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Vimala Wijewardene

Vimala Wijewardene (1908–1985) was a Ceylonese politician and the country’s first female cabinet minister. She is known as one of the suspects arrested by the police in connection with the assassination of Prime Minister of Sri Lanka S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1959.

Following the death of her older sister, Vimala (at the age of sixteen) married her sister’s widower, Don Charles Wijewardene (1893-1956), the fifth son of Don Philip Tudugala Wijewardene, a timber merchant of Sedavatta, and Helena Dep (née Weerasinghe) and younger brother of newspaper magnate Don Richard. They had three children, Ananda, Padmini and Rukmani.

She was one of the owners of the famous Adisham Bungalow. Named after Adisham, it was designed by R. Booth and F. Webster in Tudor and Jacobean style, on 10 acres (40,000 m2) of land. Adisham Hall played host to many prominent personalities of the colony until the retirement of Sir Thomas, after which it was sold to Sedawatte Mills owned by Vimala Wijewardene in 1949

In 1961 it was purchased by the Roman Catholic Church and was subsequently converted to a monastery. The house is well preserved along with its period fittings and furniture and is open to visitors.

Don Charles, a polemicist espousing the Buddhist nationalist movement, was the author of The Revolt in the Temple (published in 1953). His mother, Helena, was responsible for arranging the financing of the restoration of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara. Don Charles and his brother Don Walter had a strong involvement in the Kelaniya Temple and Buddhist affairs. He was also the patron of Mapitigama Buddharakkitha, as a young monk supporting his promotion to chief priest of the Kelaniya Temple.

It was probably thanks to Don Charles that the youthful Buddharakkita first encountered this new brand of political thought. It also seems likely that Buddharakkita was groomed for his future post as Chief Priest of Kelaniya by the Wijewardene family. How far they influenced his appointment to this post is unclear, but following Helena’s generous donations and bequest to the Temple, they must have felt entitled to some say in its future governance.

What is clear is that it was at Don Charles’s home that Buddharakkita met the woman who was to become his close friend, political ally and – it was rumoured – his mistress. Vimala was young, beautiful and fascinated by politics. With Buddharakkita’s sponsorship, she would first become an MP, then a Cabinet Minister during Mr Bandaranaike’s incumbency.

In 1952 she contested the seat of Kelaniya at the 2nd parliamentary election, representing the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, against the United National Party incumbent (and her nephew), J. R. Jayewardene, losing by 6,235 votes.

In 1956, the General Election had swung decisively in favour of Mr Bandaranaike thanks to Buddharakkita’s intervention. Under his direction, thousands of monks were mobilised to canvas for votes in rural areas. The result was a landslide victory. Vimala ran in Mirigama electorate and was elected, receiving 36,193 votes (75.25% of the total vote) defeating the sitting member, John Amaratunga.

In June 1956 she was appointed as Minister of Health in the S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike cabinet, the country’s first female cabinet minister. In June 1959 she was appointed as the Minister for Local Government and Housing a position she retained in the subsequent Dahanayake cabinet.

One more fact I remember from the period Wimala Wijewardene was the Health Minister in the SWRDB government was that nuns who were providing volunteer service in the various government hospitals were asked to quit. It was one of the early manifestation of intoIerant Buddhism in the body fabric of the then Ceylon. I yet remember the kindly manner in which these nuns served meals to my father who was warded after a motor vehicle accident. Many of these nuns were also mostly whites, were like angels to me as a child. The large slice of boiled Seer fish he was served at one meal yet lingers in my memory. Such food has also diasapeared from hospital menus now.

Dr. Rajasingham Narendran

However, political success came at a high price. Buddharakkita was later to complain that “in order to get this Party into power I have spent over a lakh” (i.e. 100,000 rupees). Financial hardship was almost certainly the motivation for the civil suit through which he attempted to acquire direct control over Helena Wijewardene’s bequest to Kelaniya temple; a source of funds which, by law, could only be accessed by the Temple’s trustees, not by its chief priest.

In short, it appears that Buddharakkita was broke. In a final attempt to recoup his losses, he invested in a shipping company whose success depended on the grant of a government contract to transport rice. His request for the contract was refused and it seems clear that he held the Prime Minister personally responsible.

Faced with financial ruin and the ingratitude of his former protégé, Buddharakkita is reported to have said of the Prime Minister: “He is of no use now; he must be driven out.”

Meanwhile Vimala’s loyalty to Buddharakkita would set her at odds with the Prime Minister, not only over matters of policy, but also on a more personal level. She blamed Mr. Bandaranaike for failing to suppress anonymous leaflets alleging that she was Buddharakkita’s mistress.

The result was an assassination plot, masterminded by Buddharakkita, which led to the murder of the Prime Minister and the initial implication of Vimala Wijewardene.

On 21 November 1959 she was arrested by the police, which led to her dismissal as Ceylon’s Minister of Local Government. The charges against her were subsequently dropped on 15 July 1960. Although Vimala was eventually discharged, both Somarama Thera, the monk who pulled the trigger, and Buddharakkita were sentenced to death.

The incident effectively ended her political career and in her later life she turned to religion participating in Christian revival meetings.

Credit – Wikipedia, Colombo Telegraph, TripAdvisor, Historic Images

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