Cholomondoley at 85: Survivor of the glorious Red Brigade

by Malinda Seneviratne
I love meeting old leftists. Not necessarily the shining lights, but the rank and file and the middle level leadership. The Old Left were a breed of leaders, they were students of society and social change, hard working and above all, were men and women of integrity. For the most part. Today the price of political loyalty has depreciated to such a level that it is hard to know when green will change to blue and vice versa and, more disturbingly for me at least, when red turn pink and then blue or green. Today, integrity is a rare commodity. In this climate, it is always heartening to discover that things such as commitment to create a more equitable society and a sense of integrity are not yet extinct in our society.

Cholomondeley Goonewardene is a name which an earlier generation would be familiar with. It is also a name which the present generation would do well to learn, for the man was and still is in many ways, a colossus. And not just in Kalutara where his is a household name even today.

Goonewardene is one of the two survivors of the first parliament of independent Ceylon, the other being Premalal Kumarasiri. Last week Cholomondoley Goonewardene celebrated his eighty fifth birthday. Visiting him on that day I discovered that for all the marks that time has carved on his face, his mind was as alert as it must have been when he walked with the extraordinary thousands who are dispossessed, exploited and humiliated. His story, like any life story, I expected to be full of event, personality and profound reflection. Then again, he was a larger-than-life person, as politicians often are. But yesterday’s politician is not today’s. Evolution, it would seem, has worked backwards in that peculiar species called the Sri Lankan politician. The current specimens seem to have forgotten how their fathers and mothers looked like. A little reminding cannot harm, I believe.

Born on the 16th of September 1917, Cholomondoleywas the seventh in a family of seven boys and two girls. He was the son of Muhandiram Arnold Goonewardene, who hailed from Panadura. His mother was from Kalutara and it is in Kalutara that young Cholomondoleyhad his early education. After a few years at Holy Cross, he moved to St. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia where he excelled as a student, winning the Arndt Memorial Prize for English Literature.

"At that time there was an incipient anti-imperialist movement. I did teach at St. John’s, Kalutara for a while, but soon decided to join the LSSP. The reason was simple; it was anti-imperialist and also it was for the poor man."

It is perhaps not surprising that the young man took to politics, for his father was a member of the Kalutara Urban Council, had been its vice chairman for five years and even served as acting chairman for a year. This does not necessarily explain why he turned left, so to speak. I asked him.

"I could see that there was a lot of poverty in the country. It was all around my neighbourhood, in fact. I moved around with the common masses. You know, it was a time when the poor man wore the sarong. Well-to-do people didn’t like me moving around with such people. They said that I was disgracing my parents.

"My parents, however, didn’t seem to mind. My father never questioned my judgement in the things I did. In fact, a conference of the Suriya Mal Movement was held at my father’s place with the late Roy de Mel in the chair. Leaders of the LSSP like NM, Colvin, Philip, Leslie, and Robert all came for this conference."

He had formed a branch of the LSSP in Kalutara in 1937. Three years later, he contested the Kalutara Urban Council and won. "I was a member of the Urban Council for 30 years, even when I entered parliament. At that time this was allowed." He served two terms as Chairman of the Urban Council, from 1954 to 1956 and from 1963 to 1964.

In the 1947 parliamentary election, he defeated the "invincible" Upali Batuwantudawe by over 2000 votes. The Batuwantudawe family, apparently, had dominated Kalutara politics for almost two decades. CholomondoleyGoonewardene retained his seat in all elections until 1977, except in 1952 when he lost by 332 votes to P.A. Cooray of the UNP.

Recalling the ‘47 election, Cholomondoleysaid, "Colvin asked me if I can get 10,000 votes. I said I can. And did. My Sinhala was not good. The people of Kalutara knew this, but didn’t care. W. Daha was my chief speaker. I won on August 26th, and immediately left for Galle to help Daha in his campaign. On the way the brakes failed and the car crashed into the back of an RAF truck. We left the vehicle behind in Hikkaduwa, with a supporter of William Silva and proceeded to Galle in the RAF truck.

Daha’s campaign slogan was simple: "mama salli gahak holavanava....ahulagannilla" (I am going to shake a money tree...all you have to do is pick up). His chief rival, H.W. Amarasuriya, the UNP nominee had set up a campaign office every 100 yards. We toured the interior. Daha organised some meetings for me. I was introduced as CholomondoleyGoonewardene, MP!" The result is of course history. Dahanayake won.

He won back his seat in 1956, defeating Batuwantudawe (SLFP) and Cooray. "The ‘no-contest’ pact between Banda and the LSSP was not adhered to in Kalutara and Dehiwala-Galkissa," he explained. CholomondoleyGoonewardene was made Minister of Public Works in the coalition government of 1964-65. He was finally ousted from the Kalutara seat in 1977, when JR’s UNP scored a landslide win. "I lost badly to V.L. Wijemanne; he defeated me after failing on three previous occasions. Later, he joined Vijaya Kumaratunga’s Sri Lanka Mahajana Party and was elected to the Western Provincial Council in 1988. At the 2nd Party Congress he was elected as the Deputy President.

Election violence is, contrary to popular myth, not a recent phenomenon. Cholomondoleyhimself experienced this way back in 1948 during the Baddegama by-election. The LSSP had decided to support the Communist Party candidate. "On election day, July 29th, I was going in my car, transporting estate workers to the polling booths. The car was of course sporting a red flag with a star. Suddenly a crowd of fellows wearing green stopped us, removed the flag and assaulted me."

At this point, Cholomondoleyshowed me a scar on his forehead, a lasting souvenir from the assault. "I complained to the police. The man was charged for causing simple hurt and intimidation. The case was heard in the Balapitiya courts. My lawyer said, ‘my client would be satisfied with an apology’. Judge Keyt responded, ‘your client may be satisfied, but I will not be. He has to plead guilty and come round and apologise’."

For CholomondoleyGoonewardene, clearly a man without the ego typical of the present day politician, such things did not warrant too much thought. As a matter of course, he had reported the incident to the police and the law took it from there (at that time, one had recourse to the legal process, one observes). "They were drunk, obviously. They were not to blame," he said generously. The UNP candidate, Henry Amarasuriya had won the election, by the way.

Up to this point, I was the one asking questions. Out of the blue, Cholomondoleysaid: "The peace process....what do you think about it?" I answered: "It is a ‘process’ certainly, whether it is appropriate to attach the label ‘peace’ to it is something else; I am not convinced that any peace as such would come out of it." "I disagree with you," says Cholomondoleyand continues, "let’s talk about the ‘53 hartal".

"I organised the hartal in Kalutara. I led a procession around the town. People closed shops. I didn’t threaten them." I could not help recalling those other "hartals" in the late eighties, when "deshapremis" coerced people to close shop. "That night," Cholomondoleycontinued, "Dudley declared emergency. Nine people had been killed. I was expecting to be arrested. Two days later I was the victim of a midnight arrest.

"Aleric Abeygoonewardena, ASP Kalutara, walked in and said, ‘Chomondeley, I have an unpleasant duty to perform. There’s a charge against you of unlawful assembly, criminal intimidation and rioting. I have to take you into custody.’ I said, ‘it is perfectly alright; do your duty.’ I was given a little time to dress up. When I came out I found that a host of cops had surrounded my house. The government was that scared! They were scared of the hartal because it had deep support among the people." Once again I had reasons to reflect on the other hartals and the support they "enjoyed" among the people.

"I was remanded in Welikada. Colvin appeared for me with Eardley Perera, Sam P.C. Fernando, M.M. Kumarakulasingham and a galaxy of lawyers. They didn’t charge a cent, not even travelling expenses. I was acquitted in the non-summary proceedings, but was committed by the Attorney General, along with Leslie D. Perera and others. District Judge Quentin Perera discharged us without calling for a defence during the criminal sessions of the Kalutara District Court."

Cholomondoleyinsisted on talking about the split between the LSSP and the Bolshevik Leninist Party. "The main reason was the differences between NM and Philip. In the State Council, they were known as the Marxist Twins. NM was a real parliamentary debater. He studied the order papers thoroughly. He always did his homework. When he was Mayor of Colombo, he knew even the cost of a nail, he was so thorough. I supported NM throughout.

"Philip was a man for the big occasion. In the first parliament there was a debate on the Kelani Valley floods. Philip spoke for about 10-15 minutes. It was a fine, beautiful speech. He kept the entire cabinet on attention, including DS. When he finished, Reggie Perera wanted to speak. Sir Francis Molamure, the Speaker said, ‘Surely the honourable member does not want to spoil the effect of the last speech?" But Reggie Perera was given time."

I asked Cholomondoleyabout his family. "I am married to Udawattage Cecilin de Silva. She too is from Kalutara. I have two children by her, a son and a daughter."

We had already talked for more than an hour. I asked Cholomondoleyif he wanted to say anything else. "Well, about the peace process....but you don’t want to write about it?" "The man is political to the very end," I thought to myself. I laughed, "this is your story, not mine. Go ahead, I will write whatever you have to say about it."

He smiled. "I think this is good. We can’t continue this way. We can’t afford it. I am hopeful that everything will work out fine."

Kalutara has not forgotten CholomondoleyGoonewardene. He has received numerous tokens of appreciation from the people with whom he walked for more than half a century and whom he represented in the Urban Council and in Parliament for several decades. One line dominates all citations: "Politics did not soil CholomondoleyGoonewardene’s name and character; he is pure of heart, he has untiring hands." When one’s community describes a man thus, all that is left for a chronicler to do is to remain silent. No one, I am sure, will grudge a salute. So I say, "thank you comrade".