Today is the 111th birth anniversary of Sri Lanka’s second Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake By the Senanayake Foundation On March 22, 1952, D.S. Senanayake, the Father of the Nation and the First Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon (Sri Lanka), died in a tragic accident plunging the entire nation into a state of grief. His untimely [...]

Sunday Times 2

1952 premier stakes: How and why of the controversy over Dudley’s appointment


Today is the 111th birth anniversary of Sri Lanka’s second Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake

By the Senanayake Foundation

On March 22, 1952, D.S. Senanayake, the Father of the Nation and the First Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon (Sri Lanka), died in a tragic accident plunging the entire nation into a state of grief. His untimely death gave rise to the appointment of the next Prime Minister.

In 1951, an almost a year earlier, the United National Party’s powerful founder-member S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who was more or less the second in command, left the Government and crossed over to the Opposition relinquishing ties with the party and thereby paving the way for Sir John Kotelawala to be the second in command. However, with the demise of D.S. Senanayake the Government Parliamentary Group was not amenable to Sir John becoming the successor and a crisis emerged. Instead, they chose Dudley Senanayake.

Dudley Senanayake (left) with Sir John Kotelawala. Pic cousrtesy

Sir John was furious. Dudley Senanayake, however flatly refused to accept the post, saying it should be offered to the next in line. All negotiations failed as some Government Group members threatened to cross over to the Opposition if Sir John became Prime Minister; the very existence of the Government was threatened. The crisis was somewhat resolved after Dudley Senanayake, under tremendous pressure, agreed to form the Government, and Sir John agreed to serve in Dudley’s Cabinet.

It was well known that Sir John agreed to serve under Dudley Senanayake because, his mother whom he loved so dearly, persuaded him to do so. However, this grudging acceptance did not last long, it finally blew up with the publication of an anonymous document called ‘The Prime Minister’s Stakes 1952’ supposedly authored by Sir John, where he accused Dudley Senanayake of all kinds of villainy.

Numerous statements have conjectured as to how Dudley Senanayake became Prime Minister. Some have even suggested that it was because D.S. Senanayake nominated his son as his successor that S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike left the UNP. However, the facts leading to Dudley Senanayake’s succession to the post of Prime Minister speak otherwise.

Bandaranaike’s statement after crossing the floor on July 12, 1951, speaks of a completely different story. It is most interesting to note the reference he made to Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake during his speech. It was most revealing.

“It is a deep sense of personal sadness that I part from those with whom I have worked for so many years. Many of whom I count as my personal friends. I have received many personal courtesies and kindness from the Rt. Hon. Prime Minister with whom I have been associated for 25 years. And have no hesitation in saying here openly that I have great personal regard for him, just as I have for so many of my good friends on the Benches opposite.”

In his entire speech, there was not even a reference to a successor.

It is also interesting to note that not a single newspaper at that time even hinted about the nomination of Dudley Senanayake as the successor, and, unlike today, the media then were not subjected to any kind of Government domination and they were quite free to report impartially, which they did. What the newspapers published as to how Dudley Senanayake’s name emerged for the Prime Minister’s post is mentioned here to give a true insight into what really transpired.

“There is considerable speculation in the political circles here and various unofficial conferences have been held

“London newspapers had speculated the names of Dudley Senanayake (Minister of Agriculture and son of the late Premier), Mr. J.R. Jayewardene (Minister of Finance) and Sir John Kotelawala (Minister of Transport and Works and Leader of the House).

“One Newspaper said Mr. Dudley Senanayake was the likely successor.

“Some Indian newspapers cited Sir John Kotelawala as the probable choice.”

The newspapers spoke of speculation, even mentioned names of three probable choices, but not a word about Dudley Senanayake being nominated by D.S. Senanayake as his successor.

Furthermore, the lead article of the “Ceylon Observer” (Late Edition) of Wednesday, March 26, 1952 had this to say:

“Mr. Dudley Senanayake accepts offer to form Government.

Support from all sections of the Govt. Party

Sir John was unacceptable to several groups

By an “Observer” Reporter

Mr. Dudley Senanayake, 41-year-old son of the Late Rt. Hon. D.S. Senanayake, was invited this afternoon by the Governor-General, Lord Soulbury, to form a Government.

Lord Soulbury took this step after he arrived by B.O.A.C. Plane from London shortly after 12 noon today.

Mr. Dudley Senanayake consented to fill the role left vacant since Saturday last by the tragic death of his father.

These developments followed after views and communications from members of the Government Parliamentary Party indicated that Sir John Kotelawala was unacceptable to them as Premier.

Nineteen reject Sir John

Nineteen members of the Government Parliamentary Party had written to Mr. Dudley Senanayake stating that in the event of his being called upon to form a Government ‘We assure you of our wholehearted support and cooperation.In fairness to you, we wish to intimate our solemn determination not to support an administration formed by anyone else. We shall go so far as to state that we will resign from the Government Party in the event of anyone else being called upon to form a Government.’

The same group of members, in a communication addressed to Sir John stated:

‘Further to our conversation with you this morning, you were good enough to put forward certain proposals for our consideration. We have considered these proposals and to the best of our knowledge they are not only impracticable but also unconstitutional and will not have the desired effect to further the great task which you and we have in view, and that is to achieve the object of our revered leader, the Late Prime Minister, had in view.

‘Therefore, we regret to inform you that in the event of your being called upon to form the Government we will not be in a position to support you.’

Tamil Congress’ attitude

The Tamil Congress, through their Leader Mr. G.G. Ponnambalam, have informed the Governor-General, that Sir John Kotelawala is not acceptable to them as Prime Minister.

They are, however, prepared to support a Government headed by Mr. Dudley Senanayake.

The appointed Members of Parliament have also informed the Governor-General that in their view the next Prime Minister should be Mr. Dudley Senanayake.

Various individual members have also intimated their wholehearted support for Mr. Dudley Senanayake in this office.”

These are the events that compelled Dudley Senanayake to accept the office of Prime Minister. Not a single newspaper at that time even hinted that D.S. Senanayake had named Dudley Senanayake as his successor. Every media report indicated that tremendous pressure was brought on Dudley to accept the Prime Minister’s post. Faced with the likelihood of losing the majority in Parliament in the event of not accepting office, Dudley Senanayake reluctantly agreed. However, he insisted that he must dissolve Parliament and get a mandate from the people. Dudley Senanayake was sworn in as Prime Minister on March 26, 1952. On April 8, just thirteen days later the Prime Minister dissolved Parliament, seeking a fresh mandate from the people. Such was his commitment to democracy. Not only did he win this election, he won it handsomely by getting for the first time a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The accusation that D.S. Senanayake nominated Dudley Senanayake as his successor emerged in the political arena about five months after Dudley Senanayake was sworn as the Prime Minister, in a document known as ‘The Prime Minister Stakes 1952’. This document was supposed to have been authored by Sir John Kotelawala. It was well known that Sir John was bitter about not being chosen to the vacant Prime Minister’s post; after all he was the leader of the House and technically next in line, and therefore it was justifiably believed that he was behind the document. However, when Sir John was confronted with this document, he denied the authorship of the document and insisted he had been framed.

In spite of the public denial there are many who believed that Sir John was responsible for the document and that his public denial was to save himself from being sacked from the Cabinet. However, what is important is not whether Sir John authored this document or not but whether the contents of document were true or false. In this context what is most revealing and enlightening is what Sir John stated in his autobiography, published long after he became Prime Minister and retired from politics, as at that time he was able to look at the whole incident objectively and comment on the issue with neither fear nor favour.

Sir John Kotelawala published his autobiography under the title ‘Asian Prime Minister’s Story’ after he retired from politics. In Chapter 9 of his book under the heading ‘The Lost Leader’, he states:

“Imagine my amazement when I was told that the Old man had actually named his son Dudley Senanayake as his successor, and not me. I could only say that this was untrue. It was incredible that I should be let down by the Leader I trusted so much, and who had never given me the slightest hint that he did not think much of my capacity for Leadership.

“I was told later when the Governor-General, Lord Soulbury, once visited D.S. Senanayake in Hospital, where he had gone for a check-up; he happened to ask him whom he would name as his successor. And he is said to have replied that it would be his son, Dudley, who had succeeded him as Minister of Agriculture and Lands. It was also suggested that he was probably thinking of what might happen ten to fifteen years from then, when Dudley would be more mature, and I might have realized other ambitions.

“Now, when I am able to look upon the events of that period with more objectivity, I am inclined to think that D.S. Senanayake never made any such recommendation; but that what he had been alleged to say was fitted into the framework of a conspiracy to keep me out of office. If my surmise is correct, it was a masterpiece of strategy, based on the truism that dead men tell no tales.”

A falsehood had been concocted and fed to Sir John, which sent him on the warpath. By the time he realised the truth, it was too late and the damage was done. Was the conspiracy that Sir John mentioned in his autobiography the work of whispering tongue of a treacherous mind hacking and plotting his way up in the political arena, with the intention of eliminating possible contenders to the throne? If so pursuance of this issue to its logical conclusion will surely unmask the culprit. But it is not in the interest of the writer to pursue such action. What is attempted here is to give the lie to an unfair insinuation that was levelled at a great leader.


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