Nissanka Wijeyeratne - A Diverse, Colourful Life

A tribute on the Fifth Anniversary of his death


by Leelananda De Silva

Nissanka Parakrama Wijeyeratne was one of the most colourful public figures in the latter half of the twentieth century in Sri Lanka. He had a wide ranging career in public administration, in cultural & religious fields, in politics and in diplomacy. As an administrator for 25 years, he was an outstanding Government Agent, and rose to be Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. In the cultural and religious fields he was elected to the highest lay position in the land – the Diyawadana Nilame of the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. In politics he was a Cabinet Minister for 11 years. He was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in Russia when the Soviet Union broke up. These are the offices Nissanka held, always with panache and aplomb. He was much more. The kindest of men he had an old world charm about him. He had a large circle of friends from all communities. He had an engaging mischievous sense of humour. In him, was combined some of the finest elements of Eastern and Western culture.

Nissanka Wijeyeratne was born in 1924 into a distinguished family of the Sabaragamuwa Province. His father, Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne, was a leading member of the Kegalle Bar, and was member for Kegalle in the State Council in the 1930s. He was Home Minister in the D.S. Senanayake government, and later High Commissioner in London and New Delhi. Nissanka’s mother, Lady Leela Wijeyeratne came from a high ranking Kandyan family. After his education at Royal College, Nissanka entered the University of Ceylon where he read History. He entered the Ceylon Civil Service in 1948, and among the others of his batch were Ronnie de Mel, later a formidable finance minister who managed the transition of Sri Lanka to a market economy, and Andrew Joseph who reached the ranks of an under-secretary general at the United Nations.

During his public service career, he was Government Agent of Anuradhapura District from 1958 to 1962. He was arguably the best known of all government agents of his time. His stature ensured that the voice of Anuradhapura was heard at the highest levels in Colombo. Apart from being Government Agent, he was Chairman of the Anuradhapura Preservation Board. This was the time when the city of Anuradhapura was in a period of historic transition. The new town of Anuradhapura was being built, and the residents of the old were being transferred to the new town. It was a time of some tension and of excitement. Nissanka managed this process of change with courage and remarkable political skills. While in Anuradhapura, he unveiled a memorial for H.R.Freeman, a popular British Government Agent who later was elected by the people of the district to represent them in the State Council. Coming events cast their shadows before. A striking feature of Nissanka’s Anuradhapura days was his great ability to see the bigger picture and focus on the key issues, and delegate responsibilities to his staff officers. He was never one to be enmeshed in detail.

As Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs from 1970 to 1973, Nissanka had an important task to perform. Sri Lanka was changing its constitution from monarchical to republican. He was appointed as the Chairman of the National Emblem and Flag Design Committee. The designer of the emblem was Venerable Mapalagama Vipulasara Maha Thera. The committee at the suggestion of the Chairman replaced the old symbols depicting spearheads at the four corners of the national flag with four Bo leaves which reflected universal ethical values – Metta (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Upeksha (equanimity) and Muditha (happiness). Are these principles to be observed or are they merely decorative?

In 1973 there came a sudden and unexpected change in his career. He left the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, and in 1975 contested for the prestigious office of the Diyawadana Nilame of the Sri Dalada Maligawa. This was a historic contest. The post was generally thought to be reserved for the Kandyan aristocracy, and Nissanka’s entry into the contest was looked upon with great disfavour and resentment by the traditionalists. The Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, to whom Nissanka was personally close, and connected through his wife, disapproved of his actions. There came a clear break between the two. Nissanka won a tightly fought contest. He held the office of Diyawadana Nilame for 10 years and for the next 20 his eldest son, Neranjan, held that high office. The Wijeyeratnes created a dynasty in their own right.

Another break with the past occurred when Nissanka joined the UNP in 1976 and in 1977 was elected Member of Parliament for Dedigama. He was appointed to the Cabinet in the J.R. Jayewardene government, and held office first as Minister of Education and Higher Education from 1977 to 1980 and then from 1981 to 1988 as Minister of Justice. While in charge of Education, Nissanka introduced the landmark bill which became the Universities Act No16 of 1978. This Act transformed the University system of Sri Lanka, and in place of the one University of Ceylon which had existed from 1942, five Universities – Colombo, Peradeniya, Sri Jayawardenepura, Kelaniya & Jaffna were established. Nissanka was also instrumental in establishing the University of Ruhuna, and the Open University. He was proud of his role in the creation of an institution which provided access to higher education for a larger segment of the population. Nissanka was very much at home in the Ministry of Justice, coming from a legal family background. One of his major personal achievements was the enactment of the Mediation Board Act No.72 of 1988, whereby many actions which would have normally come to court were now to be taken up by more informal Mediation Boards. This reduced the pressure on courts and reduced the cost of litigation.

From 1977 to 1988, Nissanka was entrusted by the Government to be in charge of UNESCO affairs, a role which he cherished. He was highly regarded in UNESCO circles, especially in Paris, and this role fitted ideally with Nissanka’s intellectual and cultural pursuits. He was one of the leading influences behind the setting up of the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka with UNESCO’s assistance. Nissanka was in his element at UNESCO and its meetings. His interest in cultural issues was global. He proposed in UNESCO the revival of the library of ancient Alexandria. UNESCO offered him the opportunity to indulge in his intellectual interests.

From 1994, after he returned from Moscow, he lived a life of active retirement, living in his splendid hilltop residence in Hantane, overlooking the city of Kandy. Nissanka pursued his many interests in the remaining years of his life. He continued his voracious and eclectic reading. One of my last contacts with him was when he asked me to find a copy of Rawlinson’s History of India, which he had read when he was an undergraduate. I found a copy in a second hand book shop in England but it was too late. He was greatly involved in the Law and Society Trust and made occasional forays to Colombo for its meetings. Nissanka, right through his career, was inclined to write short notes on things that came to his mind. He had enough material to convert them into a fascinating memoir, which he never did. He was a fine speaker in English and in the 1960s he was said to be one of the best speakers along with Bishop Lakdasa de Mel. He wrote poetry, and an anthology of his poems was published by Vijitha Yapa.

Nissanka was blessed with a closely-knit family. Nita (who was a Dullewe) looked after him with great care. One of his sons, Mano entered Parliament and became a Minister. Now, it was three generations of the same family holding ministerial office, an uncommon achievement. His son, Neranjan, after being Diyawadana Nilame, entered politics, and is now the leader of the opposition in the Kandy Muncipal Council. His son, Anuradha is a former member of Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council. Lankesh, who was a lawyer died prematurely. Nishangani was a caring daughter and her home was his in the later years of his life. He was close to his two brothers, Tissa and Cuda.

Looking back on his career, it is my abiding impression that there were two phases in his political life and interests. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, he was part of the movement for national resurgence. He saw the imperative of removing the many discriminatory practices against the majority community which had accumulated over centuries of foreign rule. After the 1970’s, he was as much concerned in ensuring a fair deal for ethnic and religious minorities and thereby creating a secure and harmonious national identity. The former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Rev Oswald Gomis, while paying him a glowing tribute in the preface to his Anthology of Poems said that Nissanka was a friend of the minorities, both religious and ethnic. Nissanka was no conventional politician. He was the intellectual in politics.

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