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Colvin R. de Silva: A multi - dimensional personality

Feb 16, 2011 1:11:13 PM- transcurrents.com

by Batty Weerakoon

The late Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s birthday falls on February 16. He was born on 16th February 1907 and his demise took place on 27th February 1989 at the age of 82. In February 1993 his bust was unveiled at the Law Library. Those of us who saw the final phase of his career in Hulftsdorp which commenced in about the 1950s will remember that it is in the court just above where his bust is installed that we had the pleasure of witnessing almost daily his argumentative skill and legal acumen. That was first the Chief justice’s Court and thereafter the Court of the President of the Court of Appeal Others whose busts grace the Library are R. L. Pereira, H.V. Perera, N.E. Weerasooriya and G.G. Ponnambalam. This is the tribute paid by the profession to those who in a period of over 50 years of practice brought distinction to it.

Of the position earned by Colvin in the profession there is this very perceptive assessment of Professor G. L. Peiris in his Dr. Colvin R.de Silva Memorial Lecture delivered in 1992. "He was, perhaps", he said "the only lawyer produced by the nation whose revered name can be invoked without incongruity on par with that of H.V. Perera. the undisputed colossus of our country’s legal scene"

Colvin’s achievement in the profession was indeed most remarkable especially because of a fact which went unnoticed in all tributes paid to him so far. The legal establishment in all its ramifications remained hostile to him to the end.

This did not surprise Colvin for he knew that this was an area of activity in which class and political attitudes came to the fore. He understood the establishment as part of the superstructure of a social system to which he remained unreconciled.

Bernard Soysa who assumed the leadership of the Lanka Samasamaja Party after Colvin’s death recalls the boldness with which Colvin even in his comparatively early days in the profession nailed to the mast his political colours. This again is not surprising.

Doctoral Thesis Written from Bogambara Prison

His doctoral thesis, Ceylon under the British occupation: 1795 -1833 though published when he was held in Bogambara under the Defence Regulations of war time, was researched on and presented to the London University when he was still in his twenties. It foreshadowed the position he was destined to take against British rule when he was back in his country. He was not as yet a Marxist.

Bernard is of the view that it was the great economic depression of the thirties that brought him to Marxism.

First president of L.S.S.P in 1935

Colvin’s many gifts made him the ideal choice for the presidency of the Lanka Samasamaja Party when it was founded in 1935. It grew out of Suriyamal movement which reflected the readiness of the politicised and more youthful element in the country to break through the limitations which they thought were being imposed on the movement for national independence by the Ceylonese bourgeois leadership. Colvin had analysed for himself the links this essentially land – owning bourgeoisie had with the colonial power as well as the remnants of local feudalism. He presented this to the country both in his polemical speeches and pamphlets with the confidence of a man who knew, and who in fact was, the most modern historian of the country’s colonial period.

He saw these desperate and divergent social quantities united in their attempt to ward off the threat of a mass movement expressing itself through the unsolicited gift of 1931— the universal adult franchise.

Bernard remembers with relish this _passage from Colvin’s presidential address at the third annual conference of the LSSP:

"it is this basic divergence of interests that make them uneasy bed fellows. But at one point nevertheless their interests completely coincide. The upstart official – dom has developed aristocratic pretensions which the attack on the head - man system vitally endangers."

The brown bourgeoisie dreads an agrarian upheaval which threatens their position as big landowners and parasitic businessmen. White imperialism fears a mass movement for independence which alone can hope to overthrow its entrenched power. In other words for widely different reasons they find that their interests coincide at one point.

And at that point stands the baleful figure of the Hon. D. S. Senanayake"

At this distance of time the last sentence has the effect of anti - climax. But this can in no way reflect the view or judgment of Colvin. He saw D. S. Senanayake not as a figure lending himself to bathos but as the person who "has steadily gravitated to the centre of the political stage

To take him on as Colvin did, was in fact to take on the whole establishment of which the lawyer firms that made and unmade legal reputation in Hulftsdorp, was a very sensitive part. Colvin had by deliberate choice turned his back on these. Though he came to be among the law’s best exponents he had also firmly decided against taking silk. That characterized his attitude to the legal establishment

The Bracegirdle case and plantation struggles

Nevertheless Colvin spare no pains in utilizing the law and its machinery to defend and expand the rights of the individual. It was he who carried on his shoulders the major burden of the law in the Bracegirdle case in which H.V. Pereira made himself available for the argument.

That was the period in which he, with the LSSP was knee deep in the plantations helping the workers there to organize themselves in their unions in defiance of the plantation RaJ. His indictment of the establishment before the Commission that was appointed to inquire into the fatal shooting of the worker Govindan in the Mooloya struggle has gone down into the country’s working class history.

The plantation worker first used his vote in order to send to the State Council the periya dorai of his thottam, had by 1947 advanced to the point of returning his genuine representative who sat and voted with the left. It was this boldness which prompted the powers that were to deprive him of his vote very calculatedly through the special provisions included for this purpose in the Citizenship Act read with an appropriate amendment made to the Franchise Act in 1950.

Lamentable Diffidence of the Court

Of the manner in which the Supreme Court and the Privy Council handled this issue and its repercussions Professor G. L. Peirs said this in his memorial lecture

It is clearly not an unfair assessment that the attitude of the courts on this occasion was marked by lamentable diffidence which amounted to dereliction of a vital responsibility. By adopting a narrow and univitingly literal approach, the courts were content to distance themselves from the core issues which demanded their attention."

"Colvin, among others rightly decried this lack of vision and fortitude. Not unexpectedly this decision which presented the courts of the country with the first opportunity of giving substance to the bare bones of constitutional prescriptions relating to human rights, had a wholly negative impact on the aspirations of the minority communities in the island"

Colvin’s view that Courts were not suited for working class issues.

Colvin did not see this as the result of the obtuseness of the courts. He saw the almost self imposed limitations of the courts as traceable to class and political attitudes. He never thought that the courts were the suited for working class issues.

Colvin did not see that section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution was in any way an adequate protection of minority rights. The Kodakkan Pillai case referred to by Professor Pieris and the Language Act of 1958 were ample proof of this

Hence it was that the 1972 Constitution for which he was responsible has in it the chapter on Fundamental Rights. The fundamental rights that stood guaranteed there are what we know today as human rights

Role as Minister of Plantation Industry and Constitutional Affairs

In that five- year period of 1970 -75, Colvin as a minister in the United Front. Government completed a volume of work which would have filled the lifetime of another even if that other had the same commitment as he to the goals of social justice. He had the habit of never overcoming the problem of a knot in a string by cutting it. Painstakingly he untied it and saved the string!

So it was with all his ministerial problems, even those which he had with his prime minister and the man behind the scenes, Felix. And several problems he did have in respect of the Constitution’s drafting and thereafter, the land reforms. He gave in on the smaller things but firmly insisted on the essentials. The 1972 Constitution has all the evidence of this approach.

Whatever Colvin touched he left in a superbly improved state. He had the B.C.C. enterprise nationalised not for any doctrinaire reason but, as he argued, because that organization with its tremendous storage capacity dictated the price of every coconut on every tree no matter in which corner of the land it grew.

As minister of plantations he said.-that the coconut industry cannot improve with such a giant being left at the behest of private interests. It was Colvin and of course Doric de Souza who was his secretary) who prepared the cabinet paper for the extension of the land reform to the sterling company estates. And it was he who masterminded the .reform bill itself.

Colvin had a clear vision for plantation Industry after Nationalisation

That the LSSP with Colvin had ceased to be in the government at the time of the actual take over of the estates was a great loss to the industry. It is a fact these missed the care and attention which he gave to the administration of the estates which had come into the State Plantations Corporation during his time as minister.

He had a very clear though wide ranging vision as regards the future of the tea industry. He had his mind on all aspects of tea including the competitor Lanka Tea had to meet and the problems of better marketing.

When Colvin accepted the two ministries of Plantations and Constitutional Affairs in the United Front government in 1970 he did so with the consciousness that he had a mission to be accomplished. He saw it as a carrying forth of the class struggle in to the arena of the state.

In 1964 he together with Leslie Goonewardene and Bernard Soysa opposed the entry of the LSSP into a coalition government with the SLFP because as they pointed out, without the inclusion of the Communist Party the specific weight of the left in that government would be low. It is for that reason that they, though invited to take ministerial office, declined.

Inspiring Role in 1953 Hartal and Electoral Struggles

It is in the class struggle itself that Colvin endeared himself to the masses that followed him. He was the one single person of whom it can be said that - he made the Hartal of 1953. His speeches at the funerals of those who died in that struggle were soul inspiring.

He did not stop at that. It was he who, assisted by Bala Tampoe, carried most willingly the burden of defending in the courts and freeing all those who on account of their participation in the Hartal were arrested and charged.

His leadership in parliamentary and local government elections too were equally colourful and inspiring. Veterans recall that it was his presence in the struggle that made Balapitya vote in 1974 for Ambalangoda’s Wiliam Silva in the Ambalangoda Balapitiya electorate.

But in the choice of his own electorates — first Wellawatte — Galkissa and thereafter Agalawatte, parochial loyalties was not a factor. He won these on a wholly political platform. And he lost them too on that.

"Nihathamani" and "Govindan" These Names Had Their Deep Significance in Colvin’s Life.

Colvin brought forth the best in all whom he worked with. The same love and concern which he had for his family which extended widely beyond Mummie and the children, he brought into his political party too. He chose his words and names carefully.

"Nihathamani" which was the name of his home had its own significance. When he broke jail together with N.M, Philip, Edmund Samrakkody and Jack Kotelawala and escaped to India. he kept British intelligence on the run under his assumed name "Govindan". He wrote a book too under that name showing up Stalinism for what it was.

That was the name of the worker who was shot and killed by the police in the Mooloya strike. It is also the name of the divine Krishna who lives among the cowherds of Brindhavan and brought out the best in them. Colvin knew the meaning of that name.

(Batty Weerakoon is a veteran LSSP Trade unionist,Lawyer and former Cabinet minister and Parliamentarian)