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.”