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1956:When Ordinary Men got Absolute Power a New Culture of Corruption Dawned

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S.W.R.D Bandaranaike

by Hemantha Warnakulasuriya

If you want succeed in politics, you have to exude charisma. Voters tend to soft-pedal allegations of corruption made against such a politician. The iconic leader with charisma and charm is permitted to rule unchecked.

Peasants and the common man are swayed by the oratory and the sheen emanating from his glowing personality and would feel assured that the he would lead them to the ‘promised land’.

Lal Bahadur Shasthri

Lal Bahadur Shasthri died a pauper and did not even own a house. He had neither nor oratorical skills, but he was one the most honourable politicians ever to be the Prime Minister of India. Today, no one remembers him.

The recent revelation by a government servant that he had to earn extra money to educate his children implied that he had resorted to bribery. He confessed to this on Television shown on all the news channels. I was speechless by the shocking revelation and pondered for a while whether I should condemn his commitment to corruption and admire his commitment to the truth.

Even senior government servants, drawing substantial salaries, would not be able to educate their children in private fee levying international schools. Even the parents who have the good fortune to admit their children to good public schools in Colombo would not be able to educate their children with the salaries and the wages they earn as government servants.

Against this background, it is interesting to note that Ceylon, as it was then known, made some efforts to eradicate corruption, where the political leaders of yesteryear frowned upon the rampant corruption that was spreading throughout the length and breadth of the country.

In 1956, the new era of political culture dawned. The common man rose to the zenith of political power. Such meteoric rise was seen as a period of renaissance emerging from a pro-western culture. The power that ordinary men held was so absolute that a new culture of corruption dawned. With it came the craving for money and greed was so overwhelming that it was unstoppable. Those were the traits of the rising lower classes, one person, who aped the west opined.

Having being born poor and struggling for existence, then having suddenly been surrounded by men obliging to give, in order to obtain favours, those new leaders, voted in by the poor, had very little education and upbringing and found nothing shameful with earning a few bucks for themselves and for their families.

It was well known that after the 1956 Revolution the senior most Cabinet Ministers and their Parliamentary secretaries were being accused of accepting bribes. One of the most Seniors Ministers, who was responsible for the formation of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, was accused of accepting a bag of chilles and others with bags of rice and other commodities.

Bandaranaike himself being an aristocrat dreaded the public perception, which he thought was against corruption. This may have been a misconception even in 1956. The Prime Minister in a bid to wrong-foot the Opposition and to show that his government would not tolerate bribery decided to appoint a commission to inquire into allegations of bribery. He advised the then Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to appoint a commission to inquire into allegations of bribery against Members of Parliament from 11th September 1943 up to 11th of September 1959..

That commission was unlike the innumerable Presidential Commissions appointed by Presidents of modern Sri Lanka with no credibility. Mr. Walter Thalgodapitya, a distinguished Trinitian and a close relation of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Richard Udugama, was appointed the Chairman of the Commission to investigate allegations of Bribery. He had served with distinction as Commissioner of Assizes and as the Bribery Commissioner.

Mr S. J. C. Schokman, a Trinitian, who had been awarded the Ryde Gold Medal for the best all around student at Trinity College, Kandy, was a Crown Counsel.

The third member of the Commission was Mr T. W. Roberts, who had obtained a Degree from Oxford University and being unable to find a job even as a school master in the UK, he came to Sri Lanka and was appointed as an Office Assistant in Matara and later he became the Magistrate and continued to function as a judge. Mr. Roberts was the District Judge who later contested the Galle Magistrate to become the first mayor of the city. Robert lost the seat to W. Dhahanayake by one vote.

Today, one would expect the Commissioners, appointed by any government, to find the members of the Opposition guilty of Bribery and exonerate the members of the government. But those were the days where honour and dignity were glorified and where the independence of the judiciary was fundamental and the core value of democracy.

Those were the days where the nobility enriched the political firmament with service to the people and had traditionally been protectors of justice peace and liberty.

Those were the days of humble agrarian officers like M. D. Banda, who later became a Minister, refusing to tar the road leading to his house with government money and that of U. B. Wanninayke, who refused give a letter of recommendation to his son, who applied for a government position, where he was the Minister in charge.

Those were the days of the Forester Obeyesekera’s Senanayakes, who served the people with vigour as they thought it was their mission to lead the people from misery to prosperity. Sri Lanka was then considered a model democracy and corruption was virtually non-existent till the pan Sinhala revolution in1956.

The report of the Commission of inquiry was tabled in Parliament on the 16th of December 1960. I will deal with the most important findings in the next article. But, what is startling was the findings of the Commission with regard to the complaint made against the Prime Minister himself.

The allegation against SWRDB

That Bandaranaike, whilst he was a Minister in the Senanayke Cabinet, solicited and accepted a gift of Rs.20,000/- from the Omnibus Companies.

Commissioners’ Comment

“The request that the allegation be investigated was made by Mr. E. Rodrigo of Nagoda Group, Nagoda. In letter dated 24th September1959, he said that the allegation as such had been made in a letter signed by Mr. Cyril De Zoysa (now Sir Cyril De Zoysa) and published, shortly before Mr. Bandaranaike’s resignation from the Senanayake Cabinet, in the Times of Ceylon.

Mr. Rodrigo further alleged that shortly after the publication of the Letter in the Times of Ceylon, The Times of Ceylon published another letter signed by Mr. Bandaranaike, where he stated that when certain directors of Bus Companies came to see him to seek advice regarding the establishment of a newspaper, he suggested to them that as he was controlling a Newspaper that they should buy shares in that Company whereupon they purchased shares to the value of Rs.20,000.

Decision of the Commission

We decided not to investigate this allegation as by the time the letter was received, Mr. Bandaranaike had been assassinated.

Charisma of corruption is glowing, and is growing as there is no one to mourn the death of great jurists like Walter Thalgodapitya or sing the praise of those politicians who died in poverty serving the nation.

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