Have we as a country surpassed the expectations of this great leader? : DS - the man with a common touch | Sunday Observer

Have we as a country surpassed the expectations of this great leader? : DS - the man with a common touch

Rukman Senanayake Pic By Chinthaka Kumarasinghe
Rukman Senanayake Pic By Chinthaka Kumarasinghe

Elegance, flamboyance, pomp and pageantry – that was the ‘Appointed Day’. The country went wild with glee. As the bells tolled the midnight hour announcing another day, up roared crackers of joy. The hues of white, red and green sparked from buildings, including the Colombo Town Hall decorated for the occasion. The country’s citizenry lined up the streets to welcome the dawn of another era, ‘freedom’ singing sweetly in their hearts. Young or old, rich or poor, Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher- there was no distinction. Those who were living in the ‘tear drop island’ of the Indian Ocean united themselves as Ceylonese, in true solidarity.

It was the ‘Appointed Day’ the day of independence, where more than four centuries of colonial yoke under varied ‘powers’ from the West was taken off from the citizenry. Since the arrival of the Portuguese in 1505, Sri Lanka was subjugated progressively by the Dutch and the British. Though the last imperial masters tried to conquer the central Kandyan Kingdom it was only by the signing of a treaty-the Kandyan Convention, that the British gained complete control over the country. Under the colonial yoke, the people of Sri Lanka rebelled many a time, only to be quelled with brutal force employed by the then masters. Autonomy was the longing and the cry of the populace for four centuries.

However, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) was granted independence ‘peacefully, without bloodshed. Seventy years ago, on February 4 1948, the ‘Declaration of Independence’ was signed. It all happened because of a team of dedicated leaders, patriotic visionaries who loved the people. In the wake of the last independence movement, numerous leaders suffered and sacrificed much.

The most prominent contributors to the struggle for reforms and independence were Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, Anagarika Dharmapala Dr. Tuan Burhanuddin Jayah, C.W.W. Kannangara, Sir James Peiris, Edward Walter Perera, Captain Henry Pedris, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Frederick Richard Senanayake, Don Stephen Senanayake and Don Richard Wijewardena.

Though different leaders took the helm, the last and the most effective lap was lead by Don Stephen Senanayake, acclaimed ‘Father of the Nation’ and fondly known as ‘DS’ by all.

Famed as a man of true vision who trudged towards his goal with indomitable courage, what was he really like? What was his vision for the nation? It was the Temperance Movement, originated in opposition to the ‘Toddy Act’ of the British in 1912 which brought the ‘Father of the Nation’ to the limelight, says former Cabinet Minister and Parliamentarian, Rukman Senanayake, his grandson.

DS was a prominent figure in the Movement where his father Don Spater Senanayake and uncles D.C Senanayake and F.R. Senanayake were involved in. He was the force behind convincing and canvassing people to remove taverns from villages, due to their adverse effect on society.

Though the government made the task doubly hard with a mandate of seventy five percent of the poll tax payers of the relevant area, DS overcame the challenge not allowing any taverns in ‘Hapitagam Korale’ where he resided.

As the government income fell due to loss of revenue from liquor sales, the animosity towards the Senanayake brothers intensified. So much so, when a riot between the Sinhalese and Muslims started in May 1915, though DS carried out his duty as a Town Guard, travelling with brother F.R stopping the Sinhalese from attacking the Muslims, the authorities arrested the three brothers and jailed them for 46 days, after which they were released without trial.

However, Captain Henry Pedris a leader of the Movement and then Commander of the Home Guard Battalion of Colombo, was falsely accused of aiding the Sinhalese and was executed. The authorities brought the chair, smeared with his blood to F.R. and threatened him with the same fate, compelling F.R. to vow to rid the country of the British rule.

The Independence Movement born thus consisted of leaders from all ethnic communities. DS was put to the fore by his brother F.R. who knew his capabilities. Though his untimely death affected DS he was capable of unifying and leading the group through a path of peaceful negotiation. Their efforts came to fruition on the 4th of February, 1948, in the form of independence.

Different from his brothers, in his youth DS was known as Kele John by those around him, says Rukman Senanayake. Though he remembers little of his grandfather, family legend portrays his great humour, humility and concern for people. Gifted and talented, DS was not one to be contained in a classroom. Often missing school, he roamed the village resulting in being ‘last’ in class.

Once, answering his father he had said that he was the fourth in the class, which made the happy father prepare a feast in his honour. However, it had been an inquisitive invitee who had asked DS of the number of students in the class, to which he had replied truthfully that there were four.

Another time when villagers were fleeing from a man who suffered from smallpox, a deadly disease at the time, young DS had carried the man on his shoulder, walking five miles to the hospital. Back home he had applied ‘lime’ all over his body and had had a bath, much to the chagrin of his caring mother.

“Villagers still remembered him fondly, even at the time I was visiting villages as a Minister,” reminiscences Rukman. In Polonnaruwa, villagers remembered how D.S. had slept under a tree, how he had filled his stomach from a tin of salmon and some water from a nearby canal representing them as their Minister of Agriculture.

“He was a person with a common touch. Even as the Prime Minister, he could be seen in his banian and sarong, at a kiosk having coffee with people.”

His vision for the country entailed development at the grassroots level. “He always said development of a country could only be measured by the amount of food available in the poorest man’s home,” explains Rukman Senanayake.

In DS’s political view, population must come first. He was of the opinion that the GDP or any such measure was a useless mode to find out the development. He held the notion that the main focus of development should be on how to enrich the poorest, mainly through improvement of agriculture. It was the main and the motivating factor. The rest, be it industries or commerce should supplement.

A leader who was bold enough to speak the truth as it was, one factor his gentlemanly politics never comprised was the cleaving of power. DS saw power as transient and himself a trustee appointed temporarily to guide the affairs of the nation.

His address at the University of Ceylon Convocation, in 1947 is a reminder of his humility. Encouraging the graduates to take up the leadership of the country he said “The future of the country lies not with the birds of passage who have been elected to Parliament but with the young men and women of the country.”

Have we as a country surpassed the expectations of this great leader of yore, failed to achieve or tarried from his vision altogether? 70 years thence, it is time to appraise.