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Gamini  Dissanayake - A Visionary Leader

Three years ago, I was accompanying a team of lawyers to Ampara to provide lost and destroyed legal documents to Tsunami victims in the Eastern Province. We travelled via Randenigala and had the opportunity to behold the majestic reservoir, one of the many that the late leader Gamini Dissanayake constructed under the Mahaweli Scheme. All the Legal Aid Lawyers collectively paid tribute to this unique Sri Lankan leader. His irrigation reservoirs, Randenigala, Rantambe, Victoria and the Gamini Dissanayake Reservoir in Kotmale alone have made Gamini Dissanayake a historical figure in our irrigation and agricultural civilization.

When we walk on the bunds of the city tank of Tissa Wewa, we recall King Kavantissa. When we behold the splendour of Kalawewa, King Datusena’s name comes to our minds. Mighty Minneriya brings to mind King Mahasen and the sea of Parakrama awakens our gratitude to King Parakramabahu the Great.

After the 12th century, only two Sri Lankan leaders have earned comparable historical stature for building of irrigation reservoirs. They are Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, D. S. Senanayake for constructing the Senanayake Samudra in the Galoya Valley and the late Gamini Dissanayake, for constructing the five major reservoirs under the Mahaweli Scheme.

The hydrologic legacy that Gamini Dissanayake fostered in this country is a historical legacy, perpetual and irrevocable. As long as we are an agricultural country, the name of Gamini will linger not only in the minds of the farmers in the Mahaweli Zone, but in the minds of all agriculturists.

Gamini Dissanayake was a visionary leader. His vision was based on human values, supported by appropriate skills. He provided what is now termed as ‘Visionary Leadership’ to Sri Lanka.

Most of the readers are bound to wonder what my credentials are to speak of visionary leadership, with special reference to the late leader Gamini Dissanayake. I have two reasons. Firstly, when Gamini Dissanayake was a Law Student in the mid 1960s, I was one of his friends and for a while, a room mate at the Sri Lanka Law College Hall of Residence, the Voet Inn.

Secondly, even though I was out of the country when Gamini Dissanayake climbed the political heights, I followed his meteoric political career through the media.

Gamini Dissanayake as a young law student evinced ambition, and silently worked towards his goals. In his personal life, he fell in love with Srima Lenaduwa, who at that time was considered one of the brightest students at Law College. In his characteristic style, Gamini kept his personal feelings very much

to himself until he passed the Final Advocate’s Examination and subsequently married the love of his life in 1968.

Gamini was also very conscious of his father’s legacy of being an elected Parliamentarian from Nuwara Eliya under the leadership of the late S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in the 1956 General Elections. Andrew Dissanayake, MP, later Deputy Minister, was a major influence during the formative years of Gamini’s life.

After apprenticing in the Chambers of fellow Trinitian Neville Samarakoon QC, Gamini took oaths as an Advocate in July 1967. At that time there were two branches in the law profession; Advocates and Proctors. The Advocate course required higher qualifications to enter the course in Law College. Gamini took oaths as an Advocate of the Supreme Court and functioned as Counsel until a few years later the Minister of Justice, Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike fused the two branches of the profession by legislation as Attorneys-at-Law.

Gamini practiced mostly in the Colombo District Courts as a junior to the late B. J. Fernando, PC, the busiest Counsel working in the Colombo District Court. Many senior proctors, now known as Instructing Attorneys-at-Law, briefed Gamini to appear in diverse District Court cases. He was doing extremely well for a junior in the Bar. Despite a promising law practice Gamini had more pressing things in mind. The first was the fruition of his courtship with Srima Lenaduwa, which within a short period of time, culminated in marriage. The second was his commitment to enter politics by following in the footsteps of his father and serve the neglected Kandyan peasantry. Gamini’s first preference was to obtain nomination as SLFP Organizer for Nuwara Eliya. I was present at the residence of SLFP stalwart, the late T. B. Illangaratne when Gamini, along with the late B. J. Fernando, PC, sought SLFP nomination for Nuwara Eliya prior to the 1970 General Elections. For Gamini it was a natural step to take. However, by that time the SLFP had already allocated the seat to the late Daniel Appuhamy, a worker politician who had contested Nuwara Eliya unsuccessfully in 1965.

Undeterred by the SLFP rejection, Gamini was given nomination by the UNP to contest Nuwara Eliya by the late Prime Minister, Dudley Senanayake who had a dispute with the outgoing MP, newspaper mogul Donald Ranaweera. As the only newly elected UNP MP after the UNP debacle in the 1970 elections, Gamini had a narrow legal shave when he was unseated in an election petition, resulting in the deprivation of his civic rights for seven years.

However, as fortune may have it, then, Minister of Justice, Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike amended the Election Law. This was primarily to benefit Nanda Ellawela, the SLFP MP for Ratnapura; but it also resulted in the removal of the legal impediment before Gamini to contest and win the ensuing by-election. The rest of Gamini Dissanayake’s electoral politics is public history.

Now let us turn to our theme ‘Value-Based Visionary Leadership’. Human values are increasingly getting confined to religious teachings. The temple, the church, the synagogue and the mosque have become residuaries of human values of tolerance, reciprocity, respect for life and natural truthfulness and service above self.

All religions have taught human society to respect human values. The core values of reciprocity is found in all religions; "Don’t do unto others what you do not like to be done to you." Discrimination and conflicts stem from deviation from this basic value. Intolerance of differences in a plural society like Sri Lanka has resulted in violence and loss of human life over decades. Sri Lanka is infamous in the world for the 26-year-old man made disaster of the unresolved ethnic conflict.

Nature’s wrath that came by way of the Tsunami disaster on 26th December 2004, served to compound our dismal plight.

Injuries inflicted to the Sri Lankan psyche by these twin tragedies, even in the best circumstances, will take decades to heal. That would be possible only if we are led by ‘Visionary Leadership’ - Leaders who put human values above power politics. A famous banker recently said that what the country now needs is a Nelson Mandela or a Mahatma Gandhi - symbols of value-inspired leadership in the world. We sincerely hope that at least one of our present day leaders will evolve to be a leader who will inspire our pluralistic nation spiritually and with a positive vision of the future. That leader should have the capacity to translate the good vision to reality.

Human values are the basis for human rights and human duties. Affluent nations which propagate human rights should support value-based education and social equity in poor countries.

Even in the field of human rights, our patrons insist on promoting individual rights at the expense of family rights, which itself is a human right under Article 16 (3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 16 (3) reads, "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State." I am yet to see a donor-supported programme on the human rights of the family as an entity.

Value-based Visionary Leaders will always respect and promote human values, human rights, including family rights and enforce human duties. Rights and duties are two sides of the same coin and should not be confined to the Constitution and conferences.

Gamini Dissanayake was a Value Inspired Visionary Leader who stands out among the pageant of political leaders in this country. His contribution to liberal democracy and humanitarian values will be remembered and cherished by his contemporaries, and his singular contribution of placing Sri Lanka as a golden, inerasable spot in the cricketing map of the world will never be forgotten, as long as the game is played in this planet.

Gamini also realised the importance of introducing English as a link language to unite Sinhalese and Tamil speaking peoples. He was pivotal in introducing English as a link language with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987.

Gamini’s vision included educating children from among the Kandyan peasantry to learn English and to achieve excellence and compete in the modern world. This was part of his mission, that he could not realise fully, as his time was consumed by the largest ever project in Sri Lanka, the Accelerated Mahaweli Development Programme.

It fell upon his steadfast companion in life, Srima, to embark upon the establishment of the Gamini Dissanayake Institute of Technology and Vocational Studies (GDITVS), barely a year after his cruel assassination. The institute, which caters to rural youths who have passed the GCE (Advanced Level) but just failed to get sufficient marks to enter a university, was first established in Kandy and was subsequently shifted to Nuwara Eliya.

While the GDITVS augments the general education received in other schools to enable students to gain employment in the modern competitive economy, its students are given a special education in life skills and values which would enable them to have a clear vision of their future.

The institute promotes English, Computer and IT skills in the modern definition of ‘literacy’. Thirty years ago, basic literacy included only the ability to read and write one language and some knowledge of Arithmetic. Functional literacy meant that in practical life you are using the skills of reading, writing and basic arithmetic. Due to the superior efforts of another Visionary Leader, Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, who introduced free education in the 1940s, Sri Lanka is considered a highly literate country with an adult literacy rate of 92%.

The new definition ‘literacy’ in the globalised world is not confined to the basic skills of reading and writing of one language and arithmetic. Today, literacy includes the ability to use, in addition to one’s mother tongue, a global language like English, French, Spanish or Arabic. In the context of our country, the preferred global language would be English. This is a positive heritage from our Colonial past.

Then, in the modern world, the pen is replaced by the computer and libraries are replaced by the internet. If one is unable to use the basic skills of a computer, or of accessing e-mail and the internet, then one can no longer be considered literate.

Underprivileged students from Sinhala and Tamil speaking homes have no access to either English or computers. The Mission of the Gamini Dissanayake Foundation is to cater to this dire need. We should be grateful to Mrs. Srima Dissanayake and the Board of Directors of the foundation for taking this visionary step to assist needy youth of the Nuwara Eliya District. This effort needs general support from the state and the donor community, so that similar institutions could be established in other remote parts of our country, for poor students who cannot afford the exorbitant fees levied by computer and English language tutories - an emerging growth industry.

While addressing a Presidential Election rally in Mutwal 14 years ago - on 23rd October 1994 - Gamini Dissanayake, the UNP Presidential nominee, was killed by a LTTE suicide bomber. It is ironic that Gamini’s cruel death came at a time when he, more than any other Sri Lankan leader, had been responsible for the restoration of Tamil as an Official Language on par with the Sinhala Language. This was made possible by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, following the historic Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, a timely and important attempt by Sri Lanka and India to find a negotiated solution to the ethnic conflict.

The man behind the Accord was Gamini Dissanayake. On a communication received from Indian journalist N. Ram, editor of ‘The Hindu’, who had been contacted by the LTTE in Singapore, Gamini was able to convince President J. R. Jayewardene and the Cabinet to recognize Tamil as an official language, enjoying parity of status with the Sinhala language, thereby responding to the basic grievance of the Tamil speaking minority. The typical LTTE gratitude for this monumental step, to ensure Tamil rights was the bomb that killed Gamini Dissanayake and several others on the night of 23rd October 1994.

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