First ever UK TRIBUTE to the Late Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka by past students of Sri Lanka’s Central Colleges living in the UK
Published: 26 Oct 2013
First ever TRIBUTE to Late Dr.C.W.W.Kannangara – Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka, paid in the United Kingdom by the past students of the Central Colleges living in the U.K.
On 19th October 2013 the first ever UK commemoration ceremony of Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara was held at The London Buddhist Vihara, with a dana for the Maha Sangha followed by an anusasana given by Ven. Konwewe Ariyaratana. The Venerable briefly described the great service rendered to the nation when Dr. Kannangara radically reformed the state education system of World War II era Ceylon, bringing hope and opportunity to the many thousands of poorer children from underdeveloped parts of the country. His hard work and dedication to this noble cause enabled youngsters from remote rural villages to rise up and flourish in all fields of human endeavour, side by side with the privileged elite who had received their own schooling from the older, more exclusive colleges.
Following the dana, past students from the Central Colleges - together with well wishers and supportive ex-pupils from other schools - were invited to participate in a discussion convened by Mr. R.A. Wimalasekera and Major V.B. Karunaratne.
Mr. Wimalasekera welcomed the gathering and thanked them for their participation in this tribute, which all agreed was the solemn duty of those who had benefited from the free education system first brought in by Dr. Kannangara in 1945. Fees charged for English education were discontinued, and the establishing of Central Colleges became a new gateway of opportunity for promising students from remote rural areas, who were now able to access high quality education as their birthright, irrespective of means or social status. As well as establishing the first ever University of Ceylon in 1942 (predecessor of the University of Peradeniya) and upgrading the ancient Buddhist pirivena establishments, Dr. Kannangara also introduced the free midday meal provision for schoolchildren, demonstrating both the depth and breadth of his revolutionary educational reforms.
Presenting a brief summary of Dr. Kannangara’s life, Mr. Wimalasekera then went on to outline exactly how a young village boy ended up becoming known as The Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka. To understand the immensity of this achievement it is worth tracing Christopher William Wijekoon Kannangara’s origins back to his rather humble background: born in the tiny village of Randombe, Balapitiya in 1884, he understood all too well the problems poor families faced when trying to secure a good education for their children. His own father was the Deputy Fiscal Officer in the Balapitiya Courts and by no means well off: the family of eight made do with thin straw mats to sleep on bare floors with, and usually ate just one meal a day – an all too common reality for the rural poor.
The young Kannangara however, refused to let poverty define his sense of aspiration, and was a diligent and hardworking scholar from a very early age. Indeed it had been his academic excellence at primary level which had first drawn the attention of Rev. J.H. Darrel, the Principal of the prestigious Richmond College in Galle, who happened to be chief guest at the prize-giving ceremony of Kannangara’s Wesleyan Missionary School. Noticing that it was the same boy who kept coming up to claim most of the prizes for excellence, Darrel is said to have remarked “Son, you may have to hire a bullock cart to take home the books you collected at this prize giving”. Darrel was so impressed by the little boy’s achievements that he gave him the opportunity to sit for the Richmond College Foundation Scholarship exam. Kannangara was able to win a full scholarship for board and lodgings at Richmond – an event which was to profoundly alter the course of his life.
Excelling in Mathematics as a Richmond student (he led the Ceylon and British Empire list in Mathematics at the Cambridge Senior Examination of 1903), Kannangara soon went on to work as a Mathematics teacher in his alma mater, before teaching first at Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa, then Wesley College, Colombo. It was during this time that the young teacher decided to study law, and in 1910 he was able to pass out as an Attorney at Law, setting up his first law practice in Galle soon afterwards.
Marrying Edith de Alwis Edirisinha in 1922, the newly qualified lawyer Kannangara soon rose to national prominence by defending those who were part of the Sri Lanka independence movement; this gave him a taste for politics, and it was not long before he won a Galle District by-election and entered the Legislative Council of Ceylon in 1923. By 1931 he had become both the President of the Ceylon National Congress and the first Minister of Education of Sri Lanka. Kannangara was also a member of the War Council during World War II, and became the first ever minister to wear the National Costume in the State Council.
In his detailed report on the state of Ceylon’s education system (published in 1943) Kannangara recommended a pioneering new vision: all children should have access to free education from Kindergarten through to University. Despite fierce opposition from the privileged elite of the day – which saw him speak for six and a half hours to convince fellow members of the State Council to vote in favour of it - this vision finally became a reality on 1st October 1945. Amidst scenes of jubilation as the bill was passed, Indian Government Representative Madhav Shrihari Aney (who had been watching Kannangara’s impassioned address from the distinguished visitors’ gallery) warmly congratulated him on his incredible achievement, remarking that had he been in India he would undoubtedly have been worshipped as a god. Indeed, by way of acknowledging his outstanding services rendered to education, Kannangara was duly awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Ceylon in 1946.
A key part of Dr. Kannangara’s educational strategy had been to establish a network of central schools (‘Madhya Maha Vidyala’) outside major cities which were modelled on Royal College, Colombo. Although in 1941 there had been only 3 such establishments, by 1950 these had grown in number to 50, bringing with them new hope for generation upon generation of young underprivileged children: at last, they too could make their dreams come true.
Speaking at Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara’s commemoration ceremony at the London Buddhist Vihara on 19th October 2013, Mr. Wimalasekera concluded his contribution to the meeting by observing that all students in Sri Lanka are indebted to this great statesman, and that other such ceremonies in tribute to him should be organised in future by the grateful sons and daughters of Free Education.
Major. V.B. Karunaratne then spoke about the existing Sri Lanka Central Colleges Past Pupils’ Association and their ongoing programme of activities in Sri Lanka to keep raising the standard of Central Colleges in line with that of Royal College, Colombo, as originally envisioned by Dr. Kannangara – who is today recognised as a world famous educationalist. He proposed that this gathering be regarded as the inaugural meeting of a UK Branch of the Parent organisation in Sri Lanka.
Professor Wakula Gunapala - himself a native of Galle - then addressed the gathering at the London Buddhist Vihara, painting a moving picture of Dr. Kannangara’s early childhood, throughout which his consistent hard work enabled him to gain a full scholarship to study at Richmond College, Galle. Professor Gunapala also described the young Kannangara’s involvement with Anagarika Dharmapala’s temperance movement as well as his time serving as the President of the Ceylon National Congress. Recollecting how as an eight year old boy he had seen Dr. Kannangara open the first ever central college in Matugama, the Professor reflected upon what a momentous achievement this had been for the country, despite bitter opposition from the affluent and priviledged few who had enjoyed so many unfair advantages under British rule.
Mr. Lalith Amerasinghe commented on the fact that the founding of an organisation that could build on Dr. Kannangara’s legacy had been longed for by many British Sri Lankans; but for one reason or another, this had never come to fruition until today. He added that it was never too late to pay tribute to this great man who laid the foundation for Free Education across the country.
Captain P. Botenne too welcomed this organisation, expressing his hope that it enjoys rapid growth in membership, quickly becoming a steady source of additional support for the central colleges of Sri Lanka; whilst also functioning as a social, cultural and expressive platform for UK based past pupils of these very colleges.
The following Office Bearers were elected for the current year Oct 2013 – Sep 2014:
PRESIDENT: Mr. R.A. Wimalasekera - Ruwanwella
VICE PRESIDENT: Major V.B. Karunaratne - Welimada
VICE PRESIDENT: Mrs. Swarna Weerasinghe - Potuhera
SECRETARY: Mr. Lalith Amerasinghe - Deniyaya
ASSISTANT SECRETARY: Mr. H. Hettiarachchi - Telijjawila
TREASURER: Captain P. Botenne - Tholangamuwa
AUDITOR: Mr. Mervyn Ratnayake - Ibbagamuwa
Dr. Usuf Ibrahim - Ibbagamuwa
Mrs S. Botenne - Kuliyapitiya
Mr. Chandra Gajasinghe - Telijjawila
Mr. E. Weerasinghe - Tholangamuwa
Mr. Chinthaka Wickramasinghe - Badulla
Mr. Tissa Keteepearachchi - Poramadulla
Mr. Dharmasena Navaratne - Anuradhapura
Mrs. Dinesha Siriwardena - Ruwanwella
Mr. Anura Siriwardena - Walala