By Palitha Pelpola –
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great American poet of the nineteenth century wrote thus about great men: “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” A scarce few of Sri Lankan leaders, past or present, would deserve mention in the category of great souls that Longfellow describes. Gamini Dissanayake has certainly reserved his dwelling in that rarest of the rare sacred chalets.
His twenty seventh death anniversary falls on October 24th. It is most difficult to be objective when writing about personalities in contemporaneous times, especially when one has a personal relationship with the person in question. I, for one, do not even pretend to be objective, yet would attempt to pen down some vivid memories that I cherish, with utmost care for the accuracy of facts and also express judgments at the same time. My judgments may be biased, yet the facts and incidents do bear utmost accuracy and precision. Gamini Dissanayake’s place in post-independent Sri Lanka’s political history is unique in that he was one leader who would unquestionably be classified with the top echelon of leaders albeit he never reached that summit of power either as Prime Minister or President. In fact, his pinnacle was as Leader of the Opposition. When he stood up to speak in the well of the House of Parliament as its Leader of the Opposition, it was always a full house and not a single political friend or foe dared disturb him.
I met Gamini Dissanayake for the first time in 1970. It was a memorable year for the United National Party (UNP). Against a no-contest pact amongst the SLFP, LSSP and CP, the UNP suffered a most humiliating electoral debacle, which in terms of statistics, was worse than that it agonized over in 1956. The two Bandaranaikes, husband and wife, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias and Sirimavo respectively, made sure that the UNP was reduced to electoral shreds. However, there was one newcomer from the UNP. When the titans fell, a tyro into politics, to withstand the storm, in the hill country of Nuwara Eliya in itself was a small miracle. Gamini Dissanayake whose campaign was most unconventionally and fearlessly managed by another young novice into this character-defining enterprise called politics, Gamini’s brother in law Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, defeated an experienced political hand William Fernando of the SLFP.
When I met Gamini in the latter part of 1970 he was already in the category called unseated parliamentarians. Resulting from an election petition judgment, Gamini was unseated from the seat and now awaiting his appeal. At the time I was the President of the newly formed student front of the UNP. As the founder-President of the Eksath Samawadi Shishya Peramuna (United Egalitarian Student Front), I was invited to speak at a seminar organized by the Trade Union attached to the State engineering Corporation. However, this invite was not greeted by the majority of our Front at the time as the main Party had been divided between the Dudley group and the JR Jayewardene clique. Most of the Student Front was of the Dudley group while only Harsha Abeywardene as Central Committee Member (who later became the Chairman of the Party in the 80s and killed by the JVP) and myself advocated for the non-firing of JRJ from the Party. Those who were in the majority made an abortive attempt to keep me from accepting the invitation as they knew it was Gamini Dissanayake who was billed to preside over the said seminar and who was classified as a JR supporter. I insisted that I attend the seminar and deliver a speech on behalf of the Student Front. When I arrived at the meeting, it was well under way and sat next to this youthful ex-parliamentarian who happened to preside over the proceedings. When my turn came I spoke for about twenty minutes and the moment I sat down Gamini Dissanayake had a small chat and wrote down his telephone number and address on a piece of paper and asked me to come and see him, the sooner the better. So began a shared-journey of twenty five long years. It indeed was a voyage of discovery, for me more than for him. This association was of great value to me.
While on this journey together, I happened to work for him as a loyal subordinate, erstwhile friend, and a political partner who saw things through the same prism and more often than not, arrived at the same conclusions. When the 1977 elections came upon us, we were ready. JR as the leader of the Party unleashed a fine-tuned machine, a political force that had no precedent and knew no match worthy of mention in any of the following years. The whole country was waiting for the Election Day. The rout that the JR-UNP caused to the SLFP and its satellite alliance was total and worse than those of the UNP of ’56 and ’70. Gamini placed me in charge of the Nuwara Eliya/Maskeliya campaign. At the tender age of 26, I, having learnt the ABC of electioneering from the great maestro Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, managed to produce the biggest majority for a winning UNP candidate, for Gamini Dissanayake.
In 1977 Gamini was only 35 years. We came down to Colombo two days after election and I stayed with my close friend Harsha. I received a call from Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria the day after and he told me that ‘Ga’, as Gamini was fondly called in his family circles, wanted me to come to the Ministry of Irrigation, Power and Highways the following day as he was to assume duties as Minister. The Ministry was housed in the old Treasury building, in the same room the old DS used to galvanize the whole country towards massive land settlement and irrigation schemes in the 1930s as Minister of Agriculture in the State Council. For a couple of weeks I used to go to the Ministry every day and occupy one of the rooms leading to that of the Minister. One day at about 11 in the morning I saw a man clad in a native national costume dashing towards Gamini’s room without checking with any us who were charged with the responsibility of keeping Gamini informed ahead of time. I asked Athukorale, the KKS (peon) who was more or less the gatekeeper of the Minister’s room, to ask the man to come and see me before he saw the Minister. A man clad in the local national dress, a man of middle age, but looking very dignified yet humble, told me that he was the MP for Passara. I immediately offered my apologies and accompanied him to the Minister and came back to my desk. In about ten minutes Gamini came into my room with Passara MP.
He looked at me and said to the MP: ‘Manthri thuma, me thamai mage Pudgalika Lekam… Hon. MP, this is my Private Secretary’. Gamini introduced me to the MP as his Private Secretary.
That’s how I came to know that Gamini had decided to make me his Private Secretary, without even letting me know in advance. Such was the man’s nature, one of candid spontaneity and aura of sincerity. After the MP left, Gamini summoned me to his room and gave a pep talk of ten minutes and told me thus: ‘Palitha, hereafter I want you to be my alter-ego…’ and went on to elaborate what exactly the term meant and the expectations that he had of me. His mission was specific and defined, his vision, all-encompassing, global and infinite. He was my leader, my guru, and my dear friend, a bundle of charisma on feet.
Allow me to narrate another story: When the Mahaweli Program was well underway; an Australian delegation paid a call on Gamini in the early eighties. By this time, funding for Victoria, Kotmale, Randenigala and Maduru Oya had been finalized. Yet we needed funds for the downstream development work and Gamini asked if the Australian Government could help. They left without any confirmation of funds. Warwick Mayne-Wilson, the Australian High Commissioner too was at the discussions. Soon after this meeting Gamini had a prearranged press briefing on some other subject. Following day all news media carried the news item that Australia was ready to fund the Mahaweli downstream development program. The news was totally false and the very next day Australian High Commission summoned a news conference and issued a vehement contradiction. Gamin knew that he was in a very embarrassing situation. Gamini summoned me to his office and told me as follows: ‘Palitha, go to High Commissioner’s residence. Don’t tell him you’re coming. Make an unannounced call on him and explain to him that at no time did he, the Minister, tell the press as was printed in the newspapers and it was a mere exaggeration by mischievous journalists and offer my personal apologies to him and his government if they were hurt’. I made the call on the High Commissioner’s residence. When I entered his house I saw him coming down the stairway, with a very angry countenance and he made no attempt to conceal it either. I did so as Gamini asked me to and I saw a visible thawing of the grim air that surrounded the great Warwick Mayne-Wilson. When I said that I would take my leave, he asked me to join him in his car and asked to ask my driver to follow. While in the car, Mayne-Wilson told me something that would never leave my mind. ‘Palitha, I like Gamini a lot, because you know why? He is the best human being in the entire Cabinet’. Should I say any more?
Socrates, in his infinitely wise mind said: “Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.” Gamini never had time to discuss people or events with me. He always discussed ideas with me. In countless trips we trekked across the length and breadth of the country, where a novel human drama was unfolding, embracing fellow Sri Lankans as his brothers and sisters, empathizing with their innocent lives and adding value to them with each minute he spent with them, Gamini Dissanayake left a legacy of a dramatic vision of optimism, selfless service of man and a unique sense of dignified politics, that the country misses so sadly today.
Gamini, this nation needs men like you.