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Schools take over, attempted 1962 coup

by W T A Leslie Fernando


(January 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) After the July 1960 General Election, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the leader of the SLFP was appointed to the Senate and was made the Prime Minister. Thereby she became the first woman Prime Minister in the world and brought glory to Sri Lanka. Although she was a novice to politics, she picked up and soon became a versatile leader. Besides the image she created as a real Sinhala Kula Kanthava (noble lady) clad in Osariya made her a popular personality all over.

As the Premier of the SLFP Government for four years from 1960 to 1964 she faced all the controversial issues like the schools takeover, nationalisation of banks, insurance companies and Petroleum products with firm courage.

Sirima-Shastri Pact

Her period also saw the development of local industry where so many products from the pin to refrigerators were manufactured in our country. She was also bold enough to overcome the attempted coup by the Armed Forces in 1962.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike won International fame as she was able to negotiate a settlement in the border dispute between India and China. She was also able to solve the problem of the Tamils of Indian origin by the Sirima-Shastri Pact. She also settled the Kachchativu issue in Sri Lanka’s favour after discussions with India.

The first controversial issue tackled by Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the schools takeover. Before Dr W Dahanayake became the Education Minister in the 1956-59 MEP Government, he had expressed that to make free education effective, all the assisted schools should be vested in the State. Once he was appointed the Education Minister he became close to the Catholic Church and gave an undertaking that assisted schools would not be taken over by the Government.


Free education scheme

Besides Dr W Dahanayake was the leader of the gang of Ministers who opposed the progressive policies of Philip Gunawardena’s group in the 1956-59 Cabinet. At the 1960 March election, it was the policy of the LPP led by Dr W Dahanayake that the assisted schools would not be vested in the State and the party got support from some Catholic circles.

Under the British colonial regime, Catholics and Christians enjoyed a privileged position in the field of education. By 1939, both Catholics and other Christians who comprised only 6.25 percent of the population obtained 73.2 percent Government grant for denominational schools whereas Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims who constituted 93.7 percent of the population received the balance 26.3 percent of the grant. (Prof J E Jayasuriya; Education in Ceylon - page 3) Besides higher education which was in English was fee-levying and was limited.

In 1945, Dr C W W Kannangara implemented the Free Education Scheme. His next move was to takeover all the assisted schools. But it was shelved when he lost the Matugama seat at the 1947 General Election. In 1952, Dr C W W Kannangara was returned to Parliament from Agalawatta seat and it is said he was not made the Education Minister due to pressure from the Church.


Catholic Church

At the 1960 July election the SLFP vociferously declared that the assisted schools would be vested in the State. Accordingly the Schools Takeover Act was passed in Parliament with a majority of 60 members. Only the UNP and the Federal Party voted against it. Nevertheless the Catholic Church was getting ready from 1956 to resist the Schools Takeover. In 1959, at a meeting held in Negombo, T B Cooray the Archbishop of Colombo said, “Our schools should not be touched. We would fight to the end even by shedding blood” (Dinamina June 30, 1959).

When the schools were taken over, many Catholics at the instigation of the Catholic Church protested against it. Some Catholics forcibly occupied schools and many schools in Catholic areas had to be closed. This took a serious turn in the Negombo known as the little Rome and Catholic areas in the vicinity.

However, it was the Leftists Catholics in Negombo itself who shouldered to mobilise Catholics in favour of the schools takeover. Although at this time the MEP was against the Government it vehemently supported the schools takeover. Accordingly the LSSP, MEP and the CP in Negombo area formed an organization ‘National Education Protection Front in Catholic areas.’

This organization mobilised the Catholics in the coastal belt from Wattala to Puttalam in favour of the Schools Takeover. It held meetings in Catholic areas highlighting the benefits of the Schools Takeover to the poor Catholics. The Leftist leaders in Negombo Dr Hector Fernando, Santigo Fernando, Cecil de Silva with others like Ven Meegomuwe Jinawansa Nayake Thera and Senator A D Jayasekera addressed these meetings. The organization also got the blessings of Lakshman Jayakody, MP for Divulapitiya.

The Catholic Church that got excited over these developments also formed an organization called ‘The Catholic Education Protection Front’. However, the SLFP Catholics in the area joined the Leftists in favour of the Schools Takeover. Sarath Meepura a bold and courageous teacher and LSSP Youth League leader teaching in the Dalupotha Catholic school released the journal called Vipla to create a public option in favour of the Schools Takeover. Over 5,000 copies of this journal was sold in Negombo itself.

The ‘National Education Front in Catholic Areas’ handled the situation carefully and avoided any confrontation. The leader of the MEP in Negombo and veteran writer Santiago Fernando wrote a series of articles in the pro-SLFP journal Sinhale illustrating the benefits of the Schools Takeover to masses.


Schools Takeover

Some Catholic teachers who were victimised by the Catholic Church openly supported the Schools Takeover. The Catholic parents who realised that the education of their children by the closure of schools would be adversely affected began to support the move. Gradually there developed a public opinion among the Catholics themselves in favour of the Schools Takeover.

In this background Cardinal Graciano of India who came to Sri Lanka as special envoy to study the Schools Takeover issue, advised the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka to give up the struggle and the Church retreated. In the process it managed to get permission to continue some elite schools like St Joseph’s and St Peter’s colleges as non-fee levying private schools. In the Schools Takeover issue Badiuddin Mahamud as the Education Minister at the time tactfully dealt with the situation without leaving any room for bloodshed.

Although Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was educated at St Bridget’s Convent, a leading Catholic Convent she stood firm and never yielded to any pressure from the Catholic Church. She always spoke with pride over the Schools Takeover until her death in 2000.

Leftist parties

The Schools Takeover was indeed a blessing for even the poor Catholic children and the country as a whole. Before the Schools Take Over it was very rarely that the child of a poor fisherman or a carpenter could enter the University from a prestigious Catholic school. Now the higher education has reached even the poorest of the poor Catholics. This is evident from the Puttalam District that has the largest Catholic percentage except for the Mannar District that has a very thin population. Every year many poor Catholics in the Puttalam District pass out as professionals.

Although at the Schools Takeover the Catholic Church was allowed to have non-fee-levying schools. Illegal sums are collected from parents at the admission to the schools in the name of ‘Donations’. It is unbecoming of the representatives of God to charge such illegal sums in the name of donations.

By 1961, the LSSP and the CP that supported the Government began to move away from it. The two parties refrained from voting for the Throne Speech. At the end of 1961 there was a series of strike in banks, the port and in transport services. The Government used the Army and the Navy to operate the services.

The MEP and the CP was formed against the suppression of the strikes by the Government. This front organized a strike for January 5, 1962. The strike was a success and it disrupted the work in industry, in offices, transport, post and communications.

Towards the end of January an attempted coup by the high-ranking officers of the Army and the Police was discovered. The Leftist parties condemned it and the MEP and the CP called off the strike as a show of goodwill to the Government even without informing the LSSP. (Prof Y Ranjith Amarasinghe; Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics (2000) - page 147).

Security Forces

At the Appropriation Bill Committee Stage in 1960-61 Philip Gunawardena cautioned the Government of high-ranking officers of the forces had confessed in the presence of a Catholic priest. True to Philip’s forecast the Coup was timed for 1962 and it failed due to the presence of mind of one patriotic officer (Dr Ananda Meegama; Philip Guanwardena and the 1956 Revolution in Sri Lanka (2008) - page 198).

The 1962 coup dated to overthrow the Government was fixed for January 27, 1962 and it was uncovered by the Government on the day before it was carried out. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike tackled the situation with boldness and courage. About two-dozen officers of the Security Forces and some civilians were taken into custody. The coup plan entailed the arrest of several members of the Government and leading Leftists. (Prof Y Ranjith Amarasinghe Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics (2000) - page 147)

The social background of the coup suspects were mostly Catholics from the higher strata in society close to the Catholic Church. The 1962 abortive coup has been interpreted as a move orchestrated by the Catholic circles because of the Schools Take Over.

The MEP hitherto least sympathetic to the Government offered it and people every assistance possible to rid the country finally and totally from all the conspiratorial elements. The CP also promised full support to the Government to deal with the reactionary forces. The LSSP position the coup was ambiguous. (Prof Y Ranjith Amarasinghe; Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics (2000) - page 147)

The LSSP condemned the coup as a rightist plot emphasizing that the social background of the coup suspects were mostly Catholics from the established families. But interpreted that the Government had planned to arrest the working-class leaders but the forces detailed for the purpose had gone one step further and planned the detention of some members of the Government. Dr N M Perera implied this position in the House of Representatives Doric de Souza in the Senate and it was also mentioned in the editorial notes of the Young Socialist. (Prof Y Ranjith Amarasinghe; Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics (2000) - page 147)

When the Government introduced a bill to set up a special Court to try the coup suspects the MEP and the CP voted with the Government for it but the LSSP voted against it with the UNP and the Federal Party.
(Dr Y Ranjith Amarasinghe; Revolutionary Idealism and Parliamentary Politics (2000) - page 148)

Why did the LSSP made such serious allegations against the SLFP Government? Because of some misgivings of the coup the LSSP was isolated from both the MEP and the CP for sometime.

(The writer is a former President of the Newman Society Alumni Association)

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