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
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
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