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How Mrs. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1960

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By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Fifty years ago on 21 July 1960, Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike was sworn in as Prime Minister of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known then). The 44-year-old widow of Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike made history on that day as the world’s first woman Prime Minister.

Large crowds lined up along the streets of Colombo to cheer the smiling lady as she was driven from Tintagel at Rosemead place to Queen’s House in Fort and then to Temple Trees in Colpetty. Upon becoming Premier, her name underwent a change of sorts with people and media adding a suffix as a term of respect. Sirima became Sirimavo thereafter.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister during 1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2000 and Leader of the Opposition during 1965-70 and 1989-1994. She had been PM for a total of 18 years. No other has been premier for so many years in Sri Lanka.

Mrs. Bandaranaike relinquished the prime ministerial office voluntarily on August 10th 2000. she was 84 years of age and at that time the world’s oldest serving Prime Minister.She passed away two months later on October 10th 2000 after suffering a heart attack.She had been a dominant matriarchal figure on the island’s political landscape for more than 40 years.

In the stars

She was of Kandyan Sinhala aristocratic lineage. When Sirima was born on 17 April 1916 at Pussaliyadda Walauwwa, Mahawelatanna in Balangoda as the eldest daughter of Barnes Ratwatte Dissawe and Rosalind Hilda Mahawelatanna Kumarihamy, a rare event occurred. A herd of elephants forcefully entered the kraal or enclosure. It was seen as a good omen.

A well-known astrologer, Hetuwa Gurunanse, was summoned to chart her horoscope. The parents were flabbergasted to hear that their daughter would be the future queen of Sri Lanka. For one thing Ceylon was then a British colony and George the Fifth was the King. Also, women were not given leadership positions then. The horoscope however proved right and the girl did become queen, but an uncrowned one.

She was the eldest of six children, two girls and four boys. Sirima was educated at Colombo’s St. Bridget’s Convent. She married Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike from a leading Low Country Sinhala aristocratic family in 1940. He was the son of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Mahamudaliyar of Horagolla Walauwwe, Attanagalle. The marriage was hailed as a union between two patrician Low and Up Country families then.

Sirima was content to be a housewife for 20 years while her husband went on to win political laurels as Minister, Opposition Leader and then Prime Minister. She had exposure to many political leaders, visiting dignitaries and foreign diplomats during this time, when she played the hospitable, charming hostess.

Entry into politics

It was after the assassination of her husband by a Buddhist monk, Talduwe Somarama Thero, in 1959 that a reluctant Sirima was propelled to the political centre stage. The Sinhala Buddhist nationalist party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), founded by her husband, found itself leaderless and party seniors prevailed upon her to take over.

But she did not agree immediately. Subsequent events, however, led to a situation where she had to relent and take over the reins to preserve her late husband’s political legacy. Party leadership and prime ministerial office was not something she sought or desired, but both trappings were thrust upon her.

The circumstances of her ascension to power are rather interesting and indicative of how the element of ‘chance’ influences key events in history. It is also illustrative of the role played by conspiracies, intrigues and above all the caste dimension in Sri Lankan politics.

Political drama

The political drama that happened then is worth recounting briefly at this point of time when the 50th anniversary of Sirima Bandaranaike becoming Premier is being commemorated.

The SLFP-led coalition known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) had come to power in 1956 riding the crest of a Sinhala-Buddhist wave. There was, however, much dissension within its folds and the leftist wing led by Philip Gunewardena had left the Government a few months before SWRDB’s death.

The senior leader of ability and stature in the SLFP was Charles Percival de Silva (C.P. de Silva). Born in 1912, CP as he was known was an old Thomian and an ex-civil servant. He retired early as a Government Agent and entered Parliament in 1952.CP was Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power in the cabinet and also Leader of the House. He was widely regarded as S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s able deputy and potential successor.

However, CP was taken ill after a cabinet meeting on 25 August 1959. He had drunk a glass of milk in the boardroom where the cabinet met. It was suspected that the glass contained some vegetable-derived poisonous substance. The intended victim was supposed to be the Prime Minister himself. CP’s condition proved so critical that he had to go to London for medical treatment.It was in this manner that fate played a trick on CP.

Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, arrives in Britain for a 1964 visit carrying a gold casket containing a small piece of bone from the ashes of Buddha which is to be enshrined in a special ceremony. IMAGE courtesy:© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

While CP was yet in London, his Prime Minister too was scheduled to go abroad in late September. S.W.R.D. was to go to Britain and the USA. Prior to his departure, S.W.R.D. made arrangements for Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake to be sworn in as Acting Premier to be in charge during his absence from the country. Had CP been in Colombo, he and not Dahanayake would have been acting for Bandaranaike.

Dahanayake’s ascension

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was shot by Talduwe Somarama on 25 September 1959. He passed away on 26 September. Dahanayake was sworn in by the then Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and became the fifth Prime Minister of the country.

Daha, as Dahanayake was known, was a maverick. The one-time Sama Samajist was a popular politician regarded as an eccentric. He and Somaweera Chandrasiri had joined the MEP coalition as members of the ‘Bhasa Peramuna’. Later Daha joined the SLFP. His action in providing buns as a midday meal for schoolchildren earned Daha the nickname ‘Banis Maama’.

Upon hearing of Bandaranaike’s shooting, the convalescent CP discharged himself from hospital despite not having fully recovered and returned home. But it was too late and by the time he arrived in Colombo, S.W.R.D. had died and Dahanayake had assumed office as Prime Minister. The shrewd Daha met CP at the airport and accompanied him to Horagolla to pay last respects to their departed leader.

Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike with Soviet Union Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, Tissa Wijeyeratne and Anura Bandaranaike

Daha then took CP to the Governor-General at Queens House and got him sworn in as Agriculture, Lands and Irrigation Minister. Events had overtaken and negated CP’s rightful claim to the PM’s post. But his role as Minister in the Dahanayake cabinet was short-lived. CP was ejected from office in an overnight putsch by the new Premier.

Dahanayake’s brief tenure as Prime Minister was a disaster. He did not enjoy the confidence of his cabinet. Likewise, the cabinet did not trust him. Five ministers including C.P. de Silva were removed from office by Daha on 8 December 1959. Two ministers resigned their posts on 10 December. Five more ministers were fired by the Premier on 10 January 1960.It was like the “off with their heads” rant by Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen.

Conspiracy theories

While these antics were making the SLFP regime a laughing stock, the Government and party were fast losing credibility on another grave issue. Investigations into the S.W.R.D. assassination resulted in the arrest of Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thero, the Chief Incumbent of Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara and driving force behind the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna or United Bhikku Front. Buddharakkitha Thero had been virtual kingmaker of the Government.

Buddharakkitha Thero was a close associate of the Health Minister and only woman member of cabinet, Vimala Wijewardene. The businessman brother of Finance Minister Stanley de Zoysa was also allegedly involved in the assassination conspiracy.

There was tremendous pressure on Dahanayake to dismiss both from cabinet. But he refused to do so. This led to rumours that Dahanayake was not doing so because he too was involved in the conspiracy.

Finally on 21 November 1959, Wijewardene was arrested. Dahanayake had no choice other than to dismiss her from office. De Zoysa also resigned from office as his brother too was arrested on the same day. The rumour mills were working overtime and conspiracy theories were galore.

Under these circumstances the image of the party and the Government were rapidly eroding. Everything was shaky and party leaders and prominent supporters were deeply distressed about the future of the party leadership. They appealed to the grieving widow to enter politics and save the party. But Sirima Bandaranaike adamantly refused.

Since a by-election had to be held for Attanagalle constituency rendered vacant due to the Horagolla laird’s demise, the party leaders wanted Bandaranaike to contest. But she refused. After much persuasion she relented, but on the condition that she would file nomination as an Independent and not as a SLFP candidate. She had been sorely troubled by tales of inner-party intrigues in her husband’s assassination and was reluctant to identify with the party at that time.

The expected by-election never took place because Prime Minister Dahanayake dissolved Parliament on 5 December 1959. There had been a no confidence motion against his Government by the opposition. Daha won by a single vote, but knew the writing was on the wall. After dissolution Dahanayake remained head of a caretaker Government.

Until Dahanayake’s advent, Parliamentary polls had been held in stages on different days. To his credit, Dahanayake ensured that islandwide elections would be held on a single day. A general election was announced on 4 January 1960. It was to be held on 19 March. The new Parliament would elect 151 members from 145 electorates with Colombo Central, Colombo South, Akurana, Batticaloa and Muttur being multi-member constituencies. Six MPs would be appointed.


The announcement of an election transformed the political climate. SLFP big-wigs were rattled. The mood in the country was against the ruling party and the Government. The chief opposition United National party (UNP) stock was rising after the re-entry of Dudley Senanayake.

Prime Minister Dahanayake, instead of sticking to the SLFP, had embarked on a political project of forming his own political party – the Lanka Prajathanthra Pakshaya (LPP). Other party stalwarts like S.D. Bandaranaike, I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla and K.M.P. Rajaratna had formed their own parties.

The MEP was now led by Philip Gunewardena, who was also planning to form the next government by contesting in over a 100 electorates.The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was also planning to contest over 100 seats. Its Leader Dr. N.M. Perera was being referred to by supporters as the future prime minister. The SLFP with its hand symbol was virtually written off.

So desperate were some SLFP leaders that they went to the extent of approaching two former UNP Prime Ministers. Sir John Kotelawela was in retirement. But the party that succeeded in forcing him out of politics now sought his leadership in a remarkable twist of fate. Sir John was flattered but declined, preferring to shuttle between Kandawala and Kent rather than be active in politics.

Then they turned to the UNP Leader Dudley Senanayake, who was amazed at the offer but promptly turned it down. Apart from his intense loyalty to the UNP, Senanayake also felt that the SLFP was a lost cause. He had no intention of abandoning a winning horse and taking over the reins of a loser.

Another move contemplated by SLFP leaders was that of enlisting Professor G.P. Malalasekara. The former Principal of Ananda College had been active in the Buddhist movement and was widely respected. He was then the country’s Permanent Representative to the UN at New York. It was felt that a non-political personality would do good to boost the party fortunes. But he too did not accept.

The attempts by sections of the SLFP to rope in a new leader from either the UNP or elsewhere are documented in the publication ‘The Inside Story’ by Hugh Fernando. This former MP for Nattandiya was at one-time Speaker in Parliament. He is also one of the few liberal democrat Parliamentarians we have had in Sri Lanka.

CP’s return

Meanwhile, C.P. de Silva was doing his best to keep the party together and bring about a political renaissance. Given his qualifications and experience, the mantle of leadership should have been rightfully his. He would indeed have been premier, but for his absence due to illness caused by food poisoning. Also, being away in London, CP was not tarnished by any suspicion of involvement in the S.W.R.D. assassination.

Despite this, several moves were on within the party to have a new leader. There were overt and covert reasons for this. The public reason given was that CP was not a charismatic mass leader. Though his efficiency was accepted, it was argued that he would not be able to attract the masses and win elections. There was some truth to this assessment.

There was, however, another less-publicised reason. Notwithstanding his impressive credentials, CP had a minus point due to the socio-political environment of the country. He did not belong to the numerically large Govigama caste. CP de Silva was from the Salagama caste.

The Govigama caste was the single largest caste in the country. Its members claimed they were at the top in the caste pecking order. Although castes originated on the basis of traditional occupation, the anachronistic social stratification remained a hidden yet effective factor in politics.

However much people argue that casteism is extinct and find it unfashionable to discuss it publicly, the fact remains that caste is indeed a factor to reckon with in politics. This is particularly so in the case of hierarchical leadership. Apart from the exception or aberration of Ranasinghe Premadasa, every single prime minister, president or governor-general (apart from Lord Soulbury) in this country has been from the Govigama caste.

It could be seen, therefore, that sections of the SLFP had their reasons to seek a substitute for CP. Despite these efforts, CP established his party leadership as there were no possible replacements at that time. So the party geared itself up for elections under CP’s command. He was projected as a potential premier.

As the electoral campaign got underway, it soon became apparent that the SLFP was heading for definite defeat. Crowds dwindled and there was a visible lack of enthusiasm among party cadres. Without S.W.R.D., the party was like a rudderless boat. The circumstances of his assassination and the rumours circulating of an intra-party conspiracy saw demoralisation set in.

Sirima takes the stage

It was at this point that the pragmatic C.P. de Silva realised the urgent necessity for someone to revitalise the party and inspire the voters. Who but the tragic widow of the departed Leader could do this? So CP and other SLFP leaders persuaded Sirima Bandaranaike to address election meetings. A reluctant Sirima hesitantly agreed. She started addressing public meetings.

This altered the situation dramatically. The widow dressed in white began talking to the people directly and personally. She was not a powerful orator but had plenty of charisma. She spoke simply and eloquently about her “Swami Purushaya” (Lord Husband), his ideals to help the people and how he was brutally killed.

She would often break down and cry. The opposition de-cried this emotional display as a calculated act aimed at garnering sympathy. She was referred to as the “Weeping Widow” by newspapers. She was mocked and ridiculed. But the tide was rapidly turning.

Huge crowds flocked to her meetings voluntarily. A significant feature was an unprecedentedly high turnout of women particularly in the rural areas. They empathised with her. Tears glistened in their eyes when Sirima Bandaranaike broke down. They sobbed loudly and wept uncontrollably when she cried. Despite her lack of eloquence, Mrs.Bandaranaike moved crowds.

When elections were announced, the SLFP had been discounted as a winner. But as election day drew near, it was clear that the party was doing very well. When results were announced, the UNP had come first with 50 seats but the SLFP came a close second with 46 seats.

The LSSP and MEP had 10 each. The LPP of Dahanayake had only four. Many smaller parties were wiped out. It was broadly acknowledged that the late entry by the “Weeping Widow” into the SLFP campaign had caused the SLFP revival.

Wooing the FP

It was a hung Parliament and neither the UNP nor SLFP had an absolute majority. The third largest party in Parliament was the ILankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) called the Federal Party (FP) in English. The FP had 15 seats. It soon became clear that the FP had the power to make or break a government.

Both the UNP and SLFP commenced negotiations with the FP. After protracted negotiations, the FP decided to support the SLFP on the basis of an unwritten understanding. C.P. de Silva led the SLFP negotiating team. He told the FP that he drove a hard bargain, but would stick to it.

It soon became apparent that the newly-formed UNP Government under Senanayake did not command a Parliamentary majority as most parties in the opposition were anti-UNP. Senanayake, however, enticed a few independents and breakaways from the LPP. He also had six appointed MPs. But these were not enough. Had the FP supported the UNP, a majority could have been cobbled together.

The acid test was the Speaker’s election. The combined opposition candidate was T.B. Subasinghe. The UNP fielded Sir Albert Peiris. The opposition candidate with 93 votes defeated the Government candidate, who had 60 votes. This was the first time it happened. There was a repetition in the last Parliament when the opposition’s W.J.M. Lokubandara became Speaker.

The Speaker’s election was followed by the Throne Speech on 22 April. The Government was defeated again by 86 votes to 61 with eight abstentions. Senanayake advised the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections in July. The lifespan of the UNP Government had been only 33 days.

In terms of the Constitution as well as Parliamentary convention, the Governor-General was bound to invite the person who commanded a majority in the House to form the next government. C.P. de Silva went to Queen’s House and informed Sir Oliver that he had the necessary majority as the FP was supporting him.

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke then summoned the FP to ascertain whether the party had indeed extended support to the SLFP. The FP leader SJV Chelvanayagam confirmed it. But Sir Oliver was not satisfied. He asked the FP whether the party would provide unconditional support to CP de Silva for a minimum of two years. Chelvanayagam replied that they would do so for even 5 years.Then Sir Oliver said he wanted to consult other opposition parties also and asked the FP to call on him again.

Sir Oliver does the ‘dirty’

In the meantime Sir Oliver ‘did the dirty’ by formally dissolving Parliament on 23 April. He did not consult any other party as he told the FP. Fresh elections were announced for 19 July. Sir Oliver’s decision was sharply criticised as C.P. de Silva had sufficient support to form a majority and should have been given an opportunity to prove his majority on the floor of the House. This was denied and thus C.P. de Silva was deprived of the PM post again.

Mrs. Bandaranaike with Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri

When FP leaders called on the Governor-General they were presented with a fait accompli. When they remonstrated, Sir Oliver sought to justify his action saying he was not firmly convinced of a SLFP-led majority. He pointed out that Chelvanayagam had avoided a direct commitment to his question. Sir Oliver said he had exercised his prerogative as Her Majesty’s Representative to prevent a potential constitutional crisis and prolonged political uncertainty.


[L to R]: C. P. de Silva, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and W. Dahanayake

Sir Oliver, however, revealed his mindset while conversing with the FP leaders by blurting out that he could not allow a non-Govigama man to be prime minister. The reference obviously was to C.P. de Silva of the Salagama caste. The caste dimension in politics had worked against C.P. de Silva. It was, however, argued that Sir Oliver had acted partially due to his UNP background and close links to the Senanayake family.

Multi-pronged ‘offensive’

With fresh polls looming ahead, C.P. de Silva felt it was time for a change in party leadership. Realising the vote-winning capacity of Sirima Bandaranaike, CP launched an ‘offensive’ aimed at compelling her to take over the party.

Among those who were associated in these efforts were A.P. Jayasuriya, Badiuddhin Mahmud and D.A. Rajapaksa (Mahinda’s father). After much persuasion, Bandaranaike agreed to be Party Leader and spearhead the electoral campaign.

Her husband’s pocket borough Attanagalle had been demarcated into two seats in 1960. Bandaranaike’s cousin J.P. Obeyesekera had contested Attanagalle and nephew Felix Dias Bandaranaike the newly-created Dompe electorate. Though she could have contested either electorate and romped home the winner, she opted not to do so.

It was stated then that she did not want to contest because the UNP had devised a plan to field a woman called Missily Silva to oppose her. The woman’s husband David Silva had been shot dead by the Police during the 1958 anti-Tamil violence. The idea was to pit one widow against another and cause embarrassment.

This, however, was not the real reason for Bandaranaike deciding not to contest. The main reason was that she wanted to devote all her time and energy to the campaign trail, canvassing votes for party candidates instead of focusing on her own election. As the campaign unfolded it became obvious that Bandaranaike had made the correct decision.

‘Weeping Widow’ wins

The sympathy wave strategy was adopted for this campaign too. Previously it had been emotional and spontaneous. This time it was deliberately contrived. Bandaranaike began addressing public meetings on a mass scale. Once again people, particularly women, gathered in large numbers to see and hear her. The emotions of the crowd were carefully manipulated.

Sirima Bandaranaike continued her campaign style of crying at times when memories of her husband’s assassination were referred to. Predictably, the ‘Weeping Widow’ phenomenon did strike a responsive chord in the audience. Moreover, the SLFP used to screen 16 mm films at meetings showing vignettes of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and family. Pamphlets and leaflets about the man and his mission along with photos of his death were widely distributed.

The campaign theme was the focus on S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s martyrdom. The point was driven home that he had ushered in the social revolution of 1956 that gave the common man a place in the sun. It was pointed out that the mission was incomplete.
The ‘Weeping Widow’ now appealed emotionally to the electorate to vote for her party so that she could accomplish her husband’s unfinished task by forming a people’s government. Mrs.Bandaranaike was projected as the future Prime Minister.

The appeal resonated well with the masses. The campaign succeeded to the extent where the people saw Sirima Bandaranaike as a continuation and extension of her husband’s progressive policies. She was perceived as the sole instrument through which the 1956 revolution could achieve its avowed objective and establish an ‘Apey Aanduwe’ or ‘our government’.

With Bandaranaike at the helm, the SLFP experienced a renaissance. Several who had quit and joined other parties for the March polls now returned to party folds. The fissures and cracks in the party were mended. Above all, the negative image that prevailed after Bandaranaike’s assassination about SLFP disunity was transformed. Influential sections of the Buddhist clergy too became supportive again.

The SLFP was also able to harness broader support of the anti-UNP, left forces. There were two no-contest pacts with the LSSP and CP. The leftists found it easier to align with Bandaranaike than the rightist C.P. de Silva. The FP also asked Tamils living outside the north and east to support the SLFP. This understanding with the left parties and FP was viciously attacked by the UNP.

UNP attacks

Two colourful posters were put up by the UNP on these electoral arrangements. One showed Mrs.Bandaranaike standing with Dr. N.M. Perera and Pieter Keuneman and hailing a Red ‘Communist’ dragon. The inference was that the country would be devoured by alien communism.

The other poster showed Sirima Bandaranaike carving up a slice from a cake shaped like the Island. CP stood behind her. The slice was of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and his Deputy E.M.V. Naganathan were at the table with an outstretched tray. The insinuation was that Bandaranaike was going to divide the country and hand over the North and East to the FP.

Apart from these devices, the UNP also used the sex card. It was propagated that a woman was incapable of governing and that a woman’s place was home. It was said that she should look after her fatherless children instead of entering the unfamiliar area of governance. There were also crude, vulgar attacks like the one by Ranasinghe Premadasa, who said the PM’s seat in Parliament had to be purified once a month, implying menstrual periods.

Tryst with destiny

The last laugh was, however, Bandaranaike’s when the results were announced. The SLFP won 75 seats. The UNP had only 30. With the six appointed MPs, the SLFP had 81 out of 157 seats with a slender majority of five. Bandaranaike drove triumphantly to Queen’s House for her tryst with destiny.

When she was sworn in as Premier, Bandaranaike was neither a Member of Parliament nor Senate. She was required by the Constitution to be a member of the Lower or Upper House within four months or forfeit the PM’s post. Everyone expected J.P. Obeyesekera to resign and for her to contest the ensuing by-election and enter Parliament. She surprised all by becoming a Senator and thereafter functioned as PM from the Upper House.

When the relatively young and inexperienced Sirimavo led her party to victory at the polls and went on to become Prime Minister, the precedent was established for two major developments.

On a regional level, it was the harbinger of dynastic politics in South Asia. At a global level, Bandaranaike pioneered the arrival of women as heads of state. It is said that the term ‘stateswoman’ was coined by the British press to describe her.

This then is the tale of how Sirima Bandaranaike made her transition from housewife to Prime Minister and the course of events that led to her historical feat in 1960.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj2005@yahoo.com

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  1. excellent article Mr.Jeyaraj. You’ve captured the political drama of that period brilliantly. One of your finest writings

  2. very informative article DBS

    For me a young feminist of the new generation this article provided huge insight into the situation of that time. What an uphill task it must have been for her to step into her husband’s shoes and confront the male cahauvinist prejudices

    Thank you for this

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention dbsjeyaraj.com » How Mrs. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1960 -- Topsy.com

  4. It was a new experience reading this and learning and understanding the political situation in our country 50 years ago

  5. All these days I thought that Mrs. Bandarananayaka had immediately succeeded her husband and become PM. Now only I realise what had really happened. Nice work DBS

  6. Thank you DBS for this super article

    Why is Sri Lanka not celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mrs.B in grand way?

  7. you are fool dbs. dont know how to do well. no point in writing about sirima now. write about Shiranthi R to get aheadd

  8. It was fascinating to read about the past political situation and how a hesitant housewife was reluctantly put on national and international stage

  9. Mahinda Rajapaka fell at Mrs. Bandaranaike’s feet and worshipped her to become SLFP Beliatte organiser after his father DA Rajapaksa. That way he undercut his elder brother Chamal who was getting ready to quit his police officer job to get into politics

    But today look at the ungrateful Mahinda. Not even one official function to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her becoming PM

  10. DBSJ

    Glad to see you have a twisted sense of humour like mine. We are like peas in a pod because we are both No 3 numerology. However much you dandy her up in various dresses it won’t work. You can powder her up, put lipstick, it will be like on a pig. She was racist and foolish all rolled into one. Amirthalingam made a huge mistake when he aligned himself with her against JR. It was one reason for the July 83 riots. Tamil politicians have been very poor in quality except Thondaman senior. They should not get emotionally involved with sinhala politicians who are like tweedledee and tweededum. Samapnthan also should not have supported SF, and should have told the tamils to vote whom they like, as you suggested.

  11. She started the ball rolling. Indira followed. Long line of woman leaders right up to Angela Merke now. But she started it all.article super dbsj

  12. She became PM two years before I was born. But thanks to this fine write -up by DBS I feell that I was living then and saw everything

  13. Shanker……….. You may be right again. 1983 riots may have been all to do with Amirthalingan supporting Late Sirimavo……….. & SLFP
    SJV Chelvanayakan of FP supporting Late Sirimavo/CP & the SLFP.

    So this anti-Tamil rioting is about Tamils v UNP.
    Sampanthan is curse for supporting SF

    Guys here are your ansers acording to Shanker.

  14. Dear DBSJ

    Good Historical piece. Very good.

    I dont want to get into arguments like she is good or bad as a person or good or bad to Tamils. But the fact remains that her ascendancy would have emboldened women of her era to come to limelight and hold power and to storm into male bastion is good.

    So now we see many women in our region including burma, pakistan and Bangladesh as lead political actors. She may been inspiration in that way. But quite unfortunate that we also have Mrs. Lalu Yadav coming to power while people like Dr. Muthulakshmi is not remembered as much as she should have been.

    I see recent political moves slightly interesting.

    1. The SLA has announced that they will move out of civilian buildings in Wanni to Cantonement but did not mention how long it would take.

    2. TNA has decided to engage Karunanithi to appoint someone from India to oversee the resettlement in Wanni.

    That is very good but they should insist for a Civil servant and ideally D.R.Karthikeyan to oversee so.

    3. India did not object to Bankimoon’s Team on war crimes on SL State.

    So finally is India waking up or is it just knee jerk reactions on alleged chinese presence?

  15. She came to jaffna in 1974 to open jaffna campus. I was involved in showing black flags to protest her coming

    Biggest shameful thing was the jaffna AGA Murukesampillai sitting on ground and washing her feet when she came to nallur temple. then he wiped her feet with silk cloth and put her sandals on

    The papers had lots of pictures of this shameful thing

    He was kumar ponnampalam s father in law and grandfather of our Tamil brave hero Gajenthirakumar ponnampalam

  16. What I like about Mr.Jeyaraj is the bold manner in which he discusses caste in lankan politics openly. Lots of people dont do this and keep it hidden. But if one wants to understand politics then this issue must be discussed.

  17. Yes. Madam Srimavo pioneered woman dynastic politics in South asia

    Then came Indira, Benazir, Khaleeda Haseena and then Chandrika

  18. Thank you DBS for spotlighting how CP de Silva was deprived of prime minister post due to his being from salagama caste

    I am from this caste in Ratgama. The govikula insult us by calling us Hali haliya or haliyo.

    They wanted inexperienced Sirima only to prevent CP being PM. Afterwards she got together with nephew Felix to marginalise CP in party

    Dr. Colvin R de Silva should have been LSSP leader but because he was Hali they gave it to Goigama caste NM

    Sydnet de Zoysa whouls have been made Police IGP. But he was denied because he was Salagama

    His father Sir Francis de Zoysa was not given his deservingl leadrship by the Govi leaders Baron Jayatilleka and DS senanayake

    Even recently Mahinda got the rural farmer/govi vote because Sarath Fonseka was half Salagama and half Karawe

  19. Please all don’t forget the queues for just about every commodity needed for day to day life.
    DBS, Mrs B was not as great as you make out. The only reason I was able to get milk for my children was because I was bale to buy things on the black market.
    Come on people let not’s forget History.!. Great woman indeed.!. Shame on You.!


    This article is about how she became the world’s first prime minister not about her record of governance. Did you really read this before commenting?

  20. Excellent article DBS. Took me back to my young days. Hope you will write a companion piece on Sri Lankan politics during 1960s.


    The former president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumarathunga, has accused the government of completely forgetting the legacy of the word’s first woman prime minister.

    The younger daughter of Sirimavo Bandaranaike told BBC Sinhala service that the government have an “obsession against” the Bandaranaike family.

    She said the government could still celebrate the 50 anniversary of “the Sri Lankan achievement” of voting the first ever woman PM in July 1960.

    “She was not remembered except for ordinary people. The government of her won party -my party also – neither the party nor the government did anything at all to remember her or her achievement. I think it is very petty minded and it is disgusting,” Mrs. Kumarathunga said.

    ‘Strong democrat’

    “She put us on the world map. She was a leader of the Non Aligned Movement, she took leadership in many other international negotiations.”

    Sri Lanka’s first woman executive president says that the greatest legacy of her mother is that Mrs. Bandaranaike worked hard to strengthen democracy in the island.
    She was a very sincere and strong democrat. At no point in her political career did she condone any anti-democratic actions.”

    Mrs. Kumarathunga refused to comment whether she would once again enter active politics.

  22. The salagama,karawe,durawe, bathgam,wahumpura, nawantenna & all other minor Sinhala caste groups must remember this truth

    You all join with the Govigama caste and trample the Tamils and Muslims saying WE THE SINHALESE ARE THE MAJORITY SO ONLY WE HAVE RIGHTS

    You all joinn Govigama caste and oppress Hindu, Islam and Christian religion people saying WE THE BUDDHISTS ARE THE MAJORITY SO ONLY WE ARE SUPERIOR

    After doing that why are you all lamenting now that the GOVIGAMAS are not giving you all due recognition because they are the MAJORITY CASTE and you all are the MINORITY CASTES?

    MAJORITY is majority no?

    sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose too

    There is a GOd and Karma

  23. I was bored by the topic of this article and just glanced through it first

    But the details it gives and the way it was written got me hooked so much I read it twice

    Congratz DBS in proving that even the dry subject like history can be written well to attract readers

  24. Aney DBS

    you must have been in kindergarten when Mrs. B became PM. So how on earth did you get all these details?


    Yes I was in the upper kindergarten in 1960. But I do recall her becoming PM and seeing her picture in the newspapers.

    As for the details there is a word called RESEARCH you know……

  25. In this photograph she looks like a boy all dressed up. God zilla must be getting excited. DBSJ, you are exciting people unnecessarily.

  26. nowadays nobody does research like this DBS. just curious where were you studying in UKG and how old were you then in 1960?

    St. Thomas’prep Col 3 – I was six……DBSJ

  27. Great article mr.Jeyaraj. I dont think I have read such a detailed account by any Sinhala journalist. I hope and wish you will move away from ethnic issues into writing on national issues.There’s no one nowadays to do it as well as you

    Thanks but dont you think “ethnic” issues are also “National” issues?…….DBSJ

  28. Those who now sing hosana to late Sirima I say this – the late Thavalair said that the Sinhalese cannot remember the past for too long, they forget it. He was spot on. This woman single handedly destroyed Sri Lanka, how dare can we sing hosana to her today?

  29. St. Thomas’prep Col 3 – I was six……DBSJ

    Were you in Mr. Mendis’s, Mrs Sherrard or Miss Phillips class?

    Mrs. Ruth Sherrard………..DBSJ

  30. DBSJ Thanks for the write up,it served to refresh the memories of that eventful period.

    The observation of Appuhamy #22 is spot on.
    It was Sir John Kotelawela of the UNP who doubled back in 1955 on his promise at the Kokuvil Hindu College despite his assurance on the language policy; It was the UNP which was responsible for the 1958 communal riots; the 1962 coup attempt had UNP inspiration;the holocaust of 1983 was something which happened when JRJ of the UNP was in power.But sadly the Tamils and Muslims especially in Colombo still have a soft corner for the UNP and that is the tragedy…but that does not mean the SLFP is different. The SLFP after all is a side kick of the UNP.It was SWRD B of the UNP who spawned the SLFP, so the mind set is same,but for the fact that it has become much more wicked …

  31. In the 21st century Sri Lanka no one gives a damn about caste, but again these articles show that caste may be relevant, so people will give regard to it, in politics which is very unfair to a section of the population

  32. 38 Shanker,

    Did Jeayaraj say Mrs B was nearly 45 when she became the PM ?
    See how excited the old dude Shastri is in the photo?

    By the way can anyone tell Shanker the one about the old hunk J Nehru please?

  33. 38 Shanker,

    Did Jeayaraj say Mrs B was nearly 45 when she became the PM ?
    See how excited the old dude Shastri is in the photo?

    By the way can anyone tell Shanker the one about the old hunk J Nehru please?

    Just one more thing. Would Shanker be able to wave at the Flag at least at 84?

  34. Excellent offering DBSJ. I think it is simplistic to assume Mrs B V CP de S as a caste issue. CP was a govt servant till 1950. As to why he left the secure and respectedpatch in the Civil Service was a subject of some speculation.. Some said it was due to some personal clashes with the up and coming young Dudley. CP wasadroit in dealing with the governance in English but did not have the charisma or the following among the rank and SLFP membership, a group assiduously cultivated by SWRDB and from the period he was the Ministerof Local Government and Sirimao when she the head of Mahila Samithi – the rural womens organisation alongside.

    She too hadthe courage to stand up to Western pressuresto set up the Petroleum refinery, start many industries , despite threats cuts of US aid etc. Her commitment to NAM brought her close to leaders of Egupt and Yugoslavia and government had to bring many austeritymeasures, cutting down import of luxury goods, that developed local producrion.

    Left wingerslike Philipo alsohad a tinge of male chauvinism similar to Premadasa and referred to her as Mahalathenne Ammandi.

    I have read that there was a proposal to marry off Dudley to Sirimao in her maiden days.

  35. Good piece of work, DBSJ.One question remains:What is the basis for the claim that OEG actually told SJVC that he couldn’t allow a non- Govigama to become Prime Minister?
    Interstingly enough OEG had become Governor General of a Buddhist country while being a GoviChristain and was having this conversation with the fellow Christian SJVC ,himself a of the Tamil govi clan!!


    I’ve heard the story about CP being denied due to the caste factor from several Sinhala journalists and politicians at different times.As for this anecdote about OEG telling SJVC it was told to me by Prof.AJ Wilson Chelva’s son in law

  36. DBS:- This article among many others show your skill as an excellent journalist.
    But next time you may have to put a shot of Shankar as he is worried you are dolling up all these women before putting them on these articles.

  37. enjoyed reading this.can you write in detail like this about 1977 elections which gave TULF mandate for tamil eelam?

  38. My personal view is that this is one of the best writing by the author in revealing the major turning points in the Ceylon political history after 1948 and in the history of how SLFP evolved to consolidate itself as an alternative majoritarian party to that of the UNP. The writing also revealed how those who were in charge ofI safegurading the soverignty of all the people who gained it in 1948 from the British behaved and put their own prejudices and interests first.

    As a primary school boy from the North I vividly remember how the posters for LSSP leader NM Perera diaplayed Remember Ninteenth March in such a way that remeber NM and vote for him or something like that.

    This article also reveals how the Sinhalese parties and individuals of high status including Oliver Gunatileke played dirty. DJ’s one time bracket like HLDM use to attack only in North cast prevailed. What a hypocrisy.

    Another important factor that is revealed is the CP de Silva – SJV alliance. That means after all there is nothing wrong with Tamils their mind set and the leaders they vote in a leagal way. This contrary to what some learned Professors from the majority commu nity portrays the Tamils. Their continued mud slinging along that line is an insult to one the cricketing heros Muralitharan’s skill.

    I sincerely hope those who are planning to rewrite the history of youth uprisings in Ceylon and Srilanka do not distort facts and put the entire blame on the Tamils and their leaders. whehter they liven SL or overseas.

    The onus on these learned Sinhalese gentlemen to hammer the message of the need for a gene therapy to the Sinhalese leaders and civil servants who portray themselves as the only patriots and bring fresh blood to them so that they become more civilised and practice real democracy.

    I strongly believe this article was made possible and able to reach many readers because the author chose to live abraod and practice what he enjoys. as a passion or a call, with out any hinderance from the authorities in that so called West.


    Thank you for this comment but I want to point out three things very briefly

    Firstly I did not CHOOSE to live abroad.I was FORCED to go abroad because of harassment by the authorities who suspected me of being LTTE or pro -LTTE. I was detained at 4th floor and interrogated ,.A case was filed against me in courts. I was not allowed to travel outside Sri Lanka during that time. Finally I was cleared by courts but threats were issued that I will be bumped off. That was why I first got a fellowship and came abroad.After that I wanted to return but advised by my journalist friends not to do so. That is why I had to live abroad. The CHOICE was not mine but IMPOSED on me

    Secondly I have not been SAFE in Canada to practise my vocation freely. I have been assaulted by goons in front of my wife and had my leg broken and head injured. The paper that I ran in my mother tongue had to be closed because goons threatened advertisers and shopkeepers selling it. I continue to receive death threats on the phone. I am constantly abused by emails. Some Tamil media organs continue to attack me . The intensity has decreased now but the harassment still exists.All this was done and is being done by fellow Tamils and not the “authorities”

    Thirdly this article has been published in “Daily Mirror” in Colombo. Most of my articles are written for Colombo newspapers. So I am able to publish there in spite of living in Canada

  39. Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka ‘s Civil Wars(2005), John Richardson, Professor of International development in American University’s School of International Service and Director of the University’s Centre for Teaching Experience:
    ”…In international setting, Mrs. Bandaranaike could speak movingly of oppression and its costs and of the feelings of oppressed people. Her words were not so different from those of Tamil leaders expressing their aspirations for political freedom. Has Sirimavo Bandaranaike brought the brilliance and the energy to domestic communal problems that she brought to international affairs, relations between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamil communities might have followed a different path….”

    Her policies in 60s and 70s blew a deathknell to Tamil peace and prosperity.

    She shelved the Special Privisions Act in 1960 and it’s the UNP that brought it out in 1965.
    She refused to help Jaffna people when they were hit by 1964 cyclone.
    She refused to hold investigations into 1974 Jaffna esplanade stampede kiilings in 1974.
    She forced Lal Bahadur Shastri to sign repatriation of Tamils.

  40. “Please all don’t forget the queues for just about every commodity needed for day to day life.” Tony Candappa.
    I was very much affected by this.But on a positive note,Sri Lanka would have developed its agriculture and industries on the long run.Also lot foreign exchange would have been saved.
    Ratnam Ganesh

  41. There is a comment in this thread that SJV belonged to the Tamil Govi clan. I do not think that this assertion is correct.

    Even though SJV was not a Vellala, he became the leader of the Tamils eclipsing Vellalas such as G.G.Ponnambalam.

    Thus even though C.P.de Silva was denied the Premiership because he was a Salagama, the Tamils made a non-Vellala their leader.

    SJVC was a Vellala……….DBSJ

  42. DBSJ,
    1960 thats the year I born.
    Very interesting write up.
    Two things.
    I was thinking Tamil leaders always prefered UNP than SLFP . Also I heard SJV is not a Vellala.


  43. #56-Ratnam ganesh

    I was very much affected by this.But on a positive note,Sri Lanka would have developed its agriculture and industries on the long run.Also lot foreign exchange would have been saved.

    Some of you will never learn from past mistakes. The whole world changed,including mao’s china, indira’s india and eastern europe, realising that closed econmy policies just do not work.The only shining light still holding onto that beacon is fidel castro and you. A country has to develop in areas in which it has a comparative advantage over other countries, it can’t try to do everything. Sri lanka has tea, tourism, shipping, fishing and a potential human resource that can be developed for service industries. It cannot try to compete in manufacturing with india and china, though small industries that are non polluting and high value added for niche markets are a possibility.

    One thing in favour of sirimavo was she wasn’t the only one going on the wrong direction at that time. Compare the queus and rationing in srilanka with the mass starvation and death in famines in mao’s china and stalin’s russia with their disastrous collective farming agricultural policies, and sirimavo will positively look like a angel.

  44. Well, well, well.
    The fate had indeed played yet another role in worsening the National problem and we were not aware of that.

    Had the efficient & experienced CP become the Prime Minister in April 1960 with the help of FP, being a truly pragmatic leader and a minority among the majority, he would have appreciated the necessity & urgency in solving the ethnic problem and achieved that objective to a greater extent, when it was not in a polarized condition like present..

    Being an old Wesleyite, I had been feeling sorry for Sir Oliver G, when he was replaced by William Gopallawe and later taken to Special Justice Commission in early 70s. CP would have got the last laugh then

  45. Re#44 Uthungan I agree with much of the sentiments you have expressed.Even in march 2010 i heard many tamil people in colombo speak so glowingly about UNP and why they intend to vote for that party.SLFP is not much better but these people have a” soft corner” for UNP as you put it.But what annoys me more is how they deride people who back/vote for Douglas.How hypocritical of them!But i have a feeling UNP will show it’s colours very soon with Sajth Premadasa coming to the fore.

  46. Dear DBSJ,

    You should now publish the collection of your writings as a single book, in chronological order of these events for the benefit of the Sri Lankan young readers.

    I wish someone wrote this piece 25 years back; and I had the opportunity to read it “then” and there. Thank you again.

  47. First of All, I have to remind those singhalease who are commenting this article, try to understand or keep it in your small capacity of brain, singhalease are the problem makers and and racist not tamil. No human been masscare their own citizens for small reasons but singhalease are done in 1983. no one can forgetable. Be a human been and this sirimavo is the killer of her husband to become a first women prime minister in the world. After she become a first srilanka from that day to today in the world ranking list we are the worst poor nation in the world.

  48. Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, arrives in Britain for a 1964 visit carrying a gold casket containing a small piece of bone from the ashes of Buddha which is to be enshrined in a special ceremony. IMAGE courtesy:© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

    DBSJ, What is Basil Fawlty doing in the background behind Mrs B???!!!!

  49. Das (#67) and DBSJ. Excellent job. So we are all in a way “namfidiall” (corruption of the Tamil colloquial nammada aal)


  50. When I proudly mention to a professor in US that Sri Lanka produced the first prime minister, he asked me back that is there no discrimination against women in Sri Lanka. I couldn’t reply. It is an accident and dynasty in SL. Nothing to be proud of that. She was a worst women leader.

  51. When I proudly mentioned to a professor in US that Sri Lanka produced the first woman prime minister, he asked me back that is there no discrimination against women in Sri Lanka. I couldn’t reply. It is an accident or dynasty worked in SL. Nothing to be proud of that. She was a worst women leader.

  52. The name Bandaranayake orginally comes from the tamilwork Pandaram which means helper in to the brahmin priest in hindu temples. The Sinhalised word of Pandaram is Bandaranayake. This info. can be found in a book written by one of the aunt of Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranayake. So how many tamils were Sinhalised is not known.

  53. The name Bandaranayake orginally comes from the tamil word Pandaram which means helper to the brahmin priest in hindu temples. The Sinhalised word of Pandaram is Bandaranayake. This info. can be found in a book written by one of the aunts of Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranayake. So how many tamils were Sinhalised is not known.

  54. I knew Mrs Bandaranaike when I was at college at Trinity. I had a great facination to study current affiars and no better person than Mrs B to be a role modle. She was Sri lanka’s finest diplomat. She was like a mother at times. If ever I write a leltter she will never ever ignore but respond at once. Amazing when you comapre with jokers in politics now except for a very few. When ever I met her at Tintangle she personally served me with “cheese cakes” I think from Pagoda or Green Cabin. So simple for such a world figure. I hope I can write my personal encounters with her. I dont agree with one comment made that President Rajapakse ignores Mrs B. In fact he has shown so much respect to her and given so much publicity even the children should be proud of. its unfair to make such comments. I can say so many things about this lady and the only thing that remains in my memory is her unmatched personality. Anyone can just stand up as you see her such was the power. I have never ever come across another woman who had such a charisma.

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