remembering the assassination of Bandaranaike – EDITORIAL

2 September 2023 12:42 am – 0      – 29

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The month of September is of special significance to the people of our country. On the 26th of September 1959, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike -the fourth- and one of the more popular Prime Ministers of our country- was gunned down in cold blood by Somarama Thera.
The date marks the first assassination of a national leader in this country. Premier Bandaranaike was shot at his private residence in Rosmead Place in Colombo while receiving public requests and complaints.
It was an era where political leaders were not far removed from the public. A time when even the Prime Minister did not travel with large contingents of security personnel.
The late Premier had been assigned a Sub-Inspector of Police as his bodyguard. But the Premier sent him (SI) away saying there were more important duties he should be attending.
Instead, he requested (not ordered) the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to assign a few Police Constables. Thus on that fateful day, a single armed Policeman was on duty at the gates of his residence.
The late Prime Minister, coming from one of the elite families in the country was elected to office in 1956 on a controversial promise to change the official language of the country from
English to Sinhalese.
The campaign cry of Bandaranaike’s coalition at the 1956 election was ‘Sinhala only within
24 hours’.
The call for ‘Sinhala Only’ was an attempt by a section of the country to distance itself from English as the language of administration, as English was the preserve of the Sri Lankan elite and the ordinary people had little knowledge of it.
Perhaps as part of colonial design, a disproportionate number of English language schools were located in the mainly Tamil-speaking north. Thus, English-speaking Tamils held a higher percentage of coveted Ceylon Civil Service jobs.
Minority communities saw attempts to impose Sinhala only ignoring the Tamil language as an attempt by the Sinhala community to oppress and assert its dominance over them.
In the end, the ‘Sinhala Only’ became a symbol of majoritarian oppression and led to the first round of communal rioting in the country in 1958.
During that communal conflagration, hundreds of Tamil civilians were killed, Tamil-owned businesses looted, and Tamil-owned homes destroyed by Sinhala mobs. In the ultimate Bandaranaike’s call for ‘Sinhala Only’ led to the call for setting up a separate State and the commencement of the nearly three-decade-long civil war.
However, the saddest aspect of the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy has been the polarisation of the country on ethnic lines. It also did away with the possibility of Lanka’s children widening their linguistic knowledge.
Today, less than seventy years after the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy was imposed; a decade after the ethnic conflict was brought to a brutal end, Sinhala and Tamil students are striving to study English, Chinese, Hindi and other Asian languages.
While Mr Bandaranaike’s language policy turned out to be a failure, his tenure saw the nationalising of the bus services.
His government introduced the Paddy Lands Act which provided security to tenant farmers, controlled the rent payable by tenant cultivators to landlords, and provided a mechanism to enable the wages paid to agricultural labourers to be fixed by cultivation committees etc.
His government oversaw legislation to prohibit caste-based discrimination and the setting up of the Employees Provident Fund. During his term, the Colombo Port was Nationalised and the Ceylon Shipping Corporation was formed.
Bandaranaike also made a radical shift in this country’s foreign policy, by opening diplomatic channels with the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. He was also instrumental in moving Lanka toward the Non-Aligned Movement.
He established a close personal friendship with Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru and Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai.
He abrogated the 1947 United Kingdom-Ceylon Defence Agreement and closed down British air bases -RAF Negombo, the RAF China Bay and the naval base at Trincomalee.
Sadly, today Bandaranaike is remembered for his failed language policy, with little credit given to the far-reaching policies he initiated.


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