by Gopalakrishna Gandhi
This month it will be 50 years since the world beheld its first woman prime minister. I was about 14 and knew but little of Ceylon when I read the banner story ‘Bandaranaike shot’. ‘Will he live?’ was the first question that crossed my teenage mind gripped by the description of the outrage and of the stricken prime minister rushing in from the verandah of his home, calling out “Sirima, Sirima!”
That must have been the first time the world outside of the island really heard of her. India had seen her visiting with her husband. Prime Minister Nehru, ever the one to take a watchful host’s interest in the families of visiting heads of government and State, must have warmed to this traditional Kandyan woman and her three children, beside the westernised prime minister of Ceylon.
Speaking in chiselled English, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (‘SWRD’) soared with his words and ideas. In contrast, she was very much on and off the ground. When reports from Colombo suggested that the sudden vacuum created by SWRD’s succumbing to the attack may get to be filled by none other than the demure 44-year-old Sirimavo Bandaranaike, there was surprise. How would she manage? At that stage in her life Sirimavo was what wives of prime ministers are taken to be — non-persons to be greeted and spoken to in thought-free courtesy and then, duty done, forgotten. But soon, a patronising appreciation replaced the earlier surprised scepticism.
The new PM was conducting herself at discussions with ease, if also with modesty; her English was plain but effective, her thinking sharp, her grasp of ‘hard’ issues sharper, and she was ‘growing into her office’ remarkably well and fast. Sirimavo discovered the prime minister in herself and invented herself in the prime minister. Where she made an early and acknowledged mark was in her clear realisation that in governance, in diplomacy and in the many dimensions of political leadership, the surest guide is one’s own instinct.
To Sirimavo Bandaranaike also belongs the credit of consolidating something that had been ‘started’ earlier by Dudley Senanayake, namely, the principle of a next of kin succeeding a leader in political office. Outside of monarchic arrangements, a leadership vacuum being filled by a next of kin amid acclaim, and then legitimised in free and fair elections, is and will remain a Sirimavo accomplishment and a Sirimavo contribution to the dynamics of political succession in South Asia.
Few could have anticipated Sirimavo’s role in the Asia of 1962 and in the non-aligned world. After China announced a ceasefire on the Sino-Indian border, a settlement of the border question could have been expected to come; it did not. Indeed, it could not, given the circumstances. Sirimavo, just over two years’ old in prime ministership, invited the governments of five other non-aligned countries — Burma, Cambodia, Ghana, Indonesia and the United Arab Republic — for a discussion on the situation. A set of ‘Colombo Proposals’ emerged, which India accepted, establishing the PM of Ceylon on the Asian stage, with intercontinental salience.
Bilaterally, India saw Sirimavo take up with verve the question of Ceylon’s ‘Stateless’ Tamils of Indian origin. The issue pertaining to these hard-working men and women on the island’s tea and rubber plantations had defied solution for years, with Nehru saying that they “are or should be citizens of Ceylon”.
In 1964, discussions between Sirimavo and India’s new PM Lal Bahadur Shastri led to a policy change culminating in the Sirimavo-Shastri Agreement. This agreement divided that population between the (smaller) number that Ceylon would accept and the (larger) number that would be repatriated to India, the fate of the balance to be decided on a later date. Who stays and who leaves was to be determined by choice — in theory, a voluntary exercise.
But with the ‘quotas’ determined and the stayers’ quota quickly over-subscribed, the agreement lost its voluntarism and became a fait accompli for the plantation workers, with the stayers feeling relieved and the leavers bewildered by the abyss of uncertainty ahead.
The Sirimavo-Shastri Agreement was compounded the following decade by a Sirimavo-Indira Agreement in which the ‘residuaries’ were shared half-and-half between India and Sri Lanka, in another diplomatic accomplishment for Sirimavo. These two agreements, and the decisions on the islet of Kachchativu, showed the world’s first woman PM handling negotiations with her Indian counterparts (both newer than her in prime ministership) with the confidence of a ‘senior’ PM albeit of the ‘smaller’ neighbour. Size is one thing, strength another.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike lost office around the same time as Indira Gandhi did in 1977, in a democratic corrective to Emergency Rule. Sirimavo then had her civil rights taken away by President Jayewardene, seen by many as Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s Lankan equivalent. But the very populace that had voted Sirimavo out, disapproved of that extreme ‘punishment’ and returned her to power.
Which reminds me that Sirimavo had a striking head and a strikingly broad forehead. And her face, prime ministerial or not, one could not pass by without feeling, ‘What an unusual person’. Shortly after assuming duties as High Commissioner for India in September 2000,
I called on her in her Rosmead Place residence, the same house SWRD had been assassinated in. She was physically weak. But the stroke she had suffered hadn’t got the better of her mind. Her forehead glowed, her voice though soft, had a resonance to it. “How is Delhi?” she asked. The question could have meant many things. And then turning to the Indian High Commissioner’s house in Colombo — India House — she said, “Large house, lovely garden.” I asked her to visit. “Will be glad to do so,” she said. But that was not to be.
On October 10, less than a month after my calling on her, she was gone. It was a polling day. She was returning home after casting her vote in Horagolla when she took ill and was given treatment in a small medical centre that happened to be on the way. But it was too late. I reached the house as the lifeless form was being brought in. It was significant (I told the family) that a person whose voting rights had been taken away should have ended her career as a democratically-elected leader, just after casting her vote. “With voters’ ink fresh on her finger,” Sunethra, her eldest-born, added poignantly. “She was no ordinary woman,” said the younger daughter, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.
Sirimavo’s and SWRD’s only son, Anura, came straight from electioneering, crushed.
Sirimavo had, barely a few hours earlier voted in the constituency he was contesting from, but from a party’s that was not hers. Such is democracy. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was no ordinary woman. But this wasn’t just because she was the world’s first woman prime minister.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi was Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka from 2000 to 2002. This is a revised version of an essay in a volume being issued in Sri Lanka to mark 50 years of Sirimavo Bandaranaike becoming prime minister. The views expressed by the author are personal)