Roots in Indian family of freedom fighters
The expression “the empire on which the sun never sets” was first used to describe the lands controlled by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and not the British Empire as is commonly believed. Actually, the phrase was first made by Fray Francisco de Ugalde, Spanish, to King Charles 1. The phrase was later used when Britain acquired other territories. In 1852, Alexander Campbell used the phrase to express the dominion of Britain and America.
The British Empire was composed of the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates, and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It began with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23 per cent of the world population at the time, and by 1920 it covered 35,500,000 km2, 24 per cent of the Earth’s total land area. At the peak of its power, it was described as “the empire on which the sun never sets”.
One of the few strengths Great Britain had during World War II was its empire – a globe-spanning holding so vast that it was truthfully, and often, said “the sun never sets on the British Empire”. The empire’s most valuable possession, its “Jewel in the Crown,” was India.
The decolonisation of Asia was the gradual growth of independence movements in Asia, leading ultimately to the retreat of foreign powers and the creation of a number of nation-states in the region. Among the countries, coming out of the yoke of imperialism in the aftermath of the Second World War were India (1947), Burma (now Mynamar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka,1948) and Indonesia (1948). The sun had started setting on the Empire with the emergence of free India followed by the neighbouring countries.
The newly won freedom by the countries in the South East Asia had their own ups and downs in the post-independence era. In the region, Sri Lanka recently went through a very rough patch due to failure of the system in place to meet the needs of the common man. The ray of hope was recently seen when Dinesh Gunawardena was sworn in as the Prime Minister of the strife-torn country.
The ousted government of the Sri Lanka walked into the Chinese debt-trap with India watching helplessly from the sides. However, the Ranil Wickremesinghe and Gunawardena govt. has taken a more positive stance to their nearest neighbour. In fact, the startling fact coming to light is that Gunawardena’s parents played a prominent part in the India’s Freedom Movement.
Seventy-two-year-old Dinesh Gunawardena is Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister. The leader of the House in Parliament took oath as PM on Friday. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dinesh Gunawardena are classmates.
A resolute of Sri Lankan politics, Gunawardena is known for his plain speaking. Not with standing that he is a close confidante of ex-prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. As the joint opposition leader, he kept the regime of Maithripala Sirisena and Wickremesinghe on tenter hooks between 2015 and 2019. But destiny plays its part differently at different times. The once arch-foes are now the President and the Prime Minister of the country.
Strangely, though educated in the United States and the Netherlands, Dinesh Gunawardena’s father Philip Gunawardena is regarded as the father of socialism in Sri Lanka. Like father, son Dinesh too has been in the forefront of the trade union activity in the island nation.
In fact, Philip Gunawardena’s love for India and his efforts towards freedom against imperialist occupation germinated in the early 1920s while in the USA. He was a classmate of the ardent socialist Jayaprakash Narayan and intellectual VK Krishna Menon at the University of Wisconsin. During his days at Wisconsin, he advocated for freedom from imperialism in the American political circles. However, the high-water mark of his pro-India political posture was when he led the Anti-Imperialist League of India in London.
After entering India, the senior Gunawardenas went underground and joined the Indian freedom fighters and evaded arrest for some time. In 1943, senior Gunawardena couple were arrested by British intelligence agency and detained at the Arthur Road jail in Bombay for interrogation about their activities during their stay in India. It was after a year they were deported to (then) Ceylon. Even they were harassed in their own country and released only after the end of the war.
It is a matter of immense pride for Dinesh, Philip, Robert and Kusuma that they took part in India’s freedom struggle and went to jail in Bombay. Their association with India started almost a hundred years ago to free South Asia from the British Raj. India’s independence in 1947 was the beginning of an era that lit the light of freedom in the Indian sub-continent.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India visited their family home in Sri Lanka after independence to personally express gratitude for their unstinting support during India’s freedom movement and their sacrifice to the cause of neighbouring countries independence.
After Sri Lanka attained freedom from the United Kingdom in 1948, both Philip and Kusuma became members of Parliament. Philip with his socialist background was a founding leader and cabinet minister of the People’s Revolution government in 1956. All his four siblings have also held high political posts – the Mayor of Colombo, cabinet ministers and MPs.
Dinesh Gunawardena, who has a clean image just like his parents, has been a prominent cabinet minister for than two decades who advocated for better relationship with India. More than often, he said, “Culturally, socially, historically and even in the mythological aspect, India has been Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour for thousands of years and it is important to maintain the excellent relationship. There is a lot more to do in the coming days, say some of his close associates.”