Republic Day

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After suffering the ignominy and pain of having been colonised by 3 imperialist powers for 450 years, the last as part of the British Empire for nearly 150 years, Ceylon became a completely independent and sovereign Republic on 22 May 1972. On this day, Parliament passed the Republican Constitution prepared by Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, at a special Constitutional Assembly. But for some strange reason, there is a reluctance to celebrate this day unlike other republics that do so. This is in complete contrast to India, who celebrate their Republic Day on 26 February with greater pomp and pageantry than their Independence Day which falls on 15 August. In Sri Lanka, only Independence Day on 4 February is celebrated. Sri Lanka became a Republic only in 1972, 24 long years of continuing shame, after we got Independence in 1948. In contrast, India became a Republic in 1950, just 3 years after it got Independence in 1947. It was quick to cut the umbilical cord and become completely free, unlike Sri Lanka, which persisted in grovelling at the feet of Britain, paying homage to its ‘Royal Family’.

Achieving Independence

As we all know, formal Independence from Britain was only partial, a mere mockery, but it appears to have satisfied the UNP rulers of that time. The British Queen remained the head of state, the British Army retained its military bases in Sri Lanka and power remained in their hands, and in the system of legal justice established in Sri Lanka, the final Court of Appeal was the British Privy Council, in London. The UNP and other capitalist leaders of Sri Lanka were content to retain this colonial subservience for 24 years, while India rushed to sever it. The architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr. Ambedkar, a leader of a small Buddhist minority in India, was supported by the Congress Party, led by Nehru and Gandhi, being true patriots, and by 1950, in just 3 years he completed the task. The UNP and other rulers of Sri Lanka were in no hurry to achieve independence, and it was left to Dr. Colvin R. de Silva one of the leaders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) to accomplish the task.  He took two years to draft the Republican Constitution. In 1972, the LSSP achieved its principal objective which was complete independence and continuously fought for its implementation.

When the LSSP was formed in 1935 their main task was to achieve independence and remove British imperialism. They continued their fight during the Second World War from 1939 to 1945, especially as the country was not directly involved in the war. The British rulers proscribed the LSSP and imprisoned its leaders, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Dr. N. M. Perera, Philip Gunewardena, Leslie Goonewardena and Edmund Samarakkody. They escaped from jail in Kandy and continued the fight against British imperialism as part of the Congress Socialist Party of India, and were jailed there as well. On their return, the LSSP leaders were treated as heroes by the people.

in 1951, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who was a leader of the UNP Sinhala Maha Sabha wing, left the UNP and formed the SLFP using Sinhala Buddhist revivalism as his main political plank. The LSSP, then the main opposition to the UNP, came under racial attack for its stand to make Sinhala and Tamil official languages in place of English, spoken mainly by the ruling elite. A majority of the Sinhala supporters of the LSSP left to join the SLFP and many of its Tamil leaders and supporters, like MP Ananda Sangari, left to join the Federal Party and the TULF. The LSSP was further decimated, when Philip Gunewardena together with the bulk of the Sinhala Buddhist supporters joined Bandaranaike to form the MEP.

Republican Constitution

During the 1970 General Election, the SLFP, LSSP and CP Coalition Government came to power, with the LSSP having 19 MPs and the CP 6. Colvin was made the Minister of Plantation and Constitutional Affairs, and this gave him the opportunity to formulate the Republican Constitution. It was a difficult job well done.  But unfortunately the large SLFP majority overcame Colvin’s plea for Tamil to be made an official language, along with Sinhala. Another shortcoming in retrospect is the electoral system and big swings for the winning party. The Electoral Reform Committee set up in Parliament headed by Dinesh Gunewardena, of which I was a member, has offered a solution, the mixed system that has been a success in Germany and other countries. This along with further devolution to village level would rectify the shortcomings in Colvin’s Constitution.

Credit of becoming a Republic

But instead of being grateful to Colvin for his work, and to Dr. N. M. Perera for his overcoming a more severe economic crisis than what we face today, Sirimavo got taken in by the promise of USA-led investment and gave in.  After economic stability was restored, she implemented their conditions and got rid of the LSSP from the Coalition Government. The CP too was forced to leave the following year. I suspect the reluctance of not wanting to celebrate the Republic Day in Sri Lanka is the fear the SLFP has that the credit of becoming a Republic would flow to the LSSP.

As the present General Secretary of the LSSP I too have been subject to this type of behaviour from the SLFP. I give two instances to support my claim. One is the fact that though I possess a PhD from London University in the field of Virology, I have not been made a member of any committee set up to control the Covid-19 pandemic. The Health Consultative Committee met in Parliament only on one occasion since the outbreak of Covid-19 as a member, I suggested that the control strategy based on cluster system required to be strengthened to defeat the community spreading of the infection which had just begun. The other example is that while I was the Governor in the North Central Province I was asked to resign immediately and come to the office of Basil Rajapaksa in Colombo to sign the National List as they had decided to make me a Cabinet Minister. But when the new Government was formed I was not made a Minister only an ordinary Member of Parliament. Considering my record as the Minister of Science and Technology, when I set up 163 Vidatha Centres, one in each administrative division, and provided the technology for 12,637 entrepreneurs (SMEs). I also initiated action to set up Hi-tech Centres to promote Sri Lanka’s export industry. I set up the World’s 18th Nanotechnology Centre (SLINTEC) in Homagama and prepared plans for a Biotechnology Centre (SLIBTEC) which is now on going. It would appear that the good work done for the country and for the people by the LSSP is not appreciated.

By Prof. Tissa Vitarana