Imposition of civic disability on Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranayake- a monumental political mistake
by Prof. W. A. Wiswa Warnapala, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs

Sri Lanka’s electoral process since l956 has displayed unique features, and the Sri Lankan masses have demonstrated a political maturity and a skill in using the right to vote, and the Sri Lankan experience in changing governments at periodical elections is unique for a country practising parliamentary democracy. In the Sri Lankan experience, governments have succeeded governments as a result of sharp national electoral swings, and this could be easily attributed to the direct consequence of the universal franchise of 1931, obtained perhaps for the first time by any former British Colonial country.

The 1977 July general election in Sri Lanka witnessed a landslide victory for the United National Party (UNP), reducing the SLFP representation in Parliament to negligible proportion and the left wing parties, which continuously maintained a representation in Parliament since 1948, were reduced to nought. The UNP government, armed with an easy two third majority, made use of this majority to set up several commissions to investigate the former ministers of the SLFP regime; the appointment of the Commissions of Inquiry to investigate matters of public concern had become a familiar phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics. It was thought that such investigations would enable people to form proper judgement on matters of public concern and thereby to guarantee confidence in the working of public institutions and the conduct of public men.

Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the then Leader of the Opposition, when the appointment of the Special Presidential Commission was mooted, welcomed it on the ground that it genuiningly helped to inform the public of certain facts and circumstances that were unknown to them at the time of their occurrence. It was her view that such advantages and benefits could be achieved only when such inquiries were free from any partisan political interest; in addition such an inquiry needs to be conducted with absolute impartiality. It was for this reason that Mrs. Bandaranaike who, being a charismatic politician with a formidable following in the country, fearlessly welcomed the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry and expressed her willingness to participate in an independent and unbiased inquiry.


The strategy of the UNP and its arrogant leadership of the post - 1977 period was entirely different and it, with a view to thwarting the parliamentary opposition of the country, wanted to convert the Commission of Inquiry into an instrument of political revenge. The government of the UNP, on the other hand, shrewdly recognized its potentiality as an instrument for a very different purpose, namely, the cold blooded liquidation of chosen political opponents of the calibre of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike who still could mobilize the Sri Lankan masses to challenge the new regime. It was with that objective in view that the UNP made use of the massive majority in parliament to enact the Special Presidential Commission Law in March 1978, and the Law was amended again in the same year in order to conceal sinister motives behind the whole strategy. It was indeed an act of calculated political victimization, and the political strategy behind this facade of judicial inquiry was to destroy the formidable political personality of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and thereby to destroy the political fortunes of the SLFP.

The Special Presidential Commission Law No. 7 of 1978 was enacted, and the Constitution of 1978 was adopted in 1978, and therefore, the question of the jurisdiction of the Special Presidential Commission came to be challenged and Mrs. Bandaranaike went before the Court of Appeal and requested the grant of a Writ of Prohibition against the Commission upholding the contention that the Warrant was invalid as the law was not retrospective in its operation and did not authorise an inquiry in respect of a period prior to the law. The Court of Appeal granted a Writ of Prohibition against the Commission, and then the Prime Minister, Mr. R. Premadasa announced in parliament that steps would be taken to amend the law so as to make it retrospective. Parliament of Sri Lanka took the unprecedented steps of declaring the judgement of the Court of Appeal null and void.

Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, writing on this unprecedented act of political revenge, stated that "the law is a disgrace to our statute book and a shame on our parliamentary democracy". It was his view that "it slaps the Court of Appeal in the face, not once but at least twice over, and throws in a few knocks on the head also for good measure". This kind of political interference with the judiciary fell on deaf ears and the lawyer fraternity did not raise a cry against it. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, making a scathing attack on the whole strategy of the government stated that " to subject the citizen to civic disabilities, that is to say, to the loss of his civic right, is to sentence him to political death".

In his view it was precisely the outcome sought from the proceedings of the Special Presidential Commission. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva rightly described it as an insult to the President of the Court of Appeal and his two fellow judges - all of them were former members of the Supreme Court which then was the highest Court in the land. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, in the style typical to him, condemned this act of political interference with the judiciary to achieve political advantage over a formidable political opponent of the calibre of Mrs. Bandaranaike, "as a shameful episode in our legislative history whose adverse impact on the independence of the judiciary and on judicial independence is incalculable". It was his position that it was only through political tasks that this damage done to the Sri Lankan judiciary could be repaired. He concluded his observations on the subject by saying that "it is in the political arena that the issue will be fought and won".

With this opportunistic amendment by a parliament dominated by an arrogant majority, the Parliament of Sri Lanka deprived Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike of any legal remedy. Mrs. Bandaranaike, making a statement before the Special Presidential Commission on 7th May 1980, stated that " this was the first time in the history of this country when parliament declared void a judgement of one of the Superior Courts of this country. In the process I was deprived of the right of prosecuting my appeal before the Supreme Court. Not only did the government nullify the judgement, it went on to take away from the Court of Appeal any jurisdiction to deal with such an application as if to intimidate the Court in future cases". The strange events that followed demonstrated that the desire of the Government was " to secure my enforced exile from politics". This is where the UNP and its leaders failed as the people of this country, enmasse, wanted Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike to remain in the political field; she continued to remain in active politics and provided active leadership to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in the context of the growing political authoritarianism of the post - 1977 period.

Though everything relating to this important issue cannot be recounted here, Mrs. Bandaranaike had both political and legal reasons to withdraw from the proceedings of the Commission. Mrs. Bandaranaike, in her statement, referred to the composition of the Commission. In March 1978, President J. R. Jayewardene himself chose the Commissioners from over fifty members of the Judiciary who were eligible under section 2 of the Law for appointment. In other words, it was the President who appointed the members of the Commission and they held office at the President’s pleasure and are in law removable by him at any time. This, in effect, meant that the commission, though a judicial body, was a part of the presidential fiat or an indirect appendage of the President.

Yet another fact was that on receiving the report, it is the President who is the complainant and his political group in Parliament and not an impartial Court that will determine the punishment, namely, the imposition of civic disabilities. The UNP, with all these intentions, was requesting Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike to cooperate with them to "bring about her own political destruction". Both the President and the Prime Minister made public statements to this effect and they were trying to mobilize support for this massive assault on the formidable political personality of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

She, expressing her reasons for withdrawal from the Commission, stated that "I should not bow down to the machinations and the ruthless desire of this Government which seeks to destroy me politically and destroy democracy in this country". The Government of the UNP was concerned whether the political consequences of the course of action which Mrs. Bandaranaike had adopted will result in events similar to those that took place in relation to Mrs. Indira Gandhi in India. Mrs. Gandhi came to her triumph through the Parliamentary democratic process and not through the judicial process. It was in this scenario that the UNP became apprehensive of a parallel course of events and a similar outcome in Sri Lanka. What was necessary, at that given point of time was Mrs. Bandaranaike to remain there to fight it out herself and she did this with both tremendous energy and courage.

UNP with its massive majority and with its organized vilification campaign, could not deprive the tenacity of this great leader, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who staged a come-back in August 1994 as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, and she achieved that great political feat during the life time of J. R. Jayewardene who probably thought that with the deprivation of civic rights of Mrs. Bandaranaike that he could demolish permanently the popular base and the foundation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. It was the opposition which happened in the period after deprivation of civic rights in 1978.

The deprivation of civic rights of Mrs. Bandaranaike was a monumental political mistake committed by a political regime, the guiding force of which was political vengeance. It was during this period that the UNP, purely because of the majority it commanded within the legislature, converted political revenge into a political ideology, and its style of government was based on it. Political revenge became the art of government during the period of office of Mr. J. R. Jayewardene, who made use of every institution of Government, both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, to manipulate the system to achieve his narrow political ends.

The imposition of civic disability on Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became an integral part of that manipulative process, the aim of which was to perpetuate themselves in power. They thought that political power would remain in their hands permanently and took all measures, guided by an arrogance of power unprecedented in the political history of Sri Lanka, to de-stabilise the opposition.

Therefore the imposition of civic disability on Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike who was an elected Member of Parliament who held the office of the Prime Minister twice in Sri Lanka, was a deliberate act of political revenge, and by imposing civic disability on this powerful political personality, the UNP government, led by Mr. J. R. Jayewardene, wanted to remove her from the political landscape of Sri Lanka because they thought that she was a formidable political personality who could challenge them. She was indeed a formidable political personality whose presence in the political scene became a source of inspiration for millions of people in the country.

De-mobilise her politically

The regime of the UNP was guided by number of objectives; they wanted to de-mobilise her politically in order to achieve their objective. They, in fact, wanted a docile opposition; and they wanted to eliminate the most powerful political personality who could provide the alternative to the UNP in the country. It was in this background that the UNP majority in parliament was used to enact the Presidential Commission of Inquiry Law, No. 7 of 1978; the same piece of legislation was later amended by an Act to prevent Mrs. Bandaranaike from seeking redress through the Supreme Court.

In a liberal democracy, rulers are made accountable to the ruled through the device of a representative assembly freely elected on the basis of universal suffrage. It is a system which secures regard for individual rights and liberties by regular authorization through the rule of law and on an interpretation of the laws by an independent judiciary which is independent of the government of the day. That basis of liberal democracy was destroyed with the measures taken to impose civic disability on Mrs. Bandaranaike. The whole strategy was seen as a blue print of a kind of authoritarianism and Prof. Morris - Jones, making a critical reference to the 1978 constitution, stated that Sri Lanka’s " frightened conservatives" devised a Constitution based on Gaullism", and the Constitution, apart from the fact that it was a departure from liberal democracy, represented some variant of authoritarianism.

The purpose of the whole exercise - imposition of civic disability - was to weaken the opposition, whereas the opposition, in all new nations, has a limited and specialized role. David E. Apter, once wrote " political opposition is neither a luxury nor a danger. If it performs it, functions well, it can be of crucial service both to the government of the day and to the people of a new nation". In the West, the idea of the opposition is no longer questioned and is assumed to facilitate representation and to channel diverse demands into constructive paths. It was the attempt to destroy the established opposition, by an act of political revenge, which led to series of crises in the period when the UNP was in power since 1977.

The legislation enacted to deprive Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights was a draconian piece of legislation, which sought to deprive her of civic rights for a period of 7 years. In effect, it meant that Mrs. Bandaranaike was to be deprived of her seat in parliament. In addition, its purpose was to prevent her from voting or being elected to the next parliament, disqualify her from contesting the office of President and debar her from holding any public office. This act of political revenge was an attempt to sentence a person to virtual political death. What was at stake was not merely the individual rights of the person concerned, but the rights of the mass of people to choose its leaders. The strategy adopted here in this case, especially through the proceedings and findings of the Special Presidential Commission, was to prevent Mrs. Bandaranaike from contesting the Presidential Election of 1982; this, in fact, was the major political objective. In other words, Mr. J. R. Jayewardene, in his greed for power, wanted to de-mobilise his main opponent.

The Resolution to deprive Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights was passed on 16th October 1989; it represented yet another blow to parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, that illustrious leader who made a tremendous contribution both locally and internationally, for the development of the country and the political modernization in Sri Lanka, making her historic statement in parliament, said that the Resolution was intended to assassinate her politically, and was motivated by a political need to de-mobilise politically a person who had become the Prime Minister of this country for a period of 12 years. Sri Lanka Freedom Party, with its network of party branches throughout the country, organised a campaign of protest and the UNP, in order to divert popular attention from this act of revenge, gave a different interpretation stating that it was an attempt to topple the government. The move of the SLFP was to mobilize the masses against the act of grave injustice done to its leader.

Mr. Amirthalingam speaking in parliament on 16th October 1980 stated that this is a political punishment; this is a political murder; this is a political killing. You are seeking to kill the position of the Member for Attanagalla, that is the greatest punishment which could be meted out.

Retrospectively and retro-actively you are creating offences and are meting out punishment which are not in keeping with the fundamental rights you have guaranteed and which are a violation of the Universal Charter of Human Rights. Mr. Amirthalingam, speaking further, made an interesting political argument; he in fact, stated that "the only forum before which political offences of this type can be agitated is the forum of the hustings. The people have given the verdict. People have returned Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike to this House. You must respect the judgement passed by the masses of Attanagalla. You have no right now to sit in judgement on what the voters of Attanagalla have done". It was his view that the civic rights of a person who has been elected to Parliament by the popular free vote cannot be removed.

Mrs. Bandaranaike, making a very lengthy statement in Parliament, traced her political career from the time of the assassination of late Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and made use of this occasion to refer to numerous services which she rendered the nation in the period when she held the office of the Prime Minister. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, she referred to the major political challenges which she faced as Prime Minister and the nature of measures which she took to protect and preserve the democratic tradition of the Sri Lankan State.

Seaking on her role in the international arena, Mrs. Bandaranaike said that "as Chairman of the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, I had opportunities to seek solutions to several problems the less developed countries had. I was able to be of help in resolving several issues arising at international levels, acting always in accordance with the principles of the Non-Aligned Movement. I initiated moves to make the Indian Ocean a Peace Zone. I took action to have the rights of this country acknowledged in respect of a Zone up to a 200 miles limit off on shores." Despite all these emotional appeals and entreaties, the Government of the UNP decided to impose civic disability on Mrs. Bandaranaike and Parliament passed the law with 139 voting for the expulsion resolution and 19 voting against it of the 139 who voted for her expulsion from Parliament only 11 MPs are in the present Parliament of the 19 MPs who opposed it, only 2 MPs are in this Parliament and they are Mr. Anura Bandaranaike and Mr. R. Sambanthan.

The expulsion of Mrs. Bandaranaike from Parliament and the imposition of civic disability on her, in my view, created an imbalance within the Sri Lankan political system, and it, thereafter, gave birth to a process of political retardation in the country. A process of decline in democratic politics began and the entire system, though it underwent changes both politically and constitutionally, became subject to a process of manipulative politics."

Good parliamentary governance which the country experienced since the grant of political independence, began to decline, and an era of political authoritarianism was inaugurated in Sri Lanka. Dr. Chanaka Amaratunga, writing in the Observer of 18th March 1976 had this to say "even his partisan biographer (Prof. K. M. de Silva) is making a very feeble attempt to justify the depriviation of civic rights of Mrs. Bandaranaike by Mr. J. R. Jayewardene who always claim that he is democratic."

The principles of public accountability and the public exposure of how power has been utilized by those to whom power was entrusted with is a desirable thing in any democratic society. Public accountability is at the heart of good governance and it has to do with holding governments responsible for their acts. Therefore any inquiry into such matters need to be based on certain safeguards. In respect of the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry Act, such safeguards were not available.

The Civil Rights Movement, in a statement issued on 10th December 1980, stated that this piece of legislation "inflicted a kind of second class justice for political offenders". It further stated that offences such as "abuse of power are vague and hitherto unknown to the law". It argued that all provisions of this piece of legislation were against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Article 25 of the Covenant says that "every citizen shall have the right to participate in public life, including the right to vote and to be elected without unreasonable restrictions". This clearly explains that the imposition of civic disability on Mrs. Bandaranaike was a violation of International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights.

Political revenge did not stop there. The Government of the UNP extended it to cover the Election Law which they amended to prevent such persons - whose civic rights have been removed - from campaigning or participating in parliamentary or presidential elections. If they do so they commit a criminal offence and the candidates may be disqualified. These extraordinary measures explained that the purpose was not to cleanse public life but to prevent a formidable opponent from playing her due role in politics. With such measures, including a draconian piece of legislation, the UNP did not succeed in eliminating Mrs. Bandaranaike from the Sri Lankan political landscape. She, with both political determination and tenacity, fought back and Mrs. Bandaranaike, despite her civic disability, remained the most formidable political personality of the opposition.

She galvanized the party and the masses were given proper leadership and thereby paved the way for the emergence of the People’s Alliance and the eventual defeat of the UNP in 1994. There is one important lesson which the UNP in the opposition and Mr. J. R. Jayewardene, in his dotage, must have learnt from the whole episode. No political movement with a mass base can be permanently destroyed by attacking a leader.

It is my conviction that the philosophy of the movement as well as the dynamism of the masses would emerge one day to enthrone the leader of that movement in power. It was this great triumph that we witnessed in 1994 with its historic victory. UNP has failed miserably in their attempt to erase the name of Mrs. Bandaranaike from the political landscape of Sri Lanka; they also failed in their machination to destroy the popular foundation of the SLFP. There is yet another lesson in history.

It is an irony of fate that Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka again during the lifetime of Mr. J. R. Jayewardene who was certain to have repented on the monumental political mistake which his government committed in October 1980.


Powered By -

Produced by Upali Group of Companies