On September 23, 2009 fell the 40th death anniversary of Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, known as the Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka
. Dr. Kannangara passed away on September 23, 1969, 25 years after presenting his significant and far reaching piece of legislation, the Free Education Scheme. He was also one of those patriots who led the national movement in the first half of the 20th century and prepared the ground for independence for our country.
Christopher William Wijekoon Kannangara was born on October 13, 1884 at Randombe in Ambalangoda. He had his early education at Weslyan High School at Ambalangoda. He was a child of 12 years when his father lost his job. This was a big blow to his family of six children who had to struggle hard for their daily sustenance. But Kannangara was courageous from the beginning. He wrested the Foundation scholarship and entered Richmond College, Galle.
Richmond at that time was meant for the rich and poor boy Kannangara had to undergo many difficulties and suffer embarrassment. Perhaps experiences in his young days might have induced Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara to fight so gallantly for free education in his later years for the benefit of the poor children.
Although poor in wealth, young Kannangara was rich in talent. He was often the first in class and excelled in sports in the field. He carried away the largest number of prizes at prize-givings. In 1903 he passed the Cambridge Senior examination, placed in the first division obtaining the highest marks for arithmetic among the students of the whole British Commonwealth.
After leaving the school he taught for some time at the Prince of Wales College at Moratuwa and then at Wesley College, Colombo. Sir Olver Goonatilleke a former Governor General in Sri Lanka was a pupil of his at Wesley. While teaching at Colombo he attended the Law College and passed out as a Lawyer in 1910.
He commenced his practice at Galle and soon earned a reputation as a clever lawyer. He defended those innocent people who were arrested during the unfortunate riots in 1915 without any remuneration.
Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara entered the national arena as an active member of the Temperance movement initiated by patriots like F. R. Senanayake, Sir Baron Jayatilleka, Arthur V. Dias and Piyadasa Sirisena. In the 1930`s when P. de S. Kularatne, G. P. Malalasekera and others introduced the national dress he followed them and appeared in the national costume. Since then he never donned the Western costume.
Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara was a founder member of the Ceylon
National Congress formed with the aim of obtaining independence for Sri Lanka. In 1924 he was elected to the Legislative Council to represent the Galle District. IN 1930 Dr. Kannangara became the President of the Ceylon National Congress. In 1931 he was elected to the State Council as the member for Galle. In 1936 elections he was re-elected to the State Council - this time as the member for Matugama.
Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara was the Minister of Education in the State Council from 1931 to 1947. During his term of office there was a remarkable progress in the sphere of education. Free mid-day meal for school children, improvement in Pirivena education, establishment of the University of Peradeniya and the introduction of Central schools were some of the scheme implemented during his term of office in addition to the Free Education Scheme. Free education was undoubtedly the greatest contribution of Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara.
Higher education at that time which was in English was the exclusive preserve of the rich. University education was beyond the reach of even those with an average income. The poor had to be satisfied at most with secondary education. It was in this situation that on the initiative taken by A. Ratnayake the member for Dumbara in the State Council, the special committee on education headed by Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, the Minister recommended free education.
Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara introduced the Education Bill that contained the Free Education scheme on May 30, 1944 with one of the longest speeches in the legislature. When he concluded his speech on the adjourned day on June 02, 1944 he sat down under a thunderous applause. M. S. Aney the India
n government representative who had listened to the whole speech from the distinguished visitors` gallery immediately rushed from the downstairs, took Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara by both hands and said to him `You would have been worshipped as a God, had you been in India.`
Nevertheless Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara had to face severe opposition for the Free Education scheme from the vested interests spearheaded by the then Catholic Church. They did everything possible to sabotage free education and they were backed by the national press as well. Dr. Kannangara anticipated such opposition and was ready to meet them.
Some of the critics of free education, specially the Catholic Church suggested that instead scholarships should be endowed to poor children selected by a competitive examination. This would have been mere patch work to maintain the status quo. The rich with money influence and better English would have easily out rivalled the poor in various fields. Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara and other sponsors of free education were too clever to be trapped in that manner.
Some others queried why free education should be extended to the affluent Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara who had to undergo many difficulties and undergo harassment as a poor student explained that he did not want to have class distinction in education and create second class students. There were also some who lamented that there would be no youths to pluck the yield in their estates. That was the very type of inequality that free education aimed to eliminate.
Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara and his supporters carried out a vigorous and sensational campaign all over the country. More formidable the opposition to free education more determined he was. In this endeavour Dr. Kannangara was backed by the progressive Maha sangha centred round Vidyalankara Pirivena. Dr. C. W. W Kannangara held meeting all over the country, answered all the arguments levelled against free education and dispelled its critics.
They vociferously explained the benefits of free education to the masses and generated a strong public opinion in its favour. Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara then won over the majority of members in the that august assembly and saw the Free Education Scheme passed in the State Council.
The Free Education Scheme called the `Pearl of Great Price` brought about a social revolution in Sri Lanka. It opened wide the doors of higher education to the poor. Education was made free form kindergarten to the University. Along with free education more and more Central schools were opened all over country with a greater concentration on rural areas. Scholarships form the 5th standard upto the University providing free and board and lodging besides free education were endowed to poor talented children selected by a competitive examination.
Thus the way prepared for those poor but clever children to earlier had only a bleak future to reap the benefits of higher education. The parents of those offsprings who could not afford higher eduction to heir clever children shed tears of joy when the Free Education Scheme was implemented.
Today as a result of free education, there are University Dons, administratis officers, doctors, engineers, accountants, architects, lawyers
and Judges who hail from among the poor and humble citizens of the country.
To the surprise of many Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara lost his seat at the parliamentary elections in 1947, held two years after he introduced free education. Yet he took the defeat like a gentlemen and never grumbled about it. However progressive measures he planned like taking over of assisted schools were all shelved after his defeat.
In 1952 general election Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara was returned to Parliament as the member for Agalawatta but the vested interests saw to it that he was not made the Minister of Education. We could see that the powers that tried to sabotage free education are at it again. Now they set up International schools that come up like mushrooms and branches of private schools that charge lakhs on admissions in the name of donations. They are a threat to the free education.
Whatever the faults of education system like the necessity for tuition, preferential treatment to prestigious schools, political interference, corruption and challenges posed by private schools and international schools we could see the free education scheme still yielding results for the benefit of the poor.
Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara was born poor and he died poor. In his long political career he never used his position to amass any wealth. In his last years he had to be assisted by a special grant from the state. He is a great, colourful and illustrious statesman worthy of emulation by present and future generations.
Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara who was 60 years old when he introduced the Free Education Scheme lived long till the age of 85 and was able to see the fruits
of his remarkable endeavour and take pride in his achievement.
He is enshrined with gratitude in the hearts of thousands of us who have benefited by free eduction. As long as free education lasts in our country Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara would be venerated by the people in Sri Lanka.
(The writer is a former High Court Judge and Vice-President of the Newman Society Alumni Association)