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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 32, New Delhi, July 25, 2020

Theja Gunawardana – a leading pioneer in Sri Lanka’s left movement | Kalyananda Tiranagama

Friday 24 July 2020

by Kalyananda Tiranagama

The 25th anniversary of the death of Mrs. Theja Gunawardana, a great personality and an indefatigable fighter for social justice who played an indelible role in the Left Movement in Sri Lanka falls on July 17, 2020. Most of the people belonging to the present generations may not be aware of the role Theja has played and the contributions she has made in the early stages of the Left Movement in our country and for the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist struggle in the Afro-Asian Region.

While reading the proceedings of the famous ‘Trine Case’ reported in the daily newspapers, as a student of 14 years of age living in Galle, I came to know of Theja for the first time in 1954. She had published a news item in Trine, a weekly tabloid newspaper published by her, stating that Minister of Finance Oliver Goonetilake had committed an act of corruption by receiving a commission while negotiating a loan one month prior to his appointment as the Governor General. Theja had been tried at a Trial-at-Bar before three Judges of the Supreme Court on the charges of criminally defaming Sir Oliver Goonetilake, the newly appointed Governor General and thereby creating civil commotion. It was the first Trial-at-Bar ever held in Sri Lanka and Theja was defended by the well-known British Queen’s Counsel D. N. Pritt who had conducted the defence in several politically sensational cases – cases against Jomo Kenyata of Kenya and Lee Kuan Yu of Singapore. Wide publicity was given to the proceedings of the ‘Trine Case’ in local newspapers which left an undelible mark in my memory of Theja as a heroic woman who had the courage and audacity to challenge any authority.

In his autobiography titled ‘The Defence Accuses’, D. N. Pritt who defended Theja has paid high tribute to her as a remarkable personality with a high moral character. This is what Pritt has said about Theja: “they (the Government) certainly regarded this fearless, critical and incorruptible woman as a great thorn in their flesh.

“I was, she told me, never to apologise for a syllable or comma, nor to express regret, or anything but a determination to prove up to the hilt the charges she had made; and I was not to worry for an instant about the risk she was running of imprisonment, and in particular of imprisonment for a much longer term than would be imposed if she did not ‘justify’.”

The case against Theja was a land mark in the history of the left movement of the country. It not only aroused much public interest, but ultimately turned out to be an indictment against the Government. She was acquitted of all charges and carried in a huge procession from the Court to Pettah.

Theja came from a very rich family. Her father Manage Piyadasa was a member of the Ceylon National Congress, Mahabodhi Society and the Buddhist Theosophical Society. He was a philanthropist who built four educational institutions. Her mother Elizabeth Ponweera was an educationist. Theja was well-versed in several languages. She had offered English, French, Latin, Geography and Mathematics for London Matriculation in 1935. She got her Bachelor of Arts in English Honours in 1939. She had studied Spanish to write on Cuban Revolution.

Instead of pursuing personal goals, immediately after completing her University education, Theja became an active social worker devoting her time, energy and wealth for the upliftment of rural women through Lanka Mahila Samiti. From 1939 – 1945 Theja was the Secretary of Lanka Mahila Samiti and from 1948 – 1958 she was the Chief Organizer (All-island) and Vice President of Lanka Mahila Samiti. In recognition of her service, on the recommendation of Mr. D. S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Theja had been selected by the State Department of the United States for a study tour covering rural welfare, education, cultural and sociological fields under its Exchange of Persons Programme in 1950.

Immediately after her return from the Study Tour in the USA, Theja realized that she has to play a more dynamic role in the progressive movement in Sri Lanka, if she were to make a greater contribution to the progress of the people. She made a pioneering role to promote friendship between socialist countries and the people of Sri Lanka and to educate Sri Lankan people of the vast achievements made by the people in socialist countries then.

She was the Founder President of the Ceylon–China Friendship Association in 1950. For 10 years from 1950 – 1959 as President and for another 16 years from 1959-1975 as Vice-President of the Ceylon–China Friendship Association she devoted her time and energy for promoting friendship between the people of Sri Lanka and China. From 1970 –1974 she functioned as the Vice-President of the Ceylo –North Vietnam and Ceylon-North Korea Friendship Associations and Sri Lanka – Cambodia Cultural Parishad.

Theja played a key role in the World Peace Council. From 1952–1962 she functioned as the Secretary of Ceylon Peace Council. She was elected a Bureau Member of the World Peace Council in Vienna in 1955. From 1955–1962 she led the Sri Lanka delegation to five World Conferences against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the same period she was the World Peace Council Bureau Secretary in Delhi, Stockholm, Vienna and Tokyo.

Theja was a leading figure in the Afro-Asian Solidarity Movement against colonialism and imperialism. She was a Founder Member of the Afro-Asian Solidarity Secretariat in Cairo, Egypt in 1956. She was the President of the Afro-Asian Solidarity Association of Ceylon from 1958 – 1965. She was a delegate to the Afro-Asian Women’s Conference held in Cairo in 1961. She made a valuable contribution to Afro-Asian Solidarity against colonialism and imperialism at the Afro-Asian Solidarity Conferences held in Cairo, Moshi (Tanzania) and Cyprus during the period 1958 – 64. She was the Chairperson of the Asian Economic Seminar held in Colombo and of the Second Asian Economic Seminar held in Pyongyang in 1963. She also played a key role at the Afro-Asian Writers Conference held in Peking in 1966. Theja was the live wire of the Lanka Kantha Peramuna, the Women’s Front of the Communist Party.

I met Theja for the first time in 1963 when I visited Colombo to attend the Congress of the Ceylon Communist Party representingthe Peradeniya University Party group. That was the time Sino-Soviet split was emerging. She took a principled stand in every split that occurred in the Left Movement of Sri Lanka. She always took the side of the weak, the poor, the radical and emerging groups as against the strong, the rich and the reformist and established groups. She generously supported them all. Her house was open to every radical group that was fighting for social justice, for creating a better world. I made it a point to visit her whenever I came to Colombo and seek her advice and support for our activities as young radicals.

Theja Gunawardane is linked to one of the most memorable incidents in my life. During the Youth Uprising of 1971 the Criminal Investigation Department of Sri Lanka Police arrested me on April 12, 1971 at Theja’s house at Temple Road, Maradana. At that time I was practicing as a lawyer in Ratnapura and Avissawella courts. While I was there, Theja’s house was surrounded and searched by the Police. The Police identified me. I was manacled and assaulted then and there. Theja, her daughter Shanthi and I were brought to the notorious Fourth Floor of the CID. I was badly assaulted and tortured and taken to the Welikada Prison on the following night. I spent two years and eight months at Welikada and Jaffna Prisons, detained under the Emergency Regulations as a security risk.

Theja Gunawardana was such a giant in our own circumstances, a great multifaceted personality with varied talents and skills who was destined to play a significant role and make a valuable contribution to the people’s movement in the era of anti-imperialist struggle not only in Sri Lanka, but also in the Asia-Africa Region.

Theja shined in a number of fields. Theja was - a dedicated social worker, a pioneer leader in the women’s movement in Sri Lanka, the auther of a number of publications dealing with different subjects, a historian par excellence, a talented artist who not only brought out artistic creations of high quality of her own but also generously supported other artists in their efforts to create people’s oriented productions of high quality, a journalist who edited several newspapers and journals, a person with a wide knowledge and understanding of different religious doctrines and philosophies, and a fearless researcher who never hesitated to boldly examine and subject to review any established practice or view.

There were a number of works written by her dealing with world peace, anti-imperialist struggles, socialist gains and the split in the socialist camp. Among her publications are Never Again Wills Japan (against the threats of nuclear war), Venceremos (We Shall Win – on the triumph of Cuban Revolution), Congo Survives Operation Great Devide (revealing imperialist plot against Patrice Lumumba), Whither India – China Relations, White Heat for Green Carpet (on People’s Communes in China), Khruschevism (Revisionism in action in the USSR) and China’s cultural Revolution. All these were in-depth studies on contemporary issues discussed in them.

She took much effort to bring forward traditional dancers in the country and took the initiative to set up Jathika Kala Peramuna (National Arts Front). She made an important contribution to the development of the cultural life of this country when she served as a member of the Commission for organizing the College of Fine Arts, Oriental Dancing and Music (popularly known as Heywood Institute). Kohomba Kankariya (Dance Drama of Ravana Dynasty) published in 1975 in Sinhala and English languages is the culmination of her 42 years of research in the cultural and anthropological fields. It is a great work of art.

Theja has done vast research on early history of Sri Lanka. Much of her research still remains in the form of manuscripts. Some of her studies on history have seen the light in the form of articles written to Journals and papers presented at Seminars. “Light on Sri Lanka’s Pre-history from Ceremonials” is One such paper presented at the Museum Anthropological Association in 1978. “Window on Advent of Buddhism” was the theme of the lecture she delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society in 1987. Theja never hesitated to express controversial views based on her findings in her research and studies.

She has done deep studies on comparative religion. She remained a member of Theosophical Society for a long time. She has written a large number of articles and presented papers at Inter Religion Seminars held in Bangalore, China, London, Islamabad, Lahore, Hawaii and Puerto Rico during the period 1969 - 1983. She has written extensively on Islam, Christianity and Buddhism.

Theja Gunawardana never sought power, fame or position in her career. She was a good friend of both Prime Ministers Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The only position she held in her life time was the Post of Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Pakistan and Iran from 1974 – 1977.

Theja played a historic role in the anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist struggles in the last half century. She devoted all her time, energy and wealth for the service of the people not only of Sri Lanka, but also of other countries struggling against colonialism and for economic, cultural and social independence. Great personalities like Theja are rarely born in the world.


Courtesy: The Island

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