The Transfer of Power in South Asia & DS Senanayake

Kingsley M de Silva … being chap 21 in his slim volume DS. The Life of D.S. Senanayake (1884-1952)Kandy, ICES, 2016, 129pp










Much of the criticism of scholars of the march of events in the transfer of power in South Asia, i.e. India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, focuses on the arrogance and intransigence of Jinnah of Pakistan.  The evidence that has emerged in recent years will show that this is unfair.  Jawaharlal Nehru and Mountbatten have to share the blame. Nehru was just as arrogant as Jinnah. 

Mountbatten’s reputation in regard to the transfer of power in British India will need a great deal of resuscitation in the face of the evidence that has emerged and is emerging.  The crux of the problem is Kashmir.  The Indian records are protected from scholars (even those regarded as independent and not necessarily hostile) with a tenacity that would have been better for British officials at wartime.  What is required is not a defence of the Indian case or claims, but a sober assessment by independent scholars of how it all went wrong.

If Kashmir had to be partitioned it could have been done with greater care than it had under Nehru’s pressure and Mountbatten’s enthusiastic and not always discreet support of Nehru and what he (Mountbatten) regarded as India’s interests.  Mountbatten’s papers are protected with a skill that he seldom showed in regard to Burma’s re-conquest from Japanese rule.  But even so they are now under attack—under what may be termed flank attacks—from the papers released to their children and grandchildren by very important officials who were involved in the partition of the raj and on Kashmir and especially the designing of the boundaries of Pakistan (West Pakistan) to permit India to secure a road to what may be called Indian occupied Kashmir.[1]

If Jinnah is vulnerable in all this it was not because of his arrogance but the fact that he accepted and adopted a scholar’s theory of Pakistan as it should be, one in which the country was divided into two wings, West Pakistan and East Pakistan, divided by thousands of kilometres of Indian territory, a strategic nightmare.  Recognition of the Bengali or Bangla dominated east wing as a separate Muslim state would have served the extraction of a Muslim state or Muslim states from the former British raj better than the structurally defective Pakistan for which Jinnah fought to the end of his days.

We need to return to DS and what he achieved.  He presided over independent Ceylon for just over four years, a period of creative state construction which some critics regard as a continuation of policies he adopted ever since he took over from D.B. Jayatilaka at the end of 1942. But he did better than that, cleverly adapting his work to changing circumstances.


DS and Soulbury 

DS and Henry Monck-Mason Moore


DS’s decision to establish a new political party, the UNP as it came to be called, took many sections of Sri Lanka’s political class/classes by surprise.  Most of them could see no reason for a new political party especially because, as they saw it, the CNC was still politically viable.  Those who supported DS’s views could think of two reasons for the establishment of a new party.  DS, for his part, was tired of the CNC and tired of the efforts of some of its younger members such as J.R. Jayewardene who had gained the active, indeed enthusiastic support of DS’s elder son, Dudley, to work with the Communist Party.  DS would treat the Communists with amused contempt, especially because of their unreliability.  When the ‘young guard’ in the CNC enthusiastically welcomed the Communists and their fellow travellers to membership of the CNC DS was angry—with the ‘young guard’ of the CNC.  By the time the UNP was established the Communist Party had chosen to end its association with the CNC.  Although DS treated this as further proof of the unreliability of the Communists as associates, not allies, he felt he needed to make a demonstration of his own attitude.  He would move out of the CNC.  This was not difficult because he had played no active part in the offices of the CNC especially once he became Vice-Chairman of the Board of Ministers in December 1942.  He had never been President of the CNC.

DS’s readiness to sever his links with the CNC was due much more to his assessment of its weakness in the scheme of things he had in mind for the years of independence—his concept of Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation. He was convinced the CNC had lost the confidence of the minorities and had done or was doing very little to regain that trust.

From its earliest phase his new party, the UNP, succeeded to a large extent in gaining the trust of the minorities.  The Islamic group—the Muslims and Moors—and the Christians were firm supporters.  Even when DS was Prime Minister-elect there were few politically prominent Tamils who were willing to join him either as members of the UNP or as members of his Cabinet.

Cabinet formation was principally DS’s work; he had two associates in his discussions and where necessary, negotiations.  His associates in the business of Cabinet construction were O.E. Goonetilleke and A.F. (Francis) Molamure; the second of whom was to become Speaker of the new Parliament.

The process of Cabinet making had had fewer difficulties apart from his failure to get the support of any prominent Tamil politicians; DS got over this by securing the support of Tamils who were academics or were in retirement after long careers in the higher bureaucracy.

The only unexpected difficulty and one which fortunately proved to be not very difficult but rather easy to overcome was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s refusal to accept any reduction of the scope of the portfolio or portfolios allotted him, in order to help DS, accommodate Bandaranaike’s close political ally if not associate, R.S.S. Gunawardena in the Cabinet.  When Bandaranaike refused any dimunition of his portfolio or portfolios DS secured R.S.S. Gunawardena as a member of his Cabinet as Minister without Portfolio.  The entry of Gunawardena to the Cabinet in this manner came at the suggestion of O.E. Goonetilleke who apparently had consulted Jennings on the advantages of this line of action.[2]

The key to his success in Cabinet construction was the concept of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Sri Lanka; once that concept was abandoned, softly by his successors, after his death, in the party he built in 1946, and more systematically by those who refused this concept of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Sri Lanka, men like S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and his supporters, the result was about or more than 30 years of violent ethnic conflict from which the country is just recovering.

This was apart from the tensions within the party Bandaranaike led to victory in 1956, tensions from which his party has not recovered.  In less than four years the coalition Bandaranaike led came apart and the Prime Minister was assassinated by an associate of the powerful bhikkhu, one who financed or helped finance Bandaranaike and his party during the election campaign of 1956, and who diabolically planned his murder which occurred in September 1959 (de Silva 2015: 136-54) when he got tired of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s opposition to his demands which were economic and financial not political or religious.

DS, by any reckoning, one of the makers of modern Asia, does not figure among those chosen for inclusion in a recent book of essays edited by Ramachandra Guha and published by the Harvard University Press (Belknap Press) Cambridge Mass., and London, England, 2014, carrying the title Makers of Modern Asia.  These essays were chosen to illustrate the intellectual foundations of Asia’s ‘Spectacular rise to global prominence’.

Despite the importance of the theme of the transfer of power (or securing independence) through peaceful negotiations as DS did or fighting for it in a violent struggle against the colonial past in other parts of the world and in particular what is now known as South Asia; in this era of British decline and the fall of colonial rule in various parts of world, including Europe (the Balkans, for instance) and the survival of colonial rule in parts of the former Soviet territories and the Soviet Union)—we must remember that the Russian Empire was the oldest of the European colonial establishments.  Despite the decline and end of colonial power in almost all parts of Asia and Africa, we have yet to see a comparative study of the various phases or types of agitation on the transfer of power.



[1]      The reference is largely to Christopher Beaumont and Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

[2]      Personal knowledge.

AN EDITORIAL NOTE from THUPPAHI, 22 January 2022

The decision to place this item in Thuppahi was inspired by the discovery of the school-leaving certificate given to young DS Senanayake in 1902 by Warden Stone of  S. Thomas’ College (sent to me by Chandra Schaffter). … see ….

Though I had a copy of KM de Silva’s book, I had never delved into it till this month There are many succinct assessments in this work which I find thought-provoking; and this particular chapter is just one. Its presentation here has been made possible by the efficient capacities of IRANGA SILVA at the ICES in Kandy (where copies of the book may possibly be available).

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