Chapter 1: The Breakdown Gang

On the outbreak of war against Japan in December 1941 it became necessary for the Ceylon Government to organise civil defence on a more intensive scale. There was already a small A. R. P.[1] organisation in Colombo under Dr D. M. de Silva[2]. On the 1st January 1942 the Auditor General, Mr O. E. Goonetilleke (now Sir Oliver Goonetilleke) was appointed Civil Defence Commissioner. The new Department moved into a bungalow in Union Place, Colombo, and an organisation of 64,000 persons, mainly voluntary workers, was suddenly built up.  For reasons which need not be explained I became honorary Deputy Civil Defence Commissioner in March 1942, and I believe that I still have the honour to hold that post; for though I sent in my resignation in March 1945 I received no reply.

The Civil Defence Department became much more than a Department dealing with civil defence. It in fact adopted the motto of one of its subsidiary organisations “Go anywhere, do anything”. For three years a staff was kept on duty day and night and there were never fewer than two staff officers in Union Place. The Commissioner himself rarely left the premises before midnight, and indeed the nightly inspection of the control rooms just before he went off duty was known as “the dawn patrol”. As head of the Department most closely in touch with the armed forces in the Island, he made it his business to smooth the relations between the civil and the military authorities, and both soon discovered that if anything out of the ordinary was required, whether by day or by night, the simplest plan was to telephone the Civil Defence Commissioner. After some months experience of the many jobs that fell to him the Commissioner christened his organisation the “breakdown gang”.

Among the functions which the Department collected were those of Food Supply and Control, and the charges which followed in Union Place are relevant to our present theme. Since the Minister of Agriculture and Lands, the Hon, D.S. Senanayake, M.S.C.[3], was in charge of Food and the Commissioner could not be constantly away from Union Place, the Minister was provided with a table in the Commissioner’s room. The Minister came in for a consultation nearly every evening and stayed for an hour or so. I usually came over from the University about the same time in order to deal with such papers as were referred to me as Deputy Commissioner and to be at hand in case the news from “Fighter Operation” suggested the need for a longer spell of duty. Nearly every evening I had a talk with the Commissioner at which we discussed not merely civil defence but the problems of the Island, past, present and future. Sometimes in fact the Commissioner called me in when the Minister was there so that we might discuss any matters that might have arrived.

When I arrived in Union Place on the evening of the 26th May 1943 the Minister was already there and a message to see him was awaiting me. Mr Senanayake handed me the Declaration by His Majesty’s Government on constitutional reform and asked me what I thought of it. I glanced at the document and saw that one would not answer that question off–hand, so I asked him what he thought of it. He said that he would like my views on exactly what it meant, but so far as he could see the offer ought to be accepted. What he wanted was Dominion status and clearly the Declaration did not go so far. It was however a step in that direction and he believed that it should be accepted as an instalment.  He was, he explained, “all for the British Empire” if the British Empire would grant freedom; and he believed in obtaining that freedom by peaceful persuasion, not by methods which Jawaharlal Nehru and others were using in India.  He would be most grateful if I would study the Declaration and let him have a note of it the next day.

No doubt Mr Senanayake knew that, privately, I have shared some of his views on constitutional reform, for I had frequently discussed them with Goonetilleke. The Colonial Office theory of self–government by evolution was admirable as a conception but broke down in practice because there was necessarily a difference of opinion about the speed of evolution which led to antagonism between the Colonial Office on the one side and the Ceylonese politicians on the other. In Ceylon as in India, too, opposition led to the assignment of mixed and more or less corrupt motives. Few believed that British reluctance was due to honest doubts about the experience of Ceylonese politicians, the absence of parties, the prevalence of racial and caste prejudice, and other characteristics which might make self–government unworkable. The common explanation was summed up in the word “imperialism”.[4] Britain was, it was said, a country which became rich, through “exploiting” colonial peoples. She had not the slightest intention of giving up control but was clever enough to mask her intention under a cloak of hypocritical phrases. Racial and caste differences were magnified, if not created, by the British so as to stimulate the Ceylonese, like the Indians, to quarrel among themselves and so put off the necessity for “freedom”: in other words, and the words were used, it was a policy of “divide and rule”. It seemed that in the conditions of South–East Asia this was an almost inevitable result of the doctrine of self–government by evolution. It was not desirable to keep a stiff upper lip and carry on the development unperturbed, for the result would be antagonism between Britain on the one hand and unperturbed Ceylon on the other which would make Dominion status unworkable and world problems more difficult. Once the process of development had begun it must be continued rapidly whatever the risks. Further, the agitation for constitutional development distracted attention from the social and economic problems of the Island.  The Ceylonese politicians took the trouble to analyse and find solutions.  They gave a highly imaginative historical account so as to “blame the British”, protested their inability to deal with the matter because the people were not “free”, and went off to a party in the belief that their job as patriotic citizens was done.

I was thus in sympathy with Mr Senanayake’s aim to secure Dominion status at the earliest possible moment, though my reasons differed from his. It had to be Dominion status, for Ceylon was neither large enough nor rich enough to dispense with such help as the Commonwealth could give by agreement. Had I not been in sympathy, however, I should have given the assistance: and indeed I was not in agreement with every sentiment that I put into the documents during the next four–and–a–half years. The university tradition in these matters is very clear. Universities are public corporations containing experts on most branches of knowledge who regard themselves as holding that knowledge in trust for humanity. If, therefore, the Government of the country, or indeed any country, requires assistance it is the duty of the university to provide it. My knowledge would have been at Mr Senanayake’s disposal even if I had not agreed with his objective, though no doubt the association was the more fruitful because I did agree.

The association of the “breakdown gang” continued throughout the four–and–a–half years between the Declaration of May 1943 and the end of December 1947. It was modified when one of us was out of the country, and after the general election of August 1947 and the establishment of the Senanayake Government with Sir Oliver Goonetilleke as Minister of Home Affairs I became a mere consultant, called in when questions of some difficulty arose. Until then, the three of us might have been described as the nucleus of a Reforms Ministry, with Mr Senanayake as Minister, Sir Oliver as Permanent Secretary, and myself as the constitutional adviser “on tap”.  The key to this unusual arrangement was, in fact, that Ceylon unlike India had no Reforms Department. Mr Senanayake as Leader of the State Council and Vice–Chairman of the Board of Ministers had no Department, while the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, of which he was head, was not suitably organised and staffed for dealing with constitutional matters.  The Civil Defence Department as such was not involved.  Dr D. M. de Silva knew what was going on and gave such administrative assistance as we needed. The typing was done by Mr Basil Candappa, a member of the Clerical Service who had become confidential clerk to Sir Oliver and who could be relied upon to do a quick and efficient job at any hour of the day or night: what is more, he knew how to keep his mouth shut, and never once was there any sort of leakage from the Civil Defence Department. The rest of the Department could have had only the vaguest idea of what was going on.

Mr Senanayake had the good politician’s unconcern with detail.   In consultation with Sir Oliver – and the relationship was so close that it was rarely possible to say whether an idea came from the one or the other – he had worked out the grand strategy. The aim was Dominion status. Any proposal which seemed to be a step in that direction should be accepted, though an effort should first be made to make it go a little further. In working out the details, the proposal should be pressed to its limits and just a little beyond. Having gone some way towards Dominion status, a suitable opportunity should be sought for presenting a demand for the next step, and if it proved impossible then to secure Dominion status, any offer which nevertheless went further should be accepted and pressed to its utmost limit.

This strategy probably owed its inception to Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. The politicians, including Mr Senanayake himself, had been bred to the “imperialist” theory which came from Marx and Engels via Lenin[5] and the Indian National Congress, though apparently none of them knew its origin. Mr Senanayake, whose greatest asset had always been his sturdy common sense, had doubts about its validity. He tended rather to the belief that British politicians were ordinary politicians and the Colonial Office a collection of ordinary civil servants. Their motives were certainly under suspicion, but they were probably not clever enough to be confidence–tricksters. They might even be honest people, doing their best by their country, but willing to help Ceylon towards “Freedom” if it could be proved that they would not get into trouble if they did. Sir Oliver had no doubt at all. He tended to treat the whole affair as a game of bridge in which Mr Senanayake had quite good cards. The British would obey the rules, and Mr Senanayake would win the rubber if he played his cards properly. Mr Senanayake was quite willing to play, though he kept a wary eye for cheating.  The analogy is of course not exact. Mr Senanayake had to carry the Ministers and the rest of the State Councils with him. A draft intended to persuade had often to be modified because the best arguments would be disliked by local politicians. We had to persuade Englishmen who had no idea that they were “imperialists” by arguments which could be read in Ceylon as if they were.

The tactics required by the strategy were thus complex and difficult to work out. The team–work was, however, highly efficient because our qualities were complementary. Mr Senanayake had a remarkable intuition which led him straight to the core of a problem. No matter how technical a question might be he would seize its essence after a short explanation. One of my advantages was that, as a university lecturer, I had long since learned to state a complicated case reasonably simply and shortly. I have seen him handle lawyers who wrapped up simple ideas in compound clauses and conditional phrases. He would say something like “As a matter of fact if you climb a coconut tree you’ll have to climb down again sometime”. I have no recollection whatever of his failing to grasp difficulty on the first explanation. What is more, he was ready with a solution immediately. It was always a sensible solution. Sometimes, though, it would not work as it stood. Frequently Goonetilleke or I could suggest a modification there and then. If not, I would take time to think it over, come back with a proposal next day, argue it with Goonetilleke, and then put it to “the Boss”. Goonetilleke himself had an uncanny knowledge of the way in which the people’s minds worked. He knew “everybody” in Ceylon, and he and the Leader together could at once say how a proposal would be received, who would oppose it, and how long he would keep the opposition going. Sir Oliver did not know my fellow–countrymen so well, but when he became too clever for simple–minded Englishmen I simply broke in with “No, No. That won’t work”.

Usually Mr Senanayake started with a germ of an idea which Sir Oliver and I would work out in a rapid cross–fire of suggestions and counter suggestions. We also produced alternative ideas which, if Mr Senanayake thought them fruitful, would again be worked out by cross–talk. In the end we developed some sort of scheme which I was left to express in words. The drafting was done either in Dr de Silva’s room next door or in my room at the Galle Face Hotel. Often I read my manuscript draft to Sir Oliver first, deleted my best phrases at his request, added precautionary clauses, and perhaps struck out whole paragraphs for re–drafting. My second draft was then typed by Mr Candappa and read to Mr Senanayake. At times Sir Oliver broke in to explain why I used a particular line of argument. Frequently Mr Senanayake began an objection with “I mean to say” or “As a matter of fact”. Such a phrase portended a deletion or an amendment, for though Mr Senanayake was not good at telling what to say he knew precisely what could not be said.

The partnership was broken for a time when Mr Senanayake went to London in July 1945. With him went Mr A.G. Ranasinghe (now Sir Arthur Ranasinghe)[6] and Dr D. M. de Silva as secretaries. Dr de Silva’s main contributions were in respect of organisation, and very valuable they were. Ranasinghe was a distinct acquisition. Having being Secretary to Mr Senanayake as Minister for Agriculture and Lands he knew well the working of his mind. He also knew, as I did not, how to state a case without creating opposition in Ceylon. In this respect we had “the breakdown gang”. On many points we could do no more than state the alternatives with their advantages and disadvantages. Whom he consulted I did not always know, though clearly Mr D. R. Wijewardene[7] and, at a later stage, Mr H. H. Basnayake[8], had considerable influence. Many of the documents, too, were debated by the Ministers and, generally, improved by them.  The incisive mind of Mr S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike[9] was particularly useful.  He saw our weak point with remarkable speed and expressed them with ruthless logic.  He represented far more than Mr Senanayake the section of opinion which was suspicious of British intensions and therefore insisted on precautions that otherwise would not have been taken.

History drawn from documents is apt to mislead because the importance of personal influences is rarely placed on record and indeed such influences are difficult to assess. As will be explained later, the Minsters did not welcome the appointment of the Soulbury Commission.[10] They thought, and as I believe thought rightly, that the terms of reference were inconsistent with the Declaration of May 1943. It was nevertheless decided not to boycott the Commission but to refrain from giving evidence and to let the situation speak for itself. Here, too, “the breakdown gang” was not without influence. Sir Oliver was in his element. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that for the first few weeks the Commission’s social engagements were organised by him. Most of the invitations which poured in were instigated by him and every effort was made to enable the Commission to meet a representative selection of the educated classes.  Fortunately the Commission was a very sociable body and obviously enjoyed itself.  It was, too, obviously impressed by the intelligence, friendliness and cheerfulness of Colombo society.  “Sinhalese domination” began to look strange when in any odd corner of a party people of all races and religions were found calling each other by their first names and laughing at each other’s jokes.  These were not strangers gathered around to impress the Commission but people who knew each other intimately.  It was true of course that Colombo society was not typical of the people; but every country has its governing class and this was the governing class of Ceylon.  Mr G. G. Ponnambalam[11], the Tamil leader, had lost his case before he began to argue it. After all, Mr Ponnambalam himself was “Pon” to a great many Sinhalese.

The impressions of the Soulbury Commission were heightened by what they saw in the country. The visitor to Ceylon is impressed by the idleness of many of her people, but he is also impressed by their orderliness and [being] good [at] a difficult task. We had to persuade British politicians and civil servants by documents which might have to be published in Ceylon. We had therefore to use arguments which were convincing in London but which were not very remote from the ideas commonly accepted by politically–minded people in Ceylon. Political opinion in the Island had largely been moulded by Indian propaganda which, at least in my view, misrepresented British policy and not only delayed the attainment of independence by India but helped to lead to strife and disorder. Ceylon was seeking independence by a different road and therefore had to use different arguments, and yet many Ceylonese used the same arguments. I did my best to think of the impact on Ceylonese opinion of what was being said in London, but Ranasinghe was much more competent in this field than I, and between us we concocted documents which, when corrected and expurgated by Mr Senanayake, seemed to be reasonably satisfactory. What is more, though I was with the Ceylon delegation only for short visits – for I was living in Cambridge – Ranasinghe was on the spot the whole time, priming Mr Senanayake for his talks with the Secretary of State, Mr George Hall[12], and the officials of the Colonial Office. I shall mention presently the importance of these talks.

Ranasinghe’s association did not end with Mr Senanayake’s return to Ceylon. It was arranged that I should follow within a few days, the Colonial Office accepting the polite fiction that I was urgently needed in the University. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke was now Financial Secretary, and we generally met at his bungalow or at Mr Senanayake’s nearby. Ranasinghe was always present and saw the drafts in the rough state. He became even more necessary during the periods when Sir Oliver was in England. In July 1947, while Sir Oliver was negotiating in London Ranasinghe’s influence was decisive. On one point of considerable importance he disagreed with me. Mr Senanayake accepted my view but Sir Oliver agreed with Ranasinghe and cabled that a part of his letter of instructions was giving him difficulty in his negotiations. Mr Senanayake very properly changed his mind and revised instructions drafted by Ranasinghe. were sent off. On this basis Sir Oliver brought the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

Nor must it be assumed that Mr Senanayake consulted only humour. The irrigation schemes may have been costly, but they do show what serious efforts have been made to overcome the jungle. Many of the schools are poor in quality but it was obvious that great efforts had been made since 1931. The importance of all this lies not merely in what the Commission said in print, but also in what its members said privately in London. Lord Soulbury in particular was a consistent friend of Ceylon. It made no great difference that a Labour government came into office in July 1945. His opinions were still important and indeed they gained force from the fact that they would probably be the opinions of the Opposition.

Finally, emphasis must be laid on the personal influence which Mr Senanayake gained in London. This was a triumph of personality rather than of organisation, for though I have no reason to believe that he was not adequately briefed and I am quite sure that the administrative arguments for which Dr de Silva was responsible were up to Colonial Office standard, it was obvious that Mr Senanayake himself created a great impression. Officially I did not exist, and so I was present at none of the conferences, but it was evident from the casual remarks thrown out by the senior officials that “Jungle John” had surprised them by the strength of his character and the sincerity of his purpose. His sense of humour helped, for it had long been accepted that in relation to Ceylon a joke was a very serious thing.    It was perhaps an advantage that Mr Senanayake had not the facility of language of the England–trained Ceylonese graduate or the slick self–assurance of the professional advocate. A Ceylonese prototype of the English official would not have made such an impression because the Colonial Office was familiar with it. It had never met Mr Senanayake’s type before.

His line of approach, too, was quite different from what they had expected. He was far too experienced a politician to tell them that they were knaves and fools. What he said in effect – in language which I cannot reproduce – was:

We are an ancient people, accustomed to governing ourselves before England was heard of. We arc a friendly people. We welcomed you in 1795.[13] We vested the Sinhalese Crown in your King in 1815.[14] You have done things of which we do not approve, but we have also learned much from you. You gave us a most difficult Constitution, but we have worked it successfully. When you lost Malaya and Burma and met antagonism in India, you came to friendly Ceylon, and we helped you. We do not ask independence as a reward. We ask it because it is in your interest as well as ours. We want to keep your friendship. Do you not want to keep ours?

Such an appeal was both unexpected and unanswerable except by a gesture of equally friendly a nature. Mr Senanayake completely captured the Colonial Office and the Secretary of State. If he had been able to meet the Cabinet I am sure that he would have obtained independence in 1945.  My own position was anomalous and therefore amusing.  My assistance could not be kept secret because the hand of the constitutional lawyer was visible in the documents.  Sir Andrew Caldecott[15] named the draftsman of the first document circulated to the Board of Ministers, but I think that he nor Sir Henry Moore[16] could quite fathom how the “breakdown gang” was functioning.  I was anxious to avoid publicity because of the danger of a suspicion that my assistance was another example of the cleverness of the British in making certain that one of themselves did the drafting.  The nearest approach that came to a public disclosure was Mr Senanayake’s remark in the State Council in replying to the debate on the White Paper, that though he had not had a university education he had good university instruction.  The association soon became known to a wide circle, however, and I was occasionally saddled with the responsibility for proposals which were not referred to me.

The story which is told in the following chapters is that which became known to me. I was not present at meetings of the Ministers, nor at Mr Senanayake’s conferences with the Secretary of State or the Governor. It must be remembered, too, that the Government of Ceylon was dyarchic.[17] The Governor represented the Colonial Office and was advised by the Chief Secretary, Sir Robert Drayton[18]. We knew that some, at least, of the telegrams sent by the Secretary of State were drafted by Sir Robert; he was therefore blamed when the Colonial Office decided to appoint the Soulbury Commission in breach of what Mr Senanayake thought to be an agreement between the Ministers and the Secretary of State. The reader will probably gather the same impression from the story as I tell it and must therefore be warned that there is another section of the story enshrined in the telegrams which passed between the Governor and the Colonial Office. I have not seen those telegrams and cannot tell that part of the story. I have a very high opinion of Sir Robert’s ability and probity, and I have an uneasy feeling that an injustice may have been done to him. It may be that the mistake which almost wrecked the negotiations was not his but that he was set the unpleasant task of justifying it. I should therefore like to make plain that my judgments, and the reader’s judgments after he has read this book, are based on a partial view of the case. We shall not know the whole truth until the official documents are made available.

[1] Air Raid Precaution organisation set up across the British Empire to assist in civilian defence against air attacks during World War II.

[2] C.C.S.; confidante of Senanayake and Jennings.

[3] Member of the State Council.

[4] Jennings originally noted “an allegation which statistics show to be nonsense”.

[5] Leading European Communist thinkers Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin.

[6] Sir Arthur Godwin Ranasinghe, senior Ceylon Civil Servant.  Held key public positions before and after independence including Secretary to the Treasury and Secretary to the Cabinet.  During this period he worked closely with Senanayake and Jennings.

[7] Don Richard Wijewardene, press baron founder of Lake House Newspapers and ally of the U.N.P.

[8] Hema Henry Basnayake K.C., Ceylon jurist; Chief Justice in 1956.

[9] Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (S.L.F.P.) Prime Minister, 1956–59.  Served as Minister of Health under Senanayake till 1951 when he crossed the House and founded the S.L.F.P.

[10] See chapter 4.

[11] Ganapathipillai Gangaser Ponnambalam K.C.; leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress.  Often referred to as “G.G.”  Ponnambalam controversially advocated that half the seats in the legislature should be guaranteed for minorities and the other half for Sinhalese members.  This policy was popularly known as “50–50” or “balanced representation”.

[12] George Hall (later Viscount Hall), British Labour Cabinet Minister; Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1945–46.

[13] The year territories ruled by the Dutch on the Island were ceded to the British, who in 1798 created the Crown Colony of Ceylon.

[14] An agreement between the Kandyan nobles and the British in March 1815 that replaced the Kandyan monarchy with the British one and completed British rule over the whole island.

[15] Sir Andrew Caldecott, Governor of Ceylon, 1937–1944.  For another personal and astute insight into local politics and negotiations with the British see Caldecott’s fifteen confidential reports, he labeled them “Things Ceylonese”, to the Colonial Secretary, which are reproduced in vol. I BDEEP.

[16] Sir Henry Monck–Mason Moore, Governor of Ceylon, 1944–1948; Governor–General of Ceylon, 1948–1949.

[17] This term refers to a policy practiced at one time in India especially where executive powers in certain administrative subjects were divided between the British appointed officials, like Drayton, and those sitting in the local legislature, like Senanayake.  The latter group was very often local politicians.

[18] Sir Robert Harry Drayton, Chief Secretary of Ceylon, 1942–1947.

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