Nissanka Wijeyeratne


by Izeth Hussain

I must add to Leelananda De Silva’s informative and moving tribute to Nissanka Wijeyeratne on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the latter’s death (Sunday Island of January 8). Leelananda wrote, "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." That statement made me recall an after-dinner speech made by NW when he was hosted to dinner by the Chief Justice of the Philippines, sometime between 1982 and 1985 when I was Ambassador there. I must say that during my 38 years in the world of diplomacy I was fated to hear innumerable after-dinner speeches which were not meant to be memorable and were therefore forgettable. But NW’s speech has stayed in my mind because at its conclusion the entire membership of the Supreme Court of the Philippines rose to its feet shouting Mabuhay! I had never seen the like of it, and was certain that I would never see the like of it again.

What was it about Nissanka’s speech that made those staid and sober gentlemen of the top Philippines Judiciary, accustomed as they were to unemotional assessment of fact and argument, and resistant to windy rhetoric, react as if they were schoolboys at a cricket match or a mob worked up by an expert mob orator? The appeal he made was a nationalist one. He referred to his own father’s incarceration over the 1915 riots, and to Jose Rizal and other leaders of the Philippines’ struggle for freedom. All that could resonate powerfully with Filipinos whose ancestors fought against the Americans in what should be regarded as the first Vietnam, which left behind scores of thousands of Filipinos dead. But I believe that it was more than content that made those staid and sober gentlemen rise to their feet. There was something charismatic about Nissanka when he spoke on that occasion. I am reminded of what seems to me the only possible explanation for the way de Gaulle, who was no more than a little-known Brigadier at the commencement of the war, quickly establish himself as "the man who is France". Simone Weill, who worked in de Gaulle’s London Secretariat during the war, wrote that there was about him "the unmistakable note of authenticity". It was that note of authenticity about Nissanka’s nationalism that brought those gentlemen to their feet.

I must make a clarification about his kind of nationalism, prefacing it with some observations about his social background. He grew to adulthood in the second half of the ‘forties, and thus belonged to the most Westernized of all Sri Lankan generations. His father was a member of the low-country bourgeoisie which at that time sought status by marrying into the Kandyan aristocracy. There were exceptions, the most notable being that of the J.R. Jayewardene family. In that connection I must recount an exceptionally acute observation made to me by the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe. He pointed out that JRJ was the first leader who had come to power after 1948 without the Kandyan connection, and because of that an authentic feeling for the land was totally absent in him. That was broadly true of the power elite around him, and that was the basic reason why things were going wrong in Sri Lanka at that time – which was in 1979. I was reminded about my own conclusion on why things had gone wrong in the Philippines: its power elite was predominantly mestizo without much authentic feeling for the land, or for that matter for the Philippines. Nissanka was the opposite of our 1977 power elite as the Kandyan side of him was predominant over everything else.

I will now proceed to the clarification I have in mind about his kind of nationalism. I thought of him as an old-fashioned patriot endowed with an intense and overwhelming love of his country. I have in mind here the distinction George Orwell drew between patriotism and nationalism. The former is characterized by an intense love of a country which is open to what is outside that country and has nothing combative and aggressive about it, whereas nationalism – what we would today call ultra-nationalism – is the very opposite. I would draw the distinction also in terms of a contrast between nationalism as understood in terms of the Enlightenment ideology and tribalism. The former is meant to be emancipatory in the sense that it requires an overthrow or radical change of the old order, and it is also meant to be unificatory in the sense that it brings together all ethnic groups within a permanently bounded territory which comes to be regarded as sacrosanct. Tribalism, on the other hand, is meant to establish the dominance of an ethnic group which lords it over all the others. The world is today witnessing a retrogression to tribalism.

Nationalism in the best sense was exemplified in the friendship Nissanka had with me, more specifically in the extraordinary helpfulness he showed towards me. Part of the reason for the friendship was his fascination with the world of Islam, about which he showed an erudition which could not have been matched by most Muslims. The more important part of the reason, I believe, was that he saw in me the kind of Muslim who was Westernized but proud of his Islamic heritage, the kind of Muslim who could cross ethnic, religious, and other frontiers and become an integral part of the Sri Lankan nation. Furthermore, he knew enough of the world to be able to understand the ways in which Sri Lanka’s interaction with the wider Islamic world could be fruitful. Nissanka was the opposite of the anti-Muslim racists who have been disgracing Sri Lanka.

In connection with his extraordinary helpfulness towards me, I will first quote from the conclusion of Leelananda’s balanced tribute to him. He wrote that there were two phases in Nissanka’s political life and interests. In the first, during the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, "He saw the imperative of removing the many discriminatory practices against the majority community which had accumulated over centuries of foreign rule". That was the Nissanka that tended to be seen – quite wrongly I think – as chauvinist, ultra-nationalist, and so on. Leelananda continued, "After the 1970s, he was much concerned in ensuring a fair deal for ethnic and religious minorities and thereby creating a secure and harmonious national identity".

It was the latter Nissanka who laid me under an obligation to speak out loud and clear in praise of his brand of nationalism, and in gratitude for all that he did to try to secure fair treatment for just one single minority member, myself. I cannot go into details, but I must declare that under the 1977 Government I was subjected to prolonged and grotesque racist discrimination. It rose to an ugly crescendo when my appointment as Ambassador to Paris was aborted at the last minute, without the then Foreign Minister Hameed being able to proffer any cogent explanation for it. It was known that there was another powerful aspirant to that post, and it appeared that Hameed found himself obliged to go along with him. It was then that I found a totally unexpected champion in Nissanka. He worked relentlessly over a period of three months, doing everything humanly possible, to secure the Paris post for me. He got the support of Ranil Wickremasinghe who intervened with President JRJ over a period of several weeks. It was all to no avail.

The explanation for that abortion came out much later. After I left the Foreign Ministry, Ed Marks, the second-in-command of the American Embassy, told me that the only possible explanation for Hameed’s behavior was that a very powerful force must have been brought to bear on him to stop me proceeding to Paris. I wrote to Hameed to say that I knew that he alone could not have stopped my appointment to Paris, but his behavior was unsatisfactory and I would see to it that when the Government changed he would be given severe condign punishment. It was probably for that reason that when I went to the Foreign Ministry after I was appointed Ambassador to Moscow the first thing that happened was that a lady Foreign Service officer who had worked in Hameed’s office came up to me to say that the reason why my appointment had been aborted was that Buddhist monks in Paris had made representations against it. I now believe that that detail should be in the public domain.

In conclusion I must say that the only possible explanation for Nissanka spending all that time and energy, over a period of three months, in trying to secure an appointment for a relatively insignificant Muslim individual, with nothing at all to be gained for Nissanka himself, was that he was an old-fashioned patriot with a burning love for his country, and an authentic nationalist whose conception of a properly integrated Sri Lanka required fair play for the minorities. We must see to it that his brand of nationalism prevails. Alternatively we will find, after some time, that there is no Sri Lanka.

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