Dr. Nissanka Wijeratne's Multi-Faceted Life

(MENAFN- NewsIn) By DBS Jeyaraj

Colombo, June 16 (Daily Mirror):“And one man in his time plays many parts” ,stated William Shakespeare in his play“As you like it”. The above mentioned observation by the Bard of Avon is quite appropriate in describing the life and work of Dr Wijeyeratne whose 100th birth anniversary was celebrated on June 14.

Nissanka Parakrama Wijeyeratne known popularly as Nissanka was a military officer ,scholar, poet, government Agent, Permanent secretary, ),Parliamentarian, Cabinet Minister, Ambassador and above all the Diyawadane Nilame of the Sri Dalada Maligawa in a productive life spanning eight decades. This article is to commemorate the birth centenary of this versatile, multi-faceted personality who rendered yeoman service to his motherland.


Nissanka Parakrama hailing from a prominent Sabaragamuwa province family was born in Colombo on 14 June 1924. He was the second son of Sir Edwin (EAP) and Lady Leela Wijeyeratne of Buddhenipola Walauwa,Kegalle. Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne served as Home Minister in the first post-independence Cabinet of Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake and was later Colombo's envoy to London and New Delhi's elder brother Tissa was a barrister and diplomat who also wrote fiery articles in newspapers under the pseudonym“Sinhaputra”.Younger brother Cuda was a medical doctor and consultant psychiatrist.

Young Nissanka had his primary and secondary education at Royal College,Colombo. Tertiary studies was at the then University of Ceylon where he obtained a BA Honours degree in History. After Varsity, Nissanka was for a brief period a military officer serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Ceylon Artillery (Volunteers) Regiment.

Thereafter he sat for the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service(CCS) exanination successful,Nissanka Wijeyeratne joined the elite Civil service. In an administrative career of more than two decades Wijeyeratne held different posts at different times such as Assistant Govt agent of Puttalam and Galle, Govt Agent of Anuradhapura,Mannar and Jaffna, Permanent secretary to the Ministries of Transport, Cultural Affaurs and Information and Broadcasting.

Government Agent Jaffna

Nissanka Wijeyeratne's appointment as Government Agent of Jaffna in 1961 amounted to an“Agni Pareeksha” or trial by fire in political terms. I shall write in some detail about this as few people are aware of what had happened then. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) Government headed by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was in power then. Attempts by the Govt to enforce Sinhala as the sole official language met with stiff resistance by the Tamil people.

The premier Tamil political party Ilankai Thamil Arasukk Katchi(ITAK) known as Federal Party(FP) in English launched in February 1961 a huge civil disobedience campaign known as“Satyagraha” in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka known as Ceylon then. Satyagraha demonstrations conducted opposite the Kachcheris of Jaffna,Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts (there were no Kilinochchi,Mullaitheevu and Amparai administrative districts then) paralysed work in the Kachcheris the nerve centres of district administration.

The Sirimavo Bandaranaike Govt responded to the non -violent protests launched by the ITAK/FP in a stern , forceful manner. Policemen were stationed in large numbers at the Satyagraha venues and Naval personnel were also deployed. Another response was to transfer out Tamil Government Agents and replace them with Sinhalese.

The Jaffna GA M. Srikantha a sebior civil servant was replaced at short notice by Nissanka Wijeyeratne as the acting Govt agent of Jaffna. He was then the GA of Anuradhapura. Nissanka took over Jaffna amidst a volatile and hostile situation. The Jaffna GA's official residence was then at Old Park adjoining the Kachcheri. The new GA found himself unable to enter the Kachcheri or the Old park residence premises when he assumed duties officially on 2 March 1961 squatting Satyagrahis blocked the entrances.

A joint operation combining army,navy and Police personnel was conducted to disperse the Satyagrahis, Violence was unleashed on the unarmed protesters. Many were injured and 17 hospitalised. The police managed to carry Nissanka Wijeyeratne on their shoulders and drop him over a wall into the Old Park precincts. It was a“bumpy” entrance.

Nissanka Wijeyeratne being an administrator of the“philosopher -king” mould, realised that he could not function in the Old Park residency in a climate of confrontation. Brute force could not be used against protesting unarmed Satyagrahis whenever the Government agent tried to enter or exit the residency. So Nissanka entered into dialogue with ITAK/FP leaders and reached a gentleman's agreement. He assured the Tamil party leaders that he would not conduct any official“Kachchri”work from the residency at Old Park. In return the GA, his staff and defence personnel should be given free access to the residency. They should not be obstructed by Satyagrahis when going in or out of the residency. This gentleman's agreement was adhered to by both parties.

The new Jaffna GA also embarrassed the Government unintentionally by an honest statement he made to the media. Responding to a query about the Satyagrahis by a newspaper on 3 March. Nissanka Wijeyeratne said“ The Satyagrahis are very well behaved gentlemen”. He went on to observe that the campaign was of a non -violent nature and was being conducted in a disciplined manner. The Jaffna GA's response to a media query was published in the newspapers of 5 March 1961.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike flew out of Colombo to London on 4 March to attend the Commonwealth Conference. Prior to her departure a message to the nation by the premier was broadcast via“Radio Ceylon”. There was no TV then. In her message Mrs. Bandaranaike criticized the Satyagraha and accused the Jaffna Satyagrahis of engaging in violence. This was published in the newspapers on 5 March. What the Jaffna GA said about the Satyagrahis contrasted sharply with what the Prime Minister said and caused much embarassment to the Govt.

The Jaffna Satyagraha itself began intensifying in scope and scale. A people's post office was established.“Illegal” Stamps, stamped envelopes and post cards were printed and sold. A postal service was set up with former Senator and Jaffna DDC chairman S.Nadarajah as“posr master general”.

Letters were sent to prominent Govt officials using these stamps with Tamil MP's acting as postmen. In that context a letter was sent to Jaffna GA Nissanka Wijeyeratne by Mrs. Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam the spuse of then Vaddukkoddai MP A. Amirthalingam. The letter was delivered by the then Uduvil MP. V. Dharmalingam who cycled to the Old Park residency as a“postman”. Dharmalingam is the father of current Jaffna district MP D.Siddharthan.

The Government however came down hard on the Satyagraha after the April new year. Emergency was declared on 18 April. The army cracked down on the Satyagrahis beating them with belts and rifle butts. A dusk to dawn curfew was declared in the Tamil speaking regions leaders of the Satyagraha including MPs were arrested and detained wit out trial at the Panagoda Army cantonment. The situation began returning to normal gradually wuth the Kachcheris in the north and east functining as usual.

Anuradhapura District GA

Thus it could be seen that Nissanka's stint as Jaffna GA was hampered by circumstances beyond his control. In contrast to Jaffna, his earlier tenure as Anuradhapura district GA from 1958 to 62 was constructive and commendable. When Wijeyeratne was the GA, Anuradhapura underwent the trials of transition as the town blossomed into a city. The new town of Anuradhapura was being constructed resulting in the transfer of residents from the old to the new. This caused much tension and the GA had to cope sensitively and diplomatically with the people.

Apart from being GA, Wijeyeratne was also the chairman of the Anuradhapura preservation board. As stated erlier Anuradhapura was in a state of transition due to the new town being built. Given its historic antiquity and Buddhist significance, the sacred city of Anuradhapura had to be preserved in all its glory and grandeur while modern construction needed to be encouraged. Nissanka Wijeyeratne faced up to this formidable task with tactful efficiency. Incidently it was Nissanka who laid out the groundwork for setting up an Airport for Anuradhapura.

National Emblem and Flag

A little known aspect of Nissanka's record as a public servant was the role he played in evolving a national emblem and flag for the country as it changed from colonial Ceylon to Republican Sri Lanka in 1972. Nissanka Wijeyeratne was then permanent secretary of the cultural affairs ministry. He was appointed Chairman of the National Emblem and flag design committee. The emblem bestowed by the UK was replaced.

The new national emblem in use now features a golden lion passant holding a sword in its right fore paw against a maroon backdrop surrounded by golden petals of a Blue Lotus flower placed on the top of a traditional grain vase that sprouts sheaves of rice grains encircling the border and reflecting prosperity crest is the Dharmachakra, with traditional heraldic symbols for the sun and the moon providing support.

The national flag too underwent change in 1972 due to Nissanka Wijeyeratne. Instead of the four spearheads , four bo leaves were placed in the four corners of the flag on the directions of Nissanka. The four leaves represent the Buddhist principles of Mettha (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Upeksha (equanimity) and Muditha (happiness).

Dedigama Constituency

Shortly after Sri Lanka became a republic, Nissanka Wijeyeratne retired from the Administrative service in 1973. He joined the United National Party(UNP) under JR Jayewardene then in the opposition. He was appointed organizer of the Dedigama electorate in sabaragamuwa province. Dedigama constituency had been the pocket borough of former UNP leader and Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake for over three decades. His brother's son Rukman was elected Dedigama MP in a by election after Dudley's demise in 1973.

Unfortunately there was some political and personal friction between Rukman and UNP leader JR. Thus JR apponted Nissanka with roots in the Sabaragamuwa province as the UNP Dedigama organizer in 1976. Nissanka Wijeyeratne contested the July 1977 elections and won Dedigama polling 24,436 votes. He beat his closest rival Dharmasiri Senanayake of the SLFP by a majority of 6732.

UNP Cabinet Minister

Wieyeratne was appointed minister of Education in the UNP Govt. of 1977. In 1978 he was appointed minister of Higher Education also. He served as Education and Higher Education minister until 1980. President Jayewardene appointed Nissanka Wijeyeratne minister of Justice in 1980. He remained Justice minister until November 1988 when the Welikade riot and mass escape of prisoners took place. Nissanka Wijeryeratne resigned voluntarily. . Thereafter Nissanka retired from active politics.

Among his achievements as a cabinet minister was the Universities Act No 16 of 1978. This enabled the creation of five Independent universities namely the Universities of Peradeniya,Colombo, Sri Jayawardenepura,Kelaniya and Jaffna instead of the earlier University of Ceylon. Wijeratne also envisaged the founding of the Ruhuna University and the Open University.

As Education minister Nissanka officially recognized in 1980 , the right of schoolchildren from minority ethnicities to wear uniforms in accordance with their ethnic identities and cultural traditions. This benefited Muslim and Malay schoolchildren immensely. He also intruduced the concept of setting up top grade schools known as Presidency colleges in backward districts. The idea was to replicate“Royal Colleges” in the provinces..

It was Nissanka as Justice minister who was responsible for the new Courts Complex in Colombo constructed with Chinese aid. In a quirk of fate, the draconian prevention of terrorism act(PTA) became permanent law during the tenure of the liberal democrat Nissanka Wijeyeratne as Justice minister in 1982. It was introduced as a supposedly temporary provision three years earlier in 1979 when KW Devanayagam was Justice minister.. It is said that Wijeyeratne was unhappy over the PTA but went along out of a sense of collective responsibility. The massacre of Tamil prisoners in Welikade during“Black July” and the Batticaloa jail break and mass escape of Tamil prisoners in September 1983 also happened when Nissanka was Justice minister.

Diyawadana Nilame

The greatest of all Nissanka Wijeyeratne's accomplishments was his election as the Diyawadana Nilame of the Sri Dalada Maligawa or Chief lay custodian of the venerated temple of the tooth in Kandy>.It was an achievement most dear to his heart emotionally. His election was an act of defiance against the prevailing feudalist traditions of the time. How this came about and other aspects of Nissanka Wijeyeratne's eventful life would be related in detail in the second and final part of this article.

S can be reached at [email protected]



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