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DateLine Sunday, 23 March 2008

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Government Gazette

Remembering Philip Gunawardena, a man of the people

On March 27, we commemorate the 36th death anniversary of Philip Gunawardena, politician, statesman, patriot and great humanist. He had an active and illustrious political career.

He had his primary education at the village school. Later he entered Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa and Ananda College, Colombo. At Ananda he had the opportunity of association with leaders of the freedom movement, since he took up residence at the house of T. B. Jayah, then a teacher at Ananda College.

Through Jayah, an active member of the freedom movement Philip came into contact with Anagarika Dharmapala, Walisinghe Harishchandra and John de Silva, early crusaders against British rule and for national renaissance.

Having passed the London Matriculation Examination he entered the University College to study economics. During his University days he attended meetings of the National Congress and subsequently joined the Young Lanka League, a radical youth organisation led by Victor Corea, A. E. Gunasinha and C. H. Z. Fernando.

Later he went to the United States and studied at the Universities of Illinois and Wisconsin and obtained a doctoral degree in agricultural economics. There his socialist ideas matured as a result of his association with Socialist Professor Scot Nearing and collaboration with Indian socialists Jayaprakash Narayan, Seyed Hussein, J. B. Kumarappa and the Mexican revolutionary Jesu Vase Gonsales. In the United States he participated in trade union struggle especially those of Negro workers in the city. In 1928 Philip came to England and participated in the activities of the Indian League with Krishnon Menon.

He organised anti-imperialist activities with Jomo Kenyata of Kenya, Tuan Malacca of Malaya and Ram Goolam of Mauritius. He also joined the British Communist Party and participated in trade union activities. He was also co-opted to the Editorial Board of the Daily Worker. With the help of the Communist Party he joined the Indian League and was an active member of it. There he met other Sri Lankan socialists N. M. Perera, Leslie Gunawardena, Colvin R. de Silva and S. A. Wickremasinghe.

Irked with the policies of the Comintern headed by Stalin and the Stalinist purges in the USSR Philip became a convert to Trotskysim. Travelling to Europe he worked with socialist groups in France and Germany. He also undertook a dangerous mission crossing the Pyrenees range alone on foot carrying secret documents for Spanish Rebels.

Back in Sri Lanka took an active part in the Suriya Mal movement that was formed to assist the poor during the Malaria epidemic in the early 1930s. Later he was a founder member and a principal leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Sri Lanka's oldest political party.

In 1936 he was selected to the State Council where he continued his struggle for the betterment of workers and peasants. The LSSP split following the entry of the USSR into the war against Hitler's Germany and the Communists supporting the war. The Communists were expelled and the LSSP became a Trotskyite movement.

The Colonial Government proscribed the LSSP and Philip was incarcerated together with other LSSP leaders in 1940. They broke jail on April 5, 1942 and fled to India. In India Philip took the name Guruswamy and was active in the freedom movement. Arrested in India in 1943 Philip and other LSSP leaders were brought back to Sri Lanka and jailed for six months.

Following their release from jail the LSSP split again with a section led by Colvin R. de Silva leaving the LSSP on ideological grounds and joining the Bolshevik Leninist Party (BLP) of India.

That was not the end of splits. When the BLP group rejoined the LSSP in 1950 Philip left it and formed the VLSSP. In 1956 the VLSSP joined with the SLFP and formed the MEP, which won the historic 1956 General Election defeating the UNP.

As Minister of Agriculture in the short-lived MEP Government of 1956 he introduced the Paddy Lands Act, which radically changed the owner-tenant relations and secured for the tenants a secure livelihood. So far it remains as the only meaningful reform in the traditional agricultural sector.

He also reformed the co-operative movement diversifying its range of activities and democratizing its structure. These reforms earned him the wrath of the conservative and reactionary forces but he met the challenge head on without surrendering his position.

However, reaction hit back with a vengeance. The VLSSP was expelled from the Government.

Undaunted Philip continued his Left politics taking great efforts to unite the Left. He played a key role in the formation of the United Left Front (ULF) in 1963. Unfortunately the ULF, which received mass support fell apart when one of its constituents - the LSSP joined the SLFP government. This caused a disillusioned Philip to seek company elsewhere, among his erstwhile opponents. He joined the National Government of 1965 and became a Minister once more.

Though he held strong Trotskyite positions he was not a doctrinaire socialist. He was flexible enough to seek innovative solutions to the problems of the masses. Unlike some leaders of the old Left he managed to maintain links with native cultural roots without being absorbed by an alien cosmopolitanism.

Like many of his comrades in the old Left he did not seek fortunes by entering politics. His integrity was always beyond question.

Whatever position he held, he always had the interests of the common man at heart. In spite of his aggressive countenance he was a kind and benevolent soul. Unlike many present day politicians who love to lord over masses he was a man of the people, a servant of the masses not their master.

That is why he is fondly and gratefully remembered by the masses of Sri Lanka even 36 years after his demise.

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