C.P. de Silva, Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power in the SLFP and UNP governments from 1956 to 1970, Leader of the House ( 1956 to 1970), Deputy Leader of the SLFP (1956 to 1965) and Leader of the SLFP (after SWRD Bandaranaike’s death and upto July 1960), was immensely loved and respected by the [...]

Sunday Times 2

C.P. de Silva — a public-spirited politician loved by the people


C.P. de Silva, Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power in the SLFP and UNP governments from 1956 to 1970, Leader of the House ( 1956 to 1970), Deputy Leader of the SLFP (1956 to 1965) and Leader of the SLFP (after SWRD Bandaranaike’s death and upto July 1960), was immensely loved and respected by the people of the North Central Province.

C.P. de Silva: Still venerated as Minnery Deviyo for his selfless service to the people

Born in Balapitiya on April 12, 1912, he was a highly respected leader of the proud southern based Salagama community. CP won Polonnaruwa, Minneriya and Medirigiriya consolidated as the Polonnaruwa Seat with landslide majorities and, after March 1960, the Minneriya seat comprising Minneriya and Medirigiriya. He was one of the nine MPs elected at the first election faced by the SWRD Bandaranaike-led new Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He passed away at a comparative young age of 60 on October 9, 1972.

We recall the era after independence when we had politicians who acted like statesman. Parliament was the focal point where well researched and superbly crafted speeches were delivered by MPs with good family backgrounds and rounded education. Many people enthusiastically attended parliament to listen to high calibre political debates on important bills and enjoyed the use of English and Sinhala and the wit and humour of leaders like Dudley Senanayake, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Dr. N.M. Perera, Pieter Keuneman, Stanley Tilekeratne and Bernard Soysa. CP was not a great orator but made up for it with a genuine desire and a consistant work ethic, to improve the standard of living of the people of the North Central Province which had, by then, gone to jungle.

CP had his primary education at Darmasoka College, Ambalangoda and joined S. Thomas’ Mt Lavinia for his secondary education. He became a Gregory Scholar, received the coveted Miller award and became the Head prefect at S. Thomas’. He obtained the Bachelor of Science Degree with 1st class Honours, offering Mathematics (Part 1) as a subject, from the University of London in July 1933 and went on to pass the Ceylon Civil Service exam with a 1st class.

At the young age of 23, he joined the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service as one of the youngest Civil Servants ever and served in several capcities such as Land Commissioner, AGA, GA in districts such as Jaffna, Kalutara, Anuradhapura and Pollonaruwa. CP was so commited to his work that Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake handpicked him to implement the huge task of re establishing the glorious agricultural past of the North Central Province.

The service that CP rendered to the farmers as a public servant in the development of agriculture, land alienation, irrigation had caught the eye of the leaders of the country. After he became an MP in 1952 and a Minister after 1956, he created several new settlements and finally, through the launch of the Mahaveli diversion scheme, became a legend. Due to his untiring work as a public servant, an MP and a minister, he earned the gratitude of the people in the Polonnaruwa District and was referred to as “Minnery Deviyo”. Even farmers outside the Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura Districts and in such far and diverse areas as Embilipitiya, Vavuniya and Trincomalee, CP was known as “Minnery Deviyo”. Amongst the many who served the coubtry so much, CP was the most outstanding and unassuming personalities one can find.

The contribution C.P. de Silva made as a politician was no second to what he did as a civil servant. The brave political decisions made by him as an MP and minister influenced the country’s future democratic practices, too. It is well known that CP was a right-of-centre politician in the SLFP. He opposed Mrs Banadaranaike’s decision influenced by leftist oriented ministers in the Cabinet and a few newcomers, to induct the LSSP and the Communist Party as coalition partners through the back door. CP was an SWRD loyalist and his deputy, and survived an assaination attempt on August 25, 1959 by drinking the poisoned glass of milk meant for Mr. Bandaranaike. He stood with his leader steadfastly when the leftist trade unions, stagemanaged by the LSSP and CP, tried hard to destabilise the 1956 Bandaranaike government. In fact, during the July 1960 election campaign, Mrs Bandaranaike referred to the politics of the LSSP and CP and their tade unions as having ‘killed her husband without killing him.’

With diabolical intentions, wolves in sheeps’ clothing identified the soft belly in Mrs Bandaranike’s government. Within three months of comimg into the Cabinet, the new look government promptly introduced the Press Bill on October 7, 1964. The Press Bill stated the new law would “provide for the appointment of a Ceylon Press Council to tender advice on matters relating to the press in Ceylon and for investigation of offences relating to the printing or publication of certain matters in newspapers and for the trial of such offences by the Press Tribunal and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” After the introduction of the Press Bill, the government introduced draft legislation for the takeover of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon ( ANCL ).

This was seen by CP, the opposition UNP and many government MPs as a definite threat to press freedom in the country. That was the last straw for CP. By then CP had no influence over the Prime Minister. Instead, MPs such as Jaya Pathirana from within the SLFP were made to harshly criticise CP in Parliament. No disciplinary action was taken. Finally, CP, with 13 other SLFP members, crossed the floor of the House on December 31, 1964 in dramatic fashion, resulting in the government being defeated in the Throne Speech vote by one vote. He resigned from his several portfolios and the office of Leader of the House in the morning before crossing over to the opposition in the evening. A further battle took place to force Mrs B to dissolve Parliament.

Finally, Parliament was dissolved two weeks later on December 17, 1964. People endorsed the fall of the government in Parliament at the ensuing general election on March 22, 1965. The UNP under Dudley Senanayake formed a National Government comprising seven parties. Well respected leaders from the Federal Party and even Philip Gunawardena, leader of the MEP, joined the coalition.

This singular act of sacrifice by CP leaving his deputy leadership of the SLFP, leadership of the government in parliament (the Prime Minister was a member of the Senate), post of Leader of the House and powerful Ministries and his dream of harnessing the Mahaveli river, for the sake of upholding democratic values, had no parallel up to then. This is considered as the first salvo fired on behalf of press freedom in Sri Lanka. In his speech after he crossed over, CP, describing the sacrifices made for the party and the nation, said he was sacrificing all posts so that he might make “whatever personal contribution to ensure that our people shall continue to live as free men so that I might continue to live as a free man amongst free men and as a protest against the attitude of the coalition towards the advice of the Maha sanga. “

A similar incident took place 50 years later when Maithripala Sirisena, also from Polonnaruwa, crossed over from the SLFP/UPFA government on November 11, 2014 enacting a similar drama to contest the presidency as the common candidate of the opposition. When the veteran SLFP general secretary announced his decision to challenge the all powerful Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had amended the constitution to keep the Presidency for himself until death, with the obvious plan to create a Rajapaksa dynasty, media freedom had been virtually buried.

Like C.P. de Silva, Mr. Sirisena pledged to restore media freedom and, to his credit, the UNP/SLFP government did just that . The Right to Information Act, which the Rajapaksas were so shy to enact, is today the extension of the freedom dreamed of on December 3, 1964.

There was a significant difference between the possible outcome from their crossovers for the two leaders hailing from Polonnaruwa at different times, though. While both would have got sacked from the SLFP, CP was aware that if the government did not fall he would would have to face a by election under the prevailing law and justify his actions and return to Parliament. But Mr. Sirisena knew that the system of by-elections was scrapped by the 1978 constitution and if he had lost the presidential election, he would have lost his right to a Parliamentary seat until the next general election.

CP formed a new party, Sri Lanka Freedom Socialist Party (SLFSP) with the rising sun as the symbol and contested in 32 electorates. At the ensuing general election in 1965, the new party secured five seats at the short notice of three months and vindicated CP’s decision to leave the SLFP.

History records that CP was deprived of the premiership twice and refused the honour once. The first occasion was when CP was undergoing treatment in London after the poisoning incident on August 25, 1958, one month before the Prime Minister was shot on September 25, 1958 and died on the 26th. Governor General Sir Oliver Goonatillake appointed Dahanayake as the Prime Minister on September 27, without waiting for CP’s arrival from London where he was recuperating. Dahanayake did not hold a high position in the SLFP.

The second occasion was after the 1960 March general elections. Although the UNP won 50 seats and the SLFP led by CP won 46 seats, the UNP did not have a working majority in Parliament. CP became the Leader of the Opposition. All opposition parties requested Sir Oliver in writing to appoint CP as the PM and avoid another general election with the country in turmoil after the assassination of the Prime Minister. But for some reason only known to Sir Oliver, he did not appoint CP as Prime Minister. That the opposition had numbers in Parliament was proved when at the first available opportunity, the SLFP had its candidate T.B. Subasinghe (Bingiriya ) elected as the Speaker defeating the UNP nominee Sir Albert Peiris (Nattandiya). Dudley Senanayake requested Sir Oliver to call a fresh general election.

The third occasion was in 1965, when Dudley Senanayake, a great dtatesman, offered the Premiership to CP after the 1965 general elections. In this instance, CP simply refused the honour replying that people voted for the UNP and not for him to become the Prime Minister in a UNP government. It might be recalled that CP handed over his leadership of the SLFP to Mrs Banadaranaike in July 1960 to ensure a victory for the SLFP. It is difficult to find such gentlemen in politics today.

CP de Silva was also credited with having introduced many progressive laws. Many of them were attributed to his life spent with the people in inaccessible areas of the country, spending his youth without basic luxuries such as electricity, pipe-borne water, fridges , fans and air conditioners or, at least, a wife for companionship and to raise a family. CP loved children but never had any of his own.

As Minister of Lands, he used his good offices with other ministers to establish the Rajakeeya Madya Maha Vidyalaya in Polonnaruwa on the lines of Royal College, Colombo with visionary foresight giving hostel facilities for boys and girls and accommodation for the staff. He created a large cricket ground, big enough to be developed into an international cricket stadium. He, thereafter, established the Medirigiriya Madya Maha Vidyalaya on the same lines as Royal of Polonnaruwa. His love for children and their education had no boundaries.

In agricultural development, CP as a civil servant and, later, as a pariotic politician not only helped DS Senanayake to restore the huge Minneriya tank built by King Mahasen and abandoned for over 800 years. CP pioneered the establishment of colonies in Bendiwewa-Kadawalawewa, Galamuna, Buddhayaya, Jayanthipura and Kiririmatiya to be fed by the Minneriya tank. To develop Medirigiriya, he built a system of canals by redeveloping the picturesque Kaudulla Wewa and established colonies in Ambagaswewa, Meegaswewa, Diyasenpura, Biso Bandara and Babya wewa.

The number of rural hospitals and schools built within the vast Polonnaruwa District is too big to recall here. Instead, mention must be made that the Polonnaruwa New Town was yet another iconic development initiated by CP. Today, that great township stands testimony to the meticulous planning that had gone into it.
The establishment of the River Valleys Development Board ( RVDB ) by an Act of Parliament on October 25, 1969 to develop the Udawalawe Project and especially to establish the sugar industry with sugar cane in Gal Oya and Kantale extended to Pelawatte and Sevanagala, is a life long legacy CP left behind. The grateful people of Embilipitiya named a road after C.P. de Silva close to the Udawalawe resovoir, home to many important government institutions.

But the Bill CP brought to Parliament to establish the Mahaweli Development Authority Act on February 10, 1970 was a revolutionary piece of legislation capable of changing the economy of the country. He stated in Parliament that, during his stay in Rajarata, while standing on the Manampitiya bridge situated 6 miles from Polonnaruwa, he saw the peasantry undergo tremendous hardship and suffering as a result of the Mahaweli overflowing during the maha season while the same peasantry in the same ares underwent tremendous hardships and suffering owing to the drought during the yala season.

I don’t think the politicians after him appreciated the point he tried to make during the presentation of the Bill. He wanted to complete the Mahaweli Diversion in 30 years with emphasis on reforestation. After a decade of planning, the biggest South Asian development scheme, fathered by one man in his capacity as the Minister in charge and as a public servant and MP living in the area, finally got off the ground on January 8, 1970 in Pollgolla. The vision and mission of C.P. de Silva was to make the country self sufficient in rice and many other crops.

The plan was to cultivate 900,000 acres of new and old paddy fields and generate 507 megawatts of electricity. Six years later, Mrs.Bandaranaike and Maithripala Senanayake pressed the switch to divert the water to the intake tunnel at Pollgolla. The UNP, under J R Jayewardene, came to power in 1977 and completed this mulitipurpose scheme in six years.

Finally, it should be recorded that it was CP who, with the introduction of the Nindagam Bill on February 25, 1968, drove the last nail into the coffin of feudalism, removing most of the obnoxious and dehumanising traits prevalent in society at the time. This is an Act which brought about the highest solace to the downtrodden peasantry.
In conclusion, one cannot deny that CP was not only an influential figure in the agricultural development of this country but was also a redeemer of the downtrodden from the clutches of feudal chietains. He was so public-spirited that he had hardly any time to enrich himself personally. While some political leaders were called either Lion or Father of the Nation or Father of Free Education, C.P. de Silva was the only political leader recognised as a deity. He is still venerated as the Minnery Deviyo.

(The writer is a former Media Minister)

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