Prelude to independence

by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe

(February 4, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In October 1941, his Majesty’s government in England issued a declaration recognising the urgency and importance of constitutional reforms to change the political pattern of Sri Lanka, and suggesting that the position would be examined after the Second World War (1939-1945). Sir Andrew Caldecott who was the Governor of Sri Lanka, during the greater part of the War, came to the island to solve the political deadlock caused by the decision of the State Council to put an end to the Donoughmore Constitution in force then.

The Donoughmore Constitution came into operation in 1931, having being presented it to the British parliament in 1928. Hardly had the first State Council started to function, when a demand was made by the Sinhala ministers for a radical change. Discussions between the Governor Sir Graeme Thomson and the Board of Ministers led to a formal statement by the governor that in his opinion it was premature to make any fundamental changes to the Constitution. Lord Donoughmore alias Dr. Drummond Shiels was a great authority on constitutional law which the Ministers knew well.

The Donoughmore Constitution gave Sri Lanka internal self-government with an elected State Council and was largely characterised by attempts to introduce amendments later to the Constitution to further the advance towards full self-government in order to free the country from foreign domination. On the other hand, the minorities, led by the late Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam insisted on ‘balanced representation’ in the legislature which he called the famous, fifty-fifty’ demand. This was the foundation for the present crisis based on the State of Eelam.

The ‘fifty-fifty’ demand was that 50% of the number of seats in the legislature should be composed of the Sinhala community, they being the majority of the island’s total population, and the balance 50% by the minority groups. After serious consideration of the issue involved, the governor sent his suggestions to Mr. Ormsby-Gore, Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The Governor Caldecott rejected the ‘fifty-fifty’ demand. Instead of ‘divide-and-rule’ policy, he was in favour of placing greater collective responsibility among the ministers whether they be Tamils, Burghers Muslims or any other community. In the meantime, the governor received instructions from the Secretary of State "to examine the political situation of Sri Lanka very carefully", after having acquainted himself with the views of all nationalities on bona fide grounds and without exception or favour.

By the declaration of 1943, it was made known that His Majesty’s government’s post-war examination of the reform would be directed towards the grant to Sri Lanka, by Orders-in-Council, of full responsible government under the British Crown in all matters of internal civil administration, subject to certain conditions and modifications. By this declaration it was definitely contemplated that a commission would be appointed to investigate the draft proposals of the ministers.

The Board of Ministers, therefore made a statement in 1943, through the Leader of the State Council, the late D. S. Senanayake, setting out with clarity how they understood the offer, and stating that they were proceeding to frame a constitution in accordance with their interpretations. As a result of a motion moved in the State Council by the then Member for Panadura, Mr. Susantha de Fonseka, in November 1944, a Bill, ‘An Ordinance to provide a new Constitution for Ceylon" (Sri Lanka), known as the Free Lanka Bill was introduced in the State Council on January 19 1945. The second reading was moved on February 6, 1945, and after a very lengthy debate was passed without a division on February 16, 1945.

The Bill was then referred to a Committee of the whole House, and brought up for third reading, with amendments, on March 22, 1945, when Mr. G. A. H. Wille (Nominated Member) moved that "The Bill be read the third time six months’ hence." This amendment was defeated and the Bill was passed by a majority of 33.

On July 17, 1945, a message from the governor was read in the State Council intimating that the Secretary of State for the Colonies felt unable to advise the King to assent to the Bill entitled ‘An Ordinance to provide a new Constitution for Ceylon (Sri Lanka)". A motion of protest in the following terms was moved: "This Council protests against the rejection by his Majesty’s government of the Ceylon (Sri Lanka) Constitution bill as such rejection is a denial of the rights of the people of Lanka to freedom and to determine their own Constitution".

The motion was seconded by G. E. de Silva (Minister of Health). W. Dahanayaka (Member of Bibile) moved an amendment to add, at the end of the motion, the words "and requests the dissolution of the present Council to enable the issue to be raised at a General Election". The amendment was defeated, and the motion was passed the same day by a majority of 24.

With the departure of Sir Andrew Caldecott, the vacancy was filled by Sir Henry Monck Mason Moore, at a time when the goal of self-government was within sight. During the War in 1944, the strategic importance of the island, the co-operation extended by the people of the island and their leaders to the British Authorities, in the War against the Japanese in the East, were adequate to win the confidence of the British government.

Oliver Stanley, the Secretary of State, briefed the Governor Sir Henry Moore on the intentions of the Colonial Office in regard to constitutional reforms and informed his decision to appoint a new Commission under the Chairmanship of Lord Soulbury. The Commissioners arrived in Sri Lanka in December 1944. Besides Lord Soulbury, others who came with him were Sir Frederick Rees, Principal of the University of South Wales and Sir Frederick Burrows who was later the Governor of Bengal.

Soulbury Commission report was published in 1945, and the Colonial Office offered the new Constitution "as a foundation upon which may be built a future Dominion of Ceylon". A White Paper embodying the decisions of the Commission was published a month later, i.e., on October 31, 1945. D. S. Senanayake was invited to England by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to discuss about the matter further in detail.

D. S. Senanayake, Minister of Agriculture and Lands and Leader of the State Council, on his return from England having discussed the reforms, moved in the State Council that "This House expresses its disappointment that His Majesty’s government has deferred the admission of Ceylon to full dominion status, but in view of the assurance contained in the White Paper of October 31, 1945, that His Majesty’s government will cooperate with the people of Ceylon so that such status may be attained by this country in a comparatively short time, this House resolves that the Constitution offered in the said White Paper be accepted during the interim period.".

This motion, which was formally seconded by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, Minister of Local Administration, was passed, after a two-day debate, by a majority of 48. Mr. Bandaranaike speaking in the course of the debate said "I am sure that in dealing with a subject of this importance, the House expects all of us to be entirely frank, to be entirely sincere..."

The final draft of the new Constitution was prepared by the legal advisers to the Secretary of State, of whom Sir Kenneth Roberts-Wray was the chief. They were assisted by two officials from Sri Lanka, i.e., the Legal Secretary Sir Barclay Nihill, and the Financial Secretary, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. The new Constitution was approved by the King of England on May 15, 1946.

Meanwhile elections took place and D. S. Senanayake, as Leader of the largest party in the House of Representatives was called upon to form a government. The agreements were signed in Colombo on November 11,1947, by the Governor Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore on behalf of the United Kingdom and Mr. Senanayake on behalf of Sri Lanka. The Independence Bill was passed by the British Parliament before the year ended.

The British Parliament presented to Sri Lanka House of Representatives a Speaker’s Chair and Mace. At 07.30 a.m., on February 4, 1948, Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore, whose office as Governor had ceased to exist at midnight, took his oaths as Governor-General. Sir Charles Jeffries, the Deputy Under Secretary of State, who participated in the arrangements for the transfer of power, said "It had been Mr. Senanayake’s wish and recommendation that Sir Henry should be the first holder of the new office".

On February 10, 1948, the Duke of Gloucester, as representative of his brother, King George Vl, formally opened Parliament conveying the following message from the king: "I know that my people in Ceylon are ready to make a full and rich contribution to the association, of free peoples, and I am confident that you will carry your responsibilities ably to this end. My good wishes go out to you on this great day, and I pray that Ceylon may enjoy peace and prosperity in full measure. May God bless you all and guide your country through the years that lie ahead".

D. S. Senanayake making his address said "Today we shall celebrate a momentous event in the history of Sri Lanka. It will mark the birth of our freedom. In the long history of our lsland, the attainment of political freedom is, perhaps, only second in importance to the message of spiritual freedom which Lord Buddha delivered 2500 years ago."

"After several centuries of domination, we have regained our birthright which our little island enjoyed from time immemorial. Freedom can only survive and advance the cause of human happiness among a people prepared to receive it and in a peaceful world. But in the world of today, despite its war weariness, the seeds of discord threaten it with destruction. It behoves all nations, big and small, to strive ceaselessly to propagate the gospel of peace and to inculcate harmony not only within their territories but also among themselves.

"The rebirth of freedom in Sri Lanka, while making the end of one struggle, is but the beginning of another and a greater struggle. For we must transform this newly won freedom into an instrument of happiness for the people of prosperity for our country, and of advancement of peace in the world.

"Whatever disagreements we may have had with the British in the past, we are grateful for their goodwill and co-operation which has culminated in own freedom, and I hope and trust that the seeds of voluntary renunciation which they have sown will grow into a stately tree of mutual and perpetual friendship.

"May this era of freedom be one of great prosperity to Lanka and happiness to her people."