Nissanka Wijeratne: Passing the Flame
by C. A. Chandraprema

The first time I saw Nissanka Wijeratne was as a 13 year old schoolboy at the annual prize giving ceremony at St Anthony's College Kandy. The UNP government had then just come into power, and Nissanka Wijeratne was the Minister of Education. One of the first acts he did as Minister of Education was to facilitate the hand over of St Anthony's College to the government. It was not a take over of a Catholic school as was done by the Sirima Bandaranaike government in 1960. It was a wholly voluntary hand over. Until 1977, St Anthony's College Kandy, where I studied up to the O/Ls, was a private school. In 1977, following a strike by the senior students of the College against the hated Princial Fr Aiden de Silva, the board of management decided to hand over St Anthony's College to the government with the proviso that the Principal of the school would be appointed by the Catholic Church. This arrangement continues to date.

The government that came into power in 1977, seemed to be made up of giants. They were all larger than life characters. At one point I was asking myself, whether these people seemed larger than life to me because I was only 13 years old when the UNP government of 1977 came into power. But whenever I compare notes with older people, they too feel that the government of 1977 was made up of giants. Other than J. R. Jayewardene himself, there was R. Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. On the second tier there were people like Gamini Jayasuriya, M. H. Mohamed, Bakeer Makar, G. V. P. Punchinilame and caste heroes like Cyril Matthew and R. P. Wijesiri. It was not due to a skewed perspective arising from my juvenile view point that these people appeared larger than life. Even S.B.Dissanakake who was a candidate of the Communist Party at the 1977 Parliamentary election, said at a recent interview I had with him that J. R. Jayewardene had 'giants' around him. Nissanka Wijeratne was one of those giants.

The newspapers which announced the passing away of Nissanka Wijeratne also announced the death of M. S. Amarasiri the deputy Minister for Trade and Shipping under Lalith Athulathmudali and later Chief Minister of the Southern Province. With the passing of such people, an era comes to a close. Nissanka Wijeratne was a man who entered politics late in life. Until 1977, he was a high profile public servant. In 1958, he was sent as the Government Agent for Jaffna with Major General Richard Udugama in the wake of the 1958 ethnic riots. From 1959 to 1962, he functioned as the Government Agent for Anuradhapura. A highlight of his stint in Anuradhapura was that Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike entrusted the implementation of the Anuradhapura sacred city project to him. He functioned as the Director General of Radio Ceylon from 1964 to 1965 at a time when radio was the only electronic media available and the only radio station in the country was government owned. He became Additional Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs in 1969. When Mrs Sirima Bandaranike came into power in 1970, Nissanka Wijeratne was appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

Nissanka Wijeratne became the Diyawadana Nilame of the Dalada Maligawa in 1975 and contested the Dedigama electorate as a UNP candidate at the 1977 Parliamentary elections. He was made Minister for Education and Higher Education in the J. R. Jayewardene government which swept into power. Later, he was made Minister of Justice. A highlight of his career as Minister for Justice was that he resigned his portfolio in 1983 following the prison riots in July which killed dozens of Tamil prisoners among whom was the famous Kuttamani. Douglas Devanada, - now a cabinet minister - was in prison at that time, and he managed o survive the riot by fighting back. It was a rare gesture indeed for a Minister to accept responsibility and resign on any issue. The riots in the prison was a part of the general conflagration that overwhelmed the country and Dr. Nissanka could not really be blamed for what occurred.

In 1988, when Professor Carlo Fonseka was under threat by the JVP, Dr Nissanka Wijeratne, had paid a surprise visit to his home and offered to help. The youngest of Dr Wijeratne's sons Lankesh, was a good friend of Professor Fonseka's son. Vijaya Kumaratunga had just been assassinated in those dark days of 1988, and Dr Wijeratne knew that Carlo Fonseka was also in the sights of the JVP. Despite the fact that they were on opposite sides of the political divide since 1977, their sons had continued to be close friends. Nissanka Wijeratne had a non-confrontational, gentlemanly approach to politics. Writing about Dr Wijeratne on his 77th birthday, Professor Carlo Fonseka described him as an erudite man, who had read history in University and never stopped studying it. Coming from Carlo Fonseka, this is a compliment indeed. Dr Wijeratne was a well read individual and a fine conversationalist.

Apart from judging a man on his own merits, another yardstick is to measure a man by the work of his sons. His eldest son Neranjan Wijeratne succeeded him as the Diyawadana Nilame of the Dalada Maligawa and held that position for twenty years. Nissanka Wijeratne's political legacy is being continued by his son Mano Wijeratne, who has been in Parliament from 1989 and was a Deputy Minister in the R.Premadasa and D.B.Wijetunga governments of 1989-1994 thus making him a third generation Wijeratne in Parliament. I have known Mano and his wife Bharati Wijeratne for many years. I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr Nissanka Wijeratne at Bharati's residence in Wellawatte on a few occasions, but I have not had a close association with him.

I judge Nissanka Wijeratne by his son Mano. Just as Professor Carlo Fonseka has a story about how he was helped by Nissanka Wijeratne, I have a story about how I was helped by Mano Wijeratne. When I was arrested and taken to the 4th Floor in August 2000 on the eve of the Parliamentary election of that year, it was Mano and Bharati who were the first to contact my mother. I was taken in at around 8.30pm at my house and the moment Mano and Bharati got to hear of it, they contacted my mother and kept her sprits up. My mother was in her late sixties and clueless about what was going on. The publicity given to my arrest was enough to frighten even the most hardened political activist not to speak of a little old lady. If not for that immediate intervention by Mano and Bharati, there's no telling what may have happened. I was remanded 24 hours after my arrest at around 9.00pm in the night.

The very next morning, Mano and Bharati were at the Colombo remand Prison to see me. They had brought my mother along as well. I was more than a little surprised to see them. Since my arrest was a part of a conspiracy by the Chandrika government to imprison Ranil Wickremasinghe, the entire UNP was hiding under their beds. But Mano rose to the occasion. He didn't worry about the possible repercussions, he just came. Mano did for me what his father did for Professor Carlo Fonseka. Mano is indeed a worthy successor to his father. Even though dynastic politics has acquired a bad reputation in this country, this is dynastic politics at its best, not at its worst as in the case of the Bandaranaikes. Nissanka Wijeratne was a very decent man. So is his son Mano. The Sri Lankan political scene is the richer because of the presence of such individuals. Nissanka Wijeratne was in his early eighties. He had a long innings and a rich and successful career. Mano will be a worthy successor.



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