On the first death anniversary of our founder member W. Karunajeewa, Attorney-at-Law and Political Strategist, on behalf of the Alumni Association of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, I wish to write a few lines of appreciation about my late friend of 44 years. A tribute on the life and times of this unique personality will be a reflection on our Socio Political life in post-independent Sri Lanka.
He was born in the southern hamlet of Kamburugamuwa in October 1946 to a family of traders. His father, hailing from Thalpe in the Galle district married from a family in Kamburugamuwa in the Matara district whose business interests were in Kandy. Eventually, Karunajeewa moved with his family to Kandy and his father lost his personal business in Pussalawa and his family had a difficult time. They were living in Bowala during this time and he did not have the opportunity to attend a sophisticated school in Kandy and initiated his studies at Bowala Maha Vidyalaya. He was born with intelligence. He was a born leader and excelled in his studies and as an orator par excellence. He passed the GCE (O) Levels in 1962 with high grades, and entered Dharmaraja Vidyalaya in Kandy for his Advance Levels. At Dharmaraja he led the Sinhala Debating team, and at the GCE (ALs) results in 1964, Karu obtained admission to the University of Ceylon Peradeniya, in June 1965.
In his final year as a B.COM undergraduate, he was more occupied outside university attending to SLFP activities in Kandy, and Matale Districts as a speaker at pocket meetings in association with the late Hector Kobbekaduwa, Monty Gopallawa, G. B. de Silva, Anurudhdha Ratwatte and the rest of the Provincial Party leaders, including the present D. M. Prime Minister Jayarathna.
On February 2, 1969 the Peradeniya Campus was disturbed in the aftermath of the Army clash due to a decision of the Dudley Senanayaka led Government to host soldiers at the University Gymnasium while attending Independence day celebrations in Kandy. The student population was very unhappy at this decision and during the night, there was a confrontation between soldiers under the influence of liquor and the students. However as fresher’s at Jayathilaka Hall we witnessed the commanding leadership given to students by a sarong clad matured man cautioning the activities, whom we found to be the elusive Karunajeewa we have been wanting to meet. That was the beginning of our long friendship.
His oratorical skills made him a much wanted student of the 1965 batch and he sought after figure. He was also involved in Buddhist Brotherhood activities where he was able to associate with Prof. K. N. Jayathilleka, Prof. D. E. Hettiarachchi, Prof. N. A. Jayawickrema, Prof. W. S. Karunaratna and a whole lot of Buddhist scholars.
Although he had some Trotskyte inclinations, he joined the late Monty Gopallawa, Malcolm Wijithapala and others to establish an SLFP organization in the university. In 1966, As President of University Buddhist Brotherhood, he was involved with Prof. K. N .Jayathillake and other leaders of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress in addressing meetings Island-wide. Prof. Jayathilleka recognized his talents and used to give him the data and Karu was the conduit to the masses. In 1967, he organized the student population and set up a coalition of SLFP and CP students and captured student council power for the SLFP for the first time, which lasted until 1974, long after Karunajeewa left the university. He was instrumental in building the Inter University SLFP Student Front with the cooperation of Vidyalankara, Vidyodaya and the Colombo University SLFP organizations.
Karu graduated in 1969 and after the victory at the 1970 Elections he left Matale after the counting of votes of the Laggala Electorate and returned to Kandy.
Only a few people know that as a teacher he was selected as a Cadet Officer in the Sri Lanka Army and was sent for training during the 1971 March/April insurrection.
After the 1971 insurrection, Kobbekaduwa requested him to be his Public Relations Officer and he was instrumental in organizing the land take during the early days of the Land Reform Commission. Later, he joined the Land Reform Commission as Director Nuwara Eliya.
During this period, he was a close associate of the Janavegaya group and worked closely with Mrs. Sunethra Bandaranaike, Kumar Rupesinghe, Monty Gopallawa, Nanda Ellawala, Siripala Leelaratna, Karunasena Jayalath, Dharmasiri Jayakody, Ariyawansa Pathiraja, Dr. Alagiyawanna and a host of intellectuals and journalists and brought a section of the JVP youth into the mainstream in politics. In fact, it is during this period that the late Vijaya Kumarathunge met Karu with Mervyn Silva and entered politics. Also, little is known and not written about the role when the Tamil newspaper Janavegam was launched and how Karunajeewa used his Tamil contacts in the SLFP Alumni at universities and his friends to promote Sinhala-Tamil unity. The decision to establish the Jaffna University was partly a result of the association of Tamil iIntellectuals such as Prof. Kailasapathy, N. Shanmugaratnam, B. Sri Skandadas, Attorney Sri Skandarajaah, poets Nuhuman, Elankeeran and others at the launch of Tamil left wing newspaper, ‘Janavegam’.
In 1979 he entered municipal politics by being elected as a member of the Kandy Municipal Council where he used his debating skills to be a popular opposition figure. However, after the SLFP split in 1981, he decided not to contest at subsequent elections and never sought public office again.
Between1973-81, he gave his best to the SLFP, especially after the 1977 defeat.
Karu never recovered from the shock of power politics in the SLFP and decided to rebuild his life. He married in 1974 and was a father of a boy and a girl. Kusum, his wife, was never involved in politics at Peradeniya, but was a victim of the insurrections in 1971, as she was mistakenly arrested by the Police in 1971 when she was going home with other university students after the closure of the university. Subsequently she was released due to the timely intervention of then Police Officer in Charge in Kandy, the late SP Shanmugam.
Although he was not involved in politics, he helped any political associate who requested his help. He worked wholeheartedly at the 1982 Presidential Election. He played a major role in bringing Maithripala Senanayaka back into the party fold to support Hector Kobbekaduwa.
By 1988 Karu has started his legal career and with the ;ate Halim Ishak, supported Madam Bandaranaike’s campaign at the Presidential Elections, before when his health started to fail. However, he survived and worked in Colombo and other suburban courts as an Attorney-at-Law and sharpened his knowledge under eminent legal luminaries.
Still loyal to the SLFP, he worked hard at rebuilding the fractured party. He helped party candidates at all provincial council elections and was actively helping political victims as an emerging lawyer. He helped Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ‘Padayatra’ and other activities.
After the 1994 victory, though his advice was sought, he was never properly rewarded by the SLFP hierarchy except by Mahinda Rajapaksa who understood his sincerity to the party establishment.
It is to Karunajeewa that Mahinda handed over the task of winning the Galle District at the 2005 Presidential Elections where he united a disjointed and fractured SLFP and obtained a majority of more than 100,000 votes.
Of course he will be missed by his wife and two children as well as his sisters their children and other members of the extended family to whom he was the mentor, guide and fatherly figure who stood by them as a pillar throughout their good and bad times.
He was a source of strength to workers of all the three corporations he headed during his life time. He treated all workers belonging to different political parties impartially, hearing their grievances. The people who gathered at his funeral from these institutions bear testimony to as to how much they loved him as a boss.
However, until his sudden death, some state bank employees could not come to a proper understanding and I hope the greatest tribute the nation can give this humble, honest administrator on the first death anniversary is to persuade the President, in his capacity as Minister of Finance and the other relevant officials to fulfill his aspiration to solve the Pension Anomaly of state bank employees.
May he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!
C. W. Jayasekera,
Alumni Association of University of Peradeniya Colombo Chapter.