How and Why the Senate was Abolished by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Govt 50 Years ago on October 2nd 1971


Dr Nihal Jayawickrama

It was fifty years ago, on October 2, 1971, that the Governor-General, William Gopallawa, assented to the Bill that sought to abolish the Senate, the upper chamber of the Parliament of Ceylon. It was an event that was precipitated by the Senators themselves.

The Senate was one of the five constitutional safeguards that were included in the 1946 Constitution in order to remove the fear of “domination and oppression” by a “permanent and unassailable majority” which existed especially in the minds of Ceylon’s ethnic and religious minorities. The other entrenched safeguards were multi-member constituencies in those electorates in which a substantial minority, whether racial, religious or otherwise, lived; six nominated members of the House of Representatives to represent interests which were either not represented or were inadequately represented; an independent Public Service Commission which would guarantee strict impartiality in all matters affecting appointments; and a prohibition on Parliament enacting legislation either to confer a privilege or to impose a disability on persons of any particular community or religion.

Forum for impeding precipitate legislation

The Senate, with 15 members elected by the House of Representatives (according to the principle of proportional representation) and 15 members nominated by the Governor-General, was intended to serve as an instrument for impeding precipitate legislation as well as a forum for handling inflammatory issues in a cooler atmosphere.

It was hoped that the Senators, being eminent individuals of high intellectual attainment and wide experience of national and global affairs, would make a valuable contribution to the law-making process. The Constitution required that not less than two Ministers (one of whom was the Minister of Justice), and not more than two Parliamentary Secretaries should be members of the Senate. The first Minister of Justice was Sir Lalita Rajapakse, QC., LLD. His successors were equally eminent men of the law. They included E.B.Wikramanayake QC; M.W.H. de Silva QC, former Attorney-General and Judge of the Supreme Court; Valentine S. Jayawickrama, former District Judge and Commissioner of Assize; and G.C.T.A. de Silva former District Judge and Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice.

In the 24 years of its existence, the Senate enabled proposed legislation as well as governance issues to be debated by a small group of men and women who had reached the pinnacle of their respective professions and other fields of endeavour. This group of distinguished Ceylonese included experienced civil servants (C.Cooomaraswamy, H.E.Jansz, R.S.V. Poulier, Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke); entrepreneurs (Sir Chittampalam Gardiner, Sir Cyril de Zoysa, Justin Kotelawela, Sir Donatus Victoria, K.Adamally, Sir Mohamed Macan Markar), proprietary planters (Thomas Amarasuriya, C.Wijesinghe, Layard Jayasundera) eminent lawyers (S.Nadesan QC, M.Tiruchelam QC); men of medicine (Sir Nicolas Attygalle, Dr. M.V.P.Peries, Sir Frank Gunasekera); scholars and educationists (S.Natesan, A.M.A.Azeez, Doric d’Souza, A.B.Rajendra); social activists (Cissy Cooray, Evelyn de Soysa, Evadne de Silva); and economists (N.U.Jayawardena) They were complemented by political representatives who included Dr.E.M.V.Naganathan (TC), Reggie Perera, Chandra Gunasekera (LSSP), Peri Sunderam (CIC), L.B.Jayasena (CP).

I recall the numerous occasions in the early 1960s, during the period when my father-in-law-to-be was President of the Senate that I used to proceed from Hulftsdorp to Fort, to sit in the Senate gallery and absorb the sharp analytical wisdom of these eminent men and women. I also recall that an emerging relatively young politician who was frequently also in the visitors’ gallery was R.Premadasa together with his fiancee. It must be recalled that it was the Senate that enabled the world’s first woman Prime Minister to assume that office after not having contested any seat in the July 1960 general election.

Saving Nanda Ellawela

In July 1970, following the general election held in May of that year, the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Dr Colvin Silva, introduced a Bill to amend section 13 of the Ceylon (Constitution) Order-in-Council. That section provided that a person who had served three months’ imprisonment for an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding one year was disqualified from sitting in either House of Parliament.

The amendment sought to define a disqualifying offence as one involving “moral turpitude”. Silva stated that the Bill had been drafted in the Ministry of Justice, and not by his Ministry. It had probably been drafted before I assumed office as Permanent Secretary in mid-June, since I became aware of it only when it was presented in the House of Representatives. It may even have been drafted by private lawyers before the general election.

The Bill sought to make the amendment retroactive from 25th March 1970. It was an open secret that the purpose of this rushed legislation was to enable Nanda Ellawela, the newly elected MP for Ratnapura, to retain his seat. He had been convicted of unlawful assembly and had served a sentence of imprisonment above the disqualifying period. Predictably, an election petition had been filed and it was due to be taken up for hearing very shortly.

In the House of Representatives, the UNP and the Federal Party opposed making the amendment retroactive, but the former kept away, and the latter abstained when the vote was taken, thereby enabling the Bill to be passed with the required two-third majority. W.Dahanayake of the UNP resigned from the party, explaining that he disagreed with his party’s opposition to the amendment since the UNP had in previous years introduced similar legislation to enable E.L.Senanayake and A.L.Thambiyah to retain their seats in Parliament..

What is “moral turpitude”?

When the Minister of Justice, J.M.Jayamanne, presented the Bill in the Senate on August 6, having suspended standing orders in order to have it passed through all three stages before the end of day, it immediately ran into serious problems. Senators K.M.P. Rajaratne, S.Nadesan QC, and M.Tiruchelvam QC, in a brilliant analysis of the Bill pointed out that while “moral turpitude” had been defined to include offences such as theft and robbery, other serious offences including rape and kidnapping were not. “Would not bigamy constitute “moral turpitude” they asked ?

Several members in that UNP controlled Senate appealed to the visibly rattled Minister to amend the Bill either by defining “moral turpitude” more broadly, or to remove altogether the disqualification of a person who had completed serving a sentence of imprisonment. With the Minister refusing to adopt either option, the Leader of the Senate, A.P. Jayasuriya, proposed that the debate be adjourned for the next day.

Two “obstinate Senators”

On the following morning, I was in my office in the Ministry of Justice (I was at that time also acting as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health) when I received a telephone call from Mr. J.R.Jayewardene. He said that he had done all he could to persuade UNP Senators to either abstain or keep away at voting time as had been done in the House of Representatives, but that Senator Fairlie Wijemanne, Leader of the Opposition, was determined to defeat the Bill. He said that with an obstinate Justice Minister and an equally obstinate Opposition Leader, he did not need to remind me what the consequences of that would be. He obviously anticipated that the Government’s next move would be to abolish the Senate.

He asked me to go to the Senate and do whatever I could to avoid that calamity. I did so and found that Ministers Felix Dias Bandaranaike and Colvin Silva were both in the Senate Restaurant too. The government was not willing to accept either of the amendments suggested by Senators Nadesan and Tiruchelvam. The resumed debate therefore ended with the Bill being rejected by 13 to 7. Nine UNP Senators were not in the chamber when the vote was taken. The rejection of the Bill meant that the Government would not be able to secure the necessary constitutional amendment before the Ratnapura election petition was taken up for trial.

Lobby correspondent Manik de Silva described the debate as “one of the most exciting discussions in the teak-and-satin panelled chamber of the Upper House within recent memory”.
On the following morning, the Daily Mirror editorial had this to say:

By virtue of its vigil over this Bill, the Senate has rocketed in public esteem. It has manifested its utility as the Soulbury Commission envisaged “to prevent hasty and ill-considered legislation reaching the Statute Book”, and as the Commission also hoped it has used the delay “for the purpose of giving time for reflection and consideration” of the flaws in the Bill.

Responding to the vote in the Senate, Minister Felix R.Dias Bandaranaike explained that the Government had three options. The first was to prorogue Parliament for a day and present the Bill again in the House of Representatives in the new session. That, he thought, might create an unhealthy precedent. The second was to delay the hearing of the Ratnapura election petition. The third was to pardon Mr.Ellawela to enable him to contest his seat again.

On August 13, when the Ratnapura election petition against Nanda Ellawela was taken up for hearing before Justice Kretser, the proctor for the petitioner informed Court that he had no instructions to proceed with the trial. Counsel for the respondent moved that the petition be dismissed, but the Judge, probably suspecting collusion, stated that he wished to hear the petitioner in person before doing so. Accordingly, he re-fixed the hearing for August 30. On the same day, the Cabinet decided to introduce legislation to abolish the Senate.

Bill to abolish the Senate

On October 28, 1970, the House of Representatives passed, with 117 for and 16 against, the Bill to abolish the Senate. On the previous day, the election of Nanda Ellawela to the Ratnapura seat was declared null and void by the Election Judge, Justice Kretser on the ground that he was disqualified for election in view of his conviction and sentence of imprisonment. On November 9. 1970, the Minister of Justice, Senator Jayamanne, moved the second reading of the Bill to abolish the Senate, but was thwarted when he moved that government business have precedence on the day’s proceedings.

Four months later, on March 24. 1971, Parliament was prorogued, and the next session was opened by the Governor-General on March 28, 1971. Immediately thereafter, the House of Representatives again passed the Bill for the abolition of the Senate.

The Constitution provided that if a Bill is passed by the House of Representatives in two successive sessions, and having been sent to the Senate in the second of those sessions, is not passed by the Senate within six months after the commencement of that session, the Bill may, notwithstanding that it has not been passed by the Senate, be presented to the Governor-General for his assent. On 23rd September 1971, the Senate convened for its final meeting. On October 2, 1971, the Governor-General assented to the Bill and the Ceylon (Constitution and Independence) Amendment Act No.36 of 1971 came into force, converting Ceylon’s bicameral legislature into a unicameral one.

The Constitution provided that a Minister who for any period of four consecutive months is not a member of either Chamber shall, at the expiration of that period, cease to be a Minister. However, on January 20, 1972, at the request of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice, former Senator J.M.Jayamanne, tendered his resignation and was succeeded by Felix R.Dias Bandaranaike, Member of Parliament for Dompe, who was already Minister of Public Administration, Home Affairs and Local Government.

On February 3, 1972, on the eve of the expiry of the four month period, John Rodrigo, an appointed member of the House of Representatives tendered his resignation and was appointed Ambassador to Italy. On the following day, former Senator C. Kumarasuriar, Minister of Posts and Telecommunication, was nominated to fill the vacancy thereby created.

Courtesy:The Island