In 1952, he was forty years of age, the Minister of Agriculture in the first cabinet of the newly gained dominion state of Ceylon. Destiny perhaps groomed him, to shoulder the power, the huge responsibility so unexpectedly thrust on him, of leading the country and its people in deep mourning at the very time period he himself was to face, as he would disclose later to his closest confidants, the saddest time of his life. His father, the father of the nation had died.
On 26th March 1952, just four days, subsequent to the untimely tragic death of the first Prime Minister of Ceylon, Stephen Senanayake, his son, Dudley Senanayake was the chosen one, by the then Governor-General Lord Soulbury, over Dudley’s cousin, Sir John Kotelawala, to be the second Prime Minister of Ceylon.
Born on 19 June 1911 to Molly Dunuwila and Don Stephen Senanayake, was the eldest of their children, two sons and a daughter. Dudley was identified as the mischievous one. Both Dudley and his brother, Robert received their secondary education at the prestigious S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia where their illustrious father D.S. Senanayake also studied from 1892 to 1902 where he excelled in his studies and sports.
The famous father and the sons played cricket for S. Thomas’ College, with distinction. Dudley became the Head Prefect, captained the college team at cricket at the famous Royal-Thomian encounter and gained colours in Hockey, Boxing and Athletics. Established as an all-rounder, Senanayake gained entrance to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and University of Cambridge, to read for Natural Science Tripos and later was admitted to Middle Temple as a Barrister.
Humour and personality
After returning to Ceylon from the University of Cambridge, having entered politics in 1936, Dudley Shelton Senanayake sought nomination and received same to run for State Council elections.
It was this time his famous father and Dudley Senanayake on a social visit to my maternal grandmother Bandare Menike Dedigame’s ancestral house in Dedigama, met also her brother, T.B.Dedigama who had also received nominations to run for the State Council elections for the Dedigame electorate. Subsequent to this famous meeting T.B. Dedigama decided to get on the same stage as young Senanayake to request his followers to vote in support of young Senanayke instead of him. Incidentally T.B. Dedigama is the brother of U.B. Dedigama who was the last to be bestowed the title of MBE (Member of the British Empire).
Dudley Senanayake was elected a member of the State Council for the first time at that election while his father was Minister of Agriculture and served as a back-bencher for 10 years. He succeeded his father as Minister of Agriculture in 1946.
My grandmother’s recollection of Dudley’s infectious laugh, and wit during that famous visit had left such a lasting impression in her of an outstanding personality that I, as a child of seven years, remember vividly to this date how she grandly prepared, this time, three decades later at her marital house in Ruwanwella for his much awaited visit during his election campaign trail of the 1970 general elections. The election was one in which my uncle P.C. Imbulana too, who incidentally shared the same wit and demeanor, was contesting the Ruwanwella seat having started off in politics elected as the youngest Village Council Chairman upon the invitation of Dudly’s father, of the then popularly known Thun Korale: Dehigammpela, Pathe Dumbera and Balegalle korale Of views between father and son
Excitedly recalling all his jokes and preparing his favourite unduwel kavum (sweetmeats) which he had jokingly renamed them “the Thun Korela sweets”, she had also literally rolled out the burgundy carpet, reserved for special occasions to welcome this leader with an extraordinarily warm personality, fondly called “Duddly ”.
I also recollect my uncle relating on many an occasion of uncle Dudley’s famous remark of all time was “it’s easier to count the relatives of the Imbulana family who are not in politics, than the ones in it”, referring to the number of my Uncle’s cousins in politics at one given time, C.R. Beligammena who was a founder member of the SLFP, later an UNP MP for Mawenella, Maithripala Herath MP Polgahawela, and my uncle in Ruwanwella, “P.C,” as Dudley would call him. An accusation to which “P.C.” had shot back saying “that’s is the pot calling the kettle black” making reference to Dudley Senanayake himself, his father and couzin Sir John Kothelawela, three of the same family not only in politics but also ruling the country for 15 long years tenure of each member calculated to that time!
It is most interesting to hear proving to be a conscientious and principled politician, as a member of the State Council he had on many occasions opposed even his father, D. S. Senanayake, who was a minister in the council. On one such occasion he wrote to his father ‘DS’:
“Dear father, the two of us are under the same roof. As your son I find it difficult to act in this manner. Sometimes, I cannot agree with some of the proposals made by you to the State Council on behalf of the Board of Ministers.
On many occasions I have to steadfastly oppose you. Such a thing happened today also. It caused me severe mental distress. So I have decided to resign from the State Council.”
Replying this note D. S. Senanayake wrote as follows:- “Although you are my son you have the full freedom to oppose me at any moment. I brought you up and educated you to enable you to be an independent man and act according to your conscience. I am proud that you have been able to express your views before the State Council in a fearless and forthright manner. It will never harm our relationship as father and son.”
A wonderful exchange of views between father and son indeed.
Respect for Public mandate
Although succeeding his father as Minister of Agriculture in 1946 and having held the post even after independence unto the time of his appointment as Prime Minister that counted six years of experience as a Minister, yet he desired a fresh mandate from the people to head the country and he called for elections just two months later and was re-elected receiving a larger majority than his father did.
Among other things, increased welfare benefits, the rice subsidy, in particular contributed to the resounding victory. The government however became unpopular a year later, in 1953, when the price of rice was raised and subsidies were cut. Within a year, after the Korean boom ended, the Government found that the burden of the subsidy on the Budget was excessive and decided to curtail the subsidy expenditures sharply. The price of rice was increased.
Other subsidies including free meals for school children were cut.
The Political protest to this move was explosive. A general strike, known as “Hartal”, was launched by very strong trade unions affiliated to the left-wing parties.
The lives lost in the 1953 Hartal caused him shock and grief. Though the UNP remained in power, Senanayake honorably resigned as Prime Minister, left Temple Trees for ‘Woodlands’ and left politics. After Dudley resigned, Sir John took over as Prime Minister.
He returned to politics in 1957 when the UNP lost elections. In March 1960, the UNP managed to form a government after elections and Senanayake became Prime Minister again, but the coalition fragmented and Dudley resigned as Prime Minister after only four months in office after new elections were held in which the UNP won less seats. He became the Leader of the Opposition and forced early elections in 1965 by persuading 14 supporters of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to defect.
An honourable politician
When a UNP-led coalition won power in 1965 he agreed to step down and hand over the Prime Ministership to C. P. de Silva as a mark of gratitude towards his service towards defeating the leftist coalition government in 1964. Such magnanimity! Do we have politicians of the caliber of Dudley today?
He was sworn in as the Prime Minister for a record fourth time on March 25, 1965, under whom my uncle, P.C. Imbulana, who won the Ruwanwella electorate served as the Deputy Minister of Agriculture. The Dudley govt. originally consisted of six other parties and included both Tamil and Sinhalese nationalists. His government was credited for restoring the country’s economy.
Each election under Dudley increased the vote bank. What is even more noteworthy is, notwithstanding victory or defeat for his party in each election the UNP contested under Dudley’s leadership, it was always able to increase its vote bank. This was largely due to Dudley’s popularity.
Following the General Elections in 1970, he refused the Opposition Leader’s post and attendant privileges, handing it over to J. R. Jayewardene. Dudley Senanayake thus retired from politics. Such respectful decisions by politicians are unheard of today.
Dudley followed in the footsteps of the Senanayake clan who spearheaded the last epoch of the independence movement by sacrificing time, energy and wealth on behalf of the country.
Loss of a true friend
On a day in 1973 I recall our household was unusually quiet. my parents spoke in hushed voices. It was the same atmosphere when a member of the family died. I wasn’t sure who had died and was afraid to ask. The usually very lively and happy personality, my uncle Imbulana seemed as though he had lost his best friend. I was later to realize that indeed he had.
When my parents explained that they had to go to Woodlands and would drop us at the Orchid House on Torrington Road, that we would be able to view the funeral procession from there until their return, it was then I realized that the uncle who had a big nose, with big nostrils and wore big glasses and with a pipe in hand always laughing and most of all the uncle who made that memorable comment to me had left this world. An unprecedented crowd, a sea of heads filled the entire road below as seen from the balcony of the Orchid House.
Although he was an Opposition Member of Parliament at the time of his death, on this day 42 years ago, more than one million people had come to Colombo to pay their last respects to his body. That later explained the unprecedented crowd, a sea of heads that I witnessed filled the entire road below as seen from the balcony of the Orchid House as far as my eyes could see. “Bath Dun Piya” (father who offered free rice to the nation) was no more.
A tribute to Dudley Senanayake would not be complete, if I didn’t reveal the famous words of wisdom he uttered personally to me on his very last visit to Ruwanwella. I was persistently asking him questions, (a trait that was to serve me well later with the profession I chose) At the time, fearing the series of questions posed would annoy uncle Dudly, my mother apologized and explained that her youngest daughter is always asking questions…
He laughed out loud and the tall towering bent into two towards me and said “Continue the questions young lady… it is a sign of intelligence, unlike the smart dress with the pretty collar you are wearing, no one will ever be able to rob it! “
How true, his words. How appropriate it was to be in my life. Intelligence is indeed armour against robbers!
His lively chatter had room for a comment to me a mere seven year old, an observation on the dress and its collar stitched specially for his visit and a word of wisdom has held in good stead and is etched in my memory. How many children have that feeling of such respectful and fond memories of the country’s leaders of today?
Of course I had to ask my elders a question again. The fact that my uncle repeated this story over and over again to me in the later years amid much laughter, among many other hilarious episodes of his good friend, was to serve well in our own lives of each word uttered as was the case with the then politicians, from whom it was always a lesson, an educational worthy and honorable one to learn. Such worthy men live on, they don’t pass away.
His bank balance at the time of his death is no secret. It was heartening to note that this fact was reminded by MP Vidure Wickremenayake, yet another son of the country’s three-time Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremenayaka as recent as last week on a TV prog.
It augurs well, the least for the handful of politicians of today in politics genuinely to serve the public to be speaking of these glorious politicians irrespective of different party affiliations to recognize, appreciate and speak out without fear of those who lost the wealth they had in serving the nation and did not serve themselves of the nation’s wealth.
Unlike the examples abound today. I pray that the generations to come would enjoy such rich experiences that most certainly contributed to shape our lives to live a contended one. We need more honourable men of the caliber of Dudley Senanayakes to be in Sri Lankan politics if we are to emerge a proud nation in the world.
The 42nd Death anniversary commemoration of Dudley Senanayake will be on 13th April at the site of his statue near the Borella Kanatte roundabout at 4pm. The Chief Guest at the commemoration will be Minister Karu Jayasuriya. The commemoration is organized by the newly reorganized Dudley Senanayake Foundation.