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Philip Gunawardena - Father of Socialism in Sri Lanka

by W. T. A. Leslie Fernando

(Excerpts from the commemorative talk delivered over the SLBC on March 26, 2004 for the 32nd death anniversary of Philip Gunawardena)

I consider it indeed an honour and privilege to speak about Don Philip Rupasinghe Gunawardena, an illustrious son of the soil who towered the political scene in our country like a colossus for four decades. He was a great statesman, colourful personality and a man of destiny who influenced the course of history in our country.

Father of socialism in Sri Lanka, he was called the Lion of Boralugoda.

Philip was born on January 11, 1901 at Boralugoda on the outskirts of Kelani river in the Hevagam Korale. His father was Don Jakolis Rupasighe Gunawardena, a Vidane Arachchi known as 'Borulugoda Ralahamy'. He was married to Dona Liyanora Gunasekera, a Kula Kanthava from Dompe in Siyane Korale. Philip was the third child of a family of three boys and seven girls.

Philip Gunawardena

Philip had his primary education at Boralugoda temple and Siddhartha Vidyalaya, Kaluaggala built by his own father. He had his secondary education at Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa and Ananda College, Colombo.

Boralugoda Ralahamy was a patriarch who raised his children to be devout Buddhists, proud of their Sinhala heritage. Even as teenagers Philip and his brothers were attracted to stirrings of nationalism.

Philip was 14 years old, when Boralugoda Ralahamy was falsely implicated in the riots of 1915 and condemned to death under the Martial Law. Over this injustice tears gushed from the eyes of the boy Philip and he was determined to oust the British Raj from our soil.

He accompanied his mother in a horse drawn coach and unheeded by the shouts of 'halt' by security guards drew straight into premises of the Governor's residence and they handed over a petition on behalf of his father. The Governor found the petition true and released Boralugoda Ralahamy.

Boralugoda Ralahamy lived long to witness the heroic deeds of his brave son and take pride of the achievements of his illustrious off-spring. Philip in his life time was able to witness even the last vestiges of colonial rule removed in our country.

While at Ananda College, Philip and his brother Robert took up residence at the house of T. B. Jayah, a statesman involved in the freedom struggle, who was a teacher at Ananda. While being there Philip came into contact with Anagarika Dharmapala, Walisinghe Harischandra and John de Silva, at the residence of W. A. Silva, and he was inspired by their patriotism.

After passing London matriculation from Ananda, Philip joined the University College and followed a course in economics. As a young student Philip attended the meetings of National Congress but later became a sympathiser of 'Young Lanka League' a radical organisation led by Victor Corea, A. E. Gunasinghe and C. H. Z. Fernando.

Boralugoda Ralahamy now wanted to send his brilliant son to England to become a Barrister-at-law. But Philip went to United States. He studied two years in the University of Illinois and then at the University of Wisconsin and obtained a doctorate in agricultural economics.

While in United States, Philip studied at the feet of Scot Nearing the pioneer professor in socialism. He also worked in collaboration with Indian socialists Jayaprakash Narayan, Seyed Hussain, J. B. Kumarappa and the Mexican revolutionary Jose Vanconcelos. In New York Philip participated in trade union struggles and once some Negroe workers in the city carried him in their shoulders for leading them to win their demands.

In 1928, Philip came to England and participated in activities of the Indian league with Krishnan Menon. He organised anti-imperialist activities with Jomo Kenyata of Kenya, Tuan Malacca of Malaya and Ram Goolam of Mauritious. Philip was a fascinating speaker who expounded socialism attacking the imperialist machinery and the Hyde Park Corner used to reverberate with his thunderous voice.

At this time there was a revolt against the rule of Alphonsus in Spain. Philip undertook to take some secret documents to rebels in Spain risking his own life. He went alone, crossed the Pyranese range on foot with only a map in his hand and accomplished the task. This is now a legend.

Philip met Dr. N. M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Gunawardena and Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe in London and formed the nucleus that was to become the LSSP in Sri Lanka. The British government had impounded his passport because of his anti-imperialist and socialist activities. It was only after the intervention of Sir D. B. Jayatilleke at the request of Boralugoda Ralahamy, Philip was allowed to return to Sri Lanka.

Philip landed on Sri Lanka on November 1, 1932 and began to organise a broad-based movement against the colonial set up.

When the LSSP was formed in December 18, 1935 - Philip pushed Colvin to be the first President. Nevertheless all were conscious that Philip was the leader of the movement. (Dr. N. M. Perera - "Philip Gunawardena: The Father of Socialism in Ceylon" - 1972, reprinted in Daily News - January 13, 1999).

Philip was a dynamo of activity and he was the directing force of the LSSP. People were attracted by his fire-brand speeches that mesmerised the audience. They were taken up by his charismatic personality and sincerity of purpose.

In 1936, State Council elections Philip comfortably won Avisswella defeating the Speaker Forrester Obeysekera, and NM won Ruvanwella. NM has expressed that if not for Philip he would not have contested Ruvanwella and if not for the support he got from Philip and Robert he would not have won. At this time NM took the lead from Philip whom he admired to the point of hero worship (Charles Wesley Wrvin - Philip Gunawardena, Making of a Revolutionary - page 24) The political duo Philip and N. M. vociferously championed the cause of the underprivileged in the State Council.

The reactionary forces who now got alarmed tried to suppress the Samasamaja movement. They sent thugs to break up LSSP meetings. But Philip and his brother Robert used both their brains and brawn and with the assistance of harbour workers made those hirelings run forth their lives.

During the World War II (1939-45), the colonial government proscribed the LSSP and imprisoned its leaders Philip, N.M., Colvin and Edmund Samarakkody. On April 05, 1942, when the Japanese bombed, Colombo the LSSP leaders broke the jail and escaped to India. In India, Philip lived under the assumed name Gurusamy and later his wife Kusuma fled to India and joined him there. Their eldest son was born in India and they named him as Indika.

After some time the LSSP leaders were arrested in India and in 1943, brought back to Sri Lanka. They were sentenced to six months rigorous imprisonment for breaking the jail. In prison, Philip husked coconuts and learned to rattan chairs. When the War was over in 1945, the LSSP leaders were unconditionally released.

In 1947, Parliamentary elections, Philip won Avissawella with an overwhelming majority as a candidate of the LSSP. However in 1948 Philip forfeited his seat when he was sentenced to three months rigours imprisonment over an incident in the South Western bus strike, Kusuma was returned uncontested to Avissawella for his place.

In 1950, when the LSSP and the Bolshevik Samasamaja party re-united Philip broke away with his supporters who were mainly harbour workers, peasants and Swabasha teachers to form the VLSSP. In 1953 LSSP and CP-VLSSP United Front jointly organised the famous Hartal.

Philip was not an ideological dissectionist and he had a pragmatic approach in politics. He was prepared to take lessons of history. In 1965, the VLSSP led by Philip joined hands with the SLFP led by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike to form the MEP to bring about a socialist order through the ballot. The MEP was returned to power in 1956.

As the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Co-operatives in the MEP government (1956-59) Philip forged ahead with a radical agenda. He introduced the Paddy Lands Act to emancipate the tenant farmer and increase the yield, the Multi-purpose Co-operative Scheme to ensure proper distribution of produce and the Co-operative Bank which was later re-named as the People's Bank to uplift the rural masses.

Philip was the force behind the nationalisation of bus transport and the port. He was also instrumental in the takeover of British Air Force Base and Naval Base in Trincomalee to remove the last shackles of colonial rule.

In 1965, Philip joined the national government of Dudley Senanayake and served as the Minister of Industries and Fisheries. He streamlined many public corporations from 1965 to 1970 to make them viable institutions and set up the Industrial Development Board. With the help of Soviet Union he developed Tyre and Steel Corporations. He improved Plywood Corporation with Rumanian aid. It was he who put Fisheries Corporation into operation.

To the surprise of many, Philip lost Avissawella seat in 1970 elections. But he was not disheartened. He wanted to re-orientate the MEP to suit the changing times, when he unexpectedly fell ill. He passed away on March 26, 1972.

Philip Gunawardena was a man of vision. He realised that it was the general consensus among the people in Sri Lanka, that socialism should be effected through the democratic process.

By no means was Philip a racist or communalist. He was in the Cabinet when Bandaranaike-Chelanayagam Pact was signed in 1957 and a member of the Cabinet when in 1966 Dudley-Chelvanayagam Pact was formulated.

Philip was a man of stern moral rectitude. The then District Judge of Colombo who dismissed a defamation case filed against Philip by a senior DIG declared that Philip was an embodiment of honesty and integrity. Philip led an unostentatious family life. He and Kusuma were blessed with four sons and one daughter.

The personal life of Philip epitomized the cream of high moral values found in our rich cultural heritage disciplined by Buddhist way of life.

Dr. N. M. Perera, one time his close ally and later a bitter foe in politics has expressed thus on the greatness of Philip - "History will no doubt accord him his rightful place in the political life of the country. In the years to come, when lesser mortals like us have played their evanescent part and vanished into the limbo of forgotten, grateful socialist Ceylon will remember him with pride and place him in the worthy pedestal due to him."

Charles Wesley Ervin, an authority on the history of the Trotskyist movement in India and Sri Lanka, analyzing the achievements of Philip writes on Philip - "He was towering political personality, a fiery charismatic energetic visionary, whose brilliant mind often raced far ahead of his comrades.

In his prime he was a trailblazing revolutionary who created from scratch a vigorous Left party in an insular country where Left politics barely existed before. In his later years Philip lost his revolutionary fire and faith.

Even though he ended his days in political defeat, he never betrayed the cause of socialism as he understood it." (Philip Gunawardena - The Making of a Revolutionary). Philip Gunawardena was a statesman par-excellence.

(The writer is a former High Court Judge)

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