Colvin Reginald de Silva, a multi-dimensional character was born 110 years ago in Ambalangoda on February 16. He had his preliminary education at St John’s College, Panadura, from where he entered Royal College, Colombo. Island’s number one criminal lawyer in 1940 and 50s, he vehemently opposed the Capital Punishment. He who defended murder suspects knew he could earn a higher fee only if the practice of hanging continued, but our humanist had other ideas.

“…of all things that state may take away from a man there is one thing that which if you take away you cannot only not return, but can never compensate him for and that is his life…the idea is punishment instead of creating an opportunity for healing…it is an old and outmoded utterly unreasonable approach. Let us move away from the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. --Colvin R de Silva, speaking on the ‘Suspension of Death Penalty Bill’ 60 years ago -- [Hansard-1956: col. 548/564]

One language, two nations; Two languages, one Nation

Then again, participating in Official Language (Sinhala only) Bill debate in Parliament in 1956, he stated, “… Do we want an independent Ceylon or two bleeding halves of Ceylon which can be gobbled up by every ravaging imperialist monster that may happen to range the Indian Ocean? These are issues that in fact we have been discussing under the form and appearance of the language issue… One language, two nations; Two languages, one Nation…”

Colvin the anti-racist

Addressing the Parliament during the debate on Citizenship Bill 1948, introduced by D S Senanayake government that deprived the voting rights of Indian Estate labour, Dr Colvin said, “Racialism is a handy weapon of reaction. But I would remind this government, even though the reminder may prove historically useless, that there are weapons which reaction has handled in the past and which have been ultimately destructive of the reaction itself… we by opposing this, will also have taken the first step towards that ultimate consummation, namely, the ending both of this government and of the system which it represents and defends” -- -Hansard-August 3, 1948-col. 1711

An Anglo-Australian Marxist revolutionary, Mark Anthony Bracegirdle sailed to Ceylon in 1936, where he learned the trade of tea-planting. Bracegirdle was working among the Tamil plantation labourers who were treated inhumanely; living in ‘line rooms’ which were worse than cattle sheds. Europeans dismissed him for taking the side of labour. On November 28, 1936, at a meeting in Colombo, the president of the LSSP, Dr Colvin R. de Silva, introduced him, saying: ‘This is the first time a white comrade has ever attended a party meeting. Comrades, you know we have a white comrade who wishes to address you.” Bracegirdle rose and claimed unrivalled knowledge of the misdeeds of the planters and promised shocking exposures.

The ‘white’ planters prevailed upon the Governor, Sir Stubbs to deport him. Bracegirdle went into hiding while the LSSP started a movement to defend him. On May 5 same year in the State Council, N M Perera and Philip Gunawardena proposed a vote of censure on the Governor for having planned the deportation of Bracegirdle without the recommendation of the acting Home Minister. The vote was passed by 33 votes to 7.

A writ of Habeas Corpus case was called before a Bench of Supreme Court judges. County’s leading civil lawyer then, H.V. Pereira, appeared with young Colvin for Bracegirdle; On May 18 order was made that he might not be deported for applying his right to free speech, and Bracegirdle was freed.

Stripped off of portfolio by Sirima

Colvin was the Minister of Plantations and Constitutional Affairs in United Front coalition led by SLFP from 1970 to 75. He was removed, along with his colleagues Dr NM and Leslie Goonewardene in 1975 by the Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike under the instigation of right-wing led by Felix Dias and Maithreepala Senanayake.

In his usual fluent persuasive style Colvin said, “…‘Destabilisation’, is an ominous word introduced into the world’s political vocabulary by that most sinister instruments of international subversion the so called CIA, of …USA… there is reason to believe that USA also is involved… behind major political changes. There are major social forces in action, colliding, re-grouping and realigning …our little island has become the focus of activity of international forces…the expulsion of US from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia turned their eyes on Sri Lanka, which is well placed in relation to the air and sea routes of the Indian Ocean area…”

…his address to the house on their expulsion;: -Hansard-Sep 1975

Colvin’s witticism

Colvin, who won comfortably the Wellawatte—Galkissa seat in seat in 1947, was canvassing in Dehiwala during 1952 Parliamentary election. It was in the immediate aftermath of Sathasivam wife murder case where he led the defense and won. One of the constituents, a lady resident down Auburn Side shut the door blaring, “If people like you exist, no wife will be safe in this country”. The witty man rejoined, “Madam that’s a judgment on your husbands.” He returned to his home base in Agalawatte and won it in 1965 and 1970, but lost along with all leftists in 1977: Colvin competed on principles as a revolutionary and he worked tirelessly for the benefit of masses until his demise on February 27, 1989.

Sun never sets on the British Empire

During WW II, he was jailed by the colonial government along with his colleagues, but they escaped from prison and became exiled in India, where, Colvin joined Indian Bolsheviks and continued to write Articles under the pseudonyms ‘Lily Roy’ and ‘Govindan’.

When Colvin was reading at the London University for his Doctorate thesis, ‘Ceylon under the British Occupation’, he was in late-twenties and wasn’t a Marxist. Once he was responding to the famous British saying: ‘The Sun never sets on the British Empire’, and said: ‘…for God does not trust them in the dark!’ Colvin became world famous defending Sathasivam the cavalier batsman and Captain of the Ceylonese Cricket team in the late 1940s and early 50s, in wife murder case— visiting Sir Sydney Smith in Edinburg in connection with the case and during the brief, the Forensic expert asked Colvin to demonstrate how to dress a lady in saree. Colvin confessed that he had no idea, the witty man continued, “Sir Sydney, but we know how to undress them.” 

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