By our political analyst
Yesterday’s historic political events where the ruling SLFP’s veteran General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena crossed over and was named as the opposition’s common candidate for the next Presidential Election on January 8 brought back memories of a similar historic event 50 years ago. We can learn a lot from the 1964 crossover, the only time crossovers served to bring down a government. According to a report in the Sunday Times, it was meticulously planned by some political masterminds of the era after the government made an abortive attempt to introduce a Press Council Bill to take over the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL). This was seen by many analysts as the first major blow to media freedom, which has been suppressed to a large extent today, and is one of the causes for the current crossover of Mr. Sirisena who pledged to fully restore media freedom if elected president. The efforts of the masterminds in 1964 bore results when the Sirima Bandaranaike Government was defeated at the vote on the Throne Speech (the government policy statement delivered by the Governor General).
Esmond Wickremesinghe, father of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, was active behind the scenes and a number of parliamentarians and ministers led by C.P. de Silva crossed over from the government to the opposition. Significantly C. P. de Silva also hailed from Minneriya in the Polonnaruwa District, which is the home-base of the man of the moment, Maithripala Sirisena. C. P. de Silva went on to be hailed as the ‘Minneriya Deiyo’ and political analysts were left wondering yesterday whether history was repeating itself.
Government MP for Passara Amarananda Ratnayake could not attend parliament on that fateful day to vote with the government owing to a flat tyre as reported by him to the party Whip. Later, there was a disciplinary inquiry against him and his political career came to an end. But J. R. Jayewardene commented that “a flat tyre saved democracy”.
Mr. Ratnayake’s absence in parliament rendered the government one vote short to save it from a crisis situation. The book ‘J. R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka - Vol. II’ records the episode in vivid detail.
The Parliament of Sri Lanka published by the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., states: “This decision of Mrs. Bandaranaike to bring in left-wingers to her Cabinet caused apprehension, particularly among sections of the right-wing of the SLFP Ministers and other Members of Parliament, but they decided to carry on, nevertheless. The unexpected happened on December 3, 1964 just six months after her coalition with the Trotskyites. The right-wing of the SLFP grew tired of the policies of the LSSP Ministers, and on that fateful day in December, 14 members of the SLFP government defied the Party Whip and voted against the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike on the debate on the Throne Speech.
“Those who defied the Whip were Messrs. C.P. Wickremasuriya (Devinuwara), Wijebahu Wijesinghe (Mirigama), Edmund Wijesuriya (Maskeliya), A.H. de Silva (Polonnaruwa), Indrasena de Zoysa (Ampara), C. Munaweera (Rattota), Albert Silva (Moneragala), Razik Fareed (First Colombo Central), S.B. Lenawa (Kekirawa), Lakshman de Silva (Balapitiya), Mahanama Samaraweera (Matara) (father of Mangala Samaraweera who is playing a key role in the current realignment of political forces), D.E. Tillekeratne (Ratgama) and R. Singleton-Salmon (Appointed MP).
“In a memorable speech he made when he crossed the floor of the House, on December 3, 1964, C.P. de Silva declared: ‘It is my painful duty to state, and I do so in all responsibility, that from what I have known, what I have heard, and what I have seen in the inner councils of the Coalition Government of Mrs. Bandaranaike, our nation is now being inexorably pushed towards unadulterated totalitarianism.’ ”
Mrs. Bandaranaike called it ‘a stab in the back’ and added: “C.P. de Silva betrayed the common people of this country and the progressive policies enunciated by the late Mr. Bandaranaike in his march towards democratic socialism.”
Shortly after the defeat of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government, a proclamation was issued by the Governor-General dissolving the 5th Parliament, on December 17, 1964. The general election for the 6th Parliament was fixed for March 22, 1965. At this election the SLFP contested 100 seats and won 41. Dudley Senanayake, whose UNP won 66 seats, formed a National Government with the assistance of the Federal Party (14 seats), the SLFSP (5 seats), the Tamil Congress (3 seats), and the MEP, Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna and LPP (1 seat each.)
In an appreciation written in the Sunday Times of April 15, 2012, former Presidential Secretary K.H.J. Wijayadasa paid a glowing tribute to C. P. de Silva. According to him, men of great distinction and high calibre such as Charles Percival de Silva were rarely born. C.P. was an eminent civil servant, gentleman politician and above all, a lover of humanity. His sincere dedication and selfless service to the people of Rajarata in general and the people of Polonnaruwa in particular was indeed legendary. Even today the people of Polonnaruwa fondly refer to him as ‘our Minneriya Deiyo’.
The saga of C.P. de Silva and D.S. Senanayake with regard to the restoration and rehabilitation of major irrigation works and the establishment of peasant colonisation schemes in Rajarata is indeed synonymous. The giant Minneriya reservoir which remained abandoned and engulfed by jungle for over 800 years was restored and inaugurated by D.S. Senanayake in 1934.
After serving in Polonnaruwa for nearly five years, C.P. was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1939. C.P’s long period of service in Rajarata gave him an insight into the sad plight as well as the psyche of the poverty stricken Rajarata peasantry.
The secret of C. P.’s success can be attributed to his ingenuity, inborn talents and dedication to duty. He spent most of his time outdoors with the people, grappling with their problems and finding practical and sustainable solutions.
The first political upheaval of the post independence era took place in 1951.
The ruling United National Party (UNP) was split into two when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The fledgling SLFP was short of suitable candidates and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike managed to convince C.P. to contest, and he won the Polonnaruwa electorate with a big majority. In the 1956 landslide victory C.P. retained the Polonnaruwa seat in parliament with a bigger majority. C.P. was appointed Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Irrigation. Concurrently, he was also appointed Leader of the House. Out of his 18 years in parliament, C.P. was a Minister and Leader of the House for 14 continuous years, except for a couple of months when he was removed from the Cabinet by W. Dahanayake and when he resigned from the Cabinet of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. It is also significant that C.P. held the same portfolio of Lands, Irrigation and Power as well as post of Leader of the House in both the SLFP and UNP governments.
Nobody dared challenge his work and conduct or his policies on agriculture and lands. As Leader of the House, C.P. won confidence and respect on both sides of the House. Incidentally one of his last acts as a minister in 1970 was the presenting of the Bill in Parliament to establish the Mahaweli Development Board. In presenting the Bill he said: “During that seven year period I lived and worked in Rajarata, I saw while standing helplessly on the Manampitiya bridge just six miles from Polonnaruwa how the poor suffered when the Mahaweli overflowed during the Monsoon, and sufferred again without water to irrigate, drink or bathe during the Yala season. I dreamt for hours how to plan the diversion of the Mahaweli waters coming down the awesome Mahaweli river from the wet zone hills to the dry zone.” It was this dream of C.P. that resulted in the planning of the Mahaweli Scheme in 1970.
If C.P.’s resignation from the Ceylon Civil Service in 1950 surprised the people of Rajarata the role he played to trigger the fall of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government in 1964 shocked the whole country. C.P. was a live wire in the SLFP from its inception. He steered the SLFP to a landslide victory in 1956.
Thereafter, he ensured a smooth transition of power to Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike the ‘reluctant widow’ in 1960. However, it is said that the intrigue against him from within the SLFP engineered by the aristocrats had reached intolerable proportions by the mid 1960s. Yet, he remained faithful to the party and Sirimavo Bandaranaike until the inevitable happened on December 3, 1964 when the Press Takeover Bill was taken up in parliament. C.P. was always a true democrat who cherished the freedom of thought and expression. He has gone down in history as the person who fired the first salvo for press freedom in Sri Lanka. He ended his address in parliament on that day with the words, “I wish to remain a free man in a free society”. He crossed over to the opposition benches with 13 Members of Parliament which caused the downfall of the Srimavo Bandaranaike Government.
As the dramatic events began to unfold from 3 p.m. onwards yesterday, with speculation about more crossovers ranging from 20 or even more, political analysts were asking whether the day marked the birth of another ‘Minneriya Deiyo’.