The Donoughmore Commission

Sri Lanka Table of Contents

In 1927 a royal commission under the Earl of Donoughmore visited Sri Lanka to ascertain why representative government as chartered by the 1924 constitution had not succeeded and to suggest constitutional changes necessary for the island's eventual self-rule. The commission declared that the constitution had authorized a government characterized by the "divorce of power from responsibility," which at times seemed "rather like holy matrimony at its worst." The 1924 constitution, considered by the commission to be "an unqualified failure," failed to provide a strong, credible executive body of representatives. To remedy these shortcomings, the commission proposed universal adult franchise and an experimental system of government to be run by executive committees. The resulting Donoughmore Constitution, promulgated in 1931 to accommodate these new proposals in government, was a unique document that provided Sri Lankans with training for self-government. The document, however, reserved the highest level of responsibility for the British governor, whose assent was necessary for all legislation. The legislative branch of the government--the State Council-- functioned in both an executive and legislative capacity. Seven committees performed executive duties. Each committee consisted of designated members of the State Council and was chaired by an elected Sri Lankan, who was addressed as minister. Three British officers of ministerial rank, along with the seven Sri Lankan ministers, formed a board of ministers. The British ministers collectively handled responsibility for defense, external affairs, finance, and judicial matters.

The Donoughmore Constitution ushered in a period of experimentation in participatory democracy but contemporary political scientists have criticized it for not having provided an atmosphere conducive to the growth of a healthy party system. The system of executive committees did not lead to the development of national political parties. Instead, a number of splinter political groups evolved around influential personalities who usually followed a vision too limited or an agenda too communally partisan to have an impact on national politics.

Among the Sinhalese, a form of nationalism arose that sought once again to restore Buddhism to its former glory. The Great Council of the Sinhalese (Sinhala Maha Sabha), which was founded by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1937, was the strongest proponent of this resurgent ideology. Other groups followed suit, also organizing on communal grounds. These groups included the Burgher Political Association in 1938, the Ceylon Indian Congress in 1939, and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1944.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress