William de Silva revolutionised Industry and fisheries

The 21st death anniversary of P. H. William de Silva, who as the Minister of Industries and Fisheries in the 1956-59 regime, brought about revolutionary changes in both industries and fisheries falls on July 30, 2009. Unassuming and unpretentious with a calm disposition, he was known as ‘William the Silent’. He passed away at the age of 80 on July 30, 1988.

Peduru Hewage William de Silva was born on December 08, 1908 at Kahatapitiya in Batapola, Ambalangoda. He had his elementary education at Batapola Mixed School and secondary education at St. John’s College, Panadura, Richmond College Galle and Ananda College, Colombo. He studied for one year at the University College, Colombo and proceeded to England for further studies.

As a student in the University College, William de Silva was involved in the Suriyamal movement. While in England he was inspired by criticism of the Stalinist regime in Russia by Leon Trotsky and leaned heavily on Trotskyite theory and doctrine. William de Silva was also elected the President of the Ceylon Students’ Union in London. In England he came into contact with Jomo Kenyatta, Krishna Mennon and Feroz Ghandi.

William de Silva passed out as a Barrister and was called to the Bar in London in 1940. When he returned to Sri Lanka in the same year, he became a leading member of the LSSP. The LSSP was proscribed during World War II and some of the leaders were imprisoned. They later broke jail and fled to India. During this time William de Silva concentrated on maintaining the underground organisation of the LSSP and used his wealth for the purpose. In 1943 he was arrested for organising a strike.

Being influenced by the Trotskyite intellectual movement William de Silva became an active member of the Doric Souza faction in the theoretical disputes in the party. When Doric defied the party leaders in India and formed the Bolshevik Lennist Party so as to convert the LSSP into a vanguard organisation with Trotskyite theory and programme William de Silva became Doric’s ardent supporter. After World War II, When Philip Gunawardena and Dr. N. M. Perera reconstituted the LSSP as against the BLPI, William de Silva remained in the BLPI.

At the 1947 Parliamentary elections, William de Silva contested the Ambalangoda-Balapitiya multi-member constituency from the BLPI led by Dr. Colvin R. de Silva and was elected as the first MP. In the 1952 general election he contested the seat from the merged LSSP and BLPI which came to be called as the NLSSP as distinct from the VLSSP led by Philip Gunawardena and retained the seat as the second member.

In 1951, a United Front of the Communist Party and the VLSSP was formed. After the shattering defeat of the Leftists in the 1952 general election, there were moves for Left unity. However the discussions for the purpose between the LSSP and the CP-VLSSP United Front failed because the LSSP was not willing to surrender the right to criticise the bureaucracy in the Communist countries.

The success of the 1953 Hartal led by the Leftists strengthened the group within the LSSP that called for Left unity. Nevertheless their resolution for the unity of progressives was defeated by a small margin at the LSSP conference held in October 1953. Thereupon a section of the LSSP led by William de Silva and T. B.Subasinghe left the LSSP. P. H. William de Silva’s departure from the LSSP surprised many.

The dissenting groups that left the LSSP included strong party men like Regie Perera, Henry Peiris, Lakshman Rajapaksa, D. F. Hettiarachchi and leading youth and trade union activities like Stanley Tillekaratne, K. P. de Silva, Lionel Cooray, V. A. Samarawickrema, L. W. Panditha, K. A. E. Britto and M. S. Bakmeeweva. They formed the LSSP United Front, but soon after, the majority of them joined the VLSSP led by Philip Gunawardena. So did William de Silva.

In the 1950s Philip Gunawardena realised that a new perspective was needed to understand our society where the overwhelming majority of the population lived in rural areas, where the social structure was textured with religious affiliations.

He acknowledged that Buddhist masses too were an oppressed group in Sri Lankan society. By 1954 from being a figure subscribing to basic Marxist tenets for the dictatorship of the proletariat, Philip Gunawardena gravitated to a position which recognised the need to go beyond the urban working class and rural labourers and ally with other social formations in rural Sri Lanka.

In the meantime, some who joined the VLSSP by breaking away from the LSSP like Stanley Tillekaratne, K. P. de Silva, V. A. Samarawickrema, L. W. Panditha and K. A. E. Britto left the VLSSP and joined the Communist Party. On the other hand Hela Havula members of the VLSSP like Santiago Fernando, Saviman Gunatilaka, W. M. Perera with patriots like Sagra Palansuriya and Prins Gunasekera directed the VLSSP towards a national outlook.

In 1956 the VLSSP led by Philip Gunawardena deviated from International Marxist polemics and allied itself with non-Marxist parties like the SLFP and the Basha Peramuna to form the MEP. The MEP pledged to implement the Buddhist Commission Report. William de Silva too endorsed the novel position of the VLSSP as its deputy leader. At the 1956 elections the MEP was returned to power and Philip Gunawardena and William de Silva were made Ministers.

The two VLSSP Ministers in the 1956-59 government forged ahead with a radical agenda. Philip Gunawardena as the Minister of Agriculture and Food introduced the Paddy Lands Act that emancipated the tenant farmer. His three years in the Ministry saw change and growth in every subject under its purview. Likewise the far-reaching changes brought about by William de Silva laid the foundation for the scientific development of Industries and Fisheries.

Philip Gunawardena and William de Silva were the force behind the nationalisation of bus transport and the Port. It is now generally acknowledged that Philip Gunawardena’s group was responsible for most of the progressive measures instituted by the 1956-59 MEP regime.

The zenith of the career of William de Silva was his performance as the Minister of Industries and Fisheries in the 1956-59 MEP government. It was William de Silva who for the first time generated a concerted policy to develop industries in our country. His Corporations Act of 1957 gave a fillip to government industries. It was William de Silva was set up the Steel, Tyre, Mineral Sands, Flour Milling and Paper Corporations. He opened up the Sugar Factory at Kantalai, a second Cement Factory at Puttlam, a Steel Factory at Oruwala and Ceramic Factory at Meetiyagoda. He boosted the hand-loom industry. His various incentives encouraged private industry.

The revolution in the fishing industry was the greatest contribution of William de Silva. It was during his period as the Minister of Fisheries that the mechanisation of the fishing industry was begun. As a result fish landings doubled in 1964 and trebled in 1969. The Cold Room he established at Mutuwal was the first step taken to preserve fish for planned marketing. It was during his tenure that inland fisheries were expanded by breeding Thilapiya and Gourami fish.

William de Silva left the government with Philip Gunawardena long with twelve other MPs in May 1959, when they found that they could no longer pursue their progressive policies. William de Silva was very enthusiastic in forming the short-lived ULF. When the ULF broke down in 1964 and Philip Gunawardena later came to terms with the UNP, he left the MEP.

At the 1965 general election William de Silva contested the Devinuwara seat from the SLFP and won. But he was unseated by an election petition. During 1970-77 Coalition government William de Silva served as our Ambassador in Canada and later as the Chairman of the Press Council.

William de Silva, the gentleman politician devoted all his life, energy and wealth for the upliftment of the masses. A veteran in the Left movement in Sri Lanka, William de Silva began his political career as a die-hard Trotskyite. However he was open to change and later in life he drifted towards the centre-left. He has made a lasting contribution to the development of the country. The services of P. H. William de Silva should be appreciated by the present and future generations.

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