9 June, 2023


Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, CCS: Things Work For The Good Of The Faithful

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

On 20 March, 2017 Dr. Devanesan Nesiah (DN) will be honoured by the President on the National Honours list. By tradition, he only knows he is on the list but not exactly for what award. Nonetheless, I think it is useful to say something about him, his attitudes, and his will of steel even as he took all punishments that life handed him with composure and equanimity. As a matter of transparency, let me say he is my cousin-brother (we being the children of two sisters) and was my God Father at my baptism by my father at St. Paul’s Milagiriya. He hates the limelight so writing without consulting him, I accept responsibility for any minor mistakes in this.

Educated at CMS Chundikuli Girls’ College and St. John’s College initially, he moved to St. Thomas’ College when his father moved from St. John’s to teach there. He read “Maths Special” at the University of Ceylon (Colombo) and got an ordinary pass. He says he enjoyed life as a student should, focusing on all the nonacademic activities. It was a time when his father had been invited by Vice Chancellor Ivor Jennings to lead the Department of Education at Peradeniya. He sat the civil service exam, taking time off to study. Coming at the top in the exam portion and the bottom for the interview section, he made it into the 1959 CCS batch, the third batch before CCS’s abolition in 1963 and merger with the Divisional Revenue Officers’ Service into the CAS. I have become so cynical of our leaders that every time the government makes a speech purporting to advance a principle, I suspect it really wants to help a relation; in this case putting a related DRO into the CAS while berating the elitism of the abolished CCS.

DN’s early years were happy as AGA Badulla, GA Mannar and GA Batticaloa with happy holidays for all of us. However, by the time the CAS became SLAS, the deterioration through discrimination and corruption were readily obvious. Also DN’s father, K. Nesiah, played a major role in persuading the FP and Congress leaders in May 1972 to form the Tamil United Front, which later became the TULF; at which point, K. Nesiah resigned disagreeing with the Vaddukoddai resolution of 1976.   It is said that K. Nesiah’s engagement in forming the TUF led to Mrs. Bandaranaike sending DN to the pool (where there is not even a desk to sit at and the officer goes in the mornings, signs in and returns home).

Every debacle somehow turned into something positive for DN. When the ILO team under Prof. Dudley Seers, Director of the Institute of Development Studies of the University of Sussex, came to examine the economic reasons for the 1971 JVP insurrection, DN was assigned from the Pool to the near-clerical task of coordinating Sears’ movements. Sears was impressed with DN and towards the end of the project offered him a scholarship at Sussex to read for an MA in development economics.

On his return, the qualification did not seem to matter in Sri Lanka. Although a Class 1 Grade 1 SLAS officer by the 1970s, he was kept in lower level positions – humiliating for one who had joined the CCS. It was a tight time for Tamils. After Paskaralingam from his CCS batch became Secretary, no Tamil had been made Secretary for a long time.

In 1980 or so, DN was merely Director Plan Implementation. His boss, the Secretary, was a political appointee and corrupt. The Secretary had family ties to a company selling typewriters that had to be ordered for the service. The Secretary told DN to sign and give him a blank tender recommendation. DN filled out the recommendation before signing and was demoted to the Pool.

DN’s first break came in 1981 when the Federal Party and the government of JR Jayawardene reached a controversial deal on District Councils. His appointment on the request of  Appapillai Amirthalingam, the Leader of the Opposition and the Federal Party,  got him the posts of GA Jaffna (a lowly post for a Class 1 Grade 1 Officer) and the new post of District Secretary (not quite up to Secretary but satisfactory).

At the time, Brigadier “Bull” Weeratunge had been sent to Jaffna by his uncle JR with the unrealistic command to eradicate terrorism in six months. Weeratunge did a “Mission Accomplished” speech in six months’ time. In reality through his cruel methods, he left behind a larger insurgency. As ruler of Jaffna under the emergency, Weeratunge occupied the Residency, then part of the Kachcheri.

With civilian rule restored, DN began residence in the Residency. I personally witnessed the bloodstains in the basement from the Army torturing Tamil youth. DN ordered that the bloodstains not be cleaned up and should stay as testament to man’s cruelty.  It was a bad period. District Council Elections were rigged by the government. Senior Ministers were involved in the burning of the Jaffna Public Library. The army rampaged through Jaffna killing many civilians. DN, much to JR’s chagrin, kept issuing statistics on all the atrocities, but JR was unable to pull him out because the foreign missions were watching as the 1983 riots and subsequent atrocities unfolded.

Amirthalingam was  blamed by radical youth for betraying the Tamil cause by dealing with JR and “having tea with him” while his troops rampaged, and murdered. We have one last chance as Rajavarothayam  Sampanthan bravely tries to broker reconciliation. I pray that he will not be let down the way  Amirthalingam was.

On a personal note, my marriage was arranged by DN and his God-fearing wife  Anita to the daughter of his SLAS Colleague, the Director of Planning when Nesiah was Director of Plan Implementation. Marrying in July 1984 as DN’s three-year term ended, our going to a hotel for our honeymoon was out of the question in Jaffna with all its disturbed conditions and the Army swinging bicycle chains at passers-by. We were therefore given the grand guest room at Residency in Jaffna for our honeymoon suite and saw the still preserved bloodstains.  Today the Residency is in ruins after the war. Someone should come forward to restore its old glory. People with no sense of history are putting up buildings in the Old Park, the grounds of the Residency.

By 1984 when DN’s term ended, his contacts with embassies had earned him a scholarship for another master’s degree, this time at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The government, unwilling to give such a senior man the post he deserved if he came back to Colombo from Jaffna, was very happy to give him the required year’s leave.  After his Master’s degree in Public Administration, he earned another scholarship to do his doctorate at Harvard. It was unprecedented but the government gave him the leave rather than facing the awkwardness of giving another menial assignment to a senior Tamil well-connected to the diplomatic corps by now. Every annual request for renewal thereafter was happily renewed until he completed his doctorate in public policy. This also helped his three children do their degrees in the US, his wife and daughter going up to a doctorate.

Nesiah returned when Sri Lanka was in the throes of the civil war but it was happier times for Tamils high up in the civil service. President Premadasa introduced quotas by ethnicity and Nesiah became Secretary for the first time, very close to retirement. Ironically, ethnic quotas rather than merit were helpful to minorities. His Ministers, Vincent Perera and Srimanee Athulathmudali, got on famously with DN. He enjoyed his stints as Secretary in the ministries of Transport, Environment, and Women’s Affairs. As Secretary for the Environment, he had the opportunity to chair sessions at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio.

Nowadays Devanesan Nesiah keeps himself and his mind busy living in Colpetty and playing Sudoku, attending seminars, doing research at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, attending meetings of the University of Jaffna Council, and taking on writing assignments from simple greetings to those doing Bharatanatiyam Arangetrams to heady stuff on devolution and ethnic harmony. He is rightly proud of his Oxford University Press book Discrimination with Reason, which grew from his doctoral thesis and is a comparative study of affirmative action as practised in the US, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.

Anita’s strength and faith in God, along with Devenesan’s dedication to justice and country, are finally being acknowledged. I think everyone is happy for Devanesan, a man with few enemies, and would celebrate with him, Anita and his family this well-deserved honour.

As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (8:28, NIV), “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

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Latest comments

  • 3

    I had the pleasure of working in Plan Implementation Ministry during his tme and learned many a things concepts, principles and art of writing. During that period he wrote an article on the topic of Brain drain’. I could not decide whether his perspectives on the subject or presentation which was better

    I remember with forthrightness DN’s comments, when on the very first day new Secretary Dr. Wickremasuriya took charge of Ministry, in the officers meeting wanted two people whose names he gave be appointed as peons immediately . DN said that he can not as additional secretary to the ministry as it is against Establishment code. I knew he would not last but I left the Ministry before he went to pool.

    DN worked in Plan implementation as additional Secretary under two Secretaries, one Officer and Gentleman par exvellence Mr.Senaratne and the other Wickrema Weerasuriya.

    I an Electrical and Electronucs Engineer, ended up in the plan implementation Ministry on computing because I was not given job in Electrcity board or Telecom despite being the most qualified to seek job outside university in 1973 Peradeniya Electrical &Rlevtronivs batch. I knew the reason for my rejection by the two institution but I do not say it bt DN would without any hesitation.

    I have met him only once after my leaving ministry while he was in the pool and takes evening walk along Dharmapala Maw when he dropped into my office in the same street.

    I also remember his BBC interview when he was GA Jaffna. BBC interviewer asked ‘Army says 27
    killed today and all are terrorist. Were there any terrorist’. His candid reply was ‘Hardly any’. Probably scholarship saved gov’t and him or his life may ended like that of Raviraj.

    I am happy that he is honoured for his deeds. I am also happy still there is chance for Sri Lanka to overcome the racial disharmony that is ruining the country because as a country we are able honour such a person irrespective of race who spoke truth fearlessly many a times even when it is not liked by the people in power

  • 0

    1. I only knew that DN was one of the few who wanted to keep a small part of the burnt Jaffna library as remembrance.
    We should be grateful to the author for writing this and letting us know more about the honourable erson DN.
    ii. The article and the comment would be of interest to the UN Secial Rapporteur on Minority Issues

  • 3

    Thanks for sharing this news of a well-deserved recognition.

    Back in 1977/78, a teenager from a village plucked up enough courage and entered the Sri Lanka Open Chess Competition — chess being very much a Capital-centred game then (and probably now, too). In the second round, the boy’s opponent was a somewhat senior man who had very neat handwriting. It was a long game in which neither could make a break during the middle game. With material on the board equal, and a long-drawn endgame in sight, the man offered a draw. The boy, jet-lagged after the long journey the previous day, jumped at the idea and took it. In a brief chat afterwards, the man made remarks of encouragement to the boy: “Well done, start a club in your school, teach your friends to play, you can manage your time between study and play etc.” Later that evening, playing the game again, the boy realised that the man actually had a winning advantage and the draw offer probably was a gesture of encouragement to the young fellow.

    A well-deserved recognition.

  • 0

    Nesiah learned his chess playing against his mother Pushpamany Somasundaram and represented Sri Lanka. His uncle Peter Somasundaram with whom he spent hundreds of hours playing was the University College champion in the 1930s and a national level player. The year after Peter was university champion. Peter was unseated by his brother Samuel Somasundaram, the father of Daya Somasundaram.

    Once seemingly addicted to chess, I have rarely seen Nesiah at the chess board in recent times.

  • 1

    Recipients of National Honours

    Sri Lankabhimanya

    1. Wannakuwattawaduge Don Amaradewa,
    1. Abbasally Akbarally
    2. Colvin De Fonseka Warnasuriya Goonaratna
    3. Devanesan Nesiah
    4. Diyunuge Nandadasa Rajapaksha
    5. Kingsley Muthumuni de Silva
    6. Latha Walpola
    7. Mineka Presantha Wickramasingha
    8. Priyani Elizabeth Soysa
    9. Thalagalage Amaradasa Gunawardana
    10. Tissa Devendra


    1. Deivanayagam Eassuwaren
    2. Lakshman Lucian de Silva Weerasena
    3. Leslie Shelton Devendra
    4. Mahinkande Gamladdalage Kularatne
    5. Mananlalage Susanthika Jayasingha
    6. Ranjan Senerath Madugalle
    7. Shanthilal Nilkanth Wickremesinghe
    8. Thommadura Pabilis Silva
    9. Wegapitiya Kattadiyalage Hemachandra Wegapitiya

    Vidya Jyothi

    1. Alagiyawanna Mohotti Appuhamillage Nimal Kitsiri Senanayake
    2. Bandula Wijayarathna
    3. Colvin Ananda Samarasinghe
    4. Delpechitracharige Gajabahu Harendra de Silva
    5. De Silva T. K. Nimal Padmasena
    6. Errol Radcliffe Jansz
    7. Lal Gotabhaya Chandrasena
    8. Mahamendige Wilfred Joseph Gerard Mendis
    9. Moderage Marian Rohan Waas Jayasekara
    10. Sarath Wimalabandara Kotagama
    11. Upali Tissa Vitarana

    Kala Keerthi

    1. Arun Dias Bandaranaike
    2. Edmand Ranasinghe
    3. G. Kartini Drahaman Mohamed
    4. George Edmond Jayasinghe
    5. Gunawardhana Mudalige Ajith Hemachandra
    6. Hapuwalanege Don Ariyadasa (Dasa Hapuwalana)
    7. Herman Ronald Lakshman De Alwis
    8. Ivor Dennis
    9. Kurukulasuriya Eligius Camillus Perera
    10. Lalitha Sarathchandra
    11. Lionel Bentharage
    12. Madhubhashini Disanayaka Ratnayaka
    13. Namel Weeramuni
    14. Nanayakkarage Sumana Jayathilake
    15. Nellampitiya Pathirana Arachchige Dayawathi
    (Daya Nellampitiya)
    16. Ranasinghe Arachchige Jayantha Prema Lal Hegoda
    17. Saravanai Vinayagamoorthy
    18. Singarampillai Thillanadarajah
    19. Suminda Sirisena
    20. Suresh Maliyadde
    21. Sunanda Mahendra
    22. Wijesinghe Arachchilage Abeysingha

    Sri Lanka Sikhamani

    1. Achi Mohamed Ishaq
    2. Chulamani Gedara Gunasoma Nawarathne
    3. Hetti Arachchige Piyadasa Abeywardane
    4. Krishnamoorthi Ratnam Ravindran
    5. Leelananda Prematilleke
    6. Sellapuliyage Lucian Benedict Rosa
    7. Sivasubramaniam Pathmanathan

    Vidya Nidhi

    1. Ahmed Mumtaz Masoon Cassim
    2. Don Tilak Dias Jayaweera Abeysekera
    3. Herath Peruma Mudiyanselage Gunasena
    4. Lekamage Ramsay Lloyd Perera
    5. Mariapillai Sellamuthu Pillai Mookiah
    6. Sarath Somasiri Gunawardhana
    7. Sivalingam Sivananthan
    8. Somasundaram Sandarasegaram
    9. Vithanage Nimal Chandrasiri Gunasekera
    10. Wanninayake Mudiyanselage Tikiri Banda Wanninayake

    Kala Suri

    1. Arumadura Praneeth Nishad De Silva Abhayasundere
    2. Cathleen Jayawardana
    3. Hasantha Srilal Hettiarachchi
    4. Lucian Bulathsinhala
    5. Mestiyage Don Bertie Sangathissa Gunathilaka
    6. Nawarathne Gamage
    7. Padma Beartrice Nita Fernando
    8. Pahalage Sarath Vijaya de Silva Abeygunawardana
    9. Premasara Epasinghe
    10. Sella Hennedige Sarath
    11. Sriyani Amarasena
    12. Sumithra Rahubadda
    13. Tissa Mahanama Nagodawithana
    14. Weerappulige Jayasiri

    Sri Lanka Thilaka

    1. Adagamage Pandula Adagama
    2. Hema Bandara Jayasinghe

    Veera Prathapa

    1. Aluth Gedara Ranjith Amarajeewa
    2. Rankoth Gedara Shanaka Prasad Kumara

    Sri Lanka Ranjana

    1. Sarath D Gunapala,
    2. Siddhartha Kaul

  • 0

    Congratulations Devanesan,

    You are much respected by all you work with in a formal or an informal capacity.

    Hope your injured arm gets better soon.


  • 0

    I was a student of St Thomas prep when Mrs Nesiah was Librarian. At this time, the Secretary Plan Implementation (whose sons were in prep) gave a donation of Rs 5000 for the library. It was big money then and Headmaster J.S.L.Fernando was very happy. It was shocking for me to hear that this Secretary was corrupt. But his donation of Rs 5000 brought in lot of good books which I enjoyed reading. By the age of 9, I had read DR Wijewardene by HAJ Hulugalle and JR Jayewardene by TDSA Dissanayake.

  • 6

    While the writer is apparently basking in his reflected glory, considerable embarrassment must have been caused to Devanesan and his immediate family.Bensen

    • 2

      Mr. Berner,

      Of course I will bask in my close relative’s reflected glory with no apologies.

      As for embarrassment to his family, many members of his immediate family have thanked me immensely for writing this; Dr. Mrs Nesiah three times.

      Dr. Devanesan Nesiah is a very open person and is frank even when he criticises someone saying “I am very open about it.” He even said this when relating the story about his crooked boss, adding “He knows I say this to everyone who is willing to listen.” That is why I had hesitation in writing what I did.

      If you have relatives to boast about, please go ahead. I will be happy for you and if they make good examples like DN does, the whole community will benefit.

      • 1


        Thank you for your write up about Dr. Devanesan Nesiah. As a Prep Alumnus, I appreciated hearing of Dr. Mrs. Nesiah’s and her spouse’s accomplishments.

        Mr. Bunsen Burner is clearly having some psychiatric problems over your family’s achievements and yours.

        Please ignore him and his types. Keep up your good work.


    • 1

      Bensen Burner,

      Your ability to sift the grain out of the chaff is to be appreciated. The rush to negate your criticism by a few here results from either naiveté or a desperate attempt at intentional diversion. They would thus frame your point as diminishing Mr. Nesiah rather than directly address your accusation, namely the exposure of Ratnajeevan’s deceitful self-serving intent delivered under a cloak of charitable adoration.

      You did not tarnish the eminence of Nesiah – indeed you suggested that Nesiah’s inherent humility would only likely embarrass him that his own cousin had to write this glorifying appreciation. Perhaps if his cousin was just one among many to offer that appreciation, or had that sentiment come from a complete outsider, then that would have meant much more to Mr. Nesiah and would have been far less discomforting to him. A very valid point. And very well made! I doubt if those who attacked you were really so thick as to not realize that!

      Anyone who followed Ratnajeevan feverish attempts to inundate this blog space in the last couple of months, and the obvious, gradual transition in his tactics, would no doubt have spotted Ratnajeevan’s relentless end-goal of self-promotion as you have so correctly pointed out.

      I will be more than happy to time-line the roguish shifts of Jeevan’s strategies from the very first articles where he pleaded for public support for his aspiration to the VC position all the way to the current articles that are nothing but attempts to bury the sins of the past articles by masquerading a charitable if not benevolent persona.

      However, my experience is that while CT is willing to tolerate undue abusive language, insinuations and innuendoes, the journal somehow seems disinclined towards objective criticisms of select personnel. So I will hold off on detailing my observations on what I consider are Jeevan’s sins-of-the-past, including hit-and-runs!

  • 1

    I am from Nesiah’s family and I don’t think anyone in the family found the article embarrassing at all. In fact, we are all proud of him for not bending down to anyone and we all look up to him.

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