Re-evaluating the So-Called ‘Transfer of Power’ in 1948

Hugh Karunanayake, in The Island, 9 July 2016

The recent interesting discussion in your columns relating to the impact of the Sinhala Only Act has since evoked some comments on the so called “transfer of power” which “Independence” granted on 4 February 1948, is supposed to have made. I wish to make some observations on this so called transfer of power.

independenceagreement-1948INDEPENDENCE PIC

DS Senanayake on podium++

February 4 1948 was the date on which Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was granted “dominion status” by its then Colonial overlord Great Britain. Till then, Ceylon was a colony of the British. What was described as “independence’ was a change in status vis-a vis the metropolitan power, Great Britain. Officially it was called the grant of “dominion status” to Ceylon. It is important to remember that “dominion status ” did not confer sovereign power to the island. Neither did the change of status denote a transfer of power. In fact by 1950 (two years after independence) His Majesty the King of England was still the King of Ceylon, the Governor General of Ceylon continued to be appointed by the King and had the power to appoint or remove the Prime Minister of the country, the national anthem was “God save the Queen”, the official language was English, and the national flag was the Union Jack! A Parliament consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate existed from 1947, with its legislative powers subject to concurrence and tacit approval by His Majesty. In fact, the British approved Constitution of Ceylon required the appointment of six Members of Parliament in addition to those elected by the people. Two of the appointed members in the House of Representatives in 1947 were appointed to represent British interests. Although the island had a Supreme Court, that name was a misnomer and the Court not really Supreme; the Privy Council in England had the power of revision of any decision of the Supreme Court. In fact, in 1964, sixteen years after the country was granted “independence”, the Privy Council in England overruled a decision of the Supreme Court of Ceylon by which the Supreme Court had determined the guilt of persons charged with conspiring to overthrow by force a lawfully elected government. There were an Imperial Light House Service and Military bases in Katunayake and Trincomalee outside the control of the government, and subject to direction by the United Kingdom. Imperial Honours by which the Queen granted Knighthoods and other honours to her “loyal subjects” also continued until such vestiges of colonial rule were removed by the 1956 government of SWRD Bandaranaike.

Thus, in essence the country did not enjoy sovereignty till the fetters restricting its independence were removed. This occurred through a process culminating in the Constituent Assembly of 1972, which made a self declaration of independence through the formal establishment of an independent republic. This process which led to the achievement of total political independence was marked by events that formed the “process” such as the adoption of the national flag in 1950, the adoption of a National Anthem in 1951, becoming a member of the UN in 1955, the adoption of National languages in 1956 and the national acquisition of the military bases in 1958. The creation of a Republic in 1972, and the change from the anglicised name of Ceylon to a more indigenous name Sri Lanka, completed the process.

It is also important to remember that in 1948 the country was a plantation economy, dualistic in character with a surplus creating urban sector, and a rural sector functioning below subsistence level. The economy largely driven by the output from plantations was mainly in the hands of British companies and so were the major Agency Houses which managed the production, and export of plantation produce. The administration of the country before and after 1948 was through the Ceylon Civil Service established by the British in the 19th Century, which was replaced by the Ceylon Administrative Service fifteen years after independence in 1963. One of the major criticisms of the Ceylon Civil Service was that its structure and traditions stood in the way of the transfer of real political power to the people of the country. In fact, India with its Indian Civil Service, was such a hindrance to the modernisation of India that it prompted Jawarhalal Nehru to foresee in 1934 that “no new order can be built in India so long as the spirit of the Indian Civil Service pervades our administration and our public services”. Thirty years later, when he was asked what his greatest failure was, he replied by saying “I could not change the administration; it is still a colonial administration”. Although it could be said that the Ceylon Civil Service did not have the same all pervasive influence over the body politic in Ceylon, it could be surmised that the Ceylon Civil Service did have a stifling effect on the emergence of a political culture that could lead to a more effective political transformation.


The grant of “independence” occurred 67 years ago and in retrospect could be difficult for people of today’s generation to understand the nuances of the anglicised culture, which pervaded the country at the time. The sight of Ceylon’s first Prime Minister Rt Hon DS Senanayake in a ridiculous outfit consisting of top hat and coattails, kneeling before the Duke of Gloucester at Independence Hall, would perhaps today arouse indignation and disgust but epitomises the relationship with the metropolitan power at the time.

While the grant of “dominion status” was a significant step towards the achievement of meaningful political independence, it also commenced the “process” through which a new political consciousness was created. It could well be claimed that the new, confident, modern Sri Lanka was in fact only conceived in 1948. Its creation took decades of political development.


***   ***


SBD de Silva: The Political Economy of Underdevelopment
Donald R. Snodgrass: Ceylon. An export Economy in Transition 1966, R. D. Irwin,
Michael Roberts (ed.): Collective Identiies, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, Marga, 1979
WH Wriggins: Ceylon. Dilemmas of a New Nation, 1961

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply