Reflections on S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike

Uditha Devapriya
7 min readMay 14, 2022
S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike / Wikimedia Commons

The protests at Galle Face have been continuing for more than a month now. Initially aimed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his band of brothers, the infiltration of certain groups has diluted the tone and trajectory of the demonstrations. Over the last few weeks, the country at large has taken part in one discussion after another. These discussions have centred on topics like minority rights, the abduction of journalists, and the need for a clearer foreign policy. Once considered taboo, they have led to heated debates both within and outside the protests. One incident that has epitomised these developments has been the blindfolding of the statue of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, just opposite Shangri-La Hotel.

For mainstream scholars and popular writers, the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka — a crisis that long predates the Rajapaksas — can be traced back to the enactment of Sinhala Only. While it’s important to place the Sinhala Only Act in its proper context — it was an abomination of a far more progressive demand for the replacement of English by Sinhala and Tamil, a proposal made by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party — Bandaranaike continues to be associated with its worst excesses, including the 30-year civil war. Those who supported the blindfolding of the statue thus imply that the backwardness of vital sectors in the country — including education and, presumably, foreign policy — can be traced back to his decisions.

Whether Sinhala Only, as implemented in 1956, adversely affected education in the long term is a matter for debate. Yet the rhetoric surrounding the Bandaranaike years implies that it also contributed to the deterioration of our foreign relations. High on anti-imperialist and anti-Western rhetoric, so the detractors say, Bandaranaike’s foreign policy sagged and brought about no tangible benefits to the country. Thus, while quick to condemn Western aggression against the Nasser government’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, Bandaranaike was slower to react to China’s quelling of the Tibetan uprising in 1959, claiming that it was an internal matter best left to the parties concerned.

Revisionist accounts have it that Sri Lanka’s leap from a pro-Western to a nonaligned and multipronged foreign policy spelt out the end of our relations with the West, depriving us of critical Western support during the Cold War. The implication here is that under the 1956–1959 regime foreign policy became more insular, much like the Bandaranaike government’s language policies. While such a view may find favour with those who believe that the roots of our crisis lie in that era, the historical reality was more complex. Far from turning insular and inward, it was the policies of that regime that freed the island from dependence on one or more power blocs, eventually taking its foreign relations in a new direction.

Across much of the Third World, the indigenous ruling elite actively worked on achieving a synthesis between tradition and modernity. In her study of Third World feminism, Kumari Jayawardena notes a paradox that was crucial to the trajectory of nationalism: while defying the strictures of colonialism, Third World nationalists, drawn from the ruling elite, tried to chart a middle-path between Western concepts like representative government and the need to uphold a traditional social order.

Throughout her work, Jayawardena divides the Third World, particularly in Asia, into two kinds of societies: those in which the local bourgeoisie achieved this sort of synthesis and those in which they could not, and did not. In this scheme of things, India and Sri Lanka were studies in contrast. In India, colonialism gave birth to a dependent elite, but one linked to industry. When the Congress Party began opposing British rule, Nehru’s leadership enticed local capitalists to join forces with them. Though hardly independent of imperialism, Indian industrialists struck an alliance with Nehru, lending him crucial support even as he set about nationalising vital sectors in the economy after independence.

The situation was different in Sri Lanka. What little industry the country had at the time of independence was limited to the plantation sector. Hector Abhayavardhana has estimated that by 1953, “the output of plantations contributed about 40 percent of national income.” Most plantation enclaves were foreign owned, in itself not a bad thing, except that profits had to be repatriated abroad. Moreover, because of its dependence on commodities, the country’s terms of trade began fluctuating wildly after independence, so much so that by the 1960s, after two decades of failing to industrialize, foreign reserves and terms of trade depleted alarmingly, triggering a severe balance of payments crisis.

“Throughout the Third World,” Dayan Jayatilleka has observed, “the anti-imperialist leadership was also a modernising one.” This was not so in Sri Lanka. Jayatilleka goes on to observe that Sri Lanka’s bourgeoisie was both culturally Westernised and socially and economically conservative: thus, while securing their economic interests through policies which, inter alia, restricted the franchise and then, when it was clear that the franchise could no longer be restricted, ensured a transition of power from the colonial State that made the civil service, defence, and foreign policy planks of the State subservient to the British government, the bourgeoisie pandered to majoritarian sentiment. There was nothing contradictory about this: as I have noted before, their social conditioning did not blind them to the cultural and religious myths of the majority, the Sinhalese.

The ideology of the local elite, in both countries, reflected the economic framework they operated within. In India, the existence of an industrial bourgeoisie could lay down the groundwork for a cosmopolitan elite, of which Nehru was the definitive hallmark. These elites helped bolster India’s image internationally, which in turn helped the government conceive a foreign policy that adhered to a middle-path. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, the bourgeoisie remained dependent on a colonial framework. Linked to a plantation sector devoid of science, industry, and modernity, they lacked the intellectual initiative to chart a cohesive foreign policy. To quote Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka lacked a Nehru.

The election of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike changed this situation considerably. In many ways an intellectual counterpart of Nehru — both had studied in England, and both had taken part in their countries’ independence struggles, though from different political vantage points — Bandaranaike turned Sri Lanka away from its dependence on power blocs. Though informed by pressing domestic needs, like the nationalization of the port and airport, Bandaranaike remained committed to a nonaligned foreign policy. This did not make him the hazy idealist historians make him out to be; au contraire, it made him realize the practical limits within which he had to work. Thus, while speaking in support of the Palestinian cause, he made it clear that his government did not oppose the existence of Israel.

To be sure, we must be careful when passing judgment on Bandaranaike’s policies. As far as foreign relations were concerned, he was Nehruvian. Yet in domestic policy, particularly on the language issue, Bandaranaike failed to tap into the progressive potential of the reforms that had been advocated for years and decades by the Marxist Left. The latter, for their part, stood by those proposals, only to be washed away when they continued to defy the zeitgeist of the times. With a section of the Left, including the LSSP and the Communist Party, caving into the pressures of parliamentary politics later, the original demand for Sinhala and Tamil instead of English turned into demands to enthrone one, Sinhala.

This paradox, between the SLFP-MEP’s cosmopolitan foreign policy and what many consider to be its insular domestic policies, has still not been studied or evaluated properly. A useful starting point would be James Manor’s biography.

Far from indicting Bandaranaike for the troubles that were to follow Sinhala Only, Manor traces the problems of the Sri Lankan polity, vis-à-vis the contests between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, to the flaws of the elite leadership. Bandaranaike, he notes, stood with and apart from this crowd: as a scion of the bourgeoisie, he was a member of the elite class; as a scion of the old bourgeoisie that had spurned the new, he was incapable of becoming their equal. Manor engages in more than a little psychoanalysis when assessing where Bandaranaike went wrong, and though it’s hard to exonerate him, it’s clear that Sinhala Only was the logical successor to the years and decades of majoritarianism that had been unleashed by his peers in the Ceylon National Congress: a tendency which, in 1921, had compelled Ponnambalam Arunachalam to leave that body.

All this goes to show that, far from contributing to any “backwardness” in the country’s foreign policy, the Bandaranaike era laid down a clear path which continues to be taken today. The negative consequences of his policies are as much a testament to his personal flaws as they are to the limitations of the elite leadership in Sri Lanka, of which he was a part. It is this, rather than the substance of his government’s foreign relations, that are to blame for the policy turnarounds, indeed the absence of any coherent policy, that bedevil the country today. Going by the logic of the protesters, we would need to blindfold several other statues, and not just Bandaranaike’s, well beyond Galle Face Green.

The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached at



Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.