As we approach the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, etched in the memory of a few among us is the closure of a political chapter that left a phenomenal personality - the late Premier Dudley Shelton Senanayake who is sadly yet fondly remembered. This ritual has continued since April 13, 1973, the gloomy day Dudley Senanayake left us following an illness.
The country plunged into mourning. The unprecedented crowd from all corners of the country thronged into the island’s capital, Colombo. The sea of heads the writer remembers from Orchid House down Torrington road and the photos captured at his funeral bear testimony of the people’s adoration for the leader. He was not merely the second Prime Minister of Sri Lanka nor an opposition leader, but an opposition MP who represented the Dedigama electorate in the Kegalle District.
Throughout my entire life, the sentiments that echoed in my ear were that tributes to great leaders were essential to be penned for the current and future generations to know of persons they could learn from. Instilled in us was that the leaders who ruled the country must foremost know and feel what the people desired.
There existed leaders with such qualities in our country. That is why we were constantly reminded to appreciate them. In my lifetime, there has been no time as now to feel the dearth of such leaders. The reasons are obvious. We count the blessings that upon reflecting back the least, we find an eminent list of leaders who are renowned for their genuine attempts and intentions for the people while in and out of power.
There may have not been glorious results as the people expected some of the time but hardly were the efforts, the integrity of the then politicians called into question by the majority. That is because almost everyone conducted themselves with a conscience in line with people’s welfare.
Bradman Weerakoon, who served as Secretary to four Prime Ministers including Dudley Senanayake, has authored the book “Dudley Senanayake - The most loved leader of our times.” The title itself speaks volumes of the great leader. He has quoted a poem of Gilbert Holland as a fitting epitaph to the life of Dudley;
“A time like this demands strong minds
Great hearts, true faith and ready hands
Men whose lust of office does not kill,
Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy
Men who possess opinion and a will
Men who love honour, and men who cannot lie.”
These profound words describe the leader and the deep sadness that gripped the nation with his demise. They prompt us to delve into his life and reminisce what shaped his outstanding character. Not because he was the son of the first Sri Lankan Prime Minister or because he was born into privilege and wealth, but because he was a beautiful soul, a gentleman and a conscionable leader.
Dudley was born to Molly Dunuwila and Don Stephen Senanayake on Poson Poya day, June 19, 1911, in the village of Bothale in Mirigama in the Gampaha District.
Dudley was the eldest of their children -- two sons and a daughter. He was identified as the mischievous one. Both Dudley and his brother Robert received their secondary education at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. An all-rounder, Dudley gained entrance to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Cambridge University to read for Natural Science Tripos and was later admitted to Middle Temple as a Barrister.
After returning to Sri Lanka, Dudley entered politics in 1936. He sought nomination and received the same to run for State Council elections, while his father was a minister in the council. As his father represented Mirigama (Dudley’s hometown), he decided to represent Dedigama, the adjoining electorate in the Kegalle District (Sabaragamuwa Province) that became vacant following the demise of Sir Francis Molamure.
Thus he entered the State Council when the country was still under the colonial rule. Although Dudley’s father was a powerful leader, it did not deter him to act according to his conscience. Faced with the dilemma of having to oppose his father’s views, he had made it known that he opted to give up politics. However, D.S. Senanayake encouraged him to continue his work.
Dudley opposed the decision of his father during World War II to put the entire weight on the British. This he did with the hope that the British will be more acquiescent towards the independence struggle of Sri Lanka. Dudley however opined that the British being an occupying force, Sri Lanka should not be a party to the war.
His type of conscionable politics was well on display when he set about his task in opposing the colonial government of its dictatorial ways. One of the marked incidents in parliament was when Dudley sided with the opposition and rose in defence of his major political opponents and severe critics -- Philip Gunawardena and N.M. Perera who were incarcerated by the British for opposing the war effort under the Defence (Miscellaneous No. 3) regulations dated June 3, 1940.
“I would like to ask the members, what is it that the United Nations is fighting for? What is the freedom they talk so much about? Do we not see the characteristics of Fascism in this act? I would class this as the greatest acts of Fascism ever perpetrated in this country. The representatives of the people with hardly any dissidents have suggested the release of these persons.”
After his father took office as the first Prime Minister, his son D.S. junior, known fondly as “Dudley,” became the Agriculture Minister -- a portfolio he held until he was appointed Prime Minister, six years later succeeding his father, after his father’s fatal fall from a horse.
The Prime Ministership was thrust on him at the most difficult time of his life, upon his father’s sudden death.
Elected to Parliament as Prime Minister
Although Dudley was given the premiership on a platter as it were, he desired a fresh mandate from the people to head the country. He called for elections just two months later and was re-elected, receiving even a larger majority than his father did.
Among other things, increased welfare benefits and the rice subsidy in particular, contributed to the resounding success. The government however became unpopular a year later (1953) when the price of rice was raised and subsidies were cut. Within a year, subsequent to the end of the Korean boom, the government found that the burden of the subsidy on the Budget was excessive and decided to curtail its expenditure. The price of rice was increased.
Other subsidies including free meals for schoolchildren were cut. The political protest to this move was explosive. A general strike known as ‘Hartal’ was launched by trade unions affiliated to the left-wing parties.
Resigns as Prime Minister
The lives lost in the 1953 Hartal caused him shock and grief. His conscience bothered him. Though the UNP remained in power, Senanayake honourably resigned as Prime Minister, left Temple Trees for ‘Woodlands’ and left politics. After Dudley resigned, Sir John took over as Prime Minister.
By popular request, he returned to politics in 1957 when the UNP lost elections. In March 1960, the UNP managed to form a Government after elections and Senanayake became Prime Minister again, but the coalition fragmented and Dudley resigned as Prime Minister after only four months in office after new elections were held in which the UNP won less seats. He became the Leader of the Opposition and forced early elections in 1965 by persuading 14 supporters of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to defect.
An honourable politician
When a UNP-led coalition won power in 1965, he handed over the Prime Ministership to C.P. de Silva as a mark of gratitude towards his service in defeating the leftist coalition government in 1964. Mr. De Silva declined but offered to serve in his government instead.
Senanayake was sworn in as the Prime Minister for a record fourth time on March 25, 1965, at which time he had the longest reign till 1970. However, he lost the general elections in ’70 and virtually retired from politics thereafter. But he remained a colourful parliamentarian and loved leader.
My uncle, late P.C. Imbulana, who served him as Deputy Agriculture Minister, a founder member of the UNP, sported a spontaneous smile on his face whenever he spoke of his dear friend Dudley. Today, whenever I remember the stories my uncle related about his best friend to me, I can’t help but smile.
Exceptional sense of humour
The two friends shared the same exceptional sense of humour and innocent mischief. Their loud laughter would thunder the usual quietness of our ancestral house whenever he arrived, my grandma would recall. I could imagine it when I think of some stories, and my own vague remembrance of his infectious laugh.
He had relished relating how, during his very first meal at Cambridge, a piece of meat on his plate did a pole vault to another diner’s plate… he had explained in all seriousness it happened due to a blunt knife kept for him to use. My uncle remembered to relate this when he watched with us the comedy ‘The Party,’ where a piece of chicken flies off the main actor Peter Seller’s dish into the air and gets stuck on a hair-do of a lady.
Dudley loved photography, wildlife, cricket and golf. He was a man of impeccable integrity. Food was a subject of discussion right throughout his life, as he was often jokingly told and known to have quite an appetite. Although Dudley acknowledged even that with good humour, his good friend, my uncle, would dryly say he enjoyed his food, but it was his stomach that gave trouble to his last breath. When he passed away, he was only 62 years old, gone so early, a life that was so worthy.
J.R. Jayawardena had political differences with him. They constantly locked horns and livid when a “ginger group” within the party was formed by Dudley (of which my uncle was one), but yet, J.R. held Dudley with deep affection and respect, his emotions took the better of him, at Dudley’s passing.
J.R. Jayewardene: “Here was a colleague who touched the deep sea of reverence in a wider world in our country than possibly any other person in its long history. If a man could draw that affection and goodwill, he has a claim to be known as one of its greatest sons.”
“Good night sweet prince,” said J.R. in his fitting final farewell.
The writer likes to remember him in this tribute with her own line: Greatness was thrust on Dudley Shelton Senanayake. And he lived to be great and moreover he was a conscionable leader.
(The writer is a life member of the Dudley Senanayake Memorial Society Committee)
An Alms-giving will be held today at Vipassana Bhavana Madyasthanaya, Wijerama Road, Colombo 7, to commemorate the 44th death anniversary of late Premier Dudley Senanayake.