Sirimavo Bandaranaike (born 1916) became the first woman prime minister in the world when she was chosen to head the Sri Lankan Freedom Party government in 1960, following the assassination of her husband. She pursued policies of nonalignment abroad and democratic socialism at home.
Sirimavo (also Sirima) Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike was born on April 17, 1916, to an aristocratic Kandyan family and was educated in a Roman Catholic convent in Colombo. Married to Solomon West Ridge-way Dias (SWRD) Bandaranaike in 1940 when he was a minister in the government of Ceylon, then a British crown colony, Bandaranaike's life was politically uneventful. She had the preoccupations of a housewife married to an eminent national leader who became the prime minister of Ceylon in 1956, eight years after its independence. In 1959, however, SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk, and such was SWRD's charisma that his party, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), chose Sirimavo Bandaranaike to be its leader.
First Woman Prime Minister
SWRD's assassination resulted in a brief period of political instability. The minority government of the United National Party (UNP) was unable to sustain itself in power after the elections in March 1960. Consequently, the country went to the polls again in July 1960. In this election Bandaranaike succeeded in mobilizing a parliamentary majority for her party and became the first woman prime minister in the world. When Bandaranaike became the prime minister she was not a member of the House of Representatives but of the Senate—the upper house—that her party was to abolish in 1971.
In office, Bandaranaike sought to carry forward her husband's policies, which had been tempered with socialist principles of a government-directed and controlled economy in contrast to the free economy advocated by the main opposition UNP party.
In foreign affairs, Bandaranaike staunchly believed in pursuing a policy of nonalignment (with neither East nor West), as her husband had done. She actively participated in the nonaligned conferences and also mediated the India-China border conflict during 1962.
Bandaranaik is credited with successfully negotiating with Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri an agreement pertaining to the political status of the plantation workers of Indian origin in Ceylon, most of whom had been disenfranchised soon after Ceylon became independent. The agreement, known as the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, was signed in October 1964 at New Delhi. It specified the modalities of granting Ceylonese or Indian citizenship to the workers of Indian origin on a proportionate basis. In the domestic sphere, during her premiership, the American and British oil companies operating in Ceylon were nationalized and a state controlled commercial banking system was established.
Fall of Bandaranaike's Government
As the Parliament was nearing the end of its five year term, differences began to surface in the SLFP. A group of 14 members of Parliament revolted against Bandaranaike and crossed over to the opposition in protest against the enactment of the Press Bill, which enabled the government to take over the well-established independent media. Consequently, Bandaranaike's government fell.
Bandaranaike Returns As Prime Minister
In the elections that ensued in 1965, the SLFP was defeated by the UNP, although Bandaranaike herself retained her seat and became the leader of the opposition. She utilized the opportunity to consolidate the "opposition party," concluding an agreement with the left parties that they would not contest each other in the event of a general election. This agreement paid off in the 1970 elections, and Bandaranaike was back as the prime minister and the SLFP and its allies secured a massive majority.
Soon, however, Bandaranaike found herself confronted with an insurrectionary situation of considerable magnitude. With unemployment among the Sinhalese educated youth swelling, a group of radicals calling itself the Jatika Vimukti Perumana (JVP)—National Liberation Front— launched an insurrection. With military assistance from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, India, and Pakistan, Bandaranaike finally overcame the insurrection and restored normalcy in the island.
Thereafter, Bandaranaike set about implementing her electoral promises, a major one of which was that the SLFP would convene a constituent assembly and give the country a republican constitution. This was duly done in 1972, and the island reacquired its ancient name, Sri Lanka.
Apart from this, major socialist measures taken by the government included the abolition of agency houses as well as the nationalization of tea estates and the imposition of land ownership ceilings. Credit also goes to her for having successfully negotiated an agreement with India over the disputed status of an uninhabited island, Kachchathivu, in the Palk Straits. Finally, Sri Lanka hosted the fifth summit of the nonaligned movement in Colombo and Bandaranaike became its chairperson in 1976.
Despite implementing its electoral pledge, the SLFP suffered a disastrous defeat in the parliamentary elections of 1977, and the party won just eight seats while the UNP won 140 of the 168 seats.
Yet Bandaranaike's worst days in her political life were to follow. The UNP government set up a presidential commission of inquiry to investigate charges that Bandaranaike misused her office as prime minister for personal and family benefit. She refused to participate in the proceedings of the commission on the ground that she considered it to be a political vendetta against her. The commission sustained the charges against her and deprived her of civic rights for a period of seven years. Consequently, in October 1980 she was expelled from the Parliament. Intraparty factionalism also weakened her support basis. Her daughter Chandrika, along with her actor husband, formed one of the several splinter parties formed in this period. Stripped of her political rights, Bandaranaike took a place offstage. Early in 1986, however, she received a pardon from her successor, President Junius Jayewardene.
An Unprecedented Comeback
Bandaranaike turned heads by making an unprecedented comeback after 17 years out of office. She and her Sri Lanka Freedom Party, along with the People's Alliance coalition, emerged victorious in a March 24, 1994 provincial council election in the southern province of the country. Later that same year, Bandaranaike again became Prime Minister. Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunge, also briefly Prime Minister in 1994, became the President.
Further Reading on Sirimavo Bandaranaike
Two biographical studies are available. K. P. Mukerji's Madame Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike (Colombo, 1960) provides a survey of her life and activities before Mrs. Bandaranaike became the prime minister. The other, written by a journalist, Maureen Seneviratne, is entitled Sirimavo Bandaranaike: The World's First Woman Prime Minister (Colombo, 1975). For a brief biographical sketch, readers are advised to look up Ceylon Daily News, Parliament of Sri Lanka, 1977 (Colombo, 1980). For more current information, see: Sri Lanka: Southern Surprise in Far Eastern Economic Review 1994, April 7, p. 25; and on the World Wide Web on the Women Political Leaders page at http://www.info.london.on.ca/~barnes/women/priminist.htm.