4th February 2001
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'From 'half a loaf' to Independence

By D. T. Aponso-Sariffodeen
After 133 years of sub-jugation to the British Empire, Sri Lanka celebrated its independence on February 4, 1948. Sri Lanka's transfer of power was a peaceful victory, vis-a-vis India and Burma. India's independence was marked with a holocaust of massacres pertaining to the partition of Pakistan and other caste and religion related issues. In Burma it was accompanied by the death of Aung Sung, Burma's great national leader.

In the case of Sri Lanka, attainment of independence was peaceful and expeditious. This was a result of a strategy that was propagated by D. S. Senanayake with the support of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and Sir Ivor Jennings in 1942: to bargain independence as a quid pro quo for the total support of Sri Lanka towards the British war effort. The objective was to only accede to any proposition made by Britain if it was one step closer towards independence, and to accept it only after having agitated for more.

During World War II Sri Lanka's administration was placed under military authority. A Civil Defence Department was formed on December 1 1941, and it helped to unite the civil and military authorities in Sri Lanka. Oliver Goonetilleke, the Auditor General became the Civil Defence Commissioner and Dr. Ivor Jennings, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Lanka, was the Deputy Civil Defence Commissioner. As Minister of Agriculture and Lands D.S. Senanayake was also involved in this department, in charge of food supply and control. The department's services became so vital to the smooth running of the island, that Oliver Goonetilleke soon renamed the organization the "Breakdown gang." 

This trio met almost every evening and discussed various issues that ranged from civil defence to other problems of the island. Unlike India, Sri Lanka lacked a Reform Ministry, however, the workings of the 'Breakdown Gang' could be perceived as commensurate to one, with D.S. Senanayake as Minister, Oliver Goonetilleke as Permanent Secretary and Ivor Jennings as Constitutional Advisor. It was during these years that a germ of an idea by D.S. Senanayake to attain independence developed into a grandiose strategy with the assistance of Oliver Goonetilleke and Ivor 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 deja-vu's to Britain and they were content with the gradual devolution of power to Sri Lankan Ministers. D.S. Senanayake was cognizant of this tradition of constitutional evolution Britain maintained. He was also aware that in practice this tradition broke down due to the varying ideologies of personnel involved in this process, especially the speed of evolution. He believed that the evolutionary process could be expedited if Sri Lanka placed itself in an indispensable position with Britain. The Second World War granted Sri Lanka the niche D.S. Senanayake was looking for. Therefore, upon his appointment as the Leader of the House, D. S. Senanayake did not change this conventional method of agitation for constitutional reform, he merely incorporated 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 of the island provoked concern in Whitehall. Sri Lanka's support towards the war became so vital that Sir Andrew Caldecott, the Governor, and Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, the Commander-in-Chief, urged Britain for an early promise to the Ministers, because they feared an immediate and progressive loss of co-operation towards Britain if such a promise was not forth coming. Furthermore, the Indian National Congress' involvement in Sri Lankan politics added consternation to these pressures. There was a 'freedom group' in Sri Lanka who was profoundly influenced by the revolutionary ideologies of the INC. This 'freedom group' failed to understand Sri Lanka's incapacity 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 their strategy of non-cooperation and non-violence to gain freedom, Sri Lanka's 'freedom group' perpetuated no such strategy, except scrutinize offers made by Britain. On the other hand, the 'moderate group' in Sri Lanka preferred independence within the British Commonwealth of Nations. They were aware that in comparison to India, Sri Lanka 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. D.S. Senanayake cautioned Britain that the delay was an impediment to the 'moderate group' and that Indian intransigent nationalistic ideologies were engulfing the State Council rapidly.

Britain had decided to leave constitutional reforms of its colonies in abeyance until after the war, however, Sri Lanka's imperative assistance to Britain accentuated a change in their 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 this scheme was approved by three-quarters of the State Council membership, Britain would accept this constitutional scheme. Although the Declaration of 1943 did not offer independence, the 'Breakdown Gang' perceived it as one step closer towards their objective.To take maximum advantage of this ingeniously created document, it had to be interpreted creatively. 

Ivor Jennings' profound knowledge of various constitutions of the world and his pragmatism assisted D.S. Senanayake to interpret the Declaration of 1943 as a document that devolved more power to the Sri Lankan Ministers than the Donoughmore Constitution had. In this venture, D.S. Senanayake also had the assistance of D. R. Wijewardene, the newspaper magnate, as one of his advisors. They worked diligently to get the scheme together, and although Britain had referred the examination of the scheme till after the war, the Ministers urged Britain to examine their scheme 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 deliberation of the Soulbury Commission.

The Soulbury Commission arrived in Sri Lanka 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 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 that spread from 'the problems of cattle fodder to the contents of the Ministers draft.' The Soulbury Commissioners, on the one hand, adopted the Ministers' scheme, which was published as Sessional Paper XIV of 1944, as their working papers, thus assuring the Ministers that their proposals were adhered to. On the other hand, by consulting with the minorities, they guaranteed the minority groups that their demands were espoused 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 Sri Lanka'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 a better proposition than what the Declaration of 1943 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. 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. Oliver Goonetilleke succeeded in obtaining an invitation, and D.S. Senanayake arrived in London on the 13th of July 1945. 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. D. M. de Silva.

In August 1945, the General Elections in Britain resulted in the formation of a Labour 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 Sri Lanka's case. He stated that the attitude of Britain towards Sri Lanka had changed since the war; for Britain had failed to show the Sri Lankans the same consideration it had shown to its former enemies whose constitutional rehabilitation Britain was assisting in. The 'Breakdown Gang' made a few significant changes to the Ministers scheme, which was their 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 independence of Sri Lanka. Their decision was derived from memories of 'Easter Sunday in 1942,' which were still fresh in the minds of Sri Lankans that had proven the island's dependency on the British military. Furthermore, Sri Lanka relied heavily upon Britain for foreign trade, for Britain was its biggest trading partner. Similarly, Sri Lanka did not have many foreign missions, instead worked through British consulates to form diplomatic relations with other countries. Therefore, to survive in the new world order as an independent state Sri Lanka needed Britain's assistance.

D.S. Senanayake argued that opinion had shifted as events transpired, and political opinion in Sri Lanka perceived the Declaration of 1943 as moribund and that their proposals of 1945 were inadequate. He pressured the British Cabinet to make a decision on the new draft constitution that was forwarded to them on the September 13. 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 D.S. 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 Sri Lanka, however, what loomed largely in the minds of the Labour Cabinet was India. Independence for India had been a major drive in the Labour 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 Sri Lanka would have caused serious dissension in India.

Although the 'Breakdown Gang' was disappointed with the outcome, Mr. 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. Sri Lanka 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 propitious opportunity. India's independence in 1947 and Sir Arthur Creech-Jones' appointment as Colonial Secretary granted them the auspicious time they were waiting for. The 'Breakdown Gang' had met Creech-Jones in London and was aware of his liberal-mindedness and his sympathy towards the colonised. 

In March of 1947, Oliver Goonetilleke was on furlough in London and he was requested by D.S. Senanayake to conduct the 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 Ivor 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 neighbour." After prolonged negotiations the 'Independence Bill of Ceylon' was passed in December of 1947. At 10.30 p.m. on December 11, 1947, D.S. Senanayake signed the documents pertaining to Sri Lanka'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!

Sources for this article are Sir Ivor Jennings' unpublished typescript 'Donough-more to Independence: A Contribution to the Constitutional History of Ceylon- 1931-1948 (Peradeniya 1953) and 'The Transfer of Power to Ceylon1943-1948' by Drene Terana Aponso- (Cambridge 1999).

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