William Shakespeare said: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. That reminds us of late Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike on whose birthday, 17th April 1916 at Pussaliyadda Walawwa, Mahawelatanna, Balangoda, a well-known astrologer by the name of Hetuwa Gurunnanse told her parents Barnes Ratwatte, Rate Mahattaya and Rosmend Hilda Kumarihamy that the future queen of Ceylon was born. As reminisced by Dr. Mackie Ratwatta in an article which appeared in a newspaper about another phenomenon on that day of a herd of elephants forcefully entering the kraal, an act which was considered a rare omen. Her father, the laird of Balangoda was amused to hear that prophecy because then we were under the regime of King George V of the United Kingdom. Furthermore there was no woman political leader in any country in the world specially in democratic forms of government.
In her formative years, Sirimavo received her training in social activities by being an active member of the Mahila Samithiya of Balangoda. She studied at St. Bridget’s Convent, in Colombo from where she passed the Matriculation Examination. Eventually she became one of the most eligible young ladies whose hand was sought by many. As destiny would have it, late Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike married her on 3rd October 1940. They raised three children. In the knowledge how much her husband suffered as a politician, Sirimavo abhorred that field and wished to see her husband leaving it.
Debunking all the myths expressed by the people of the old school, she proved equal to the task and was able to blaze a new trail in the world political firmament. What propelled her into active politics was her determination to carry forward the policies of her illustrious husband. She rose to the occasion surmounting a variety of obstacles and many a political storm displaying a rare kind of courage which cannot be associated with women. Her advent to active politics may have been influenced by the saying of St. Augustine; “There is a special place in Hell reserved for those who shilly-shally during a period of crisis in a country”.
By a quirk of destiny she was catapulted to the heights of office as predicted by Hetuwa Gurunnanse. Causing a universal sensation, she became the first woman prime minister in the world exactly fifty years ago thereby giving credence to the old saying, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”.
As Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the U.S. said in his famous Gettysburg speech made after the conclusion of the civil war,”Democracy is a system of government of the people, for the people, by the people.” The then Prime Minister late Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the beloved husband of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was assassinated by a gunman just as Abraham Lincoln himself was shot by an assassin. The world which had no experience of seeing a country being ruled by a woman, thought that the vacuum created with the killing of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike was an abysmal void and started scanning the horizon to trace someone like the late PM. They never thought that the people in this small island would have looked up to a woman with a calibre equal to a seasoned political leader.
The roots of democracy were found in occidental countries and the United States of America and subsequently evolved into the present form during the last 7-8 centuries by etching landmark events such as the French Revolution, Magna Carta (1215) etc,. Their common ground was that the most significant feature in democracy denoted the upholding of the Rule of Law, by logical extension meaning ‘the equality before the law’. But we cannot ignore the fact that the world society was such that the gender differences were visible an obstacle that made it difficult for any female to reach the highest echelons of the political hierarchy, even in those very countries which were against gender discrimination. But Sri Lankans who had gone through the whole spectrum of political and social turbulence under the regimes of several foreign yokes, believed that Sirimavo Bandaranaike was capable of spearheading the country towards true independence and prosperity. She took no time in casting a spell upon the political audience not only locally but also internationally, by her sheer personality. She being the first woman prime minister was able to prove her mettle and acumen to become a vibrant political force to be reckoned with much to the consternation of her critics.
Embedded in her character was diplomacy she made full use of in international relations. The icing on the cake was when she was able to bring about peace between India and China which were posing for a protracted war. Exploiting her diplomacy and the admiration she won from the Afro- Asian countries, she brought about peace and reconciliation between two warring countries and ushered in harmony in the region. Bertrand Russell who had closely observed her role in the peace-making process suggested that the Nobel Prize should be conferred upon her. That was an additional feather in her cap. She brought her diplomacy into full play when dealing with the Indo-Sri Lanka problem and the Kachchathivu island issue. If it had not been for her sagacity and foresight, such a problem would have flared up to alarming proportions. These achievements spoke volumes of her leadership. She was able to be the prime minister thrice and dramatically on the last occasion under the Presidency of her daughter.
Mrs Bandaranaike was also able to steer clear of two power blocks and establish the Non-Aligned Movement as a vibrant power in the world. Her election as the chairperson of the Non-Aligned Movement earned her recognition in the world community. There is a saying “Heads of governments are only friends of one another while only a very few hold the admiration of the fraternity”. Mrs. Bandaranaike belonged to the second group.
There is no disputing that she was able to hold her own against the leading world icons of her times such as Marshall Tito of former Yugoslavia, Chou-En-Lai of China, Abdul Gamel Nasser of Egypt, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, Sri Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi of India, Ayub Khan of Pakistan, Prince Sihanouk of Kampuchea, Huwari Bumidian of Algeria, Nkrumah of Ghana etc. There is also a saying; “The biggest problem in this world is the destiny of it not being shaped by people who are fit for it”. This reminds us of the importance of righteous political leaders with far-sighted worldly wisdom and skills to maintain international relations in a prudent manner while protecting sacrosanct norms and principles of democracy. What appears in the context of today’s politics is that those who are trying to give are the people who do not have anything in depth. It was Claudius who said; “People are fashioned according to the examples of their leaders; edicts are less important than the examples exhibited by the lives of their leaders”. In recognition of her astute leadership, world leaders in the Non-Aligned Movement consisting of 86 member countries agreed to hold their main conference in Sri Lanka in 1976. It is considered that this conference had been the grandest international conference held in our country. When it came to taking decisions regarding crucial and controversial matters she was never known to have vacillated or hesitated. She also brooked no nonsense coming from any quarter when leftist leaders such as Dr. N.M. Perera and Dr. Colvin R de Silva and their comrades tried to overwhelm her and gobble up her political party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party which was founded by her husband. She was obviously endowed with adroitness and circumspection, two qualities which should be possessed by a real leader.
I am emboldened to mention this because I had the good fortune of being her lawyer at a certain stage. It is no exaggeration to say that there are many lessons that could be learnt from her illustrious character.
I can do no more than pay tribute to her by quoting William Shakespeare:
“Fear no more the heat of the sun
Nor; the furious winters’ rages
Though thy worldly task had done
Home art gone and taken thy wages”