Posted on April 18th, 2020


The General Election of 1956 is associated with the name of SWRD Bandaranaike. SWRD came from a long line of native administrators appointed by the British administration.

SWRD’s two paternal great-grandfathers   held the positions of ‘Mudaliyar of Siyane Korale East’ and ‘Mohandiram of the Governor’s Gate.’ Their names were Don Solomon Dias Bandaranayake and Phillips Gysbertus Panditaratne. SWRD’s grandfather also held the positions of ‘Mudaliyar of the Governor’s Gate’ and ‘Mudaliyar of Siyane Korale’. Grandfather’s name was Don Christoffel Henricus Dias Abeywickrema Jayatilake Seneviratne Bandaranaike, with the prefix ‘Gate Mudaliyar’.

SWRD father, Solomon Dias Bandaranaike (1862-1946) was ‘Muhandiram of the Governor’s Gate’ then ‘Mudaliyar of the Siyane Korale East’ and finally, ‘Maha Mudali’. Maha Mudali was the highest position available to a native Ceylonese in British Ceylon. The post had been held earlier by his uncle, Conrad Petrus Dias Wijewardena Bandaranaike. Solomon had applied for the post and was successful.

 SWRD’s father was knighted and became Sir Solomon.  He was also awarded the CMG. The letters CMG  stand for  ‘Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George’.This is a very high honor given by the British monarch. Clearly, the British have appreciated the father’s loyalty.

Sir Solomon was a wealthy landowner with large estates, mainly coconut. He had inherited a Walauwwa in Horagolla, (Attanagalla), which he converted to stables and built Horagolla Walauwa next to it. He was the first Ceylonese to own a house in Nuwara Eliya, which was an exclusive holiday destination for the British.

Sir Solomon was educated at S.Thomas College. He was a collector of antiquities. He donated Sir Henry Blake’s collection of palm leaf manuscripts to the Colombo National Museum. He was a life member of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

A keen horse breeder, he was Life President of the Colombo Turf Club, which erected a statue of him, during his lifetime, in front of the Turf Club in Colombo. This statue was in a neglected state until Yahapalana arrived. Yahapalana in 2018, turned it into an imposing monument, enclosed with installations and water pools. The message is clear, ‘Honor British rule.’

Sir Solomon has been very proud of his special position and haughty too. When told that H.V. Perera, later Sri Lanka’s leading lawyer, was going to study in London, Sir Solomon had told  H.V’s father, haughtily,  that his son could not possibly dream of ever making it to London. H.V. had won a scholarship, explained the father, humbly. H.V.’s father had been a surveyor and the first to do groundwater surveys. He would probably have been at Horagolla in his professional capacity. (Personal communication from Ralph Pieris, nephew of H.V. Perera.)

The subject of this essay, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, (1899-1959) was named after the Governor, West Ridgeway, who also agreed to be the baby’s godfather. This indicates the privileged position held by Sir Solomon.  It also indicates that Sir   Solomon hoped that baby Bandaranaike would also enjoy similar privileges and in return,   continue the family tradition of loyalty to British rule.

SWRD was tutored at home by 2 English tutors. For a short time, he attended S. Thomas’ College, Mutwal, boarding at Warden Rev. Stone’s residence.  He passed the Cambridge Senior examination with distinctions in English, Latin, Greek, and French. He had come second in the exam, out of all the candidates in the British Empire.

He then read Modern greats at Christ Church, Oxford and graduated with honors in 1923. Sir Solomon had entered his name for Oxford, ten years earlier.  At Oxford, he was the Secretary of the Oxford Union and the President of the Majlis Society. Majlis was a debating society founded by the Indian students of Oxford.

 SWRD did well as on orator at the Oxford Union.  He had strongly criticized British rule In India. The applause had gone on for several minutes. In 1924, he was called to the bar as a Barrister in the Inner Temple. He returned to Ceylon in 1925 and took oaths as an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Ceylon.

SWRD did not join the British administration as his father would have hoped. Instead, he took to politics. From the beginning, SWRD wanted a leading role in politics, nothing less.   In 1926 he started his own political party, Peoples Progressive Party, but this failed. This was the first of the three parties started by him.

SWRD   then joined the Ceylon National Congress. In 1927 SWRD became Secretary of the Congress. This was his arrival on the political scene, said Wiswa Warnapala.  SWRD was President of the Ceylon National Congress in 1931. SWRD went into electoral politics as soon as possible. In 1927 he was elected to the Colombo Municipal Council, from the Maradana Ward, defeating the trade unionist A. E. Goonesinha. SWRD had the money to win the election, Goonesinha did not, observed Meegama.

  SWRD also participated in local government. In 1928, SWRD became President of the All Ceylon Village Committee Conference  (est. 1925).  This was an emerging pressure group with wide influence in rural areas, said Wiswa. SWRD had got the Village committee Ordinance amended to remove restrictions and democratize it.

 In 1929, SWRD became Chairman of Veyangoda Egoda Peruwe Pattu Gamsabha. SWRD, in this manner, gained a political foothold at all three electoral levels, village, urban and national. 

SWRD established a network of contacts with village committee chairmen, monks of village temples, and the intelligentsia of the village, which was of immense support to him later when forming the SLFP, observed Meegama. SWRD was able to establish links with the emerging rural intelligentsia and the rural political leadership, agreed Wiswa Warnapala.,

SWRD formed the Sinhala Maha Sabha (SMS) in 1934.  SWRD was President. There were eight vice presidents and they included CWW Kannangara, and Sir John Kotelawela.    The objective of the SMS was the unity and advancement of the Sinhalese.

The name of the Association, Sinhala Maha Sabha” was given by Piyadasa Sirisena. At the inaugural meeting, SWRD had wanted the word ‘Sinhala’ changed to ‘Swadeshi.’ But Munidasa Kumaratunga, who was present, had given a scholarly analysis of the word ‘Sinhala’ and asked ‘Why are people frightened of the word Sinhala.’ Munidasa Kumaratunga was the first to raise the Sinhala language to the status of a cause and a mission, observed Wiswa.

The parent organization of the SMS was the Lanka Mahajana Sabha formed by F.R. Senanayake in 1919, said Wiswa.  But SMS would surely have tapped into the full Mahajana Sabha network as well.

 There were nearly 27 Mahajana Sabhas primarily in rural areas in the mid-twenties. There were Mahajana sabhas in Matara, Moratuwa, Lunugala, Panadura, Gampola, Dodanduwa, Polgahawela, Rambukkana, Kalutara, Kandy, Negombo, and Dehiwela. Some were branch organizations of   Ceylon National Congress and Ceylon National Association, as well, said Wiswa. Proceedings were conducted in Sinhala in these sabhas.

There were a few political Associations as well. There was the Kurunegala Political Association (est. 1920), Ratgama Association (1928) Ambalangoda Association (1920,) and Anuradhapura Association (1912). The population was becoming politically activated, said Wiswa. The Sinhala Maha Sabha would undoubtedly have approached these as well.

Three organizations that SWRD had been associated with also joined. They were   All Ceylon Village Committees Conference, Urban District Councils of Ceylon Association and All Ceylon Ayurvedic Sammelanaya.

SWRD was always an ardent supporter of local government, especially All Ceylon Village Committees Conference, Urban District Councils of Ceylon Conference, All Ceylon Town Councils Conference.  These were major pressure groups, and he used them for his political party, said Wiswa. SWRD regularly attended their annual sessions and made speeches. He was mobilizing this emerging village leadership around his magnetic personality, said Wiswa.

SMS attracted a galaxy of nationalists such as Piyadasa Sirisena.  Other writers such as Ananda Rajakaruna, Munidasa Kumaratunga   and ayurvedic physicians such as W. Daniel Fernando Waidyasekera and Pundit G.P. Wickramarachchi joined SMS.

Hemapala Munidasa who had edited Sinhala Bauddhaya took over the SMS newspaper ‘Sinhala Balaya’ in 1941. This newspaper played a key role in awakening the Sinhalese, said Wiswa. It overtook ‘Sinhala Bauddhaya’ in no time.  Later Hemapala was imprisoned on a fraud charge and Sinhala Balaya went into decline. SWRD had to sell the press.

SMS became a platform for the Sinhala literati.  They met at a special meeting at Ananda College to discuss Sinhala language and literature. Another meeting presided by Kalukondayawe Pannasekera was on Buddhism. This would have strengthened the Sinhala Buddhist nature of the organization.

Before long SWRD had successfully welded SMS into a monolith. SMS soon emerged as a political force and eventually, SMS superseded the Ceylon National Congress as an influential political organization. SMS provided a much-needed link between nationalism, the Buddhist resurgence, and the national heritage associated with Buddhism” said Wiswa.  

 N.M.Perera, while criticizing SMS for its communal bias, said that SMS had aroused an apathetic Buddhist public to full recognition of its rights. SWRD often held meetings in Anuradhapura, to draw public attention to the need to reawaken the ancient heritage, observed Wiswa. SMS held its meetings in rural centers.

The Sinhala Maha Sabha was not a political party in the modern sense of the word, said Wiswa Warnapala.  It was a loosely knit pressure group that revolved around one personality, SWRD. SMS played a pioneering role in the construction of a mass base in politics. This was more significant than the arrival of the Marxists, said Wiswa.  It was the beginning of the road to 1956, said Meegama.  Wiswa, on the other hand, observed that SWRD   saw the SMS only as an intermediate venture, ‘a passing role’, on the way to wider national unity.

SMS met with much opposition from vested interest, as well as non-Buddhists and non-Sinhalese. SMS was dubbed an extreme Sinhala organization. SWRD was called a chauvinist. Leftists were scornful. The emerging professional class also protested.

The Christian sector spearheaded a virulent campaign against the SMS. They said there was no need for a SMS. The CNC and the Mahajana sabha are both completely Sinhalese.  The SMS was ‘avowedly and unashamedly Sinhala, much more than the CNC and the Mahajana sabhas’. This segment was also very critical of SWRD. They did not like his rise in politics.  They feared and resented his influence.

SWRD was a member of the two-State Councils set up under British administration. SWRD was elected unopposed from Veyangoda to the first State Council of 1931.  He was elected unopposed to the second State Council of 1936, too. He was also seen and heard on important political platforms. He spoke at the memorable Galle Face rally in 1937, in support of Bracegirdle.

SWRD was Minister of Local Government in the second State Council 1936–47,  One of SWRD actions as Minister was to declare Anuradhapura a sacred city. V.C. Jayasuriya, then Commissioner of Local government, said that SWRD had made many improvements to local government when he was Minister. The Abeywardene report (1999) also said that SWRD in 1936 was instrumental in preparing the necessary legislation and took steps to deliver development through the local government system.’

SWRD had revoked the Local Government Ordinance of 1920 under which local boards were created.  This led to the modernization of the local government institutions. SWRD had introduced the Gam Sabha Ordinance no 60 of 1938. The enactment of this Ordinance was a major landmark in the modernization of Gam sabhas. 

The subject of Health was added to his Ministry later on. George E de Silva was Minister of Health earlier. SWRD and George set up a countrywide network of maternity hospitals, rural hospitals and provided the service of trained midwives, said Meegama. together with the eradication of malaria,  these measures of 1937-47,  helped to lower infant mortality and maternal mortality,  to what was a record low for a third world country, he said.

SWRD played an important role in the independence negotiations. This is not well known. In the 1940s, the issue of independence had advanced to the vital stage of drafting the conditions of independence. State Council needed persons who could interpret a document and spot hidden meanings and lapses.

The incisive mind of SWRD was particularly useful,” said Jennings. He saw our weak points with remarkable speed and expressed them with ruthless logic.  SWRD represented far more than DS the section of opinion which was suspicious of British intentions and therefore insisted on precautions that otherwise would not have been taken.”

Queens House also recognized SWRD. London had written to Colombo to say that the Secretary of State in London was not prepared to accept the ‘Ministers Draft’ but had read it with interest. SWRD who had called at Queens House on some other business had been shown the document, even before DS Senanayake saw it. 

  When the independence negotiations were coming to a close, DS Senanayake had asked Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to discuss with Bandaranaike as leader of the Sinhala Maha Sabha the draft agreements for independence. SWRD had viewed the draft with mixed feelings but refrained from objecting. The agreement was signed, making way for Ceylon to gain self-rule.

When D. S. Senanayake presented the Soulbury Constitution to the State Council, Bandaranaike seconded the motion stating that he does so as the Sinhala Maha Sabha was the largest party in the State Council. It was also decided that DS would move the vote for Dominion status and SWRD would second it as the best debater and the leader of the Sinhala Maha sabha.

With Ceylon heading for self-rule, D. S. Senanayake invited Bandaranaike to combine his Sinhala Maha Sabha with other smaller parties into the United National Party (UNP) which Senanayake was forming to contest for the 1947 election. DS had asked CWW Kannangara and A. Ratnayake to speak to SWRD, who agreed to join the UNP.

The very first United National Party was therefore composed of Ceylon National Congress, Sinhala Maha Sabha, Muslim League, and Moors Association. It was a coalition representing different shades of opinion from socialism to conservatism.  Opposing the UNP were LSSP, BLP, CP, and All Ceylon Tamil Congress.  The SMS was the most powerful group in the UNP, recalled Sirimavo Bandaranaike. SWRD and his SMS constituted a vital segment of the UNP, agreed Wiswa. 

A general election was held in 1947. UNP won but only had a weak majority.  The opposition said that the UNP   did not command the confidence of the country.  A certain group had wished to form an alternative government with SWRD at its head. They were going to build it ‘around the personality of SWRD’, said Meegama. This shows the importance of the personality of SWRD and SMS.

This group met to discuss the possibility of creating an alternative government consisting of SMS, the Left, and independent members, with SWRD as a leader. Nearly 50 MPs had been prepared to support SWRD, said Wiswa.  The talks were held at ‘Yamuna’, the home of H. Sri Nissanka, on the initiative of H Sri Nissanka, IMRA Iriyagolle, and Wilmot Perera,  who incidentally came from three different castes, Goigama, Karava, and Salagama. These discussions were known as the ‘Yamuna talks’. The exact dates are not available.

The Yamuna proposal became a near possibility but SWRD was reluctant said Wiswa. SWRD thought that DS should not be prevented from becoming the first Prime Minister of Ceylon. This led to the breakdown of the talks. If the strategy of the Yamuna talks had succeeded, SWRD would have become the first Prime Minister of Ceylon, said Wiswa. Others agreed. H. Sri Nissanka thought that SWRD, had, on his own, missed an ideal opportunity, to become the first Prime Minister of Ceylon.

SWRD, however, rejected the proposal. Instead, he joined the UNP. SWRD later explained that he thought the country needed a strong and stable government at the time of independence. He added that the UNP would not have come into being, if not for him. D.S. Senanayake, therefore, became Prime Minister. SWRD was elected the Leader of the House. This made Bandaranaike the most senior member of the cabinet, after the Prime Minister.

Vernon Mendis said, Even before he became Prime Minister SWRD gave a foretaste of his inborn statesmanship by his impressive role at the Asian Relations Conference held by Nehru in New Delhi in 1947,  where  SWRD presented his vision of Asia as a brotherhood of independent states.

Ceylon had sent a delegation of 20, for this Conference, led by SWRD. The calls for Asian Federation were endorsed by Solomon Bandaranaike of Ceylon and Aung San of Burma, reported one account.

SWRD wanted the portfolio of Agriculture and Land but was given Health and Local Government.  Dr. L.O Abeyratne, who was head of Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital, pleaded with SWRD to improve the hospital. So after much persuasion and difficulty, SWRD managed to get funds allocated in the Budget for a completely new hospital.

He also got, again with difficulty, funds for improving Ratnapura hospital, which often got flooded by the Kalu Ganga.  But Kotelawala who headed the Ministry of Transport and Works, including public works, was obstructing the Health Ministry building projects, so this project did not even start. The UNP wanted to keep SWRD down, recalled Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

SWRD had thought that the UNP could be turned into a truly national party,  under the direction of the SMS.  But his plan to convert the UNP was not successful. SWRD had hoped to influence the UNP from within.  Instead, he found his own position was being assailed from within. The leaders of the UNP were opposed to the SMS and its nationalist agenda. Opponents complained that SWRD had converted the All Ceylon Village Committee Conference to a political one.

SWRD was also unsuccessful when it came to policy. UNP was reluctant to implement the clauses in the manifesto, with regard to language, religion, and culture. SWRD failed to get legislation passed on these subjects.

SWRD made scathing reference to the UNP government. He said UNP was drifting to a one-party dictatorship. SWRD also complained that no important questions were ever placed before the Executive Committee of the UNP. 

SWRD opponents objected to both SWRD’s politics and his speeches. SWRD had complained to the All Ceylon Village Committees Conference that the UNP had failed to implement the proposal of the SMS. UNP working committee asked SWRD to send in an explanation, which he did, saying the UNP should implement the policy set out in its manifesto, not hold tamashas.

The SMS held its annual sessions at Madampe in 1951. Several resolutions approved by the branch organizations of the SMS were unanimously passed. These Madampe resolutions included the need for official language policy,  recognition of Buddhism, Sangha to be given a special place, a national industrial policy, the essential services to be in the hands of the state, implement recommendations of the Social Services Commission, development of Ayurveda,  improve public services, banning horse racing and a sound foreign policy. SMS also decided to urge the government to implement the policies promised in the 1947 election.

UNP working committee said that under the UNP constitution, SMS could not place these resolutions before the UNP. According to the UNP constitution, all constituent members were under the UNP and had to conform to its rules and ‘loyally accept all decisions of the UNP.’   Further, the Madampe resolutions went against the policy of the UNP and they could not be accepted.

SMS  sent a deputation to DS,  without any result. SMS pointed out that SMS has been sending resolutions to the working committee for the last four years.  Also, that UNP permitted resolutions to be presented at the annual conference.

The Madampe resolutions were the precipitating event.  SWRD was urged to leave the UNP. It was clear that DS did not intend to retire and make way for SWRD, though SWRD was considered the successor to DS Senanayake. 

In July 1951, SWRD left the government benches and crossed the floor of the House to the Opposition, followed by five others, including DA Rajapaksa. They expected more to follow but they did not. There were 18 SMS members in Parliament.

Crowds had gathered in front of Parliament to garland him and also at his house, recalled Sirimavo.  SWRD had taken the precaution of keeping the SMS going. He had also given leadership to the Swabhasha movement and the Buddhist resurgence of the time.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party was started on September 2nd, 1951 at Colombo Town Hall. The public was informed of the launch and invited to the Town Hall to participate at the launch. A crowd estimated at over 10,000 attended.  The crowd had overflowed onto the verandah and the lawn of the Town Hall. The meeting was attended by bhikkhus, also Buddhist nuns. Some bhikkhus were seen standing outside with the rest of the crowd.

The SLFP was built on the SMS, this is forgotten today. Sinhala Maha Sabha had a formidable base, a network of pressure groups of the villages. SWRD utilized this to form the SLFP said Wiswa. The SMS had taken care to maintain its political identity as a separate organization and had continued its activities while functioning as part of the UNP government. 

In addition, SWRD had built up strong links with the local government agencies.  He had spoken before the various local government Conferences, every year. This became very useful when the SLFP was formed. SWRD recruited political activists for his political party through the Gam Sabhas.  

The name Sri Lanka Freedom Party was given by H Sri Nissanka. It is important to note that the word ‘Sinhala’ has been left out. This aversion to the word ‘Sinhala’ should be noted.

SWRD was appointed President, with Badiuddin Mahmud and S. Thangarajah as joint secretaries. The Udarata Socialist Front led by TB Ilangaratne dissolved into the SLFP.

SWRD formed the SLFP for two reasons. To offer a political party in the middle ground between the UNP and the Marxist parties, and to provide a means of political expression for Sinhalese and Buddhist vested interests.

This brand new SLFP had to face a general election in May 1952. It made an attempt to form a common front with leftist parties but failed.   SLFP had no cash and no suitable candidates, but It did quite well, observed Meegama. SLFP won 9 of 48 seats   got 15.5% of the vote and came second. SWRD became the Leader of the Opposition. LSSP also got 9 seats out of 30. But SLFP secured more votes than LSSP.

SLFP came into existence to fulfill certain historical tasks, said Wiswa. It had identified certain interest groups, which taken together form a kind of social movement.  SLFP had to cater to the needs of these interest groups.  Unlike the other parties, SLFP knew how to make use of these interest groups.

SLFP  had the support of the rural peasantry and the rural elite. Grassroots support constituted an important source of recruitment.  The rural intelligentsia was the mainstay of the party for decades, Wiswa added.

SLFP throughout the period of its existence successfully maintained organization unity, comparable stability, and continuity as the major political formation of this country.

The SLFP has survived several crises. Powerful politicians were unable to oust the SLFP.  The party faced internal dissension but it never went into oblivion, due to its political and ideological resilience. SLFP is not a fragile organization. The Party was expected to remain loyal to its rural base. Rural forces never allowed the party to move in any other direction.

Sri Lanka  unlike other counties in Asia has not shown a dislike for party government.  The traditional two-party rivalry is a very powerful factor in the rural sector, and the party alignments are very sharp in those areas. Control of village politics has been a vital factor in political power and influence, observed Wiswa.

The main sources for this essay are W.A.Wiswa Warnapala. Sri Lanka Freedom Party/A Meegama Philip Gunawardena and the 1956 revolution in Sri Lanka ./ ‘H, Kumarasingham.(ed) The road to temple trees, Sir Ivor Jennings and the constitutional development of Ceylon: selected writings. (Continued)

One Response to “THE GENERAL ELECTION OF 1956 Part 1”

  1. samurai Says:

    The writer must be thanked for this excellent article of historical importance.
    However she has apparently missed the significant role the tireless campaigner for Buddhist rights, L.H. Mettananda and the Buddhist Commission played in leading the SLFP-led coalition to victory in the Parliamentary Election of 1956

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