By Vishwamithra –
“Mark this well, you proud men of action! You are, after all, nothing but unconscious instruments of the men of thought.” ~Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
SWRD Bandaranaike, the fourth Prime Minister of Ceylon, was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. A cruel conspiracy was hatched and executed to almost perfect precision. But that was only as far as the assassination was done and completed. But behind every murder there is a conspiracy. History tells us that in most assassinations, rarely had a lone gunman executed the job without any accomplices supporting him or her. In the Bandaranaike assassination, what is most astonishing was the lack of planning and plotting to shelter the conspirators so that they could remain at large after the assassination. Therein lay the fatal flaw of those who killed SWRD Bandaranaike, the man who ushered in an era of the common man in Ceylon.
At the top of this conspiracy-pyramid stood another Buddhist monk, a young megalomaniac by the name of Mapitigama Buddharakkita, who was primarily responsible for garnering the support of the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote for Bandaranaike in the election victory in 1956. However, there was nothing venerable, as all Buddhist monks are held in, in Mapitigama Buddharakkita, the chief conspirator of the assassination plot. At the time he was the Chief Monk in Kelaniya Temple. He was no more venerable than a village-bandit-killer, consumed by his own self-importance. Bandaranaike was very much aware of the dishonorable lifestyle of the infamous head of the Kelaniya Temple. Buddharakkita’s depraved association with a member of fairer sex in his own Cabinet was public knowledge and Bandaranaike, instead of taking any action against the Cabinet Minister, chose to ignore it, probably at his own peril. There was no room for a sense of accountability in the exalted mind of Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike. The gratitude owed by Bandaranaike to Buddharakkita for the former’s electoral landslide was too great to be disregarded. Ironically, both the killer and chief conspirator were men of the saffron robe.
An exquisite product of the decadent Ceylonese low country-aristocracy (Govigama, Radala) at the time, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, SWRD’s father, was the Gate Mudaliyar of the Governor. As per James Manor’s, Expedient Utopian, Bandaranaike’s biography, SWRD was not sent to school for his elementary education. He was tutored at home by an Oxonian. When he reached the age for secondary education, he was sent to St. Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia and was boarded, not at the hostel where all non-day-scholars stayed during the school sessions, but at Warden’s residence. Rev. William Arthur Stone was the Warden at the time. Such was the aura of power that enveloped the Ceylonese aristocracy at the time. Adolescent SWRD was sheltered from the ordinary realities of the commoners for whom he later ushered in a new era as Prime Minister of Ceylon.
Later, after a distinguished phase at Oxford, England, SWRD arrived back in Ceylon and found his expected place among the elite of her political life. The formation of Sinhala Maha Sabha (Greater Sinhalese Forum), being among the public speakers much sought after, joining Ceylon National Congress, entering the State Council and later becoming a powerful Minister in the first Cabinet in Ceylon, holding the prestigious post of Leader of the House, leaving D S Senanayake’s government in 1951 and forming the SLFP are among major occurrences in Bandaranaike’s life, well chronicled by history.
Bandaranaike showed his craftiness in politics by identifying, much earlier than almost all politicians at the time, the crying need of the time- a ‘place in the sun’ for the common man. To launch his campaign for power in 1956 he invented the five-pillar platform- Sanga (Buddhist clergy), Veda (indigenous physician), Guru (school teacher), Govi (farmer/peasant) and Kamkaru (laborer). His powerful and emotive appeal was aimed at the heart of the Sinhalese Buddhist. In a most ironical twist of fate, it was the first of the five-pillar-platform that chose to kill the master they deified; for a flimsy excuse like non-granting of approval for a shipping contract to a company sponsored by Buddharakkita, the chief conspirator.
In so far as leadership is concerned, there are two kinds of them: consequential leaders and non-consequential leaders. Consequential leaders are those whose leadership has caused certain events which produced consequences 1. That couldn’t be reversed and 2. Without that particular leader in place at that time, the same event could not have occurred. In terms of being consequential, post-Independence Ceylon has produced only two leaders. One is SWRD Bandaranaike and the other is J R Jayewardene.
J R in 1977 changed the course of the country’s economy for good. Opening and unshackling of the economy is one single event that J R alone was responsible for conceptualizing and execution. What flowed subsequent to the opening of the economy cannot be reversed and with it the country’s economic and cultural dynamic took another journey. Secondly, had there been another leader at the time in 1977, given the same context and circumstances, that journey would not have even been attempted.
What SWRD did in 1956 was even more momentous. He was responsible for two significant and epoch-making changes in Ceylon’s society. On the one hand, unleashing of the vernacular-educated forces in the country and pledging a place in the sun for them, transformed this country which was being ruled by English-educated big city elite into a one that is ruled and dominated by the Sinhala-speaking commoners. The transformation from the elite to the commoner is irreversible and its effects are historic. On the other hand, SWRD was also singularly responsible for the Sinhala-only policy that engendered a chain of events whose good and ill-effects are being felt even today. Both these measures could and would not have been executed if not for Bandaranaike’s leadership. Nor could the resultant cascade of history have been reversed.
SWRD’s leadership was unique in the sense, despite him being personally a hands-off leader, unlike JR Jayewardene the quintessential hands-on forerunner, the subsequent propaganda carried out by the Bandaranaike family and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) made him out to be a god-like figure whose influence on the basic needs of the country was preordained. Bandaranaike’s politics was essentially based on his own rhetoric. He was a speaker par-excellence and was not matched in his day, especially in the House of Parliament and in English language. When one assesses his real contribution to the country’s socio-political-economic character and movement, one inarguably finds a combination of good and some exceedingly bad. After sixty one years, scholars as well as ordinary men and women argue that the Sinhala- only policy generated more malevolent results than good ones. Sri Lankan society began its forbidding journey of polarization along ethnic lineage. While Sinhalese Buddhists were engaged in their infamous argument of reverse discrimination and historical injustice done unto them by the colonial powers, Tamils clung on to their demands for a separate homeland-state within the borders of Sri Lanka.
Bandaranaike did not create these battle-lines, yet his policy of Sinhala-only gave rise to a series of consequential episodes that caused these battle-lines. His defenses fell when Tamil-Sinhalese riots scarred the streets in Colombo, Jaffna, Ampara and other urban centers in 1958. Sir Oliver Goonatilleke, Governor General of the time had to intervene, while Bandaranaike, the hero of the common man was playing billiards at the elite Orient Club, some historians say. Bandaranaike’s actions did not match his rhetoric. While the rhetoric created the myth, his actions condemned him to the brutal reality of sedentary, hands-off-Prime Minister.
He governed the country only for three short years. No more trade union sabotage was heaped upon the country than when Bandaranaike’s government was in place. In fact, it is recorded history that Sirimavo, Bandaranaike’s widow openly uttered on political platform that it was N M Perera who ‘killed Bandaranaike without killing him in deed’. The expedient utopian, which S W R D Bandaranaike was in every sense of the word, as described by his biographer, James Manor, would ultimately be judged by history. In another two years, 2019, it will be sixty years since his tragic demise. A man, whose liberal principles in the early part of the twentieth century embraced the idea of Federalism for the resolution of the Tamil Question, turned one hundred and eighty degrees and caved into a path of narrow nationalism propagated by the very forces he unleashed. Instead of leading his men and women from the front, Bandaranaike chose to be led by his followers, the very opposite of JR Jayewardene.
SWRD Bandaranaike and JR Jayewardene were two quintessential politicians who hailed from the elite that dominated the last years of the British Raj. Their decorum and courtesies extended beyond the confining walls of power; their education and scholarship was not limited to formal education and degrees they obtained from educational institutions; their commitment to the country they were born in was no second to any other leader’s. Both were men of deep thought. Yet, I am afraid; history will judge their respective political careers very harshly.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org