Ceylon’s First General Election in 1947: Reflections … with An Eye on Today’s Situation

Gerald. H. Peiris, presenting here a more complete article than that featured in The Island of 16th June 2020 under the title A National Election in a ‘Time of Troubles’. ”

The phrase ‘Time of Troubles’ is borrowed from the title of a classic sociological study of 19th century ‘Ceylon’ by Professor Ralph Pieris (1952). Here it is intended to highlight the fact that, although the imperial sunset over our island has often been described as a “peaceful transfer of power”, it occurred at an extraordinarily stormy time – politically, economically and environmentally. The calamities that had plagued the country in the ‘Donoughmore era’ ̶  the pauperising impact of the ‘Great Depression’, Malaria Epidemic of the mid-1930s with about a million people (one-fifth of the population in 1931) infected and 60,000 deaths from November 1934 to April 1935 (Briercliffe & Dalrymple-Champneys, 1937), the acute food-scarcity during the Second World War  ̶  seemed to climax in the months leading up to the elections of 1947.

The General Election of 1947 in ‘Ceylon’ examined in this study was conducted a few months ahead of the withdrawal of British rule, and was based on the ‘Soulbury Constitution’ promulgated in May that year. When contextualised in the problems and constraints of that time, the orderly conduct of that election with an overall turnout of 61% of the total of registered voters must surely be considered a significant achievement for a low-income country on the eve of independence from four centuries of European colonial dominance. The experiences of that election have some relevance to the currently disputed issues concerning when and how the long delayed parliamentary elections of 2020 should be held.

Pre-Election Power Struggles

While tangible advances were being made since the early 1940s in Ceylon towards independent nationhood, there was simmering unrest at the grassroots especially in the densely populated parts of the colony. Foremost among its general causes was the precipitous price-decline of the entire range of agricultural exports in the aftermath of the World War. While the brunt of the consequent hardships had to be borne by the poverty-stricken ‘Indian Tamil’ workforce of the plantation sector (attributable to ‘estate’ owners laying-off parts of the workforce in order to curtail production costs), in the ‘mid-country’ areas of the highlands where villages are juxtaposed with ‘estates’, peasant producers of commodities for export also shared in the losses caused by the market recession.

Perhaps more significant as an issue of electoral politics, there were the expectations of the ‘Kandyan peasantry’ based on the belief that the emergence of a plantation-led economy under British rule had involved extensive land grabbing from the indigenous people. There was no doubt regarding the authenticity of this belief in the mid-country ‘Kandyan’ areas. Hence those aspiring to inherit political power at the termination of British rule had to cater to the dire needs of landless village-dwellers and pacify their impatience about the tardy pace with which their grievances were being rectified under the agrarian policy reforms of the mid-1930s. The much publicised ‘Village Expansion Programme’ initiated under the provisions of the Land Development Ordinance of 1935 had made little headway in the highlands probably due to D. S. Senanayake’s belief that the plantation sector must be left intact as the bulwark of the country’s economy, and its corollary that land belonging to tea and rubber estates should be purchased by the government for ‘village expansion’ only if they were either abandoned or being uneconomically operated by their owners. The focus of the ‘Ministry of Agriculture and Land’ under Senanayake at this time was to solve the problem of landlessness in the peasantry by harnessing the idle resources of the Dry Zone which would involve restoration of the ancient transbasin hydraulic systems of the northern plains, and adding to it a mammoth multipurpose project in the Gal Oya valley. These two agrarian efforts, he believed, will, in addition to yielding the urgently needed economic benefits, also epitomize Sri Lanka’s national resurgence.

In the ‘Indian Tamil’ community of the plantation sector there were misgivings regarding its future status in an independent ‘Ceylon’. Its anxiety was generated mainly by the displacements of expatriate Indian workers elsewhere in the sub-continent of that time. As made evident in Nirad Chaudhuri’s famous ‘Autobiography’ (1951), by 1946, there was a spatial polarisation of people on ethnic lines impelled by Hindu-Muslim conflagrations in many parts of the Raj. Burma had already begun expelling Indian residents in several areas of that country (Verghese, 1996). Moreover, the ‘Indian Tamils’ in ‘Ceylon’ (9% of the population here as enumerated in 1946) had hardly ever concealed their allegiance to India. A corollary of this problem from political perspectives was that, since the only source of arable land in the ‘Wet Zone’ for distribution among landless peasants was what the government could buy from plantation owners, such acquisitions were looked upon with disfavour by the leaders of the ‘Indian Tamil’ community. There were reports in the Sinhala press of underemployed plantation workers in the ‘mid-country’ occupying as squatters uncultivated land lying adjacent to estates of tea and rubber, and of their eviction by the police.

These incidents of localised unrest became a volatile issue in 1946 when the government decided to acquire a 400-acre block of land in Bulathkohupitiya in Kegalle District. In anticipation of that acquisition, Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, the ‘Ceylon Indian Congress’ (CIC) leader, persuaded a group of about 150 persons from the workforce of an adjacent plantation to occupy the land with a claim that they had cultivated that venue over several generations. This resulted in a ‘Kandyan’-‘Indian Tamil’ clash involving police intervention, and the arrest of several persons identified as leaders among the squatters. A retaliatory Hartal of protest sponsored by the CIC spread to the higher areas of the Central Highlands disrupting tea industry over several weeks.

The post-war demobilization of Ceylonese troops and the retrenchment of civilian workers employed by military contractors caused a sudden upsurge of employment in the formal sector by an estimated 100,000 (Rajasingham, 2001: Chapter 11), generating a desperate clamour for lower- and middle-level salaried jobs. It was believed to have contributed to a wave of crime and vice especially in the larger urban areas. The derailment in May 1947 of a Jaffna-bound train near Anuradhapura at which four died and many were injured was believed to be an act of sabotage.

Meanwhile, trade union unrest in and around Colombo became more ominous than all else in its destabilizing impact. It was based on a long-standing grievance regarding restriction by the colonial government of political rights (including trade union activity) of white-collar employees of the state sector. Since their main union (GCSU/ Government Clerical Service Union), with a membership of 21,000, was being controlled by the Marxist parties, D. S. Senanayake who had sided with the colonial regime in this dispute, qualified his stand as the elections approached with an announcement that he would intervene in settling the dispute only if and when the British government makes a formal promise of granting independence to Ceylon.

With several of the larger trade unions of government workers joining the GCSU agitation, ignoring a threat issued by the Governor of the dismissal of government employees who join a ‘General Strike’ being planned, the LSSP decided to convert the worker agitation to a struggle against “imperialism”. Thus, in a massive and boisterous demonstration of protest the LSSP led the “downtrodden working class” in a march towards the inner city of Colombo to the beat of its anthem, “sādükin  pelena  ün dän ithin  nägitiyau” (supposedly the Sinhala version of the Trotskyite ‘Fourth International’ lyric). In the course of this quixotic ‘revolt’ Velupillai Kandasamy, one of its leaders from Jaffna, was shot dead by the police. Many were injured; and, according to press reports, N. M. Perera, the party leader, was brutally assaulted and arrested. The main inheritors of power from the departing British –viz. stalwarts of the State Council– displayed an overt non-involvement in the stormy confrontation, leaving the task of suppression in the hands of the last British Governor. He, with reluctance, opted for a negotiated settlement, avoiding recourse to emergency military powers (Hulugalle, 1983). The ‘strike’ was in essence a demonstration of strength by the ‘left parties’. It provided a huge electoral boost to the LSSP.

The woes of British Ceylon were aggravated further by a prolonged monsoonal deluge that began in May 1947 surpassing in intensity the highest rains ever recorded in the Wet Zone. Enhanced by a cyclone in mid-August, the rainfall on the 14th and 15th of the month on western flanks of the Central Highlands exceeded 400 mm/4” each day. Ecological damage in the form of floods and earth-slips was enormous. About 450,000 people (7% of the total population) were rendered homeless. They had to be accommodated in temporary shelters and, thereafter, permanently re-settled in flood-free localities – especially in ‘Village Expansion Schemes’– which entailed, not merely the distribution of land in small allotments, but the provision of a package of welfare assistance including housing and community needs. In order to resettle the displaced peasantry from their temporary shelters it became essential for the government to accelerate the pace of land acquisition from plantations in the face of a threat by the CIC to call another strike in the main plantation industries. The flood-damage to public infrastructure such as public buildings, rail tracts, roads, bridges and power transmission lines also required a colossal re-construction effort.

Administrative Procedures

The administration of the General Election (for the related details, see Sessional Paper VI of 1948, and contemporary newspaper ‘features’ resurrected and published in certain websites) was in the hands of a modestly equipped government department with meagre resources (especially money, personnel and vehicles) at its disposal, compared to the abundance and extravagance we now see in a reluctant and politically empowered (by whom?) ‘Independent Commission’.

The organisation of the election in 1947 had to take into account the special circumstances of that time with the polling programmed to extend from 23rd August to 20th September. In the Colombo Municipality and the Revenue District of Colombo, all operations were to be conducted on a single day so as to enable special security measures to focus on the large number of polling stations (average of 2,000 voters per station) to be located in the city. The main objective of this arrangement was curtailment of malpractices such as impersonation and booth-capture, and averting a possible outbreak of politically induced violence. Elsewhere in the island, the ‘Returning Officers’ (typically, Government Agents or bureaucrats of similar rank) who were to serve in overall charge of electoral administration at district-level, were required to conduct polling operations only in one ‘Revenue Area’ within his District on a given date, with intervals of varying duration so as to facilitate the shift of officiating staff (including those of the police) to move from one ‘Revenue Area’ to another. In the ‘Revenue Areas’ of the highlands that had suffered extensive flood damage, polling operations were to be delayed as far as possible within the stipulated time-span.

Formation of the First Parliament

Parliamentary elections commenced on 23 August the flood had receded, but the the havoc it caused had yet to be touched. Those displaced by the floods were still confined to overcrowded temporary shelters. So, it is quite amazing that the polling achieved a 61% turnout without disruption, despite the recent outbursts of political unrest and the environmental calamity in the wetter parts of the country. Three-hundred and sixty candidates contested for one or another of the 95 ‘elected’ parliamentary seats.

There were several bizarre procedural features in this General Election, despite (or because of) their conformity with stipulations laid down in an ‘Order in Council’ passed by the Westminster Parliament, and issued on 27 September 1946.

For instance, due mainly to the ‘party system’ not making tangible progress since the late 1930s, it was only in the ‘Tamil Congress’ and in the three ‘Marxist’ parties (LSSP, Communist Party and the Bolshevik-Leninist Party’) that the filling of nomination lists was relatively free of confusion. In the UNP, despite its success in pruning down the list of nominees (from a large number that had sought party nomination), in its finalised list there were 98 candidates nominated to contest 89 electorates. This meant that it had to contend with two or more of its nominees in the fray contesting certain single-member electorates and three of its nominees in one of the multi-member electorates. In addition to those nominated by the political parties, 181 persons filed nominations as ‘Independents’ with the large majority among them motivated either by their failure to obtain nomination from a registered party, or in order to serve as ‘dummy’ candidates who would fragment the support from a given caste-based ‘block vote’.

The voting procedures that prevailed during the Donoughmore era – one which involved installing at polling stations ballot boxes in different colours, each colour representing a contestant, into which the voter was required to insert the ballot paper in accordance with his/her preference– was administratively cumbersome and, in any case, not feasible in electorates having many contestants. Accordingly, the multicolour box arrangement was replaced with a procedure involving the installation of a single ballot box into which the voters could cast their ballot paper  ̶ a sheet containing a list of names of all contestants, with different symbols and cages printed against their respective names, so that the voter could mark a cross in the cage of the candidate of his/her choice.

As the tabulation presented below illustrates, the aforesaid improvement was marred somewhat by the fact that, in each electorate, the assignment of symbols among the contestants was based on either mutual consent or drawing of lots, its outcome being that those nominated even by the well established political parties such as the LSSP and the TC had different symbols in the different electorates.

Ceylon Parliamentary Elections of 1947 (extracts)

symbols assigned to a selection of candidates from two parties

LSSP Tamil Congress
Electorate     Candidate Symbol Electorate    Candidate Symbol
Ruvanwella NM Perera House Jaffna GG Ponnambalam Bicycle
Awissawella Philip Guna’dena Hand Kankasantur’ SJVChelvnayakam Key
Kotte R.Gunawardena Elephant Chavakachch’ V Kumaraswamy Scales
Kandy TB Ilangaratne Hand Kopay C.Vanniasingham Elephant
Baddegama Neal de Alwis Clock Pt. Pedru T Ramalingam Scales
Galle W Dahanayake Star Trincomalee S Sivapalan House
Badulla JCT Kotalawala Scale Vadukoddai K Kanagaratnam Elephant
Mirigama Ed’ Samarakkody Lamp Mannar Sittampalam House
Haputale A Pachchmuttu Elephant Kalkudah V. Nalliah Hand
This list does not present a comprehensive coverage of contestants from the two parties

In the case of the UNP, those at its apex  ̶ DS, SWRD, Kotalawala, Wilmot Perera, Bathuwanthudawe, along with the party candidates drawn from the Kandyan and Vanni ‘nobility’, succeed in getting ‘Elephant’ as their symbol.  But there were the ‘anomalies’, the most prominent among which were within the Senanayake clan  ̶ Dudley at Dädigama with a ‘Hand’ symbol, and ‘RG’ at Dambadeniya with an ‘Umbrella’.

This confusion in the ‘symbol system’ meant that ‘name-recognition’ invariably had a greater impact than ‘party affiliation’ on the election results. Well known personalities, especially the extraordinarily rich, regardless of their ethnicity or party-backing, invariably won with wide margins (often of “landslide” magnitude), except where the caste-factor muddied the voter configurations as, for instance, it did in ‘Mirigama’, where DS Senanayake (already dubbed “The Father of the Nation”) met a formidable rival in his Marxist nephew, Edmond Samarakkody.

Senanayake’s UNP secured 42 parliamentary seats. The ‘Independents’ emerging with the second largest haul of seats substantiates my contention made above. The Marxist parties performed creditably with the LSSP, BSP and the SP winning, respectively, in 10, 5 and 3 electorates. GG Ponnambalam reigned supreme in the ‘North’ with 7 out of the 9 fielded by his ‘Tamil Congress’ winning their seats. Since DS was able to attract several ‘Independents’ to the UNP fold soon after the election, he assumed command of a parliamentary majority, thus to be called to form the government.

In August 1948 (i.e. almost a year after the parliamentary elections), GG Ponnambalam and three other ‘Tamil Congress’ MPs, along with C. Suntharalingam (the passionate exponent of “Eelom” in the mid-1930s) joined the UNP in a spectacular somersault. Both leaders were accommodated in Senanayake cabinet.

Though falling short of a parliamentary majority, DS attracted several ‘Independents’ to his party fold, thus having enough seats in the legislature to be called to form the government.

All ministers of the first cabinet were rich (certainly within the ‘top 1%’ of the country’s income structure) – some of them were very wealthy. Eleven of the ministers had academic qualifications obtained from universities in England. C. Suntheralingham and SWRD Bandaranaike from Oxford; John Kotelawala, Dudley Senanayake and C Sittampalam from Cambridge University; L.A. Rajapakse, a Doctorate from the London University; Oliver Goonetilake, J.R. Jayewardene, T.B. Jayah, A. Ratnayake and R.S.S. Gunawardene had External Degrees from the London University. All of them has served in the State Council of the Donoughmore era. DS Senanayake had become a ‘somebody’ (as the dust-cover illustration of Kumari Jayawardana’s From Nobodies to Somebodies (1998) highlights for us, with only a ‘9th Standard’ qualification from S. Thomas College located in a suburb of Colombo.


Primetime TV broadcasts on 7 June 2020 showed the manner in which the present Commissioner of Elections is planning to handle the polling, adhering, he said, to the related stipulations of the health-care authorities. The  demonstrations conducted under his personal supervision indicated, however, the likelihood of the procedures he intends to follow causing undue delays and difficulties to the voters which, in turn, could generate the type of chaos witnessed last month at certain venues from which relief payments were distributed. Is that what he really desires? That is why he would be well advised to look at optional arrangements including those that were followed in the first parliamentary election conducted in 1947.


https://elections.gov.lk/web/wp-content/uploads/election-results/parliamentary-elections/general-election-1947.pdf is an easily accessed source for 1947 electoral details.

Hulugalle, H. A. J. (1983) British Governors of Ceylon, Lake House, Colombo.

Jayawardana, Kumari (1998) From Somebodies to Nobodies: The Rise of the Bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka, Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo.

Peiris, G. H. (1981) ‘Agrarian Transformations in British Ceylon’, Sri Lanka Journal of Agrarian Studies, 2(2): 1-26.

Peiris, G.H. (2006) Sri Lanka: Challenges of the New Millennium, Kandy Books, Kandy: 204-208.

Rajasingham, K.T. (2001) The Untold Story – Chapter 11 – ‘On the Threshold of Freedom’, Asian Times,’ Singapore, October 20, 2001.

Chaudhuri, Nirad (1951) Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Macmillan, London.

Verghese, B.G.  (1996) India’s Northeast Resurgent, Konark, New Delhi.

Government of Ceylon (1948) ‘Report on the First Parliamentary General Election 1947, Sessional Paper VI of 1948, Government Press, Colombo.





Filed under accountability, communal relations, democratic measures, electoral structures, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, Left politics, life stories, modernity & modernization, parliamentary elections, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people, world events & processes

2 responses to “Ceylon’s First General Election in 1947: Reflections … with An Eye on Today’s Situation

  1. Chandra Wickramasinghe

    Thanks Mike. Interesting! Cheers. Chandra.

  2. San De Silva

    Great article, as always, Micheal!
    Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply