The Weep­ing Widow

Sri Lanka’s Sir­i­mavo Ban­daranaike, the world’s first fe­male head of govern­ment, was a per­fect blend of am­bi­tion and per­se­ver­ance.

Southasia - - Contents -

The world’s first fe­male head of govern­ment, Sri Lanka’s Sir­i­mavo Ban­daranaike per­son­i­fied am­bi­tion and per­se­ver­ance.

Born on April 17, 1916, Sir­i­mavo Ban­daranaike be­came fa­mous as the mod­ern world’s first fe­male head of govern­ment. She was the widow of Sri Lanka’s fourth prime min­is­ter, Solomon Ban­daranaike and the mother of Sri Lanka’s fourth Ex­ec­u­tive Pres­i­dent, Chan­drika Ku­maratunga.

Ban­daranaike re­ceived her ed­u­ca­tion at St Brid­get’s Con­vent in Colombo. In 1940, she mar­ried Solomon Ban­daranaike, founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Af­ter a Bud­dhist monk as­sas­si­nated Solomon on 26 Septem­ber 1959, Sir­i­mavo took up the reins of the party as the le­git­i­mate suc­ces­sor to her hus­band. She for­mally en­tered pol­i­tics in 1960 as a Se­nate mem­ber from the SLFP.

Ban­daranaike led her party to win the July 1960 elec­tions and be­came the first fe­male prime min­is­ter in the world, pledg­ing to con­tinue her slain hus­band’s poli­cies. Known to her fel­low Sri Lankans as “Mrs. B,” Sir­i­mavo could clev­erly ma­neu­ver pop­u­lar emo­tion to boost her sup­port, of­ten burst­ing into tears, akin to Prime Min­is­ter Mosad­degh of Iran. Her op­po­nents there­fore called her the “Weep­ing Widow.”

Ban­daranaike was a so­cial­ist. In 1961, she na­tion­al­ized key sec­tors of the econ­omy such as bank­ing and in­sur­ance, as well as all schools owned by the Ro­man Catholic Church at the time. She dropped English as the of­fi­cial lan­guage and or­dered the govern­ment to con­duct busi­ness in Sin­hala, the lan­guage of the ma­jor­ity Sin­halese. The Tamils con­sid­ered this a dis­crim­i­na­tory act as well as the at­tempt to deny them ac­cess to all of­fi­cial jobs and the law. This led to an in­crease in Tamil mil­i­tancy that es­ca­lated un­der suc- ceed­ing ad­min­is­tra­tions.

The state takeover of for­eign busi­nesses, pe­tro­leum com­pa­nies in par­tic­u­lar, roiled the United States and Bri­tain as they halted aid to Sri Lanka. Con­se­quently, Ban­daranaike cham­pi­oned a pol­icy of non­align­ment by cul­ti­vat­ing re­la­tions with China and the Soviet Union. At home, she also crushed an at­tempted mil­i­tary coup by Chris­tian of­fi­cers in 1962. Her first term as Prime Min­is­ter ended when the SLFP coali­tion was de­feated in the 1965 elec­tions.

Sir­i­mavo re­gained power af­ter the United Front coali­tion won the 1970 elec­tions with a large ma­jor­ity. In 1971, she faced the JVP In­sur­rec­tion of left-wing youths. It would have top­pled her govern­ment but mil­i­tary as­sis­tance from In­dia and Pak­istan saved her regime.

Dur­ing her sec­ond term, a new con­sti­tu­tion was in­tro­duced in 1972. Cey­lon was re­named Sri Lanka and be­came a repub­lic. The 1973 oil cri­sis had a trau­matic ef­fect on the Sri Lankan econ­omy as the govern­ment had no ac­cess to Western aid and Ban­daranaike’s so­cial­ist poli­cies sti­fled eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity, lead­ing to ra­tioning of es­sen­tial goods. Mean­while she be­came in­creas­ingly in­tol­er­ant of crit­i­cism and or­dered a forced shut­down of the In­de­pen­dent news­pa­per group, whose pub­li­ca­tions were her fiercest crit­ics. Ear­lier she had na­tion­al­ized the coun­try’s largest news­pa­per, Lake House, which has re­mained the govern­ment’s of­fi­cial mouth­piece.

Ban­daranaike en­joyed con­tin­ued suc­cess in for­eign af­fairs. Cho­sen to serve as the chair­man of the NonAligned Move­ment in 1976, she hosted the Move­ment’s con­fer­ence, at­tended by nu­mer­ous world lead­ers. De­spite her high in­ter­na­tional stand­ing, she was los­ing Sri Lankan sup­port amid al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion and a de­clin­ing econ­omy. Elec­tions were due in 1975 un­der the old con­sti­tu­tion and to stem the tide of un­pop­u­lar­ity, she used a pro­vi­sion from the new con­sti­tu­tion to post­pone the elec­tions for two years.

Ban­daranaike held her own seat in the 1977 elec­tions, but in 1980, she was charged with abuse of power for de­lay­ing the elec­tions in 1975–77. This re­sulted in her ex­pul­sion from par­lia­ment and she was banned from hold­ing pub­lic of­fice for seven years. The 1980s were dark years when she be­came a po­lit­i­cal out­cast and was re­jected by the peo­ple who had once wor­shipped her. Ban­daranaike spent the next seventeen years in the op­po­si­tion, ward­ing off chal­lenges to her lead­er­ship of the SLFP, even from her own chil­dren. She there­fore played her daugh­ter Chan­drika and son Anura against one an­other, hold­ing on to party con­trol de­spite los­ing ev­ery sub­se­quent gen­eral elec­tion.

In 1994, the SLFP-led coali­tion won the gen­eral elec­tions. Chan­drika suc­cess­fully out­ma­neu­vered her mother, Sir­i­mavo Ban­daranaike, be­com­ing Pres­i­dent in 1994. In the same year, Ban­daranaike be­came prime min­is­ter but the con­sti­tu­tion had changed since her last ten­ure. As prime min­is­ter, she was sub­or­di­nate to her daugh­ter and com­manded lit­tle real power. Sir­i­mavo Ban­daranaike re­mained in of­fice for a few months be­fore her death on Elec­tion Day, 10 Oc­to­ber 2000, af­ter cast­ing her vote for the very last time. S. G. Ji­la­nee is a se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and the for­mer edi­tor of SouthAsia Mag­a­zine.

By S.G. Ji­la­nee

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