Dudley Shelton Senanayake known as Dudley Senanayake and Dudley passed away 50 years ago om 13 April 1973 at the age of 61. . The former leader of the United National Party(UNP) served as Prime Minister (PM) of Sri Lanka known then as Ceylon four times.In those pre-executive presidency days the Prime Minister was the head of Government. The PM post was a powerful one. Dudley Senanayake was in office as PM from 1952 -53,1960 and 1965-70.
Dudley born on 19 June 1911 was the eldest son of Don Stephen Senanayake the first prime minister of Independent Ceylon. He had a younger brother Robert. Dudley was educated at St.Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia where he shone in both studies and sports.He captained the cricket team. In addition to Cricket, he was a coloursman in Hockey, Boxing and Atheletics. Dudley was also the Head Prefect at College and won the Victoria medal for the most outstanding student.
He then went to Corpus Christi College at the Cambridge University in the UK where he obtained a Natural Scince Tripos Degree. Thereafter he enrolled at the Middle Temple and became a Barrister.
Upon returning to Ceylon, Dudley embarked on a political careers. He joined the Ceylon National Congress and became its joint secretary along with Junius Richard Jayewardene. In 1936 he was elected to the State Council at the age of 25 from the Dedigama constituency in Kegalle district. Subsequently Dudley represented Dedigama in Parliament winning the elections of 1947, 1952, 1960 March and July, 1965 and 1970. He did not contest the 1956 poll.
When DS Senanayake became Independent Ceylon’s first Prime minister , Dudley was a member of his father’s cabinet as Minister of Agriculture and Lands. DS died on 22 March 1952. Four days later on 26 March 1952, Dudley was appointedPrime Minister by the then Governor -General Lord Soulbury. This was the first of Dudley’s four terms as PM. Upon becoming PM, Dudley dissolved Parliament and went in for elections in order to procure a fresh mandate of his own.
August 1953 Hartal
The UNP under Dudley registered a resounding victory at the May 1952 elections. The party won 54 of the 95 elected seats in Parliament. Dudley sworn in as PM began his second term of office . Unfortunately, the Govt ran into trouble a year later, when the Famous “Hartal” was held in August 1953. Though the UNP govt remained intact, Dudley himself was shaken by the event and also began suffering from ill-health.
Dudley resigned as PM in October 1953. His cousin Sir Johm Kptelawela became Prime Minister. Dudley quit as party leader and took a backseat in Parliament. He retired from politics and refrained from contesting the 1956 poll. The UNP was routed winning only eight seats. Dudley was under strong pressure from party members to return to active politics. He did so in 1957 and donned the party leader mantle again.
Senanayake led the UNP to a limited victory at the March 1960 polls. The party came first but got only 50 out of 151 elected MPs. It was a hung Parliament.Dudley was sworn in for the third time as Prime minister by the then Governor – General Sir Olver Goonetilleke. Dudley could not cobble together a Parliamentary majority. His Govt was defeated at the Throne speech vote. Dudley resigned.
Elections were held anew in July 1960, The Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) won and Sirimavo Bandaranaike created history as the World’s first woman premier. Dudley became leader of the opposition for the first time in his life. In December 1964, 14 MPs from the Govt side led by veteran minister CP de Silva crossed over to the opposition. The Govt fell and new elections were held in March 1965.
Dudley led the UNP to victory again but as in the case of March 1960, it was a hung Parliament. The UNP had only 66 seats. But unlike 1960, Dudley was able to form a Govt with a majority this time.
Seven Party Govt
Dudley became Prime minister for the fourth time as head of a seven party Govt. The parties were the UNP, Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK), Sri Lanka Freedom Socialist Party(SLFSP), All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC),Mahajane Eksath Peramuna(MEP), Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) and Ceylon Workers Congress(CWC). It was described as a National Govt and served its full term. However the UNP lost heavily in the 1970 elections. The party got only 17 seats. The SLFP led United Front with 116 seats formed the Govt.
Though Dudley was elected as Dedigama MP, he opted to take a backseat due to ill-health and let Colombo South MP , J.R. Jayewardene become the opposition leader in his place. Colombo Central MP Ranasinghe Premadasa was appointed chief whip of the opposition.
Good Night Sweet Prince
Dudley passed away on April 13th 1973 due to a heart ailment. His demise was mourned widely by friend and foe alike. Record crowds from all parts of the Island gathered in Colombo to pay their respects. JR Jayewardene delivered a touching eulogy at the funeral. He ended with an amended line from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” saying “Good night sweet prince,May the host of Devas sing thee to thy sleep”.
Dudley Senanayake’s demise and funeral 50 years ago churned up a sympathy wave for the UNP. The new leader Jayewardene along with his senior deputy Premadasa utilised it well to usher in a political renaissance for the party. The Jayewardene-Premadasa duo spearheaded a massive UNP victory at the 1977 polls. The party won 141 seats out of 168 in Parliament
Though JR and Premadasa reaped the benefits that accrued to the party through Dudley’s demise, both had a troubled relationship with Senanayake in the twilight of Dudley’s life. JR however had reconciled with his leader a year before his death. But Premadasa made a public spectacle out of his spat with Senanayake. He had entered into an acrimonious public exchange of letters with his one time benefactor while Dudley was seriously ill and hospitalised. Many of the Senanayake loyalists even blamed (unfairly) Premadasa for causing Dudley’s death.
I have earlier written about Ranasinghe Premadasa’s prickly problems with Dudley Senanayake at the time of the latter’s demise. However I intend re-visiting those troubled times with the aid of my past writings in this article commemorating Dudley Senanayake’s 50th death anniversary.
As stated earlier in 1970 the UNP with 17 seats had to confront a SLFP led Govt with 116 seats in the House .Faced with the challenge of confronting a govt with a steam-roller majority, the UNP began to wilt and crumble initially. Deep divisions began to emerge within the demoralised party.
JR and Premadasa
Both JR and Premadasa felt – independent of each other – that the UNP needed to be revamped and possibly restructured if the party was to have a bright future. Dudley Senanayake was unwilling to change or accommodate changes. Furthermore, thanks to a clique around Dudley that was reportedly influencing him greatly, the UNP leader became paranoid that moves were afoot to dislodge him and/or fracture the party.
After the abortive JVP revolt of April 1971, JR began exploring – presumably from a class interest perspective – the possibilities of greater cooperation with the SLFP. Dudley became increasingly suspicious of JR and turned somewhat hostile. This led to a virtual split between Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene who had been political comrades from the days of the Ceylon National Congress under colonial rule. Matters came to a head when both sides became embroiled in legal proceedings. It appeared that the weakened party would either break-up or be politically paralysed with a bleak future.
While the major contradiction between Dudley and JR raged on as a full-blown crisis at one level, the lesser contradiction between Senanayake and Premadasa cropped up into a different dispute at another level. What happened was that Premadasa acting independently of JR began pushing for a re-organisation of the party. He wanted to cleanse the UNP of its traditional feudal-capitalist attributes and broad-base it into a party of the common man.
A special committee was appointed in September 1970 to prepare a scheme to revitalise the UNP. The spadework for this was done by Premadasa. A report containing suggestions was presented but Dudley did not follow it up and simply put the scheme in cold storage. When Premadasa proposed these suggestions at inner-party conclaves, they were dismissed as not being worthy of consideration by Dudley and other senior leaders (but not JR). Premadasa began getting impatient at this state of affairs.
The flashpoint was on the Ides of May in 1972. A joint meeting of the UNP parliamentary group and working committee was held on May 15, 1972in Colombo, with Dudley Senanayake presiding. Ranasinghe Premadasa came out with a proposal that the UNP should be restructured as a grassroots party from the village upwards.
Dudley dismissed the suggestion rudely and refused to put it to the vote or entertain it further. A crestfallen Premadasa then asked Dudley: “Sir what am I to do: am I to leave then?” Dudley retorted curtly: “Yes, you may leave.” Premadasa then walked out and immediately sent in a letter resigning from the UNP Working Committee to which he had been appointed by Dudley Senanayake many years before.
Premadasa quit the UNP Working Committee but not the parliamentary group or the party. He formed an independent people’s organisation called ‘Samastha Lanka Puravesi Peramuna.’ This became known generally as ‘Puravesi Peramuna’ or ‘Citizens Front.’ The inaugural meeting in Galle was well–attended. Thereafter, a series of meetings were held at various places in the Southern, Western, Northwestern, North-Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. All meetings drew large crowds.
The Citizens Front began gathering momentum. A very impressive rally was held in January 1973 at Hyde Park in Colombo. Apart from Premadasa, those who addressed the rally were Ven. Baddegama Wimalawansa Thera, Ven. Welletota Pagnadassi Thera, Rev. E.W. Mendis, Sir Senerath Gunawardene, Sirisena Cooray, Prof. Tilak Ratnakara, J.W. Mahakumarage, Bandula Gunasekera, Kalinga Obeywansa, Buddhika Kurukularatne and actor Gamini Fonseka. The rally attracted a mammoth crowd. It appeared that Premadasa was a force to be reckoned with.
The Premadasa revolt against Senanayake along with the Dudley-JR divide may have resulted then in a three-way split of the grand old party, but for an unexpected development. Both Dudley and JR pulled back from the brink, resolved their differences and buried the hatchet. The rapprochement process began just 15 days after Premadasa resigned from the UNP Working Committee.
Dudley and JR
On May 30, 1972, both Dudley and JR met at the residence of G.J. Paris Perera, the then UNP Parliamentarian from Ja-Ela. After a frank, heart-to-heart discussion, both leaders agreed to reconcile and work together for the betterment of the party and country.
The unity forged by Dudley and JR lifted up the flagging spirits of the UNP. Dudley and JR went around the country addressing mass meetings. Massive crowds turned up. Premadasa sulking from the snubbing at Dudley’s hands continued to remain aloof. While retaining his UNP membership, Premadasa focused on developing the Citizens Front as a parallel organisation.
On September 10, 1972, by-elections were held in Puttalam, Ratnapura, Nuwara Eliya and Kesbewa. Both Dudley and JR canvassed ardently for the UNP but Premadasa kept away from the campaign. The UNP won Nuwara Eliya, Puttalam and Kesbewa and lost to the SLFP in Ratnapura. The by-election results were a morale booster for the UNP.
The realignment of Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene was now beginning to pay dividends for the UNP politically, but the prickly Premadasa problem was yet unsolved. Dudley, and to some extent JR, treated Premadasa condescendingly like a recalcitrant child. Initially, they were tolerant of the Citizens Front too as it mobilised opposition to the SLFP-LSSP-CP Govt and did not directly confront the UNP in any way.
Premadasa however decided to brazenly challenge Dudley Senanayake . On March 28, 1973, Premadasa wrote letters to the UNP Working Committee members outlining three issues. He followed it up by addressing the Colombo West Rotary Club on April 4, 1973. In that speech titled ‘A plan for Sri Lanka,’ Premadasa boldly outlined his vision for the future of the country; a vision that was not to the liking of many UNP heavyweights.
Premadasa had raised three issues in his letter. One was about the UNP not holding the party convention for many years; the other was about the UNP Working Committee functioning for years without renewal of membership or mandate; the third was on the lack of progress in implementing party reform proposals.
Furthermore, excerpts from the letter sent to the UNP Working Committee by Premadasa were published in the Daily News of March 31 and April 1, 1973. Daily News was then edited by renowned journalist Mervyn de Silva.
Dudley was more hurt than angry by Premadasa’s conduct. There were two men – both born in 1924 – in the UNP of whom Dudley Senanayake had been particularly fond of; one was Ranasinghe Premadasa born on June 23, 1924 and the other Gamani Jayasuriya born on April 30, 1924.
It was widely-believed then that Jayasuriya, the former MP for Homagama, was being groomed for succession by Dudley. Yet, he had appointed Premadasa as Cabinet Minister in 1968 while Jayasuriya remained a deputy minister. There had been some discontent within UNP circles over Dudley’s affinity towards Premadasa earlier. Dudley had not taken Premadasa’s revolt and the Citizens Front formation seriously. He regarded Premadasa as a prodigal son who would repent and return in due course of time.
Hence, Premadasa’s unexpected letter and publication of it in newspapers hurt Dudley Senanayake badly. He felt it was a stab in the back. While brooding over the well-publicised missive, Dudley Senanayake was taken seriously ill on April 3, 1973.
Still, Dudley dictated from his sickbed, a response to Premadasa which was published in Daily News on April 7. Dudley feeling betrayed also indicated privately that disciplinary action would be taken against Premadasa by the party.
Dudley was shocked further when a harsh rejoinder from Premadasa was published in the Daily News of April 9. On the same day, it was diagnosed that Dudley had a mild heart attack. He was hospitalised. On April 10, Dudley suffered a massive heart-attack. He seemingly recovered but three days later, Dudley Senanayake passed away on April 13/ the day of the Sinhala-Tamil traditional New Year.
‘Gentleman in Politics’
Premadasa had gone to India for a pilgrimage when Dudley passed away. He promptly returned to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the mood within the UNP rank and file had turned ugly towards Premadasa. It was widely stated and believed that the open revolt by Premadasa had hurt Dudley very much and caused his demise. Dudley was acknowledged as a ‘Gentleman in Politics’ and Premadasa was seen as an ungrateful person who bit the hand that fed him.
Moreover, a canard was spread against Premadasa that he had gone to India to engage in ‘Kodivina’ or ‘Hooniam’ (black magic/voodoo) against Dudley. Thus, the large crowd of mourners gathered at Dudley’s residence ‘Woodlands’ in Borella, was extremely hostile towards Premadasa.
When Premadasa was back in Colombo and getting ready to go to Woodlands to pay his respects, Evans Cooray, who had earlier been the Local Government Ministry Press Officer, warned Hema Premadasa that the situation was volatile at the funeral house.
Premadasa ignored the warning and went to Borella. There was much hooting and jeering at him. At one point, he was surrounded by a mob which tried to manhandle him but Dudley’s brother Robert Senanayake intervened and averted an unseemly incident. Premadasa paid his respects and departed without any further mishap. A large number of “Kepuwath Kola” UNP loyalists began treating Premadasa as a traitor for having betrayed his patron and leader Dudley.
The death of Dudley Senanayake had a tremendous impact on the people of Sri Lanka. There was a spontaneous surge of sympathy and affection for Dudley all-round. These sentiments turned the tide politically for the UNP. There was a groundswell of support for the party. JR, the master tactician, wanted to channel this constructively and turn the UNP into a winner at the next elections. For this, he needed to reorganise and refurbish the party.
JR who was aware of his limitations knew that he lacked the common touch necessary for an exercise of this type. He realised that Premadasa, the man of the masses, was necessary for this task. So he summoned Premadasa for a one-on-one meeting.
In a frank discussion, JR told Premadasa that he agreed with Premadasa’s desire to broad-base the UNP and turn it into a party of the common man. He requested Premadasa to join hands with him in this. But JR told Premadasa firmly that Premadasa should not have divided loyalties. He should disband the Citizens Front and throw in his lot with the UNP wholeheartedly.
Premadasa agreed and grasped JR’s olive branch. He stopped promoting the Citizens Front and returned enthusiastically to UNP folds. The prodigal son was back home at last The rest as they say is history!
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appears in the “Political Pulse”Column of “Daily FT”dated 12 April 2023.It can be accessed here –