NM’s political dynamite

NM’s Critical Analysis of the J R Jayawardene constitution promulgated on 31/081978 yet remains one of the foremost analytical works on the subject and though brought out during the early stages of his long suffering fatal illness displays his brilliant and influential intellectual qualities. 

by Neil Dias

(August 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Dr N M Perera was born on 6th June 1905 at No. 36 St Josephs Street Grandpass to the family of Mr. Abraham Perera and Mrs Johana Perera. He was the fifth in a family of nine children. Two of the nine children, the 4th a boy and the 8th a girl died in their infancy. NM, as he came to be popularly known, had his early education at St Thomas College under Warden Stone. Later he was moved into Ananda College when P.D.S.Kularanta was Principle. In 1925 he captained the College Cricket Team and was appointed Head Prefect. It is said that in those times schools like Richmond and Ananda chose their cricket captains by popular vote among team members. It is also said that Robert Gunawardene voted against NM at this election.

On leaving school he began his academic career at the University College and after obtaining an Honours Degree in Economics served as a University lecturer for some time before proceeding to England for his post graduate studies. He joined the University of London and continued to be an outstanding student under Professor Harold Laski at the London School of Economics and went on to obtain his BSc, Ph D and DSc. He was awarded the PhD for his thesis on the constitution of the German Weimar Republic. He research led him to produce a thesis on the comparative study of the constitutions and parliamentary procedures of the UK, USA, France and Germany. It is said that Professor Laski had observed that NM had all the qualities required of a Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain. Sir Ivor Jennings has said that NM possessed all the qualities required of a Labour Prime Minister. He played cricket for the University of London and joined other Asian students and campaigned against British imperialism and for freedom from British rule.

On his return to Sri Lanka in 1933 he threw himself wholeheartedly and with passion and exuberance into the political life of the Country and its people. During the malaria epidemic of the 1930s he along with other like minded leftists like Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Philip Gunawardene, Leslie Gunawardene and Dr. S A Wickramasinghe went from house to house distributing food to families stricken by the illness in areas like Yatiyantota, Ruwanwella, Bulathkohupitiya, Dehiowita, Dodawatta, Anhettigama and Noori in the Three Korales.

In December 1935 the Lanka Sama Samaja Party was formed by him along with other intellectual giants like Philip Gunawardena, Leslie Gunawardena, Robert Gunawardena and Dr. Colvin R de Silva. Dr. Perera entered the second State Council on 22 February 1936 representing the Ruwanwella seat. From then on he has represented Ruwanwella and Yatiyantota seats in the Three Korales until 1977 when the UNP led by J R Jayewardene secured a five sixth majority in parliament. Throughout his career in the State Council and in Parliament NM dominated both institutions and was widely regarded by everyone, irrespective of party differences, with a measure of respect that bordered on reverence. NM’s final exit from Parliament was made possible by the break up of the coalition government of 1970 engineered by Felix Dias and Anura Bandaranaike. The LSSP was left without a single seat. The houses of NM’s supporters in Yatiyantota were looted and ransacked in front of the very eyes of the police and the armed forces. Both Dudley Senanayake and J R Jayewardene as party leaders came to Yatiyantota to campaign for the UNP candidate and invited the voters to choose the better candidate indirectly asking the voters to vote for NM.

He also functioned as the Mayor of the Colombo Municipality and his period in office is considered as the golden era of that premier local body. NM was also the President of the Board of Control for Cricket in Sri Lanka. He was a member of the NCC and was a regular tennis player. He always left his official vehicle behind and traveled in his private car for his game of tennis.

Dr. N.M.Perera was the first leader of the Opposition in independent Sri Lanka. He again became the leader of the Opposition in 1956 when the UNP suffered its first defeat and SWRD Bandaranaike rode to power as Prime Minister of the new MEP government. An old party stalwart at Yatiyantota was relating the story to me as to how some leading members of the Buddhist clergy, immediately prior to 1956, first approached NM and invited him to lead the country on a Sinhalese Buddhist platform. NM refused to treat the minorities in that way. He was in no hurry to come to power and for him political principles mattered much more than personal expediency. Thus was brought about the 1956 government by the use of, in NM’s own words, “the political dynamite” of the Sinhala language and all the forces associated with it which contributed in no small measure to the ethnic conflict which continues to threaten to tear this country apart.

Dr. N M Perera was twice Minister of Finance and during his period the country witnessed radical changes in the economy. The state sector saw an increase of 60% of the country’s economy.

NM’s Critical Analysis of the J R Jayawardene constitution promulgated on 31/081978 yet remains one of the foremost analytical works on the subject and though brought out during the early stages of his long suffering fatal illness displays his brilliant and influential intellectual qualities. While warning all those who “light-heartedly embark on constitutional experiments” he describes the legislation not as fulfilling the aims and aspirations of our people but as an attempt to maintain the political prestige of the United National Party. He decries the failure to grasp the essence of vital constitutional concepts like sovereignty and freedom and ascribes it to “loose thinking by the drafters.” In his chapter on Language in the constitution Dr. NM Perera lays down thus “The constitution has achieved one purpose. It has demonstrated how easy it is in Sri Lanka for a political party to regurgitate its past, foreswear every policy which it stood for and advocated and then enshroud itself with the pure raiment of progress. Undoubtedly one of the progressive sections of this constitution is that devoted to language (Chapter IV). In one sentence it has laid to rest the language spectre that had been haunting the political life of Sri Lanka ever since 1955 when Sir John Kotelawela the then leader of the UNP was crowned the king of Delft. Overcome by this regal atmosphere he opened the flood gates to racial animosity and bitterness by promising equal status for the Tamil language in the administration. Mr. Bandaranaike was quick to sense the political potentialities of this new turn of events and carried the political dynamite into the elections of 1956 with the cry of Sinhala only within 24 hours.”

N M died on the 14th of August 1978 and his friend JR who was then the President of the country accorded him a state funeral befitting a much revered national leader.

If we are in danger today on the 32nd anniversary of his departure, of forgetting what it was that NM had to say to our Country, it is because we no longer wish (and increasingly are unable) to hear him.

(The writer , Advocate, Member Sabaragamuwa University Council. Member Official Languages Commission )

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