Government Reform

After 79 years of nomination of Unofficial Members, at the end of 1911 three of them represented about 6,500 Europeans, two represented about 2,550,000 Sinhalese, while there was one each for 1,125,000 Tamils, 250,000 Muslims and 25,000 Burghers.

Just before that there had been some protests about the unrepresentative nature of these Members. This was mainly from the Europeans in Ceylon. Their desire to choose their own government representatives rather than have people nominated by the governor led to the introduction of the elective principle with the McCallum Reforms that saw a reformed Legislative Council in 1912.

Government Reform - Citizens wave the FlagGovernment Reform: Legislative Council

The new Legislative Council of 21 Members (11 official and 10 unofficial) met in January 1912. Of  the 10 unofficial Members, 4 were elected, one each for what were called European Urban and European Rural constituencies, one for the Burghers, and one for what was called the ‘Educated Ceylonese’ constituency. The other unofficial Members were nominated by the Governor. The first elected representative of the Ceylonese was a Tamil, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who defeated Dr Marcus Fernando in the election.

So small an increase in the number of unofficial Members, which went with an equal increase in the number of officials, so that these continued to be the majority, was clearly insufficient. This was a period of great commercial prosperity, together with agricultural developments that opened up acres of areas that earlier had small populations. In addition, better communication facilities and educational opportunities, both in the island and abroad, had led to the spread of new political and social ideas.

The first step was a majority of unofficial over official Members. With the Manning Reform of 1921, the 10 unofficial Members became 23, which was more than the officials who now had 14. Of the 23, 16 were elected,  mainly on a territorial basis, and included Tamils as well as Sinhalese. Muslims, Kandyan and Indians were still nominated to the Legislative Council.

Though there were now more unofficial Members, the Governor could still easily get a majority since the 7 nominated unofficial Members, together with the 14 officials, generally supported him. So the next step was to have a majority of elected Members. This came in 1924, when the British Colonial Secretary Lord Devonshire developed Manning’s reform of 1921 to increase the elected Members to 29. Though there were still 8 nominated unofficial Members, and 12 officials, elected representatives now had a clear majority.

It should be noted that the franchise, that is those who could vote, was limited. There was a property qualification, which meant that only about 4% of adults exercised a choice. However, whereas things had hardly changed for 79 years, in less than 15 the principle of elections was established, then there was the emergence of an unofficial majority and soon afterwards an elected majority.

The Legislative Council did not in fact do much during this period. However, we can see an increasing desire on the part of Unofficial Members to have greater control and more responsibility. So in 1921 we find an Unofficial Member asking for a Standing Committee of Public Accounts, which would exercise a stronger control over the executive branch. This was the origin of the Public Accounts Committee which, with a careful Auditor-General, could promote more efficient administration. But on the whole the Governor continued to exercise executive power without much control by the Legislative Council.

So the more important political developments took place elsewhere. In 1915 there were the Sinhala-Muslim riots, which the Colonial administration saw as a threat to their authority. They believed that the main reason for the disturbances was growing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. However, protests against the harsh punishments given by the government, and raising the issue before the British government in London, were the work mainly of Ponnambalam Ramanathan and EW Perera, who were respectively a Hindu Tamil and a Christian Sinhalese.

Government Reform: Steps towards self-government

By  the end of the decade  the Members of the Legislative Council saw that they were in fact powerless. So they began to ask for some self-government. Fortunately perhaps for Ceylon, Britain by now saw  that colonies could no longer be governed autocratically, and Ceylon was small enough to experiment with. A Commission that was set up recommended far-reaching changes that made us the first colony, apart from those like Australia that consisted largely of European immigrants, to have universal adult franchise and local Ministers.

The State Council elected in 1931, under what is known as the Donoughmore Constitution, had 50 Members elected on a territorial basis, with 8 Members nominated by the Governor for other unrepresented  interests. In addition 3 Officers of State, namely the Chief, Legal and Financial Secretaries, also sat in the Council. The election was not fought on party lines. There were three main parties from which members contested, namely the National Congress, the Liberal Party and the Labour Party, but they did not nominate candidates and their leaders offered support to members of other parties too.

The 58 unofficial Members divided themselves into 7 Executive Committees, which covered various Government departments. Each of these elected its Chairman who was appointed Minister. These 7 and the 3 Officers of State made up the Board of Ministers. 3 of the elected Ministers were from the National Congress, 3 from the Liberal Party and one, the Muslim Macan Markar, was an independent.

All this was an experiment in representative and responsible government that had not been tried elsewhere in a conquered colony. It seemed to be leading to Cabinet Government on the British model. In fact it should be noted that adult franchise was recommended by the Commission without any organized political group asking for it. Most established politicians opposed the proposal, though once it was granted no one could complain publicly that the country was not yet ready to be a full fledged democracy.

One important feature of this type of democracy is that it increases the influence of the majority. The new constitution abolished what is termed communal representation, that is a system of representation which ensures a certain number of members of particular racial or religious groups. This change was opposed by many of those who had represented the Tamils earlier, and in fact the Northern Tamils boycotted the first State Council election. However the Indian Tamils contested the election, and one of them became a Minister in the first State Council.

One important aspect of the Donoughmore Constitution was its institution of territorial electorates, where to be elected an individual had to develop a close relationship with people living in a particular area. Before the State Council, a tradition had developed in which the main link between the foreign government and the local people was the Chief Headman in the recognized form of Mudaliyar, Ratemahatmaya and Maniagar. These were selected from influential families in the area, though occasionally when an outsider was appointed, the influence of his family in the area could increase.

With the new system the representatives elected by the people also achieved a high status. But they recognized that they had to work to maintain it, since they needed to win a subsequent election. At the same time, conflicts between them and the headmen appointed by the government arose. However, given their influential position at the centre of affairs in Colombo, by 1937 the new class had begun to take over from the old headmen. And an even older social power structure, the feudal system of patronage that existed before the colonial period, shifted to the elected representatives who were not only the representatives of government, but were also seen as the source of employment and the means of advancement. In this wayt, the introduction of democracy in a colonial context, in which not only the authority but also the socio-economic control of the central Government was supreme, led to the development of many roles for the elected representatives, some of which they were not always well suited to fulfil.

However, the exercise of choice by the people was clearly better than the earlier authoritarian system. The desire arose to extend this elective principle to local government too. And even though the subjects tackled by the State Council could sometimes seem populist, there was also a very practical concern with matters such as Land Development, Irrigation, Health and Education on a mass basis. Indeed, it could be said that the adult franchise of 1931 started a system of mass pressure and brought about a change in outlook on the part of the policy-makers. Legislation was introduced on subjects like a State Mortgage Bank, Buddhist Temporalities, Income Tax, Compensation to Workmen, Estate Staff, Alienation and Development of Crown Lands, Registration of Aliens, Ayurveda, Health, Education and even school mid-day meals.

The first State Council operated smoothly and both the British and the Ceylonese politicians, who were now becoming almost a professional breed, were happy with the experiment. The Tamils accepted the system and came into the Council through elections in mid-term, and seemed all ready to participate fully in the next State Council. Elections to this took place in 1936. When the time came to divide into Committees and elect Chairmen however, it was found that all the Ministers were Sinhalese. This upset the Tamils, and added to their desire to have separate political groupings, as well as a Constitution that safeguarded their rights against what they saw as potential threats from an insensitive majority.

The problem was made worse by the fact that, with the outbreak of the Second World War, elections to the State Council were postponed. So the Board of Ministers set up in 1936 continued in office until well after the war. The only change was that the leader, Sir Baron Jayatilaka, who was felt by his younger colleagues to have outlived his usefulness, was persuaded to go to India as Ceylon’s Representative. He was replaced by DS Senanayake, who in effect functioned as leader of the Board of Ministers, even though the Chief Secretary was still Chairman and two other important government positions continued to be occupied by British officials.