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qrcode.31217364I have come to the end now of the subjects covered in my book on Political Principles and the Practice in Sri Lanka, which was published in Delhi a decade or so back. I thought it still relevant, since I feel that one reason the Reform Programme with which the current government has been unsuccessful is that it did not pay sufficient attention to basic political principles.

Having gone through some of these, I then looked at how constitutions had developed in Sri Lanka over the last century. The constitutional process began with the Colebrooke Reforms in the 1830s, but then there were very few changes until the McCallum Reforms of 1910. After that changes happened thick and fast, culminating in the current Constitution which was introduced by J R Jayewardene in 1978.

In early days stress was on the Legislative Council, with the Executive Council being a separate entity as it were, controlled by the head of government, the Governor. It was only with the Manning Devonshire Reform of 1924 that two members of the Legislative Council without executive responsibilities were put on the Executive Council. It was also in that Reform that the Legislative Council acquired greater powers of financial oversight, through the establishment of a Public Accounts Committee.

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qrcode.30213992Democracy 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.

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qrcode.30076040For 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.

Early History


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. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2018
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