In the mid 2000s, Dharmaraja College used to have an English Debate Competition which had a short run between 2003 and 2005. Kingswood won the inaugural event in 2003, defeating Good Shepherd Convent in the final and was featured in a defeated final in 2004. In 2005 Shashika Bandara was the leader of the Kingswood team, which went on to win the contest and retain the trophy. Early, in 2006, Kingswood entered the contest as title-defenders and as two-time winners. Qualifying for the finals, Kingswood was forced to give a walk over as Kingswood felt that they were being unfairly treated by the organizers. Following is the lead up to that unfortunate incident, where Kingswood withdrew from the finals against Girls’ High School on the day of the finals.
Dharmaraja’s short-lived annual debate competition was a venture of a body that termed itself the DCLA: Dharmaraja College Literary Association. A number of these DCLA-boys were seen during the debates in the audience and the vicinity: a contrast to the debates held at Kingswood, which are almost never graced by teachers or boys of its literary or debate associations. The 2005 finals would have been the third successive final Kingswood would have contested, having won in 2003 (under Vihanga Perera) and 2004 (under Shashika Bandara). The 2005 competition would have been an even affair, as Shashika Bandara — arguably the best debater around at that point — was not contesting in difference to the upcoming A/L, which was a month from then.
In 2005, Marlon Ariyasinghe led the Kingswood team for the first time. He had in his side Hamza Mabrook, Kushan Samararatne and Inosha Alwis, who was making his entry into the Senior Team. Both Hamza and Samararatne had 3 years of debating on their CVs. Ihshan Mansoor was named the “reserve player”. DCLA insisted on a 5 member name list of the team and the above names were given.
After 3 weeks of debating, Kingswood entered the finals which was to be held against Girls’ High School. Two days prior the finals, team leader Ariyasinghe had a family funeral: a maternal uncle had passed away and he was in a spot to make it for the finals in 48 hours. Kingswood’s first step was to contact the organizing committee at Dharmaraja and explain the unexpected pitfall on Kingswood’s side. Vihanga Perera (who was “fitness trainer” to Kingswood debating, back then) and I met both the teacher in charge of the competition and the school boy who was more or less the “master of ceremonies” at the debates and received a favourable reply. The teacher, a Mrs. Navaratne, and the boy, a Premaratne, both agreed to review our petition and a postponement of the finals was hinted at.
However, the same evening, Premaratne (the student organizer) called us and insisted that the finals cannot be postponed. He also insisted that Kingswood should go ahead with the reserve player and should not substitute anyone else who were not in the original 5 names given. When asked whether the debate can be postponed by 24 hours, which would have given marlon Ariyasinghe sufficient time to come down from the family funeral in Homagama, the student refused that offer too.
A second call — this time from Kingswood to the teacher, Mrs. Navaratne — brought the situation to a balance; as that lady agreed to the debate being pushed by a day and said that she would refer it to the student Premaratne.
Yet, a second call from the student informed us at Kingswood that he and whoever else were with him were stubborn to stick by their resolve. Kingswood was given no alternatives. We were asked to debate with our reserve or to give a walkover (in spite of this being the tournament final). By now, it was clear that the organizers’ sympathy was not in getting a good final on the cards, but in either getting Girls’ High School a win or in getting Kingswood defeated. The Ariyasinghe family funeral was being manipulated to the maximum.
Kingswood simply couldn’t go ahead with Ihshan Mansoor as reserve, as — truth be told — Mansoor’s place as a “reserve” in the team was a show of gratitude to old Mansoor for being a “back stage help” to Kingswood debating for many years. It was our ploy to get the good fella a certificate for helping us in many ways. Mansoor had debated for his house at the inter-house circuit, but we were reluctant to expose him at an inter-school final. Besides, Mansoor had by then reported for Hockey practices, a game he excelled in, and was unavailable at short notice to take up a position in the team. It is our belief that the organizers knew our situation.
Our next move was to speak to the Principal at Dharmaraja. The next day, with 24 hours to the said debate, Vihanga Perera went to meet the Dharmaraja Principal to explain the situation the Kingswood team was in. That gentleman seemed to listen, but was not too concerned about the issue. Nor did he seemed to know what competition we were petitioning about. He said he will look into the matter. After meeting the Principal, we met Premaratne again. He was aghast of the “crime” we had committed by speaking to the Principal and re-assured us that nothing could be changed at this point, since certificates had been written and guests had been invited. Our demands not being met, the Kingswood Principal’s opinion was sought. Characteristic of the man, he advised us not to participate in the finals if the organizers are not willing to be reasonable.
24 hours later, on the day of the debate, the following members of the Kingswood debate team went to Dharmaraja: Hamza, Kushan Samararatne, Inosha Alwis. Accompanying them were Vihanga Perera, Shashika Bandara (in uniform) and myself. Seeing Shashika all geared up, the organizers’ first impulse was that Shashika had come to debate. They emphasized that only the students whose names were originally submitted at the tournament entry could participate and Shashika cannot speak. Shashika Bandara is the best debater Kingswood had produced between my time and 2005. The fear of him debating and pulling Kingswood over the line of victory was seen in those cowardly words of the organizer.
An on scene negotiation with the teacher and Premaratne and co provided no fruitful result for Kingswood. Vihanga Perera made a short, dramatic speech to the gathering and explained Kingswood’s predicament, the stubborn lack of cooperation on the organizers’ part and the inevitable option it left the team: to pull out.
The good relations Kingswood’s debating shared with Dharmaraja suffered that evening. Dharmaraja debaters of previous years such as Udena Ranatunga, Randhika Dissanayake and Shehan Karunathilake have often helped Kingswood in many ways in debating matters. After getting to know her in 2004, even Mrs. Navarathne was a close friend to Kingswood debating. But, the stubborn, bullet-proof imbecility of one individual put a rash mark on the smooth flow of that relationship. Not only did DCLA cease to have their competition then after, Dharmaraja have also been dormant and passive in English debate activities since. Kingswood has continued to invited Dharmaraja for her debate activities. It is understood that the close relationship between the two schools — sustained in many ways and for well over 100 years — is bigger than the ego of Vanity, and I am told that Dharmaraja has expressed an interest to return to Randles Hill in 2014 for Kingswood’s annual debate competition. This, indeed, is wonderful news.
A few things we could have done differently — had we been mature enough at that point — can be listed as follows:
1) We could have conducted our negotiations strictly between the Principal and the teacher of Debating at Dharmaraja. We could have requested the Kingswood Principal, Mr. Chandrasekara to negotiate on our behalf with Dharmaraja’s top man.
2) The Dharmaraja boy’s claim that “certificates were written” and that the “guests had been invited” cannot be accepted as good enough reasons to coerce a team to participate without its main man. We, at this point, should have spoken to the Opposition — Girls’ High School — and explained our plight. It is probable that that team would have seen our case more reasonably.
3) As a last resort, we could have gone for the finals with 3 speakers — as a gesture of protest, really; for we were left no other avenues open. While this would have been a futile enterprise, it would have been a more heroic response than being the first team to walk out of that room.
Girls’ High School, who won that debate without a single word being spoken, thus began two years of dominance over Kandy’s debating, demagogue style. They went on to win the KM De Lanerolle Trophy in 2006 and became its runner up in 2007.
[This is an updated re-entry of what was initially carried by this blog in January 2014. Our thanks to Mr. Kasun Rambukwelle of Dharmaraja, Messers Kushan Samararatne, Vihanga Perera and Shashika Bandara of Kingswood for assisting us in the updating process].