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S. D. Bandaranayake

The great maverick politician of Sri Lanka

S. D. the Family Roots in Sri Lankan Politics
Author: Somasiri Wickremasinghe, Nilmal Wickremasinghe
Rasika Printers - Rajagiriya
Pages 405

Review: Prof. Wiswa Warnapala
Minister of Parliamentary Affairs

DN Thu Jun 15, 2006

POLITICS: Sri Lanka, like most new States emerged out of colonialism, has had a galaxy of colourful politicians who entered the national political arena as a result of the growth of mass-oriented politics in the country. This kind of politics came on the national scene, primarily as a consequence of the adult suffrage and the birth of modern political parties.

Though Sri Lanka has had a pantheon of colourful politicians, they, though made a remarkable contribution to the political advancement of the country, never thought in terms of recording their experiences. In other words, our politicians, who reached the national stage, did not display an interest in writing their memories.

Sri Lanka, though a country with tremendous educational potential and resources, has no tradition of autobiographical or biographical studies of politicians. Even the most capable politician with a flair for writing, this applies to many a politician of the left, has not taken the trouble to write their memoirs and this lacuna, even at this stage, needs to be corrected in the interest of the future generations.

It is in this light that S. D. Bandaranaike's biographical study. S.D. and the Family Roots in Politics. which has been edited by Somasiri Wickremasinghe and Nilmal Wickremasinghe, needs to be examined as a contribution to the study of politics in modern Sri Lanka.

This study on S.D. Bandaranaike can be divided into two segments, one section deals with the political career of S. D. Bandaranaike and the second part of the book is a detailed discussion on the role of certain select families in the political life of the country.

In other words, the first 146 pages have been devoted to a discussion on the politics of S.D. while the rest of the book, pages 147-381 are devoted to a discussion of the role of leading families in the politics of the country.

This section, in my view, gives a, good deal of sociological data on the families involved in politics and the details mentioned in the book are useful to students, who are interested in sociological explanations of politics. Politics of the families were a phenomenon of the Donoughmore period.

One wonders as to why such a lot of sociological information on families has been brought in when the purpose was to expose the family links which helped him to emerge as a politician. One could justify it if it has been done with the sole purpose of exposing SD's connections with the powerful political families like that of the Bandaranaike's who, undoubtedly, have played a remarkable role in the arena of national politics.

The authors, by introducing this part into the book, probably, though that family political histories would enrich the discussion on the politics of SD, but, it in my view, has not been achieved. Today people are not interested in dynastic politics, in other words, dynasticism is no more and it has been buried in many a country and they are today a vanishing tribe.

It has to happen in the context of a situation where feudalism has been buried and it, I mean feudalism and those unwanted relics and legacies of feudal families, have been destroyed to pave the way for mass-oriented democratic politics. SD was a man who emerged as a populist mass-oriented politician and nobody in this country, even those humble supporters of his at Gampaha will ever consider SD as a man who emerged via a powerful family link.

It may have had some influence at the very initial entry into politics but his entire political career, which contains both victories and defeats, was made colourful by his involvement in mass-oriented politics. His association and involvement with the masses was such that he became the Hero of Imbulgoda purely because of his innate ability to move forward along with the aspirations of the common man.

Populist stunts

SD's political career, which began just before 1951, became colourful as in the case of many a politician of the Left because of his belief in populist stunts and ideological pursuits. Such episodes and stunts were totally populist in character and orientation.

It was the character of the man, and the ability and alacrity with which he exploited the stunts and ideological pursuits for quick mobilisation made him a unique type of politician who was ever ready to delve into controversy in the name of the masses. It was this character of his politics which made SD one of the leading maverick politician of the country.

According to the authors who have taken the trouble to reconstruct and recount the political career of SD, he undoubtedly, has had a very colourful political career, beginning with his 'rebel within' attitude inside the, Land Army to which he first joined as a young agriculturist. Before this episode, there were many other factors which, as in the case of many a politician of the period, socialised him into politics.

In the case of certain politicians of Sri Lanka, the imprisonment of the father made an indelible imprint in the minds of young men, who through sheer acts of revenge, get involved in politics with a view to espousing the same cause to which the father served a term of imprisonment - for instance anti-colonialism.

This factor, apart from socialising the young men into politics, creates a kind of political psychology on the men who convert it into a political resource to enter the arena of politics subsequently.

The year 1915 was an important milestone, in the political history of Sri Lanka as a many a politician who laid the foundation for an effective nationalist movement which, undoubtedly, was elitist and constitutionalist in its character and in its mode of struggle.

Yet the movement could produce leaders who mobilised the limited constitutionalist forces for the achievement of independence in 1948. SD, as a young man imbibed the anti-imperialist ideas from his father who, like most of his contemporaries of the period, came out of prison with deep feelings about the independence of the nation (page 13).

The next stage of SD's socialisation into politics during his stay in India; he was at the University of Travancore and this was during the height of the Indian nationalist struggle against British imperialism.

SD, encouraged by the activities of the fire-brand nationalists of the period, watched closely the way in which they mobilised the people against the yoke of British Colonialism; SD was very impressed with such men as Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subash Chandra Bose. SD is one Sri Lankan who had the rare opportunity of meeting Subash Chandra Bose in 1940 in Bengal.

It was during this trip to Bengal that he found time to visit Rabindranath Tagore at the Sahnthi Niketan; it was, though a seat of cultural learning, another place which provided an intellectual training to fight against British imperialism.

The meeting with Nethaji the great leader of the masses of Bharatha - made an indelible imprint in the minds of SD, who, as Nethaji, thought in terms of mass action to defeat imperialism. Therefore this meeting with Nethaji, which made a life-long impact on the personality and the political career of SD, guided him so much that his eldest son was named Subash, and this was at a time when the elitist politicians of the period were, still looking for English names of their children.

The first generation of leaders, who became involved in the nationalist movement, never hesitated to use English names in order to obtain social respectability and it also showed their servility to the imperial masters from whom their forefathers, at the beginning of colonial rule, extracted enough benefits, including massive tracts of land.

Land was really earned, it was grabbed in this way, SD, by naming his son with the name of a fire-brand Indian nationalist, displayed his attachment to the cause of the Indian Nationalist movement.

The meeting with Vinobha Bhave of the Bhoodan Movement of India made a similar impact on the personality of SD who, according to the authors of this book, imbibed the ideas of Vinobha Bhave so much that 'it was the ideology that guided him in his service to the people and made him allot large extent of land to them.' (page 19.)

Political career

SD's short career at the Land Army ended in 1951 because of his 'rebel within' role inside the Land Army, and this gave him the opportunity to pursue a political career for which the Indian Nationalist Movement had given him the necessary direction and indirect political training.

Now SD was ready to begin his political career, which, during a period running to more than half a century, took him to the national political stage and the lack of a commitment to consistency in politics made him both a maverick and a fellow-traveller in politics.

Though this was the pattern of his colourful political career, he remained within the progressive forces to champion the cause of the poor and the down-trodden. The authors have given him a lot of credit for contribution to the formation of the SLFP and his role in its initial phase and in the formative years but they have devoted only two pages for the discussion of this aspect.

His parliamentary career begins with his election to the Gampaha constituency in 1952, and this was again as the candidate of the SLFP, which was compelled to enter into this general election one year after the formation of the party.

The party was not prepared for a snap election in 1952, and it, despite, this initial difficulty, was able to muster its forces to win 9 seats in Parliament where the leader of the SLFP became the Leader of the Opposition which signalled the emergence of SWRD as the next Prime Minister of the country.

SD won Gampaha in 1952 after a closely fought election and thereafter he was able to win the seat on several occasions, making it more or less his pocket-borough but not as powerful a pocket-borough as the Attanagalla of the Bandaranaikes.

It was the General Election of 1952 clearly indicated that the SLFP, though a new party, has come on the political stage and the democratic alternative to the UNP has now emerged with such men as SD in the front-line.

There are indications to say that SD always admired the colourful politicians of the Sri Lankan Left movement. Yet another influence on him was the politics of the merging China, and he began to trek to China during the period 1952-1956 and xix pages have been devoted by the authors to discuss this aspect of SD's career.

He got the opportunity to tour the Soviet Union, China, Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic and this exposure into the socialist countries made a life-long impact on his political career in the subsequent years. He still vividly remembers his train journey from Hong Kong to China and he was one person who enjoyed the rare opportunity of meeting such great leaders as Mao Tsetung, Chu En-lai and Chu Te.

Yet another fact, not known to many in Sri Lanka, is SD's silent role in getting the UNP Government to sign the famous Rubber-Rice Pact with China in 1953, and it was this trade pact which laid a firm foundation for a strong bi-lateral relationship between the two countries.

Progressive forces

Next stage of SD's political career is very much related to the upsurge of progressive forces in 1956. SD also became a language enthusiast and saw the need to de-throne English and enthrone Sinhala as the official language and it was with this that SD proposed to complete certain aspects of the democratic revolution in Sri Lanka against legacies of colonialism.

It was the - language crisis that developed after the passage of the Official Language Act of 1956, which gave him yet another opportunity to enact a kind of political drama with which SD emerged the Hero of Imbulgoda. This episode at Imbulgoda was of great significance as it successfully stopped the campaign led by J. R. Jayewardene who clamoured for the abrogation of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957.

It was this B-C Pact which envisaged the introduction of a scheme of devolution. J. R. Jayewardene, as we know, was a political strategist and he wanted to make use of the situation to his own advantage and planned a 'March to Kandy' a long walk to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy to bring pressure upon the Government to withdraw the B-C Pact. (page 68)

It was the funniest pilgrimage in the history of Sri Lanka, as it avowed motive was to crate chaos under the banner of a religious pilgrimage. The UNP, as usual, anticipated thousands to join the March to Kandy but it attracted only about four hundred people.

From the very start, it displayed the features of a grand fiasco; in the end it became both a fiasco and a debacle. It became a debacle because SD staged a demonstration to obstruct the Imbulgoda junction where he and few others decided to sleep on the main road.

The organisers were given an ultimatum; either they get back to Colombo or proceed to Kandy at the risk of losing their lives and J. R. Jayewardene, accepting defeat and fearing to challenge SD, decided to retreat and marched back to Colombo, of course not by foot but by vehicles.

Since then, SD came to be known as the Hero of Imbulgoda. The populist politics of SD reached its peak with this episode which had a major impact on the political psychology of the masses.

The next stage of his colourful career came after the assassination of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1959, and the post-1960 period saw a number of adventures by this politician who used number of avenues to reach the high national stage in the country's politics.

It was during this period that he displayed the characteristics of the political fellow-traveller, who, at one stage, tried all stunts including ideological pursuits as well.

He thought that the massive emotional sympathy that came to be generated after the assassination of Bandaranaike would help one to emerge over this emotional wave and formed the Bosath Bandaranaike Party - totally a political contradiction; this party of course, was short lived.

It was formed in a political environment where everyone, sympathetic to Bandaranaike policies, wanted to form some party to take advantage, forgetting the fact that Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, with a charisma of her own, was waiting to exploit the wave of sympathy and she, within a very short time exploited it beautifully and converted it into a major political resource for nearly forty years.

SD began shifting this political loyalties and inconsistency became the integral part of his political ideology. It was this populist drive in the man and his pro-Peking stand on certain issues took him in the direction of N. Shanmugathasan, the leader of the Communist Party (Peking wing) This association of his with Shanmugathasan - though he was not involved in the 1971 insurrection - took him inside the jail and SD became the 20th accused in the case.

He was released in 1974 and people of the area wanted him to contest Gampaha again in 1977, which he won and became one of the eight members of the much depleted Parliamentary Opposition. With such a long career in politics SD is still active in politics in his own way and he is the live wire behind the success of Pandu Bandaranayake.

He organises a monthly meeting at his residence to discuss issues of current political importance, and his thirst for knowledge is still the same as in his young romantic days. So the contemporaries say. SD, by nature, is a political animal and politics is in his life and blood.

It is this virtue of his which has enlivened him even in his last phase of his life. His political career has been legendary, and his name will be remembered for his political episodes, which made him the leading, mavericks in Sri Lankan politics.

Harold Laski, once wrote that 'I believe that the social conscience of the citizen is the surest guide to the conduct he should display in the face of events. That means, of course, contingency of disobedience, the possibility that the individual should refuse submission to the powers that be when he is sincerely convinced that he can do no other.

The moral obligation to resist, on other words, seems to be the root of social well-being.' I think this can be attributed to the political career of SD and it was this philosophy-which guide SD to dabble in politics for more than half a century.

This is a book which should be read by all people interested in politics, and its second part on family roots, though not very relevant in the current context, provides an useful insights into sociological aspects of politics in the country.

Both authors have done a good job in recounting the political career of the most colourful maverick politician of Sri Lanka.

Pandu Bandaranayake, my amiable colleague in Parliament, does not need to worry as political advice, both in terms of tactics and strategies, could be obtained from this great personality.