Philip imbued socialism with indigenous values | Sunday Observer

Philip imbued socialism with indigenous values

Philip Gunawardena
Philip Gunawardena

The 119th Birth Anniversary of a political leader who exercised profound influence on the thought and imagination of modern Sri Lanka was commemorated yesterday (11). Don Philip Rupasinghe Gunawardena, who was born on January 11, 1901, was largely instrumental in disseminating the idea of socialism in the country. However, as a man of deep-rooted nationalism, he imbued Marxism with indigenous values, thus making sure the people of Sri Lanka accepted this European doctrine.

Philip, a born leader who instinctively understood the hopes and aspirations of the people, was close to the heartbeat of the nation. As a leader he realized that if he is too far ahead of his followers he would lose contact with them. On the other hand, if he was content with merely echoing the sentiments of his followers he would not be able to lead. He knew the right balance. He understood the sentiments of the people and could speak in the cultural idiom of the people regarding issues that mattered most to them. Looking back on his efforts, one has to conclude that this was indeed the correct strategy.

When colonial rulers arrested Philip, NM and other Sama Samaja party leaders, they made a dramatic escape from the Batticaloa Prison to India. They joined the Indian freedom struggle and were active with socialist leaders of the movement. In 1943 some of the Sama Samajists who were active in India were arrested by the Indian Police. Philip was arrested in Bombay on July 15, 1943, along with his wife Kusuma and their infant child, and detained in Worli Jail before being brought back to Ceylon. N.M. was arrested in Ahmedabad, and brought to Ceylon.

Philip and N.M. were tried at the Kandy Magistrate’s Court on the charge of escaping from lawful custody. Each of them was convicted and sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment and fined Rs. 100, the maximum penalty under the law, at that time.

At the trial they each made a significant statement from the dock on February 8, 1944, upholding their cause, exposing the hypocrisy of British imperialism and justifying their escape from custody.

Following are some excerpts of Philip’s speech from the dock at the trial:


I was arrested on June 18, 1940. I was kept in detention till April 7, 1942. No specific or precise charges were ever framed against me. I was not tried by a Court of Law and my colleagues and I refused to appear before the Advisory Committee, that mockery of Judicial Tribunals.

Why was I arrested and kept in detention? I challenge the right of Sir Andrew Caldecott, Agent of the Bank of England, and tool of the capitalist class of Britain to issue a warrant for my arrest and detention.

What right has the ruling class of Britain to rule over this Island except that of superior force? Britain has as much right to rule over the people of Ceylon as the Nazis have, to rule over the people of Denmark. No more. The British ruling classes came to this Island as pirates and they have remained here as plunderers. The British Empire was built up by perjury by day and forgery by night.

Ever since my return to this Island in 1932 my colleagues and I worked with ceaseless endeavour to disseminate the ideas of scientific socialism among the petty bourgeois intelligentsia and the advanced sections of the working class. The spontaneous labour movement which displayed tremendous vigour and militancy in the twenties had spent its force in the stagnant waters of trade union politics by the early thirties. After three years of work in the propagation of Marxism we had developed a sufficiently large nucleus imbued with the ideas of Scientific Socialism that we were in a position to launch the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in December of 1935. The history of the Party is known to the people of this country. Suffice it to say that it put itself at the forefront of every struggle against Imperialism and the capitalist class in the country ever since the Party was founded.

When the Second Imperialist World War broke out in September, 1939, the Party characterized the War as an imperialist War and took a Revolutionary defeatist line. My colleagues and I continued to intensify the class struggle and the fight against British Imperialism. War is the continuation of politics by other means more forcible means; the character of a war is determined by the classes which wage that war. The war was and remains an Imperialist War for markets, for sources of raw material, for colonies. The democratic powers and the Axis Powers are fighting to determine which group shall dominate the world.

Democracy and Fascism are two sides of the same coin. Over- ripe and decadent Imperialism develops into Fascism when the working class fails to overthrow capitalism and set up its own form of government – the dictatorship of the working class.

I escaped from prison in April 1942 for the purpose of helping the tiny groups of Fourth Internationalists in India to build a powerful party of the working class which can take advantage of the crises in Indian society that are breaking out in rapid succession. My colleagues and I timed our escape to be in India at one of the most important crises in her history. We are glad that we were able to play our part, no doubt, an infinitesimally small part, in the movement that commenced in India in August 1942.

We were arrested on July 15, 1943. After spending five long months in the jails of British Imperialism in India, we are back in the dungeons of British Imperialism in Ceylon. Time is with us. Imperialism is doomed. The future is with the working class. The working class of Ceylon under the leadership of the Sama Samaja Party will play its part in the coming years. Unquote.

As Philip, popularly known as the ‘Lion of Boralugoda’, was a Member of the State Council, a motion to seek leave of absence for the imprisoned member was presented to the Council by the Hambantota Member D A Rajapaksa, the ‘Lion of Ruhuna’. It is ironical that the close affinity between the Rajapaksas and the Gunawardenas continued for another generation. Today President Gotabaya Rajpaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa work in close cooperation with Minister and Leader of the House Dinesh Gunawardena to serve the people of the country.