Life and times of D. A. Rajapaksa the reluctant politician
Professor P. W. Epasinghe, whom I know well,
and who is currently among other responsibilities, also functioning as
the Chairperson of the D. A. Rajapaksa Memorial Commemoration Committee,
sent word requesting me to write something for the forthcoming
commemoration publications. I told the gentleman who contacted me on the
Professorís behalf, that I have never had nor at present have any
political affiliations of any kind, and that therefore I wonít be a
proper choice to write such an article.
To this, I received an interesting reply. I was
informed that they would like to see more uncommitted people write,
because those who are committed tend to write panegyrics. What they
wanted to see were different perspectives and to the extent possible a
different approach. It is in this light that I have made an attempt,
although I have reservations about my qualifications to do so.
There are many interesting aspects to the life of Mr. D. A. Rajapaksa.
He was born in 1905. He was born into the twentieth century, a century
that saw so much progress as well as so much turmoil and bloodshed in
the world. The accelerating development of science and technology,
rapidly being allied to entrepreneurship and capital improved the
quality of life in an exponential manner.
At the same time, these very developments were diverted towards
expanding and enhancing destruction. In countries like Sri Lanka, by now
centuries into the painful experience of different varieties of
colonialism, malnutrition, poverty and apathy predominated. It was into
such a milieu that Mr. Rajapaksa was born, essentially a rural Buddhist
He entered a government school in Weeraketiya, his village and from
there went on to Richmond College, Galle, one of the leading schools in
the Southern Province, and the island. There, he obtained a wider
exposure and experience. After his initial exposure to the village
verities of Weeraketiya; he was now in a high quality provincial school
of national stature. Mr. Rajapaksa, while pursuing his studies, also
found the time to captain the school soccer team and play for the school
Cricket and soccer are two excellent team sports that build character
and provide great experience in enhancing inter-personal relations and
Even in school, Mr. Rajapaksa, as well as his brothers, displayed
strong characteristics. For instance, they rejected the use of forks and
spoons at the college dining table and chose to eat with their fingers.
This, with other patterns of behaviour, were early indications of an
anti-colonial and radical attitude.
After completing his fomal education, Mr. Rajapaksa went home to
pursue two passionate interests, working for the welfare of the
community, and farming. He was adept at the art and science of
agriculture and loved getting into the fields and being at one with
nature and the soil.
Mr. Rajapaksa did not initially show any great political interest
personally. He however helped his brother, Mr. D. M. Rajapaksa in his
political campaign to enter the Second State Council. This turned out to
be a very successful effort, with Mr. D. M. Rajapaksa being elected as
the member for Hambantota in 1936, by a majority of over 12,000 votes.
Such was the state of affairs, when destiny intervened. In 1945, Mr. D.
M. Rajapaksa became suddenly ill and passed away. Now came a popular
demand for Mr. D. A. Rajapaksa to contest the vacant seat. The records
show that he was not interested. He was a farmer. He loved farming. He
was loathe to leave such a congenial occupation for the uncertainties
and sometimes unpleasantness of competitive politics. But the public
demand continued. Mr. Rajapaksa chose not to hear it. Then comes a most
colourful episode, an episode perhaps unique in the history of politics.
The people of the area who were determined to nominate Mr. Rajapaksa for
the election, went down to the paddy field where he was ploughing, and
obtained his signature on the nomination paper! The wisdom of the people
was justified. He was elected uncontested and took his seat in the State
Council in August 1945. In the State Council, which was run on the basis
of several committees, Mr. Rajapaksa naturally chose the agriculture
committee, which was then chaired by Mr. D. S. Senanayake.
Mr. Rajapaksa now pursued his political career, a career in which the
people took him out of the paddyfield and placed him in the State
Council. At the Parliamentary General Election held in 1947, Mr.
Rajapaksa was elected from the Beliatta seat to the first Parliament of
independent Ceylon. Then followed the high drama of July 12, 1951, when
Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, a senior member and minister of the United
National Party, crossed the floor of the House to sit in the Opposition
benches. Just one other person followed Mr. Bandaranaike that day, Mr.
D. A. Rajapaksa. It was by any standard, an act of great political
courage. This was no crossing from an Opposition to a functioning
Government. This was no crossing in order to obtain perks of office. It
was a different crossing, a crossing from the known into the unknown,
one from the comforts of office into a future clouded with uncertainty
and perhaps political suicide.
Mr. Rajapaksa, then became a political pioneer. The Sri Lanka Freedom
Party was just as much his creation. The political history of the
country was altered forever. Sri Lanka saw the emergence of a two party
system. The people had a wider choice. Ideas, attitudes and ideologies
which were not represented elsewhere were represented here. The
democratic framework was broadened and deepened. Different policy
choices were now available to the people, and competitive Parliamentary
and later Presidential democracy built a welfare state of substance with
human development in the forefront.
This is not a place to debate the dichotomies between welfare and
development. These are issues that will have to be continually addressed
by our political parties and resolved in a practical manner. But what is
of real importance are the watersheds of 1951 and 1956 and 1951 led to
1956 and beyond and the lonely courage shown by Mr. D. A. Rajapaksa in
July 1951 is a signal and singular act in the political history of Sri
Mr. Rajapaksa held high office. The various positions he held
included that of Deputy Minister, Minister, Chairman of Committees in
Parliament and Deputy Speaker. He used these positions and his growing
influence to initiate action on many aspects of agricultural
development; his first love. These included the multipurpose
agricultural development scheme under the Walawe Ganga Development
Project which benefited the people in and around Embilipitiya and the
small tank development Muruthawela Reservoir scheme.
His leadership in the setting up of the paper factory in Embilipitiya
capable of using a by-product of agriculture, hay as a raw material and
his work in developing the handloom textile industry and the crafts
sector involving gold, silver and brassware are universally
acknowledged. Ayurveda was another subject close to his heart and he did
much to establish dispensaries and hospitals of indigenous medicine.
In the field of religious activity, he became seriously engaged in
assisting temples and pirivenas and catering to the welfare of the
Sangha. He did much travel by bus including using public transport to
come to Colombo, a practice unbelievable in the present context.
If we are to sum up the totally of life and career of Mr. D. A.
Rajapaksa, what emerges is that of a simple unostentatious person rooted
in village values, passionately interested in agriculture and all
matters connected with it; a responsible legislator, minister, social
worker and community developer.
Added to all these was the display of the courage of his convictions
by choosing to go to what might well have been the political wilderness
when he chose to cross the floor of the House along with Mr.
Bandaranaike. He thereby, above all, contributed to the formation of a
political grouping of signal importance in the ensuing history of the