He and his two brothers were associated with the ‘Temperance Movement’ which was formed in 1912, inspired by Buddhism and anti-colonialism. The movement had a leading role in the ‘National Independence Movement’ in Ceylon.
In 1914, at the outset of the ‘First World War’, the three brothers joined ‘Colombo Town Guard’, a regiment linked with ‘Ceylon Defence Force’ (predecessor of Sri Lanka Army).
During the 1915 riots, the brothers faced confinement without any charges as Sir Robert Chalmers, the then British Governor held the ‘Temperance Movement’ as rebellious. As the British resorted to remorseless brutal actions to suppress the riots, the educated middle class of the country emerged to initiate the modern independence movement.
In 1919, his brother Fredric Richard formed ‘Lanka Mahajana Sabha’ party and he along with Don Charles became leading members of the party that played a significant role in the independence of Ceylon.
He was elected from Negambo in the Western Province of Ceylon, as a member of the ‘Legislative Council of Ceylon’ in 1924.
Following Fredrick Richard’s death while on a trip to Bodh Gaya, India, in 1925, he stepped in to lead the independence movement.
The ‘Legislative Council of Ceylon’ was replaced with ‘State Council of Ceylon’ by the ‘Donoughmore Constitution’ in 1931 and Don Stephen represented ‘Ceylon National Congress’ in the latter and became Minister of Agriculture and Lands.
He strived to resolve the agricultural issues and in this endeavour formed an agricultural policy, ‘Land Development Ordinance’, to address rice problems in the country.
The various irrigation schemes of the policy ensured that barren lands were brought under cultivation. His sincere effort in launching the policy fetched him respect and appreciation and saw him being re-elected in 1936. He went on to serve as minister for fifteen years and attempted to modernise agriculture.
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He played an active role in supply and control of food during ‘Second World War’ in the capacity of a Ceylon war cabinet member and as Minister of Agriculture and Lands. As the nation experienced scarcity of rice due to reduction in foreign supplies, he initiated tenfold import of wheat flour by commencing trade with Brazil and Egypt.
He developed close bond with Dr Ivor Jennings, who served ‘Ceylon University College’ as its Principal. An authority in constitutional law, Dr Ivor Jennings later became advisor of Don Stephen and gave him valuable suggestions on constitutional reforms aimed at attaining independence of Ceylon.
He became ‘Leader of the House’ of the ‘State Council of Ceylon’ on December 2, 1942 and held the position till July 4, 1947. He also became Vice Chairman of the Board of Ministers of the council in 1942.
When the ‘Whitehall Declaration’ was made by the British Government on May 26, 1943, regarding constitutional change in Ceylon and attracted submissions from ministers, the Governor called for a commission to stop the operations of ministers.
Not consenting to the resolution on independence undertaken by ‘Ceylon National Congress’, he left the party and submitted his proposal of dominion status to the commission. The commission accepted his submissions which were published in 1944 in the Sessional Paper XIV.
The ‘Soulbury Commission’ was set up in 1944 and the following year he visited London and met George Hall, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. This was followed by acceptance of his submissions that led to self-government for Ceylon, albeit short of independence.
In 1946, he resigned his ministry and on September 6 that year, he established a new party, the ‘United National Party’ (‘UNP’) by bringing together three right pro-Dominion, right-leaning parties from the Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil communities. The same year he refused knighthood, though showed his appreciation for the cooperation extended by the British.
After a few negotiations, his proposals for change in constitution and independence were accepted by the British government. This was followed by parliamentary elections from August 23 to September 20 in 1947. After a couple of months, in December, the nation witnessed passage of the ‘Independence Bill of Ceylon’ and on 11th day of the month, he signed agreements with British government that opened a new door of independence to Ceylon.
The ‘UNP’ went into a coalition with ‘All Ceylon Tamil Congress’ and formed a government and he became the first Prime Minister of Ceylon on September 24, 1947. He also held Ministry of Defence and External Affairs.
As Prime Minister, he was respected by most of the communities of Ceylon. He applied multipurpose scheme, ‘Gal Oya’ to colonize uninhabited regions by resettling around 2, 50,000 people. He emphasised on development of hydroelectric power to mitigate non-occurrences of coal, oil and gas deposits in the country.
In 1950, the British inducted him in the ‘Privy Council’.
In 1951 he also took charge of the Ministry of Health and Local Government.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Molly Dunuwila and the couple had two sons.
Their elder son Dudley Shelton Senanayake, born on June 19, 1911, followed his father’s footsteps and succeeded his father to become the second Prime Minister of Ceylon on March 26, 1952. Dudley Shelton later held premiership for two more terms.
The couple’s second son Robert Parakrama Senanayake was born on April 8, 1913.
On March 22, 1952, Senanayake succumbed to a stroke that he suffered while riding a horse at the ‘Galle Face green’.
His grandson Rukman Senanayake, a former cabinet minister, presently serves as Member of Parliament. Rukman currently serves ‘Union National Party’ as it’s Assistant Leader.