Opinion

THE DONOUGHMORE COMMISSION IN CEYLON

September 1, 2021

In 1927 the Secretary of State for the Colonies announced a special Commission under the Chairmanship of the Earl of Donoughmore to visit Ceylon and submit an account of the Constitution with any difficulties of administration that needed to be surmounted at that time.

The Secretary wanted the Earl of Donoughmore to consider any proposals for revising the Ceylonese Constitution and to report, if any amendments of the Orders in Council were necessary.

The Commission’s primary function was to draft a new Constitution for Ceylon that would satisfy the aspirations of the British plantation owners so that it would enable all Ceylonese to work in partnership with the British Empire.

The most significant apprehension of many of the Ceylonese leaders, both Sinhalese and Tamil, was the recommendation of Universal Franchise, the right to vote for all adult citizens, regardless of wealth, income, gender, social status, race, ethnicity, political stance, or any other restriction. The four Commissioners arrived in Sri Lanka in 1927 and spent four months and forty days interviewing one hundred and forty Ceylonese in thirty-four separate sessions.

The Commissioners paid heed to Ceylonese women’s suffrage and their right to vote in Elections. From the beginning of the mid-19th century, women intended to participate in the society & getting their voice heard for their work broad-based on economic and political equality and social reforms. They planned to seek change in the voting system that allowed them to vote at elections.

The Commissioners listened to their requests and appeals and granted educated women over the age of twenty-one suffrage. Therefore, all citizens of Ceylon, who were over twenty-one years of age, were granted the Universal Franchise in 1931, unless they were subjected to any special disqualification. The right to cast a vote was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen years of age by the Elections Amendment Act No.11 of 1959.

The Commission’s revelations 

The four Commissioners noted, Ceylon, even at that time, was driven by power struggles amongst ethnic groups. Therefore, they devised a system of Executive Committees to control all Government Departments and rejected the principle of communal representation to ensure that no ethnic group could control all power and financial gain. The most significant apprehension about the outcome came from both Sinhala and Tamil leaders against the recommendation and implementation of Universal Franchise by the Donoughmore Commission.

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was a Tamil lawyer, politician, and SolicitorGeneral of Ceylon. He and most of the ‘conservatives’ believed and argued that allowing the vote to the nonvellala castes and women was a grave mistake, and it might lead to disturbances. Ramanathan explicitly suggested that “it was anathema to the Hindu way of life”.

According to Jane Russel’s study, the political leadership of the Ceylon Tamils became dumbfounded by the complete bouleversement of the policies they had pursued for the previous decade (page 16 & 18). Jane Russel of DC also stated that “ the Sinhala leaders were also very dubious about the new franchise, but they were willing to support it in a quid pro quo for the abolition of communal electorates (page 17).

The All-Ceylon Tamil league first opposed the Donoughmore Commission’s suggestions because the abolition of the communal (representation) principle, coupled with the proposed universal franchise would mean ‘death to the minorities’, as the Sinhalese would receive over 50 per cent of the seats. Then in 1929, there was a tactical change when the Tamils opposed it and the Donoughmore Commission did not grant full self-government to any community.

The report of the Donoughmore Commission was presented to the British Parliament in July 1928, soon after it was received and studied at home (Ceylon). One of the most critical issues was the Constitutional reforms in Ceylon by introducing the Universal Franchise with the right to participate in the administration of the country by electing their representatives. Universal Franchise, at that time, was enjoyed by only a privileged few according to their literal and communal basis. Ceylonese finally managed to get rid of it in 1947 when the Soulbury Constitution came into being with the declaration of Independence to Ceylon in 1948.

 Oral Evidence

The recordings were obtained at the public sittings of the Donoughmore Commission in 1928 and did not ‘record’, but were confined to oral evidence only. It contained some solid and rare evidence based on the Constitution of Ceylon and consisted of four volumes, which were in cyclostyled typescripts in duplicated form.

These typescripts were neatly bound with buckram binding and carried the word ‘Library House of Lords’, on its upper covers, with morocco gilt labels on covers and spines. This valuable oral evidence was auctioned at the world-renowned auctioneers in London, Sotheby’s on Thursday, 27 June 1996 for a reserved price of eight hundred pound sterling (£800). A Japanese collector of valuable literary property purchased the whole records and took those to Japan in June 1996. His name remained anonymous.

Expatriate Sri Lankan Community 

Ceylon became a Republic within the Commonwealth, and its name was changed to Sri Lanka on 22 May 1972 under Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s premiership. When the Donoughmore Commission Records on Ceylon were auctioned by Sotheby’s there was a strong Sri Lankan expatriate community in London.

They became interested in the auction knowing to what extent those were invaluable pieces of documentary evidence from the Colonials. They were also aware that it contained four volumes and how important those were legally, its validity and beneficial to the Sri Lanka Government at a time when the Sri Lanka Government was concentrating on making amendments to the existed Constitution.

President Kumaratunga was very keen to acquire those records from the Sotheby’s auction for a reserved price. The archaeological authorities in the UK advised the President that copies of the same documents were available in the Sri Lankan archives. A letter signed by Lord Donoughmore accompanied the four volumes of the typed script version of the Ceylon Report of Special Commission on the Constitution.

Records were bound in half Morocco, 8Vo, and recorded on a Downing Street headed paper (British Prime Minister’s official residence) stating that the set of four volumes in cyclostyled typescripts should be made available at the Library of The House of Lords for public reference to the public.

The letter by Lord Donoughmore stated thus: “We had hoped to present to you in companion volumes to this report a verbatim record of our proceedings in public sessions.’ We regret that the high cost of printing has precluded the adoption of this course. We are, however, forwarding duplicated copies of this material with the recommendation that a complete record, which the public may be free to consult, should

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