Connect with us

Midweek Review

Learning from India



By Austin Fernando
(Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India)

There is an ongoing discussion on higher education ‘reforms’ in Sri Lanka. Our higher education issues are similar to those in India. We may learn from India though its issues are different in some respects. 

Indian education approaches

In India, higher education is administered by the University Grants Commission of India, which enforces the standards, advises the government, and enables co-ordination between the centre and the States.  

India’s emphasis is on science and technology in tertiary education. Indian education sector has many technology institutes, and distance learning and open education programmes. Some of the institutions like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, are globally acclaimed. Their alumni have contributed to the growth of the Indian private and public sectors and some foreign organisations.

Indians also have the capacity to cooperate. Incidentally, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could request PM Narendra Modi as he did the Chinese dignitary Yang Jiechi, to invest in a specialised university/ institutes of technology in Sri Lanka.  

Institutional approaches

Even under the British, India remained focused on higher education. The Ministry of Human Resource Development has control over universities. The States also administer universities. The Central Universities are maintained by the Union government. As for access higher education opportunities in India, there is a triple-track approach involving the Union government, State governments, and the private sector.  As for access to higher education in the Indian states, Sri Lanka could have done something similar under Item 4 of the Concurrent List- 13th Amendment, but it never happened.

 Apart from the several hundred state universities, in India, there are research institutions providing opportunities for advanced learning and research in branches of science, technology, and agriculture. Several of these have won international recognition. The Swaminathan Institute in Chennai is an example Sri Lanka could emulate. Higher-level involvement with them could develop knowledge and research standards, especially to supplement our development efforts in the agricultural sector, etc.

 In India, technical education has developed fast during recent years, and the enrolled numbers show that about 20% join the engineering field. There is also a corresponding increase in high-standard computer scientists.

There are 371 State Private Universities and 304 State Public Universities in India. Private sector involvement in higher education is satisfactory. Our education authorities can learn from India how this can be achieved. In Sri Lanka, pressure is brought to bear on governments whenever an attempt is made to open a private university. Governments cave in to pressure. Private sector higher education involvement is at a very satisfactory level in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. Being a large country, this is not surprising. In our provinces, a few branches of private sector University Campuses have been established.  

The Bangalore Urban District tops the list in the number of colleges numbering 880, followed by Jaipur with 566. Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have about 88% private-unaided Colleges, and Tamil Nadu has 87% Private-unaided Colleges, whereas Assam has only 16.0%. Assam deserves more investment as it lacks facilities for gaining knowledge, skills, development, connectivity, proper attitudes, but it is ignored by investors. Sri Lankan investors have a similar attitude towards the underdeveloped districts.  If the private sector is reluctant to invest, the State should contribute to the development of universities.  

The Indian experience in private sector engagement in higher education could be a guide for us. Within a decade, different State Assemblies have passed statutes for private universities. Well-known business houses have invested in this field. The Birla Institute of Technology and Science and the Jindal Global University may serve as examples. Dealing with them will enhance business for them and local counterparts, and supplement the knowledge hub intentions of the President.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, some of our educational arrangements with Australia, the US, and the west have been disturbed. Due to positive publicity for our COVID-19 management, opportunities may present themselves for Sri Lankan educational organisations. They could prepare students here for graduation at developed country universities. Sri Lankan authorities may approach these universities to conduct specific courses of study locally. 

However, the government must create an environment for these interventions that have been opposed by some professional associations. This attitude could be a constraint, especially in the fields of Medicine, Engineering, and Information Technology. In all three sectors, the performance of Indians has been outstanding.     

Graduate unemployment is an issue in both India and Sri Lanka. If our graduates are not attractive to the private sector, it could be they do not hold marketable, quality degrees. There could be other considerations (e. g. English knowledge, school connections, social standing, etc.), restricting ordinary persons’ entry to the private sector. In India, these social constraints are much heavier. However, if the need is to produce quality graduates attractive in the job market, university authorities and the government should work towards that goal.


Education and economic development

  Strategising higher education through universities to reinforce emerging economies is an area that has attracted the attention of several countries, and we can learn about such developments from India. In this regard, we may pay attention to the United Nations Academic Initiatives (UNAI) guidance. The UNAI promotes ten basic principles and commitment to human rights, equal chances, sustainability, global citizenship, and intercultural dialogue, etc. Institutional cooperation extends to a scientific exchange of thoughts, and collaborative research that should exhibit collective higher education impact on society.   

 In poor societies, entrepreneurship is backward due to shortage of financial resources, knowledge, skills, and attitudinal factors. Issues like collaterals dissuade borrowings. The challenge for universities is to strategise avenues for resource mobilisation, entrepreneurship development and convince financiers, bureaucrats, and politicians to tag along with evolved strategies. 


Potential focus areas and

higher education

Interventions to advance peace and conflict resolution through education are important. The expertise to inquire, advise and report to the UN on member country for ‘bad behavior’ as regards human rights, etc., is possessed mostly by the West, where it is developed in universities. Therefore, domestic universities could contribute to international conflict resolution as well. Commitment of universities in emerging economies to conducting courses on peace and conflict resolution, in keeping with the UNAI Principles, is less.

Right now, the world has evinced and interest in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Universities can contribute to achieving these goals by promoting SDGs through education, research and documentation. For example, health/education/agriculture/environment can be researched, and universities can share promotional and management inputs.

Since SDGs are about improving lives, they are essential to everyone. Therefore, any commitment or use of resource will serve the communities universally. This is how the global citizenship aspect of UNAI will work. The intellectual and international dialogues will be the modus operandi for universality. If citizen-serving universities’ final output is producing book worms, then they will fail. Appropriate research publications come out from many Indian universities, which is a good sign.

The commitment to promoting inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and the ‘unlearning’ of intolerance through higher education bring solace. India’s culture, history, and civilisation are unique. Therefore, the Indian universities can have a cultural dialogue. It can be done through international students and scholars entering Indian universities to share knowledge. Sri Lankans can have a share of it. It will lead to the strengthening of political and economic ties created through these scholars.

One crucial issue is whether private schools/universities focus on peoples’ needs or on preparing affluent students for foreign education. If it is the latter, social responsibility expected of a university will be lacking. In Sri Lanka, international schools mostly cater to the rich and focus on foreign higher education. It is crucial that universities serve the common man in emerging economies through interventions and inventions to reach higher technology or knowledge hubs or connectivity to value chains. Operationalising those systems will be the responsibility of government/state functionaries, and related private educational institutions. Offering scholarships for the needy is one way to achieve this objective.

The provision of higher education in the underdeveloped Indian States is aimed at promoting equality. It is applicable to Sri Lanka too. College density, i. e., the number of colleges per 100,000 eligible persons (in the age-group 18-23 years) varies from seven in Bihar to 53 in Karnataka. The all-India average is 28. Does not Bihar deserve better facilities?

Wasn’t this the reason for coining the slogan, kolombata kiri, gamata kekiri (milk for Colombo and kekiri or melon for the village), in the late 1980s, in this country?

The latest from India in the field of education is most encouraging. India with international tech giants headed by Indians the world over is planning to bring some of the best universities to India. This will provide Indian students with world-class exposure. According to the latest reporting (, “the Indian government is pushing to overhaul the nation’s heavily regulated education sector to attract nearly 750,000 students who spend about $15 billion each year pursuing degrees overseas.” Although there is a mismatch as regards “internationally acclaimed tech giants,” numbers, and the expense, are not we facing the same problem? Nevertheless, the solution is the same. Reports say that ‘it represents a change of heart on the part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which has for long resisted opening up the country’s education sector. India needs to boost its education sector to become more competitive and close the growing gap between college curriculum and market demands’. Every Sri Lankan government has sought this ‘boost’ for the same reasons but baulked due to protests. Now, we are waiting for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to make a difference.

Some Indian universities have already set up partnerships, allowing students to complete the preliminary levels of their foreign degree programmes in India before going overseas for graduation. This happens in Sri Lanka as regards a few private sector Campuses/ Institutions, supported by some British, American, and Canadian universities. For us approaching Indians for appropriate higher education will be less costly.

The current Indian move encourages the overseas institutions to set up campuses without local partners. This approach will suit our needs too since the demand for and the supply of suitable graduates for employment, thirst for appropriate education, lack of finances for heavy infrastructure development required for higher education, etc. could thereby be met. It is the will to break away from the grip of conservatism that is needed. We will fail if we fear protests. Additionally, our Birlas, Jindhals also should volunteer to undertake this human resource development effort. 

Another report on India in the public domain is worth paying attention to. It is from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). It states that India’s unemployment rate hit a three-year-high of 8.4% in August 2019. It notes that the unemployment rate has been the highest level since September 2016. If unemployment increases with the expansion of higher education, it is a challenge to India. Although I lack statistics, the situation is similar in Sri Lanka as well. I recall that some graduates who staged fasts, demanding jobs, in the East in 2017, told me as Governor that they had advised their brothers not to pursue higher education, and to join the state service as clerks instead.

Literature reviews show that unemployment levels in India increase with the rise in educational standards. It has also happened in Sri Lanka, which has a large numbers of arts graduates. Most of them lack knowledge of English, and the private sector businesses expect proficiency of English of graduates. The graduates stage demonstrations, demanding jobs, especially during election times. We have seen how the Kumaratunga, Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa governments succumbed to pressure from protesters and offered jobs, and how the Ranil Wickremesinghe government partially succumbed and totally failed politically!  

In India, it is believed that unemployment is negligible among the uneducated. But it stands at 15%, roughly twice the national average of unemployment rate among graduates. Further, they say that unemployment is insignificant among those who have not gone beyond primary education, mainly because they cannot afford to be unemployed, if they want to survive.

According to CMIE, there are a little over ten crore graduates in India, and 6.3 are in the labour force waiting to be employed-willing and available for work. Of these, 5.35 crore have some employment, leaving 0.95 crore, mostly youth with a basic degree or even a higher degree, unemployed. The same survey says that while more women are getting some education, the unemployment rate among them is 17.6%, more than double the rate for men. Although it is not so severe in Sri Lanka if we do not handle it carefully, we will be reaching the same level, albeit with fewer numbers. This will counter to the UNAI’s gender disparity and poverty alleviation principles. Educationists should ask themselves whether universities address these disparities.



Firstly, it is suggested that foundations for a successful career-oriented graduate preparation be laid at primary and post-primary schools. For instance, language competency, modern ‘machine use’ like computers, mathematical and scientific tools in education should commence there. Private schools in Sri Lanka do this, like in India. However, rural schools should follow suit. The State and Provincial Council budgets should provide resources.

Secondly, education to facilitate economic development should receive priority. In emerging economies, the agricultural and industrial potential has to be tapped fully. Curriculum development should focus on areas these sectors are interested in. Having many arts graduates is good for bloating statistics but not for development—it is 36% in India and high in Sri Lanka as well.

Thirdly, do we need a contented graduate population to develop the economy? Do the universities help the farmers, who need access to scientific and technical know-how, or the factory owners who want updated, efficient, and adequate technical/technological knowhow?  Universities must give the society and the economy what the current and next generations require. Therefore, they say that ‘education is the passport to the future; for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today’.

We must create cells for skill development and technological transformation in keeping with the production mechanisms and management milieu.  University Senates and the Treasury may say this is expensive. If so we have to respond saying, “If you think education is expensive, marry ignorance.” Which would we prefer? Having a former Vice-Chancellor at the helm of Education we expect positive responses. These must be addressed to produce graduates needed by the emerging economies. Otherwise, our universities will continue to be only ‘graduate producing factories’.

Fourthly, it is necessary to prepare the educated for self-employment. The standard banking lending systems, demanding collaterals for borrowing, etc. from the poor, who are dispossessed, must be reconsidered. New lending tools must be formulated by the Central Bank and the commercial banks in tandem. Combining transfer of produce to markets, product integration, institutional upgrading, and supporting graduates to take to small and medium enterprises must receive priority.

Fifthly, university education cannot be a standalone function of static existence. The academics should be continuously trained in new methodologies, and they must keep abreast of international standards and developments. 

Learning from Gandhi Ji

Finally, with great reverence to Gandhi Ji, I quote what he said about education” “True education must correspond to the surrounding circumstances, or it is not a healthy growth.” What surrounds us? It may be poverty, or lack of entrepreneurship or productivity, sharing knowledge or appropriate technology or business skills or product research, and marketing. There could be more.

These issues should be addressed by universities. Developed countries addressed them even before we dreamt of doing so because they understood that university education had to correspond to the surrounding circumstances. They apparently learned from Gandhi Ji before we did. We are late learners and learn from second-hand sources!

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Midweek Review

Japanese literature and Prof. Ariya Rajakaruna’s translations



by Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Department of Sinhala, University of Peradeniya

During these COVID-19 days, stories pop up everywhere describing how each country and its people are coping with the pandemic. It is said that the Japanese people are behaving in the most responsible manner; they have changed their behaviour in conformity with the health regulations related to the pandemic. The Japanese are known to turn laws into culture. In others words, they absorb laws into culture; and thereafter, laws do not look laws. When laws are made with the participation of the people, they easily blend with the public culture. This is in stark contrast to Singapore, where laws remain laws, strict, punitive and statist: obey the law or pay the penalty! In Japan even state power takes beautiful cultural shapes.

Such idealisation of Japan is part of our middle-class culture. For many of us, Japan is the ideal land: elegantly cultured; adequately Buddhist; appropriately non-Western; seemingly anti-Western; not too religious; obviously modern yet visibly Asian; moderate yet powerful; culturally traditional yet developed and so on. For us, Japan is perhaps the easiest country to love – love openly. We love the West secretly and Japan openly.

Our love of Japan may have many origins. One key source of that love is Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s two novels: Malagiya Attho and Malavunge Avurudu Da. After those two novels we have been a bit too romantic about anything Japanese. In the making of our first modern indigenous play, Saracchandra, ‘the father of modern’ Sinhala drama, was significantly influenced by Japan, and loved to overemphasise that Japanese connection. In my latest novel, Rathu Iri Andina Atha, I created a character who shrewdly manipulates our love of Japan. In order to enter the conscious of educated Sinhala middleclass, he acts as a professor returning from a long stay in Japan. To make the story believable, he carves out a story of his Japanese wife – a fiction within a fiction! Sri Lankan middle class is ready to be deceived even by an underworld imposter as long as he presents himself as a person refined in Japan. Irony, to be sure, allows us to see the extent to which Japan has become one of our national fantasies.

This essay, however, is about a real scholar who has enriched modern Sinhala literature almost singlehandedly by translating Japanese literature into Sinhala. He is Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. Several translators such as Jayantha Wimalasena, Tadashi Noguchi, and Wimaladasa Samarasinghe introduced Japanese literature to the Sinhala readers. But they translated them from English. Professor Rajakaruna translated directly from Japanese. Now in his eighties, the professor continues to translate Japanese literature into Sinhala.

Translated Literature and Sinhala Fiction

The story of modern Sinhala literature is one of the many influences. Modern Sinhala fiction in particular was primarily influenced by Russian and French fiction. From the 1940s onwards the key classics of those languages were translated into Sinhala. Edirivira Saracchandra, A. P. Gunarathne, David Karunarathne, Cyril C. Perera, K.G. Karunathilaka, Boby G. Botheju and numerous others translated those books. Among the present-day literary translators, Gamini Viyangoda, Chulananda Samaranayake, Ananda Amarasiri and many others have continued to translate contemporary world classics into Sinhala. And the Pragathi Publishers, a literary wing of the Soviet Union, made Russian classics, along with some Soviet ones, available in Sinhala at affordable prices. It must be stressed that they did not translate just Stalinist propaganda. So, we could read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy, who were not Bolsheviks. Those books were nicely printed as well. Some of those books came out in adorable pocket editions that we could carry around showing off our ‘refined taste’ to Sri Lankan Sonyas, Annas, Laras or Altynais – those unforgettable heroines of Russian classics. Dedigama V. Rodrigo, Padma Harsha Kuranage and Piyasena Manilgama are still in our minds as the translators of those classics. Some works of fiction from other national literature such as American, British, German, and Indian were translated here and there, but not in any systematic way. The United States did everything it could to rival the USSR during the cold war but never spent any money on translating its literature into other languages. In other words, it did not have an organ equivalent to The Progressive Publishers of the USSR. Thus, we are still to have any translation of the masterpieces of Henry James, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Scott Fitzgerald, or Saul Bellow. At the moment, our regional superpower, China, is also not interested in cultural stuff. They are into giving us colossal loans, cutting deals, and behind-the scene political games, getting ministers in the loop, and so on – very much like the US in that sense.

Japanese Influence on Sinhala literature

In addition to Russian and French literature, Japanese literature is perhaps the single most influential literary tradition to shape contemporary Sinhala literature. To account for literary influences is a difficult task. Yet, the influence of Japanese Haiku is quite visible and ubiquitous in Sinhala literature. After Ariyawansa Ranavira, one of the most senior poets, translated a collection Haiku by Japanese masters in 1980s, many Sinhala poets began writing Haiku like poems. Today, younger poets such as Lakshantha Athukorla, Palitha Senarathne, Piyankarage Bandula Jayaweera, Ven. Aparekke Sirisudhamma and others regularly write shorter poems that reflect a heavy influence of Haiku. Professor Rajakaruna himself translated a collection of Haiku directly from Japanese. His book figures prominently in the ‘Haiku dialogue’ taking place in Sinhala.

Avant Garde Films and Drama

Professor Rajakaruna translated Japanese classics into English as well. Two film scripts included in A Crazy Page and Crossroads were translated into English for the first time. Our Professor has helped some Japanese authors to reach international readership! On reading these two film scripts, I was amazed at the kind of modernism and experimentalism in those texts written in 1920s. A Crazy Page is about a man who returns to his abandoned wife and daughter some thirty years to find wife insane and hospitalized. He tries to make up for all those lost years by finding a job as an attendant at the hospital where the wife awaits her death. The film script has been written breaking the linearity in time and space. Avant Garde nature of the film is so much that I couldn’t believe that it was written nearly a century ago.

Some of the plays Professor Rajakaruna translated from Japanese to Sinhala also belong to what we conventionally call “absurd theatre.” Unfortunately, his translations were never produced as plays. But one can safely assume that at least of the younger playwrights in Sinhala have read these translated plays.


And some universities regularly use them as their required texts.

As a literary critic, Professor Rajakaruna is not known to defend experimentalism in Sinhala literature. His recent critical essays on Sinhala fiction fail to appreciate post realist fiction written by new writers, who have made some significant achievements by writing short stories and novels that transcend naturalist realism. But as a translator, the professor has been particularly keen on translating Japanese texts that are experimental in nature.

Although he looks rather conventional as a critic in his recent writing, Prof. Rajakaruna, I must say, was one of the fearless defenders of the literary modernism of Peradeniya School (1950s to 60s). As a young lecturer at the University of Peradeniya, Rajakaruna was one of the most vocal supporters of ‘free verses’ of Siri Gunasinghe, the greatest modernist of the so-called ‘Peradeniya School.’ Interestingly, Professor Rajakaruna continued to side himself with modernist experimentalism in his translations from Japanese to Sinhala.

Professor Rajakaurna translated so many short stories by celebrated Japanese writers. He also supervised two projects of translations that introduced nearly all key writers of Japanese literature into Sinhala. Two volumes of short stories, Ishtartha Siddiya and Asaliya Mal, have gone into several prints already and they include Japanese short stories representing a wide variety of styles and themes. And those stories have been translated from English by leading scholars in the field. It must be mentioned with a sense of gratitude that Japanese agencies such as Toyota Foundation have provided him with financial support to carry out those projects. But in recent times, even those funding agencies have not paid any attention to helping us make such cultural products with lasting effects. And there has not been another Ariya Rajakaruna, passionate about Japanese arts and enthusiastic about what we can learn from Japan. Now, China is all over the place. From kitchen to the cabinet – yes, I mean the Cabinet of ministers. We are likely to be indebted to China for several generations to come. But China has no Toyota Foundations that will help you translate literature. Perhaps, China knows that its best writers are not with the Chinese oligarchy, and to translate them will make no contribution to China’s geopolitical project.

Heir to his Work

Professor Rajakaruna, like many others of his generation, failed to produce inspired students who can continue his work on Japanese literature. After him, no one learned Japanese and entered into ever vibrant Japanese literary scene. Therefore, we do not have anyone translating renowned writers such as Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogava, Hiromi Kawakami, Junji Ito, Hiroko Oyamada and so on directly from Japanese. Murakami comes to us through English. His work has been translated from English into Sinhala. Professor Rajakaruna learned his Japanese in three years (1962-5) at the Tokyo School of Japanese Language. I wonder why no one after him followed his path. Many after him went to Japan for higher studies but nearly all of them ended up being wealthy car importers instead of translators. Perhaps, new Japan itself needs someone selling its cars rather than someone translating literature!

During the last 40 some years, anyone educated in Japan failed to make a lasting impact on the field of the humanities in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, there is something fundamentally wrong with those who go there or in those who teach them there. Or perhaps, after all, this is a different age. Well, the age of Rajakaruna, too, only produced just a single Rajakaruna. Literary and scholarly achievements have a lot to do with individual passion and commitment. The art of making scholarly passions contagious is still to be discovered.

Technical Japan and Literary Japan

While Japan was being reduced to electronic gadgets and auto mobiles in the economic atmosphere of post 1977 neo-liberal era, people like Ariya Rajakaruna helped us see that Japan was more than those cute technical and mechanical devices. They showed us the richness of Japanese literature. A fairly well-read person in my generation, by reading even only in Sinhala, can recite a long list of Japanese authors. And the stories of those authors might have already entered the deep crevices of our collective consciousness, and the memories of such literary work might one day influence our literature in ways that we cannot really predict or explain. Literary influences are such that one cannot really see where they come from. But our literary achievements will have the fragrance of the wonderful things their creators were exposed to during their formative years. Any serious writer writing in Sinhala today must have been introduced to some Japanese classics through the work of translators such as Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. As the most prolific translator from Japanese to Sinhala, he has been a wonderful cultural ambassador for us. It is said that his ‘embassy’ will be closed forever after him unless we, Sri Lankan literati, and our counterparts in Japan give some serious thoughts to continuing this enriching intercultural engagement. To continue that cross-fertilisation would be the best tribute to the pioneers such as Professor Rajakaruna.

(This essay is a part of longer research paper the writer is working on. He can be contacted at

Continue Reading

Midweek Review

Experts-Only Club



By Lynn Ockersz

There’s to be a gathering,

Of the most curious kind,

In the Nodding Isle,

Renowned for its sleights-of-hand,

Made-up of high-brow types,

Whose brief it’ll be,

To spell out the prime law of the land,

But the question being asked,

By those scrambling for scraps,

Especially in the Covid’s vicious clutch,

Is whether this heads’ only club,

Knows ‘the agony of the stomach’…

So essential an ingredient,

For creating a state most fair,

Where an ample morsel,

Would at all times be on offer for all.



Continue Reading

Midweek Review

Women in Power



The Revolutionary Lives and Careers of Siva, Doreen, Vivi and Sirima

By Kusum Wijetilleke ( and
Rienzie Wijetilleke

(Continued from yesterday)

The events leading up to her removal began in 1933 when she published an article titled “The Battle of the Flowers” in the Ceylon Daily News that questioned the sale of the Poppy on Armistice Day in the British Colonies. At the time, funds from the sale of poppies went towards British ex-servicemen and not to help the Ceylonese officers. The resulting Suriya Mal Movement sold local sunflowers (suriya) instead of poppies with proceeds going to local benefactors. This movement was an early rallying cry for independence and Ms. Doreen would go on to become a symbol of Ceylonese anti-imperialism; winning the parliamentary seat for Akuressa in 1952 under the Communist Party. However in the period leading up to Independence, leftism in Ceylon was very much under threat.

Dr. Wickramasinghe would be arrested in 1939 for sedition, and many others, including Dr. N.M. Perera would follow. The response to the arrests would be one of the largest protest marches ever seen in Ceylon, organized by the LSSP and quelled by the British with a baton charge.

Leading the march was the wife of Dr. N.M. Perera; Ms. Selina Perera who was also one of Ceylon’s leading Trotskyites and a founding member of the LSSP. Ms Perera would also shelter the Anglo-Australian Marxist Mark Bracegirdle when the Governor of Ceylon ordered his arrest and deportation, for the crime of organizing plantation labourers to agitate for better living conditions. Ms. Perera herself had to flee Ceylon to India following a brief arrest in 1940 and even joined the Bolshevik Leninist Party of India, Ceylon and Burma along with her husband. When India took the decision to deport them, she escaped to Calcutta, where she adopted a new identity and taught English, disillusioned with the independence politics of India and Ceylon.


At the outbreak of World War II, Colvin R De Silva, N.M. Perera and many others of the LSSP were declared ‘persona non grata’ due to their anti-Stalinism and the insistence that the war was an imperialist venture. One of the co-founders of the LSSP, Mr. Leslie Goonewardene, was able to evade arrest and escape to India along with Selina Perera and others. Hailing from a prominent political family, Mr. Goonewardene had intended to become a Methodist Priest but was influenced by Marxist teachings while in the UK, ending up at the London School of Economics under the tutelage of the famous Marxist Professor, Harold Laski.

Mr. Goonewardene’s political affiliations would lead to a meeting with his future wife, Vivienne, at a socialist rally. Vivienne Goonatilleka also hailed from aristocracy but was blessed with a rebellious streak which would mark her as one of the most important and accomplished women in Sri Lanka’s political history. Despite being the Head Girl at Musaeus College Colombo, ‘Vivi’ was noted for her defiance of authority which became evident with her involvement in the aforementioned Suriya Mal Movement. On Remembrance Day 1934, when as per tradition there would be a ceremonial gun salute at 11 am, Vivienne organized a protest whereby students would leave their boxes of instruments on the blackboards. The blackboards were then toppled at exactly 11 am to make a sound loud enough to drown out the gun salute. Despite her work with the poor and needy, Vivienne’s father was not best pleased with her political pursuits and did not want his young daughter engaged in further education, preferring that she marry and start a family of her own. Without her father’s knowledge and with the assistance of her maternal uncles, the famous socialists Philip and Robert Gunawardena, she gained entry into University College Colombo.

Vivienne’s father was completely against her marriage to Leslie Goonewardene on the basis of caste and religion but also due to the latter’s revolutionary politics which clashed with his pro-monarchy views. ‘Vivi’ was virtually imprisoned at their residence and Mr. Goonewardene was forced to file legal action against his future father-in-law by claiming unlawful detention (habeas corpus). The lawyer that successfully argued the case was a young attorney by the name of J.R. Jayawardene. Having married Leslie, Ms. Goonewardene had to escape to India under a false name along with her husband when the LSSP was proscribed for its anti-war stance. While in India Mr. and Mrs. Goonewardene immersed themselves in the Quit India Movement. After the end of World War II the LSSP began activities once again in Ceylon but ideological differences between leading members of the party led to a split based on their socialist ideologies. Vivienne joined the Bolshevik Sama Samaja Party (BSP), successfully campaigning for the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) in 1950. As a member of the CMC, she focused on the poor residing in the ‘shanty towns’ by widening the roads, providing lighting and sanitation as well as organising sewing classes for single mothers. During this time she befriended a young politician from the Ceylon Labour Movement and regularly gave him a lift from near the shanty towns to the CMC; his name was Ranasinghe Premadasa. Her work as part of Dr. N.M. Perera’s All Ceylon Local Government Workers Union led to the granting of ‘Permanent’ Status to workers and the right to pensions as well as extending pensions to widows and orphans.

Through the decades between the 1940s and the 1970s, the LSSP, its various factions and other leftist aligned parties enjoyed great success in bringing about a political awakening amongst the youth and the working class of the country. The 1953 ‘Ceylon Hartal’ was the brainchild of the radicals that witnessed the success of similar organised protests during the Quit India Movement. Ceylon had never before witnessed such well-organised mass scale demonstrations and campaigns of civil disobedience, which brought much of Ceylon to a standstill. The Government of Dudley Senanayake had become unpopular for increasing the price of rice, reneging on a key election promise by the UNP. The hartal was so fierce that the entire cabinet of the government boarded a Royal Navy warship to secure itself against potential violence.


On the wave of leftist movements across the country, Ms. Goonewardene was elected to Parliament in 1956 and again in 1964, she only lost the 1960 election by some 150 votes to Mr. M.H. Mohamed; who was appointed Cabinet Minister of Labour, Housing and Employment. She joined a leftist newspaper and began reporting on parliamentary proceedings. M.H. Mohamed was unhappy at some of the articles written by Vivienne on the labour and housing policies of the UNP and during a session of parliament he made a remark directed at Vivienne referring to her election defeat; whilst she was seated in the press gallery. An enraged Vivienne reportedly waved a slipper in a threatening manner at Mohamed and despite the Speaker banning her from the press gallery for two weeks, she proceeded to the entrance of the chamber after the session with a crowd of supporters to confront the MP. The Minister of State at that time, J.R. Jayawardene, had to escort Mohamed through a separate exit and it was left to party leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike to pacify Vivienne. She was posthumously designated a ‘National Hero of Sri Lanka’, the highest civilian honour alongside the ‘Sri Lankabhimanya’.

It is true that most of the high watermarks of female representation in Sri Lankan politics featured women that ‘inherited’ political positions through ‘pedigree’, but this may be an oversimplification of sorts. Yes, many were from well-established political families but the use of the word pedigree is interesting. One of the definitions of the noun pedigree is the provenance of a person especially as conferring ‘distinction’; which in itself is a noun that defines excellence that sets someone apart from others. The closer we study the careers of some of Ceylon’s most prominent female politicians, the more simplistic the argument about inheriting power and position appears.

Perhaps our curriculum should be adjusted to shine more light on the many women that not only attained positions of power, but also possessed the knowledge and skills to thrive in these positions. The next time we rename a street or build a statue, perhaps we should honour some of the country’s famous foremothers. Far from being entitled heirs to political dynasties, these women were prodigious powerhouses in their own right and should be respected as such. A more intense spotlight on the achievements of the many women in our history may help inspire the next generation of women to make some history of their own.

Continue Reading