Dr. Wijeyananda Dahanayake: a trusted champion of the poor masses | Sunday Observer

Dr. Wijeyananda Dahanayake: a trusted champion of the poor masses

26 June, 2022
Prime Minister Wijeyananda Dahanayake
Prime Minister Wijeyananda Dahanayake

Dr. Wijeyananda Dahanayake was the fifth Prime Minister of Ceylon from September 26, 1959 to March 20, 1960. He found himself installed as Head of the Government under “fortuitous circumstances,” following the assassination of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. It is to his credit that he maintained stability and security of the country during his short span. He was the most illustrious, outspoken, harmless and innocent politician of our era.

He had neither a vehicle of his own, nor a house, and it was his twin brother who provided him with free accommodation with an office room in front. As the Minister of Education, Dahanayake re-introduced the mid-day school meal for students by providing a free bun, which gained him the nickname Bannis Mama (Bun Uncle).

Dahanayake contested the 1947 Parliamentary Elections from Galle. His opponent was a rich businessman and a planter in the South, spending a lot in the campaign. At his political meetings, Dahanayake said in Sinhala “There is a tree with money and I am shaking it, please pick up the money and vote for me”. In Sinhala, Mama Salli Gaha hollanawa, sahodarawaruni salli ahulagena mata chande denna.

He is noted for having contested from almost every major party of his time and has the record for the longest speech in Parliament, lasting thirteen and a half hours. Anyone could walk into his office at Richmond Hill Road, Galle, and meet him to discuss their problems and obtain relief and even take any amount of free telephone calls, with no questions asked.

He was there at any wedding, funeral or public function even though he was uninvited. His mode of transport was the bus and train. He goes into history as the only Minister who never left the shores of Ceylon in his whole career as a politician. Once he explained, “Socrates never left the shores of Athens.”

Birth and education

Don Wijeyananda Dahanayake was born to a conservative family in the South on October 22, 1902 as a twin in Dangedera, Richmond Hill, Galle and was named after the Wijayananda Pirivena. His father Don Dionesius Panditha Sepala Dahanayake, a scholar in oriental languages was a Muhandiram, who later served as the Kackckeri Mudliyar of Galle. Wijeyananda Dahanayake’s twin brother was Kalyanapriya Dahanayake.

He received his primary education at Rippon College, Galle and then at the Government English Training School, Colombo; before moving to Richmond College, Galle and S. Thomas’s College, Mt. Lavinia. In 1957, he was invited as the chief guest at Richmond College Prize Giving and the Principal E. R. de Silva had mentioned, “The two Dahnayakes (Wijeyananda and Kalyanapriya) were brilliant students who had earned double promotions.”

Dahanayake joined the teaching staff of St. Aloysius’ College, Galle and taught English, Mathematics, History and Geography. He also received training at the Teacher Training College in Maharagama. As a teacher, he coached the college athletics and the junior cricket teams with great enthusiasm and organised the English Literary Union and the Debating Society.

Early political career

Dahanayake became active in pre-independence politics while serving as a teacher and switched to full-time politics. Much of the early period of his political life was spent in making the people aware of the burning issues of the day. From the steps of the Galle Cricket Club pavilion, he used to address the people and they came in their numbers to listen to him.

As a member of the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party, he was elected to the Galle Municipal Council from the Kumbalwella Ward, which he held until 1944.As the first elected Mayor of Galle, from 1939 to 1941, Dahanayake became a national figure. He took up all the important national issues of the day.

Even before he entered Parliament, he had already become the champion of the poor masses, irrespective of race, caste, class or religion. It is significant that he was invited to speak at the Congress of Jaffna Youth by Handy Perimpanayagam and was drawn in a chariot by the members of the Jaffna Congress to the meeting hall.

When World War II started in the far-East in 1941, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party(LSSP) refused to support the British war effort. Dahanayake was prosecuted by the police for organising a strike during the height of war, which angered the British colonial administration. He represented himself in court without a lawyer and won against the crown prosecution.

He contested a by-election to the State Council of Ceylon in 1944 from Bibile. Even though he lost to the bus magnate S.A. Peiris, he filed an election petition against his opponent and unseated him. He once again represented himself in court without a lawyer. In the following by-election, Dahanayake was elected to the second State Council of Ceylon and served from 1944 to 1947.

LSSP split

That year, when the LSSP split, he joined the Bolshevik-Leninist Party lead by Dr. Colvin R. de Silva. He supported the education reforms initiated by C. W. W. Kannangara by collecting a large number of signatures for a public petition in support of the reforms that ushered equal opportunities for education for all children in the island.

He contested the 1947 Parliamentary Elections with a campaign in which he did not spend a single cent, yet he was elected from the Bolshevik-Leninist Party with 16,588 votes to the first Parliament of Ceylon on October 14, 1947. In Parliament, he delivered his historical thirteen and half-hour speech during the first budget speech, which remains the record for the longest speech.

From the day Dahanayake entered the political arena, he attracted widespread attention. In 1947, he was only one of three members who voted against the Soulbury Constitution. When the Duke of Gloucester arrived in Ceylon in 1948, he led a black-flag demonstration against the visit. He felt it was a way of showing the representative of the King Emperor George VI our desire to be an independent sovereign nation.

He later re-joined the LSSP under Dr. N. M. Perera and successfully contested the 1952 General Elections from Galle winning with 17,897 votes. Before long, he was expelled from the party for welcoming the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake at the foundation-stone laying ceremony of the New Town Hall building in Galle. Dahanayake did what was correct according to his conscience. Galle got an excellent Town Hall. He was not prepared to sacrifice common sense for theory.

In 1955, he gave leadership to the nationalist movement that sort for “Sinhala Only” under a new party called the Basha Peramuna, which aligned with the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) led by Bandaranaike. Confounding everybody, Dahanayake became the chief speaker and crowd-puller for the MEP in the 1956 elections and won his third successive election in Galle from the MEP with 21,971 votes.

The MEP recorded a landslide victory against the ruling United National Party (UNP), which was reduced to eight seats in Parliament. With Bandaranaike becoming the Prime Minister, Dahanayake was appointed the Minister of Education. He granted university status to the Vidyodaya Pirivena and Vidyalankara Pirivena, and gave the “Swabasha” teacher his due place.

Dahanayake started Maha Vidyalayas and did not wait for laboratories to be built to start science education in rural schools but provided science kits to enable teachers to start work immediately. In 1959, he became the acting Leader of the House after the incumbent C. P. de Silva was taken to London for medical treatment.

The Prime Minister Bandaranaike had been scheduled to go to New York to attend the UN General Assembly in late September 1959. With the absence of C. P. de Silva, Bandaranaike had sent a letter to the Governor General recommending that he appoint W. Dahanayake as acting Prime Minister during his absence. Bandaranaike was assassinated on September 26, 1959 and with the letter as a reference, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the Governor General of Ceylon appointed Dahanayake as the Prime Minister. He was later confirmed by Parliament in this position.

He formed the fifth Cabinet of Ceylon on September 26, 1959 and retained Cabinet portfolios of Defence and External Affairs as well as Education. Other members were Henry Abeywickrema, C. P. de Silva, M. P. de Zoysa, Stanley de Zoysa, T. B. Illangaratne, Senator A. P. Jayasuriya, Senator Layard Jayesundera, Senator Valentine S. Jayawickrema, P. B. G. Kalugalla, C. A. S. Marikar, M. B. W. Mediwake, W. J. C. Munasingha, M. M. Mustapha, Maithripala Senanayake, Robert Edward Jayatilaka, R. G. Senanayake and Wimla Wijewardene.

The most notable achievement during his tenor was the repeal of the Capital Punishment Act which Bandaranaike had used to suspended capital punishment in Ceylon. It paved the way for the execution of those convicted of the assassination of Bandaranaike. Dahanayake was also responsible for holding a General Elections in a single day for the first time.

His tenure as the Prime Minister was difficult. His first challenge came when the Opposition in the Parliament moved a vote of no confidence against the Government on October 30, 1959, and the Government won the vote 48 to 43. However, Dahanayake made a sudden request to the Governor General for the dissolution of Parliament on December 5, 1959 calling for fresh elections.

On December 7, 1959, he announced his intentions to resign from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The party in turn refused his resignation and instead expelled him. Dahanayake then responded by dismissing Cabinet Ministers from the SLFP. For the interim, he ran the country with a five-member Cabinet.

As the Prime Minister, he formed the Ceylon Democratic Party, in Sinhala, “Lanka Prajathanthravadi Pakshaya” (LPP), from which he contested the March 1960 General Elections and lost by 400 votes. It was perhaps the biggest setback in his political career. His party put forward 101 candidates, but only four candidates won.

Post premier career

He was re-elected from Galle after just four months at the elections of July 1960 from the LPP with 10,902 votes and sat in the Opposition. He was called before the commission of inquiry into the Bandaranaike assassination to give evidence in 1963. That year, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Vidyodaya University and adopted the style “Dr. Wijeyananda Dahanayake.”

In 1964, Dahanayake gained fame when he attempted and was prevented from entering Parliament chambers in a span cloth (known locally as an Amude) in protest of the Government of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike’s rationing of clothing to two yards of textiles per month per person due to foreign exchange shortage. The following day dailies carried photos of Dahanayake in an “Amude.” Dahanayake was a star in the galaxy of politicians and added lustre to his vocation.

Dahanayake was re-elected with 18,416 votes at the 1965 General Elections from the Sri Lanka Freedom Socialist Party (SLFSP) led by C. P. de Silva. The party supported the UNP in forming a national Government and he was appointed Minister of Home Affairs. Dahanayake was re-elected with 16,940 votes in the 1970 General Elections from the UNP and sat in the Opposition. After his request for a free vote for the Republican Constitution was refused, he resigned from UNP and sat as an independent.

In the 1977 General Elections, he contested from Galle as an independent candidate, but lost to the UNP candidate Albert de Silva. Dahanayake challenged Silva in an election petition in the Galle High Court and in the Supreme Court, once again representing himself and a judgment in his favour unseating Silva in 1979. President J.R. Jayewardene remarked: “Dahanayake did what a generation of lawyers could not do.”

Dahanayake gained the seat in the following by-election as the candidate from the UNP with 13,012 votes and sat as a backbencher. He was appointed Minister of Co-operatives by President J. R. Jayewardene in 1986 and served till 1988. The UNP nominated Dahanayake through the National List for the 1989 General Elections. However, his name was removed later and he was not able to enter Parliament.

In 1989, at the age of 86, he retired from active politics, ending a remarkable career in public life. Dahanayaka died on May 4, 1997 at the age of 94 after a brief illness at Richmond Hill, Galle.


Dahanayake remained a bachelor throughout his life. When appointed as the Prime Minister, he moved into ‘Temple Trees’ carrying his belongings in one suitcase from his room at Srawasthi Mandiraya. He found the Prime Minister’s bed room too large and had it partitioned. So, during his sojourn at the “Temple Trees,” Dahanayake was living in a room within a room.

He used to get up early in the morning and walk bare footed on the grass, wet with dew. He started attending to the files from 0700 and finished by 0900.He was a methodical worker. His handwriting was clear and beautiful. Purple was the colour of ink he used for his pens. When he started writing a letter it was continuous. He never stopped to cut or change. It was only after putting his ‘W. Dahanayake’ signature that he raised the pen from the paper.

He was a polite person who listened with care to ensure that he respects the thoughts and feelings and ideas of others, whatever may be their status or skills. He had immense confidence in himself and did not care whether they liked him or not, but was happy to serve them even if they did not like him.

He was a man with no wealth, but had a great heart, and whether rich or poor, a high Government servant or menial labourer, with any problem who sought his help, he was always there to help them. He was a man with great values. They say one’s values are one’s destiny. They shape your decisions and your actions.

When he lost as the Prime Minister after the 1960 elections, he gathered his suitcase, packed his personal belongings at “Temple Trees” and asked his secretary to drop him at the Fort Railway Station to take a train to Galle. The secretary told him that it was his responsibility to see that he goes home safely and provided him with a pool vehicle to proceed to Galle.

Dahanayake believed that value is not an outcome such as having high positions and lots of money but a standard to live by - something one thinks important such as service to the public, honesty, accountability, fairness, independence, dependability, loyalty and other noble principles of life.

In office or out, he was always a servant of the people at all hours of the day or night, for over six long decades. He kept all politicians at bay with his sharp criticism and pungent language. The life of the late Dr. Wijeyananda Dahanayake would remain a shining example to all budding politicians.