Dr. N. M. Perera: a politician ahead of his times

Nanayakkarapathirage Martin Perera,or the late Dr. N. M. Perera, an intellectual, a renowned economist, a Trotskyite, a trade union leader who steadfastly fought to advance the interests of the working class, a freedom fighter in South Asia, a cricketer, statesman, political legend, an icon of Ananda College, a mayor, a Member of Parliament and a minister, breathed his last on August 14, 1979, exactly 30 years ago today.

As a politician in post-independence Sri Lanka, he proved to be an able administrator - as a mayor of Colombo and as Minister of Finance of Sri Lanka. As the Minister of Finance, he viewed the battle against underdevelopment in his own country as part of the wider battles of the Third World to complete political liberation by economic development so that their peoples could enjoy the benefits of freedom through satisfaction of their material and non-material needs.

Above all, he was a statesman and a politician who stood by his principles and did not change them to gain political mileage. He set himself against narrow chauvinism and spoke for the rights of all - majorities and minorities.

He was born on June 05, 1905 at No: 36, St. Joseph’s Street, Grandpass, Colombo, to the family of Abraham Perera and Johana Perera of Grandpass. However, his father was from Hendela.

He was the fifth in a family of nine. Two of the nine, the fourth a boy and the eighth, a girl, died in infancy. Of the seven that survived, five were boys and two were girls. The sixth and ninth were girls.

He would have been 104 years old today, if he had been alive. One of the most charismatic politicians of his generation, N. M. Perera was the first Leader of the Opposition in Sri Lanka, the leader of the Lanka Samasamaja Party and twice Finance Minister. A BSc, DA DSc and PhD (London) of the London School of Economics, he was a pupil of the legendary Prof. Harold J. Laski who said that he had all the qualities needed of a Chancellor of the English Exchequer. From the Ranks of Tuscany came even bigger praise. Sir Ivor Jennings, Vice Chancellor of the Ceylon University said that he had all the qualities required of a Labour Prime Minister in Britain. He was both an economist and a political scientist and his analysis of the present constitution during his last years remains unrivalled for its sharp insights. A clear, concise and cogent debater, he was the consummate politician.

As a small boy he first studied the Sinhala language in the vernacular section of the St. Joseph’s School. After one year he was shifted to the English section which was in the adjoining building.

The high priest of Vidyalankara Pirivena, Rev. Dharmarama Thera, taught him the Sinhala alphabet. On the first day his mother Johana Perera made him to offer the customary ‘Bulath Hurulla’ and pay his obeisance to the high priest. This boy was given tuition in the English language by an old fashioned school master, Mr. Gunawardena.

He was then admitted to the branch school of St. Thomas’ College which was known as Cathedral Boys’ School, Mutwal. In 1919 he was admitted to St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. In 1922 he proceeded to Ananda College to further his studies.

Leaving this Buddhist institution he entered the University College, Colombo, which was then preparing students for London University degrees and after his BSc he left for the United Kingdom to join the London School of Economics, where, as a pupil of the legendary Professor Laski, he excelled in his academic work, acquiring a PhD and a DCs. Dr. N. M. Perera at the time was the only person to hold the degree of Doctor of Science. He was awarded the PhD degree for his thesis on the constitution of the German Weimar Republic.

However, he proceeded with his research and produced a thesis on the comparative study of the constitutions of the UK, USA, France and Germany, comparing aspects of parliamentary procedure for which he was awarded a DSc by the University of London. A part of this thesis is published by the Dr. N. M. Perera Centre titled, ‘Parliamentary Democracy’, with an introduction by Batty Weerakoon.

He came back to the island in 1933. In December 1935 the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) was constituted. From that day onward it had always been a force to reckon with in the politics of the country. Philip Gunawardena, Leslie Gunawardena, Robert Gunawardena, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, were among others who inaugurated the party.

He entered the second State Council on February 22, 1936 representing the Ruwanwella seat. From that day onwards he represented Ruwanwella and Yatiyantota seats in turn without a break, until he lost in 1977, when the United National Party led by J. R. Jayewardena won the general election with a five sixths majority in Parliament, without leaving a single seat to the LSSP.

When the Second World War commenced, the Board of Ministers in Sri Lanka decided to extend its support to the British. Dr. N. M. Perera as the leader of the LSSP condemned the war as an imperial struggle and opposed it for imposing burdens on the people by supporting the war. He even organized strikes in the plantation sector. The planters requested the government to take stern action against the LSSP leaders. As a result the colonial government took immediate action and arrested Dr. N. M. Perera and some others on June 18, 1940. However they broke the Bogambara Prison and fled to India. After some time they were arrested in India and brought to the island. Dr. N. M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena were sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment for breaking jail.

Dr. N. M. Perera was the first Leader of the Opposition in independent Sri Lanka. He was also the Leader of the Opposition in 1956 when the UNP suffered its first defeat and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister of the new Mahajana Eksath Peramuna government.

By 1964, the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike, after having tried three Finance Ministers, proposed a United Front government with the LSSP, and the LSSP decided at a conference in June 1964 to accept Dr. N. M. Perera’s resolution to join a coalition government with the SLFP. Dr. N. M. Perera was the Finance Minister of that government. Again in 1970, with the coming to power of the United Front government of the SLFP, LSSP and Communist Party, he became the Finance Minister.

This period, between 1970 to 1975, when Dr. N. M. Perera was the Finance Minister, saw radical changes in the economy and the country and Dr. N. M. Perera and the other LSSP ministers were removed from the Cabinet in 1975. The state sector had increased to over 60% of the economy with the completion of the nationalization of plantations.

But for the international oil crisis, which for the first time sent prices of petrol and petroleum products to phenomenal levels, the economic situation would have been much brighter and there would not have been the massive victory for J. R. Jayawardena at the 1977 election, from the consequences of which the country is still to recover.

Dr. Perera was a great leader and a statesman whose value was not realized by the people of Sri Lanka, especially the so called Tamil political leaders. He, on October 19, 1955, moved a motion in Parliament to the effect that Sinhalese and Tamil should be state languages of this country. In his speech he said; "We must try to allay their suspicious, make them realise that we have nothing but goodwill for them and that we want to treat them as equals.

"Otherwise the alternative will be disastrous for the welfare of this country; we shall have a perpetual division of the country, we shall never get a united Sri Lanka and we shall have a tremendous amount of bloodshed which will lead us nowhere and, in the end, this country will either become another colony or a play thing of the interested big powers. That is what we must try and avoid. Surely, all honourable Members in this House are interested in having this country as one united nation, all unitedily working for the welfare of the people of this country. We may have our differences on economic grounds and on other political grounds, surely on questions of religion, race and language we must have one united policy that will harmonize the various diverse factors and bring them together as one nation’.

The suffering of the Tamils till May 18 this year is due to the lack of foresightedness on the part of the so called Tamil leaders. When the Citizenship Act in 1948 was presented in Parliament, the LSSP headed by Dr. N. M. Perera, Communist Party headed by Dr. S. A. Wickeremasinghe, vehemently opposed it; in fact the leftist groups voted against the Bill. On the official language issue, Dr. N. M. Perera under the banner of the LSSP took a firm stand and advocated parity of status for both the Sinhala and Tamil languages.

I also must state here how a bomb was thrown at Dr. N. M. Perera while he was addressing a public meeting at the Old Town Hall defending his official language policy. Comrade Reginald Mendis, who lost one of his limbs in trying to save Dr. N. M. Perera, narrowly escaped death. To my knowledge, this was the first political assassination ever attempted in this island. Those Tamil communal political parties never appreciated his bold activities. It is disgraceful.

Dr. N. M. Perera did everything in the best interests of the country. As he foretold, the constitution is in crisis and the ethnic problem raised its ugly head. His name reverberates within the walls of Parliament, whenever a debate arises over trade unions. Indeed, he was a man ahead of his times. All that he prophesied have come true today.

The name of Dr. N. M. Perera is immortal.

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