SRI LANKA: A Tragic Transformation: The Strange Case Of The 1978 Constitution

By Basil Fernando

I have borrowed the title of this article from the immortal work of Robert Lewis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This novel is about a mysterious and tragic transformation caused by the use of certain chemicals. By the use of such chemical concoctions, Dr. Jekyll, an amiable, compassionate and respected individual, achieved greater community approval. However, it brought into being another person— Mr. Hyde. He was the very opposite of Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Hyde was evil and had an uncontrollable passion for crime. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were one and the same person and by a chemical process one could be transformed into the other. Through the regular practice of this process, Mr. Hyde became stronger than Dr. Jekyll. And when the evil and the monstrous side became stronger, Dr. Jekyll finally destroyed himself and his creation, leaving a narrative of what took place in the hands of his lawyer.

What took place in Sri Lanka was not a process of chemical transformation; it was a transformation brought about through constitutional means. These constitutional means were the creation of one single person, Prime Minister J. R. Jayawardena. He was the leader of a party that won an overwhelmingly large majority in Parliament. He promised an election within a year during which he transformed himself into what we call an Executive President.

This was a tragic transformation. It was not merely a transformation of an individual but the transformation of the entire social and legal structure of Sri Lanka. The transformation was tragic for the individual concerned, and for all other individuals who will hold that post, and also for the entire nation. The nation’s structural framework of administration was exposed to this tragic and evil transformation. No one living in Sri Lanka thereafter has ever found a way of getting out of this enormously evil trap. The country today is poorer, the administrative structure has suffered an irreparable decline, and rationally-organized life has become almost impossible. That part of the consequences of the 1978 Constitution has been discussed by many and in some of my previous writings. Therefore, the purpose of this article is npy to repeat the consequences of this transformation.

Instead, the question that is being asked is: why did this man named J. R. Jayawardena embark on this dangerous path and cause this tragic situation? In the case of Dr. Jekyll, it was the adventurism of a scientist. He engaged in a chemical experiment to exploit what he thought were great possibilities in an area that no other scientist had embarked on. Mr. J. R. Jyawardena was not a scientist experimenting to prove a possible hypothesis. Therefore, we can exclude the possibility of his purpose being to construct a new theoretical position and the possibility of a better constitutional system. Such as quest would be based on bringing the better side of himself and his country to the forefront. In reality, judging by his career, J. R. Jayawardena did not prove himself to be driven that way. He was not a theoretician or a noted professional in any field, including his chosen profession as a lawyer.
In the political field he was in many ways a failure, up to the point of the victory for the party he left in 1977. His attempt to raise the price of rice gave rise to the greatest mass protest known since 1953, when a great hurdle surfaced against this measure. Three years later, the party of which he was a leader was brought to an ignominious defeat by a former colleague of his in D. S. Senanayake’s Cabinet, S. W. R. D. Bandaranayke. After that, until 1977, there was no great achievement or event with which his name was associated. He was mentioned in a more negative light, as a person who exacerbated the ethnic crisis, by leading a protest against the Bandaranayake-Chelvanayagam Pact.

This aspect of JR Jayawardena’s failures as a political leader, and him never having become a popular leader in his own right, is important. It is part of understanding the transformation he caused within such a short time after coming into political power. It is without doubt that the personal element of himself remaining in the center of power was one of the motivating factors for him to undertake this tremendous constitutional experiment.

Judging by his own repeated statements, he understood that given a free and fair election, people always voted against the government that was in power. Therefore the period of any government was limited to the 5 years for which it was elected. This, he felt, had to be prevented, because, despite the large majority he obtained, within 5 years the will of the people would change. It was not the first time a particular government came to power with a two-thirds majority in Parliament. There were such governments in 1956 and 1970. But such popularity did not last long.

The new creature that he had to create by way of a new constitution was to guarantee a certain period of suspension of the electoral process. Or, as he put it, it would close the electoral map. This, he knew, was not an easy task because by 1931 adult franchise was granted, which was a step far ahead of its time in comparison to many other countries. At the same time, there had been a marked improvement in the educational level of the general population. Free education was introduced in 1945, and it was bringing in a new generation of people who had both formal education and aspirations for a better future. The importance of this could only be understood when looking at the colonial policy of education which Lord Macaulay summed up in his famous minute on education: he said that in India there was a debate on which language should be used in the education process. Would it be Sanskrit, Arabic or English? Finally, the debate decided in favor of making English the language of education in India. It was also extended to other colonies. He further said that the entire population had to be educated in English. But, as this was a task that Britain could not undertake because it was too large a project, it was decided that a small group of persons should be educated in the English language. They would work in close cooperation with the colonial powers, on whom rested the duty of educating the entire population. However, this theoretical expansion did not take place in the intended way.

In Sri Lanka, the policy caused a very significant social change that has not yet been adequately explored. The policy created a small minority of 2-3% of the population as a special privileged class who used their positions shrewdly to acquire greater wealth and social position for themselves. Thus, two nations were created. One nation had a privileged position based on two things: first, their language ability; and second, the closeness and ability they therefore had to work in cooperation with the British. Using that situation, they began to dominate the rest of the population. They used their social power and position to acquire land, wealth and social positions to the detriment of others who did not have this ability.

The manner in which this privileged group used their closeness to their British masters administrating over Sri Lanka is well illustrated in a book written about the best of times had by this class: Remembered Yesterdays. The book illustrates the manner in which they enhanced their power. The book was written by S. W. R. D. Bandaranayke’s father, Solomon Dias Bandaranayke. He explained the closeness with which they worked with the British and how the British showed their gratitude by rewarding those who served them. In much of the book he talks about the horses he reared, his dogs and the rarest of whiskies he had in his possession. Of course, there were no cars at that time and for the British officers a horse was a precious commodity. By raising valuable breeds of horses he was able to provide one of the items that the officers cared for the most. Dogs were also cherished, and good breeds of dogs enabled a greater closeness with the British. The rarest of whiskies were always available in his house. This meant close linkages with colonial officers, who would be happy to spend their evenings at a place where they were served such precious liquors.

See the Link to the book Remembered Yesterdays by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike

To be continued