Sir John takes over, cabinet meeting at N’Eliya and the EL Senanayake election case



Standing L to R – B. P. Peiris, C. W. W. Kannangara, Sir Kanthiah Valthiyanathan, Montague Jayawickrama, M. D. H. Jayawardene, E. B. Wickramanayake, N. H. Keerthiratne, Shirley Corea Seated L to R – M. D. Banda, A. Ratnayake, J. R Jayawardene, Sir John Kotelawala, E. A. Nugawela, Dr M. C. M. Kaleel, P.B. Bulankulame Dissawa

(Excerpted from Memoirs of a Cabinet Secretary by BP Peiris)

The first meeting of the new Cabinet placed on record its appreciation of the services rendered to the country by Mr Dudley Senanayake. Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan, who had resigned his post as Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs, took over the Portfolio of Housing and Social Services.

Sir John was spending a few days in December 1953 at his official residence, The Lodge, Nuwara Eliya. More out of mischief than on grounds of urgency, he summoned the Cabinet to meet at The Lodge on December 31. On the New Year Day following, A. G. Ranasinha, the Secretary, was to receive the honour of knighthood, and I, the O.B.E., and we found the arrangement very inconvenient, but had to obey orders and attend the meeting.

We accordingly travelled to Nanu Oya by the night train on the 30th with office peons and Cabinet security boxes. On reaching our destination early next morning at about six, we found Police cars waiting for us on Sir John’s instructions. On our reaching The Lodge, the cook, Periasamy, was there to greet us, again on Sir John’s orders, with egg hoppers and fish curry, which was most welcome. Sir John was asleep but had given his orders with military precision.

We soon got ready and the meeting started rather early at about 9 a.m. At 11 a.m. drinks were served. Every possible brand of liquor was laid out on a side table, and we were asked to help ourselves. At 1 p.m. there was a short adjournment for lunch, preceded by a few more drinks. An excellent lunch, of mulligatawny, yellow rice and chicken curry was provided by the cook. The meeting terminated early afternoon and we had to while away the time till 5 p.m., when Lord Soulbury had invited us to tea.

Some Ministers preferred to walk on the well-trimmed lawns. Sir John, Bulankulame Dissawa, M. D. Banda, and I were in the sitting room, warming ourselves by the fire when Sir John asked me, “I say, Peiris, aren’t you getting something tomorrow?” The recommendation for the honour is made by the Prime Minister, but the letter inquiring whether I would accept the honour comes from Queen’s House marked ‘Top Secret’.

I therefore replied “I know nothing about it, Sir”, and Sir John told the other Ministers “Look at this chap; I recommend him for the honour and he thinks it is a Cabinet secret and wants to hide it from me. Anyway, I’ll be at your house at 7 p.m. Don’t give lime juice.”

We took the night train back, travelling to Nanu Oya again in Police cars. It was a bit of a rush because the Mayor, Mr Vijayaratnasingham, had a cocktail party in our honour and Ranasinha and I were worried that we would miss our train. Sir John had seen to it that baskets of flowers were put into our cars. True to his word, the Pilot car preceding the Prime Minister’s car turned in at my gate sharp at seven the next evening. He had two whiskeys and was off to be in time at the next place because mine was not the only house of ‘honours’ men he visited that evening.

He was surprised when I asked him in French whether to sing him a French song. He said “Oui, oui, oui” and asked who was going to play. I sat at the piano and, with Sir John standing by me with his glass in his hand, sang a naughty song which Maurice Chevalier used to sing at the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the early thirties, and the words of which no one but Sir John understood. When I was getting to the end of the chorus, he whispered in my ear “Sing the chorus again.” The first line of the chorus was “Dites moi, ma mere, dites moi ma mere pourquoi less chiens daps les rues se months dessous”.

One of the first major questions which the Prime Minister asked his Cabinet to consider was that of bribery and corruption. He was determined, if possible, to stamp this moral stain out of public life. A new law was drafted to be in operation in the first instance for 18 months and to be applicable to public servants only. Charges were to be investigated by the Criminal Investigation Department and the tribunal hearing the charges was to consist of judges or retired judges.

Power was also taken to make the new law applicable, if necessary, to the findings of a Commission appointed to investigate allegations of bribery and corruption against a Senator or Member of Parliament, and it was agreed that any fee or reward paid or given to a Senator or Member of Parliament to appear for any person before a public officer other than a judicial or quasi-judicial officer should be deemed to be a bribe. The Bill was passed into law as Act No. II of 1954, and has been amended more than once to vest additional powers in the Bribery Commissioner.

E. B. Wikramanayake, Q. C. now joined the Cabinet as Minister of Justice. He was a man of few words and did not believe in wasting his time or anyone else’s. In the course of a discussion, he made his point in the fewest possible words.

In December 1953, the Governor-General was informed that Her Majesty the Queen intended to visit Ceylon. The Cabinet considered this communication and agreed that Her Majesty should be invited to open the next Session of Parliament. The Queens’ Speech, which I was asked to make as short as possible, was approved by the Cabinet and an advance copy sent to the Palace.

On the day of Her Majesty’s arrival in Colombo, I found five lines of traffic opposite my house on the Havelock Road moving, from two in the morning, towards the city. The streets were decorated and thronged with people, rich and poor, to welcome the Royal visitors. The weather was more than kind; it was a scorching sun, and the Queen, who rode with His Royal Highness Prince )Philip in an open car had a parasol for protection.

I watched the procession from a vantage point in the Dutch Burgher Union in Bullers Road. Persons were perched on the roofs of the houses opposite. ‘The welcome accorded to the Royal couple was rousing as well as spontaneous. The impression that I had was first, that the welcome was a natural gesture of loyalty, and secondly, that, with our own monarchical background, our people just cannot resist Royalty and the pageantry that is associated with that institution.

I wonder how many persons noticed the Constitutional aspect of the Royal visit. Her Majesty was Queen of Ceylon, and, though not domiciled here, she was temporarily resident in one of Her Dominions. As such, during Her residence here, the person she had appointed to represent Her in the Island, Lord Soulbury, officially ceased to exist. The Governor-General could not have assented to a Bill nor could he have exercised the Royal prerogative of pardon. The office of the Governor-General was, for the time being, in abeyance. That is the reason for Lord Soulbury’s absence at the Opening of Parliament. In effect, he “took himself away” and stayed in the background.

Her Majesty opened the Third Session of the Second Parliament on April 12, 1954, and read Her Speech in English in a clear voice. Naturally, she could not be asked to comply, as Sir Oliver Goonetilleke did a few years later, with the requirements of our Official Language Act. At the next Cabinet meeting Ministers Vaithianathan and Natesan referred to the fact that, at the presentation of the Addresses, the speeches had been made in English and Sinhala but not in Tamil. They stated that this had caused uneasiness among the Tamil community.

I think the two Tamil Ministers, when they used the word “uneasiness”, exercised the utmost restraint in the use of language and refrained, with great dignity, in giving vent, not only to their own feelings, but to the feelings of the entire Tamil community. To make matters worse, the Prime Minister assured the Cabinet that the omission of a Speech in Tamil was accidental and not intentional, and promised to make a public statement to that effect. Really, I ask, to whom was the Prime Minister talking? To two of the intellectual Ministers in his Cabinet; and was he talking with his tongue in his cheek? Incidents like this though quickly forgotten by the Sinhalese, remain long in the memories of the minority communities as utterly insulting and unnecessary pinpricks inflicted on purpose.

On Her birthday, April 21, Her Majesty held an Investiture at Queen’s House at which A. G. Ranasinha was knighted and I was invested with the insignia of the O.B.E. A Throne had been placed on the dais for the Queen but had to be hurriedly removed a few minutes before Her Majesty’s arrival because, in England, it is customary for the Sovereign to stand throughout an Investiture. His Royal Highness stood one foot behind the Queen throughout the ceremony and looked thoroughly bored.

Immediately after the Investiture, a group photograph was taken of Her Majesty and Her Ceylon Cabinet. The seats were all arranged. The Prime Minister would naturally sit on the Queen’s right. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke wanted to sit on Her Majesty’s left but Minister J. R. Jayewardene insisted that the setting should be according to the Order of Precedence and that he should be on the Queen’s left. By his sojourn abroad, Sir Oliver had come down in the Precedence Table and, in that historic photograph, would have had to stand in the second row if one of the Ministers had not fallen ill and his place taken by an acting Minister.

It is for this reason that Sir Oliver is seen seated, not next to the Queen, but in the last chair. Was it not Pope who said that every man has just as much vanity as he wants understanding? When this squabble about seating had been settled, the Aide-de-Camp was informed that the Ministers were ready. Her Majesty arrived and took her seat. She was so dignified that the photographer did not dare to tell Her to smile or put her left foot forward; but a beautiful photograph was the result. At the end of the ceremony, Sir John, on behalf of the Cabinet, presented Her Majesty with a silver tray as a birthday present.

It was at about this time that my daughter Kamala, to the family and friends known as ‘Binkie’, married the man of her choice, Dr Cecil D. Chelliah, a specialist in the diseases of the chest. As I said before, her Kundasale training had turned out a plain living, high thinking, sensible and efficient woman. D. S. Senanayake was right in his forecast about the girls turned out at Kundasale. The doctor had music in him, and it was music that brought the couple together. In view of this strong community of interests, which was a firmer basis for sound marriage than good looks, a sports car or a tweed suit, my wife and I readily gave our consent.

He was a Tamil and a Christian; but I had no difficulty in coming to a decision as my education had been completely free of any racial or religious bias and hypocrisy. They have two very musically-minded children, Ranjan and Priyantha, whom I prefer to call “Mr Jones” and “Mr Shaw” respectively. Grandpa has had some lovely musical evenings in his retirement with son-in-law, daughter, Jones and Shaw, showing their prowess, jointly and severally, at their different instruments.

Ministers, like women, are entitled to change their minds and their opinions, but on one thing Sir John was firm and never once wavered. He laid it down that, so long as he was in charge of administration of this country, no person would be employed in the public service who was a communist or who belonged to a revolutionary party.

A rather unusual Bill was now considered and later passed into law. The Government Parliamentary Group had passed a resolution regarding the delimitation of electoral districts for Parliamentary elections. Under the first Delimitation Commission, the number of electoral districts for the Island sent ninety-five members to the House of Representatives. Together with the six Appointed members, the total membership of the House was one hundred and one.

A new Commission had been appointed, as required by the Consti tution. Following the 1953 census, which gave the Ceylon population as 8,098,637, giving approximately every 75,000 of the popultion a seat as laid down in the Constitution, the total membership the House, including the Appointed members, would have been of 139. There had been considerable public opinion that the Constitution should be amended so as to limit the number of members.

It was suggested that the total number of sea should be about 108, and it was proposed create three of four additional special seats for Indians and Pakistanis. Sir John accordingly proposed to the Cabinet that the scheme’ adopted. If adopted, it involved an amendment to the Constitution which would require a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives to pass it into law. The Bill which he submitted was to in force for 10 years and would enable the Government to discharge its obligations under the Indo-Ceylon pact. The proposed legisla- tion would have conferred on persons registered as Citizens of Ceylon under the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act, a privilege which was not conferred on persons of other communities, namely, separate parliamentary representation for 10 years.

It would also have made persons so registered as Citizens of Ceylon, liable to a disability to which persons of other communities were not made liable, namely, the exclusion of their names for 10 years from the general parliamentary register of elections. The Bill fixed the to number of members of the House of Representatives for all time at 108. The Ceylon Constitution (Amendment) 1 was passed in 1954, limiting the membership of the House. An Act for the creation of a special Indian and Pakistani Electorate was a passed the same year. Nothing came of either of these Acts. The question whether the Acts were valid under section 29 of the Constitution is now academic as both Acts were repealed in 1959.

Soon thereafter, followed another unusual piece of legislation. E. L. Senanayake was elected Member for Kandy in the House of Rep resentatives, but was unseated on an election petition, and the Prime Minister made the following statement in the House of Representatives on February 5, 1954:

“I wish to inform the House that the Member for Kandy has been granted leave to appeal to the Privy Council from the decision of the Supreme Court of Ceylon. The following telegram has been sent by the Crown Solicitors:

“Senanayake special leave granted reserving leave to Attorney-General or respondent to challenge jurisdiction on hearing of appeal stop Board represented appeal should be heard as soon as possible stop Meanwhile most undesirable that certificate should be published or other steps taken consequent upon the declaration before appeal.”

The Government proposed to take steps to avoid unnecessary legal complications in the event of the appeal of the member for Kandy being allowed by the Privy Council. They intended to introduce legislation suspending an Order of the Supreme Court under the Ceylon (Parliamentary Election) Order in Council, pending an appeal to the Privy Council. Meanwhile, the Governor-General had been advised that he should withhold action under the Order in Council, pending the introduction of the Bill. There is no provision of law under which His Excellency is empowered to suspend the steps to be taken under the Order in Council. He was required by law to fix a date for the by-election.

Draft legislation was submitted designed to meet Senanayake’s case. The Bill proposed that where an appeal is taken to the Privy Council, the operation of an Order of the Supreme Court under the Elections Order in Council should be suspended till the decision of the Privy Council in that behalf is known. The legislation was to have retrospective effect to cover the Supreme Court judgment in the Senanayake case.

On advice, the Governor-General suspended action under the Order in Council and did not authorize the holding of a by-election. His action was to be legalized by the proposed legislation. He was to be indemnified against all civil and criminal liability ‘in respect of the noncompliance of the provisions of the Order in Council which required him to order the holding of a fresh election.

Senanayake lost his appeal in the Privy Council and continued to remain out of Parliament. This sort of ad hoc legislation to suit particular persons in most unfortunate. Retrospective legislation is particularly obnoxious and is viewed by the courts with suspicion, but the courts are bound by the laws passed by Parliament.