By TM Premawardana
(Translation by Fr JC Pieris)
People must hand over power keeping the remote in their hand.
Free Education was won through a broad people’s movement.
Without a broad people’s movement, we cannot go beyond the ‘Thattumaru’ bi-partisan politics.
To achieve national aspirations, people must not be slaves to party politics and must overcome racism.
The left movement and progressive forces against corruption, racism and suppression, toppled the governments of 1994 and 2015. In both instances power was handed over to legislators who did not deliver on people’s aspirations by acting with determination. Therefore, the vicious circle made the reactionary forces more and more powerful.
In 1994, opinionmakers including journalists played a leading role in handing over political power to Chandrika Bandaranaike and team. Then he wrote forcefully and regularly demanding the implementation of their promises. It was a failure. In 2015 Sobitha Thera led the forces that brought to government Maithripala Sirisena and team. To get their promises implemented Sobitha Thera and forces even had took to the streets. That too was a failure.
The truth revealed by these experiences was enunciated about 235 years ago by Thomas Jefferson, the leading draftsmen of the American Constitution. “If the people, who hand over political power to a government, have no adequate control over it, that elected government will become oppressive and the families of the elected will begin to abuse power and wealth to their advantage.”
To turn the failures of 1994 and 2015 into successes what must we do? For that we have an inherited lesson. The lesson is from the experience of winning Free Education for the country. Suggestions for reforming education in the country were made with the participation of the general public. Newspaper advertisements were published requesting people’s opinion. Letters were written to school heads requesting their opinion. In Galle, Kandy, Jaffna and Colombo the general public was directly interviewed and their suggestions collected. On June 6, 1945 these proposals were passed by the State Council. Dr. N.M. Perera, at that time in the Bogambara prison, published a booklet which mentioned, “Whatever may be their deficiencies, these proposals have the contours of a revolution. If these proposals are carried out there could be a great upheaval in the country.”
But in 1947 the education bill, to implement those proposals fully, was in danger of being defeated. In the State Council. Only C.W.W. Kannangara, A. Ratnayake, S.A. Wickremasinghe, TB Jaya, W. Dahanayake and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike were for the bill while the great majority was against it.
At that instant a Council for the Protection of Free Education was established at the Ananda Sasthralaya in Matugama. Then, its president Dr. E. W. Adikaram with G. P. Malalasekara, Ananda Meewanapalana and the team travelled all over the country and made people aware of it. In the North-East the centre for the Free Education struggle was the Ramakrishna Mission in Batticaloa. Hundreds of thousands of people awakened by these activities signed a huge petition and presented it to the State Council and as many telegrams were sent to the MPs requesting them to vote for the bill.
On the last day of the voting, Buddhist monks led by Dr. Walpola Rahula Thera, accompanied by thousands of people, walked from the Kelaniya Vidyalankara Pirivena to the State Council. On that day the MP for Trincomalee-Batticaloa, V. Nalliah, said in the Council that nobody can deny the fact that there was a real danger of defeating the bill and the majority opposers came to their senses because of the launch of a broad people’s movement.
The Daily News reported that at the second reading of the bill the gallery of the State Council was packed with supporters of the bill, with Buddhist monks in charge of the situation. On May 27, 1947 the bill was unanimously passed with amendments.
Accordingly, three main causes resulted in securing Free Education. The first is that the special standing committee for the reform of education, who drafted the proposals, consisted of politicians of all communities and experts in education. Secondly the proposals were formulated with a broad participation of the people. Thirdly, the Bill presented for the full implementation of the education reforms was passed because of the launch of a broad people’s movement. That is why the words ‘Free Education’ is so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of our people.
If the process of winning free education had been considered a model, the socio-political changes people hoped to achieve by toppling of the governments in 1994 and 2015 should have been instigated by a broad participation of the people, with a committee of experts, representing all communities, guiding the process. We cannot even dream of the current regime appointing such a committee.
Therefore, the biggest challenge is to find by whom, when and how socio-political reform, that the country needs, is to be formulated with the full participation of the people. In 1994 and in 2015 the common programme was only the defeat of the government in power. One cannot expect anything more from a coalition put together close to an impending presidential election.
But the current worsening governmental crisis has triggered the early emergence of many anti-government forces. In parallel, going beyond mere political upheavals, there are voices demanding socio-political reforms and there is a pressing need for a broad mass movement to achieve them. But a clear broad people’s movement is yet to form.
The country needs socio-political reforms badly but a discussion on how they should be formulated with a broad participation of the people has not yet come to the fore. There are two reasons for this. The first is that various forces against corruption, racism and suppression cling stubbornly to their own reform proposals. The second is the lack of a powerful experience of a broad people’s movement after Independence. To master this challenge a dialogue between various progressive forces and the leftist movement is a necessity.
Launching a broad people’s movement for realizing national aspirations, taking the Free Education movement as an example, is the need of the hour. In this discussion special attention must be paid to the following points.
When Free Education was won, progressives and leftists were a minority in the State Council just as in the parliament today. Even after the next general election the situation will be the same. Today, just as those days, progressive and leftist leaders are found mostly outside the parliament.
There are two post-independence obstacles that mislead the progressive forces and the leftist movement. The first is the dog-fight between political parties for parliamentary seats that overshadow national aspirations and secondly the bi-partisan (Thattumaru) politics which, working hand in glove with racism, destroy national unity.
The experience of the first obstacle is poignant. Under the Soulbury Constitution, soon after independence, the first parliamentary election was held on September 20, 1947. The UNP nominated C.W.W. Kannangara for the Matugama seat but deliberately refrained from supporting him in any manner. In the Matugama electorate the Samasamaja Party had a voter base in the plantation sector. Samasamaja Party candidate Wilmet A. Perera won the election. A. Ratnayake, second only to C.W.W. Kannangara, was elected to parliament from the Dumbara seat. But Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, instead of A. Ratnayake, made the arch enemy of Free Education, E.A. Nugawela, the Minister of Education.
Dr. E.W. Adikaram, who foresaw the danger, held meetings in the Matugama seat, promoting C.W.W. Kanangara. His lone efforts failed. If the Samasamaja Party had not nominated a candidate for the Matugama seat, the hidden agenda of the anti-free education forces could have been easily defeated; then nobody could have stopped C.W.W. Kannangara from being the Minister of Education for the next ten years. If that had happened, he would have established a bi-lingual education and would have firmly put in place free education policies never to be revoked.
If that had become a reality the language issue, which ignited racism, would have never occurred. Not only that, the educated Burgher community, who would have been a great asset to the country, would not have left the country. That was one of the main goals of Free Education. Therefore, special attention must be paid to the possibility of trading off narrow-minded political party dog-fights over parliamentary seats for national aspirations.
The next obstacle is the ‘Thattumaru’ method of governing the country that has allowed the politicians to shamelessly make use of racism to obtain and stay in power. This ugly division is so entrenched that it is a challenge, not only to governance, but the primary obstacle for the progressive forces and the leftist movement. Therefore, special attention must be paid to how the progressive forces and the leftist movement of the North, South, East and the hill country could be galvanized into a broad people’s movement that prioritizes national aspirations over and above racial divisions.