By Vishwamithra –
“Irony is wasted on the stupid” ~Oscar Wilde
I have already penned many a column on wide-ranging political moves, policies and principles of Junius Richard Jayewardene (who is commonly called J R), the first President of Sri Lanka. The heading might suggest that the object of this column as an exercise in judgment. It is far from it. Judging belongs to historians yet to come. I do not wish to malign J R’s personal character in the least. Never have I attempted to damage any political leader’s personal character. While acknowledging that each person’s personal character does contribute immeasurably towards shaping and defining the whole-man, I do not hesitate to say that those who abuse their literary powers to do any character-assassination belong in another pool of dirt. Yet, an exercise in uncovering factual data about the man or woman, his or her place in the socio-political montage in each era, his or her parental background, the prevalent social shades etc. is, I presume, justifiable and pardonable. However, branding political leaders is essentially the job of politicians and they invariably inherit that from communication experts, journalists and advertising gurus. In fact, J R was one political leader in Sri Lanka who managed to reverse the first round of character-assassination and suffered the ill-effects of another round of such nasty branding which he could not overcome until his peaceful passing away in 1996.One crucial issue that defined J R’s political career was the famous Kandy March. As per J R’s own reasoning and justification of the Kandy March as related to this writer by J R himself is thus: In 1956 the United National Party (UNP) received a crushing defeat at the General Elections. This defeat weighed heavily on J R. He lost Kelaniya, his constituency, by a majority of 23000 votes, a whopping margin of 72% to 27%. The party that was acknowledged as the one which was instrumental in gaining Independence had lost its luster within eight years. The leaders of the UNP could not stomach that. The son of the ‘Father of the Nation’, Dudley Senanayake who succeeded his father as Prime Minister in 1952, by this time had retired from politics. ‘So my priority number was to revive this party’, said J R.
Sir John Kotelawala who assumed leadership of the UNP at the retirement of Dudley Senanayake accelerated the process of the party’s decline in the electorate. His cavalier attitude towards power, his injudicious conduct among ordinary men and women, his personal angst against his political rivals, his flip-flops on the ‘Sinhala-only’ issue and numerous other ridiculous manners of public conduct, quite unbecoming of a Prime Minister, contributed towards the thrashing that the UNP got in the ’56 elections. J R was again the second-in-command of the party and the government. This position he held since the death of D S Senanayake. Even in the period in which D S was ruling the affairs, technically, by virtue of him being the Minister of Finance, J R was second only to the Leader of the House which position S W R D Bandaranaike held before he left the UNP. These historical facts are essential factors when one appraises J R Jayewardene’s political life.
In my previous columns I have already commented about J R’s patience and stoicism. I do not wish to dwell on that aspect of his life in this column. What is inescapable when one looks at J R is the distrust in which he was held by his Tamil rivals of the time. That, I presume, is entirely based upon the way he tried to sabotage the (in)famous Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact which was initiated by Bandaranaike at the insistence of the Federal Party and its leadership in the nineteen fifties.
The pact was a milestone episode in the long history of Ceylon. It signified, for the first time, the leaders of the two main ethnic groups in the country reached a mutually agreeable political ‘Pact’, aimed towards satisfying the needs of the parties. Concessions were made and by agreeing to sign the ‘Pact’ Chelvanayakam, the leader of the Federal Party, to the ire of his party cadres, opted to accept less than Federalism. Bandaranaike agreed to render substantial powers to the regional councils which were to be created as prescribed in the ‘Pact’. Doubts remained and the Federal Party stalwarts managed to contain their cadres to an acceptable notch. Despite these initial doubts, the agreement seemed a reasonable and a compromise between both sides. It was believed, at the time of signing, that both Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam entertained a sufficient amount of trustworthiness in their own communities to see the passage of the ‘Pact’ through. Chelvanayakam certainly had credibility among his supporters. Whether Bandaranaike had it is to anticipate events to come.
J R Jayewardene, the ultimate student of history and politics saw the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact (BC Pact) as a golden opportunity to rally his party around a cause that really mattered to the majority Sinhalese Buddhists in the country. At the time of the signing of the BC Pact the UNP was still in the doldrums. It had not awakened from the defeat at the General Elections. They managed to secure only eight (8) seats in Parliament and many leaders including J R himself were outside looking in. M D Banda who secured his seat in Mathurata was the Parliamentary leader of the party and despite the fact that Banda was a gentleman to the core, was not a charismatic leader who had the stamina, creativity and stoicism who could lead the UNP at the time. Sir John, although elected from Dodangaslanda, was living in England more than in Ceylon. For all practical purposes, J R was the unofficial leader of the party. In the BC Pact, J R saw his chances of galvanizing his party and the issue being a ‘Pact’ conceding Regional Councils to the Northern Tamils, he also saw an opportunity to change the image of the party from a Colombo-based one to a pro-Sinhalese Buddhist one.
J R’s, strategy on the one hand, offered a rare opportunity for a slumbering political party to awaken and be reckoned with again and on the other, tarnished his image among the Tamil leaders, not to forget the general Tamil population, as an untrustworthy Sinhala leader. As a measure of opposition to the pact, In September 1957, J R declared a 72-mile march from Colombo to Kandy, the seat of the Temple of the Tooth- the zenith of religiosity of the Sinhalese Buddhists in Ceylon. In explaining the purpose of the March, he said that he would invoke the blessings of the sacred tooth of the Buddha for the abrogation of the BC Pact. What transpired when the March began is another story and recorded by many a writer in many a publication. I do not wish to delve into that.
History plays ironic games with personalities and events. In such an irony, it was J R Jayewardene, who conceded, instead of Regional Councils, Provincial Councils by way of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution consequent to an accord signed between Sri Lanka and India. It was signed by J R Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi, President of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister of India respectively. The man who organized a march from Colombo to Kandy against granting of Regional Councils to the Tamil ultimately ended up enacting an amendment to our Constitution that guarantees Provincial Councils with wider powers that what would have been guaranteed by a something more akin to a memorandum of understanding (although it was called a ‘Pact’) between Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam in 1958. While the so-called BC Pact has been collecting dust for more than six long decades, JR-Gandhi accord is a living document which guaranteed certain rights thereto not extended to Sri Lankan Tamils.
The man who was distrusted by the Tamil leadership through two generations delivered while the so-called leader of the common man Bandaranaike reneged on the pledges given by him to our Tamil brethren.
At the time of signing BC-MOU, Bandaranaike is quoted thus: “In the discussion which the leaders of the Federal Party had with me, an honorable solution was reached. In thinking over this problem I had in mind the fact that I am not merely a Prime Minister but a Buddhist Prime Minister.” What Bandaranaike meant in the context of this quote is ambiguous. Did he mean to be as compassionate and just as preached in the sacred Dharma or did he mean to say that he could offer no more because the majority of the country, being overwhelmingly Buddhist, would oppose if he offered more?
In the ultimate analysis, J R Jayewardene is a man more sinned against than sinning. In the context of history, it is still too early to assess the politician J R. He was not a racist as most Tamils think he was. He was certainly an opportunist in the context of political maneuvering. I would rather call him a realist who was too late to assume the leadership of Sri Lanka, two decades too late.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org