The toppling of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike govt. in 1964 | Daily News


Lessons of history:

The toppling of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike govt. in 1964

Sirimavo Bandaranaike served as Prime Minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka three times, the first from 1960 to 1965, earning her the designation of the first female head of government in the modern world.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike served as Prime Minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka three times, the first from 1960 to 1965, earning her the designation of the first female head of government in the modern world.

Sirima Bandaranaike was sworn in as the world’s first woman Prime Minister in July 1960, after the SLFP led by her had won 75 seats out of 151 elected. Being appointed a senator she formed a workable majority with six appointed MPs and formed a government. She received the support of a few independents too. The slim majority in Parliament over the times became quite delicate. In 1940, 50s and 60s the traditional Marxist parties, LSSP, CP and Philip’s VLSSP held a combined strength of 20-25 parliamentary seats. (The March 1960 General Election returned 23 Marxist in a legislation of 151; an equivalent to 34 in today’s parliament). TB Illangaratne, former trade unionist and leader of the leftist faction in the SLFP tried to convince the lady with the idea of opening talks with strong Left of the day for a coalition, a remedial move to enhance the strength, which was not considered due to pressure from the right wing led by Felix, CP de Silva etc.

Left unity and Trade Union action

The three main Marxist parties separated on ideological differences for one and a half decades decided to face future elections under one single banner: they signed a historic pact forming a “United Left Front” in 1963. The Marxists alliance, with a mass working class backing held their red May Day at Galle Face green, where it was resolved to campaign for agitations based on ‘21 demands’, a slogan backed by their trade union arm which controlled 82% of island’s work force. Sirimavo’s government feared the prospect of facing strike action. In the meantime, the left wing once again pressed Bandaranaike to hold talks with Dr. N. M. Perera on forming a coalition government, while the right wing on this occasion chose to remain silent realizing the threatening situation that was developing in the political scene.

Brokered by left leaning Minister Illangaratne, the preliminary round of talks materialized, and was followed by another round of high level talks with Sirimavo herself presiding. Only Merril Fernando and Edmund Samarakkody, two staunch Marxists of LSSP disagreeing on principles, the rest of ten MPs plus the Communist Party with four seats joined the coalition. Philip Gunawardene’s MEP, with bitter experience, opposed any coalition with SLFP and decided to discard the short-lived ULF. NM faction accepted three portfolios including the Finance in the United Front coalition set up on June 11, 1964.

Press Take-over Bill

The powerful print media organisation led by DR Wijewardene had a healthy market share with its well-established national newspapers published in all three languages. All their newspapers were highly critical of the government. Times of Ceylon, the only competitor was in financial difficulties. SLBC was the only electronic media in the country. The SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition was planning a take over the group for a long time. They boosted their anti-government sentiments and opinions after the formation of the coalition, especially under Esmond Wickremasinghe, (father of Ranil) the former Marxist who was a member of LSSP politburo before joining the Associate Newspapers as its de facto boss. (after father-in-law, D. R. Wijewardene’s retirement due to ill health, Esmond handled the Editorial direction at Lake House newspapers.

Nationalizing the Lake House became the talk of the town. The government appointed a press commission headed by former SC Justice K. D. de Silva to examine the state of newspapers. The coalition partner, LSSP took over the task of drafting legislation to this effect. J. R. Jayewardene, the shrewd political tactician planned to counteract the bill in the house by getting two members, one from opposition (PM Mahinda’s cousin, Lakshman Rajapaksa and other, one Marrikkar, a UNPer) to ‘sponsor’ the Bill with the idea of delaying the process. JR connived with the SLFP Speaker, Hugh Fernando to uphold his objection, and when the Bill came up for second reading— as pre-planned he raised objections, even quoted a Westminster standing order.

The government introduced a fresh Bill. Two Bills with similar objectives were in contravention of norms. The opposition Bill (JR sponsored) and one presented by Government stood in the order paper. Objections raised by opposition pushed the government to other alternatives, it prorogued the parliament; the pending Bills got automatically lapsed.

Dr. N. M. Perera, an authority on parliamentary practice vehemently criticised the Speaker’s action, he wanted a No Confidence motion moved against the Hugh Fernando. Whenever leftist Parliamentarians joined with SLFP they faced the wrath of Speakers. In Sirimavo’s 1970/77 rule, Stanley Tillakaratne, the former Marxist himself clashed with two leading LSSPers. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva once warned the chair saying that they can remove the Speaker for no reason.

The Throne Speech

Meanwhile, JR and Esmond (JR and EW’s wife were cousins) embarked on a witty manoeuvre of persuading a few right wing SLFPers to cross over and vote against the Throne Speech when the new session began. C. P. de Silva is a politician who used up all his life to serve the farmers of Polonnaruwa while remaining and abstaining from advertising himself like any other politician. The former civil servant, and mathematician became famous for his placid and refined qualities, however, Sirimavo’s caste conscious politics cost her power.

Accordingly on December 3, 1964, in a surprise move the SLFP’s next in line for leadership, CP de Silva crossed over to the Opposition along with another 13 members that included Mahanama Samaraweera, father of Mangala. (history repeating itself a Polonnaruwa man, after 50 years stabbed his leader from behind in 2014) As it was later revealed ‘Santhosams’ motivated a few of the SLFPers. D. A. Rajapaksa, Deputy Speaker was in Chair when the coalition’s Throne Speech was defeated by one vote in Parliament, compelling dissolution of Parliament and requiring fresh polls, which was held in March 1965.

Proving that there is a ‘silver lining in every dark cloud’ CP led crossover act saved press freedom. C. P. de Silva’s role on December 3, 65 years ago, was it a courageous move by the veteran, or a treacherous act? History hasn’t answered yet.

The Throne Speech-Westminster style

The Monarch read out an address that was prepared for him/her by the government. The speech will be delivered by monarch from a throne in parliament’s (House of Lords) debating chamber covered with gold, and not in the House of Commons. This is a confirmation of chamber’s independence from the monarchy. Symbolising this separation, an age old ritual involving the monarch’s representative, called ‘Black Rod’, will lock the doors to the commons before they can enter. (sounds silly). The Monarch travels from Buckingham Palace in a procession to Westminster in a carriage. The wording of the motion is on thanking the Monarch for the speech that MPs will actually vote. In reality, they are voting on the content of the address.

This is done to show that the government has a working majority. Therefore the speech is put to a vote in the House of Commons following a debate and which the government must win and prove that it has a legitimate right to govern. In UK there have been three occasions when a government lost throne speech vote. The first instance was in January 1886, second six years later in 1892 and lastly in 1923.

Should we blindly follow their rituals, conventions, traditions, or rather develop our own set of rules governing parliamentary procedure and practice, so that a hit and run Minister can be arrested by a cop like any ordinary citizen.

The opposition with their majority can easily defeat the Speech when it goes for voting, but, UNP will never bring the Government down at this stage and face an immediate election, which is detrimental to their interests.

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