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As the working people of Sri Lanka prepare to celebrate another May Day to defend our hard-won freedom, it behoves us to go back 74 years, to May Day 1937 which was a crucial one in the struggle of Sri Lanka for independence from the British Empire.
On May 1, 1937, thousands of workers paraded through the streets of Colombo demanding the deportation of Governor Sir Reginald Stubbs and the sacking of Inspector General of Police Banks. The prestige of the colonial regime was in tatters and the Empire looked vulnerable in this country for the first time since 1815.
A May Day rally in the past
Although it is fashionable in certain circles to be nostalgic for ‘The Good old Days’ when Sri Lanka was a colony, the country was in fact in the grip of an evil empire based on racism. Sri Lanka had one of the poorest indigenous populations in the world, with mortality indices lower than those of India.
Here, as in other colonies the indigenous inhabitants were treated like second-class citizens in their own land.As late as 1942, the British Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Layton, was able with impunity to call Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke, the Commissioner of Civil Defence a ‘black bastard’.
Second World War
Before the Second World War, the British Raj was considered impregnable and independence for this island seemed like a dream. It was in this situation that, in 1936 Mark Anthony Lyster Bracegirdle, a 24-year old Anglo-Australian came to Sri Lanka to become a ‘creeper’ on Relugas tea estate in Madulkelle.
The planters were almost all white in those days and formed a privileged minority in the estate areas, living in bungalows with many servants and with their own ‘whites only’ clubs. It was in this atmosphere that Bracegirdle began taking an active part in the independence movement. He was soon sacked, but remained in the island as an agitator.
On April 3, 1937, a meeting was held in Nawalapitiya, addressed by Mrs Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya of the Indian Congress Socialist Party, who was touring the island. Bracegirdle rose to address the gathering and was greeted with loud applause and shouts of ‘Samy, Samy’. The effect of a white man speaking out against the White Raj was electric - it spelled ruin for the imperialist system on the island.
The planters got Stubbs to deport Bracegirdle.
On April 22, Bracegirdle was given 48 hours to leave Sri Lanka. He went into hiding and the Colonial authorities were unable to find him - which did nothing for its prestige. The vaunted Police force created by the notorious IGP Dowbiggin scoured the countryside, but was unable to apprehend Bracegirdle. Robert Gunawardena, later to become MP for Kotte, was responsible for hiding Bracegirdle, taking him from Colombo to Lunugala and thence to a cave behind Relugas estate.
A week later Robert picked Bracegirdle up from Relugas and took him back to a house near the Grandpass Police Station. A few days later, on getting a tip-off, Robert moved Bracegirdle again, to a plantation bungalow in Koratota, Kaduwela (now a boutique hotel).
Here, Bracegirdle gave an interview to a reporter for the Daily News, who had been driven there blindfolded. On May Day, placards were carried which said ‘We want Bracegirdle - Deport Stubbs’, ‘Banks Out’ and ‘Withdraw the slave proclamation’ (the deportation order).
On May 5 a motion was debated in the State Council to censure Governor Stubbs for having made the deportation order. A resolution was passed which demanded the removal of Stubbs and the withdrawal of the deportation order on Bracegirdle.
The motion was passed by 34 votes to 7. Later that day a rally took place on Galle Face in support of Bracegirdle, which was attended by 50,000 people. Among the speakers were SWRD Bandaranaike and DM Rajapaksa, the uncle of our current President. Robert Gunawardena went to Koratota and drove Bracegirdle to Galle Face. The latter bounded out of the car, ran to the platform and proceeded to make a speech. The Police were powerless to arrest him amidst the massive crowd.
By this time a writ of Habeas Corpus had been prepared. The case was called before a bench of three Supreme Court judges and on May 18 the court ruled that Bracegirdle could not be deported for exercising his right to free speech. Bracegirdle later returned to Britain of his own accord.
However the effects of his actions were to last long after he had gone. The seeming invincibility of the colonial regime was shown up. Furthermore, as Philip Gunawardena, one of the masterminds behind the State Council motion said, all the nation’s political forces were united on this issue against the colonial authorities.
The Bracegirdle issue had set the ball rolling in the process that was to culminate in the complete independence of Sri Lanka. In 1943, the Ceylon National Congress called for complete independence and in 1945 the State Council passed the Free Lanka Bill.
In 1948 the British granted us Dominion status. In 1957 all the British military bases were removed and in 1972 Parliament passed a Constitution that broke all the previous servile ties to Britain. Bracegirdle, who made such a large contribution to the initiation of this process, died in England on June 22, 1999. Sadly, he never did return to this island.
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