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Into the turbulence of Jaffna
(a chapter extracted from the author’s unpublished memoirs, titled "Dilemmas")

The story of my immersion in the turbulence of Jaffna actually begins in Badulla, in July 1963. In April of that year I had completed three gruelling years as the General Manager of the Gal Oya Dev.Board and had asked for a posting where I could catch my breath, so to say, and recuperate. The Sec. to the Treasury obliged by sending me as Government Agent (G.A.) of Badulla, where I had served as Assistant (AGA) few years earlier and where Trixie my wife, and I, quickly settled down to a more leisurely and spacious life, working amidst the welcoming and verdant villages of the Uva province.

Prime Minster Mrs Bandaranaike for tea

Our three months of quietude and recuperation ended abruptly one evening in July 1963. The Prime Minister, Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike (Mrs B) who was addressing a political meeting nearby, dropped in at the Residency (as the official residence of a GA was called in those days) for a short rest and some tea. That was my first face-to-face encounter with the redoubtable lady. I must say that contrary to the image of arrogance often associated with her, at least that evening, she was a model of grace, charm and humility.  Over tea, quite casually, she turned to my wife and said,

"Mrs Jayaweera, I know that you have hardly settled down in Badulla after the hard time you both had in Gal Oya, so I don’t know how you will take this suggestion.  My government is having a serious problem coming up in Jaffna, where we have to implement the Sinhala Only Act in all government departments from October this year. But the Federal Party is resisting it strongly and giving us a lot of problems. They are now planning to launch a big campaign in October, called the Secessionist Movement, to coincide with the implementation of the Sinhala only policy. I understand that your husband did a very good job at Gal Oya. So we are hoping that he will do a similar job for us in Jaffna. Would you object if I transfer him now to Jaffna?"

 My wife was aghast and looked at me not knowing what to say. Mrs B continued, "I know that your husband, being a disciplined public servant will go wherever the government wants him, but I won’t ask him unless you agree first, because I know it is the wife who suffers when the husband is transferred from place to place so quickly".

Mrs B’s concern for my wife’s feelings was most disarming, but needless to say, the ensuing conversation was short and to the point and within a week I had received orders to proceed to Jaffna as GA, by the end of August of that year.  

The N.Q. Dias – The Tsar!

 However, before I could assume duties in my new post, Mr N.Q.Dias, the Permanent Secy, Defence and External Affairs, telephoned me one day and asked me to have lunch with him at the his favourite luncheon haunt, the terrace of the Gall Face Hotel (GFH ). At that time N.Q.Dias was not merely the Perm. Sec. Defence and External affairs, but the most powerful public servant around, and because of his influence over Mrs Bandaranaike, feared and respected even by Cabinet Ministers, and referred to publicly as The Tsar. It was therefore with some apprehension that I joined him at lunch that day.

I had met N.Q.Dias an year earlier when he visited me in Gal Oya along with his Assistant Secretary, Mr Stanley Jayaweera (my brother) to inquire whether the Gal Oya Board could turn out boats that the navy could use for anti-smuggling work. Apart from that encounter, which was brief, I had no knowledge of this man, except by reputation.

Over a gourmet meal, Dias told me that that it was he who had suggested to the PM to appoint me as GA of Jaffna, and that he had to brush aside a strong protest from the Home Ministry that I was too junior for the job. Which indeed I was, for I was only 33 then!! He said that he had asked for me because he had been impressed at the way I had managed the Gal Oya Board, with its notoriously militant trade union workforce of over 14,000 men, and felt that I was the man to handle the turbulence in Jaffna.

Dias then went on to spell out a remarkable vision of events he said are bound to unfold in the not too distant future. He had a deep conviction that within the next twenty five years or so, the Tamil protest will develop into an armed rebellion and that the Government must prepare from now (i.e.1963) to meet that outcome. He said that my principal role as the GA of Jaffna, while enforcing the Sinhala Only Act, will be to help him develop counter measures for dealing with the anticipated uprising, and then proceeded to unfold to me his grand strategy for containing it.

The grand strategy

Even as Dias was unfolding his grand strategy it struck me that he seemed to have taken a leaf from Germany’s famous Schlieffen Plan of 1905 to encircle Paris in the event of war. The centrepiece of Dias’s strategy to contain a future Tamil revolt was to be the establishment of a chain of military camps to encircle the Northern Province, all the way from Arippu, Maricchikatti, Pallai, and Thalvapadu in the Mannar District, through Pooneryn, Karainagar, Palaly, Point Pedro and Elephant Pass in the Jaffna District, and on to Mullaitivu in the Vavuniya District and Trincomalee in the East. He said that there were already two military camps of platoon strength in Pallai in Mannar and in Palaly in Jaffna and a rudimentary naval presence in Karainagar, but that he wanted to upgrade them.

He said that he was aware that any attempt by the government to establish permanent military camps in the Northern Province was bound to trigger massive protests from Tamil leaders. However, he seemed to have thought out a masterly subterfuge to disguise their true intent. He said that he was planning to make a huge public issue of two national problems, namely, illicit immigration from India into Sri Lanka, and smuggling from Sri Lanka into India, and argue that in order to choke off this two way flow, which was obviously detrimental to Sri Lanka’s national interest, his proposed military camps were absolutely necessary. The whole military operation was therefore to be disguised as if it was a measure to cope with two major national problems -illicit immigration and smuggling - and without seeming grossly unpatriotic, no one could raise a dissenting voice against it.

He went on to say that he was planning to set up a task force called TAFFI (Taskforce Anti Illicit Immigration) under the command of Lt. Col. Sepala Attygalle (later to be Gen Attygalle, Commander of the Army), ostensibly to contain illicit immigration and smuggling, but in reality designed to encircle the North militarily. He said that he will instruct Attygalle to work in close liaison with me and provide a military back-up for my administration, to facilitate which, he said he had already ordered that an SSB radio link to be installed in my private office in Jaffna. He also said that he will also be placing 3 other hand picked CCS men as GAs to the three adjacent districts, as the other actors in his grand design - I.O.K.G.Fernando to Mannar, R.M.B.Senanayake to Vavuniya and M.B.Senanayake (or Elkaduwa – am not sure ) to Trincomalee.

N.Q. Dias’s remarkable prescience encompassed other prophetic insights as well. He also envisaged that some day in the future India was bound to stoke a Tamil uprising in Sri Lanka and that Tamil Nadu will be a source of illicit arms for the rebellion. To prepare for such an outcome he said it was necessary to develop a completely new naval strategy for Sri Lanka and proceeded to ridicule the policy current then, of building a navy comprising mine sweepers and frigates such as Vijaya and Gajabahu, which he said were only of ceremonial and prestige value, but of no use for interdicting gun-running across the Palk Straits. Instead, he advocated building a fleet of small, fast boats and to this end had even contacted the US Ambassador Cecil Lyon to see whether the US government might consider gifting some old PT boats to Sri Lanka, sans the torpedo tubes, as a part of their foreign aid package!! That was at the height of the Vietnam War and PT boats were very much in the news then. I recall that when Cecil Lyon made his first official visit to Jaffna some time later, he confirmed this to me. Dias went on to say that he would submit a cabinet paper proposing that Vijaya and Gajabahu be de-commissioned and replaced with small fast boats. At that time the Dvora class FAC’s of today were not heard of, but I recall that the Sri Lankan navy did buy a hydro-foil fast boat in the mid 1960s as an experiment. I did not follow up on Sri Lanka’s naval development after I left Jaffna.

As for my role as the GA of Jaffna, Dias said that while enabling the construction of the proposed military camps girdling the Northern Province, I should be unrelenting towards Tamil demands, and wherever possible, force confrontations with them and establish the government’s undisputed ascendancy. He emphasized that the Sinhala Only Act must be enforced at any cost, and was of the view that the government had failed so far to deal with the Tamils forcefully enough and saw me as the answer to the problem! Obviously, N.Q.Dias was seeing me as an administrative Rottweiler to be let lose within the sheep pen of protesting Tamil satygrahis!

N.Q. Dias - the paradox and the prophet

A short note on N.Q.Dias (NQ as he was referred to by colleagues) is apposite here. Actually, NQ was more than merely a public servant or a military strategist. He was an iconic phenomenon, surfing the tidal wave of Sinhala- Buddhist nationalism that had erupted out of the abyss of Sri Lanka’s history. However, to understand him fully we have to grasp two totally contradictory personalities in which he was framed.

Within one frame, along with L.H.Mettananda, F.R.Jayasuriya, K.M.P.Rajaratna, and Bhikku Henpitagedera Gnanasiha, though only a public servant, NQ marched in the vanguard of the 1956 Sinhala-Buddhist renaissance and was the archetypal ultra-nationalist. When Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept to power in May 1956 he offered NQ the choice of any public office he desired, but rather than choose to be the Secretary to the Treasury which was the highest office a Civil Servant could aspire to, he chose the comparatively lowly post of Director Cultural Affairs so as to be able to consolidate the cultural gains of Bandaranaike’s great victory. He was also the first public servant to swap western attire for the national dress. N.Q. was also an implacable xenophobic, considering Indians, the Tamil people, the Roman Catholic Church and western culture to be abominations. Not least, he was utterly paranoid about India. Having read and internalised the Panikkar Doctrine which postulated the inevitability of Indian hegemony in the Indian Ocean, he believed that India had sinister designs on Sri Lanka, if not to take the island over completely, at least to keep it permanently disabled and dependent on India.

Within the opposite frame however, N.Q.Dias was also the ultimate colonial CCS stereotype and pukka sahib. He was not fluent in Sinhala, was aloof and arrogant, was wealthy in his own right, played an impressive singles at tennis at one of Colombo’s elite clubs, and lunched regularly on the GFH terrace to the accompaniment of his favoured aperitif, gin and tonic. Although he wore the national dress, he certainly wasn’t the people’s public servant stereotype! To the contrary, everything about him, except his xenophobia, testified to a man from the decadent past, which the 1956 revolution claimed to have swept away. Not least, he never jettisoned his westernised names- Neil Quintus Dias, even as a concession to his extreme nationalist ideology. Nevertheless, his children were not named Dias and were given the Sinhala surname Dayasri. However, though most of his colleagues disliked him for his stand-offishness, they conceded that he was an honourable man, brilliant, disciplined, incorruptible and always observing the work ethic and traditions of the old Civil Service. As Head of the Foreign Office, he also preserved the dignity of the fledgling Ceylon Foreign Service, and kept the diplomatic corps posted to Colombo strictly on the leash, not allowing them to rampage through the country as they did in later years. When the UNP formed a government in 1965 he was forced into retirement, but emerged again in 1970 when Mrs Bandaranaike returned to power and was sent as High Commissioner to New Delhi. However, as to how his life unravelled as our High Commissioner to New Delhi, I am unable to discuss here.

In the course of that luncheon afternoon at the GFH in July 1963, N.Q.Dias also shared with me the story of how he metamorphosed from the stereotype CCS pukka sahib he once was, into the ultra nationalist and xenophobic he was now proud to be. It is a deeply fascinating and extraordinary human story, both spell binding and incredible! Unfortunately, to chronicle that drama will require a whole new chapter but this is not the place for such a digression. The telling of that story must wait awhile.

N.Q.Dias’s multidimensional strategic vision of an armed Tamil uprising, India’s intervention on the side of the Tamil cause, and gun-running from Tamil Nadu, began to unravel exactly as he had foreseen. To that extent Dias was a political prophet as well as a military strategist bordering on genius. His grand design for strangling a future Tamil revolt by girdling the North with a chain of military enclaves was as audacious as it was brilliant. Proof of Dias’s brilliance was that, when within two decades events began to unfold as he had prophesied, it was this iron pincer around Jaffna’s neck that served as the Sri Lankan Army’s bulwark against the Tamil militant groups. Had it not been for this chain of garrisons, the government would not have had platforms from which to mount counter strikes against the armed rebellions that have confronted the country since the 1980s.

It will not be an exaggeration to say of N.Q.Dias that he was Sri Lanka’s Clausewitz.

I did not share N.Q.Dias’s ideology or world view, except very briefly, may be for a few months, when I came under his mesmeric influence. However, I concede that he was a man of extraordinary courage, totally dedicated to his convictions, principled, unafraid and incorruptible.

The Dias paradigm

None can deny that within his paradigm, Dias’s grand strategy was brilliant, audacious and prophetic. However, the operative concept here is "within his paradigm". Paradigms are not self legitimising, especially those that concern socio-political problems. While paradigms in the physical sciences have to be tested against empirical criteria, those that pertain to politics and the social sciences have to be tested against universally held values, within which they must stand up to moral scrutiny. We must ask in respect of them, whether they uphold fundamental rights, equality, liberty and justice for all, and promote harmony and peace among all communities, regardless of ethnic or religious divisions. In that context, there are several questions to ponder about the adequacy of the Dias paradigm and I would like to turn my attention to them later on in this chapter.

However, for the moment let me turn to the dramatic events that engulfed me no sooner I had taken over as Jaffna’s new GA.

( to be continued)

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