Revisiting the fearless comrade | Sunday Observer
Philip Gunawardena’s 51st death anniversary

Revisiting the fearless comrade

2 April, 2023

Continued from last week

1956 victory

The 1956 people’s victory has been viewed by many political critics as the collapse of the elitist class. Philip Gunawardena was a great political figure who played a key role in the 1956 election victory. Philip who supported establishing the MEP, was able to win his Avissawella electorate by a vast majority. The staunch supporters of Philip Gunawardena held the view that it was Philip who was the great force behind the 1956 victory, but he offered the premiership to SWRD on a platter.

However, his son holds a different view.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “My father accepted the fact that SWRD should lead because it was not only him who was there but also the Maha Sangha and other partners of the front which was formed by W. Dahanayaka, M.W.H. De Silva, grand uncle of Dr. Harsha de Silva and so on. All of them agreed because Mr. Bandaranaike was the Leader of the Opposition at that time (from ‘52-56 he was the leader of the Opposition.) So they wanted a section of the UNP to break and Bandaranaike was able to break a section of the UNP vote. So all of them united from the Left as well as national elements and the Pancha Maha Balawegaya united under one common theme.”

Gunawardena, however, agreed that his father was the driving force in the 1956 victory as he controlled a lot of Trade Unions at that time. “Otherwise, perhaps it would have ended in a minority government victory,” he noted.

“My father played a very big role in his political organisations and his visit to China in 1951 gave a lot of new political thinking because the Chinese Socialists were not dogmatic. They got the farmers and others to participate [in Social revival movements.] The reorientation of the Left movement thus took place. Otherwise, they were very orthodox and dogmatic, not wanting to join with the Maha Sangha, the peasantry, and others. So this broad front of the MEP created a totally new political force,” Gunawardena explained further.

The socialist

Philip Gunawardena was a staunch socialist, a trade Union leader, and a great lover of humanity who always fought for a free and just society where everybody enjoyed equal benefits. When asked as to why his father chose socialism over capitalism, Gunawardena had a solid and sound response.

“I think according to what he had told us he became a socialist in the political thinking when he was a student at Wisconsin, initially listening to and then associating professor Scot Nearing who was a pioneer socialist in America.”

His political life was largely shaped by studying and also leading many trade union battles in New York. I think he became a leader of the Hotel Workers Union in New York which was later recorded by famous Queen’s Counsel R.L. Pereira. He had seen how a massive demonstration was being led by my father. He had inquired from the hotel staff about my father. And they had told Pereira that he was Philip Gunewardene “from your country!,” Gunawardena stepped back into his father’s past which was entirely dedicated to ensure labour rights were being protected and recognised by the authorities.

“Later on Pereira had come back and told my grandfather the whole story and had asked him “Is your son studying there or otherwise?” Then only my grandfather had realised that he had finished his first degree, and was reading for his Ph.D., but doing more political work!,” he laughed.

Philip Gunawardena first studied in the University of Illinois. From there he moved to Wisconsin University and finally enrolled at the University of Columbia where he did his postgraduate.

“New York was full of political and economic activity. There was agitation because the working people and the general public were facing the economic depression at that time. As a result, there was a serious crisis in the US economy. And society - especially the young took the socialist path.

From there my father joined the Anti-imperialist League in New York which had members such as Jayaprakash Narayan, the famous Indian leader, and many other Mexican leaders.”

Philip Gunawardena moved to London in 1928. There he joined the Indian League where he organised anti-imperialist activities with Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon of India, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and Dr. Wickramesinghe. Philip was a popular speaker on socialism and a vehement attacker of the imperialist machinery and held an accepted position in that key platform at Hyde Park Corner, Gunawardena noted.

Avissawella electorate

Gunawardena had visited his father’s Avissawella electorate as a child and as well as a grown-up youth. He had been there to organise youth activities and various public work and Shramadanas.

“Especially during floods, we used to go there to assist the flood victims. Of course, we as young people wanted to help the people, but wading through flood waters was an exciting experience,” he said with a smile.

No politics

Philip Gunawardena, however, never wanted his son to join politics.

“He never wanted me to get into politics. In the early ’60’s after finishing my College education I wanted to do law and wanted him to sign the form for Law College entrance. When I gave him the form he gave it back to my mother and said, “I am not going to sign this because I don’t want him to become a lawyer as it was not a good profession for him.”

“He said first study, explore new fields as the world is changing, Then I went and took up business administration which was a very new field at that time,”Gunawardena added.

“He never asked me to get into politics,” he emphasized.

However, Gunawardena noted that his father always wanted them to reach out to the needy.

A letter sent by his father still in his possession bears testimony to his love and dedication to his people.

“I remember when he lost the 1970 elections, he wrote a letter to me. I still have it with me. He said he never repent for losing because he had dedicated himself to helping the poor and the people of this country in all possible ways. In that note he had also added that ‘continue to help the poor people in our country,” he said.

UNP Government

Philip Gunawardena, the staunch Leftist who was known for his Socialist political role decided to join the Dudley Senanayake Government in 1965.

Gunawardena explained the reason that propelled his father to arrive at that decision.

“In 1964 he was in the Opposition. That was the collapse of the United Left Front (ULF) formed between the MEP, LSSP, and the CP. The first split was the LSSP and the CP. The LSSP went into Coalition Government and the CP remained in the Opposition for the time with the MEP. Finally, they all announced the end of the ULF. And there was public agitation on democratic rights and as an Opposition party, the MEP participated in the agitation to protect the freedom of the press, and freedom of speech which were attempted to be suppressed.

The nationalisation of the print media of that time came immediately and they stood against this. It was an all-party Opposition which was led by Dudley Senanayake. S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, Edmund Samarakkody, a pioneer of the Left movement, and all of them united and the Government was defeated.”

“And the entire Opposition united and won the election and Dudley Senanayake became Prime Minister and in that Government, my father served as the Minister of Industries and Fisheries for five years.”

Gunawardena said that his father lost the opportunity of emerging as an MP in the Opposition as he lost his civic rights for seven years for leading the Southwestern bus strike in 1947.

“Those days if you were imprisoned for more than three months, the Member of Parliament would lose his/her civic rights for seven years. He lost the chance of emerging in the Opposition as he had been outside and Bandaranaike became the leader of the Opposition,” he noted.

In 1956 Philip Gunawardena came back to Parliament by winning the Avissawella electorate with a large majority.

Father’s role

Today, many years after his demise, it is with great respect and love that Gunawardena reminisced about his father’s love and care for his children! But he said his father did not have a “favourite child!”

“He loved all and advised all. But he used to send me out to get his political work done because my younger brother Geethanjana was about four years younger than me. My two elder brothers had gone abroad for studies and my sister, Lakmali was at Peradeniya University. So in the late 60s when he was a minister I was the only one left in the house. So I used to do a lot of work for him- running to the electorate, looking after work, arranging programs, and also helping him at home with his office work. Later on, I too left for studies and it was Geethanjana who helped him with his political work,” he said.

Exemplary politician

On a final note, Gunawardena added that his father was beyond doubt a politician par excellence.

“I think he was also one of the exemplary politicians and leaders of our country. He had a vision and a very clear dedication for policies whether he served the poor or whether he served the country.”

“The leaders of those days whichever side they came from held the high ground and were exemplary. They were able to work with others who held different views. They also continued with the cause that they started and they were dedicated, following political principles and political policies. They were people who sacrificed everything for the country.”

“I must say when my father and mother were brought as prisoners to Sri Lanka it was D.S. Senanayake who signed as the witness to my elder brother because he carried an Indian name, (Amar Indika) and he had to have a Sri Lankan name.

He noted how they were in constant touch with each other even though they were in politically opposite camps.”

Gunawardena noted that all politicians of yesteryear were very highly educated and they knew how systems worked.

“They were well aware of their capacities within the system. And when due changes were proposed by one, they were appreciated by all - both supporters and political opponents.

Last days

However, to the surprise of many Philip Gunawardena lost his Avissawella seat in the 1970 elections.

“I came back to Sri Lanka after his defeat for a short while, but went back for the studies.”

Gunawardena recollected how his father was deeply saddened by the aftermath of the 1971 insurrection where a lot of youths were killed. “Lot of youth were arrested and were killed and their bodies were floating down the river.”

Finally, he died from a burst blood vessel.

In a voice tinged with nostalgia Gunawardena noted that the best political lesson he learnt from his father was to “work for the people and the country in a principled and honest way. Be upright and never be a coward to express your opinion and work. I think those are the qualities that gave me the chance to survive in politics retaining my principles. We have been in office, and we have been in the Opposition. I have no enemies in politics. I would say just like my father used to say, never have enemies in politics. Debate, have fights, but bear no personal animosity.”