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Sir James Peiris – Sri Lanka’s champion of the elective principle

One Sri Lankan, One Vote. Gruelling challenges to its easy application in recent times notwithstanding, this principle has come to almost stay in Sri Lanka’s continuing ‘friendship’ with democracy. While it is our hope that things will always remain this way, the great minds of the early decades of the century past, who made it possible for Sri Lanka’s citizenry to proudly exercise ‘the vote’, should be warmly remembered, for they were the Prime Movers of democracy in this country. Sir James Peiris is one such personality, whose hallowed memory soars above the vicissitudes of time. His 80th death anniversary which falls on May 5 this year, makes it most apposite that we continue to celebrate his memory and eagerly recall inspirational moments from his public career.

Today, the ‘elective principle’ is taken for granted by sections of Sri Lanka’s voting public, but it was the self-sacrificial efforts put in by Sir James and a few other patriots that enabled the local public to enjoy this right which is integrally bound-up with the decolonizing process of countries such as our’s. ‘Sir James Peiris was the Moses of the struggle for Freedom. He led his colleagues and his people within sight of the promised land which they entered’, so said Sri Lanka’s charismatic post-independence Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The truth of this claim is borne by the Messianic zeal with which Sir James championed the rights of his countrymen.

At the turn of the last century when Sir James was nominated to the Low Country seat in the then Legislative Council by the British Governor of those times, the offer was turned down by him on the grounds that it ran contrary to the elective principle. Perhaps, this event is of great importance in the present times when wild scrambles for National List slots in Parliament have become the norm. He later ran successfully for the Slave Island Ward in the Colombo Municipal Council, where he strove exemplarily for the public weal.

There are lessons here for current legislators and for those hoping to run for election to our legislative bodies. Sovereignty resides in the popular vote and nothing short of a vote in favour of someone running for election, could give him the total legitimacy to legislate on behalf of the people and to be a voice for them.

Later on, Sir James was in London at the request of the Under-Secretary for State in the Colonies, Colonel J.R. Sealy, to submit to the British authorities what turned out to be a historic memorandum on political reforms for Ceylon. In it a strong case was made for the abolition of the then prevailing racial representation system of election to the Legislative Council. The initiative proved successful and reforms were launched to make way for the elective principle. Standing alongside Sir James in this endeavour were, H.J.C. Pereira and E.W. Perera.

Sir James Peiris was next in the thick of the struggle for territorial representation to the Ceylonese legislature. From the time of the founding of the Ceylon National Congress in 1919, he was a member of the numerous

Sir James

bodies of the CNC charged with formulating constitutional reform proposals and other pro-people measures. As a result of these efforts, the principle of territorial representation was granted by the British authorities.

In 1921, elections to the Legislative Council were held for the first time on a territorial basis. Sir James entered the reformed Council uncontested as Member for Colombo. From then on, he firmed his campaign for full responsible governance, within the Council. A memorable event that resonates in the collective memory of the Lankan people from those times is the famous walkout of the 14 Unofficial Members of the Council in 1922, led by Sir James. It was triggered in protest against a move by the British authorities to levy new taxes to pay increased salaries to public servants.

When during the budget debate, Governor Manning, who held the reins of power then, refused to accept certain recommendations made by Sir James on behalf of the Unofficial Members, Sir James declined to take part in the proceedings and politely led the Unofficials out of the chambers to rapturous cheers from the gallery. This is considered one of his crowning moments.

Another demand championed by Sir James was granted by the British authorities in 1924. Provision was made in terms of this recommendation, for a Vice President to replace the Governor. On his return to Ceylon after the submission of this proposal, Sir James was unanimously voted to the chair of the Legislative Council and he thereafter presided over the Council, instead of the Governor. He did so until his death in 1930. He was knighted for his services to the country in 1925.

‘He was a man of peace, but he never compromised with principles. He was a man of compromise, but he never sacrificed the interests of the country. He was a nationalist before the present nationalism was born’. This was the glowing tribute paid to Sir James by fellow patriot E.W. Perera. This bouquet was bestowed at the height of the 1915 race riots in this country, when several patriots of renown, including F.R. Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake, D.B. Jayatilaka and W.A. de Silva were thrown into jail by the British authorities, suspecting that the riots were a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ revolt, engineered by them with the aim of seizing power. Despite being warned by the British authorities to keep out of the crisis, since he was a Christian, Sir James spoke out on behalf of his fellow patriots.

Sir James’ selfless devotion to the cause of Sri Lanka’s dignity and independence was further proved when he led a delegation to Britain in 1916, which included E.W. Perera and H.J.C. Pereira, to lobby British opinion for the initiation of a debate in the House of Commons on the riots in Ceylon and Martial Law excesses. These efforts produced results in that the then Ceylonese Governor Sir Robert Chalmers was recalled and Sir John Anderson was sent in his stead.

In these few facets from the public life of Sir James Peiris, it could be seen that the nationalism championed by him and his worthy colleagues was of a kind which transcended the narrow confines of ethnic chauvinism, which very often today masquerades as nationalism. Hopefully, Sri Lanka would drink deep of the enlightened politics of these illustrious sons of the land.

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