By D.B.S. Jeyaraj.
Fifty years ago on December 3rd 1964 ,Charles Percival de Silva the Minister of Land, Irrigation and Power in the SLFP-LSSP Coalition Government of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike crossed over to the opposition in dramatic fashion with a group of thirteen MP’s. The CP de Silva crossover as the event was generally described, resulted in the Sirima Bandaranaike Govt being defeated by one vote in Parliament. Consequently Parliament was dissolved and fresh polls held in March 1965. A new UNP-led national Govt. consisting of seven political parties was formed by Premier Dudley Senanayake. The CP de Silva cross-over is very much in the news these days due to two reasons. Firstly the current 2014 defection of Maithripala Sirisena from the UPFA Govt of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has evoked a sense of déjà vu about the 1964 CP de Silva cross-over. There are some similiarities between the actions of these two Rajarata stalwarts who were both senior leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) at the time of their respective defections. Secondly the fiftieth anniversary of the CP de Silva cross over was on December 3rd this year.This naturally has aroused some interest among people desirous of knowing more about an important event that occurred fifty years ago.The Sirisena defection is portrayed now as an exercise to promote greater democracy. Likewise the CP de Silva crossover was described as an act which saved press freedom in the country.The contours of the CP de Silva crossover is a fascinating tale worthy of being related on the occasion of its golden anniversary.
As stated in these columns last week the world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike took office in 1960 July. Her party the SLFP had won 75 seats in a Parliament of 157 comprising 151 elected and 6 appointed MP’s. She formed a viable government with the six appointed MPs and the support of a few maverick independents. She herself was not an MP but was appointed a senator in the upper House. As the years progressed the slender SLFP majority in Parliament became quite fragile. The SLFP began toying with the idea of tying up with a leftist entity from the opposition to balance the anticipated threat of a rightist coup.
This apprehension was caused by the aborted 1962 military coup and also through fresh rumours spreading in 1964 of a rightist junta usurping power. A Buddhist monk Ven. Henpitigedera Gnanasiha Thero was chiefly responsible for bringing about the fresh “rightist junta”scare. After negotiating initially with Philip Gunawardene of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna(MEP), Ms. Bandaranaike soon became disillusioned with the idea of teaming up with Philip and began contemplating a union with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Although she had earlier charged LSSP leader Dr. N. M. Perera of having “no maraa maru”(killed without killing) her husband the exigencies of politics dictated a policy of strange bedfellows. This unholy alliance brokered by left leaning cabinet ministers T. B. Illangaratne and Dr. Badiuddin Mahmud was the butt of much ridicule. One such example was the new interpretation, “Sirima’s love for Perera,” given the acronym SLFP.
There were 12 members in Parliament from the LSSP. Two members Edmund Samarakkody (Bulathsinhala) and Dr. Merril Fernando (Moratuwa) took up a principled position and refused to join the government. They remained in the Opposition and formed the LSSP-R (Revolutionary) party. The LSSP of N. M. Perera hitherto the largest Trotskyite party in the world, lost its affiliation to the fourth international to the LSSP (R) Three others Dr. Colvin R de Silva (Dehiwela - Mt.Lavinia) , Bernard Soysa (Colombo South - 2nd MP) and Leslie Gunawardene (Panadura) supported the SLFP coalition but opposed ministerial office. Thus it was Cholmondeley Goonewardena (Kalutara) and Anil Moonesinghe (Agalawatte) who took up ministerial office with N.M. Perera (Yatiyantota). The CP with four seats also supported the coalition.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s troubles seemed over after she tied up with the largest leftist party in Parliament but new tensions arose because the LSSP nexus aroused greater resentment within the SLFP. The UNP began a subtle campaign of wooing malcontents of the SLFP after the LSSP entry. These efforts received a fillip after the master strategist Esmond Wickremasinghe entered the fray and together with his kinsman through marriage J.R. Jayewardena began an enticement campaign in earnest. This state of affairs was precipitated by the coalition government’s ill advised venture to shackle the free media through controversial measures.
As is well known Esmond and JR were the father and uncle of Opposition United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. His father Esmond Wickremesinghe was then the effective head of the Lake House Group or Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. Former President Junius Richard Jayewardene was the Colombo South MP and deputy leader of the UNP, which was in opposition at that time. The issue at stake was the nationalisation of Lake House in particular and threat to press freedom in general.Both Esmond Wickremesinghe and JR Jayewardene being share holders of Lake House added a personal dimension to the issue . The government had appointed in September 1963 a press commission under a retired Supreme Court Judge K. D. de Silva to examine the state of newspapers in the country. The interim report released in August 1964 recommended several measures to regulate newspapers under state control. These included the setting up of a state corporation to take over Lake House. The final report was released in September 1964.
The government encouraged by the leftists who had a perennial grouse against ANCL proceeded to draft legislation giving teeth to the Press Commission report.The new proposals were perceived by the opposition in general and the UNP in particular as a threat to press freedom. This view was shared by some within the government also. Thus the press freedom issue provided the basis for a convergence of anti - coalition forces. The government was so keen on ramming this legislation through that it began drafting it as soon as the interim report was released. It was strangely enough submitted to the Senate before parliament. The upper house approved it on October 6, 1964 and thereafter it was placed on Parliament’s agenda.
The opposition presumably under JR’s direction came up with an intricate countermove Two MPs M. H. M. Naina Marikkar(UNP) of Puttalam and Lakshman Rajapakse (MEP)of Hambantota sponsored the government backed bill and scheduled it for the second reading on February 2, 1965.
This procedure of the opposition sponsoring a government backed motion though rare was not irregular. The opposition motive of course was to delay passage of the bill as far as possible. The government however was totally in the dark about the implications of this move. So chief government whip M.P. de Z.
Siriwardene was taken completely unawares when he tried to get the second reading through expeditiously. The fact that two opposition members had already sponsored the bill was raised by JR Jayewardene who went on to point out that as a result the government whip was contravening standing orders. Hugh Fernando ruled that the opposition member sponsorship though unique was not procedurally incorrect.
The house erupted in disbelief and a shaken government tried to move a resolution condemning the speaker for a wrong decision. Dr. N. M. Perera in particular was extremely harsh threatening a “no confidence motion” against the speaker. This was something like a forerunner to a later instance in 1973 where Dr. Colvin R de Silva warned an embattled speaker Stanley Tillekeratne that he could be removed for “some reason, any reason or no reason at all.” Consequently Hugh Fernando ruled that a Speaker’s decision could not be questioned in response to a point of order raised by the then opposition leader Dudley Senanayake.
Now in a frenzied hurry the coalition government introduced a hasty new bill to nationalise the press.
Parliamentary procedure was breached again because there were now two similar bills with identical objectives on the order paper. The Naina Marikkar - Rajapakse sponsored bill was still valid and now there was another one. This was duly pointed out by the enthusiastic opposition. A rattled Sirima Bandaranaike government then resorted to the stratagem of proroguing parliament for dubious political advantage.
By proroguing parliament and convening a new session after an intervening period both bills on the previous session’s agenda would automatically lapse. Thus the government could now bring in a new bill. Parliament was to reconvene on November 2. The throne speech debate was scheduled to go on till December 3. The throne speech on November 2, was unusually brief and dealt primarily with the government’s proposed intention of taking over Lake House and regulating the press. The JR - Esmond duo orchestrated widespread protests over the issue. The high watermark of this was a gigantic demonstration in Colombo by over 7,000 bhikkus in favour of press freedom.
Machinations were on to coax and cajole government members to cross over and for opposition members to unitedly oppose the government on this issue. The prime target was SLFP stalwart C.P. de Silva. C.P. an old Thomian and ex-civil servant had been SWRD’s right hand man since 1952.
He was being medically treated in London when SWRD was assassinated in 1959.
Had he been in Colombo he may have become Prime Minister instead of Wijayananda Dahanayake.Later in March 1960 he should have been Prime minister as the SLFP leader of that time but Governor –General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke did the dirty by dissolving Parliament instead of swearing in CP as premier.
C. P. de Silva was the Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power and Leader of the House in 1964. Since Ms.Bandaranaike was a Senator and not a Parliamentarian,it was CP de Silva as deputy head of the govt who acted like a substitute for the prime minister in the lower house.
As the senior Govt official in charge of the Minneriya colonization project, he had helped resettle thousands of peasant farmers in the dry zone and was hailed as the “Minneriya Deviyo.”(Deity of Minneriy).His picture hangs in many dwellings of farmers in the region even now.
Many thought of CP as the reincarnation of King Mahasen.Apart from his influence among MP’s from rural , agrarian constituencies CP was also the uncrowned king of the Salagama caste group of Parliamentarians in the party.
CP de Silva had worked closely with DS Senanayake in setting up irrigation and agricultural settlement projects in the dry zone particularly in the Polonnaruwa district. After working as assistant govt agent,Govt agent, senior assistant secretary and Lands Commissioner ,he had been appointed Director of Land Development in 1949 under the Agriculture and Lands ministry. The minister was Dudley Senanayake the son of DS.Despite his close association with the Prime minister CP fell foul of his minister Dudley over a sensitive issue.
Certain allegations were raised against CP de Silva over allotments under the Minneriya colonisation scheme. A senior official named Dedigama tendered his resignation in protest against CP.Prime minister DS directly intervened and called for CP’s explanation in writing. CP de Silva did so promptly and DS was satisfied.
Though the premier was satisfied his son the minister was not. Dudley passed some strictures on CP. He also wanted to ease CP de Silva out as Land development director and transfer him to Kalutara as GA.
CP de Silva felt insulted by his minister’s action.CP de Silva born in 1912 and Dudley born in 1911 were contemporaries at St.Thomas’ College, Mt.Lavinia.An enraged CP responded to Dudley by quitting Govt service. He adamantly refused to reconsider his decision even when premier DS Senanayake made personal entreaties.The “Minneriya Deity” who settled thousands of farmers in the Rajarata retired to his 56 acre farm in Tabbowa in the Puttalam district.
While CP was content to be a gentleman farmer in Puttalam, DS fell off his horse when riding at Galle face and passed away. Dudley succeeded him as PM and called for fresh elections.SWRD Bandaranaike who broke away from the UNP had formed the SLFP and was preparing to face the hustings. Kurunegala MP and eminent King’s counselH.Sri Nissanka approached CP de Silva and managed to entice him into the fledgling SLFP. CP de Silva contested Polonnaruwa on the SLFP ticket in 1952 and was one of the nine MP’s to be elected from that party. He soon rose in prominence due to his abilities and became SWRD’s right hand in the SLFP and later the Govt.
After SWRD’s death in 1959 , CP took over party reins and was chiefly instrumental in bringing Sirimavo Bandaranaike dubbed as the “weeping widow” into politics. Despite his seniority CP bowed to the party’s wishes and accepted Mrs. Bandaranaike as leader and prime minister. With Ms. Bandaranaike being a senator it was CP who answered for the Prime minister in Parliament. He was the deputy head of cabinet and acted for the Prime minister when Ms. Bandaranaike was out of the country. In spite of his pre-eminence in the party, CP de Silva found himself being effectively sidelined under the new dispensation.
Unlike the days of SWRD Bandaranaike where he was both the de jure and de facto deputy chief of Govt, CP de Silva found himself only a de jure deputy leader under Mrs. Bandaranaike. The de facto No. two was Felix R Dias Bandaranaike a nephew of SWRDB. When the old Attanagalle constituency was split into two in 1960,JP Obeyesekere contested Attanagalle and Felix the newly carved out Dompe electorate.It was CP’s younger brother the scientist Dr. LB de Silva who introduced Felix to him as a potential candidate. Felix who was known as Felix Ridgeway Dias then added Bandaranaike to his name to emphasise the link to SWRD and contested Dompe as Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike. More importantly Mrs. Bandaranaike began to rely more and more on Felix than the senior CP de Silva who found himself out of the charmed inner circle. Worse still was the fact that this inner circle around the prime minister were those of “aristocratic”lineage. Though Low country personalities like Felix retained much influence a clique mostly related to the Up country ‘radala’ Sirima Bandaranaike began calling the shots. While senior ministers from “lesser stock”languished in the verandahs this privileged clique had constant access to the premier.This powerful clique around Mrs. Bandaranaike was nicknamed in lighter vein as the “KGB”. The real KGB at that time was the old Soviet Union’s secret Police “ Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti”.
The acronym KGB in the Sri Lankan context stood for “Kandyan Govigama Buddhist”. This clique looked down upon CP de Silva who was left out of the “kitchen cabinet”. CP resented being downgraded by these Johnnies come lately but stoically tolerated the situation out of his loyalty to the party. Elements within the party who wanted to undermine CP kept conspiring against him. Matters came to a head when the SLFP Kurunegala MP Jaya Pathirana (who later mounted the Supreme court bench)delivered a scathing personal attack on CP de Silva in Parliament. Despite protest letters by many SLFP Parliamentarians demanding action against Pathirana, no action was taken by Ms. Bandaranaike against Pathirana. An increasingly alienated CP de Silva became further annoyed later by the LSSP influx into the Govt. He was caught unawares by the move. Against this backdrop,the press freedom bill issue rang an alarm bell in the anti-Marxist, right of centre C.P. de Silva. The LSSP intimidation of the Speaker annoyed him further. The UNP felt that C.P. de Silva was ripe for the plucking and worked on him discreetly. Dudley Senanayake offered him even the premiership which he graciously declined. By mid-December de Silva decided to cross over .A promise made was that the UNP would not field candidates against them at the next general election.
The following passages excerpted from the book” JR Jayewardene of Sri Lanka” by K.M.de Silva and Howard Wriggins provides a revealing insight into what went on then. Here they are –
“JR and Dudley Senanayake were meeting C.P. de Silva through intermediaries. C.P. de Silva was not merely the most senior SLFP MP in parliament, but was also seen, and saw himself, as the leader of a caste group among the SLFP parliamentarians, commanding the loyalties of at least 5 MPs. Should he leave the government and cross over to the opposition it would weaken the newly established coalition considerably. JR and Dudley Senanayake began a long campaign of winning him over and for this purpose they had the enthusiastic assistance of UNP stalwarts who belonged to the same caste as C.P. de Silva – the salagamas.”
“There was yet another category of disgruntled SLFP MPs those who asked for a financial consideration to vote against the government. Negotiations with them were left to intermediaries. JR and Dudley Senanayake were aware of these transactions and did nothing to discourage intermediaries engaged in these acts of bribery. The money was found from various sources. With the evidence at our disposal it would appear that the bulk of those who eventually voted against the government did so for political or personal reasons; very few took money for their votes.”
A parallel effort was underway to get the motley crew of opposition personalities to close ranks on the issue. These ranged from the “free bird” Dahanayake to Pottuvil’s Abdul Majeed and the Tamil nationalist Federalists to the Sinhala nationalist Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna of KMP Rajaratna. Almost every entity insisted on tabling an amendment to the throne speech. Getting the divided opposition to agree on a common amendment to be submitted by Dr. Dahanayake was a Himalayan task.
As these moves were on the government became alerted to it. Dr. Colvin R de Silva a close relative of C. P. de Silva was chosen by the government to approach the latter directly and inquire from him the truth. C. P. de Silva denied the whole thing. A satisfied Colvin assured the government in turn that there was no such danger of CP crossing over.
The government thereafter did not suspect anything and took matters easy until D-day on December 3.December 3 dawned. Rumours of a massive defection began to circulate . Mrs. Bandaranaike was alerted only when C. P. de Silva’s resignation letter reached her in the morning. He had been firm that the Prime minister should be informed of his impending crossover before hand.A frantic Bandaranaike came over to parliament in the afternoon and began meeting potential defectors individually.
She began trying to persuade them to reconsider their decision. It is said that her last ditch efforts succeeded in making at least two MPs planning to defect reconsider their decision.
Three other MP’s kept away at voting time presumably due to Mrs.Bandaranaike. MEP leader Philip Gunawardena was speaking when CP de Silva entered the chamber. Instead of taking his usual seat on the Govt side CP walked purposefully to the other side of the treasury benches. While the Govt side looked on aghast the opposition MP’s began thumping tables and cheering.At the appropriate moment CP de Silva got up to speak amid pindrop silence.
C. P. de Silva stated in his speech “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”. Pointing out the offices he held in the party and Govt, CP observed pithily “I am foregoing all this today in order to live a free man in a free society”. He ended his historic speech at 5.47 pm .
Earlier the UNP had not wanted C. P. de Silva to drag the issue by making a lengthy speech prior to his cross over as that could have given more time to Mrs. Bandaranaike to rally and consolidate. But the old trooper had insisted on making a speech. A shorter version was supplied by Esmond Wickremasinghe to CP to expedite matters. The speech was purportedly written by the then Observer editor Ernest Corea.
C. P. de Silva was followed by another southern stalwart Mahanama Samaraweera who spoke immediately thereafter. Mahanama the father of Mangala Samaraweera was the MP for Matara then. He had been earlier the minister Local Govt and Housing.Later he was made minister of communications. After the LSSP joined the Govt the communications ministry was given to LSSP Agalawatte MP Anil Moonesinghe.Mahanama Samaraweera was given the posts and telecommunications ministry. He resigned as minister on June 14th 1964 just three days after being sworn in .
After CP de Silva and Mahanama Samaraweera delivered their speeches came the others one by one starting from S. B. Lenawa of Kekirawa. Each MP made a brief statement indicating he was defecting from the Govt.Altogether 14 MPs inclusive of C. P. de Silva defected to opposition ranks on that day. One of them was an Appointed MP R.Singleton-Salmon. Another was the veteran Muslim MP from Colombo Central Sir Razeek Fareed It is noteworthy that apart from Sir Razeek and Singleton – Salmon , a majority of the twelve Sinhala MP’s belonged to non – Govigama caste groups.
The Fourteen MP’s who defected from the SLFP Govt of Mrs.Sirima Bandaranaike on December 3rd 1964 and the electorates they represented were as follows-
1. Charles Percival de Silva (Minneriya)
2. Mahanama Samaraweera (Matara)
3. P.P.Wickremasooriya (Devinuwara)
4. Wijebahu Wijesinghe (Mirigama)
5. Edmund Wijesuriya (Maskeliya)
6. A.H. de Silva (Polonnaruwa)
7. Indrasena de Zoysa (Amparai)
8. Chandrasena Munaweera (Rattota)
9. W.G.M. Albert Silva (Moneragala)
10. S.B.Lenawa (Kekirawa)
11. Lakshman de Silva (Balapitiya)
12. Dr. Edwin Tillekeratne (Ratgama)
13. Sir Razik Fareed (Colombo Central)
14. R. Singleton Salmon (appointed MP)
An unexpected development was when Dudley’s first cousin R. G. Senanayake known as “China” Dicky rose from his opposition seat and crossed over to the government side praising it for concluding the Sirima - Shastry pact.Ironically it was the signing of this Indo - Lanka agreement that motivated Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman an appointed MP then to abstain from voting on that day. Thondaman was also an appointed MP.
Finally came the dramatic moment. The vote was taken on the amendment proposed by the opposition to the throne speech.The government with 73 votes was defeated by the opposition with 74 votes. The UNP had calculated the winning margin to be at least four but it was a solitary vote victory. Former minister and Kandy MP, E. L. Senanayake claimed credit for this one vote. He was convalescing in England but had flown by plane to arrive that afternoon in time for voting after being alerted by the UNP high command on the telephone.
The depleted winning margin of the opposition as stated before was due to second thoughts among some government MPs who had decided to cross over earlier. Some MPs had decided to keep away through various ruses instead of formally abstaining. The Independent MP from Jaffna Alfred Durayappah had remained at the Fort YMCA pleading a stomach upset; Another SLFP Parliamentarian hid himself in an ante -room near the parliament library to avoid voting.
The MP for Passara ,Amarananda Ratnayake turned up late after voting was over.His excuse for being late was that he had a flat tyre. This prompted former Communist Party MP for Colombo Central Pieter Keuneman to retort “Not only yours my friend but all our tyres are now flat.”JR Jayewardena quipped “A flat tyre has saved democracy”.Later a disciplinary inquiry was held where Ratnayake proved his vehicle indeed had a flat tyre. Ratnayake contested the 1965 elections on the SLFP ticket and lost.
The Govt in 1964 had been caught napping until the last moment and had been insensitive to the rumblings of discontent within its ranks particularly among senior leaders. This attitude led to a situation where the then government did not take the defection threat seriously until the afternoon of that fateful day. A significant feature of the 1964 December 3, defeat was that although she lost by one vote it was Prime Minister Bandaranaike who still retained a razor thin majority in that parliament of 151 elected and 6 appointed members.
Some Govt MP’s had kept away from voting by accident.An LSSP MP for instance was abroad on a trip at that time and ignorant of the crisis.A re-configuration of the power balance in favour of the Govt was quite possible.An intensive campaign to maintain a majority in spite of the defections could have succeeded. Besides there was no Constitutional stipulation that a Govt defeated on a throne speech vote should not continue.
But Ms.Bandaranaike respected convention and dissolved parliament consequent to a defeat at voting time. In any event the government was at its tail end and had only eight months more in December 1964. It is to the credit of Sirima Bandaranaike that she opted to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections rather than remaining in power as suggested by her Trotskyite ally, the Lanka Sama Samaaja Party.
Mrs. Bandaranaike in a subsequent address to the nation over the radio condemned the action of CP de Silva and other MP’s who defected. She described CP de Silva’s crossover as a “stab in her back”.Despite the betrayal, Mrs.Bandaranaike said she would respect democratic convention and dissolve Parliament. Elections would be held in due course she promised. Parliament was dissolved on Dec 17th 1964. General elections were held on March 22nd 1965.
When fresh elections were held the majority of the 14 defectors formed a new political party under the leadership of CP de Silva. The party named Sri Lanka Freedom Socialist Party (SLFSP)contested 32 electorates under the symbol of the sun which was allocated later to the Tamil United Liberation frontTULF) in 1977.The SLFSP won five seats.
Of the fourteen defectors , CP de Silva,SB Lenawa and Edwin Tillekaratne won from Minneriya, Kekirawa and Ratgama on the SLFSP ticket.Edmund Wijesuriya contested Maskeliya on the UNP ticket and won.Mahanama Samaraweera, PP Wickramasooriya,AH de Silva,Lakshman de Silva and Chandrasena Munaweera contested on the SLFSP ticket in their former constituencies –Matara, Devinuwara, Polonnaruwa,Balapitiya, Rattota-and lost. Wijebahu Wijesinghe contested Mirigama on the UNP ticket and lost while Albert Silva contested Moneragala on the Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna ticket and was defeated.Indrasena de Zoysa of Amparai “retired”from politics.Sir Razeek Fareed and R.Singleton –Salmon were appointed as MP’s in the new parliament. So too was Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman who abstained during the vote.
When elections followed in 1965 the UNP won only 66 seats but together with all the political groups that united to defeat the government on December 3, formed a seven party coalition called the national government which became the first regime in post - independence Ceylon to last a full term in office.The Sri Lanka Freedom Socialist P arty was also a part of the UNP led national Govt and CP de Silva became minister of Land, Irrigation and Power. The SLFSP merged with the UNP and contested the 1970 polls. CP de Silva was defeated after being in Parliament continually for 18 years from 1952. He died two years later on October 9th 1972.
This then is the inspiring tale of how one man named CP de Silva fought to safeguard press freedom by voting against the government he himself had helped set up.Re-visiting the story of this spectacular defection on the occasion of its golden anniversary helps to understand the past,analyse the present and anticipate the future.It is of particular significance at the present juncture where another illustrious son of the Rajarata soil has taken the courageous step of crossing over from the Govt he belonged to ,for the sake of a higher ideal and loftier motive.(ENDS)
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com