Don Stephen Senanayake entered politics when he was elected to the Legislative Council at the age of 40. In an article to a national daily after the death of Prime Minister, the famous English author John Seymour [‘Hard way to India’ fame], wrote,
“The Prime Minister very amusingly told me, how he had made a train trip to Batticaloa, many years ago as Minister of Agriculture (under the Donoughmore Constitution, in 1930’s) and how the train had stopped at a siding in the jungles of Minneriya. He had got down wandered off into the jungle and came across by accident the Minneriya tank, abandoned for centuries. The farmer in him had been struck immediately. He had returned to Colombo, determined to push the government to commence restoration of the tank and resettlement of the dry zone.”
Ceylon Observer- March 24, 1952-Courtesy; Nat. Arch.
His intuitive foresight and urge for completion of a programme of work undoubtedly surpassed the intellectual capabilities of the ‘learned’. DS was nick-named ‘Jungle John’ for his aversion to conventional book-education in school: but in a remarkable coincidence he had an obsession for trekking jungle trails of the dry zone observing irrigable lands. He was by no means an intellectual but he was a man with brilliant intelligence. With academic qualifications that would not have made him a low-ranking public servant, he learned and gained knowledge by doing things, managing and meeting people, perceiving them rather than interpreting of theories in text books. His sort of understanding could not be gained through books or by theoretical study. DS’s aim was to ease the pressure of populated South and he believed that it was more advantageous for a man to grow rice like his ancestors had done, rather than waste his life hawking in the pavement or selling cups of tea in a boutique. He pictured the disaster that would overcome the nation should a war break out in the countries from where the staple food was imported. DS as Minister of Agriculture from 1931 to 1947, did focus on a policy of transforming to non-plantation agriculture; his thinking was based on Mahatma Gandhi’s famous conception ‘production by masses, instead of mass production’. He initiated the restoration of ancient irrigation systems and land reforms, creating new colonization programs along with established colonisation systems to provide land for the landless farmers. Re-afforestation and conservation of forests were taken up as priority areas in his agenda.
" DS was nick-named ‘Jungle John’ for his aversion to conventional book-education in school: but in a remarkable coincidence he had an obsession for trekking jungle trails of the dry zone observing irrigable lands. He was by no means an intellectual but he was a man with brilliant intelligence"
The famous San Francisco speech by J R Jayewardene in 1951, at the Japanese Peace Treaty, obviously, the full credit goes to the man for his eloquent oratory, but only a few realised that the idea, ‘freedom for Japan’ was initiated by DS. The PM’s brief instructions to the delegation was, “We should not ask for reparations; and we should insist that Japan should recover her freedom.” That was all he told JR, who confirmed it addressing the supporters at the Airport on his return, JR said, “I return home after a job well done; I have done it on behalf of the Prime Minister whose instructions I carried out”—De Silva/Wriggins-1988: pp236,243
One of his old teachers at St Thomas’, wrote a congratulatory note to his pupil who took oaths as the Minister of Agriculture in the State Council in the1930s. The minister replied his former master, the late Rev, J S H Edirisinghe, saying, “…if that pupil had learnt a tenth of all the master had laboured to knock into his head, he should today be a better minister”.
Perhaps Rev. Edirisinghe had a unique way of ‘knocking things into the head’ of his pupil, who later became the first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon.
He cleared the jungles, re-established the ancient tanks and water channels; inaugurated the construction of the Senanayake Samudra the largest artificial reservoir at Inginiyagala, followed by the Gal Oya. DS endeavoured persistently to regain past glory the “Granary of the East”. The fertile land was covered in thick jungle. Productive colonisation schemes for the relocation of landless people was carried out under his personal supervision. This brilliant plan which was implemented effectively by DS did reap unprecedented results with a bountiful harvest.
The thinking behind this was to make the country self-sufficient in food. While restoring the old irrigation works, he built new ones. The three main traditional export crops too received his attention, when he improved research facilities. Gal-Oya was designed for better use of over 250,000 acres of irrigable and high land.
"The three main traditional export crops too received his attention, when he improved research facilities. Gal-Oya was designed for better use of over 250,000 acres of irrigable and high land. The scheme named after him was his dream that contributed immensely to self-sufficiency in rice of the island nation. "
The scheme named after him was his dream that contributed immensely to self-sufficiency in rice of the island nation. DS was a man to inspire commitment; people of much greater erudition and with a higher learning willingly following him; they knew that his particular kind of balanced conclusions and commonsense was what desired for running a nation like Ceylon.
The tall, broad-shouldered man’s towering physique and the neatly trimmed mustache enhanced the imposing personality of former sportsman, Don Stephen, who boxed and played tennis and cricket for his Alma Mater. He later turned out for NCC and SSC.
He played in the Royal-Thomian big match under Douglas de Saram in 1902. DS was seen at the Oval not only watching the annual encounter, but joining old school buddies in singing Esto Perpetua a few days before his death. After a short internship at the Surveyor-General’s Department, a fitting training for a man who spent the larger part of his life dealing with irrigation land matters, DS ventured into family business.
Unbowed to Western powers
When the Commonwealth’s economic situation was in dire straits in early 1949, they attempted to enforce authority over ‘Lipton’s Tea Estate’, [how Ceylon was known in Europe], by making us a party to the ‘Sterling Assets Agreement’ a deliberate attempt to manipulate our strong Dollar Reserves. The PM, in this serious issue, abundantly displayed his patriotism. The conflict situation that arose with the colonial authorities in 1949 resulted in a delegation attending a Finance Minister’s Conference summoned by Briton at their request. It was led by J. R. Jayewardene, the Finance Minister along with his adviser John Exter, (later the first governor of the Central Bank).
DS was very much concerned over our dollar earnings, wanted to maintain it as our own foreign reserves; he advised them on what they were to do if the British government rejected their appeal.
He said, “We are an independent nation. Our dollar earnings are our own...., if we are not allowed to act independently then obviously we must leave the ‘Sterling Area...’, the UK government cannot oppose this. So go ahead and tell them you will leave unless you are permitted to keep your country’s earnings” - JRJ speeches- Presid. Arch. File 195-a.
‘Free Ceylon movement’ through Temperance
Mudliyar Don Spater Senanayake was one of the pioneers of the Ceylon Temperance Movement. Historical records reveal that he not only chaired the first meeting in setting up the Temperance Movement, but met all financial requirements too. Don Spater involved his three sons, DC, FR and DS in this movement. All three played an active role in the Temperance movement in spite of the fact that their father built his empire re-investing profits earned from graphite mining in the arrack and toll renting trade. In 1910, Don Stephen married Molly Dunuwilla; their eldest son Dudley Shelton, later three times Prime Minister, was only four years old when British military men and Panjabi soldiers arrived at ‘Woodlands’ one day in May 1915, early in the morning and would not give him time to finish his tea, chased their domestic helpers and bundled up the 30-year-old man into a military vehicle. He was unfairly jailed on trumped up charges under Martial law in 1915 by the British rulers, during the Sinhala/Muslim communal riots, even faced the prospect of execution along with Col Henry Pedris, R A Mirando, President of the Buddhist Theosophical Society [BTS] two of the victims; others who were unfairly detained were, D B Jayatillake, Hewavitarana brothers, W A de Silva, Arthur V Dias and a host of influential men. Young DS’ involvement in the anti-arrack campaign with his brothers was closely monitored by the colonial regime. They were determined to suppress the campaign as suspicion arose of the young radicals transforming it into or the emergence of a national freedom movement.
Into politics through Legislative Council
Senanayake became a member of the National Legislative Council in 1924; with reforms of the “Donoughmore” Commission, he was made the Minister of Lands and Agriculture in 1931. He had the courage to undertake the task of restoring the ancient tanks of the Dry Zone.
His Indian counterpart Pandit Nehru once said, “We of this generation, wherever we may live, have passed through this great period of transition and have seen the face of Asia change in the process. The change continues. Leading personalities in different countries become the symbols of this period of transition and thus become in some ways the agents of historic destiny. In Ceylon D S Senanayake was such a personality, who impressed himself not only on Ceylon but also in a wider sphere. He should be remembered as a person who helped to bring about the transition to freedom, and then to consolidate the freedom that had come”.
In 1950 DS became the first Ceylonese to be appointed a member of the Privy Council, UK.
The Prime Minister’s health condition declined by end January 1952. He was diabetic; his heart had been weakened, and he was hospitalised. His personal medical team warned the relatives and his closest circle of friends that included the Governor, that he has only three months to live. Making an indirect inquiry by the Governor, about his successor, DS speaking from his sick bed a few weeks before his tragic death, said, “Lionel (Sir John, the second in command) can’t win elections; Dudley can, but he is my son, so I do not wish to talk.”
On March 20th morning as usual he was taking a ride on Galle Face green along with IGP, Sir Richard Aluvihare when he suffered a stroke and fell off the police mare ‘Chitra’. Born on October 20, 1884 at Botale, a village in Halpitigam Korale, D S Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon passed away two days later on March 22, 1952, at the age of 67, a few minutes before brain specialist, Sir Hugh Cairns, was due to board an aircraft at Abington to fly to his bedside. The flight was cancelled. People admired his courage, his singleness of purpose.
The ‘Illustrated London’ of 27th March 1952, continued, “…under his leadership Ceylon has been the most untroubled country in Asia.”