Tissa Wijeyeratne: A Remarkable Personality

It is with much sadness and a deep sense of gratitude that I write this appreciation on Tissa Wijeyeratne, whom I knew from my childhood and whose association, apart from the intellectual radicalism which he imbibed in me, was a constant source of intellectual inspiration. It was Tissa, with his rebellious and ideological-oriented politics, who injected in me an insatiable desire for both ideology and politics, and this association, which remained for more than five decades, taught me many a lesson and helped me to chart my own career in both academic and politics. Tissa Wijeyeratne inherited political tradition that is unique to Wijeyeratnes at Kegalle; Sir Edwin, who was jailed during the 1915 riots was considered a radical of the period because he became at one stage the live wire of the Young Lanka League- then a political organization with a radical orientation. Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne contested Kegalle at the first Donoughmore period general election in 1931, and it was from this base that the family wanted to build its political fortunes in the district. Both Sir Edwin and Lady Leela Wijeyeratne, undoubtedly, expected their eldest son, Tissa, to emulate his father in the arena of national politics. Tissa, who displayed his radicalism as a student at Royal College and thereafter at the University of Ceylon, proved too radical to remain in a conservative political mould. He showed no camaraderie with the politicians of the right and became a committed Marxist during his student days in London where he met a galaxy of progressive nationalists and communists from different parts of Asia and Africa. While studying law at Lincoln Inn, he became involved in politics; he in fact was instrumental in organizing the Ceylon Student Union in London which, then and subsequently, was able to obtain many a concession for Sri Lankan students then in London. Displaying student activism of the radical breed, Tissa came in contact with the British Communist party, through which he entered the international student movement which was then dominated by WFDY (World Federation of Democratic Youth). Decades later, it was Tissa who led the first Ceylon delegation to the World festival of Youth held in Moscow in 1957. As a student activist of the British Communist party, he came in contact with the British Communist party leaders who included such great stalwarts as Harry Pollitt and Palme Dutt. He was well acquainted with key figures of the Communist party of India; S. A. Dange, A. K. Gopalan and E. M. S. Namboodripad were some of the leading Indian Marxists whom Tissa knew on a personal level. Mohan Kumara Mangalam who later became a member of the Indian cabinet was well known to Tissa. However, his Marxist leanings did not prevent him from cultivating friendship with such persons as Jeremy Thorpe who later became the leader of the British Liberal party.

With such a vast political experience in radical politics for more than a decade in England, Tissa came to Sri Lanka in the early fifties to make a career in politics in the Communist party of Sri Lanka. In the initial phase itself he showed an abiding interest in the emancipation of the common man and this was in line with his avowed belief in Marxism. It was Tissa who activated the Kegalle branch of the Communist party and remained its key figure for more than a decade. He surprised the people of Kegalle by espousing the cause of communism because it represented a total break away from the politics to which his family was embedded, and Tissa enthused the people to overthrow the politics of the decadent aristocracy. He seized the opportunity well and truly in 1956 and became the chief campaigner for Kalugalle and other candidates of the MEP in the Kegalle district. It was Tissa who spearheaded the campaign for Kalugalle against Winston Wickramesinghe of the UNP.

Tissa, as a Marxist, believed in the Stalinist creed of Marxism and the Stalin-Trotsky ideological controversy which split the Sri Lankan Marxist movement into a number of splinter groups. This was his intellectual forte and he visited the Peradeniya campus in the late fifties and sixties to denunciate and debunk Trotsky before the student community, half of which believed in the defunct ideology of Trotsky. The title of his lecture was "Hallucinations of Trotsky" and the intellectual vigor with which he delivered ideological attacks on Trotskyism enthralled the university students who flocked in hundreds to listen to his flights of super oratory. Tissa was one of the best speakers of his generation and his sharp tongue and the remarkable wit it released made him an outstanding speaker. Tissa shunned intellectual mediocrity and saw politics as an intellectual pursuit, which in my view, was the reason for his failure to achieve much success in this field. His whole approach to politics was that of an intellectual, and such an approach is untenable in Sri Lankan politics that is predominantly dominated by nonintellectual pedestrian, parish-pump politicians.

In order to enter the legal profession, Tissa had to wage a relentless struggle against the judicial establishment of the country to get the Courts of the country to allow a lawyer to wear the national dress-cloth and banian which is the Arya Sinhala dress. It was he with his ever-present rebellious attitude, who opened the doors of the Courts to lawyers who wanted to wear the national dress. Tissa was a great innovator; he found solace in doing something novel. I remember him campaigning in the general election of March 1960 on a scooter and he spoke to people with a megaphone. He even came to Kegalle Courts on a scooter and such diversions and exploits were typical of Tissa who revealed in deviating from accepted norms. A contemporary of his in school once told me that Tissa, while at Royal, maintained a diary which he occasionally read before the students which typically resulted in laughter for its humorous content. He had a remarkable sense of humor, and an equally remarkable desire for knowledge; he was a knowledge man par excellence. He was also a great conversationalist who had a remarkable ability to carry on a conversation for hours and still retain the rapt attention of all. His insatiable desire for knowledge and intellectual discourse kept him in close touch with the university community at Peradeniya. His decision to donate a large number of books on contemporary politics and issues from his massive personal collection of books to the main library at the University of Peradeniya amply demonstrated his commitment to the advancement of knowledge among the university intellectuals.

The ideological changes in the international Communist movement in the sixties, especially after the denunciation of Stalin and the subsequent Sino-Soviet dispute, began to have an impact on Tissa’s ideological positions. He left the Communist party of Sri Lanka after the 1955 general elections and entered the folds of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. With the formation of the United Front government in 1970 under the astute leadership of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Tissa got an opening to enter the world of diplomacy as the ambassador in France. He had an interesting international politics and always recognized the potential of small nations as important players in the international arena, and the post-1956 foreign policy changes, in his view, had no impact on the outlook and ethos of the foreign office bureaucracy in Sri Lanka. With the appointment of Tissa as Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Defense and Foreign Affairs (in charge of Foreign Affairs), he got an opportunity to revamp the foreign office with a view to achieving the objectives of a new State bent on playing a significant role in Foreign Affairs. He dubbed the whole process of reforms in the foreign office bureaucracy as a scheme of nativisation which, because of its progressive nationalist tinge, the Foreign Office mandarins who wanted to remain in by ... their ivory towers. What Tissa wanted was a very responsive foreign office bureaucracy that was capable of representing and interpreting the aspirations of the people.

In his later life, Tissa took to entrepreneurial activity and established the Sinhaputra Finance Company with the sole purpose of providing opportunities for the small entrepreneurs among the Sinhalese people. It was the professionalism that he injected into this organization that resulted in its success. Once Again, it proved that Tissa was always innovative in his thinking and I believe this is a unique trait in the Wijeyeratne family. Tissa, Nissanka and Cuda-all three brothers have been men of competence displaying innovative tendencies.

With such a unique sense of idealism and commitment to equality and change, Tissa was indeed a remarkable personality. Even in the last stages of his life, Tissa never lost his idealism and remained mentally active though he was physically debilitated. Yet many failed to understand and comprehend his personality. He was a person with a large heart and was ever ready to help those who sought assistance from trim He saw his own illness, from which he suffered and old age as a burden on those who cared for him. It is good to be gone, he once told me. He is nowgone. A remarkable personality is gone but those who knew him will always remember Tissa as an immortal human being. May he attain nibbana.

Prof. W. A. Wiswa Warnapala