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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org