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Tracing the birth of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party

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The Sri Lanka Freedom Party is generally considered as having been founded in 1951 on a socialist economic agenda and is habitually allied with nationalist Sinhala groups. 



Political landscape in 1950-51 
  In 1950, D. S. Senanayake was able to exploit the weaknesses of political forces against him to transform his government into a stable entity from its fragile coalition two years before. The strong Marxist main opposition was divided on ideological disputes and personal differences.



The Colombo Plan and the Japanese Peace Treaty
  C-Plan, was a regional organisation that embodied the concept of combined inter-governmental effort to reinforce social and economic development of member nations in the Asia-Pacific region. The organisation was born out of a Commonwealth conference of foreign ministers, held in  Colombo, Ceylon, in January 1950.  By July 1951, the government was planning to go to San Francisco for the Japanese Peace Treaty, where, J. R. Jayewardene, on the instruction of PM, spoke in support of Japan on September 1951. His speech was proved to be the highlight of the conference and the political impact of this achievement was great.




Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism
  During this period nationalist groups led by Aryuvedics, Sinhala school teachers, bikkhus and farmers regarded historic injustices caused to them by western rule needed to be corrected. These religious, cultural and linguistic issues were gathering momentum into a force too heavy for the political set-up to accommodate despite positive economic growth factors like increased paddy production, creation of employment opportunities and high foreign exchange earnings. 

   Although S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike came from the aristocratic  social elite of the Low-country, he was able to recognise himself with the ordinary people in a surprising way. The ideas which he absorbed as an Oxonian helped him to quickly identify himself with the aspirations of the ordinary folk. Young Bandaranaike formed a party called the Progressive Nationalist Party and forwarded a programme recommending a federal type devolution of power for strengthening representative rule in the country.




Ceylon National Congress and Sinhala Maha Sabha
SWRD soon came to be connected with the island’s main political body of the pre-independent period, the Ceylon National Congress [CNC], but had reservations about CNC’s capitalist and reformist policies which were unacceptable to him. In order to place his thinking on politics of the nation before the people he formed the Sinhala Maha Sabha [SMS] in 1937, which, later became the forerunner to the SLFP. The aim of the SMS was to promote Sinhala culture and provide a platform for echoing community interests.  At a meeting held in Madampe in 1951, the working committee of the United National Party led by D S Senanayake rejected the proposals of the Sinhala Maha Sabha. This was one of the reasons for SWRD Bandaranaike to leave the UNP. Bandaranaike led nationalist factions within the government.



The Senanayake-Bandaranike  feud
D S used Sir John to persecute SWRD at Cabinet meetings; if the trick boomerang forcing  astute Bandaranaike to act cautiously, DS would put the blame on his loyal nephew Lionel [Sir John’s mother and DS’s sister-in-law happened to be sisters] to prevent a poor reflection on his credibility.  

   The friction between DS and SWRD was an artificial one created by the old warrior’s political skill while he groomed his son young Dudley to take over the reins after him.  Bandaranaike, became the Leader of the House and UNP’s second in command, but actually he wanted to be the deputy PM.   It did not take long for the barrister from Oxford to realise the tragedy awaiting him. In mid-1951 he made up his mind to bid good bye to the party to which he contributed in a big way carrying his Sinhala Maha Sabha’s [SMS] power when DS wanted to dissolve the  Ceylon National Congress [CNC] headed by him in 1946 and form a new political party mainly, for the purpose of retaining the minority support. SWRD’s SMS and T B Jaya’s Muslim League agreed to join hands with the DS led CNC, under the banner of the UNP on September 6, 1946.  However, SWRD kept his Maha Sabha identity intact as a precautionary measure in readiness for any uncanny future developments.   Bandaranaike quit the UNP, crossed the floor with a few faithfuls creating a major rift in the government and used his SMS strong base in launching his new party the SLFP on September 2, 1951, just a day before President Maithripala Sirisena was born.




The Left and the UNP
The leftist opposition failed to make much of an impact in rural areas. The UNP was unsympathetic towards Buddhist aspirations with regard to culture, language and religion, leaving an opportunity for the SLFP and its leader to become champions of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. 

Apart from the inherited desire that every politician  suffered in making his/her off-spring  the crown prince, the Senanayake’s had other reasons in attempting to disgruntle a product of Siyane-Korale’s feudalist ancestry.  Colonial elite of the Bandaranaikes, Obeysekeras and De Sarams were a group of non-aristocratic ‘somebodies’ created by the colonial rulers to function as interpreters and intermediates. They were rewarded with lands and titles; they became Mudaliyars owning large tracts of fertile land and had close connections with the local representatives of the British Empire forming a section of  the19th -Century colonial bourgeoisie.  SWRD was named after his godfather, West Ridgeway, Governor of Ceylon in 1899. 

Don Spater Senanayake from Bothale Mirigama belonged to the Ceylonese bourgeoisie  of the 19th Century. DS, FR and DC were Don Spater’s sons who became dedicated members of a temperance movement initiated by their father along with other Sinnhala-Buddhist leaders of the time earning the wrath of the white rulers.   The three brothers went to St Thomas’s College where SWRD too studied a few years later. 



Special privileges
SWRD was given a special privilege of staying at the warden’s bungalow, while the Senanayakes shared the hostel with other students.  During the 1915 communal riots, under the orders of Chalmers, the ruthless governor, the 30-year-old DS, his two brothers, and a host of temperance movement leaders were unfairly arrested  on trumped up charges of been involved in the riots.  

Maha Mudaliyar, Sir Solomon Dias, father of SWRD was the aide-de-camp for Chalmers who ‘wined and dined’ with the Britishers at Horagolla during the riots. SWRD’s maternal uncle S. C. Obeysekara who was a member of Legislative Council in 1915, speaking at the debate on the riots,made a contemptuous comment on the Senanayakes, 

“…the poor farmers and villagers have been deluded into a trap for personal aggrandisement of a few ‘nobodies’, who hope to make ‘somebodies’ of themselves by such disgraceful tactics” -:Hansard--August 11;1915 Fo.442

DS needed the support of SWRD in forming his new party, but always had his reservations apart from the natural distaste and aversion he carried in his mind based on past reminisces. However, the appointment of Dudley as PM was done after consultation with an ailing DS on the initiation of a team of his loyalist,  that included Soulbury.  For all the will power and robust physique, 68-year old DS was a diabetic. He ignored medical advice and in early 1952 physicians from England, agreed with DS’s personal friend and family doctor Gunawardene’s gloomy diagnosis; DS’s heart had deteriorated beyond recovery; death was anticipated within a short time. 




Appeal to the Sinhalese nationalists
Since the formation of the new party in the early1950s, SLFP platforms echoed the organisation’s stress on appealing to the emotions of the Sinhalese nationalists and masses in rural areas. On the perceptive issue of language, though the party originally promoted the use of Sinhala and Tamil as national languages, in the mid-1950s it adopted a “Sinhala only” policy and projected itself as the champion of the Sinhala-Buddhists relying upon the socially influential Buddhist monks, to take its message to the Southern villages.

SWRD became a hero among  the Sinhalese middle class, that resented the alleged Tamil domination  of the civil service, professions and commercial establishment since the British colonial rule. In opposition to the free market course of the UNP, nationalisation of major enterprises, creation of a broad welfare measures, re-distribution of wealth, and a nonaligned foreign policy was promoted by the new regime.



‘Come September’
The SLFP will commemorate its 64th anniversary on September 2 under its new leader Maithripala Sirisena who was born in September. SWRD, the founder of the party was assassinated in September 1959. The UNP is to follow with their 69th  anniversary also in September, where President Sirisena will be a special invitee. 

[Come September was a 1961 comedy directed by Robert Mulligan, starred by Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida]
 
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