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Dr. Wickramasinghe - a true patriot and an internationalist

Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe commemoration day

Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe

The 25th death anniversary of Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe, Leader of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka falls on 25.8.2006. Following is a speech made by late Sarath Muttettuwegama in Parliament, on the condolence vote.

TRIBUTE: One does not know where to begin or what to emphasise when speaking about the life and work of Dr. Wickramasinghe. Eighty years ago when Ceylon was very much a part of the empire over which the sun never set, Dr. Wickramasinghe was born in a rural southern village.

Education, even literacy, was rare, superstition and myth was very much the order of the day. People accepted the inadequacy of their lives and the exploitation they were subjected to, with a fatalist resignation which must have been a great asset to their colonial masters.

Through the 80 years that followed there have been many changes in Ceylon. Dr. Wickramasinghe was very much a part of the movement that brought about these changes. Karl Marx has said, that “revolutions are the locomotives of history.” Dr. Wickramasinghe’s place in Sri Lanka’s revolutionary movement put him at the helm of that locomotive.

It is said that anti-imperialism, which was one of the main springs of his political life received a baptism of fire when as a boy during the 1915 riots he experienced and witnessed the brutality of British soldiers dealing with the local population.

Another feature of this life, the strong desire for racial amity, also manifested itself at this time. While yet a student at Mahinda College, he organised a group of Sinhalese boys to daily escort their Muslim Colleagues to and from school, to prevent any attacks on them during those troubled days.

When he joined Ananda College he was a member of an organisation called ‘Thusitha’ which concerned itself with doing something for the members of the so-called Rediys group.

After passing out from the Ceylon Medical College, he proceeded to the UK for his post-graduate studies. By this time Wickramasinghe seems to have realised that nothing short of complete independence, followed by development along socialist lines, could bring about liberation of his people.

In England, he plunged into the anti-imperialist movement. It was during these times, that he first met and began to work with the leaders of the future Left movement: N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Goonewardene, were also studying in London and fellow-students of Marxism.

In 1927 he was elected Secretary of the Ceylon Students’ League. Together with Krishna Menon, he was a Joint Secretary of the Indian Majlis. While in England, he met British Communist leaders like Palme Dutt, Saklatwala, Harry Pollit, T. R. Campbell and Bradley who was later one of the accused in the famous Meerut conspiracy case.

On his way back home after completing his education in Britain Dr. Wickramasinghe landed in Bombay. He wished to acquaint himself at first hand with the Indian National Congress and its work. He was arrested by the British police as soon as he set foot on India soil but on his release he managed to contact Nehru, Tagore and others - and particularly the leadership of the future Communist Party of India.

Back in Ceylon, he started work as a doctor, joining Government Service. When the effects of the depression first began to be felt, several doctors including the young Wickramasinghe were retrenched. He started practising in Matara where his fame as a doctor soon became legendary.

As a diagnostician he had few equals - and his ‘healing hand’ has given rise to many a story. Those who new him personally would concede that it was his genuine compassion and concern, as much as his considerable knowledge of medicine, which made him the successful medical man that he was.

In 1931 he became the General Manager of the Buddhist Theosophical Society schools. The BTS was fighting vested interests in education and more often than not were in financial difficulties.

In many instances Dr. Wickramasinghe had not only to manage the schools but to take steps which would save many of them from liquidation. Teachers who were at the beck and call of the managers, and who were dependent on them for their salaries, were liberated from this state by Dr. Wickramasinghe.

In 1932 he met and married Miss Doreen Young, then the Principal of Sujatha Vidyalaya. She was to remain at his side for the remaining forty-nine years of his life; and distinguished herself in the progressive movement of the country as the first President of the historic Suriya Mal Movement and later as a Member of this House.

Wickramasinghe’s life was radically different from that of the other young professional men of his time. He showed genuine concern for people and busied himself on behalf of the deprived sections of the community.

His lifestyle was different from that of his peers, and his simplicity was symbolised by the national banian and cloth which he chose to wear. In his case it was not the hypocritical gesture adopted by some of the politicians of that time, but a badge of his defiance of prevailing bourgeois values.

In 1931 he contested and won the Morawaka Seat in the first elections to the State Council under the Donoughmore Constitution. On 22nd September, 1931 - just over 50 years ago - he performed his first act as a State Councillor; it was to present a petition on behalf of the residents of Kandapola Pattu asking that the Judges and Presidents of Rural Courts in the area should be people who had a knowledge of the Sinhala language.

With his entry into the State Council, a new quality of radical thought and action was introduced into the deliberations of the legislature. Although a lone fighter, the causes he fought for were so just that he was able to persuade many members to his point of view.

The compredor, often lickspittle bourgeoisie of the day, who were under the illusion that they were sharing power with the British, and were thoroughly subservient to them, first treated Wickramasinghe with tolerant condescension. He was a phenomenon they could not understand, but as long as he was harmless, were prepared to forgive. But Wickramasinghe persisted. He proposed radical changes; he opposed the sell-outs and the compromises.

The national leadership soon realised that Wickramasinghe represented not a mere passing aberration but a force of the future which had come to bother them, to bewitch them, and finally to defeat them.

A campaign for his vilification was started. No less a person than D. B. Jayatilleke called him the Morawaka Ata Massa - but Wickramasinghe, who was the precursor of the leftists who succeeded him in the pre- and post-Independence legislatures, carried on undaunted.

While a Member of the State Council, Dr. Wickramasinghe was among those like Dr. N. M. Perera who worked to alleviate the suffering the hypocritical gesture adopted by those stricken by the malaria epidemic. His spell of work outside his electorate during this time probably affected the result of the General Election of 1936.

Re-contesting the Morawaka Seat, Dr. Wickramasinghe lost, by 2,000 votes, in spite of having polled 6,000 votes more than in 1931. The bourgeois leaders who were under attack from him in the First State Council were determined to defeat him. There was an instinctive class polarisation against him; all reactionaries joined in the campaign against him.

It was during this period that Wickramasinghe together with N. M. Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, Philip Goonewardene, M. G. Mendis, Rev. Udakendawela Saranankara and several others founded the LSSP. It was the first political party of Sri Lanka.

After ideological problems led to a split therein. Wickramasinghe along with Rev. Udakandawela Saranankara Thera, M. G. Mendis, Pieter Keuneman, P. Kandiah, P. Vaidyalingam, D. P. Yasodis and others founded first the United Socialist Party and later, in 1943, the Communist Party.

Dr. Wickramasinghe was jailed twice in Ceylon. Each time he returned to his people to fight their cause with renewed vigour and determination.

At one time he was seen in the fight against police brutality, such as in the notorious Hinnaippu killing. At another time he was agitating for educational reform. Then against employment of children in domestic service; or in a campaign for better medical facilities for the people.

One of his most consistent campaigns was in the agricultural and irrigation sectors. He was erudite in this field, and in many matters he was indeed a pioneer. His little book, published in the early fifties, ‘The Way Forward’, is a revelation in the correctness of its analysis and the constructive quality of its proposals.

He was perhaps the first person to advocate the development and diversion of the Mahaweli river, and his proposals for the multi-purpose development of Sri Lanka’s major rivers will be a source of study and well deserving of implementation. His critique of the Gal Oya scheme has been accepted as correct by many an expert.

He was a devoted husband and father. To his wife Doreen and daughter Suriya and son Suren, we can only say by way of consolation that thousands of Sri Lanka’s people mourn the passing of Doctor with almost the same sincerity as do his immediate family.

His work was not limited to Ceylon, being a Communist and a proletarian internationalist of the finest sort. He was in the forefront of the international communist and workers movement.

He was an invitee to the foundation meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions and an honoured participant in many international conferences and symposiums. He has widely travelled and was respected and highly regarded in the socialist countries as well as in the working class movement of the capitalist and Third World countries.

He was both a patriot and an internationalist. His patriotism was complementary to his internationalism. It was not a narrow chauvinism, but the broader vision that came from his knowledge that oppression of our people could only be relieved by contact with and help from the great global socialist movement.

It was while he was still a youth that the first salvos from Petrograd heralded the Great October Socialist Revolution. Wickramasinghe like millions of others realised that history of a new sort was being made. Up to that time philosophers had only interpreted the world; now Lenin and the Bolsheviks were changing it.

Dr. Wickramasinghe’s friendship with the Soviet Union dates back to that time. It was not merely a romantic attachment that compelled the friendship and made of him a lifelong communist.

It was his knowledge of scientific socialism, his grasp of the laws of social change, and his study of Marxism-Leninism, that enabled him to found a communist movement and make as he did a monumental political physical and financial contribution towards its development.

Judged in bourgeois terms, it may be said that as a politician Dr. Wickramasinghe did not achieve success in the conventional sense. He did not come to power or attain high political office.

But his life and work will be remembered with respect, admiration and affection by the people whom he served with such devotion and dedication. The thousands who gathered at Uyanwatte for his funeral were simple people who realised that a leader who had fought for them, was no more.

At eighty, with over a half century of struggle behind him, Dr. Wickramasinghe was still, in a manner of speaking a young man. He had the confidence and the hope of youth, in his struggles never flattered, and in his convictions he never wavered.

His life was gentle yet filled with a courageous determination; because he believed in the ultimate freedom of man from exploitation and deep inside him he knew that his beliefs would triumph.



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