Remembering DS Senanayake on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day

Senanayake Foundation, Item in Daily Mirror, 4 Feb 2022

The first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) D.S. Senanayake entered the National Legislature in 1924. He was relatively unknown in the country and was pushed into prominence by his elder brother F.R. Senanayake, who was a very popular and active figure in the social and political arena. Many were surprised and taken aback to see D.S. entering the political field, as they were expecting his brother F.R. to fit the role. Perhaps the only person who had faith in D.S’s capability at that time was none other but F.R. Senanayake himself. 

Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as it was then known was under foreign domination from 1505 to 1948. Three Colonial Powers namely the Portuguese, Dutch and the British ruled parts of the island till 1815 when the entire country was subjugated to the British Government. Many a battle fought by our heroes at different times to free the country remained unsuccessful and the freedom struggles thus brutally subjugated became dormant until its last phase was initiated by F.R. Senanayake in 1915, after being released from imprisonment on false accusations.
The Colonial Government imprisoned F.R. Senanayake along with his brother D.S. and a host of other Sinhala Buddhist leaders of the Temperance Movement on trumped-up charges. However, they had to be released as they could not find a shred of evidence against them. But the massacre of innocents under Martial Law continued unabated and F.R. Senanayake vowed to free the country from colonial bondage. He set about revitalizing the freedom movement that lay dormant for many years.

  D. S. Senanayake and Sri Lanka labour movement leader A.E. Goonesinghe

He became a dominant member of the Ceylon National Congress. Continuous agitation for reforms by the newly created Congress resulted in elections being held on a limited scale for the National Legislature in 1924 and F.R. supported his brother D.S. Senanayake to become an elected member of the Legislature. However, just two years later, in 1926, F.R. met with an untimely death at a relatively young age of 44. He was D.S.’s mentor and his death was not only an enormous blow to D.S. Senanayake but also a severe setback to the freedom movement. In fact, many thought that it was the end of the freedom struggle. But D.S. kept his brother’s dream alive and carefully planned and plotted the path to freedom. On 4th February 1948, twenty-four years after entering the National Legislature, D.S. Senanayake raised Lanka’s flag that was brought down by the British in 1815 and proclaimed to the world, Lanka’s Independence.

“Sir, when The Donoughmore Report was accepted I was one of those who were rather apprehensive of the success of the Committee system. At that time, I was not certain how the Constitution would work and what difficulties we would have to contend with. But since I have been in charge of a Committee for about a year I must say that my faith in the Committee system has increased considerably”

Freedom was achieved by many nations all over the world by pursuing either a path of non-violence or by the barrel of the gun. Polemics of revolt have shown us the methodologies advocated by Gandhi to Guevara, from the apostle of peace to the votary of violence. D.S. Senanayake, however, followed another way, the way of effective negotiations. It may have him taken twenty-four years to achieve this goal but he did so by periodically advancing towards freedom without spilling one drop of blood to achieve independence. Perhaps it was this peaceful transition that had created a misconception in the minds of some that freedom for Sri Lanka was gifted when India was granted her freedom.

India and Sri Lanka had their independent freedom struggles. While Indian leaders were seeking freedom through passive resistance, Sri Lankan leaders were represented in the Legislature following a path of active negotiations. It was the capabilities shown by our leaders in the administrative affairs of the country that prompted the then Governor Sir Hugh Clifford to recommend to the British Government in 1926, that the existing Constitution should be viewed as transitional and that a more representative Constitution should be installed. On this recommendation, the British Government appointed the Donoughmore Commission in 1927 to bring about reforms. India received a similar commission, namely the Simon Commission in 1928.

India, however, totally rejected the Simon Commission. They took up the position that the Simon Commission had no right to bring a constitution to India. Demanding Swaraj (independence outside the Commonwealth), non-corporation was unleashed by the Indian leaders throughout the streets of India. Sri Lankan leaders did not resort to the same manner. Though they did not accept the recommendations of the Donoughmore Commission in Toto, it was not rejected. The recommendations were taken up in the National Legislature, amended through debate and discussion, and the amended version was accepted as a step towards achieving self-government. In 1931, Sri Lanka became the first country in the whole of Asia to adopt universal suffrage with women being given the same voting rights as men; a feature that even some advanced European countries did not possess.

Though the Donoughmore Constitution did not measure up to the requirements of the elected representatives who were expecting a Westminster system of government, they were quite pleased with Adult Franchise and abolition of Communal Representation which were viewed as an obstruction to unification. The other main feature, Executive Committee System was received with mixed feelings. Deeply suspicious, D.S. Senanayake was very critical of the proposed Committee system. Having been involved in the functioning of existing committees, the unwanted delays experienced made him to view them as a hindrance rather than an asset to development. However, the amended form was accepted by him on the firm understanding that reforms were to follow.

Bitterly divided, the amended Donoughmore Constitution was accepted by only a slender majority. Leaders such as Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, E.W. Perera and C.W.W. Kannagara opposed the proposals while Sir D.B. Jayatilaka, D.S. Senanayake and W.A. De Silva supported the proposals. It was well known that it was D.S. Senanayake who used his influence to win over the majority for the proposals. He was of the view that though the proposed reforms did not measure up to what was expected, the proposals were a halfway measure to self-government and that it should be given a trial period. The Donoughmore Constitution gave birth to the State Council in 1931 and for the first time elected Representatives entered the realm of the executive. In the election process of the seven Executive Committees announced, chairmen of each committee were designated as Ministers, they were,

  1. Hon. D.B. Jayatilaka – Home Affairs.
    2. Hon. D.S. Senanayake – Agriculture and Lands.
    3. Hon. C.W.W. Kanangara – Education.
    4. Hon. H.M. Macan Markar – Communications and Works.
    5. Hon. Peri Sundaram – Labour, Industry and Commerce.
    6. Hon. T.B. Panabokke – Health
    7. Hon. C. Batuwantudawe – Local Government.

It is well known that no member of the Board of Ministers utilized Committees as much as D.S. Senanayake. Having realized that the mere possession of Executive power was meaningless unless it was utilized for the betterment of the masses, he used his Committee to restore all ancient tanks and embarked on massive irrigation schemes to provide water to the rural masses. He opened up the neglected Dry zone which was once the granary of ancient Lanka and settled the landless villages in vast colonization schemes making them a great asset to the nation. Speaking on the Committee system in the State Council on 19th July 1932, D.S. Senanayake said,
“Sir, when The Donoughmore Report was accepted I was one of those who were rather apprehensive of the success of the Committee system. At that time, I was not certain how the Constitution would work and what difficulties we would have to contend with. But since I have been in charge of a Committee for about a year I must say that my faith in the Committee system has increased considerably.”



“I feel it is a mistake, a great mistake, to make an attempt to separate the people communally, and make a Constitution whereby the people will forever remain separated communally. If we want to progress, let us all unite. If we try to pander to the feelings of a section of the people, all that will happen is that we will be dividing the people, and that is the greatest danger that can befall any country”

Though many an achievement was made under the Donoughmore Constitution which was in operation for sixteen years, it did not always bring about smooth administration. There were many clashes between the elected Representatives and the Colonial bureaucrats; as such there was continuous agitation for reforms by both the State Council and the Ceylon National Congress. As a result, in May 1943, the Colonial government made a declaration authorizing the Board of Ministers to draft a Constitution within certain parameters and stipulated that the proposed Constitution should be ratified by at least seventy-five percent of the State Council. The Ministers welcomed this offer and proceeded to draft a Constitution with the aim of obtaining ‘Dominion Status’, the surest way for attaining independence. The task was completed in four months, and the draft was submitted to the Governor to be presented to the Secretary of State for approval. However, what they received was a rude shock.

On 5th July 1944, the House of Commons made an announcement that a Commission will be appointed to:
‘To visit Ceylon in order to examine and discuss any proposals for constitutional reforms in the Island which have the object of giving effect to the Declaration of His Majesty’s Government on that subject dated 26th May 1943, and after consultation with various interests in the Island, including minority communities, concerned with the subjects of constitutional reforms, to advise His Majesty’s Government on all measures necessary to attain that object.’
This was a sinister deviation from the original Declaration and a gross breach of trust. Sir John Kotelawala in his autobiography “An Asian Prime Minister’s Story” refers to this incident. He states,

“Sir Ivor Jennings, the great authority on Constitutional questions, has expressed the view that the terms of reference of the Soulbury Commission, appointed in 1944, were undoubtedly a breach of an understanding given by the British Government in May 1943. ‘What is worse,’ says Sir Ivor, ‘was the manner in which this breach was brought about. It left a very nasty taste in one’s mouth.’ When it was all over, Colonel Oliver Stanley, Secretary of State for Colonies, remarked with typical English understatement that this affair had been badly handled.”
Many Members of the State Council and of the Ceylon National Congress were aghast at this decision. They began to doubt the sincerity of the British Government. D.S. Senanayake, though disappointed and critical of what had happened, realized that sabotage had emanated from within and not from outside. Referring to this in the State Council on 23rd November 1944, he said,

“As the hon. Members are aware, we received a Declaration to which we gave our interpretation, and on that interpretation, we grafted a constitution. We then decided – at least I had stated our decision was – that we should submit that Constitution to the Secretary of State first and that if it was considered acceptable to him we should bring it here for the approval of a 75 per cent majority of Members of this house ….. You see, Sir, when we drafted that Constitution we sent it to the Secretary of State and I believe, up to this day there was no conditions stipulated that a Commission should come out to examine the views of the interests that were here. If that was so, there was no need for them to tell us that it should get the approval of a 75 per cent majority in this House.

I believe, and I honestly believe, that the reasons for sending a Commission here to consider various interests is due to the fact that the draft Constitution which was submitted by the Board of Ministers and which met with the requirements of the Secretary of State laid down in his Declaration is not the kind of Constitution that those who had influence with the Secretary of State expected us to bring out. So they felt that it was time to sabotage it.”

He went on to say, 

“… I feel it is a mistake, a great mistake, to make an attempt to separate the people communally, and make a Constitution whereby the people will forever remain separated communally. If we want to progress, let us all unite. If we try to pander to the feelings of a section of the people, all that will happen is that we will be dividing the people, and that is the greatest danger that can befall any country.
It is because of that danger that I do not want communal representation; it is not that I object to two seats here or two seats there. As long as there is this feeling that each community should be separated politically, that there should be this cleavage between community and community, those ideas will penetrate into our whole social life, our whole economic life, into all our activities in this country.


DS and OEG in London in 1946(?) to press for independence





Dismissing the minority phobia, DS said, 

“When I suggested the procedure we adopted first, namely, that we deal with the Secretary of State and then the Council, I can honestly tell you that in my own mind I had no desire for Sinhalese domination, or Tamil domination, or European domination; my whole desire was for Ceylonese domination, and the freedom I wanted was for the people of Ceylon.”
There was huge agitation to boycott the Soulbury Commission that arrived on the island on 22nd December 1945. D.S. Senanayake, however, did not identify himself with such clamour. He was of the view that the Soulbury Commission should be won over to their way of thinking, and though the Ministers never gave evidence officially, they had many discussions with the Commissioners. D.S. Senanayake in particular had numerous discussions with the Commissioners and even accompanied them on their visits to all parts of the Island. Lord Soulbury was greatly impressed by D.S. Senanayake took an instant liking to him. Lord Soulbury’s attitude and D.S. Senanayake’s commitment helped to rectify the stained relationship between the Imperial Government and the Board of Ministers, and most importantly it paved the way for D.S. Senanayake to obtain the approval for the Constitution that he was eagerly waiting for.

The Soulbury Report was published in September 1945, and a White Paper on the intentions of His Majesty’s Government was published on 31st October 1945. Though D.S.

Senanayake’s recommendations were included and further advancement had been made, the granting of Dominion Status was postponed. It is believed that the defeat of the Conservative Government in 1945 and the Labour Party assuming office caused this change as the new Secretary of State George Hall, who replaced Colonel Oliver Stanley, was not so amiable to the granting of Dominion Status. Had there been no change of government, Colonel Stanley would have remained as the Secretary of State and Sri Lanka on track to receive Dominion Status in 1945. Anyhow it was conceded that the New Constitution if adopted by the State Council, the Imperial Government would pave the way for the attainment of Dominion Status within a short space of time. On this understanding, on 8th November 1945, D.S. Senanayake moved the following motion in the State Council.

“This House expresses disappointment that His Majesty’s Government has deferred the admission of Ceylon to full Dominion status, but in view of the assurance contained in the White Paper of October 31, 1945, that His Majesty’s Government will co-operate with the people of Ceylon so that such status may be attained by this country in a comparatively short time, this House resolves that the Constitution offered in the said White Paper “’be accepted during the interim period.”

Addressing the State Council on 8th November 1945, D.S. Senanayake went on to say, 

“I was invited to London by Colonel Stanley, but my negotiations were conducted with the new Secretary of State, Mr Hall. I should like at the outset to bear witness to the encouragement which I received from both of them. It has been a weakness in our case that we have had to correspond by telegram. They have not known the depth of our feelings; we have been suspicious of their intentions. Colonel Stanley was Colonial Secretary for most of the war. He was aware of the importance of our co-operation in the war effort; he was anxious to secure our political advancement; in him, I am convinced, we have a true friend. Mr Hall – who is, if I may say so, a miner like myself – came fresh to the problems of Ceylon. It was inevitable that he, and the Government of which he was a member, should require time for the consideration of our problems. That he and they approached with sympathy is proved by the result. For the Declaration which I ask you to accept is better than the Declaration of 1943, better than the Minister’s draft and better than the Soulbury Report.”

In his lengthy speech, he touched upon all aspects from the freedom movement, its origin, obstacles encountered, sabotage experienced and finally the achievement of the moment of freedom.

Allaying the fears of the Minority, he said, 

“The road to freedom was by no means straight. That we were correct in our procedure is proved by paragraph 12 of the White Paper, and I am glad that His Majesty’s Government has had the generosity to admit that we were right. We did all that we were asked to do and with a speed which, I think, surprised Whitehall. The procedure was changed not by us but by His Majesty’s Government, and the change was due solely to the representations of the minorities. After those representations, His Majesty’s Government felt the whole question should be examined by a Commission. We protested as we were bound to do, at what we regarded as a breach of an undertaking. I am convinced, after hearing the case put in London, that the charge was due to an excess of caution. It was felt that the minorities should be given every opportunity of proving their case if they could. They were given every opportunity, and they took it. The Ministers allowed their draft to speak for itself. If the Commissioners wanted to see anything, we showed it to them, but we gave no evidence. The fact that we gave no evidence has had two excellent results.

“First, the minorities said what they pleased and how they pleased. The Ministers were relieved of the temptation to retaliate. In this way we were, I hope, able to avoid adding to the bitterness and ill-will that we so correctly prophesied in 1941. If anybody ought to feel aggrieved it was those who were so bitterly attacked, but we do not feel aggrieved because the verdict has been in our favour. Secondly, that verdict is more impressive because we left our proposals to speak for themselves.
“No reasonable person can now doubt the honesty of our intentions. We devised a scheme which gave heavy weightage to the minorities; we deliberately protected them against discriminatory legislation; we vested important powers in the Governor-General because we thought that the minorities would regard him as impartial; we decided upon an independent Public Service Commission so as to give an assurance that there should be no communalism in the Public Service. All these have been accepted by the Soulbury Commission and quoted by them as devices to protect the minorities.

Commending the White Paper, he said, 

“The great advantage of the White Paper is that it gives us complete self-government and puts an end to Commissions. If hon. Members who study the White Paper alone will obtain a false picture. It emphasizes the restrictions and precautions. What they should study is the new Constitution. I have had a new draft prepared and I have compared it with the Constitutions of the Dominions. I can assure the House that there is nothing in it that might not be in the Constitution of a Dominion. In fact, in one respect it goes much further than any Dominion Constitution except that of Eire. It provides specifically and positively for responsible government; and this means responsible government in all matters of administration, civil and military, internal and external.”

He concluded his speech by saying, 

“The present proposal is for an interim period. We want Dominion Status in the shortest possible space of time. To achieve it we must show not only that we have successfully worked the self-government that the White Paper promises, but also that we are fundamentally agreed no matter what may be our politics or communities. In a short time, the Cabinet will demand the fulfilment of the promises in the White Paper. Their hands can be immensely strengthened by this House and now. Every time we ask for a constitutional advance we are met by the argument that we are not agreed. Let us show that we are agreed by accepting this motion with a majority so overwhelming that nobody dares to use the argument against us again. I am not asking for a majority; I am asking for a unanimous vote.

“It is because of that danger that I do not want communal representation; it is not that I object to two seats here or two seats there. As long as there is this feeling that each community should be separated politically, that there should be this cleavage between community and community, those ideas will penetrate into our whole social life, our whole economic life, into all our activities in this country”

And for what are you being asked to vote? It is a motion to wipe out the Donoughmore Constitution with all its qualifications and limitations and to place the destinies of this country in the hands of its people. It is a motion to end our political subjection and to enable us to devote ourselves to the welfare of the Island freed from these interminable constitutional disputes. A vote for this motion is a vote for Lanka, and it is a pleasure and a privilege to move it.”

The State Council endorsed the Motion in an unprecedented manner; fifty-one Members voted for it while only three voted against it. Those who voted against were two Indian Tamils and one Sinhalese namely W. Dahanayake. D.S. Senanayake triumphantly cabled Lord Soulbury that he obtained 95% of the vote in favour of the proposals. Dominion Status that was promised within three years after the adoption of the White Paper was granted in two years. In February 1947, D.S. Senanayake addressed a personal letter to the Secretary of State through the Governor requesting that Dominion Status be granted to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This request was supported by the Governor. Three months later, in June 1947, an announcement was made in the House of Commons that, as soon as the new government assumes office, negotiations would begin to confer ‘fully self-governing Status’ to Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

The General Election was held in August 1947, The United National Party became the largest party in the House of Representatives, and since D.S Senanayake had the support of the majority of the Members he became the obvious choice as Prime Minister. The Ceylon Independence Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 13th November 1947, and on 10th December 1947, The Ceylon Independence Act received Royal Assent. On 3rd February 1948 Ceylon (Sri Lanka) ceased to be a Colony. Four Hundred years of foreign domination came to an end and D.S. Senanayake took his rightful position as the ‘Father of the Nation’.

Sri Lanka never modelled itself or followed India’s path to Independence. Until the eleventh hour, India was demanding Swaraj and not Dominion Status. During this period India was involved in widespread demonstrations advocating non-corporation and asking the Imperial Government to quit India while almost all their leaders were languishing in jail. It was perhaps the decision to create Pakistan that made them change their demand to Dominion Status within the Empire, the position Ceylon (Sri Lanka) clung to from the very inception. The creation of Pakistan not only marked the division of India but also brought about unprecedented communal violence where millions lost their lives. The only country that took India’s demand of ‘Swaraj’ to its logical conclusion was Burma and even Burma after becoming an independent nation outside the Empire, proceeded to sign a defence agreement with the United Kingdom. On the other hand, D.S. Senanayake never deviated from his demand for Dominion Status. He was successful in uniting all communities and united, marched to freedom without shedding a drop of blood. It is the sheer ignorance of these facts that has prompted some to erroneously believe that Sri Lanka’s freedom was an extension of India’s Independence.

Sceptics have castigated our independence as a half-baked measure and that it was not real freedom. “Defence Agreements entered into with the British Government have been highlighted to show that Sri Lanka was never really free and that real freedom came in 1956 when the Defence Pact was abrogated. One begins to wonder how a Pact can be abrogated unless the Country concerned had the right to do so. It was the inherent right of Independence that allowed the abrogation of the Defence Pact.

The independence of a country is not judged by the presence of defence pacts or the presence of foreign forces in the country concerned, but on the right of that country to abrogate such pacts or remove foreign troops if they so desire. Even today free nations stationing of foreign troops and holding defence pacts can be seen all over the world. D.S. Senanayake did enter into a Defense pact with the United Kingdom not because it was forced on him but because he wanted it as a safeguard from external aggression. Introducing these agreements in Parliament on 3rd December 1947, D.S. Senanayake told Parliament that,

“The agreements became necessary for no other reason but because of the obligations that Britain had undertaken on our behalf. There was, therefore, this necessity for an agreement before Dominion Status was granted. Besides that, our own interest needed to have an agreement to provide for our defence.”

He went on to say, 

“Now with regard to this Agreement, my Good Friend was not quite logical when he said that we would be prevented from terminating this agreement by virtue of the fact it did not stipulate a definite period, and that therefore we have no remedy. But these are mutual agreements to be entered into at different times. There is no question of giving bases to anyone. There was a question bases being found in Ceylon, but I was certainly not prepared to grant any. What I felt was that if at any time we wanted the assistance of England we should be able to get that assistance by agreement, and if necessary for that purpose to get their aeroplanes we should give them aerodromes. There is no question of any bases being given to her. They were only to be given when it becomes necessary, in our own interest, and after entering into an agreement.” So far as these agreements are concerned, it has definitely stated that they will be in force only during such time as they are necessary.”  Referring to the Defence Agreement sought by Burma that had become independent from the United Kingdom, he went on to say,
“As far as Burma is concerned, she has got independence outside the British Empire, but she has come to an agreement with Britain. She is independent, but there is an agreement with Britain –

……. Now that is a country that has obtained independence. But the people feel that it is in the interest of Burma itself and in the common interest to come to such an agreement. But as far we are concerned, what is the position? We say we belong to one family, we have mutual interests, and it is by mutual agreement that we are able to decide what is to be done. I feel that does not in any way remove our independence; it only means that we can maintain our independence” in our country. There is a good deal more that I should like to say, but I think I have said enough. I feel sure that no’ Member of this House or anyone outside can say that we could have more speedily better and more secure Agreements than those we have got. All those who have the love of this country at heart should rejoice not only over our getting freedom but over securing these Agreements, so that we may be safe in Ceylon.”

Parliament approved these agreements on 3rd December 1947. Incidentally, even S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who abrogated this pact in 1956, voted in favour of these agreements. What he did may have been a popular decision as cutting off ties with the former Colonial Ruler was widely acceptable emotionally. But it certainly did expose Sri Lanka to brazen interference by our giant neighbour and we still continue to pay a heavy price for it.

D.S. Senanayake never advocated that Sri Lanka should have a permanent Defence Pact with the United Kingdom but that to protect our newly won freedom we need the protection of a powerful Nation and at that time the best source was the United Kingdom. Referring to this predicament as far back as 23rd November 1944, speaking in the State Council of Ceylon on Reforms (Introduction of Constituent Bill), he stated,  “It may be that there will be a time when perhaps the British will not be our best shield; we may then join some other Commonwealth or come to some arrangement with some other people. But as long as there is no nation I could think of which is better than the British, I would like to get Dominion Status for Ceylon within the Empire. Now at this time, when countries, even big nations, consider it necessary that they should come to some arrangement for the protecting each other, I think it would be foolhardy on our part to think that we can stand by ourselves.” 

Harbouring deep suspicions on the intentions of our giant neighbour; D.S. Senanayake was convinced that we need a defence arrangement with a powerful country for our safety. However, after his demise in 1952, the United National Party Government led by Sir John Kotelawala was defeated in 1956 and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was elected Prime Minister proceeded to abrogate the defence pact with the United Kingdom. What followed thereafter was blatant interference in our internal affairs and continued infringement of our sovereignty. What we had to experience and continue to experience to date, more than justifies D.S. Senanayake’s suspicions.

Sri Lanka was plagued with a foreign-sponsored armed terrorist organization committed to the division of our country. It took a herculean effort from our armed forces to free the country from this brutal terror. Now, in the name of peace, another threat armed with international repercussions has emerged that threatens the very existence of this nation. It is our bounden duty to save our country from being dismembered and its dominance passed to Foreign Nations. If not greatest .disservice will be done to our National Heroes and another despicable betrayal will be featured in our history.

*****  *****

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One response to “Remembering DS Senanayake on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day

  1. Chandra Maliyadde

    Sri Lankans love to live in the past remembering, commemorating leaders and kings. Time to change the gear from reverse position to a forward position.

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