Sixty-two years-ago, on September 25, 1959 one of the most controversial and best-known Prime Ministers of this country - S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike - was shot at his home by a little-known Buddhist monk – Ven.Talduwe Somarama Thero. The premier succumbed to his wounds the next day.In those days, the word ‘terrorist’ and terrorism’ were not common parlance. Else, Ven. Somarama would have possibly been grouped along inglorious figures such as Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi of the IS.
Elected to power after winning the1956 elections in a landslide, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was the fourth Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
It was a tumultuous time in the country’s history, with nationalism raising its head in the country. In the run up to the election Bandaranaike successfully harnessed three powerful forces among the Sinhala electorate – weda (ayurvedic physicians), guru (Sinhala teachers) Sangha (Buddhist monks) who campaigned for him.
He campaigned for a change from English as the official language of the country to the implementation of a ’Sinhala Only’ policy, the nationalization of foreign-owned tea estates and mercantile firms and of evicting the British from Trincomalee harbour and the Katunayake air-base used by the Royal Air Force. With the weda-guru-Sangha forces campaigning for him, unsurprisingly, Mr. Bandaranaike had the support of a majority of the Sinhala people behind him.
Having campaigned on a ‘Sinhala Only within 24-hours’ campaign slogan, one of the first Acts introduced by the newly-elected government was the ‘Sinhala Only Bill’ of 1956, which realized the premier’s main election promise - the gang-plank so-to-say of his landslide victory at the 1956 general election.
The Tamil-speaking community totally opposed the passing of the legislation and rioting between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities broke out. The late Prime Minister was therefore often blamed for the breakdown in relations between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.However, the late premier was by no stretch of imagination a rabid racist. His call for a change in the official language of the country has to be seen in the context of the times it was enacted.
Since the country regained its independence in 1948, there had been no industrial or agricultural development, which is essential to increase wealth and maintain employment levels.
At the same time, the free education system in the country, was churning out Sinhala educated ‘Arts’ graduates who were not conversant in the English language.
The inevitable result was the creation of a large articulate class of educated, semi-educated and disgruntled young men and women who were unable to find employment, given their lack of knowledge of the English language. The aim therefore was to change the balance of forces between those educated in English and those who studied in what was referred to as ‘swabasha’.
In the face of opposition from the Tamil community, premier Bandaranaike attempted to conciliate the Tamils via a Pact with Tamil leader Chelvanayagam allowing for the reasonable use of Tamil. However under pressure from extremists, the late premier was forced to nullify the pact which was followed by severe rioting and communal violence.
Premier Bandaranaike’s regime – cut short by assassin’s bullet - marked a drastic change from policies followed immediately after independence.Among the most significant were the changes in foreign policy to a non-aligned status, which he referred to as a middle path - taking the country away from the western bloc and opening/establishing diplomatic missions with the communist bloc.
Premier Bandaranaike also oversaw socialist reforms such as the introduction of legislation to prohibit caste-based discrimination and the nationalization of the bus services and the introduction of a centralized system of omnibus passenger transport.Premier Bandaranaike removed the last vestiges of imperial Britain’s hold on the island with the removal of British naval and air bases in the country.
A blemish in his tenure was his inability to control the forces of racism and communalism which began raising its head in the years prior to the 1956 general election and scuttled his efforts to reconcile the Sinhala and Tamil communities in the months prior to the racial riots of 1956.Had his efforts to implement the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact been successful, perhaps we would not have suffered a long drawn-out civil war and the continuing bitterness between the majority and minority communities.