Charles Percival de Silva known as C.P. de Silva or CP was a mercurial personality who strode across the Sri Lankan - known then as Ceylon- political scene like a colossus. He passed away on October 9th 1972. C.P. de Silva was a former civil servant and cabinet minister who was worshipped by thousands of farmers as a living deity for the services he rendered in the sectors of land settlement, irrigation and agriculture. CP’s crowning achievement however was in voting against his own party led Govt and bringing it down. His was a principled act necessitated by the ideal of resisting what he perceived as being the SLFP Govt’s “unadulterated totalitarianism” at that time. The contours of the C.P. de Silva saga is a fascinating tale worthy of being related on the occasion of his impending death anniversary on Oct 9.
The world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike took office in 1960 July. Her party the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (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 became 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.
The world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike took office in 1960 July. Her party the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (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
Ms. Bandaranaike 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.Cholmondeley Goonewardena (Kalutara) and Anil Moonesinghe (Agalawatte) took up ministerial office along with Dr. 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 Wickremesinghe entered the fray and together with his kinsman through marriage J.R. Jayewardena began an enticement campaign in earnest. As is well known Esmond and JR were the father and uncle of United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. 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.
Shackle the free media
This state of affairs was precipitated by the coalition government’s ill advised venture to shackle the free media through controversial measures.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. Now in a frenzied hurry the coalition government introduced a hasty new bill to nationalise the press.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 throne speech 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’ Bandaranaike’s chief deputy since 1952.
C.P. de Silva had worked closely with D.S. Senanayake in setting up irrigation and agricultural settlement projects in the dry zone particularly in the Polonnaruwa district. After working as assistant government agent, government 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 C.P. 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. C.P. 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 C.P. de Silva out as Land development director and transfer him to Kalutara as GA.
C.P. de Silva felt insulted by his minister’s action. C.P. de Silva born in 1912 and Dudley born in 1911 were contemporaries at S.Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia (STC). An enraged CP responded to Dudley by quitting government service. He adamantly refused to reconsider his decision even when D.S. Senanayake made personal entreaties. CP 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. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who broke away from the UNP had formed the SLFP and was preparing to face the hustings. Kurunegala MP and eminent King’s counsel, H.Sri Nissanka approached C.P. de Silva and managed to entice him into the fledgling SLFP.
Minneri Deviyo (Minneriya Deity)
As the senior government official in charge of the Minneriya colonisation project, CP had helped resettle thousands of peasant farmers in the dry zone and was hailed as the “Minneri Deviyo” (Deity of Minneriya). Many thought of CP as the reincarnation of King Mahasen.
C.P. 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. C.P. de Silva 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 W. Dahanayake.
Later in 1960 the newly elected UNP Government under Dudley failed to prove its majority. C.P. de Silva should have been made Prime minister as he was the SLFP leader of that time and was supported by a majority of MP’s. But Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke did the dirty by dissolving Parliament instead of swearing in CP as premier.
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 Mrs. 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 Mrs. Bandaranaike was out of the country. Apart from his influence among MP’s from rural, agrarian constituencies, CP was also the uncrowned king of the Salagama caste group of MP’s in the party.
The government encouraged by the leftists who had a perennial grouse against ANCL proceeded to draft legislation giving teeth to the Press Commission report. Now in a frenzied hurry the coalition government introduced a hasty new bill to nationalise the press
In spite of his pre-eminence in the party, C.P. de Silva found himself being effectively sidelined under the new dispensation. Unlike the days of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike where he was both the de jure and de facto deputy chief of government, C.P. de Silva found himself only a de jure deputy leader under Mrs. Bandaranaike. The de facto number two was Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike a nephew of SWRDB and MP for the newly carved out electorate Dompe. More importantly Mrs. Bandaranaike began to rely more and more on junior Felix than the senior Percival.
Furthermore CP found himself out of the charmed inner circle around Mrs. Bandaranaike. Worse still was the fact that this inner circle around the prime minister were those of supposedly “aristocratic” lineage. Even though Low country personalities like Felix retained much influence, a clique mostly related to the upcountry ‘radala’ Sirimavo 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”.
Kandyan Govigama Buddhist
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 KGB clique looked down upon C.P. 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. An increasingly alienated C.P. de Silva became further annoyed later by the LSSP influx into the government. 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 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 passage excerpted from the book” J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka” by K.M. de Silva and Howard Wriggins provides a revealing insight into what went on then.
“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.”
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. 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.
MEP leader Philip Gunawardena was speaking when C.P. de Silva entered the chamber. Instead of taking his usual seat on the Government side CP walked purposefully to the other side of the treasury benches. While the Government side looked on aghast the opposition MP’s began thumping tables and cheering. At the appropriate moment C.P. de Silva got up to speak amid pin-drop silence.
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 Wickremesinghe to CP to expedite matters. The speech was purportedly written by the then Observer editor Ernest Corea.
Live as a free man in a free society
C. P. de Silva said 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 Government, CP observed pithily “I am foregoing all this today in order to live as a free man in a free society”. He ended his historic speech at 5.47 p.m.
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. After C.P. 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 Government. Altogether 14 MPs inclusive of C. P. de Silva crossed over 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 Government 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 (Ampara)
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 of the CWC, an appointed MP then, to abstain from voting on that day.
74-73, A solitary vote victory
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.
A significant feature of the December 3, 1964 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. Since some Government MP’s had kept away from voting by accident, a re-configuration of the power balance in favour of the Government was quite possible. Besides there was no constitutional stipulation that a Government defeated on a throne speech vote should not continue.
But Mrs. 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 remain in power as suggested by her Trotskyite ally, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party.
Mrs. Bandaranaike in a subsequent address to the nation over the radio condemned the action of C.P. de Silva and other MP’s who defected. She described C.P. 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.
Sri Lanka Freedom Socialist Party
When fresh elections were held the majority of the 14 defectors formed a new political party under the leadership of C.P. de Silva. The party named Sri Lanka Freedom Socialist Party (SLFSP) contested 32 electorates under the symbol of the sun. The SLFSP won five seats.
Of the fourteen defectors, C.P. de Silva ,S.B. 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, P.P. Wickramasooriya, A.H. 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 had abstained during the vote.
The UNP won only 66 seats in the 1965 elections 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 Government and C.P. de Silva became minister of Land, Irrigation and Power. The SLFSP merged with the UNP and contested the 1970 polls. C.P. de Silva was defeated after being in Parliament continually for 18 years from 1952. He died two years later on October 9th 1972.
Fight “unadulterated totalitarianism”
This then is the inspiring tale of how one man named C.P. de Silva fought to safeguard press freedom and fight “unadulterated totalitarianism” by voting against the government he himself had helped set up. Re-visiting the story of this spectacular defection is of particular significance at the present juncture.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org