Sir John Kotelawala: Controversial yet gentlemanly


KASSAPA (Daily News)

It was Sir John who formally declared open the new upstair block of the blogger’s alma-mater Kattankudy Central College in 1954 when he (blogger) was 04 years old.  Sir John was then the Minister of Transport and Works.  The plaque bearing his name still remains there, the blogger believes. 

In David Karunaratne’s version of Sir John’s biography in Sinhala, the author refers to a Cabinet meeting during the first Parliament of independent Ceylon under D S Senanayake, the Prime Minister.

The veteran politician, great DS was battling with SWRD Bandaranaike the second-in-command over the successor. The ‘cold-war’ was the result of grand old man’s grooming of his son Dudley to take over the reins after him. However, he was particularly cautious not to confront the deputy directly knowing his (SWRD’s) wit and debatable skills. He never engaged him directly at important forums but used his relative and loyal Public Works Minister, Sir John Kotelawala, the number three in the hierarchy to annoy SWRD. DS would summon Sir John prior to the commencement of a meeting and brief him on what to say if SWRD disagreed on a point in the course of the discussion.

Our man happily undertook the difficult task, of course, he had ulterior motives, that with Bandaranaike’s exit, automatically he becomes next in line for the leadership, with Dudley being junior to him.

On one such occasion, while the meeting was in progress, SWRD made an opposing move to a proposal by PM on an amendment to an Act. As pre-planned Sir John got up to interrupt Bandaranaike; the latter sensed what had transpired prior to the sessions, and retorted back “I, say Lionel now don’t expose your stupidity and lack of knowledge man, this matter is beyond your depths, you middle school drop-out…,” and as SWRD appeared to continue further the grand old man realized the reference was to himself. He immediately blasted Sir John, ‘Lionel, I say, just shut up and sit down without trying to argue with the most learned man in the Cabinet.’

Sir John, the loyal nephew of DS would take his seat—never did he let down his master. DS Senanayake scrupulously went ahead with his strategy—SWRD was compelled to bid good-bye to the party and the government paving the way for the grand old man to promote son Dudley over Sir John who was used only as a cat’s paw in the process.

Even Sir John accepted commissions!

Foreign contractors, especially the Europeans willingly paid commissions to public servants and politicians even in Colonial days. Sir John represented the Dodangaslanda electorate in the first independent parliament and appointed Minister of works. The present school in Dodangaslande named after him was built by his personal funds in the early 1950s. At the opening ceremony, the villages thanked him profusely for the invaluable gift they received from ‘Kotelawala hamu’. Without blinking a wink our man turned to them and declared, ‘Yakko, mata nemei, ara harber eka hadapu contrath karayata kiyapalla’. (You better thank the contractor who built the Colombo port.) If he said no to the money somebody else would have grabbed it; so he accepted the commission and used it on his people.

Norton Bridge hydro-power station and dam construction

The cold, rainy adverse weather at Norton Bridge caused the workers to demand gum-boots, blankets and camp-cots and other facilities to protect themselves during the construction of Sri Lanka’s first Hydro-power station under Sir John, who was then the Minister in charge of Transport and Works. The workers staged a strike at the site, as the Chief Engineer failed to supply the equipment with funds allocated to him. Work came to a standstill causing a delay and the monsoon rains expected soon threatening the progress of work. The workers demanded a visit by the Minister to resolve the issue after several days of stoppage. The engineer sent a message to Sir John, the Minister, explaining matters and requesting his attendance at the work site at Norton Bridge.

Sir John promptly answered the call and appeared in person on the very next day, he addressed the workers and promised to supply all that they have demanded before he returned to Colombo. In a couple of days a lorry load of material, stocks of blankets, boots, and camp-cots were unloaded at the site. No passing the buck, no deceptions, no lies.

Vilified Nehru at Bandung Summit – 1955

BANDUNG in Indonesia was the venue for the first Afro–Asian Conference or the Bandung Conference that took place from April 18 to 24, 1955 during Kotelawala’s premiership. Twenty-nine countries participated in it with an agenda drawn up to oppose colonialism and promote economic and cultural cooperation.

Some Central and Eastern Europe States were under Communist domination. Sir John in his speech stated,

“Are not these colonies as much as any of the colonial territories in Africa or Asia? And if we are united in our opposition to colonialism, should it not be our duty openly to declare our opposition to Soviet colonialism as much as to Western imperialism?’

The silence broke, Chou En-lai the Prime Minister of China got up in apparent agitation and said that, as Ceylonese PM, Sir John had made references to Communist Colonialism, he reserved the right to make a statement on the following morning.

The moods were exciting as they walked out of the hall. Chou inquired from Sir John why he had said so, and if it was his intention to sabotage the Conference.

Nehru was even more agitated, he walked up to his counterpart too, and questioned him in an enraged tone, “Why did you do that, Sir John? Why did you not show me your speech before you made it?”

Kotelawala rejoined, “Why should I? Nehru, do you show me yours before you make them?” — ‘An Asian Prime Minister’s Story- 1956’

Sir John was Prime Minister from October 1953 to April 1956; during this relatively short period, he was very much in the news. He organised ‘a grand welcome’ to Queen Elizabeth who visited the island in April 1954 with the Duke of Edinburgh. During this visit, he advised the monarch to appoint Sir Oliver Goonetilleke as Governor-General to succeed Lord Soulbury.

During his tenure, Ceylon was admitted to the United Nations in December 1955.

Although he could go on until 1957, Sir John moved for a dissolution in February 1956 and the general election was fixed for April causing a disaster for the UNP which was reduced to eight seats. Sir John retained the Dodangaslanda seat. SWRD Bandaranaike became Prime Minister.