally with regard to racial differences, where what seemed majoritarianism on the part of successive elected governments contributed to the movement for autonomy and then for secession. But we should also remember that there were deep resentments based on class differences that led to two violent youth insurrections in the seventies and the eighties.
The Official Languages Act
In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister, in a coalition of nationalist forces dominated by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He had established the party after leaving the United National party (UNP). During the election campaign he had presented himself as a champion of the common man against the elite who had dominated Sri Lankan politics. But due to the pressures of political competition his victory was seen as the triumph of Sinhala nationalism.
Bandaranaike’s first measure was to introduce the Official Languages Act that made Sinhala the official language of the country. Earlier he had advanced the claims of Sinhala as opposed to English (with therefore no wish to denigrate Tamil). By 1956, however, parity of status between Sinhala and Tamil was abandoned by both parties in their pursuit of votes. This reace towards chauvinism began, it should be noted, when the faction of the UNP led by J R Jayewardene (who had resented Dudley Senanayake proposing Kotelawala to be Prime Minister following his premature resignation in 1953) proposed at its January 1956 Kelaniya session that the party declare it was for Sinhala Only and that a General Election should be called early to obtain a mandate to implement this. The move was a repudiation of a pledge Kotelawala had made in Jaffna that in replacing English with Sinhala as the language of administration, he would give Tamil parity status.
The Official Languages Act was challenged under the provisions of Article 29 of the Soulbury Constitution, which forbade discrimination against any segment of the population. The clause was entrenched in the Constitution, in that it could not be changed without a two-third majority in parliament, which Soulbury had believed no party would ever achieve. The Act was passed with a simple majority. As the Sri Lankan courts were against some of its provisions, the government appealed to the Privy Council in Britain which, under the Soulbury Dominion Constitution, had the final say. Unfortunately, the Privy Council, which followed the British tradition of subscribing to the supremacy of parliament, upheld the legality of the Act.
Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact and its Abrogation
Bandaranaike, who had been the first advocate of federalism after his return from Oxford in the 1920s, soon realised the need for compromise. Chelvanayakam was now the undisputed leader of the Tamils, since his Federal Party (FP) in reaction to Sinhala nationalism had routed the Tamil Congress and the UNP in the north. Bandaranaike negotiated a pact with him according to which Regional Councils were to be established, which would exercise executive authority in provincial areas. Crucial to the agreement was the recognition that the people of the north and east who spoke Tamil needed an administration which functioned in their language, rather than Sinhala, which was the language of the central government.
The UNP under J.R. Jayewardene, who had taken over the UNP after Kotelawala’s retirement, vehemently opposed the pact, and tried to whip up feeling in the country against it. This strengthened the hand of the nationalists in Bandaranaike’s party, led by Vimala Wijewardene, who was married to one of Jayewardene’s maternal uncles. Though Jayewardene’s father had been a Christian, as indeed Bandaranaike’s father had been, both had adopted Buddhism during the 1930s. Jayewardene, however, had had a strong element of Buddhism in his upbringing, since his mother belonged to a strongly religious family.
Under such pressure Bandaranaike had to discard the pact, amidst a welter of communal violence that only stopped when he handed over control of the situation to the governor-general, under emergency regulations. The governor-general was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, a former UNP Minister who had been D.S. Senanayake’s right hand man in the Soulbury negotiations. Shortly afterwards, in 1959, before he could initiate any other remedial measure, Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk, though this was more due to intrigues based on personal ambition than rabid nationalism.
The election that followed proved inconclusive and Dudley Senanayake, who was back at the helm of the UNP, became prime minister in March 1960. He decided to dissolve the parliament when he was defeated in the Throne Speech. The Throne Speech is the policy address of a new government at the beginning of the parliamentary session, a British tradition that Sri Lanka, still being a dominion, continued to preserve. He did not pursue the possible alternatives of trying to negotiate with either the SLFP or the FP (or allowing them to set up a coalition together).
In the July 1960 elections that followed, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the widow of the assassinated prime minister, won a majority. She reached an interim agreement with the FP, to allow the reasonable use of Tamil in the provinces where it was the language of the majority. No attempt was made to amend the Official Languages Act, which was a simplistic document consisting of a single sentence with no clear guidelines as to what this entailed.
Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact and its Abrogation
Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s support was weak, which prompted her to negotiate a coalition with the Marxist parties. Some members of the SLFP abandoned her, tempted by financial incentives and for other reasons. Having lost a vote on the Throne Speech in 1964, she dissolved the parliament.
In the following elections, the UNP under Dudley Senanayake having failed to win a majority formed a coalition government with the support of both the FP and the Tamil Congress. Crucial to their support was the agreement to devolve power through District Councils. These councils were to be smaller units of administration than the Regional Councils originally agreed on by Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam.
This concession on Chelvanayakam’s part did not help. Sirimavo Bandarnaike campaigned against the proposals. There was also opposition from within the governing party. The General Secretary of the UNP, Cyril Mathew, who had been J.R. Jayewardene’s right-hand man in his rebuilding of the UNP during the 1950s, expressed his protest. Mathew was sacked from his post but Senanayake was uncertain about the position of his deputy Jayewardene and mutual suspicion developed between the two. Under the circumstances Senanayake decided in 1968, more graciously than Bandaranaike but equally pusillanimously, to abandon the agreement. The FP continued to support the government and it served a five-year term, though Senator Thiruchelvam, the FP member of the Cabinet, resigned.
In the 1970 election, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her Marxist allies won an overwhelming majority, as the United Socialist Alliance (USA). They proceeded to adopt a new constitution as pledged in their election manifesto. They set up a Constitutional Assembly for this purpose, but unfortunately did not take into serious consideration the views of other parties. Jayewardene of the UNP initially seemed inclined to cooperate, but the UNP was riven by infighting in those years (resolved only by Senanayake’s premature death in 1973) and the USA did not work towards achieving a consensus.
They also completely ignored Tamil aspirations. Article 29 of the Soulbury Constitution which forbade discrimination against any section of the society was abolished, substituting in its place a provision that forbade discrimination but asserted that Buddhism would have the foremost place in Sri Lanka (now the country’s official name). The new Constitution also extended the term of parliament to six years, and extended the lifetime of the existing parliament till 1977. The argument was that it had sacrificed some period of its term in dealing with the armed insurrection launched in 1971 by a new youthful radical Marxist party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and in formulating a new constitution. But, in effect, it was simply an act of self-assertion based on the overwhelming majority the government possessed in parliament. This was a silly move, which was to have disastrous consequences for the future.