Thursday, October 23, 2014

Whatever his Color was, Wijayananda Dahanayake (Banis Maamaa) Carried Galle

Crossovers from the opposition to the government and occasionally the other way around, have become commonplace in Sri Lankan politics today. However it has largely become a farce where politicians are more concerned about their well being rather than the people whom they represent. Some of these politicians have actually been rejected by the people in subsequent elections, while many have thrived.

Wijayananda Dahanayake, perhaps the most famous politician to have come from Galle has contested from a number of political parties in elections. He has been almost consistent in changing political parties and almost consistent in winning elections. One might dismiss his frequency in changing political parties as tricks of political expediency. There is a certain truth in it. After 1952, he did not contest consecutive elections from the same political party, except in 1960 when there were two elections in the same year. However, he did not change political parties for mere personal gain. Sometimes he changed track due to changes in his perception. On other occasions he may have done it for pure eccentricity, for he was quite well known for his eccentric behavior. Meanwhile, it could be said that political parties needed Dahanayake, sometimes more than vice versa. From whichever party he contested, people of Galle would vote for ‘Daha.’
Wijayananda Dahanayake (Artwork by Kavinda Vimarshana)

Dahanayake attracted attention through his politics and sometimes eccentric behavior. He raised black flags to protest against the coronation of King George VI in UK. He is known for the longest speech in parliamentary history of Sri Lanka, which went on for a staggering 13 and half hours. When he was selected as Prime Minister, he would create a new political party, with far-fetched dreams of becoming a powerful alternative to the main parties. This project floundered almost at once. Some years later, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was in power, he came to parliament in a loin cloth, protesting against the price of cloth.

Born in Galle on October 22, 1905, and educated at Richmond College, he worked as a teacher and published a newspaper too. He was involved in the Suriyamal Movement. In 1939, he was elected as the first Sinhalese, Buddhist Mayor of Galle.

When he wanted to enter national politics, he waited till an opportunity came. It arrived in Bibile, long way from home, where a by-election was held. He was elected from Bibile and entered the State Council.

From the first parliamentary election in 1947, he contested from Galle and generally won most of the elections. First he contested from the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and won the 1947 election with a lead of 2496 votes. Five years later in 1952, his lead was 5000 votes.

Soon after the 1952 election, Dahanayake was expelled from the LSSP for welcoming Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake to the ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a Town Hall for Galle. There had obviously been differences between the former revolutionary and his party. This was evident when Dahanayake founded the ‘Sinhala Bhasha Peramuna’ or the ‘Sinhala Language Front’ arguing that Sinhalese should be the official language of the country. From the extremes of the Fourth International, he moved to the other extreme in nationalistic politics within a very short time.

Dahanayake was part of the 1956 Mahajana Eksath Peramuna alliance of SWRD Bandaranaike which crushed the United National Party government. He was pitted against WDS Abeygoonawardena, who would later inflict a humiliation like no other on Dahanayake. But in 1956, the winds of change were aiding Dahanayake, who polled two thirds of the votes in Galle electorate. He was appointed Minister of Education in the MEP government.

Dahanayake had been a staunch supporter of free education. He had led a signature campaign to force the Colonial Secretary abandon his opposition to the Free Education Bill introduced by CWW Kannangara in the 1940s. Given the level of poverty in the country, he saw that free education on its own would not suffice to help the underprivileged children. Therefore, he started serving the school children a bun and a glass of milk daily. Thus he earned the name by which he was known far and wide in the country: Banis Maamaa.

Furthermore, it was the MEP government which elevated Vidyodaya Pirivena and Vidyalankara Pirivena to universities to increase the space for tertiary education to those children who were leaving schools.

Dahanayake was handed over the post of Prime Minister when SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated. However, he had not been a Sri Lanka Freedom Party member. He must have felt the pressue of the job he had been handed. He raised the wall of the official residence at Temple Trees and sometimes fired ministers overnight. The MEP disintegrated. Even the SLFP was facing a crisis. Dahanayake added to that crisis by forming Lanka Prajathanthravadi Pakshaya (LPP) or ‘Ceylon Democratic Party.’ In the subsequent election, the LPP contested in most of the seats, except in the north and east, and lost in most of them as well.

The crushing blow came in Galle Electorate. It was perhaps the most staggering of all election results of a single constituency ever in Ceylon. Dahanayake, the sitting Prime Minister, was defeated by the UNP candidate WDS Abeygoonawardena.

The historic election result was as follows (election symbol within parenthesis):
WDS Abeygoonawardena (Elephant) – 10,480
Wijayananda Dahanayake (Umbrella) – 9,997
Vincent Wijenayake (Star) – 411
EWJ Serasinghe (Hand) – 250
AM Ismail (Eye) – 139

Dahanayake’s LPP won a meager 4 seats despite having 101 candidates. It received less than 5 percent of the overall popular vote in the island.

However, the election returned a hung parliament with the UNP winning 50 seats out of 151 seats, while the SLFP won 46 seats. No party could form a government and the parliament was once again dissolved. The next election was set for July.

In the July election, Dahanayake’s LPP ran only six candidates, and two of them won their seats. They included Dahanayake who won the election from Galle, narrowly defeating Abeygoonewardena. Dahanayake received 10,902 votes while Abeygoonewardena received 10,458 votes. The SLFP won 75 seats and formed a new government under the first woman Prime Minister of the world, Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

LPP was not to be the end of the road for Dahanayake. He managed to find himself in the Sri Lanka Freedom Socialist Party (SLFSP) of CP de Silva, which had broken away from the SLFP. In Galle, only a SLFP candidate challenged Dahanayake and he easily defeated him. He was back in his glory. In the UNP led government of 1965-70, which was also called hath havula (alliance of the seven parties), Dahanayake was the Minister of Home Affairs.

The SLFSP joined the UNP soon after and therefore, in the next parliamentary election, Dahanayake contested from Galle under the UNP ticket. This was an election unfavorable to the UNP which fell to 17 seats. In a strange twist of fate, his Dahanayake’s erstwhile UNP opponent WDS Abeygoonewardena was now challenging him from the SLFP. However, this election saw Dahanayake defeating his opponent with a comfortable majority.

In 1977 when the UNP swept the country in an unprecedented electoral victory even Dahanayake could not withstand the current. In this election contested as an independent and lost to the UNP candidate, Albert de Silva. Dahanayake filed an election petition against the winning candidate, and won it. He then joined the UNP for the ensuing by-election in 1979 and easily won it. He remained in parliament until 1989, becoming the Minister of Cooperatives for the last three years.

When Dahanayake died on May 4, 1997, he was the oldest former parliamentarian in the country. His death ended the life of an eccentric politician who changed colors depending on times, politics and tastes, and carried out sometimes comical acts. Despite his eccentricity and sometimes daredevil decisions such as founding his own party, Dahanayake was loved by the people of Galle who repeatedly, and sometimes strangely, kept their faith in him.


  1. Thanks, Chamara, for your very enjoyable writeup about an eccentric genius of an honest political player of the early post-independence political arena in our country. True, he changed sides at the slightest excuse as it seems, but his allegiance to the common people he represented remained as firm as ever. As young schoolboys in the early 60's we used to hear many amusing anecdotes about Mr Dahayake. I remember the picture of Mr Dahanayake in an amude near the parliament in 'Dinamina', which gimmick changed his nickname Banis Maama to 'amude maama 'overnight, if my memory is correct. You of a much later era must have done some good research to write so knowledgeable a piece about an exemplary politician who worked and moved among ordinary folk. He had been a teacher as you say. He was a bilingual orator in the real sense of that term, and used to rattle off passages from Shakespeare plays, and versify impropmptu in English in the course of his speeches in parliament, we were told by our teachers. A well known journalist of the time Tarzie Vittachchi calls him 'Jabber Wocky' in his 'Trials in the Island in the Sun', a collection of some satiric pieces he had written to a SL English paper under the pen name "Flybynight", and gives an amusing portrait of the man. (But I may be wrong in this identification, I have no access to that book to check this out).

    1. Thank you very much for the information and the comments which add up to my write-up. Since I did not live during Dahanayake's best years, all what I wrote are based on research and things I remember reading years ago.

      But being Sri Lankan, you cannot help hearing anecdotes about Banis Maamaa (or amude maamaa)

      I can add only this. I won't be able to write such an article about most politicians today (even though I have seen what they do, unlike in the case of Daha).