Posted on November 5th, 2021


This series contains snippets of information on the Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka collected while researching into social issues. It is a by-product of my main research. The essays include bouquets as well as brickbats.


D.S. Senanayake (1884-1952) was the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.   DS’s father, Don Spater prospered by doing surface mining of plumbago and purchasing plumbago owned by others.  He lived in Mirigama. Mirigama was plumbago area.

D.S. Senanayake started as a clerk in the Surveyor General’s Department but left to manage the family properties. He was so successful in this that he was asked to manage other properties as well. He managed the Kahatagaha plumbago mines owned by the Attygalle family.  In 1914 he was a member of the commission that went to Madagascar to inquire into its graphite industry. The others in the Commission were Henry de Mel and T.G .Hunter, a mining expert.

 Don Spater sent his eldest son FR Senanayake to Cambridge and Middle Temple, London. FR   was expected on his return to   enter politics and provide leadership for the independence movement. But FR died in 1926 and   DS came into prominence, noted by KM de Silva.

D.S. Senanayake’s standing as a successful manager of plantation and plumbago mines was such that he was able to enter Parliament on that alone. There he established a reputation for sound common sense and shrewd judgment of men and politics, said KM de Silva. He had a fine memory. He never took a note but remembered everything, said HAJ Hulugalle.

The remarkable thing about DS Senanayake was that there was nothing remarkable about him, said DB Dhanapala.  DS does not figure in the book by Ramachandra Guha on makers of modern Asia, observed KM de Silva.

I do not think the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka can be dismissed in that manner. DS did not lead the independence movement,   certainly, he only functioned as its acceptable leader, but DS did not play a completely passive role.

When Soulbury commission visited Sri Lanka, DS made sure that the Commission saw a well functioning successful colony. He took them on a conducted tour balanced between agriculture and culture, to Peradeniya, Minipe, Kandy Dambulla Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Minneriya and Anuradhapura.  DS had also asked Sri Jayana to present a private performance of Udarata dance before Soulbury. I came across this when writing on dance in British Ceylon.

The Soulbury tours involved a great deal of organization, and the government officers and private citizens were warned ahead to provide a welcome.  DS wanted the Commission to see that the Ceylon government was efficient. This effort of DS was very successful. The Soulbury Commission made special mention of these tours in their report.

It was generally agreed in 1951 that UNP was held together by the personality of its popular leader, observed Nayani Melegoda. Under Mr. Senanayake, Ceylon was the most untroubled country in Asia, said Hulugalle.’

In December 1951 DS accompanied by son Dudley   had visited Australia. There is a YouTube clip on this which should be viewed by those who admire DS. He was interviewed on his arrival.  He looked confident and spoke in fluent, stylish English. He said that he had come to see the agricultural advances made in Australia.  He looked a highly westernized Asian Prime Minister, complete with shaggy moustache. This news clip would have been shown in cinemas around the world .It would have enhanced the image of Sri Lanka. The link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1nNZjbtXss

JR Jayewardene confirmed that DS was heavily pro-British. DS Senanayake had to consider the question of defence, said JR.  Since we could not afford to look after ourselves DS decided the best people to look after us were the British and he signed a defence pact with them. We would allow them to use our bases with our consent and we would help the British if they were attacked. DS was aware that the Englishmen were democratic at home and imbued with a sense of fairness. Once we got independence his distrust of them disappeared, said JR.

DS was pro-USA and against Communism. He gave harbour facilities to the US fleet on its way to the Korean War. DS permitted the Rubber –Rice pact with China, against America’s wishes.  But at the same time, was negotiating with America regarding selling our rubber in bulk to USA, said JR.

However DS supported Asian countries.  He refused to allow the Dutch to use Sri Lanka’s   airport for military action against Indonesia.  In 1951 he asked J R to speak on behalf of Japan at San Francisco.

From the very beginning UNP gained the trust of the minorities. Muslims, Moors and Christian were firm supporters, said KM de Silva. DS was on excellent terms with the President of the UNP, Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel.

 DS was imprisoned during the 1915 Sinhala Muslim riots. When he was released DS went all over the country in the company of  Abdur Rahman, the Nominated Muslim Member of the Legislative Council and brought about peace between the Muslim and Sinhalese communities, recalled Imthiaz Bakeer Markar in 2021. At large gatherings, I remember Mr. Senanayake saying how he went and lived in Muslim houses and had his meals with them.

DS included the Tamil Congress Leader G.G. Ponnambalam in his first post independence Cabinet. Kandiah Vaithiananthan, later Sir Kandiah Vaithiananthan, was his Permanent Secretary for Defence and external affairs. The Sinhalese complained that most of the new industries were located in Tamil speaking areas  such as Valaichchenai, Paranthan, and Kankesanturai. DS ignored the complaint.

The Secretary of the DS Senanayake Memorial Society wrote in 2018 to say that that DS was a great and exemplary leader with a deep commitment to Buddhism. When Dudley was born, DSS had offered 25 acres of land to Botale temple. DS had restored Ruvanveli,      rehabilitated the chaitya at   Mahiyangana and Kirivehera at Kataragama. He established the Salgala forest monastery. He had attended religious ceremonies in major temples. When he was sworn in as Prime Minister he had worshipped at Polwatte temple in Colombo 3.

However, it is well known that DS refused to consider requests to make Sinhala the state language and Buddhism the state religion. When Sinhala Maha Sabha brought before the UNP  the    issue of  making Buddhism  the state religion, DS had said, ‘it goes against the concept of Buddhism .‘ DS had also refused to set up a Buddhist Commission and the Buddhist had to do it themselves.

D.S. Senanayake became Minister for Agriculture in 1931. He held this position for 17 years. In 1935 he drew attention to the need to use the Mahaweli waters. This is forgotten today. My recall is that SA Wickremasinghe also drew attention to the Mahaweli waters at a talk given before the SLMA, (then Ceylon Branch of  BMA)  in the 1930s or 1940s.

In the 1930s, DS Senanayake started the process of restoring old abandoned tanks and irrigation systems in the Dry Zone and settling Sinhala farmers from the Kandyan areas as colonists in the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kantalai areas, said Ajit Kanagasunderam. 

This was the central plank of DS’s policy and was done to alleviate the acute land hunger among Kandyan peasantry whose ancestors had their lands confiscated for coffee and tea plantations. His objective was to create a nation of “self-sufficient, prosperous peasantry”. These irrigation, rehabilitation and settlement projects, although piece meal, were done at a very reasonable cost and can be considered a great success, concluded Kanagasunderam.

DS decided to shift landless families from the densely populated wet zone to the less populated Dry zone. DS thought it would be good to turn them into prosperous farmers of the Dry Zone.  The villagers were reluctant because there was Malaria in the Dry Zone.  

The State Council was critical of this policy of colonizing the Dry Zone while plenty of land was available in the wet zone. It was possible to bring into cultivation an extent of 10,000 to 15,000 acres of land in the south and western provinces at a lesser cost than the proposed new schemes. Land Commission also was not enthusiastic about Dry Zone colonization. Dry Zone had malaria, drought, scarcity of water, and wild animals.

But DS went ahead. DS wanted colonization of the Dry Zone. Minneriya was the first scheme. The plan was to develop 50,000 acres of land at Minneriya. They were given six acres of wet land and 2.5 acres of dry land. Money was given as an outright grant and was not to be recovered. The first group of land recipients under this scheme arrived at Minneriya on April 30, 1933. But as D.S. Senanayake himself admitted, some of them failed as cultivators.  They were probably not farmers to start with and did not possess the necessary skills. They were engaged in low income jobs like casual labor back home.  Some died of malaria.  

These colonists of the 1930s faced elephant attacks. Junglewallah recalled that Forest Department officials had been asked by DS to drive off the herds of elephants that were devastating the cultivated lands of the colonists in the newly opened out settlements in Minneriya and Hingurakgoda. The colonists were chiefly from Mr. Senanayake’s electorate, Mirigama, including his ancestral Botale, and there had been numerous instances where the elephants had destroyed huts and killed the colonists. The settlers were threatening to pull out and return home unless something was done to drive off the elephants.

The Minneriya project was able to withstand these problems.  Between 1936 and 1940, landless peasants as well as some middle class people of the Wet and Intermediate Zones were settled in Minneriya. From 1936 onwards, the government adopted a policy of paying money to new settlers to clear the land and build houses.

The Minneriya Colonization scheme became successful and a complex settlement pattern evolved of which 90 percent were agricultural settlements, said WI Siriweera. The Minneriya scheme was very successful, agreed Meegama. Minneriya was DS’s great achievement, said KM de Silva.

After Minneriya came Karaganda colonization scheme of 17,000 acres, fed by   Balaluwewa. This was followed by    Hingurakgoda, Bakamuna, Hunilowewa, Nachchaduwa  and Minipe colonization schemes,  climaxing with Gal Oya.

Minipe ela scheme started in 1934. When I left Minipe in 1945 Malaria was coming under control and there was a clamor for allotments, recalled M. Rajendra. Once malaria was controlled, there was a dramatic change. Applications exceeded availability. The size of allotment was reduced. The restoration of the ancient irrigation system was also promoted.

Gal Oya Project was started in 1949. This project was a shining example of what can be achieved – all objectives were met, it was financed from our own resources and managed by Sri Lankans and there was never any hint of scandal. It was a pity that at the end communal anti-Tamil riots marred the record but this did not diminish the achievement itself, said Kanagasunderam.

DS decided that it was important to preserve the peasantry. The preservation of the peasantry was to be the basis of the new land policy of the time. Decades later, this was heavily condemned. Critics called it, the unusual phenomenon of re-peasantisation.

 This new peasantry would be settled in the Dry Zone. There would be outright grants of land, leases under peasant proprietor scheme, and a new tenurial system where alienation by the grantee by sale or mortgage would be restricted and lands alienated would pass to a nominated heir.  Grantees could not subdivide the allotment, thus preventing fragmentation. Also they could not mortgage the land.  

DS’s objective was to create a nation of “self-sufficient, prosperous peasantry”. What he did however, was to create an impoverished   dependant peasantry. Philip Gunawardena, who became Minister of Agriculture in the 1956 government, was very critical of the colonization schemes of D.S Senanayake.  The independent peasant small holder as dreamt by DS Senanayake   does not exist, said Philip. The majority of the owner cultivators held less than one acre and that one acre could not provide a living for a family. Many small holders were wage laborers as well.

 In a recent Patha Dumbara survey 45 % neither owned paddy nor had anything to do with paddy production. The remaining 55 % also did not depend wholly on paddy cultivation.  A pauperized peasantry has been created. . This is the picture, of the much idolized ‘peasant proprietor,’ said Philip in 1957.  Many had become tenant farmers in these schemes.  There was indebtedness and wage laborers  , confirmed others.

Increasing the peasant ownership of small lots of paddy would not solve anything, said Philip. Paddy cannot be grown in small un-economic units. You cannot offer land divided up into five acres and three acres, as high land and low land  and ask the farmer to cultivate, because he cannot get a good return. Also the fertility of the land varies. It was not possible to apply modern techniques of farming to small holdings of 5 or 3 or 2 acre farms either.  You need large units.   The land had to be worked in large units to be productive, concluded Philip. 

DS was responsible for creating the Government Film Unit in 1948. World War II had ended and Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command (SEAC) was disbanding. Large stocks of military equipment went under the hammer but not the film section. DS took all the equipment and sent it to the Irrigation Department stores in Colombo.  It was a windfall. There were cameras, tripods and trolleys. Two professional Mitchell 35mm Cine cameras with full lenses in excellent condition also a 35 mm Gaumont Kalee and Walturdaw projectors. H.A.J. Hulugalle was made Director of Information, and was asked to start a Government Film Unit. The Mission Hut building of the RAF in Ratmalana became the GFU headquarters.

DS was also responsible for hiring the documentary film maker Guilio Petroni to head the Government Film Unit. Petroni had been recruited by three nationalist Sinhala business men who had set up a company  Vishvaranga Movietone Company. They had traveled to Italy in search of a documentary filmmaker in order to train young aspiring Ceylonese in the art of the film. Petroni arrived here with two others, Frederico Serra and Giogio Calabria to find that the company no longer existed. They were then recruited by DS Senanayake  to run the Government Film Unit.

DS interest in cinema did not end there. DS Senanayake wanted a film made   of his colonization schemes.  He wanted a film about a peasant family in the dry zone in the Polonnaruwa area. It was to be called ‘New Horizons’ and Petroni was to direct it using a full shooting crew.

The Prime Minister came to the GFU in Ratmalana to see the rushes. He did not like what he saw. He wrote to Hulugalle saying that certain changes should be made to the film New Horizons” under production in the GFU. This letter is reproduced in full in Hulugalle’s book on DS.

 DS gave an elaborate list of all the things he wanted shown in the film.  DS wanted the film to start with an abandoned tank shown together with dagobas. He suggested Padaviya tank. Then some good village scenes showing the clearing and planting of chena, by villagers. This should be depicted in greater detail, he said with reference to the rushes he saw. Preparation of both high and low land must be shown.  There should be a shot of watchers perched on the fork of a tree, driving away wild animals. There should be an elephant or two to show the difficulties famer has to undergo.

Then the film must move on to the irrigation scheme. A map of the whole area should be given with contours showing how the scheme would look when  completed. Then the actual construction work done by the Irrigation Department should be shown. This could be filmed at Hurulu. The complete anicut must be shown, take Minipe also Elahera. Then clearing of jungle must be shown. First the old method where the undergrowth is cleared by hand the trees felled and stumps taken out by hand. Then the new method at Gal Oya where it is done by bulldozers and heavy drag chains.

DS Senanayake wanted a house belonging to a colonist shown together  with the plan of the house.. They must show the man being given the keys to the house as well as plants to be grown on high land, such as coconut, jak, lime, mangoes, and oranges. Then he  must be taken to the cattle pool and advised that he could purchase two head of cattle, cow and bull. He must be told, better get  a cow for milking purposes and share the bull for cultivation with another bull. The film must show the cattle being purchased on credit card and repayment made on installments.   The film must also show the medical services.

 The last scene should not be a rest house scene. Village people do not dine that way said DS. Instead have a visitor come to the colony, to   meet a colonist who is now very prosperous.  The visitor must be shown eating well at a table piled with rice, curries, fruits etc. the film must end with the visitor asking how he too can become a colonist. Hulugalle had doubts as to whether all this could be crammed into one film and whether the director would agree. (Continued)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2022 LankaWeb.com. All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress