Senanayake’s 121st birth anniversary falls today
DS hobnobbed with the mighty but kept the common
The 121st birth anniversary of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister
D.S Senanayake falls today. Born on October 20th 1884 at Botale,
a village in the Negombo District, Senanayake journeyed through
Sri Lanka’s pre and post colonial political arena like a
colossus. From a playful schoolboy at S. Thomas’ College
(then situated in Mutuwal) Don Stephen Senanayake grew into a
mature, honest and formidable leader, who made an indelible impression
on the history of his country.
Senanayake with his first cabinet in 1947
D.S Senanayake has oft been described as an ordinary man with
extraordinary achievements. His illustrious life and evolution
into a great Statesman is most vividly captured in the biography
written by eminent journalist and former Editor of the Ceylon
Daily News H.A.J. Hulugalle. As pointed out by one of our readers
Lt. Gen Denis Perera, his birth anniversary would provide the
ideal opportunity to highlight some important factors in the contribution
to the country of this great leader, as chronicled in Hulugalle’s
350-page volume. The author, who as a journalist closely observed
D.S Senanayake’s ascent to power, captures some of the special
qualities and wisdom of the man so reverently referred to as the
‘Father of the Nation’.
The fact that D.S Senanayake was a dominant political figure of
his time is undisputed. He was chiefly responsible for the country
peacefully gaining independence from the British after over four
and a half centuries of colonization. He made significant changes
in the country’s politics and agriculture while also commanding
the respect and trust of all those he dealt with. Furthermore
he strove to establish a viable democracy in Sri Lanka, all the
while recognising the importance of developing the nation’s
economic resources to meet the needs of a fast growing population.
In his book ‘Agriculture and Patriotism’ D.S Senanayake
warned the country against the consequences of rapid population
growth without corresponding economic production. Senanayake came
into mainstream politics through the Legislative Council in 1924
at the age of forty. Although lacking in academic qualifications
and not being the greatest of orators, he rose effortlessly in
the political arena outstripping his seniors and peers to attain
the highest office in the country. And this was at a time when
men of great talent and ability adorned the political stage.
He had many qualities of a great leader but despite his success
he remained simple and friendly. He had a magnetic personality
and always remained dignified. He was also a keen Buddhist but
managed to win the support of leaders from all ethnic and religious
groups in gaining independence.
One of his main principles as a leader was that there could not
be proper self-government without a sound and viable economy.
Throughout his 21 years as a national leader his main efforts
were directed towards national unity and the development of the
economy. One of the main ingredients of such strengthening of
economic policy was to get the entire rural population to participate
in economic development. For this D.S Senanayake strove to introduce
a new dimension to the country’s agriculture.
As Minister of Agriculture from 1931 to 1947 he initiated land
reform and established a migration scheme for landless peasants.
The thinking behind this was to make the country self sufficient
in food. He also restored old irrigation works, while building
new ones. He didn’t forget the three main export industries
of tea, rubber and coconut either. He improved research facilities
into these crop industries, and sought cooperation with foreign
countries growing these products, all the while concentrating
on sustaining prices and improving quality. Other significant
developments while he was holding public office were the introduction
of adult franchise and free education.
Senanayake’s amiable personality and willingness to respond
with goodwill when goodwill was shown to him were the key factors
leading to the transition from Colonial rule to independence smoothly
and orderly in Sri Lanka. It was after he and his two brothers
were imprisoned in 1915 along with a group of Sinhalese, for communal
clashes between Sinhalese and Muslims, which they had nothing
to do with, that he was convinced Sri Lanka needed self-rule.
He was filled with indignation over the conduct of the British
Governor and officials, and was thereafter convinced that until
the local population had full responsibility for the government
of their country they would not be able to prevent blunders arising
from the lack of communication between the ruling power and the
He maintained this policy as a member of the Legislative Council
and even as Prime Minister. D.S Senanayake never allowed for a
lack of communication with the common man and never missed an
opportunity to visit poor farmers and the irrigation schemes he
had started. During these visits he would talk to cultivators
and field officers, explaining what he was trying to do. Sir John
Kotelawela once said, “No one was too small for his attention
if he had the time. No man who ever went to see him can ever forget
the sincerity with which he promised to look into his grievance”.
D.S was a great leader who united the people in their quest for
independence. He was successful in convincing the State Council
to accept the Soulbury Constitution. Before independence there
were conflicts over communal representation and the balance of
power in the legislature. However Senanayake’s dream was
for a united people to gain the heritage of an independent country.
He was successful in winning over the minorities to his way of
thinking and also had a firm understanding of the responsibility
that came with political independence, after the initial euphoria
One morning in March 1952 D.S Senanayake fell off his horse while
riding on the Galle Face green. It is believed that he suffered
a stroke, which made him lose control and fall off his mount.
Thirty hours later he was dead. At the time of his passing away
he was 68 years old.
His contemporary Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru India’s First Prime
Minister said of Senanayake- “We of this generation, wherever
we may live, have passed through this great period of transition
and have seen the face of Asia change in the process. The change
continues. Leading personalities in different countries become
the symbols of this period of transition and thus become in some
ways the agents of historic destiny. In Ceylon Don Stephen Senanayake
was such a personality, who impressed himself not only on Ceylon
but also in a wider sphere. He should be remembered as a person
who helped to bring about the transition to freedom, and then
to consolidate the freedom that had come”.