Ranasinghe Premadasa: Sri Lanka’s Solitary non-Govigama Prime Minister and President


India, the world’s biggest democracy, held Parliamentary elections this year in seven phases from 19 April to 1 June. 642 million persons voted in the poll. Results were announced on 4 June. The incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected PM for the third time. His party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 240 of 572 Lok Sabha or Parliament seats. Together with allied parties the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) obtained 293 seats in Parliament.

The election results have been continuously analysed and commented upon from the time of the poll. A significant aspect of these analyses and commentaries is the “caste factor”. Indian analysts and commentators are not “shy” about discussing caste openly when dissecting poll results. It is an acknowledged fact in India that caste plays a very influential role in determining the outcome of elections in many electorates, regions or states. Many Indians delve into the “caste in elections” topic without any inhibitions.

It is not so in Sri Lanka even though caste is an existential reality in the Island. Though not as conspicuous as in the sub-continent, the caste factor does play a part in Sri Lankan politics too. It was Roland Edirisinghe former correspondent of “The Economist” in Sri Lanka who enlightened me about the role of caste in Lankan politics. He knew the areas where specific castes were concentrated and the caste identity of most politicians. Hence listening to him on this topic was a fascinatingly educative experience. But that’s another story.

I know it is distasteful to discuss caste in public, but in Sri Lanka as in India, the “caste” factor cannot be ignored as far as politics and arranged marriages are concerned. The element of caste cannot be overlooked or glossed over in Sinhala or Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. So let us look at this issue with more honesty and less hypocrisy.

The numerically dominant caste among the Sinhalese are the “Govigamas”. Their counterparts among the Tamils are the “Vellalas”. The traditional occupation of both groups has been agriculture. The percentages in terms of caste are difficult to gauge. It could be surmised that the Govigamas as well as the Vellalas are roughly a little more than 50% among the Sinhala and Sri Lankan Tamil people.

While most caste groups have political representation at different levels and different degrees, it is the Govigama and Vellala castes that dominate the politics of the Sinhala and Tamil people respectively.

Sinhala Buddhist Govigama

Since Independence from the British in 1948 all Prime Ministers and Presidents in Ceylon/Sri Lanka with one solitary exception have been from the “majority” Sinhala race, “majority” Buddhist religion and “majority” Govigama caste. The only exception (some say aberration) was Ranasinghe Premadasa who was a Sinhala Buddhist, but not from the dominant Govi caste.

Every Prime Minister of Ceylon/Sri Lanka from D.S. Senanayake to Dinesh Gunawardena (except Premadasa) has been from the Govigama caste. Every Executive President from J.R. Jayewardene to Ranil Wickremesinghe (except Premadasa) has been from the Govigama caste. The two Sri Lankan Governor-Generals Sir Oliver Goonetilleka and William Gopallawa were from this group too though the former was an Anglican Christian and the latter a “Radala”. Incidentally William Gopallawa became Sri Lanka’s first and only non-executive president when the Island became a republic in 1972.

It is against this backdrop of the glass ceilings of “Govikula” monopoly over Prime Ministerial and Presidential positions in Sri Lanka being shattered by the solitary exception of Ranasinghe Premadasa, that this column focuses on the former premier and president. Ranasinghe Premadasa, born on 23 June 1924 served as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister from 1978 to 1988 and as President from 1989 to 1993.

The political ascendancy of Ranasinghe Premadasa in Sri Lanka through the United National Party (UNP) was indeed a formidable feat and praiseworthy accomplishment. For a person of subaltern status in class and caste terms to rise to the pinnacle of power in a party like the UNP amounts to a political fairy tale.

“Political Pulse” narrates the tale of Ranasinghe Premadasa’s remarkable ascent to power this week to denote his birth centenary. This two-part article – based upon some of my earlier writings – will lay emphasis on Ranasinghe Premadasa’s political journey towards the executive presidency.


Ranasinghe Premadasa was born on 23 June 1924 at Dias Place in Keselwatte or Vaazhaiththottam in Central Colombo. His parents were Richard Ranasinghe of Hegalle, Kosgoda and Jayasinghe Arachchige Ensina Hamine of Batuwita, Horana. Premadasa was the eldest of five children. His father Ranasinghe rented out rickshaws for a living. His mother made and sold tit-bits in the neighbourhood.

Premadasa had his primary education at Harvard Methodist Girls’ School and St. Lorenz’s College. His secondary education was at St. Joseph’s College, Colombo where he studied up to his Cambridge senior exam. Premadasa also received Buddhist schooling at Hewavitarana Daham Pasala in Purwarama temple in Pettah.

Premadasa became enamoured of social service at a very young age and formed the “Sucharita” movement in 1939. He was 15 at that time. The Sucharita movement undertook many community development and social service activities including the running of a night school offering free education to needy students. Premadasa was in charge of the school which also focused on adult literacy.

Ceylon Labour Party

He was also drawn to the trade union movement through pioneering trade unionist and founder-leader of Ceylon Labour Party, Alexander Ekanayake Goonesinha. Premadasa as a teenager had impressed A.E. Goonesinha by his dedicated social service through the Sucharita movement so much so that when Goonesinha was functioning as the Mayor of Colombo, he had entrusted young Premadasa with supervisory responsibility of a community welfare project.

A.E. Goonesinha, though a militant trade unionist, was not a Marxist or socialist. He was sympathetic to the underdog and fought against oppression and exploitation but did not subscribe to leftist ideology. In later years, when Lanka Sama Samaja Party was founded, the LSSP began forming trade unions too. This was resented by Goonesinha and his Labour Party. There were clashes. This led to Labour Party circles adopting a very hostile approach towards leftist circles.

Since Goonesinha was like a political mentor to Premadasa, this attitude affected him too. It was A.E. Goonesinha’s influence that prevented Premadasa from becoming a leftist in his youth. Premadasa joined the Labour Party as a full-time member in 1946.

His first experience in campaigning at a parliamentary election was in 1947 when A.E. Goonesinha contested the Colombo Central multi-member constituency. A series of mass rallies and pocket meetings were conducted on behalf of Goonesinha. Ranasinghe Premadasa was a key speaker at these rallies and meetings. He impressed listeners and captivated audiences by his powerful and witty speeches in Sinhala.

Municipal Councillor

A.E. Goonesinha was elected as first MP for Colombo Central in 1947. He contested in 1952 too and was elected as second MP. Ranasinghe Premadasa campaigned actively for Goonesinha in this election. Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected President of the Labour Party’s youth league in 1949. Following that, he contested what was then called the St. Sebastian (San Sebastian) ward of the Colombo Municipal Council. He won and became a Municipal Councillor of Colombo in 1950.

The Colombo Municipal Council had many illustrious councillors and Premadasa learnt many things by interacting with them. Premadasa developed into a fiery debater in Sinhala. He was a voice for the marginalised sections of society in Colombo. He was re-elected Municipal Councillor in 1952 and 1954 and in 1955 was elected Deputy Mayor of Colombo. The LSSP’s Dr. N.M. Perera was the mayor.

The UNP Government headed by Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala in a surprise move called for an early election in 1956. Among the electorates where the UNP faced problems in fielding a suitable candidate was Ruwanwella in the Sabaragamuwa Province.

The constituency had been won by LSSP leader Dr. N.M. Perera in 1947 and 1952. Party stalwart P.C. Imbulana had been the UNP candidate in both elections. Imbulana was not prepared to contest 1956 elections due to personal reasons. The UNP found it difficult to find a candidate to face N.M. Perera in Ruwanwella. Since the LSSP and the SLFP-led MEP coalition had a no-contest pact, NM was expected to win with a huge majority in Ruwanwella.

With A.E. Goonesinghe functioning as Chief Government Whip, Deputy Minister and Cabinet Minister of State in successive UNP Governments, there was much interaction between the UNP and Labour Party. This led to Labour Party stalwarts like Premadasa moving closely with UNP leaders and building up personal rapport.

UNP Ruwanwella candidate

At one stage, Premadasa decided to quit the Labour Party and join the UNP. He felt there was a brighter political future for him in the UNP. The 1956 elections were called a few weeks after Premadasa joined the UNP. Then came an unexpected offer from the party leadership. Would Premadasa be willing to contest N.M. Perera in Ruwanwella as the UNP candidate? Premadasa was born and bred in Colombo and had no links with the Ruwanwella electorate. Yet, he was ready to take up the challenge.

The 1956 elections saw the UNP tasting bitter defeat. The party won only eight seats. Premadasa too lost in Ruwanwella. He was defeated in a straight fight. N.M. Perera got 14,083 and Premadasa 7,855 votes. N.M. Perera won with a majority of 6,228 votes and went on to become opposition leader in that Parliament.

Colombo Central

Meanwhile, A.E. Goonesinha had also lost in Colombo Central. Goonesinha bade farewell to electoral politics, accepted a diplomatic posting and went abroad. With his political mentor retiring, Premadasa felt he could now set his sights on the Colombo Central constituency where he was born and bred. He began carefully nursing the electorate.

Colombo Central was a multi-member constituency electing three MPs. The ethnic ratio at that time was about 35% Sinhala, 32% Muslim and 28% Tamil. Although the Sinhala vote was Premadasa’s main target, he assiduously cultivated the Tamil and Muslim communities too.

When elections were held in March 1960, the UNP nominated two candidates for Colombo Central. One was Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel. The other was Ranasinghe Premadasa. He had the approval and backing of both Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene. The March 1960 elections saw Premadasa getting elected as the third MP for Colombo Central. Dr. Kaleel came first with 33,121 votes. Pieter Keuneman of the Communist Party (CP) was second with 30,574 votes. Premadasa’s tally was 29,828. The UNP got 50 seats and Dudley Senanayake formed a minority government as Prime Minister. Parliament was dissolved after the Government was defeated at the throne speech vote.

Fresh elections were held in July 1960. Premadasa increased his votes to 35,035 but came fourth. Sir Razik Fareed of the SLFP, Pieter Keuneman of the CP and Dr. Kaleel of the UNP became first, second and third MPs with 45,342, 38,663 and 37,486 respectively. Premadasa was out of Parliament in just three months. He was disappointed but soon returned to municipal politics and was elected councillor in 1962. He began nursing the Colombo Central electorate while remaining a Municipal Councillor.

Married Hema Wickrematunga

On the day of his 40th birthday on 23 June 1964, Ranasinghe Premadasa married Hema Wickrematunga and lost his bachelor status. Premadasa, an avid believer in astrology, thought the marriage brought him luck. After getting married to Hema, he never suffered any major setback in politics. Thereafter, it was a steady political ascent. Parliamentary elections were held again in 1965. The UNP again fielded two candidates in Colombo Central. One was R. Premadasa and the other was Falil Caffoor. Premadasa re-entered Parliament by getting elected as second MP with 64,438 votes. Falil Caffoor came first with 68,372. Pieter Keuneman was third with 41,478 votes. The UNP with 66 seats formed a seven-party coalition government with Dudley Senanayake as Prime Minister. Among the constituents in the government was the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known as the Federal Party (FP) in English.

Former Solicitor-General M. Tiruchelvam (Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam’s father) was the FP nominee in the government. Since he was not an MP, Tiruchelvam was appointed to the senate and made Minister of Local Government. Much to the surprise of many, Ranasinghe Premadasa was appointed Parliamentary Secretary or Deputy Minister of Local Government.

It was opined by many then that the appointment of Premadasa as Deputy Minister to M. Tiruchelvam was a blunder. Others suspected Premadasa was appointed to that post by Dudleyto monitor the minister. Some predicted a major clash between the temperamentally incompatible Tamil minister and his Sinhala deputy. No such thing happened and both got on famously after evolving a solid working relationship where Tiruchelvam delegated some key functions to Premadasa.

Local Government Minister

Tiruchelvam had a disagreement with Dudley Senanayake over the Trincomalee Koneswaram temple sacred zone issue and resigned on September 15, 1968. On 16 September 1968, Ranasinghe Premadasa was appointed in Tiruchelvam’s place as Minister of Local Government. Immediately after being sworn in as Local Government Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa went to the Purwarama temple in Pettah and offered flowers. The “Keselwatte Kolla” had arrived.

Premadasa now began demonstrating his capacity for hard work and his administrative skills. He formulated several schemes as Minister of Local Government and began implementing them rapidly and efficiently. His former press secretary Evans Cooray later wrote a book about his experiences with Premadasa titled “In the shadow of a people’s President.” In that book, Evans describes in detail the many plans and projects undertaken by Premadasa during his 21-month stint as Cabinet Minister from September 1968 to May 1970.

A few lines excerpted from the book provide a vivid insight into Premadasa’s passion for work and sense of mission. Evans Cooray writes thus – “He (Premadasa) settled down to work almost immediately as if trying to prove Dudley had erred in not giving him the ministry earlier than that. On some days, he worked at a stretch for over fifteen hours.”

Elections were held again in May 1970. The United Front comprising the SLFP, LSSP and CP won 116 of 157 seats in Parliament. The UNP was reduced to 17 seats. Premadasa was elected first MP for Colombo Central with 69, 310 votes. Falil Caffoor and Pieter Keuneman came second and third with 63,623 and 58, 557 votes respectively.

Chief Opposition Whip

Ex-Premier and party leader Dudley Senanayake opted to take a backseat due to ill-health and let J.R. Jayewardene become the opposition leader in his place. Ranasinghe Premadasa was appointed chief whip of the opposition. Faced with the challenge of confronting a Government with a steam-roller majority, the UNP began to wilt and crumble initially. Deep divisions began to emerge within the now demoralised grand old party.

Both JR and Premadasa felt – independent of each other – that the UNP needed to be revamped and possibly restructured if the party were to have a bright future. UNP Leader Dudley Senanayake was unwilling to change or accommodate changes. The UNP leader became paranoid that moves were afoot to dislodge him and/or fracture the party.


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 mooted 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.

Puravesi Peramuna/Citizen’s Front

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’. Mass meetings were held by the new front in Colombo and outstations. They were well attended. While retaining his UNP membership, Premadasa focused on developing the Citizens Front as a parallel organisation.

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 turn of events.

(The writer can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com.)

This article appears in the “Political Pulse”Column of the Daily FT’dated 26 June 2024. It can be accessed here –