Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara – Father of Free Education: Patriot worthy of emulation
Posted on September 23rd, 2011

W T A Leslie Fernando Courtesy Daily News

On September 23, every year we commemorate Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, the Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka. He was also one of the galaxy of patriots who led the national movement of first half of the 20th Century and laid the foundation for the Independence we enjoy today.

Dr. Christopher William Wijeykone Kannangara was born in Randombe, Ambalangoda on October 13, 1884. He had his early education at Wesleyan 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 his 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 Kannangara had to undergo many difficulties and suffer embarrassment. Perhaps the experiences in his young days might have induced Kannangara to fight so gallantly for Free Education in later years for the benefit of poor children.

Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara

Temperance Movement

Although poor in wealth young Kannangara was rich in talent. He excelled in studies and 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 higher marks for mathematics among the students in British colonies.

After leaving school, he taught for some time at Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa and at Wesley College, Colombo. While teaching at Colombo, he attended Law College and in 1910 passed out as a lawyer. He commenced his practice at Galle and earned the reputation as a clever lawyer. He defended those innocent people who were arrested in the riots in 1914 without any remuneration.

Dr. Kannangara entered the national arena as an active member of the Temperance Movement initiated by patriots like FR Senanayake, Sir Baron Jayatillaka, D.S. Sennanayake, Arthur V. Dias and Piyadasa Sirisena. In the 1930’s he began to wear the national costume introduced by P. de S. Kularatna, G.P. Malalasekera, C. Sundrealingam and others. Since then he never donned the Western costume.

He was a founder member of the Ceylon National Congress, the main plank of which was to obtain independence for Sri Lanka. In 1924, he was elected to the Legislature to represent Galle. In 1930 Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara was selected the President of the National Congress. In 1931, he was elected to the State Council as the member for Galle. In 1936, he was re-elected to the State Council this time as member for Matugama.

Free education scheme

Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara was the Education Minister in the State Council from 1931 to 1947. During this time there was a remarkable progress in the sphere of education. The free mid-day meal for schoolchildren, establishment of the Peradeniya University and institution of Central Schools were all his achievement but his greatest contribution was the Free Education Scheme.

Higher education at that time which was in English, was the exclusive preserve of the rich. University education was beyond the reach of even of those with an average income. The poor had to be satisfied with secondary education at most. It was in this situation on the initiative taken by A. Ratnayake, the member for Dumbara in the State Special Committee on Education recommended free education.

When Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara introduced the Bill that contained free education he had to face severe Opposition from parties with vested interests. When Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara introduced the Bill of Education that contained the Free Education Scheme in that august assembly in the State Council, he made one of the longest speeches in the legislature. He concluded his speech on the adjourned day on June 2, 1944 and sat down under thunderous applause from State Council members.

Indian government representative M. S. Aney who had listened to the entire speech from the distinguished visitors gallery rushed downstairs, took Dr. Kannangara by both hands and said, “You would have been worshipped as a God, had you been in India.”

Those with vested interests did everything possible to sabotage free education. Some critics of free education suggested that instead of free education scholarships should be introduced to poor children selected by competitive examination. Dr. Kannangara and other sponsors of free education were too clever to be trapped in that manner.

Vigorous campaign

Some others asked why free education should be extended to the rich. Dr. Kannangara who had to undergo difficulties and embarrassment replied that he did want to create class distinction in education. Some lamented that there would be no youth left to pluck the yield in their estates. That was the very type of inequality free education aimed to eliminate.

Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara and his supporters carried a vigorous and sensational campaign all over the country. He held meetings and answered all the accusations levelled against free education and dispelled its critics. He and his supporters explained the benefits of free education and created a strong public opinion in its favour. Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara then won over majority of members in the State Council and saw the Free Education Bill passed in the State Council.

The Free Education Scheme called “ƒ”¹…”The Pearl of Great Price’ opened the doors of higher education to the poor. Education was made free from kindergarten to the University. Along with free education more and more Central Schools were established all over the country with a greater concentration in rural areas. Scholarships from the fifth standard providing free board and lodging, besides free education were endowed to poor talented children selected by a competitive examination.

Thus the way was prepared for those poor but clever children who earlier had only a bleak future to reap the benefits of free education. The parents of children who could not afford higher education of their offsprings because of their poverty shed tears of joy. Today as a result of free education there are University dons, administrative officers, doctors, engineers, accountants, architects, judges and lawyers who hail from among the poor and humble citizens of this country.

To the surprise of many, Dr. Kannangara lost his Matugama seat at the Parliamentary elections held in 1947 two years after he introduced free education, yet he took the defeat like a gentleman and never grumbled about it. The progressive steps he took in education like vocational training were all shelved after his defeat.

In 1952, Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara was elected to Parliament as the member for Agalawatta. But those with vested interests saw to it that he was not made the Minister of Education. He served as the Minister of Local Government from 1952 to 1956. In the 1956 Parliamentary elections Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara did not seek re-election and retired from politics.

Corruption and challenges

Whatever the faults of the educational system like the necessity for tuition, preferential treatment to prestigious schools, political interference, corruption and challenges posed by the international schools and private schools, we could still see the Free Education Scheme yielding benefits to the poor.

Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara was 60 years old when he presented the Free Education Bill. He died at the age of 85 and passed away on September 23, 1969, exactly 25 years after presenting his far-reaching piece of legislation. He was able to see the fruits of his remarkable endeavour and take pride in his achievement.

Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara was born poor and 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. Yet in another sense, he died rich-rich in his service to the people.

Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, the Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka is a great statesman and patriot worthy of emulation by generations. He is enshrined with gratitude in the hearts of thousands of us who have benefitted by free education. As long as free education exists in our country, Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara would be venerated by the people of Sri Lanka.

The writer is a former High Court Judge and a Vice President of the Newman Society Alumni Association

2 Responses to “Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara – Father of Free Education: Patriot worthy of emulation”

  1. sena Says:

    He was a leader with good intentions and selfless service. However his expectations of making education free I think have not materialized. I am sure he expected those who benefit from his endeavor to pay back to the public and country in terms of establishing a knowledge based economy. But sadly it has not materialized even after more than sixty years he made education free. Those who benefited instead continue to depend (shamelessly) on the productivity of poor rural people for their sustenance and pay check. There are hardly any national technical capabilities nor there is any contribution to economy that can be attributed to these educated people. Instead after free education helped them to escape poverty they migrated to cities and acted like they were born there, playing the system to their advantage, employed in various professional capacities with little productivity and exploiting the poor and rural masses without contributing anything to the economy.

  2. Fran Diaz Says:

    Dr Kannangara has long been a great hero of mine.
    What saddens and even angers me sometimes is the lack of gratitude for free education & health care in Sri Lanka. It is taken for granted ! Some say, it is in the Constitution so the the public have a right to expect such free items. I pointed out that when any GoSL gets 2/3rds majority, they can remove these items, so do not take it for granted. It is a gift, and a feeling of gratitude would be a good thing, together with reciprocation.

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