Sri Lanka: The Untold Story, Chapter 9

British Concordance and concoctions 

By K.T.Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore, September 29, 2001

Chapter 1

Chapter 8

It became apparent that the British government had adopted a different agenda and new designs regarding the future of Ceylon to that which some people in the country desired. State Council member D S Senanayake was one of these, and accordingly he adopted a counter strategy to tackle the British colonial office to his best advantage, and in the years to come the British colonial administration in White Hall began to disregard the demands of the minorities.

The Secretary of States for Colonies authorized Sir Andrew Caldecott(1937-1944), the Governor, in August 1941 to inform the Council’s Board of Ministers that Britain fully recognized the need for further constitutional reform in the country. As there was no unanimity among political leaders, the British government wanted a Commission or a conference to further examine the matter, but it would have to wait until the end of the war.

During World War II Ceylon’s administration was placed under military authority. A Civil Defense Department was formed on December 1, 1941, and it helped to unite the civil and military authorities in the country. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the Auditor General, became the Civil Defense Commissioner and Sir Ivor Jennings, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, was his deputy. As Minister of Agriculture and Lands, D S Senanayake was also involved in this department, in charge of food supplies. The department’s services became so vital to the smooth running of the island that Goonetilleke renamed the organization the “Breakdown Gang”.

The three men met almost every evening to discuss various issues, including civil defense. Unlike India, Ceylon lacked a Reform Ministry, however, the workings of the “Breakdown Gang” could be perceived as commensurate to one, with D S Senanayake as minister, Goonetilleke as permanent secretary and Jennings as constitutional advisor. It was during these years that the germ of an idea D S Senanayake formed to attain independence developed into a grandiose strategy, with the assistance of Goonetilleke and Jennings.

In December 1942, D S Senanayake became the Leader of the House and Vice Chairman of the Board of Ministers, upon the retirement of Sir Baron Jayatilaka, Minister of Home Affairs. He secured the election of a Tamil, A Mahadeva, to Jayatilaka’s Ministry, thus bringing an end to the Pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers. Agitation was the standard method utilized by the ministers to secure constitutional reforms. These peaceful agitations were nothing new to Britain and it was content with the gradual devolution of power to Ceylon’s ministers.

D S Senanayake was cognizant of this tradition of constitutional evolution that Britain maintained. He was also aware that in practice this tradition broke down due to the varying ideologies of the personnel involved, especially with regard to the speed of evolution. He believed that the evolutionary process could be expedited if Ceylon placed itself in an indispensable position with Britain. World War II granted Ceylon the niche that D S Senanayake was looking for. Therefore, upon his appointment as the Leader of the House, he persisted with the conventional method of agitation for constitutional reform; incorporating it into his formula to attain independence. Therefore, while offering total support to Britain’s war effort, the ministers pressured Britain to adhere to their demands for independence after the war.

The political atmosphere on the island provoked concern in Whitehall. Ceylon’s support for the war became so vital that the Governor, Sir Andrew, and Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, the Commander-in-Chief, British Forces in Ceylon urged an early promise to the ministers because they feared an immediate and progressive loss of cooperation if such a promise was not forthcoming.

Furthermore, the Indian National Congress’ (INC) involvement in Ceylon politics added to these pressures. There was a “freedom group” in Ceylon that was profoundly influenced by the revolutionary ideologies of the INC. This group failed to understand Ceylon’s inability to follow India. India could afford to turn down offers made by Britain, due to its social, political and economic stronghold. While the INC followed its strategy of non-cooperation and non-violence to gain freedom, Ceylon’s “freedom group” adopted no such strategy, except to scrutinizing the offers made by Britain.

On the other hand, the “moderate group” in Ceylon preferred independence within the British Commonwealth of Nations. They were aware that in comparison to India, Ceylon did not have the vast population, the educated elite or the diverse economy that India enjoyed. They also understood the problems of transition and the importance of having the goodwill of Britain, for they could not afford to give up the economic and military assistance the Commonwealth could offer. DS Senanayake cautioned Britain that any delay was an impediment to the moderate group and that Indian intransigent nationalistic ideologies were rapidly engulfing the State Council.

As stated, Britain had decided to leave constitutional reforms of its colonies in abeyance until after the war, however, Ceylon’s imperative assistance to Britain prompted a change in this decision. Therefore, on May 26, 1943, Britain issued a declaration to the Ministers with the following proposition: first, it invited the Ministers to draft their own constitutional scheme. Second, it stated that a Commission or Conference would examine this scheme and finally, that if the scheme was approved by three-quarters of the State Council membership, Britain would accept the scheme. Although the Declaration of 1943 did not offer independence, the “Breakdown Gang” perceived it as one step closer to their objective. To take maximum advantage of this ingeniously created document, it had to be interpreted creatively.

Sir Ivor Jennings’ profound knowledge of various constitutions of the world and his pragmatism assisted D S Senanayakein interpreting the Declaration of 1943 as a document that devolved more power to the Ceylon’s Ministers than the Donoughmore Constitution had. In this venture, D S Senanayake also had the assistance of D R Wijewardene, a newspaper magnate, as one of his advisors. They worked diligently to develop a scheme, and although Britain had referred the examination of it until after the war, the Ministers urged Britain to examine it immediately.

The approach D S Senanayake adopted was contrary to the modus operandi of the Colonial Office, which resulted in the exclusion of the Governor and the Officers of State from the drafting process. This angered Governor Caldecott, and he requested Britain to send a commission that was similar to the Donoughmore Commission, thus negating the Ministers’ scheme. This clandestine approach of the Governor made the Ministers withdraw their scheme and decline to take part in the deliberations of the Soulbury Commission.

The Soulbury Commission arrived in Ceylon in December 1944. Although the Ministers had boycotted the Commission, the “Breakdown Gang” formulated a strategy that enabled them to meet the Commissioners unofficially and socially. Therefore, their first few days were filled with “Goonetilleke’s invitations” and D S Senanayake conducted an island-wide tour of “culture and agriculture”.

This tour gave the Commissioners an opportunity to discuss with D S Senanayake any topic, ranging from the problems of cattle fodder to the contents of the Ministers’ draft. The Soulbury Commissioners adopted the Ministers’ scheme, which was published as Sessional Paper XIV of 1944, as their working papers, thus assuring the Ministers that their proposals would be adhered to. On the other hand, by consulting with the minorities, they guaranteed the minority groups that their demands would be heard and their grievances protected in the new Constitution.

Post-war Asia raged with the call for independence. In India, the demand for partition became a prerequisite for independence, and in Burma communist insurrection threatened its independence. Although Ceylon’s situation was a peaceful oasis in comparison to the rest of Asia, its political atmosphere was threatened with leftist ideologies.

The “Breakdown Gang” took advantage of this tumultuous situation in Asia to press Britain for better proposition than the Declaration of 1943 had proposed. They believed that if D S Senanayake could have a “conference” with the Secretary of State, he could squeeze a little more out of the Soulbury Report before it was officially published. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke was going to London to discuss food related matters, and D S Senanayake sought his assistance to secure an invitation from the Secretary of State for him, which he did, and he arrived in London on July 13, 1945. Sir Ivor Jennings, who was in Cambridge on holiday, assisted D S Senanayake behind the scenes. Two other members worked closely with the “Breakdown Gang” in this venture: Arthur G (later Sir) Ranasinha and Dr DM de Silva.

In August 1945, general elections in Britain resulted in the formation of a Labor Government under Clement Atlee. George Hall became the Secretary of State for the Colonies and D S Senanayake met him on September 4, 1945 to discuss Ceylon’s situation. He stated that the attitude of Britain towards Ceylon had changed since the war; Britain had failed to show Ceylonese the same consideration it had shown to its former enemies, in whose constitutional rehabilitation Britain was assisting. The “Breakdown Gang” made a few significant changes to the Ministers’ scheme, which was in its 10th draft, with all provisions that pertained to self-government being replaced by the demand for full independence, and the draft was forwarded to George Hall on September 13.

This draft constitution offered Britain concessions on military and external affairs as a quid pro quo for the independence of Ceylon. This decision was based on memories of Easter Sunday in 1942, which were still fresh in the minds of Ceylonese and which had illustrated the island’s dependency on the British military. Furthermore, Ceylon relied heavily on Britain for foreign trade, its biggest trading partner. Similarly, Ceylon did not have many foreign missions, instead it worked through British consulates to form diplomatic relations. Therefore, to survive in the new world order as an independent state, Ceylon needed Britain’s assistance.

DS Senanayake argued that opinion had shifted as events transpired, and political opinion in the country perceived the Declaration of 1943 as moribund and the proposals of 1945 as inadequate. He pressured the British Cabinet to make a decision on the new draft constitution that was forwarded to them on September 13. Sir Arthur Ranasinha wrote in his autobiography¬†Memoirs and Musings,¬†that the Colonial Secretary, George Hall, and his Parliament Under-Secretary, Arthur Creech-Jones, were veering towards accepting DS Senanayake’s case for independence. However, Britain’s decision fell short of independence, only recommending full Self-Government, which was the penultimate stage to full independence. Hall genuinely recommended independence for Ceylon, however, but what loomed largely in the minds of the Labor Cabinet was India. Independence for India had been a major drive in the Labor Party’s election campaign and at a time when it was extremely difficult for Britain to find a suitable scheme for India, any offer that was conferred on Ceylon would have caused serious dissension in India.

Although the “Breakdown Gang” was disappointed with the outcome, D S Senanayake contended that “a hungry man should not spurn more than half a loaf merely because it is not the whole”. They were sanguine because the offer made by Britain was one stride towards independence and they would make use of the next propitious opportunity to make their case once again. D S Senanayake was granted a new constitution based on the Soulbury recommendations, and Britain had promised to review it in six years. The “Breakdown Gang”, of course, was not prepared to wait for six years, but for the next opportunity. India’s independence in 1947 and Sir Arthur Creech-Jones’ appointment as Colonial Secretary granted them such an occasion. The “Breakdown Gang” had met Creech-Jones in London and was aware of his liberal-mindedness and his sympathy towards the British colonies.

In March of 1947, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke was on furlough in London and was requested by D S Senanayake to conduct negotiations on his behalf. D S Senanayake pressured Britain, urging a pledge not lower than that offered to India or Burma. In his letter to Creech-Jones, which was drafted by Jennings, D S Senanayake argued, “I believe that when India becomes independent it will be all the more desirable for Ceylon to be associated with other nations of the Commonwealth; but it must be an association in which we can maintain our self-respect as a people and not be an object of contempt to our free and independent neighbor.”

After prolonged negotiations the Independence Bill of Ceylon was passed in December of 1947. At 10.30 pm on December 11, 1947, D S Senanayake signed the documents pertaining to Ceylon’s independence with Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and Sir Ivor Jennings witnessing the event. This was what the “Breakdown Gang” had strived for since they formulated the strategy in 1942.

NEXT: Chapter 10: Lord Soulbury’s soulless report

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