Dudley with farmers

Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake has long been endeared in Sri Lankans’ hearts as an upright democrat who always cherished the ideal of a just society in which all live in harmony. Senanayake who entered Parliament in 1936 at the age of 25, became the Agriculture Minister in the Government of his father Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake in 1948. Also known as ‘The reluctant politician,’ he then became the youngest PM in the Commonwealth in 1952 following the untimely demise of his father. He temporarily retired from politics in 1953 citing ill health, but marked his re-entry in 1957 at the request of his people and the Party, and became Prime Minister once again for a brief period in 1960. He held the post of Opposition Leader from 1960-1965 and was elected Prime Minister again in 1965 to serve the nation till 1970 thus becoming the first leader to serve his full term since Independence.

Whether he held office or in the Opposition he led a life dedicated to the people. In 1973 when he breathed his last, he was a mere MP, but the massive crowd that flocked to Colombo to pay respect to him, bore testimony to the indelible imprint Senanayake had left in the people’s hearts.

Rukman Senanayake 
Picture by Sarath Pieris

Senanayake will be remembered for his great contribution to agriculture in the country and for the unique role he played to uplift the status of the farmer.

Above all, he had always been viewed as a pragmatic politician, trustworthy and unbiased in the fullest sense of word, determined and a straight forward statesman par-excellence. He was also hailed for his firm commitment to Good Governance and Fair Play. The high quality political speeches of the Cambridge scholar are remembered to this day. Whenever Senanayake rose to his feet in Parliament everybody hoped for a lively political discourse as he was known for his erudite and scholarly deliveries.

A genial giant in Sri Lankan politics, Senanayake launched the “Green Revolution,” further reviving the domestic agriculture promotion move initiated by his father, when he became the Prime Minister for the fourth time in 1965 having defeated the United Front led by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, following the crossover in 1964 by another political colossus C.P. De Silva to the opposition with a group of Parliamentarians. However he suffered a setback in 1970 to be a more popular leader following the lapse of few years of the Bandaranaike administration but alas his life span was shorter and his demise brought about a spontaneous reaction countrywide when mourners flocked in thousands to pay respects to the leader.

His legacy no doubt lifted a nation and inspired leaders who followed.

Forty two years after the demise of Dudley Senanayake, his nephew, former Minister and Member of Parliament Rukman Senanayake relives the memory of his uncle in an interview with the Daily News.

The story of Sri Lanka is that of her great sons and daughters and their legacies have lifted the nation to unparalleled heights. New chapters are being written every day, but as the old saying goes old remains gold. Their public images never fade with time, and their memory shines brighter with each passing day. Their private joys and sorrows; quiet moments and untold stories are however buried along with them, but not quite so always, as long as those who have been intimate with them, are still among us to share those accounts with us.

PM Dudley Senanayake with UN Secretary General U.Thant in 1967

Nearly forty two years after the demise of Dudley Senanayake, his nephew and his closest family member, Rukman Senanayake remembers his uncle as “Simple and humble.” So significant had been his struggle to uphold democracy, he would have been a “giant’’ in any age, he observed.

“From my small age he was involved in politics. I knew him as a public person ever since I started living here (Woodlands) from the age of 10 with my parents,” added Senanayake who saw his uncle as “a life like no other, and a legendary figure far beyond comparison.”

In 1953, Dudley Senanayake resigned from power citing ill health, but it is still largely believed that the true cause of his resignation was to grieve the unnecessary deaths caused by Hartal. As many would agree one of the greatest qualities he possessed was that he knew when to ‘step down.’ All leaders in history who never showed greed for power, but genuine love to the people had forged a lasting legacy not merely because they ruled the country, but largely for their hearts full of grace.

Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake walking through the crowd to address a meeting during the election campaign in 1970.

As Senanayake reminisced Dudley too was such a pragmatic politician who had a lot of feeling for the people. “He was guided by his heart all the time and that was the major feature I noticed in him. That's probably why he was loved by his people. His kindness for people irrespective of their political background was exemplary.” Though born with a silver spoon in his mouth he was no stranger to the heart beat of the poor.

Early days

Dudley Senanayake was born on June 19, 1911. In 1935, he returned to Sri Lanka after completing his higher studies at the University of Cambridge, but politics had never been his cup of tea.

During his tour of India with Indian PM Indira Gandhi and Minister of Finance, India Morarji Desai

“However in 1936 after much persuasion by his family members, he had reluctantly agreed to enter politics. Dudley contested the Dedigama electorate and became the youngest member of the second State Council,” Senanayake recalled.

One of the most notable features of his uncle, according to Senanayake was his ability to give equal hearing to everybody. He was not only his uncle, but also his hero and the “unmatchable exemplary figure” in his life who had taught him the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study rationally not only the views who you agree with but also those you oppose.

Dudley Senanayake’s respect for democracy was aptly evident in the manner he raised his voice to safeguard two MPs (Dr. N M Perera and Philip Gunawardena) even though they represented an opposing political party when they were incarcerated by the then Colonial Government for opposing the war effort during the World War II.

“Throughout his long political career, Dudley Senanayake stayed with the principle of fairness, and always defended friend and foe alike. He was well known for this outstanding quality,” Senanayake recalled.

Governor General Soulbury with Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake leaving for London for the Queen's Coronation

Back in the '60s, Senanayake used to go to Parliament to listen to his uncle’s speeches and reminisced how he continued to fight for what he thought was right.

“He had a clear vision for the country, but always tolerated and respected the views of others.”

When asked whether his uncle ever lost his control during Parliament debates or otherwise, Senanayake said Dudley was not quick tempered as such, “but there were instances where he lost his temper like in Parliament or in their arguments. He just flared up and calmed down immediately.”

Dudley Senanayake

Proud son

His enormous ability to stand his ground however much powerful the Opposition views were, was aptly witnessed when he openly opined that Ceylon should not be a party in World War II since the British were only an occupying force here, even at a time when his own father D. S. Senanayake as the leader of the House had thrown his entire weight behind the British Government in the execution of the war.

However, he had been perpetually disturbed by the thought that it was not proper to be on the Opposition side of his father and had even wanted to give up his political career solely on this ground. His father had however advised him to stay true to his political ideology and to carry on with his political career as usual.

Senanayake noted that unlike D. S. Senanayake who opted for negotiated solutions with the then Colonial government, Dudley Senanayake had been a vehement critic of the British in his youthful days.

“As a young politician he had vehemently opposed the British Government. In fact he had been one of the key people to raise his voice against the Colonial rule."

However, later he chose the path his father followed when handling the British by adhering to less aggressive and more negotiated terms.

Family ties

 Young Dudley

Despite his constant struggle to maintain democracy, Dudley Senanayake had always been known for his quiet disposition.

“Most of the time he kept aloof from the family members, he was a very quiet person, but his qualities are so noble that in our current straits, we have no one to match him.” "The Reluctant Prime Minister", he never strove "for effect or image" and many would describe him as a person "‘basically shy and self-effacing by nature.”

However, Senanayake reminisced that his uncle had been an active sportsman in his school days and had been a model student while at S.Thomas'.

“He received the Victoria Gold medal for the best all-round student. He was also appointed the Head Prefect of the College and won School Colours for cricket and boxing”

Senanayake noted that his uncle’s major interest was in cricket and at Cambridge too he had played cricket for his College Corpus Christi. “He had even won Cambridge Blue for boxing.”

Life with him

Senanayake reminisced how his uncle reared two Dachshunds as pets. When asked whether the Prime Minister who was also known as Bath Dun Piya for his contribution to local agriculture, had any particular favourite dish, Senanayake said that his uncle loved all foods, especially string hoppers and biriyani. “His capacity for eating was enormous," he added with a smile.

Taking a stroll down memory lane he recalled how his uncle's entire life was dedicated to his people. The engine that drove him was his love for the people. “He used to travel once a week to his electorate Dedigama, but spent most of the time here [Woodlands.] The house was open to the public and the people used to come every morning to see him. So the first thing he used to do was to meet people. Even when he was PM he used to meet the people first. The gates were always open and even when he was the PM, there were no restrictions whatsoever,” he noted.

Senanayake has been constantly cited as Dudley Senanayake's favourite nephew, however when inquired what it was like to be the favourite nephew of a dedicated politician par excellence he responded with good humour: “I don’t know, but they say so!’’

Dudley with his father PM D.S.Senanayake

“Probably I was close to him than he was close to me, he usually preferred to keep aloof from everybody. That was his nature”.

However, his uncle had loaded him with precious gifts which themselves bore testimony to his great love for the nephew and the most cherished of all were cameras.

“My uncle was a nature photographer and he was the one who developed the interest in photography in me as well,” Senanayake added pointing at the framed nature photographs on the wall.

However, today no valued gift he received from his uncle is in his possession. One of the last wishes of Dudley Senanayake was that none of his belongings should be kept back after his demise. As per his uncle’s last wish all his belongings, cameras, almirahs, cars and simply everything had been distributed among his people, and even those gifts had been given away to the needy along with his uncle’s possessions.

Senanayake recalled how he used to follow his uncle in his car whenever he went outstation to address public meetings. “I had no intention of getting into politics, but followed him for the sheer interest of being with him and getting to know more places.”

His uncle too had not encouraged him to get into politics while he was actively involved in it.

“When the Youth League of the UNP requested that I should join the League he said not to do so while he was still there. He said after he was completely out of this [politics], if the people also wish so, then it will happen. But he never encouraged it.”

As Senanayake recounted his uncle never discussed politics with him, except when the former was studying abroad.

“He never discussed politics with me, but when I was in England pursuing my higher studies I used to write to him and he used to write back about the situation in the country and that was the only type of communication I had with him about politics. Beyond that we had hardly discussed politics.”

Media freedom

Senanayake still remembers how reputed journalists of yesteryear used to meet Prime Minister Senanayake over breakfast at Woodlands.

“Media institutions were completely a private entity back then. Politicians never influenced journalists. But they maintained a good relationship. They used to discuss topics of national interest whenever they met, but he never influenced journalists.”

As Senanayake emphasised even though chief editors were summoned occasionally over certain matters, journalists in general had full freedom to report objectively and impartially.

Farmer upheld

When D.S. Senanayake became the first Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon in September 1947, his son Dudley Senanayake was appointed as the Minister of Agriculture and Lands, the portfolio held by his father for many years.

With US President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966

Looking back in time Senanayake reminisced how his uncle fought for the rights of the farmer and strove to uplift the living standard of them after assuming duties as a minister. “At that time people used to shun that profession [farming] and it was Dudley Senanayake who wanted to uplift the agricultural sector and restore the country’s lost glory.”

The food production drive which was thus inaugurated by D.S. Senanayake was carried on by his son. “These programmes were a huge success. Dudley Senanayake always stressed the importance of providing a guaranteed price for the farmer.”

With the Emperor and Empress of Japan in 1967

As Senanayake noted repeatedly, his uncle was of the conviction that development of Sri Lanka was intrinsically linked with agricultural development and food production. He had always informed the House that his government had been committed to the achievement of food security, a policy, the United National Party stood for from its very inception.

PM Dudley Senanayake with President of France Charles De Gaulle.

Dudley Senanayake's great orations made in Parliament bespeak the emphasis he put on food production and agriculture. In August 1966, he vehemently criticised the Opposition who held the view that ‘by stressing on agriculture, the country is going back on the whole process of industrialisation and revisiting the old agriculture days.’

Dudley Senanayake refuted their views by building up one strong argument.

"In the first instance, 70 percent of our population is engaged in the pursuit of agriculture directly or indirectly; so any plan for the development of the country must even in the initial stages lay a certain stress on agricultural development. …By Industrialisation are you going to grow rice? Are you going to have potatoes by industrialisation?"

Attending the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953

The multi-purpose Gal Oya scheme launched in 1948 has been recognised as one of the greatest achievements of Dudley Senanayake. As Senanayake noted even though the then Opposition belittled the magnificent scheme on the basis that in 20 years the Gal Oya scheme will cease to become useful as the reservoir itself will be full of silt, today nearly 60 years after the construction of the dam across Gal Oya, the reservoir continues to be the major source of water provision to the entire Eastern Province.

Gamini and politics

It is well known in the political arena that Prime Minister Senanayake played a significant role in bringing Minister Gamini Dissanayake into politics.

“Gamini Dissanayake came to see Dudley Senanayake as there were some issues about giving nominations to him. Donald Ranaweera who was representing Nuwara Eliya was the UNP Chairman back then and he did not encourage the idea. But Dudley Senanayake was keen that Gamini Dissanayake should come into politics as he was a longstanding and powerful member of the party. Even Mr. JR Jayewardene was of the view that Gamini should not be given nominations as the party Chairman Ranaweera too wished the same.”

Thus Senanayake recollected how his uncle was able to identify Gamini as a budding politician with great potential.

When asked why Dudley Senanayake opposed to extend the party’s support to the Sirimavo government in 1970 as suggested by JR Jayewardene, Senanayake revealed that it was not only his uncle who opposed it, but the entire party.

“In 1970 when we lost the election Mr. JRJ proposed that we should join the Government. His argument was that the government elected had a strong Marxist support and he was worried that if the government was given a free hand Mrs. Bandaranaike would be compelled to move to the Communist/Marxist line. That was why he proposed that the UNP should join the Government and strengthen the hands of the right wing people. But the UNP as a whole were harassed soon after the 1970 elections. They had to face inhuman treatment and there was a lot of animosity against the government. So because of that, Dudley Senanayake said that he could not let down the people and decided to be in the Opposition.”

Dudley-CP De Silva 'deal'

Looking back into the past where exciting political negotiations had taken place, Senanayake recalled how on December 3, 1964, C P De Silva, the leader of the House and the SLFP Deputy Speaker crossed over to the Opposition with a number of government Members of Parliament. Explaining his reason to crossover he had mentioned that he was leaving because he was not prepared to compromise on the democratic principles that he and the SLFP stood for.

“As a result of this cross over, the then government lost the Throne speech debate by one vote and was forced to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election. The general election was held on March 22, 1965 and the United National Party led by Dudley Senanayake won the election,” Senanayake recalled.

It was CP De Silva who initiated this victory. And he had been previously informed that if he could ‘break’ the government , he would be offered Premiership if the UNP could secure victory at the election. “The UNP won the elections and as promised Dudley invited CP De Silva to assume duties as PM, but he refused, and instead became the Minister of Land and Power.”


Dudley Senanayke had always cherished the ideal of a democratic society.

“He firmly believed that the majority will must prevail. He was a thorough (upright) democrat. He never did anything against the will of the people or the party.”

As we know he had to assume duties as Prime Minister soon after his father’s untimely demise. But he insisted that he must dissolve Parliament and get a mandate from the people. He was sworn in as PM on March 26,1952 . On April 8, 1952, just 13 days later, the Prime Minister dissolved Parliament seeking a fresh mandate from the people.

“Such was his commitment to democracy,” his nephew noted.

During the 1971 insurgency, “government treated swiftly and quite rightly” used the military to crush the insurgency. Dudley who was representing the Opposition back then said those who advocate violence in a democracy were not freedom fighters, but terrorists. To quote his own words in Parliament in 1971 “...Labour violence as a political technique as a means to achieve one’s ideals. It is repugnant to any standard of civilised conduct.”

Thus whether he was representing the government or the opposition, his ideology had always been based on democratic principles.

As the situation was getting worse Dudley as the leader of UNP even took part in preparing a statement in support of the government led by Sirima Bandaranaike.

A strange relationship

However Senanayake recalled the relationship his uncle had with world’s first woman PM as “very strange and shy.” When asked whether they spoke to each other in public he responded in the negative. “Rarely, only on public matters.”

“But if there was an issue of national interest they used to talk to each other over the phone”.

He reminisced how they used to speak on the Indo-Ceylon issue when the Sirima-Shastri Pact was under discussion.

It was much later that Senanayake revealed the “less openly discussed” still “widely known” open secret that had ‘'held them apart.'’ Way back in the '30s Sirima Ratwatte had been proposed to him. “But he did not pursue with it not because he did not like her, but because he did want to remain as a bachelor,” he laughed and added “I think both were a little excited after the proposal!”

Most admired quality

The most outstanding feature of Dudley Senanayake, according to Senanayake was his straightforwardness. “Also he was a very honest and kind man,’’ he vividly recalled.

The exact words of his uncle are still fresh in the mind of Senanayake. “Never lie, never get into the habit of lying however trivial the matter is. Whether it is a major issue or a minor issue, never come up with fabricated stories.”

In retrospect, more than 40 years after the demise of his uncle who had undoubtedly left an everlasting imprint on Sri Lanka's politics, Senanayake said that political courage and willingness to give up power when necessary had been his uncle's greatest political virtues.

Bidding adieu

It was with nostalgia that Senanayake recollected how his uncle used to wake up at around 6’0 clock in the morning to go to Golf Course. But not on his fatal day. In the early hours of April 3, 1973 he had been found lying on his bed seriously ill following a heart attack.

“No family member knew about it until morning. He had not wanted to disturb anybody at home including the housemaids, but had struggled in silence."

The family doctor was summoned immediately who was shocked to find him in that condition.

“And we had to carry him down without his consent as the doctor insisted that the patient should not exert himself. “But he insisted that he could climb down the steps by himself,” Senanayake who was lost in his thoughts for a while said.

“He was very shy about the whole thing that we had to carry him down, and thanked us for that. As he came down he stood up."

The way he walked his last steps to the car will never be forgotten by his ‘'favourite'’ nephew. “And as he walked out of the house he turned back, looked at the house and got into the car.”

Senanayake vowed that he had never seen his uncle doing so ever before. His long gaze is still engrained in his mind. And his uncle never returned.

“Three years had passed since the UNP lost power unexpectedly suffering a terrible set back, but the enormous crowd that flocked to Colombo to attend his funeral bore testimony to his undying popularity.”

As Senanayake further noted when Dudley Senanayake passed away in 1973 he was neither the head of the government nor a minister. He was merely a Member of Parliament representing the Dedigama electorate. Never in the history of Sri Lanka had there been a funeral of an ex-political colossus attended by such a massive number of mourners.

His erstwhile deputy J.R. Jayewardene delivering the funeral oration bade him farewell calling Dudley a sweet prince. His last words echoed in the hearts and minds of the people as he said “Good night sweet prince.” The most remembered of all was the sincere words of a poor countryman who after having waited in the long queue for many hours placed a wreath near the casket with a note which contained the line “O my leader please answer me, is it honesty or kindness that is more in thee?’’ 

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