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Esmond Wickremasinghe

By the time I knew him, my mother’s eldest brother Esmond was emphatically a supporter of the UNP. Soon after I was born he had been sent to New York by Sir John Kotelawala, to negotiate the entry of Ceylon into the United Nations, and family legend had it that it was the charm displayed by him and his wife that finally ensured our admission. Until then the Soviet Union had opposed this, on the grounds that we were still a colony, with the British still having troops here. But, long before Mr Bandaranaike came into power and asked them to leave, Esmond had succeeded in averting a Soviet veto, in terms of a compromise that saw the admission also of other countries that had been disputed.

Esmond was by then seen as Sir John’s right hand man, or rather one of them, for that wily old bird made use of several capable people. But none of them was able to prevent his shattering defeat in 1956, when he led his party to an election called prematurely. Blaming him however would be wrong, for a clear reading of what happened that year suggests that he was forced into calling an election he did not want, and contesting it on a platform he abhorred. Or, rather, blaming him alone – he cannot escape all responsibility for allowing such a situation to arise, and letting himself be carried along by it, a practice that has been followed since by many other Sri Lankan leaders.

What happened was that Mr Bandaranaike had been campaigning to make Sinhala the official language, as part of his policy of empowering the common man. Unfortunately he did not make the same claims on behalf of the common Tamil people, but that was perhaps part of his understanding that the appeal of his party was confined to majority Sinhala areas. Initially at any rate, anti-Tamil rhetoric was not part of his agenda, his opposition being primarily to the English speaking elite.

The UNP saw which way the wind was blowing, and decided that they too wanted to change official language policy. Sir John however, appreciating perhaps the contribution of northern voters to the UNP, made a speech in Jaffna in which he announced that his party would make both Sinhala and Tamil official languages. This unfortunately roused the anger of the chauvinist wing of his party, and they demanded that he retract.

The Daily News yearbook has a graphic account of what happened then. The critique there of what the UNP did makes no bones about the role played by the wing that was to inherit the UNP, at any rate in the short term after Sir John withdrew in disgrace after his electoral defeat. The implication is that, at that stage at least, Lake House knew who exactly was to blame for the debacle.

What happened was that, following Sir John’s speech in Jaffna, the UNP sessions held early in 1956 in Kelaniya repudiated the policy he had enunciated, and instead voted to declare that the UNP too wanted Sinhala only. Furthermore, they decided that Parliament should be dissolved and that the party should seek a fresh mandate immediately to implement this policy. Tamil members of the UNP argued against it, and when they were defeated many resigned.

The campaign naturally then became racist in tone, with both the UNP and the MEP (the coalition led by Bandaranaike’s SLFP which contained elements more chauvinist than he was himself) competing with each other to win the Sinhala vote. Naturally Tamils throughout the country were appalled. In the North they voted en masse for the Federal Party, which had been roundly defeated by the UNP and its ally the Tamil Congress at the previous election, in 1952. In the south they turned to the left, which explains how the LSSP did much better than the UNP, which not only lost its parliamentary majority, but failed even to lead the opposition.

Sadly, the details of what happened in 1956 are long forgotten, and Mr Bandaranaike looms large in the collective memory as the villain who single-handedly created communal chaos. The role of his rivals, competing to raise the racist temperature – a practice followed since then by all major political parties – has long been forgotten.

And they did not stop there. After Sir John resigned, the UNP was in effect led by J R Jayewardene, even though he had lost his parliamentary seat. This was Kelaniya, where the sessions were held and where I have no doubt he did his bit to ensure that Sir John had to eat his words regarding parity of status for the two languages. The two of them loathed each other, since Sir John held J R largely responsible for the palace coup whereby he had been passed over for the Premiership when D S Senanayake died and Dudley Senanayake was appointed instead; and J R, who had hoped to succeed when Dudley suddenly resigned, was deeply upset when Dudley himself recommended that Sir John replace him.

What role if any Esmond played in all this I do not know. By the eighties, when I used to discuss politics with him seriously – or relatively seriously, for he had an irrepressible sense of humour, and sometimes I wasn’t sure whether he really meant what he said, as when he suggested that N G P Panditharatne might be the best successor to J R – he was very definitely a J R votary. And I knew that he had been closely associated with J R in the sixties too, when Dudley Senanayake had first fallen out with J R and also with Esmond.

But there were those in between years in the fifties when Dudley Senanayake had repudiated J R and opted for Sir John, and Esmond had served the latter faithfully. And certainly, when tensions began to appear in the UNP over language policy, Esmond’s entire upbringing would have made him likely to approve of Sir John’s more pluralistic approach. Given the manner in which the Daily News handbook summed up the events of 1956, even if Esmond did not interfere with the account penned by his staff, I don’t supposeLakeHouse, which he in effect ran in those days, would have presented an interpretation which he would have deplored.

Why then did he subsequently devote himself so thoroughly to J R? It is a conundrum that must be considered at length, for it went so thoroughly against everything his family stood for, as exemplified most prominently by Lakshman’s unsparing critique of the racism that reached such monstrous proportions as the years went on. Here I can only mention Lakshman’s description of his decision to come back toSri Lankajust before that momentous period, after he had become a priest and was happily engaged in a Ministry in the deprived East End of London, and pondering marriage to an English girl.

Esmond, he said, had advised him, on one of his flying visits through London, to come back quickly, for dramatic changes were going to take place soon. If he didn’t, he would find himself left behind in a different world, unable to make the transition if he did return later.

Lakshman never regretted his decision to come back, though years later when I met the girl he might have married – who came to my 50th birthday party, 20 years after Lakshman himself had died – I could understand how difficult it had been. But once he had come back, Lakshman did not swerve from the world view with which he had started, encompassing a patriotism based on inclusivity. Sadly, his much more experienced older brother was unable, in the political turmoil that resulted, to resist the blandishment of different sirens.