19th March 2000

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The death anniversary of D.S. Senanayake falls on March 22

D.S: earthy radical in conservative garb

By H.L.D. Mahindapala

When in 1938 Dr. Colvin R. de Silva singled out D.S. Senanayake and targeted him in his presidential address to the three-year-old LSSP, it was reeking with political hatred. He branded him as "a class enemy". In his characteristic rhetorical style he asked, "Who is this man who embodies in himself the combination of three otherwise divergent (feudalist, capitalist and imperialist) tendencies? What is his policy and whither does he seek to lead, or rather manoeuvre the people of this island?" (P.54-65, Britain, World War 2 and the Sama Samajists)

Colvin, relying on his Marxist theories, painted him as a "baleful figure.... guarding the new interests of the Imperialists". In hindsight, his Marxist interpretation of D.S. proved to be as accurate as his predictions of the revolution, which was always coming round the corner to bury the capitalist class. Colvin's Marxist theories did not give him an insight into the monumental events that were awaiting the arrival of D.S.

It was a time when the right and the left were vying with each other to grab the nationalist movement heading for independence. With their strident anti-imperialist cries and daring escape from British jails the Marxists were being perceived as the new nationalists. But D.S. was far ahead of them. Using his native skills D.S. grabbed the initiative and deprived the Marxists of the opportunity of hijacking nationalism, which was the most potent political force of the time. He had a better grasp of the historical and grassroot forces that were aspiring to liberate the nation from colonial rule.

He was in the forefront of the nationalist movement ever since the Senanayake brothers - F.R., D. C. and D.S. - were arrested in 1915 by the panic-stricken British colonialists who executed 34 Sinhala patriots on false charges of sedition and participating in the Sinhala-Muslim riots. After the Senanayakes came out of prison, it was F.R. Senanayake, the elder brother, who pushed a reluctant younger brother into politics. As he matured in the political process D.S. developed a sixth sense in understanding men, matters and the system - a natural talent which placed him two jumps ahead of his rivals. It was his unostentatious but calculating style that paved the way for independence, defusing the rising forces of nationalism that were heading in the direction of the militant Marxists.

The bookish Marxists were preaching revolution as the only way to get rid of the colonial shackles. D.S. , who dismissed their theories out of hand, outmanoeuvred them every inch of the way with his pragmatic incrementalism. The constitutional evolution that had brought the nation as far as universal franchise - a novel political experiment of the time - and semi-responsible government through the Donoughmore Commission indicated to him that the next inevitable step was independence. Besides, the global and the local trends that were rising against colonialism had numbered the days of the British Raj. His task was to manipulate the systemic strings of the British Raj and win independence without resorting to violence.

The only uncertain question was: when? The deadline set for independence by the Labour government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee was not 1948. After accepting (in 1946) the recommendations of Soulbury for full self-government the British timetable was to grant dominion status six years later. But D.S. manoeuvred to fast track the process and win independnece within two years. In one stroke he defeated the British and the Marxists.

One of the great achievements of his career was that D.S. turned Marxism on its head. He disproved the fundamental tenet of Marxism that the ruling class will never give up power without a revolution. He steered the emerging nation skilfully without letting it be tied to the British imperialists longer than it was necessary or being thrown into the hands of the untried Marxists. While the most heroic act of Marxist activists like Vivienne Goonewardene was to pull a mounted police officer from his saddle - hardly the stuff of a revolutionary except for some feminitva fundamentalists - D.S., quite unperturbed by the slings and arrows of his opponents, rode to power on the back of his constitutional horse. Not all the Marxists put together could ever dislodge him from that seat of power.

D.S. had positioned himself in the early thirties at a strategic point in the hierarchy of the State Council - the new instrument of power handed to the political class that was paving the way for independence. The new constitutional arrangement, introduced by the Donoughmore Commission, was to run government by committees. The head of each committee was a minister in charge of a subject. The Board of Ministers, for all practical purposes, was in charge of running the government in the thirties with the Governor holding the reserve powers.

The acknowledged official leader of this semi-responsible government was Sir Baron Jayatilaka, who had earned national respect for his scholarship. He held the two key posts of Minister of Home Affairs and Leader of the State Council. But the real power behind Sir Baron was D.S. In defining the role of D.S. in "the contemporary political scene" Colvin said, quite correctly, "Since the introduction of the Donoughmore Constitution, although only the Minister of Agriculture, he (D.S.) has steadily gravitated to the centre of the political stage. Sir Baron Jayatilaka may be the formal leader of the present ministerial puppet show; but the hands that holds the strings is that of Mr. D.S. Senanayake." Predictably, Colvin gave a sinister spin to the role of D.S. to demonise his image. In the process he underestimated the national stature and home-grown genius of D.S. who was in line to succeed Sir Baron.

After he took over from Sir Baron in 1943 he did not look back. He steamed ahead, confident of his own strength and ability to fulfil his nationalist dream of gaining independence. D.S. by far, was the most competent leader of the day to use the power he inherited from Sir Baron for the greater good of the nation. The central role played by D.S. in steering the nation to a non-violent independence shaped not only his destiny but that of the nation too.

Besides, there was no alternative to D.S. in his time except the Marxists who were high on rhetoric and very low on performance. Apart from gaining independence, the primary political mission of D.S. was to unite the national forces against the Marxists. The battle lines were drawn clearly between the two contending forces. Both parties asked for no quarter and gave no quarter. The Marxist leaders who paid lip service to the slogan of "Workers of the world unite" were hopelessly divided which made the task of undermining the Marxists easy for D.S.

Behind the mask of theoretical purity and superiority the Marxists were engaged in the politics of grabbing personal power, betraying the gullible workers who followed them. Perhaps, the expulsion of the Stalinists by the Trotskyites is understandable in the light of the global communist movements that were subservient to Stalin. But when the Trotskyites splintered into BLPI, NLSSP, VLSSP it became apparent that their Marxism was a mere ideological cover for pursuing petty and personal politics that had no relevance to the needs of the masses.

D.S. on the other hand, demonstrated an extraordinary skill not only to construct consensus from seemingly irreconcilable political forces but also lead it to goals he had planned to achieve. He was the master craftsman of coalitions. Politics is the art of bonding a wide range of interests under one leadership. Successful political parties tend to be a broad church representing a coalition of diverse interests. Parties that are limited to the narrow confines of theories, personal ambitions and single issues seldom succeed. Especially, in the Third World countries, where the national interests manifest in diverse groups spread right across the political spectrum, there is a dire need to refine the art of making and living with coalitions.

D.S. learned the art of forging coalitions as the head of the Executive Committee on Agriculture and Lands from 1931. Without a disciplined party trained to follow a predetermined path, the individual committee members followed their instincts and interests. To produce a viable consensus from these competing interests was a major task for the ministers heading each committee.

D.S. catered to varied interests with consummate ease. The name of the party he launched, the United National Party, encapsulates, this concept. The very first independent government he formed was a coalition of all communities. He guided some of the most controversial communal issues through Parliament with the support of all communities. It was a time of nation-building. His ability to design and build a nation out of heterogeneous forces has not been matched since he left the scene.

Two of the most controversial issues of his time were the designing of the National Flag and the defining of Sri Lankan citizens. On both issues the contemporary leaders of all communities backed him all the way. In particular, it should be noted that G.G. Ponnambalam, the acknowledged leader of the Jaffna Tamils, gave his approval to both. Ponnambalam's vote for D.S. Senanayake's Indian Citizenhsip Bill is recorded in the Hansard of December 10, 1948. Others who voted for the Bill were T.B. Jayah, Ismail, K. Kangaratnam, Gate Mudliyar Kariappar, V. Nalliah, Mudliyar M.M. Ibrahim, S.U. Ethirimanna-singham, J. Aubrey Martensz, J. W. Oldfield, S.A. Pakeman, T. Ramalinkam, A. Sinnalebbe, E.E. Spencer and Alfred Thambiayah. Despite all communities joining hands with D.S. to define who should qualify for citizenship in the new state the propaganda broadcast by our one-eyed social scientists is that it was a racist act of the "Sinhala government".

The Marxists too jumped on this bandwagon and gave it a class-based twist. The citizenship issue was used by the Marxists to decry D.S. and his generation of nationalists either as "class enemies" or "stooges of the imperialists." But how valid is their blinkered view of our nationalist leaders? The left-wingers prefer to over-dramatise and glamourise "Vivie" pulling a solitary police officer from his horse. But consider the commitment of D.S. to his own people. Walking home from Mirigama, rather late in the evening in one of his salad days, he happened to pass a house where a woman was wailing. He returned to find that her husband was stricken with smallpox and running a high temperature. Cars were a rarity those days in the village of Botale - his ancestral home. D.S. who had the constitution of a professional wrestler, picked up the man and carried him all the way to the nearest hospital. (This is a story told to me by his son, Dudley Senanayake).

The irony is that practically all the major socialist and revolutionary programmes, which the "progressives" would have liked to claim as their own, were introduced under the leadership of D.S. It is these "reactionary class enemies" who won independence; introduced free education up to university level; established universal franchise eliminating property qualifications to vote; guaranteed free health; alienated land to the landless peasantry; gifted free rice; supplied free school uniforms; delivered free midday meals to schoolchildren; issued free books to needy children and finally, under President R. Premadasa even handed free money for the poor to enhance their potential and rise above poverty.

If any one of these measures ever came from the "revolutionary progressives" the left would have been crowing from rooftops as if they had achieved the ultimate goal in the history of socialism. But by the time D.S. was firmly entrenched in his saddle the Marxists were pushed into a corner from which they could only ask questions about the fine-tuning of the welfare state. For instance, Pieter Keuneman was asking questions in Parliament as to the delays in the distribution of free books to needy children. (Hansard - Column 414, December 8, 1948).

They refused to remove their rose-tinted glasses and accept the hard reality that D.S. had pioneered a welfare state that was superior even to that of the Soviet Union. The welfarism of the Communist models was structured rigidly on "the dictatorship of the proletariat" which, when translated, meant the unrestrained dictatorship of the Communist party elite. D.S. established a welfare state without depriving the nation of its democratic and fundamental rights. The myopic view of Marxists, for instance, led them to praise Castro's Cuba, which introduced free education and free health. But D.S. who gave the leadership and set the pattern for the most beneficial welfare state in the Third World was not acceptable to the left-wing social scientists who misrepresented the man and his contribution to the nation.

He was essentially an earthy radical in conservative garb. When he entered the Legislative Council in 1924 he was an active and consistent critic of the British administration. His interventions in the Council debates, monitoring the details of the colonial administration, were, in the context of his time, a radical departure from the roles played by the obedient members nominated by the Governor. Of course, he was not seen as a radical because he did not use the politically correct jargon. Nor was he dressed in the fashionable ideologies of radicalism.

"Actually, as a matter of fact", (to use one of his common phrases) there was no love lost between the Marxists and D.S. When the Ceylon National Congress, of which he was a founder member, decided to admit the Communists a move supported by his son, Dudley - he resigned in protest. He showed an unmistakable preference for the liberal tradition of the British and their way of life than to the radical products of their universities. Selecting the best of that liberal tradition he favoured the path of gradualism, guiding the nation, step by step, through a process of natural evolution in history unlike the theoretical Marxists who misled themselves and the nation by trying to take a giant revolutionary leap into a vacuous future.

His statecraft was far superior to the learned dissertations produced by the Marxist leaders. They won foreign doctorates; he won the national crown. The Marxists were basically romantics more in love with the idea of socialism without ever having the capacity to deliver the goods and services promised in their dogma. The proof was in the failure of their experiments in local social engineering. At the end of their longest term in office (1970 - 1977) the kids had no milk and their parents had no bread.

In contrast, the main thrust of the pro grammes of D.S. was to build on the agricultural base of the nation's historical ancestors. His political philosophy was expressed succinctly in his booklet, Agriculture and Patriotism. In his view, one was inseparable from the other. He recognised that, as in the past, feeding the growing population was essential for stable government. Without being a Malthusian alarmist, he noted that the population had doubled in 50 years - i.e. 2,759, 738 in 1881 to 5,306,871 in 1931. "It is clear", he wrote, "that a radical change of outlook is essential if a stable posterity is to be ensured to a population who must, for a considerable period of time yet to come, rely upon agriculture for its maintenance." (p.9 - Agriculture and Patriotism, published by Devinda S. Senanayake).

The left-wingers were bitter critics of his agricultural programme. D.S. on the contrary, acknowledged the contributions of the Dutch and the British to improve the base of agriculture, even though it was "not actuated by purely altruistic motives". He added, "It is to the credit of the Dutch and British Governments that an attempt was made by them to rescue Sinhalese agriculture from the mire of passivity and supineness in which it lay sunk." (ibid - p.3).

He had a balanced view of history which gave due recognition to the groundwork laid by the Dutch and British in developing agriculture. His understanding of the past gave him a better foresight into the future than the Marxist who boasted of possessing the secret keys of history that would open the doors to an earthly paradise. Without relying on unrealistic ideologies, he read the pulse of his people with uncanny accuracy. He knew what the nation wanted and gave them lasting victories with the grace of a matador defeating the bulls enraged by a red rag waved in the arena.

The Senanayake tradition can find its parallel only in the historical narrative of the Mahavamsa. As a nation-builder, it would be difficult to contest the idea that D.S. would stand shoulder to shoulder with Parakrama Bahu the Great.

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