By Laksiri Fernando –
It was during this period 79 years ago in 1937, the ‘Bracegirdle Incident’ flared up giving considerable impetus to the young Left movement in Sri Lanka, also creating potential for the nationalist movement to call for independence from the British rule. It was on 22 April 1937 that Bracegirdle was served with a deportation order which was defied with the backing of the leftist leaders in the country. What follows here is a translation of what I wrote in 1973, about the incident, in Sinhala, in Jathika Viyaparaya, Viyawastha Vardhanaya Saha Vamansika Viyaparaye Upatha (Nationalist Movement, Constitutional Development and Origins of the Left Movement). No changes are made to the text except few corrections of names. The subheadings are however new with more paragraph breaks.
Mark Anthony Lyster Bracegirdle was an Englishman who arrived in Ceylon in early 1936 from Australia. He came to Ceylon to be trained as a planter in the tea industry. Later, the Australian police reported that he had been an active member of the communist youth movement when he was a student in Sydney.
Bracegirdle undertook ‘creeping’ [apprenticeship in tea-planting] at Relugas estate in Madulkelle under the Superintendent, H. D. Thomas. Soon he was not only surprised but resented the way the European planters treated the estate workers. The treatment was so horrible and horrendous. Conflicts arose between Bracegirdle and the Superintendent Thomas, as the former became a ‘friend’ of the workers. Thus the intention of Thomas soon was to send Bracegirdle back to Australia.
However, Bracegirdle was of a different intention. Guided by his feelings for socialism, he came to be in touch with the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP). Neither the planters nor the police tolerated the situation, as one of their fellowmen had apparently become a tool of the communists. Almost from the beginning Thomas had informed the Inspector General of Police about Bracegirdle. If not by persuasion, their intention was to send him back by force. All happened in a quick pace.
Bracegirdle obtained the membership of the LSSP in December 1936 and by March 1937 he was even co-opted to the Central Committee of the party. He operated within the party by the name of ‘Tony Price.’ He became a useful propagandist for the party and acted as a teacher on Marxism for the new party recruits. He conducted public lectures and Marxist classes. He took a prominent part in the party’s poster campaign against the IGP Herbert Dowbigin and the police had even filed a case against him for ‘pasting a poster at an unauthorised place’ in January 1937.[i]
During 1937, all activities of the LSSP were monitored by the CID (Criminal Investigation Department). All public meetings were reported by the police agents to the higher authorities. The speech made by Bracegirdle at the meeting hosting Mrs Kamaladevi in April 1937 was reported as a ‘speech provoking the workers against the planters.’ The higher authorities decided this to be a good enough reason to deport Bracegirdle.
During this time, in addition to participating in the LSSP activities, Bracegirdle was working as a full-timer in the Ceylon Labour Union of Natesa Aiyer, organizing the estate workers. This was not easily tolerated by the planters or the police. That is why they were looking for an opportunity to deport him.
Deportation Order and the Constitutional Crisis
Photo- Bracegirdle beside Colvin R. de Silva and others at Horana in 1937
This Order created quite a political heat within the country. When the issue was raised in the State Council, it created a constitutional crisis.[ii] The proposal to deport Bracegirdle was submitted by the Department of Police. Under the Donoughmore Constitution, the police department came under the Executive Committee on Home Affairs and its Minister. The Minister was D. B. Jayatilaka.
On a matter pertaining to the police department, the Governor should have acted through the Minister of Home Affairs and on the advice of the Executive Committee on the subject. However, it became revealed in the State Council that the Minister had not issued such an advice to the Governor. On that instance, the Chief Secretary came forward that it was on his advice that the Governor issued the deportation order and deportation is a matter comes under his purview as it is a ‘foreign affair.’ However, the justification was overwhelmingly rejected at the State Council debate.
It was the opinion of the State Council that the Governor has violated the Constitution and the 1896 Order in Council which led to this situation should be withdrawn or annulled. It was this Bracegirdle incident that created the first major conflict between the Council of Ministers and the Governor under the Donoughmore system.
It was because of Bracegirdle’s decision to defy the deportation order, on the advice of the LSSP, that the Bracegirdle incident created quite a political turmoil in the country.[iii] The LSSP successfully managed to conceal Bracegirdle from the CID’s eyes. This helped the party to promote its image as a militant and a strong organization. The resolve became praised by several national liberation organizations in other countries.
Bracegirdle at age 84 – picture from “The Bracegirdle Affaire” by Wesley Muthaih and Sydney Wanasinghe
A public rally was organized to protest against the Governor’s deportation order at Galle Face on 5 May 1937. At this meeting organised by the leftists, not only the state councillors like D. M. Rajapaksa, Natesa Iyer or Bernard Aluwihare, but also the likes of Susantha de Fonseka and Siripala Samarakkody, who were considered right-wing councillors, spoke. It was estimated that around fifty thousand people participated at this meeting. A special event of this meeting was the sudden appearance of the ‘deported’ Bracegirdle.
Two days after this meeting, Bracegirdle was arrested by the police at the LSSP office. It was something expected by the party. Immediately after the arrest, the LSSP General Secretary, Vernon Gunasekera, appealed to the Supreme Court to issue a Habeas Corpus. Accordingly, the police was ordered to produce Bracegirdle before the Supreme Court.
The question of arrest and deportation order were heard before the Chief Justice Sydney Abrahams. It was his determination that the Order in Council of 1896 could not be utilized for a deportation order without an emergency situation infringing a person’s freedom of speech. So Bracegirdle became a free man.
The campaign against the deportation order was launched even in England. It was Dr S. A. Wickramasinghe who took the lead in this campaign. The British Cabinet which discussed the Bracegirdle incident later decided to withdraw the 1896 Order in Council and recall the Governor Stubs.
Although the ‘political’ and the ‘legal issue’ seemed to have resolved after the Supreme Court verdict, the constitutional issue was not resolved. D. S. Senanayake conveniently took the leadership of the constitutional struggle. Did the Governor follow the correct constitutional procedure in making the deportation order? Were the reasons behind the order reasonable? Those questions continued to be controversial.
There was a Royal Commission appointed under the chairmanship of the same Sydney Abrahams to further investigate the matter. It was the opinion of the leftists that the Commission was an attempt to cover up the damage to the colonial authorities caused by the ‘coup to deport’ Bracegirdle. They opposed both the Commission and its Report. In the State Council, Philip Gunawardena proposed that the Commission Report should be rejected when it was out in 1938.
However the Senanayake leadership did not want to allow the leftists to use the Bracegirdle incident in their favour any longer. Therefore, Philip’s motion in the State Council was defeated. Nevertheless, the Bracegirdle incident marked the emergence of the left movement as the militant vanguard of the nationalist movement in the country. The most conscious leader of the nationalist movement of this challenge was none other than D. S. Senanayake. The reason for Senanayake to take the leadership of the constitutional struggle against the deportation order was not to allow the left movement to monopolize the issue. Nevertheless, with the Bracegirdle incident the left movement had taken some significant strides in the political sphere.
End Notes (as in the original)
[i] “Bracegirdle Commission Report,” Ceylon Sessional Papers, XVIII (1938), p. viii.
[ii] See K. H. Jayasinghe, “Some Comments on the Bracegirdle Incident,” Ceylon Studies Seminar Series, 1972. Main sources for the incident are recorded in this paper.
[iii] For LSSP’s role in the Bracegirdle incident, see Nimal Rohana, “Bracegirdle – A Story in Lanka’s Freedom Struggle (in Sinhala), 1967.