|Sunday, 15 August 2004|
Dr. N.M. Perera 1905 - 1979 :
An honest and upright politician
by Percy Wickremesekera
Dr. N. M. Perera, had he lived, would have completed 99 years this year. He passed away on August 14, 1979 and this year marks his 25th death anniversary.
It is not possible for anyone to deal with the varied aspects of a man of his learning and stature, a colossus in his day and even to this.
This therefore is an attempt to pay a humble tribute to his memory and his contribution to the social and political life of our country by one who was able to have his higher education thanks to the Free Education Scheme that was introduced in our country for which cause Dr. N. M. Perera devoted his time even while in detention at the Bogambara Prison writing his Monograph Case for Free Education.
Dr. N. M. Perera or N. M. as he was fondly called by his comrades and friends was born on June 6, 1905 in Grandpass, Colombo North and as he recalls in his unfinished autobiography, was brought up in his tender years at 36, St. Joseph's Street, Grandpass.
He started his schooling at first in the vernacular section of St. Joseph's School, Grandpass and later was admitted to the English section. From there he was sent for one year to a Branch School of S. Thomas' College, which was known as Cathedral Boys School, Mutwal.
In 1919 he entered S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia during what was known as the "Stone Age" of S. Thomas' after Warden Stone who was then the head of the school.
N. M. in his autobiography says: "Of my school days, the period I spent at St. Thomas' was the happiest". He was a boarder in the Copleston House where his two brothers N. S. and David were already settled, N. S. being a Prefect of the House as well.
N. M. left S. Thomas' and joined Ananda College, Colombo in 1922. He refers to his transfer from S. Thomas' to Ananda as a "switch from a Missionary Institution to a National Institution" which he says marked an important watershed in his life.
In the present day when there is much talk about bringing in legislation to prevent "forcible" conversion from one religion to another, it is worthwhile quoting the following from his unfinished autobiography.
He says: "In my last year at S. Thomas' I had been smoothly inveigled into becoming a Christian as a result of some slick work on the part of Rev. G. B. Ekanayake. I was rescued just in time by the vigilance of my parents who gently whisked me away from that atmosphere". It must be said straightaway that this quotation is only reproduced to show the attitude of some teachers in Missionary Schools even like S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia where the writer himself had a similar experience about 25 years later when Rev. Barnabas was the Headmaster of the Lower School!!
N. M. not only excelled in his studies, but also in sports and went on to captain the Ananda College cricket team. He continued his interest in sports and particularly cricket in spite of a busy political schedule and was President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka. This of course was when this post held no attraction for businessmen!
N. M. or Nanayakkara Pathirage Martin Perera entered the University College, Colombo which was then preparing students for London University degrees and after his BSc he left for the UK to join the London School of Economics where, as a pupil of the legendary Professor Laski, he excelled in his academic work, acquiring a Phd and a DSc.
The writer recalls how in his school days, Dr. N. M. Perera, the first Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was a hero to many young students who were amazed by the little known fact now, that Dr. N. M. Perera at the time was the only person to hold the degree D.Sc (Doctor of Science) in Ceylon! Dr. N. M. Perera was awarded the Phd degree for his thesis on the Constitution of the German Weimar Republic.
When the Republic crashed and with it the Constitution, people in fun said that N. M.'s. thesis was no longer of any use. However, N. M. proceeded with his research and produced a thesis on the comparative study of the Constitutions of the UK, USA, France and Germany, comparing aspects of Parliamentary procedure for which he was awarded a DSc by the University of London.
A part of this thesis is published by the Dr. N. M. Perera Centre titled 'Parliamentary Democracy' with an introduction by Batty Weerakoon who was the Private Secretary to N. M. when he was the Leader of the Opposition in the 1956 Parliament.
N. M. was a founder member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party which he along with leaders like Philip Gunawardene, Leslie Gunawardene, Dr. Colvin R. De Silva and Edmund Samarakkody formed in December 1935. N. M. and Philip won their respective seats and entered the State Council in 1936.
While Philip contested the Avissawella seat N. M. contested the then Ruwanwella seat which comprised more or less the then Korale area of Yatiyantota, Ruwanwella and Dereniyagala and parts of the present Galigamuwa electoral Division. N.M.'s victory at this election came as a great surprise as his opponent was none other than Molamure Kumarihamy of the Meedeniya Walauwa, which had tremendous power over the poor people of the Sabaragamuwa area in those mighty days of the feudal chiefs.
The work done by N. M. and his Sama Samaja comrades in the area during the Malaria Epidemic and the floods helped him collect the votes of the poor and caste-oppressed people of the area who fondly called him 'Parippu Mahathmaya' remembering the dhal he distributed to them.
N.M. along with Philip used the State Council to carry forward the party's struggle against British imperialism to gain full independence for the country. They viewed British imperialism in its international dimensions and considered the experience of neighbouring India particularly relevant to the struggle in Ceylon.
Few people today know that during that period it was only people like N. M. and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party that stood for complete independence for our country while the leaders of the Ceylon National Congress were only concerned with obtaining concessions from the British Imperialist rulers.
While carrying on their struggle inside the State Council-raising issues affecting the working masses of the country and acting as the people's tribunes N. M. along with Philip and the other leaders of the LSSP began organizing the workers in trade unions.
They not only organized labour unions in urban areas but also made great strides in organizing workers on the estates, who were the most oppressed and exploited sections of the working class of the country.
This activity of N.M. and others in the estate sector which led to several strikes was viewed by the Governor and the imperial government as a threat to their rule in the country. Anti-imperialism was a basic plank of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and hence one of its major objectives was to gain full independence for the country; the other objective being to transform the existing capitalist society to a more equitable Socialist Society where exploitation of the workers and the oppressed could be ended.
N. M. along with Philip, Colvin and Edmund Samarakkody were arrested in 1940 and sent into detention as the British Government considered the Sama samajists as disruptors and trouble makers and their anti-war propaganda was deemed to be undermining the efforts of the Allies in the Second World War.
The Lanka Sama Samaja Party was banned but the party continued its work underground, printing its paper and carrying out its propaganda. N. M. and others escaped from jail in 1942 and found their way to India where they continued their anti-imperialist campaign joining the Indian movement for independence.
N.M. was returned as a member of Parliament in 1947, contesting the Ruwanwella seat. He was the first Leader of the Opposition in Independent Ceylon N. M. was also the leader of the Opposition in 1956 when the United National Party suffered its first defeat and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister of the new Mahajana Eksath Peramuna Government.
The Lanka Sama Samaja Party made an unsuccessful attempt to form a government of its own in the 1960 March Election after the assassination of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1959. In July 1960 the LSSP entered a no contest pact with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by Sirima Bandaranaike and defeated the UNP making Mrs. Bandaranaike the first woman Prime Minister in the world.
By 1964 the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike, after having tried three Finance Ministers, proposed a United Front Government with the LSSP and the LSSP decided at a conference in June 1964 to accept N.M.'s resolution to join a coalition government with the SLFP. N. M. was the Finance Minister of that government. Again in 1970, with the coming to power of the United Front Government of the SLFP, LSSP and the Communist Party, N. M became the Finance Minister.
This period between 1970 to 1975 when N. M. was the Finance Minister saw radical changes in the economy and the country and by the time N.M. and the other LSSP ministers were removed from the government in 1975, the State sector had increased to over sixty per cent of the economy with the completion of the Nationalisation of Plantations.
But for the international oil crisis, which for the first time sent prices of petrol and petroleum products to phenomenal levels, the economic situation would have been much brighter and there would not have been the massive victory for J. R. Jayawardene at the 1977 elections from the consequences of which the country is still to recover.
The above very brief account of some aspects of the life and achievements of Dr. N. M. Perera in no way gives even a near complete account of this great personality. But it is hoped it may create some interest in the readers regarding the life and work of a man like N. M. who dedicated himself fully to the cause of the emancipation of the working class and the oppressed masses.
Today, there are many people who speak in glowing terms about the life and work of N.M. Perera - the great authority on Parliamentary Procedure - an honest and upright politician that would make one comparing the entire lot of politicians today, wonder whether such people could have ever existed.
There are several who speak of his scholarship and versatility in politics as well as varied facets of public life. The only Sama Samajist who became Mayor of Colombo, State Councillor in the Colonial days, first Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Minister of Finance who prepared his own budget speeches - perhaps the only one of its kind - and the leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and President of the Ceylon Federation of Labour.
But to those of us who had the good fortune to be members of the Sama Samaja Party when N. M. was leading it in the 1950s and who had the great privilege of being in the same Central Committee and the working committee of the LSSP along with him, the greatness of Comrade N. M. was in the sincerity with which he espoused the cause of the ordinary working people of our land and the honesty and integrity that he displayed in dealing with national issues such as the volatile issue of the State Languages at the time and his bitter economic prescriptions of commitment and hard work that were necessary to achieve true independence and lay the foundation for a strong economy that was necessary for our society to change into a Socialist Society.
Therefore, while we appreciate the tributes paid to his memory by his admirers and certainly are happy to see the efforts being made to perpetuate his name, it is our view that the greatest tribute that anyone can pay N. M. would be to build the party of his ideals that he along with others founded for full independence of our country and the setting up of a Socialist Society - the Lanka Sama Samaja Party.
Produced by Lake House