By Nihal Jayawickrama –
Felix R Dias Bandaranaike was a contemporary of my brother at Royal College, with whom he edited the College Magazine. I still recall vividly the oversized schoolboy on a battered bicycle, cycling down the lane where we lived. However, it was I who had the unique opportunity of observing Felix at fairly close range, of working with him at the Bar, in Government and in Opposition, and of knowing him as a friend, in good times and bad, for over twenty years. He was a man of extraordinary courage and ability who straddled the political stage of this country for two decades and dignified it with his presence. He offered this country a quality of leadership that was comparable to the best anywhere in the world. He brought into the national life of this country qualities which are barely discernible in the political scene today; or perhaps more accurately, are now more the exception than the rule.
In the past thirty years, I have lived in four countries – Hong Kong, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom. In each of them, it is considered axiomatic that anyone who is presumptious enough to enter public life and claim the right to govern his or her fellow beings, must have something to offer. To be able to give, one must possess. If one possesses little or nothing, and therefore cannot give, he or she will be inclined to take and to collect and to accumulate. What Felix possessed, and therefore what he offered his country, liberally and in generous measure, was his supreme professionalism. His sharp, acute and incisive mind; the rigorous regime of discipline to which he subjected himself and those who worked with him; his continuing quest for knowledge; his deep understanding of men and matters acquired in the course of a brief but remarkably successful legal career; and his tremendous capacity for sustained effort – all these combined to mould him into a true professional.
How else could he, with no formal training whatsoever in the detection of crime, have personally investigated and successfully elicited, in barely 48 hours, all the evidence necessary to satisfy a bench of three Judges of the Supreme Court that senior officers in the police and the armed services had conspired to overthrow the lawfully elected government of the country? In 1971, when the police confessed their inability to interrogate the thousands of idealistic, ideologically committed youth who attempted to capture political power by attacking all the police stations in the country in a single night, it was Felix who assembled a team of special investigators comprising the brightest and the best in public administration and the law to perform that unenviable task. Felix reached out to achieve excellence, and he demanded that others did so too.
Felix possessed integrity, absolute incorruptabilty. I recall his mentioning to me after his first term in Government that in order to serve as a cabinet minister and not have to accept bribes and commissions, one needed to receive a fairly substantial private income. Since he could not practise law while in office, Lakshmi and he provided for that eventuality in his first five years in Opposition, by establishing a farm and developing and expanding it, as conscientiously as he approached all his other tasks. It was singularly ironic that his farm, and the perfectly circumspect manner in which Felix had instructed that its produce be disposed of – to the appropriate state corporations at the daily published price, rather than in the open market to the highest bidder – should have formed the basis of the charges on which the Special Presidential Commission constituted by Mr. J.R. Jayewardene recommended that he be stripped of his civic rights – a dubious honour which Felix shared with Mrs Bandaranaike and me. His absolute integrity, grounded upon a strong spiritual commitment was exemplified when his erstwhile antagonist, Rohana Wijeweera, chose to retain him as his counsel to challenge the conduct of the infamous referendum of 1983.
There was another quality which Felix possessed in abundance, and that was imagination. I recall the lengthy and detailed report we received from the Law Commission in response to our request for the simplification of the tedious and prolonged court proceedings relating to testamentary actions. His response was both swift and focused. Why, he asked, do the near relatives of a deceased person have to parade themselves in a court of law? His solution was to remove from the judiciary all but the disputed elements of testamentary jurisdiction, and to locate in every District Court Registry a probate officer functioning under the Public Trustee to make all the necessary orders to enable the bereaved families to continue with their lives with the least inconvenience or disruption. Felix was an innovator who constantly and unceasingly questioned the status quo and challenged many sacred cows. The Administration of Justice Laws of 1973 and 1975 which we drafted sought solutions outside the traditional framework, and had they not been repealed in 1977 would have averted the scandalous state of our judicial system today.
I did not necessarily agree with everything Felix said or did. In fact, he attempted to persuade me not to accept Mrs Bandaranaike’s invitation to be Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, arguing that at the age of 32 my future lay in the legal profession and perhaps in the judiciary. There was even one occasion when he reported me to the Prime Minister for refusing to carry out his instructions. Nevertheless, it is with gratitude that I remember the stimulating and satisfying experience of having worked with a man of extraordinary talent, a person with a brilliant incisive intellect who dignified the political stage of this country for a brief moment in its history, and who at the same time was an incorrigible wit, a very human person who enjoyed the simple pleasures of family life.