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