The British Empire Library

A Political Legacy Of The British Empire: Power And The Parliamentary System In Post-Colonial India And Sri Lanka

by Harshan Kumarasingham

Courtesy of OSPA

Professor A. J. Stockwell (Royal Holloway, University of London)
The political legacy which is the subject of this book was the so-called ‘Westminster model’ of government. First transplanted to colonies of European settlement in the Nineteenth Century, it was implanted in Britain’s non- European dependencies during the retreat from empire after the Second World War. The model did not prescribe rules but was thought to be sufficiently flexible for adaptation to a wide range of political cultures in the new Commonwealth. In essence it was a set of conventions regarding the relationship between the executive and legislature as well as the balance of power between the components of the executive itself: head of state, prime minister, and cabinet. In this meticulously researched and illuminating study, Dr Kumarasingham compares the ways in which critical events and personal ambitions during the first decade of independence shaped the ‘Eastminsters’ of India and Sri Lanka.

As it celebrated its ‘tryst with destiny’ in August 1947, India faced an uncertain future. That stability was secured during its first decade was, argues Dr Kumarasingham, principally due to the dominance of Congress, the work of Constituent Assembly and the leadership of Nehru. Having removed the British, Congress leaders dispensed with the ‘dignified’ aspects of Westminster, notably the monarch as head of state, and planned for a republic. In order to ensure territorial integrity in the traumatic aftermath of partition, the Constituent Assembly (which was charged with drafting the new constitution) built on the viceregal legacy of a strong executive. It had no truck with ‘village democracy’ as preached by Gandhi, nor with any loose federalism pandering to diversity. Preferring the term Union to Federation, the founding-fathers pursued top-down federalism, notably in the matter of the national language. While he concedes that violent separatist movements would continue to plague India, Dr Kumarasingham insists that a sense of union was projected and largely accepted. In addition to retaining many of the institutions and practices of the Raj, the Constituent Assembly adopted British parliamentary principles, notably that which embedded the executive in the legislature instead of keeping them separate as in the United States. The constitution was ambiguous, however, with respect to the precise relationship between president, prime minister, and cabinet. This was an issue that politics rather than draughtsmanship would resolve, and the first years of independence were marked by struggles for ascendancy within the executive. It was not until 1952 that Nehru was fully in command, no longer ‘first among equals’ but ‘first with no equals’.

In contrast with India, where independence came as the culmination of a populist and often violent campaign of civil disobedience, in the ‘model colony’ of Ceylon it was achieved with minimum fuss and took the form of a gentlemen’s agreement between the British and Sinhalese leaders. It was not just because it was so much smaller than India that it appeared less problematic, it was more because the Sinhalese had remained loyal throughout the Second World War, regarded their island as ‘a little bit of England’ and (partly out of fear of India) aimed to be ‘a truly British Westminster’. On independence day (4 February 1948), as D.S. Senanayake explained to his people, the King of England became ‘King of Ceylon, acting on the advice of his Ceylon Ministers’ and heir to the island’s 2,500 year-old monarchy. Thus the ‘model colony’ became the ‘model dominion’ of the new Commonwealth.

However, these high hopes were dashed during the course of the next ten years. In 1958 race riots marked the start of communal conflict that would eventually tear the island apart. The reasons for this breakdown were both constitutional and political. The Donoughmore Constitution (1931) - a committee system derived from the London County Council - had not prepared the leaders of independent Sri Lanka for ‘Westminster government’. On the other hand, the post-war Soulbury Constitution, which was modelled on Westminster, deliberately omitted provision for the specific interests of minorities (particularly Tamils). As for Sri Lankan politics, more than one observer compared them with those of eighteenth-century England in their lack of a robust party system, their fractious cabinets and their dominance by elites who relied upon personal support and kinship ties. Increasingly the Sri Lankan nation came to be identified with the Sinhalese whose leaders rejected any devices such as federalism or power-sharing which. Dr Kumarasingham suggests, might have mitigated growing communal tension.

British Empire Book
Harshan Kumarasingham
IB Tauris and Co. Ltd.
978 1 78076 228 9


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