S W R D Bandaranaike, the Outstanding Politician in Sri Lanka.
S W R D Bandaranaike, the Outstanding Politician in Sri Lanka. He is known as by the Sri Lankan people as The Silver Bell Of Asia.

Sri Lanka is a marvelous island with a rich history. However, it has passed several significant milestones in its journey thus far. Besides, there was a time in Sri Lankan history when the people called the government “Ape Anduwa”, which meant ‘Our government’. That age was brought upon by our main character today, who is none other than S W R D Bandaranaike. His political advancement caused a revolution in Ceylon’s history and set the direction for political and social changes in Sri Lanka for the decades to come.  Hence, we thought that S W R D Bandaranaike is an outstanding Sri Lankan politician that we should know about. Continue reading, and you will get to know many things about this eminent personality, as well as Sri Lankan politics, that you never knew before!

Who is S W R D Bandaranaike? 

S W R D Bandaranaike was the 4th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and a significant political leader. He served as the prime minister from 1956 to 1959 until his assassination took place in 1959. His regime was known as the age of the common man and Bandaranaike was the popular people’s prime minister. Moreover, he was the founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which is Sri Lanka’s one of the leading political parties even today. Being a profound orator, he was famous as the “Silver Bell of Asia”.

S W R D Bandaranaike laid the foundation for the transformation of post-colonial Ceylon into an independent country. While he is respected by the majority, it is an undeniable fact that his actions brought about clashes among the Sinhala and Tamil communities on the island. You will get to know more about these controversies as you continue reading this article.

Early Life and Education

Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was born on the 8th January 1899 in Colombo. His father, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike held an important role in colonial Ceylon. Similarly, his family had close ties with the British government. Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike named his only son after the then British governor in Sri Lanka, West Ridgeway. Governor West Ridgeway was S W R D Bandaranaike’s godfather.

S W R D Bandaranaike was home tutored for a long time before he attended St. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia. There, he passed the Cambridge Senior Exam with distinct passes in English, Latin, Greek, and French. Then he entered Oxford University where he majored in Philosophy, Law, and Econ. Being a bright student, he graduated the college with honors and swore as a barrister at the inner temple. However, during his college days, he was the secretary of the Oxford Union and the president of Majlis Society, a university debating society. Later, he came back to Sri Lanka in 1925 and took oaths as an advocate in the Supreme Court of Ceylon.

The Political Career of S W R D Bandaranaike

S W R D Bandaranaike started his political career as a member of the municipal council and went on to become the prime minister of the country. Even though he was an aristocrat he worked hard to eliminate the discrimination based on social caste. In addition, he created Sri Lanka for all its people, not just the wealthy and privileged classes. However, his pro-Sinhala nationalistic moves laid the first stone of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Early Political Career

After the successful completion of his higher education at Oxford University, S W R D Bandaranaike came back to Sri Lanka with a keen interest in politics. As soon as arrived in the country, he became the secretary of the Ceylon National Congress in 1926. Similarly, he contested for the Colombo Municipal Council election from Maradana Ward in the same year. His opponent was A. E. Goonasinghe from the Ceylon Labour party.

Many predicted that an aristocrat like Bandaranaike wouldn’t be able to win in an area where mostly poor laborers lived. However, he took his election campaign to houses of the poorest of the poor and won the hearts of the people by the time the election was looming. Furthermore, he proposed a realistic plan to develop the area, which further increased his popularity. Finally, he won the election defeating A. E. Goonasinghe, by 615 more votes.

Bandaranaike’s Role at the State Council 

The Donoughmore commission granted universal suffrage to Sri Lanka. The State Council of Ceylon was introduced as the first legislative body, and its members were selected through an election. Thus, S W R D Bandaranaike contested for this election in 1931 from Veyangoda. However, he obtained an unopposed victory. Furthermore, he played an active role in the state council, he said, for Sri Lanka to receive independence, 3 state officers should be expelled from the state council. In addition, he suggested that the salary of the speaker of the state council be reduced from 1800 rupees to one rupee.

Role at Sinhala Maha Sabha

Bandaranaike formed Sinhala Maha Sabhawa in 1934 intending to unify the divided Sinhalese, developing their love for the nation, and strengthening the struggle for independence. Soon many people took interest and gathered around the Sinhala Maha Sabha. Later, in 1936, S W R D Bandaranaike was re-elected to the second state council from Veyangoda and he became the Minister of local administration. In addition, he was the chairman of the executive committee on local administration. 

In 1947, the Soulbury commission granted self-rule to Sri Lanka under dominion status. D. S. Senanayake invited Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Maha Sabha to join the United National Party and contest in the 1947 General election. Hence, S W R D Bandaranaike accepted the invitation and officially dissolved the Sinhala Maha Sabha.

Sinhala Maha Sabha joining the United National Party which was under D. S. Senanayake led to controversy among the elites, but Bandaranaike claimed that it was in the best interests of national independence. Thus, this strong wish of him paves the way to forming a united party under the reforms.

Bandaranaike as the First Cabinet Minister of Health and Local Government

For the first general election in 1947, S W R D Bandaranaike contested from Attanagalla seat against C. Gunasekara. Bandaranaike won the election by 26854 more votes. Accordingly, he became a part of the first cabinet. Furthermore, prime minister D. S. Senanayake appointed him as the minister of health and local government. In addition, Bandaranaike was the leader of the house, which gave him powers second only to the prime minister.

At the opening of parliament on the 4th of February 1948, Bandaranaike delivered the vote of thanks as the leader of the house. Being a profound orator, he was the first people’s representative to deliver a speech in the Sinhala language in the parliament.  

During his tenure as the minister of health, he worked to uplift Ayurvedic medicine and expanded the healthcare system in Sri Lanka to rural areas. In the same way, he was the chief delegate from Sri Lanka in the Third World Health Assembly in 1950.  

Crossover and the Formation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party

S W R D Bandaranaike came to realize that the United National Party under D. S. Senanayake was not performing the way Sinhala Maha Sabha expected it would. Thus, he presented a set of proposals discussed in the Sinhala Maha Sabha conference and the prime minister refused to consent to them. As a result, Bandaranaike joined the opposition in 1951.

Following his lead, D. A. Rajapakse, A. P. Jayasuriya, Jayaweera Kuruppu, D. S. Gunasekara, and George R. de Silva too resigned from the government and joined the opposition. On 2nd September 1951, S W R D Bandaranaike formed the “Sri Lanka Freedom Party” with the assistance of some of his close associates in the Sinhala Maha Sabha. Bandaranaike became the leader as well as the president of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

Soon after, prime minister D. S. Senanayake died in an accident. Therefore, the Governor-general appointed D. S. Senanayake’s son, Dudley Senanayake as prime minister of Sri Lanka. 

S W R D Bandaranaike as the Leader of the Opposition 

Within a few months of the formation of the new party, the General election of 1952 took place. Bandaranaike contested from his usual seat, Attanagalle, and won. Accordingly, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party could obtain nine seats in total. In the same way, Lanka Sama Samaja Pakshaya obtained 9 seats. Together they formed the opposition and S W R D Bandaranaike became the leader of the opposition.

However, people started to lose interest in the government and the rule of the United National Party as they cut down on subsidies for poor people. Prime minister Dudley Senanayake stepped down owing to the Hartal strike of 1953. Then, Sir John Kothalawala became the acting prime minister. Accordingly, people’s dislike towards the government increased because of their negligence of rural areas and poor economic conditions.

Pancha Maha Balawegaya

Bandaranaike saw the negligence of rural areas and poor economic conditions by the prevailing United National Party government as an opportunity. Thus, he approached the rural masses. Bandaranaike utilized the help of Buddhist Bhikkus to carry his message to the rural areas. In the same way, he formed Pancha Maha Balawegaya with Ayurveda doctors, clergymen, farmers, teachers, and workers. Accordingly, Bandaranaike could address the pain points and sentiments of the Sinhalese masses who had been deprived of their country and culture for centuries. Thus, he appeared as the savior of Sinhala Buddhist culture which scored him the support of the powerful Bhikkus at that time.

Mahajana Eksath Peramuna

S W R D Bandaranaike formed Mahajana Eksath Peramuna combining the Sri Lanka Freedom Party with four other parties and a few individuals to compete in the 1956 election. He entered a non-contest treaty with Lanka Sama Samaja Pakshaya and Sri Lanka Communist Party.

One of the main topics discussed on Mahajana Eksath Peramuna canvassing platforms was the issue of the official language of the State. Bandaranaike pledged to make Sinhalese the official language of the state under his government. Even when Sri Lanka was free from British rule, the official language of the country was English, which gave a low place in the society for native language teachers and elites. As a result, crowds of common people got together with Mahajana Eksath Peramuna.

S W R D Bandaranaike Becoming the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

The 1956 general election took place with the competitive participation of three competitors along with a few other independents. S W R D Bandaranaike of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, N. M. Perera of Lanka Sama Samaja Party and Sir John Kotelawala of United National Party had a significant competition to gain the chair of prime minister in Sri Lanka. However, Bandaranaike of Mahajana Eksath Peramuna could score a sweeping victory with 51 seats in the general election of 1956 securing more than two-thirds of seats in the parliament. N. M. Perera was able to secure only 14 seats while Sir John Kotelawala could score only 8 seats. Accordingly, S W R D Bandaranaike became the 4th prime minister of Sri Lanka. He granted the support of the senior members of the parties that formed the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna to form his new cabinet. 

National Policy

One of the most notable actions the Bandaranaike government took was the passing of the “Sinhala Only act”. Through the Sinhala only act, the government accepted the Sinhala language as the sole official language of the state even when one-fourth of the inhabitants of the island spoke only Tamil. This incident leads the way for the “anti-Sri movement” and “pro-Sri movement”. As a result, ethnic clashes took place in Sri Lanka in 1956.

Furthermore, Bandaranaike suspended British and native honors. He abolished the capital punishment of giving the death penalty in Sri Lanka as of May 1959.

Economic Policy

The Bandaranaike government dawned an “Age of the Common Man” in Sri Lanka. Before his time, only a certain class in society enjoyed privileges. Bandaranaike nationalized bus companies, Colombo harbor, and plantations through the “Janasathu Movement”. However, after his death his wife, who became the first female prime minister of Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike continued with his socialist movements.

Bandaranaike established the “Employees’ Provident Fund” and declared May Day a public holiday. In addition, he reformed labor laws and increased the wages of workers.

Furthermore, Bandaranaike implemented the Paddy Land act through which peasants came to be owners of the lands they’ve been cultivating for a long time. However, the paddy land act led to distress among the land-owning class.

Foreign Policy

A notable act by S W R D Bandaranaike is cutting the remaining ties with Britain by removing British naval forces from Sri Lanka. He followed a non-alignment policy in foreign affairs but he made strong ties with socialist and communist countries like China and the Soviet Union. In the same way, Bandaranaike reinforced ties with Arab and India. In the Suez crisis of 1956, he sided with Egypt which scored him the goodwill of the Arabs.

Besides, Bandaranaike’s name was written in history as the first Sri Lankan leader to address the United Nations general assembly.

Communal Tension and Ethnic Clashes

The nationalistic policies that helped Bandaranaike come to power, set the stage for the first ethnic clashes of the island. In fact, the Sinhala Only Act displeased the Tamils.

Bandaranaike went on to sign the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact in 1957 between himself and the Federal Party leader. However, a displeased majority forced Bandaranaike to tear the pact off in 1958.

The desertion of the pact led to tension between the two communities and Sinhalese mobs started anti-Tamil riots in Colombo. Therefore, in response to that, Tamil mobs initiated anti-Sinhala riots in Batticaloa. Bandaranaike was irresolute in solving the crisis. It was only six days after the riots that the government declared an emergency with the intervention of Governor-General Oliver Goonatilake. Undoubtedly, the riots had cost the lives of nearly 150 Tamils. However, the tragedy of the ethnic clashes continued in the decades after, which marked terrorism and civil war in the country’s history.

Cabinet Crisis

Bandaranaike formed the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna with a set of leftist and rightist parties. This led to a separation of the government in the later years. Leftist leaders like Philip Gunawardena had to leave their positions in the cabinet, thus Bandaranaike formed a new cabinet in June of 1959.

The Assassination

Prime minister S W R D Bandaranaike was shot in his home in Rosemead place, Colombo on the 25th of September 1959 by a clergyman called Talduwe Somarama. He died in Colombo general hospital the day after. The history of Sri Lanka is stained by many political assassinations, including that of a leader of the state. However, the assassination of Bandaranaike is the first-ever political assassination in independent Sri Lanka.

The conspiracy to kill the prime minister was a plot by Mapitigama Buddharakkhitha Thero and his associate H. P. Jayawardene. Mapitigama Buddarakkitha was the chief clergy of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya at that time. He and the prime minister had a dispute about a shipping contract and a sugar factory permit. Moreover, Buddharakkhitha Thero had an infamous affair with the health minister of Bandaranaike’s cabinet, Vimala Wijewwardene. The Prime minister’s snide remarks about this affair also were a reason for Buddharakkitha Thero to plan the conspiracy to kill the prime minister. Finally, he picked Talduwe Somarama, who was a lecturer at the Government Ayurveda College in Borella to carry out the mission.

Talduwe Somarama went to meet the prime minister on that fateful Friday when the prime minister was attending his routinary public meetings. He approached the prime minister saying he had something to discuss at the Ayurveda College. Then, he fired the revolver at the prime minister in this instance. Talduwe Somarama was arrested at that instant while the prime minister was taken to the hospital to receive treatments. Despite the efforts of Ceylon’s most skillful surgeons, he passed away the day after.  

Family Life of S W R D Bandaranaike

Bandaranaike concocted his ties with Kandyan Radala through his marriage to Sirima Ratwatte, who was the daughter of Barnes Ratwatte Rate Mahattaya. Their wedding which was held on the 3rd of October 1940 came to be known as “the Wedding of the Century”. They lived in Wentworth Place in Colombo until they moved to Tintagel house, Rosemead Place, Colombo 07. However, it was the house where Bandaranaike was shot to death.

A few months after the death of Bandaranaike, her beloved wife Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike joined the active politics of Sri Lanka. She went on to become the first female prime minister in the world when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party won the 1960 July elections.

Bandaranaike had three children, Sunethra Bandaranaike, the eldest. She is a popular Sri Lankan philanthropist and a socialite. Their second daughter, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was the executive president of Sri Lanka from 1994 until 2005. The youngest of the family and the only son was Anura Bandaranaike. He was the leader of the opposition during J. R. Jayewardene’s government, the speaker of the parliament (2000 to 2001), and a minister in addition.  

Legacy of S W R D Bandaranaike

Among the many legacies Bandaranaike had left behind, a Sri Lanka of the common man is the most prominent. Additionally, he had left the following legacies for the nation, in memory of him. 

1. Bandaranaike Samadhi

The body of the late prime minister S W R D Bandaranaike is kept in the Bandaranaike Samadhi, near the Horagolla Walauwa in Attanagalla. In the same way, the first lady prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and their son Anura Bandaranaike rest in the Bandaranaike Samadhi.

2. Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall 

Better known as BMICH, it is a gift from the People’s Republic of China in the memory of the late prime minister S W R D Bandaranaike. The Chinese built the BMICH from 1970 to 1973. Later, in 1998, China gifted Sirimavo Bandaranaike Memorial Exhibition Centre and extended the facilities. Today, S W R D Bandaranaike National Memorial Foundation manages the BMICH. 

3. Bandaranaike International Airport 

Bandaranaike International Airport, which is locally known as Katunayake airport, was opened in 1967. It was named in honor of late prime minister S W R D Bandaranaike. Located in a suburb of Negombo, it serves as the main international airport in Sri Lanka for 50 years. 

The Bottom Line

Of course, the general public may have different opinions about this significant Sri Lankan political figure. Still, we cannot ignore the fact that he was a revolutionary man who tried his best in a way of his own to create a unique identity for this beautiful country. In an era as such, the way he approached the people, and the methods he used to create his political identity are indeed noteworthy. Besides, the family he built with his wife, which finally produced three executive presidents to this motherland is obviously highlighting. Owing to all these reasons, the name of S W R D Bandaranaike still lives in this country, even after several decades of his assassination. Thus, he can be considered an outstanding figure in Sri Lankan politics!