The battle of Ceylon's freedom fighters
By D.C. Ranatunga
We ask to be in our own country, what other self-respecting
people, are in theirs - self-governing, strong, respected at home and abroad;
and we ask for the grant at once of a definite measure of progressive advance
towards that goal. Ceylon is no pauper asking for alms. She is claiming
her heritage. The unity and solidarity of the Empire itself will become
a real living fact when it is based on and derives its strength from the
most complete autonomy and respect for the rights and privileges of all
This was what a pioneer of the country's freedom struggle, Sir Ponnambalam
Arunachalam said when discussing 'Our Political Needs' way back in 1917.
He was making an address at the invitation of the Ceylon National Organization
on the necessity for an organized political movement. It was a momentous
address made on April 2 and was considered the starting point for the agitation
for self-government. In the following month, the Ceylon Reform League was
formed to agitate for a constitutional reform that would enable the public
to participate effectively in governance. Arunachalam was elected the president
with W. A.de Silva as secretary and F. R. Senanayake as treasurer.
In the following year, Sir James Peiris addressing the second Reforms
Conference said: "And that is just what we ask them, that a reform of the
Constitution and Administration is imperatively required and a vigorous
development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the realisation
of responsible government in the country as an integral part of the British
Empire. We may be called revolutionaries. We may be called all kinds of
names, but we are only asking the British Government to carry out what
they have solemnly promised."
The movement was gathering momentum. At a public meeting held in February
1921, British MP, Colonel Josiah Wedgwood said that from all points of
view he thought Ceylon was well-fitted for self-government. "Besides that
I have observed in Ceylon, I think a larger proportion than in India, of
people who are devoted to the interests of the community and who have put
behind them self-interest. A country which produces men of that description
has got the foundation of self-government and I am glad to find these people
not only among the Sinhalese, not only among the Tamils, but also among
the Burghers and among the planting population".
Stressing on the need for national unity, Sir Baron Jayatilaka, in his
Presidential Address to the 1923 sessions of the National Congress said,
"If we are determined to attain responsible government within a reasonable
time, we must bestir ourselves and try to bring about that condition of
national unity which is indispensable to the realisation of that goal.
Full responsible government can only be demanded by, and granted to, a
united people. It is impossible to imagine how national unity can be reached
along the path of communal representation."
This was the time that there was continuous agitation demanding that
the majority of the Legislative Council and at least half the Executive
Council should be Ceylonese. In 1924 the Constitution was amended for the
Legislative Council to include 12 official and 37 unofficial members's.
Of the unofficial members, 23 were territorially elected while 11 represented
the different communities. Three were nominated by the Governor. An educational
and property qualification for the franchise limited the electorate to
a little over 200,000, which constituted a mere four per cent of the total
population. The Council's control of legislation and finance was practically
unrestricted with the proviso that the Governor kept the power of veto
The annual sessions of the National Congress continued to be the main
forum to agitate for further reform. Delivering the presidential address
in the 1924 sessions, C. E. Corea reminded how the country had a 2000 year
old Constitution of "an unsurpassed stability under which social development
brought physical, intellectual and moral progress, a constitution under
which not, bodies alone but the souls of men as well, were fed and nurtured;
which provided not only abundance of fruit and grain to nourish sturdy
workers but also the heavenly nectar of culture and refinement which nourished
poets, historians, philosophers and sages....That constitution was our
Aryan heritage, in common with all Aryan peoples who maintained the Aryan
tradition of civic liberty."
Having examined the working of the Donoughmore Constitution, Governor
Sir Andrew Caldecott sent a despatch to London in June 1938 recommending
a Cabinet system, which was necessary "in order to fix and develop Government
responsibility to render possible the emergence and evolution of political
parties, and so to infuse discipline into democracy."
World War II intervened and it was only on May 26, 1943 that the British
Government made a firm commitment declaring that the post-war re-examination
of the Ceylon Constitution would be directed towards granting Ceylon full
responsible government in all matters of civil administration. The Board
of Ministers was requested to frame a Constitution, which would be examined
by a Commission or a Conference.
The Soulbury Commission, which arrived in December 1944, declared: "We
believe that our recommendations, if adopted, will enable Ceylon to enjoy
forthwith a full and ample measure of self-government and in due course
to assume the status of a Dominion, thereby bringing nearer the ultimate
ideal of British statesmanship, the fusion of Empire and Commonwealth."
In July 1945 the Secretary of State for the Colonies had consultations
with the Leader of the State Council, D. S. Senanayake on the subject of
constitutional reforms and on October 31 that year, a White Paper embodying
the decisions of the British Government on a new constitution for Ceylon
(the Soulbury Constitution) was published.
At a special meeting of the State Council held on June 18, 1947, Governor
Sir Henry Monk Mason Moore announced the British Government's decision
to grant Dominion Status to Ceylon. This was, in fact, the last meeting
of the State Council, which had been in existence since 1931. The Parliamentary
system of government was introduced thereafter.
In November 1947, the British Parliament passed the Ceylon Independence
Act and agreements were made between the two governments on defence, external
affairs and the public services. The Act came into force on February 4,
1948 and Ceylon became a Dominion of the British Commonwealth.