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Wijayananda Dahanayake -politician extraordinary

(September 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) If S W R D Bandaranaike had ushered in the age of the common man, W Dahanayake who followed him as prime minister on his untimely death, was surely the common man himself. Or so he looked at first glance. Dressed always in the white national dress – not necessarily always spotless or immaculately cut like Mr. Bandaranaike’s – with a rustic homespun touch about him, a non-smoker and teetotaler at the time I first met him, Dahanayake could easily have fitted the bill. He chatted easily in colloquial Sinhala with a choice of words which bespoke his south Ceylon origin enjoyed chewing betel after a meal and could squirt out the detritus into a spittoon, or far out into the yard, with the best of them. Along with his disarmingly simple mannerisms and modest ways, he had, in his rather long political life, acquired a reputation for honesty, outspokenness, unpredictability and for being very much on the side of the underdog.

These qualities had made him a favourite of the press who always found him good for a story. The media, I found, were not quite sure – as were many of us in the administration – of who and what Daha, as he was universally known, really was: the shrewd, intelligent and manipulative politician or the amiable and slightly eccentric uncle. There is a well-established folk belief in the country that people who hail from the south, the towns of Galle and Matara in particular, can be deceptively smooth and cool customers. There were two favourite media stories which were endlessly repeated about him. One was about his attempt — thwarted just in time by a vigilant policeman — to enter the Parliament in a span cloth (amude) to protest the imposition by Mrs. Bandaranaike in 1964 of a ration of two yards of textiles per month per person at a time of grave foreign exchange shortage. The other was the record he had created by making the longest speech ever in the State Council in August 1945, thirteen and a half hours, a mammoth filibuster covering two days, the 23rd and 29th, during which he was reportedly never once censured by the speaker for the sin of repetition.

Dahanayake’s father was a Muhandiram and the family had always had high status and recognition in the south. He had a strong base of support from ordinary folk who appreciated his earthy and direct ways and his espousal of the many causes they brought to him. He had a lot of time for people and even as prime minister wanted me to establish a small ‘Office of the prime minister’ in Galle. We found a room in the municipal hall opposite the Galle railway station and every weekend during the few months of his premiership he would hold court there. It was perhaps the forerunner of the Presidential Mobile Office which Premadasa in his time as president of the country initiated with his customary enthusiasm of being always with the people. I went down to Galle sometimes when there was something particularly serious to attend to.

Dahanayake’s family had a tradition of supporting the temple and his father was the president of the Dayaka Sabha’ of the Wijayananda Pirivena in Galle. His father, who was overjoyed at the birth of twin sons on the 2nd October 1902 named the elder of the two by twenty minutes, Wijayananda after the Pirivena and the other Kalyanamitra, the kind friend. The twin brothers were exceedingly close and one of the few real friends Dahanayake had was indeed his twin brother who visited him often at Temple Trees. It was quite difficult in the beginning, and especially when they were together, to determine who in fact was the prime minister.

Wijayananda Pirivena was the place where the famous Colonel Olcott, the American theosophist, converted to Buddhism in 1845. Olcott along with his colleague Annie Besant was largely instrumental in energising the movement which had commenced about that time to raise the status of Buddhism which had been overshadowed during the colonial period by the dominance of Christianity, the religion of the ruler and the patronage extended to it by the state. They did so mainly by the support they lent to the establishment of Buddhist schools throughout the country. Such schools initiated by the BTS — the Buddhist Theosophical Society — were as a countervailing force to the proselytising work of the CMS, the Church Missionary Society, and had an important influence on the future development of political power structure. I have no doubt that Dahanayake’s abiding interest in the education sphere and his path-breaking initiative in raising the status of chief Pirivenas — the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas in Colombo, to University status, when he served as minister of education in the Bandaranaike Cabinet — were conditioned by his early exposure to the importance of pirivena education.

But there were many other moments, too, which people remembered and spoke about. In 1940, as a member of the State Council for Bibile, a remote constituency in the Uva Province that he represented for a while, far removed from his native Galle, Dahanayake had played an important part in persuading the elite Ceylonese leadership of the times that free education for children a pearl of great price no doubt — was a right that could not be denied. He did so by sponsoring the collection of signatures for a public petition supporting the initiatives of Dr. C W W Kannangara, then minister of education of free education for all the children the colony. It was a path-breaking idea but an extremely different project to carry forward with no party machinery and a generaly indifferent press. Public petitions were the order of the day and Dahanayake’s leadership with a list of signatures that, as rumour has it, stretched from the steps of the State Council to the doors of the Chamber itself, went a long way to convince the colonial secretary to give the bill his consent.

We are now aware of how this uncommon southern countryman, Wijayananda Dahanayake, came to act for and finally succeeded Mr. Bandaranaike after he was mortally wounded that fateful Friday morning of 25th September 1959. The story is one worth telling.

Bandaranaike and Dahanayake had been in the political field for many years starting from the old State Council days. Both being able debaters they had often jousted with each other. Parliament was the friendly battleground for good-natured barb and repartee and Dahanayake, like several other politicians of the time, fancied himself as a versifier too. In 1952 as an independent in the opposition he had parodied J R Jayewardene, then minister of finance, who had suddenly and with drastic consequences for the government of the day, removed the subsidy on rice. It went thus imitating Alice in Wonderland.

I thought I saw a kangaroo In sherwani on the beach

I looked again and found it was

Our J R’s Budget speech

"I’ll sell you bags of rice," he said

"At a price beyond your reach."

Dahanayake had a celebrated rhyming couplet against Bandaranaike too, which ran:

I do not love thee Banda dear because you change from year to year.

However the winds of 1956 changed all that. Dahanayake, as minister of education in the MEP government became one of Mr. Bandaranaike’s staunchest and most energetic Cabinet colleagues.’

In the last few months before Mr. Bandaranaike’s demise, the MEP coalition, which Mr. Bandaranaike had led to victory with such an overwhelming people’s mandate, was beginning to come apart. Irreconcilable differences in policy had led to the resignation of Mr. Phillip Gunawardene and Mr. William Silva, two of his most able ministers, from the Cabinet in 1959. The ideological divide in his MEP coalition, between the Left, which the VLSSP represented so forcefully, and his own party the SLFP, had come out into the open. The Paddy Lands Act, Phillip Gunawardene’s brainchild, which attempted to secure permanency of tenure to the ande cultivators of paddy fields, was strenuously opposed by the rightists in the Cabinet led by C P de Silva, minister of lands and land development, Stanley de Zoysa, minister of finance and Mrs. Vimala Wijewardene, the minister of health. A series of crippling strikes in the industrial and commercial sectors occurred in the first half of 1959 greatly preoccupying Mr. Bandaranaike who had no particular liking for or experience over the nuts and bolts of bargaining with trade unions.

The resignations of two important ministers and some cross-overs (it was still possible under the Soulbury Constitution for MPs to leave a party and cross-over to the other side) left the government with a very thin majority for most of 1959. I well recall how important it was to muster every vote for important bills in Parliament.

Worse was to follow when C P de Silva, then Leader of the House, and the obvious choice to act for the prime minister when on leave, was stricken with a mysterious illness on 26 August. Destiny was stepping in quite unexpectedly to give Mr. Dahanayake a chance for the top leadership position and I had some little hand in the drama.

On the afternoon of 24 September I had inquired of Mr. Bandaranaike as to who would act as prime minister during his absence abroad: and he had said, "Mr. Dahanayake" I got his signature on the letter to the governor-general in terms of Article 46 (iv) recommending Dahanayake to act for him during his absence from the island and personally handed it over to N W Atukorale, Sir Oliver’s official secretary. So the governor-general had before him, most conveniently, and in writing, a nominated successor.

It was to be a very short act. After the news came through that the prime minister had succumbed to his fatal injuries at 7.45 am on the morning of 26 September, Mr. Dahanayake drove once more to Queens House, this time to formally take the oath of office as prime minister. The transition of chosen succession to the highest position in the land had, in a tumultuous moment of history, been almost effortlessly accomplished.

We were seeing in action, the phrase, common in British history: ‘The king is dead: long live the king’ brought to reality in our own land.

Unlike Bandaranaike, who had lived at No. 65 Rosmead Place, a charming two-storied bungalow in the most fashionable part of Colombo city – Cinnamon Gardens – and which remains a prestigious address even today, Dahanayake, the rural boy from the south; had managed, even as a minister and a bachelor, with a single room at the MP’s hostel ‘Sravasti’. Dahanayake indicated to me at the swearing-in that, now that he had been duly appointed, he would like to shift to Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister.

I well remember the day that Dahanayake moved in. I had asked Guhaprasadam, the superintendent of government stores and his assistant, Singaratnam – the official residences being maintained and serviced by the Government Stores Department – to be present to receive the new occupant and show him around. As soon as Dahanayake arrived, accompanied by two somewhat battered suitcases, he asked to see his bedroom. I took him upstairs and showed him the master bedroom. He took one long look around the ornate double bed and antique furniture and said abruptly "I say, I can’t sleep in this. Can’t you find me a smaller room?" On being informed that all the bedrooms were of a similar size and small rooms were found only in the servants’ quarters, Daha hit on a brilliant idea. "Get the carpenters," he said, "and make me a smaller room within this room." This the Government Stores did, fashioning a room within a room in the stately official residence; a room sufficient to hold his single bed, wardrobe and dressing table, made with wooden frames and plywood sheeting, within the master bedroom and with its own little internal door. The only later addition to the furniture within his inner room which he soon ordered brought in, was a large iron safe in which he personally stored the many cash donations he began to receive from the business community as he prepared to face the inevitable coming general election. For the next six months, after an interregnum of almost 10 years, Temple Trees was to have a new and unconventional master in residence.

I began to get used to his unusual ways. Dahanayake was an early riser and insisted on starting work at 7.00 am. I didn’t mind as I lived close by at de Fonseka Place and it was not more than a 10 minute drive at that time in the morning. It wasn’t a matter of a leisurely run-over in sarong or pyjama of the day’s work at the breakfast table, interspersed with asides from the morning’s newspapers, as others were wont to do, but the actual start of an official day with interviews, conferences and files. Acutely conscious of retaining his good health – in his youth he had indulged heavily in drinking and smoking – Dahanayake was usually up at 4.30 am and would have done his hour’s barefooted perambulation on the lawns of Temple Trees soaking in the early morning dew. As he put it in one of his many expositions on how to stay healthy, walking barefoot on wet grass – especially if there was a patch of convenient indupiyeli around – mightily helped in "clearing the brain"! Another of his favoured recipes, as he mentioned to my very interested wife one day, was how to keep one’s weight down with a diet of raw vetakolu and rice bran aggala spiced with pol kudu, for lunch.

Dahanayake had beautiful handwriting. His official minutes and orders in files in his characteristic purple ink – he always used a fountain pen – were eminently legible, clear and often quite longwinded. When I once observed on the clarity and style of his handwriting he replied that it was his diligence with the copybook during his years at the Teacher’s Training College at Maharagama which had endowed him with this facility. He had been taught, he said, ‘the civil service style’ of writing; large well formed letters gently sloping to the right, and as he put it, "once you put pen to paper lift your hand only after you’ve finished your sentence!" Which probably accounted for the length of his minutes and the absolute absence of corrections or erasures. I found that the prime minister was quick in decision-making, generally based on the first complaint he received. He was also not averse to completely reversing his decision no sooner he received a contrary opinion from one of his officials. So, deciphering his minutes, particularly regarding teachers’ transfers – he had been minister of education earlier – could give one a sense of ‘constant to-ing and fro-ing’.

The circumstances of Mr. Bandaranaike’s death and his own elevation to the post of prime minister as a result, led inevitably, but as far as I was convinced unfairly, to some suspicion of Dahanayake’s own conduct in the affair. Stories began to spread about his seeming reluctance to press charges against the big names who the public quickly associated with the heinous crime. These were the Hon. Vimala Wijewardene, minister of health in Mr. Bandaranaike’s Cabinet and still one of his ministers, and the Ven. Mapitigama Buddharakhita, the high priest of the prominent Kelaniya Temple and one of the most influential of the monks in the Eksath Bhikku Perumuna which had propelled Mr. Bandaranaike into power in 1956.

By early 1959, however, both these luminaries had begun to move away from Mr. Bandaranaike. Mrs. Wijewardene became an important part of the right-wing of the SLFP (the Regent Flats group), as the press had begun to term them. The high priest was openly critical of Mr. Bandaranaike both on account of the latter’s seeming reluctance to fulfil his radical reform programme of 1956 while the more prosaic reason was that he, the prime minister, had not helped him sufficiently in securing contracts for the shipping business in which the priest was heavily involved. The woman minister and the high priest had already acquired a certain notoriety for conducting an unusually close association.

This, I soon found out, was one of the primary exigencies of holding high office in the country. People are prone to attribute an ulterior motive to whatever you do. The story soon got about that two persons, Kelanitilleke and Michael Baas, had informed Dahanayake on the night of 26 September, the day of Mr. Bandaranaike’s death, about Buddharakhita’s involvement in the act of murdering Bandaranaike, but upon Dahanayake’s accession to the prime ministership, he had tried to dissuade the informants from proceeding with the matter. Although not proven at the subsequent inquiry before a presidential commission, the story itself gained ground and contributed to Dahanayake’s growing unpopularity in the country.

Through October and November, Dahanayake tried to hold his fractious team together and keep Parliament going. The House elected in 1956 with a five year term could have continued till April 1961, but the raison d’être for that Parliament had gone with the death of Bandaranaike. Dahanayake was now prime minister in his own right having succeeded to the position through the support of the majority in Parliament but clearly the ministers were not in favour of him continuing. He tried, for a while, to bask in the sunshine of Bandaranaike’s name. I remember him once telling the foreign press that Bandaranaike had now become a Bosath – a Bodhisatva, a Mahayana Buddhist conception that elevates exemplary virtuosity to the highest level before Buddhahood. He was not alone as S D Bandaranaike, the Imbulgoda veeraya who had stopped J R Jayewardene on his march to Kandy in 1958, also came out at the time with his Bosath Bandaranaike Party, virtually a one-man show of which he was the president.

The air was full of talk of conspiracies and plots and coups in the days that followed Bandaranaike’s death. Dahanayake ordered the wall skirting Duplication Road raised by four feet. This was considered by the press to be a major security measure and Collette retaliated with a cartoon in the Observer, with Jim Munasinghe and Stanley de Zoysa, two of his more loyal ministers standing guard duty. There was no Prime Minister’s Security Division (PMSD) in those days but only an inspector, or at most an ASP as personal security officer and a small contingent of men on duty. Dahanayake ordered more police security men to be moved in, and also tightened entry procedures for the public. He also created a new ministry of internal security and had Sydney de Zoyza who was then one of the four DIGS appointed to the position of secretary.

Two votes of no confidence in Parliament against Dahanayake’s government, one against him personally and the other against the minister of justice, for not being more forceful in bringing to book those responsible for the assassination, were narrowly defeated. On the third of December the emergency lapsed and Dahanayake, now tired out with all the machinations against him, decided to recommend to Sir Oliver the dissolution of Parliament. Elections were called for 19 March 1960. Dahanayake was now head of a caretaker government and took some major strategic decisions. He first announced his resignation from the SLFP but this was refuse, by the executive committee who proceeded in turn to sack him from the party. Dahanayake retaliated by sacking five ministers, the letters being delivered to them at midnight. Some of them read of their dismissal in the morning’s Daily News. I had a busy time until all the ministers were dismissed and five new ones appoint to assist Dahanayake until the elections. Among them were M M Mustapha from Nintavur in the Eastern Province as Minister of finance and R E Jayatilleke from Nawalapitiya. The Soulbury constitution permitted a non-parliamentarian to be in the Cabinet for a maximum period of three months and that gave Dahanayake sufficient time.

To fight the elections Dahanayake formed a new party which he called the Lanka Prajatantra Party — the Lanka Democratic Party. He cobbled it together from a few former SLFP members who yet remained loyal to him and an odd assortment of people from all walks of life, many of them with absolutely no previous experience of politics. Some were literally picked off the street like one ‘never do well’ from Welimada whom I knew as a habitual drunkard from my teaching days at St. Thomas’ College in Gurutalawa during the university vacations. Temple Trees was a party office in those days with Dahanayake presiding over `walk-in interviews’ for MP-ships. Those who took the trouble to present themselves were usually rewarded with a letter of appointment as candidate of the LPP, personally signed by the prime minister, and a sum of Rs 25,000 as election expenses. I am sure my friend from Welimada must have got rip-roaring drunk that night.

The LPP put forward 101 candidates, just a few less than the SLFP’s 113 for the March elections. Ninety-four of Dahanayake’s candidates lost their deposits, including of course my Welimada friend, and only four were returned to Parliament. Dahanayake himself lost narrowly by 400 votes in Galle. He was still immensely popular there but he had over-stretched himself attempting to campaign all over the country single-handed, and leaving Galle, to be handled by friends. This was proved by his winning back Galle in the July ‘60 election, again narrowly by 444 votes, where he contested again as an LPP candidate.

As my wife and I tavelled back to Colombo from election duty in Lahugala in the East, the radio was announcing the results of Dahanayake’s heavy defeat. His loss at Galle surprised me as I knew how popular he was with ordinary people like the betel-seller on the pavement, those who patronised the local tea boutiques, shops, the bus stand and the sellers of gram. When I arrived at Temple Trees late in the evening he was sitting in an arm chair in the long verandah with his two faithful suitcases by his side. He had a request to make of me, that I permit the use one the two official Humber Hawks the prime minister’s office had to be used for dropping him at his home in Galle. It was sad to see him leave alone that evening only accompanied by his bags. The staff came together to see him off, gathered around the portico as the car drove off, and gave him a spontaneous cheer of good wishes and farewell.(From Rendering unto Caesar)

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