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qrcode.30245058Chapter 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.

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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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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2018
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