Exit, an elder stateswoman

Published : Aug 19, 2000 00:00 IST

Sirima Bandaranaike, who relinquished the prime ministership of Sri Lanka on August 10, has a remarkable record in political life.


SIRIMA BANDARANAIKE, who relinquished office voluntarily on August 10 as Sri Lanka's Prime Minister under a system of executive presidency, has been a dominant matriarchal figure on the island's political landscape for more than 40 years. She created his tory as the world's first woman Prime Minister when appointed on July 21, 1960 and was the world's oldest serving Premier when she stepped down at the age of 84. She was Prime Minister during 1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2000 and Leader of the Opposition Le ader during 1965-70 and 1989-1994.

Born on April 17, 1916 as the eldest child of a Kandyan Sinhala aristocrat, Barnes Ratwatte, Sirima was educated at Colombo's St. Bridgette's Convent. She married Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike from a leading downcountry Sinhala family in 1940. She was cont ent to be a housewife for 20 years while her husband went on to win political laurels as Minister, Opposition Leader and then Prime Minister.

After the assassination of her husband by a Buddhist monk in 1959, a reluctant Sirima was propelled to political centre stage. The Sinhala Buddhist nationalist party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, founded by her husband, found itself leaderless and party seniors prevailed upon her to take over.

When the relatively young and inexperienced Sirima led her party to victory at the polls and went on to become Prime Minister, the precedent was established for two major developments. On a regional level, it was the harbinger of dynastic politics in Sou th Asia. At a global level, Sirima pioneered the arrival of women as heads of state. It is said that the term "stateswoman" was coined by the British press to describe her.

The Bandaranaikes are the acknowledged first family in Sri Lankan politics. Since the country achieved Independence in 1948, members of the family have been heads of state for 22 years and Leaders of Opposition for 20 years. A unique and perhaps unsurpas sable record was established when the Bandaranaikes' daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, like her parents, became Prime Minister in 1994. She then went on to become the first woman executive President, while her mother Sirima was appointed Premier. The moth er-Prime Minister and daughter-President combination was yet another feat by the family. Sirima's son Anura too is in politics, as an Opposition member of Parliament and was also earlier a Cabinet Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

Sirima Bandaranaike was quite unfamiliar with matters of foreign policy when she first became Prime Minister in 1960. She mastered statecraft and the nuances of international politics while in office. Mingling with great leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Josef Tito, and "Bung" Sukarno, she made a name for herself. Like her husband she faithfully adhered to the principle of non-alignment as the cornerstone of her foreign policy. Her crowning achievement came when she wa s elected unofficial head of the developing world at the fifth Non-aligned summit of 1976, held in Colombo.

On a practical level, the success of her foreign policy was realised when the Marxist-Leninist-oriented Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) launched an armed revolt against her government in April 1971. Most nations, including the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, China, Britain, France, India and Pakistan, rallied to her aid and provided assistance of different types. It was a rare instance, at the height of the Cold War, of countries divided among themselves bonding in common cause t o help a "friend". In a gesture of benign intervention, India deployed aircraft and personnel as part of indirect logistical support.

Despite having been the recipient of Indian assistance, Bandaranaike did not hesitate to afford refuelling facilities to Pakistan in Colombo, when the Bangladesh war of liberation broke out. Although an irritant to New Delhi at the time, Bandaranaike was compelled by regional realpolitik to do so then.

Years later she spearheaded an anti-India campaign in 1987-88, against the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord signed by her arch political rival, J.R. Jayewardene, with Rajiv Gandhi. In spite of these developments, Bandaranaike's worldview, as in the case of daughter Chandrika, was not anti-Indian.

In fact, it is to the credit of Sirima that she was mindful of India's interests in the region and avoided areas of friction as far as possible. She did not, for example, plunge the country into a pro-Western and anti-Indian mode as Jayewardene did prio r to the accord. A creditable accomplishment was her resolving the contentious issue of "statelessness" of plantation workers of Indian origin living in the central highlands of the island, estimated at 975,000. The accord with her Indian counterpart, La l Bahadur Shastri, in 1964 provided for India taking 525,000 such people, and Sri Lanka 300,000, leaving a residue of 150,000. Known as the Sirima-Shastri Pact, it was hailed as a diplomatic breakthrough. In 1974 a second accord with Prime Minister Indir a Gandhi saw both countries absorbing 75,000 each of the balance. This agreement also placed the Kachchativu island under Sri Lanka's control while ensuring certain rights for Indian fishermen.

Sirima Bandaranaike was an ardent advocate of the Indian Ocean peace zone proposal, a concept welcomed by New Delhi then. She also played a tightrope-walking role as a "limited" mediator during the India-China war of 1962.

The cordial relationship between India and Sri Lanka during the tenure of the Bandaranaikes was also personified by the friendship enjoyed by the family with their Indian counterparts, the Nehru-Gandhis. A much-publicised photograph of both families led to a guessing game in the 1970s. Of the figures in the photograph, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bandaranaike, Sirima and Indira Gandhi had become Prime ministers. The question was who among the children would become Premiers. Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s and Chandrika Kumaratunga in the 1990s provided the answers.

In the domestic sphere, Sirima adopted a socialist policy like her husband. Various private enterprises were nationalised. Ceilings were imposed on landholdings and number of houses owned. The single largest group of private newspapers was taken over. St ate-owned institutions were set up to control and run most industrial and commercial ventures. Estates as well as schools were nationalised. Although she came from a feudalistic landowning family, Sirima Bandaranaike did not hesitate to work against her own class interests. Personally she forfeited thousands of acres of land to the state because of her land reform policy.

Her economic policies and populist measures, however, did not bear fruit but plunged the country into ruin over the years. Her association with Trotskyite and Communist parties, resulting in the coalition government of 1970, saw the country become a repu blic with a new Constitution in 1972. The name of the country was changed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. She also faced a coup attempt in 1962.

At the height of power, Sirima was akin to a venerated figure. Sycophants would prostrate themselves before her or touch her feet. Officials would back out from her presence and address or reply her as one would to royalty in the past. Defence service ch iefs would carry her luggage personally on trips. Once women from a socially inferior caste laid down their hair as a carpet for her to walk on, but she declined the offer.

The situation changed when she was out of power. The ruthless manner in which her government suppressed the JVP revolt also came under criticism. After her electoral defeat in 1977, her successor, Jayewardene, set up a Presidential Commission of inquiry and it found her "guilty" of abuse of power. She was stripped of her civic rights and parliamentary membership in 1980. In spite of being a legal "non-person", she held on to party leadership and fought a tenacious political battle. After her civic right s were restored in 1986, she contested for presidentship in 1988 but was defeated. She functioned as the Leader of the Opposition from 1989 to 1994. She may very well have become the President in 1994 but for poor health. Handicapped by diabetes and a fo ot ailment, she was confined to a wheelchair during her recent prime ministerial tenure. However, she is mentally alert and agile.

Sirima's handling of the Tamil national question left much to be desired. Her attempt to push Sinhala as the sole language of official administration led to a mass satyagraha by Tamil politicians, leading to a paralysis of government institutions in the North and the East. She responded by declaring a state of emergency and sending in the Army to break up non-violent protests. Tamil leaders were placed under house arrest. In 1966, she led a campaign against limited rights being awarded to Tamils through district councils.

In the 1970s, it was her government that introduced medium-wise standardisation for university admissions, thereby depriving deserving Tamil students of tertiary education. Tamils were discriminated against in government employment as well.

The 1972 Constitution aggravated ethnic tensions by discarding provisions extending protection to the minorities, affording foremost position to Buddhism and making the country a unitary state. When Tamils dissented, a large number of youth were incarcer ated for long periods without trial. Arguably, the seeds of the Tamil secessionist campaign were sown during Sirima's rule though Tamil farmers became quite prosperous because of her import substitution policies, which encouraged the raising of cash crop s.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that Sirima Bandaranaike was an incorruptible figure. Her financial integrity has been beyond reproach. Her personal conduct too has been without blemish. After decades of service to the people whose lot she helped bette r, the elder stateswoman of Sri Lanka retires, to enjoy serene bliss in her twilight years.

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