The hand that stoked the kitchen fire, went on to rock a nation.
What does she know of politics?” scornfully asked a cousin of the assassinated prime minister of Ceylon, Solomon (“Solla”) Bandaranaike, when his widow Sirima announced that she was taking over his party’s leadership in 1960.
“In Solla’s time Sirima presided over nothing fiercer than the kitchen fire,” continued Paul Pieris Deriyanagala, who was best man at the Bandaranaikes’ wedding. “She’ll end by spoiling her personal reputation and ruining the family name.”
Few forecasts have proved so mistaken. Thanks to Sirima Bandaranaike, who died of a heart attack aged 84 on 10 October, even more than to her husband, the name of Bandaranaike became a legend. She not only became the world’s first woman prime minister, but went on to head the government three times. She altered the face of Ceylon, in many ways controversially, made it a republic and changed its name to Sri Lanka. More than that, Bandaranaike became one of the third world’s best-known leaders, rubbing shoulders with Indira Gandhi, Chou en Lai, Marshal Tito and others in the heyday of the Non-Aligned Movement. A cauldron far, indeed, from the kitchen fire and, at home at least, much fiercer.
Yasmine Gooneratne, another cousin within the vast Bandaranaike clan who recounted “Uncle Paulie’s” scathing comments in her memoirs of the family, Relative Merits, describes “Aunt Sirima” as “the most formidable and charismatic leader the country has ever seen”. And in the words of Maureen Seneviratne, her biographer: “If Mr Bandaranaike’s stature as a politician and leader was built up over decades of campaigning, Sirimavo (the suffix “-vo” denotes respect) donned hers like a cloak that had been lying in her wardrobe for years, unworn, but which had been pressed and kept ready for wearing at any given moment.”
Sirima Bandaranaike was the daughter of a prominent Sinhalese family in the Kandyan hill country—a perfect match for the wealthy low-country Bandaranaike with his driving political ambition. Like many similar families, the Bandaranaikes were thoroughly anglicised and held prominent positions in the colonial regime. But although many leading Kandyan families also served the government and adopted English first names, most remained staunchly Buddhist and preserved Sinhalese traditions. Sirima’s was just such a family. Her father, Barnes Ratwatte (named, like her husband-to-be, after a British governor-general), was seen as an excellent match for her mother, daughter of a wealthy and powerful Kandyan chief headman.
Wanting the best education—which had to be English—for Sirima, the eldest of six children, her parents sent her at the age of eight to a convent boarding school in Colombo. But they ensured that she remained a devout Buddhist, and spoke Sinhala as fluently as English. After leaving school she threw herself into social welfare work, walking miles through jungles and over mountains to distribute food and medicines, organise clinics and develop village industries. She became a great favourite of the Sinhalese peasantry, acquiring a reputation that proved invaluable to both her husband and herself. Her marriage in 1940 to Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, then a brilliant young Oxford-educated colonial government minister, was dubbed “the wedding of the century”. Both were from the top Goyigama caste of landowners, and their horoscopes were “found to match perfectly”. And if he did not know the rural Sinhalese as she did, Bandaranaike instinctively sensed their needs and aspirations. But neither knew anything about the Tamil minority, their language, their culture or their needs and aspirations. This often led them to ignore the Tamils or make fatal blunders.
At first, Sirima’s public role was merely that of a dutiful wife. Her eldest child, Sunethra, was born in 1943, followed by Chandrika and finally a boy, Anura. But in 1948, as the island edged towards independence, the shy, methodical wife and mother found her home invaded at all hours by her mercurial husband’s friends discussing politics and demanding refreshment. Throughout their married life, according to James Manor in his biography of Bandaranaike, The Expedient Utopian, “her main difficulty was her husband’s male chauvinism”. He cites a possibly apocryphal, but indicative, story about a delay in tea being served at one such gathering in their Colombo house, to the host’s irritation. When it appeared at last and she retired to the kitchen, he shouted: “Sirima!”
A shy figure appeared at the door again. ‘These gentlemen,’ he explained, ‘drink tea with sugar. For the sugar to get into the cup, there must be some instrument. You have not put a spoon in the sugar bowl.’ “And the dutiful wife went to fetch a spoon, and Mr Bandaranaike quipped: ‘We have to think for them too’.” She made no complaint. No wonder the men failed to foresee what a forceful leader she would be—”perhaps too forceful”, Manor adds dryly.
But she soon became Bandaranaike’s valued confidante in private. It was she who persuaded him to resign from the government and the ruling United National Party (UNP) in 1951. She had long been aware of his exasperation at the social and political immobility since independence. Two months later, he formed the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) with democratic socialism and Sinhalese resurgence at its heart, setting the stage for party political battle lines for the rest of the century. General elections the following year brought her first baptism of political fire, as she campaigned on her husband’s behalf in his constituency, while he carried his new party’s message to the rest of the country. Her reward was the biggest majority for him of any candidate, though the SLFP won only nine seats.
But at the next elections in 1956, Bandaranaike’s SLFP won by a landslide and formed a left-wing coalition. The key factor in his victory was the promise to replace English by Sinhala as the island’s sole official language—the “Sinhala only” policy, a watershed in its history. This was aimed against the dominance of the English-speaking elite, but in fact sowed the seeds of bitter conflicts, with the Tamils. Bandaranaike used Sinhalese chauvinism to gain power, but found he could not control it. And though the influential Buddhist monk who planned his murder in 1959 was motivated primarily by personal grievances, this chauvinism played a part in it.
For Sirima, his death was a traumatic tragedy. She was in the garden of their house, always open to visitors, when she heard a commotion and rushed indoors to find her husband collapsing, gravely wounded, with a Buddhist monk pointing a gun at him. She courageously flung herself at the gunman, who was then felled by police fire, but Bandaranaike died in hospital the next day. Sirima was given little time to grieve in peace. The following year she succumbed to the SLFP’s desperate pleas to assume the party leadership, and led it to victory on a wave of sympathy. The world’s first woman prime minister took office in triumph.
In the next four years, Sirima forged ahead with the socialist reform programme her husband had initiated—and indeed went further. The island was thrust full-tilt into the emerging Non-Aligned Movement; foreign oil companies and the Bank of Ceylon were nationalised, bringing an end to US aid; Soviet aid was sought for industrialisation projects; and education was reformed in favour of the Buddhist Sinhalese. But she paid a high price. Some SLFP MPs crossed the floor and the government collapsed at the end of 1964. She lost the next year’s elections, but was herself elected to parliament for the first time.
Five years on came sweet revenge. In 1970, the United Left Front led by the SLFP won a two-thirds majority in Parliament and the socialist bandwagon set off again at full speed. But not fast enough for the militant and disaffected youths of the extreme left-wing People’s Liberation Front, the JVP. Having benefited from her education reforms, they found there were still no jobs for them, so in 1971 they launched an insurrection—which she swiftly crushed, though at the cost of an estimated 1,000 young lives. More than 10,000 were jailed, but most were later released, many after facing trial. Deeply shaken, the government pressed on hurriedly with land reform, the nationalisation of the tea estates and a new republican constitution, which changed Ceylon’s name to Sri Lanka and made Buddhism the state religion—to the dismay of the mainly Hindu Tamils.
Bandaranaike also imposed rigid state control over the economy, which had the now familiar consequences. Under the impact of soaring oil prices, living standards collapsed in a welter of rationing, bureaucracy and corruption. As a result, her SLFP was routed in the 1977 elections, winning a derisory eight seats. The UNP, led by J R Jayawardene, secured a 75 percent majority, which he used ruthlessly to tighten the authoritarian regime Sirimao had imposed in her second term. He revised the 1972 Constitution and had himself elected executive president, setting up an oppressive state with mere trappings of democracy. Vindictively, in 1980 he had Sirima’s civic rights suspended for seven years for abuse of power—of which he himself soon became much more guilty.
With Bandaranaike unable to play any public role, the SLFP was riven by discord. In the difficult years ahead, her main task was to hold the party together and, with very few cards to play, to counter Jayawardene’s devious but masterly manoeuvres. Succession to the party leadership became a bone of contention between her son Anura, who was moving to the right, and her daughter Chandrika, who eventually broke away and, with her popular film star husband Vijaya Kumaratunga, formed their own left-wing party (one of whose main aims was to seek a rapprochement with the Tamils). But with her civic rights restored in 1985, Bandaranaike recovered her place as unchallenged leader and the SLFP’s fortunes rose again. After Kumaratunga’s assassination in 1988, Chandrika eventually rejoined the SLFP and, proving herself a consummate politician, secured the party leadership in 1994 at the expense of Anura, who had angrily crossed over to the UNP. But, said Bandaranaike consolingly, “He’s my son and I love him.”
These were years of mounting violence, more often than not initiated by the government or the ruling UN!’. After the nation-wide pogrom against Tamils in 1983, they took to armed resistance with such effect that in 1987, India sent in troops to impose a peace settlement. It failed but Bandaranaike, once India’s greatest ally on the island, hotly opposed the intervention in the name of the Sinhalese nationalism she had long since embraced. Without influence either in Delhi or among the Tamils, she was powerless to sway events. Nor could she prevent rising violence in the south. In 1989 the JVP, now more chauvinist than Marxist, was crushed by the UN!’ government with vastly greater brutality than in 1971. Estimates of young people killed vary between 30,000 and 70,000; no prisoners were taken and no trials held—in sharp contrast to Bandaranaike’s treatment of the JVP.
Her last bid for power was in the presidential elections of 1988 and the parliamentary polls of 1989. With the cards stacked so heavily against her by Jayawardene and his successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, she could hardly win—though despite all the violence and electoral manipulation he used, Premadasa secured only 50.1 percent of the votes. However, the UNP lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament, its chief weapon in manipulating the Constitution. What finally broke the government was Premadasa’s assassination in 1993. But reluctant though she was to hand over the reins, age was telling on Bandaranaike. Impressed by Chandrika’s brilliant campaigning, she stepped down just before the parliamentary elections in August 1994. It may have been part of the deal that when Chandrika also won the presidential elections three months later, she appointed her mother prime minister—a symbolic act intended to extirpate Jayawardene’s injustice over her civic rights. But power remained in her daughter’s hands.
With a far more cosmopolitan outlook than her mother, and influenced by her late husband’s ideals, Chandrika made a genuine effort to come to terms with the Tamils. But her father’s miscalculations, her mother’s ignorance and neglect of the Tamils, and what can only be described as Jayawardene’s cynical viciousness towards them, created a legacy of Sinhalese intransigence and Tamil fanaticism which may have made the task impossible.
The Bandaranaikes, husband and widow, unquestionably broke the stifling colonial ethos of the English-speaking elite, and restored dignity and a rightful place to the Sinhalese. But it was done largely by exploiting their chauvinism and at the expense of the Tamils, not least because Bandaranaike, like most Sinhalese, had little concept of the island as a multi-ethnic whole. If a country may be judged by how it treats its minorities, the failure to treat them properly in Sri Lanka has carried a fearsome price, which even yet has not been fully paid.