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 of 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 third 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 new entrant 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 J R 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 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, sooner the better. So began a shared-journey of twenty five long years. 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 arrived at the same conclusions, more often than not. When the 1977 elections came upon us, we were ready. J R as 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 D S 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 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 made 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. Maine-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 Maine-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, Maine-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, we miss you.
Native Vedda / October 24, 2017
“Gamini, we miss you”
We too miss him.
JR in an interview to British news paper singled out Gamini as the richest person in South Asia. We missed him when he made all the wealth JR was referring to.
We miss him because we want to know who was responsible for the destruction of Jaffna Library? We miss him because we want to know who stole the remaining books and transported to the south? We miss him because we want to know where those books are kept?
We miss him because we want to know as to why the library was burnt down?
Tamil from the north / October 24, 2017
Gamini Dissanayake, no body misses this racist scum bag bastard. I only wish today that he realized what he did to the Jaffna library. He took away a monument we were so proud of. Another piece of dirt by the name Cyril Matthew and 200 scoundrels in police uniforms set fire to the library and ransacked the Jaffna new market. It was a devastating site to see. We all went in our family car and saw the destruction. As a small child it brought tears to my eyes and could not believe how humans can stoop down to this level and even take education away from normal people.
“Gamini never had time to discuss people or events with me. He always discussed ideas with me”. – did this rascal discuss the idea of destroying the only monument the Tamils were proud of? Did he? Why don’t you enlighten us on this matter?
Justice & Fairplay / October 24, 2017
Palitha Pelpola has to answer only one question – honestly. Did or did not Gamini Dissanayake make money that was not his fair due?
Because there is so much innuendo on this matter, it is important we clear this one out before diving into other areas of the man.
Men with ill-gotten wealth are simply not worth ruminating over. This yardstick must apply to all.
old codger / October 24, 2017
Gamini Dissanayake was a good example of what an elite education (Trinity and Cambridge) can do for a man.
It enabled him to fine-tune his worst instincts and display them as virtues. A less educated man couldn’t have done it. Do we see the likes of Palitha Pelpola heaping praises on Ranasingha Premadasa?
My apologies to anyone who was expecting something else.
Justice & Fairplay / October 24, 2017
Elite educated people have let the side and the country down badly. What did the elitist education of G.L. Peiris finally reduce him to?
Lincoln had almost no education at all but is spoken of, with much reverence. He was self-educated. Churchill’s education was a disaster. He learnt to hate Harrow and he couldn’t go anywhere near a University. But look where did he finally end up!.
Although a Thomian, D.S. Senanayake learnt of books and maths very little but was probably the most charismatic leader we had. Ranasinghe Premadasa, much like Lincoln was a self taught man and should be admired for what he achieved rather than what he lacked. He probably had the finest ear for his people and the greatest gut feel and instinct among them all. Unfortunately he allowed the lack of elitism to affect him, but any worthy historian devoid of bias and snobbery, would rate him very highly for what he achieved as a leader in the end.
It is infinitely more admirable when someone from an non-priviledged background rises to the highest position in the land, than someone who had all the trappings but still couldn’t reach the heights..
SJ / October 24, 2017
He got into politics and accumulated wealth much before he went to Cambridge.
So you have only TCK to blame.
old codger / October 25, 2017
Exactly what I was saying, in a roundabout way.
Dr. Gnana Sankaralingam / October 25, 2017
To be fair by Gamini, he was not a inherent racist like Lalith Athulathmudali. He was an opportunistic racist like SWRD. GD was physically present in Jaffna together with Cyril Mathew and Premachandra. JSS members and thugs were taken to Jaffna as election officials, but with an ulterior motive of creating disturbances there. Whether GD was directly involved in the burning of Jaffna library in 1981 or not, the fact that he was at the site and did not prevent it happening is an indictment against him. He cannot feign ignorance as, during the previous night a meeting was held in Jaffna fort for Sinhala policemen where the plan to create trouble and burn the library was described. Jaffna library was deliberately targeted in order to destroy ancient Ola leaves detailing history of Jaffna. It is a shame that DIG Edward Gunawardena who knew about this placing the blame on LTTE to cover up his complicity.
Dr. Gnana Sankaralingam / October 25, 2017
As for his involvement in anti-Tamil riots there are no complaints against him for riots in 1977 or 1981. But in 1983, he was a member of JR’s kitchen cabinet together with JR, Premadasa, Lalith and Cyril Mathew. The original plan was to commit them on the Sunday night and then warn Tamils if anymore such killings of soldiers took place this will be repeated. Unfortunately others particularly Cyril Mathew had other ideas. Till black Friday where JVP instigated Kotiya attack to send many Sinhalese running to hide, there was no allegation against GD of committing atrocities. But on Friday he did a dastardly thing. Renuka Herath got all thugs in Nuwaraeliya arrested and there was no problem. On that day GD flew to Nuwaraeliya by helicopter and got the thugs released and instigated them to commit atrocities on lives and properties of Tamils. Subsequently he took Indian side and supported the Indo-Srilanka accord and fell foul of Premadasa and rest is history.
Percy / October 24, 2017
So according to Tamil from the North Gamini D was a “racist scumbag bastard”
I totally agree. I can also add that he was corrupt to the bone. Remember all the Mahaweli contracts had to go through his in laws company Finco. At the end the country was in debt to its eyeballs while Gamini D and his extended family became billionaires overnight. Little wonder that his relative recently appointed as Chairman of a Corporation refused to sign the assets declaration form saying that his assets are no business of the govt.!!
Justice & Fairplay / October 24, 2017
Let me remind the writer of one important point. When you are inside the frame, you are the least qualified to see the picture.
You were a close follower and aide of GD. Therefore this qualifies as a highly subjective piece of writing.
If Gamini was the best human being of that entire JR cabinet, it speaks poorly of the other fellows in it.
Thangamma / October 24, 2017
so gave up your fake name for this column eh? Are you one of the goons who got drunk in Nuwara Eliya and threatened Mrs. Bandaranaike in 1977-78 and waved guns at her? Or was it another Pelpola UNP arse kisser crook?
K.Pillai / October 24, 2017
Palitha Pelpola tries to impress someone in this here ~ “Gamini Dissanayake, A ‘Moving’ Charisma”
Palitha is saying “I am here”. Why why why?
GD and Cyril Mathew watched with glee the burning down of Jaffna Library in 1981.
Palitha: This woke up the victims who founded liberation movements.
Thangamma / October 25, 2017
1983 July riots. Did Gamini do anything to stop it?
Jaffna Library burning?
Native Vedda / October 25, 2017
The Dutta Gamini warned the Tamils:
” that it would require 14 hours for Indian troops to come and rescue them but the Sinhalese could destroy them in 14 minutes if they wanted to”.
“When some decent UNP leaders like Shelton Ranarajah and Renuka Herath Ranasinghe got goons locked up by the Police in Kandy and Nuwara – Eliya respectively their release was secured by Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake. The role of Cyril Mathew and his political lackeys in the violence are well –known. Some of those involved are still in politics and holding high office.”
Tamil from the north / October 25, 2017
NV, I still remember Mr. Shelton Ranarajah, he was a saint. A man of absolute high caliber and a wonderful human. The Tamils owe a great deal to him. I have not known about Ms. Ranasinghe.
Tamil from the north / October 25, 2017
Thangamma, Gamini D lead the attack on the Jaffna library with that low class hoodlum by the name Cyril Matthew.
pirabakaran- velupillai / October 25, 2017
Deflowering girls was Gamini”s favourite past time. He is an A*R*S*E hole who was responsible for burning the Jaffna library.
Percy / October 25, 2017
While I don’t condone racist attacks on our Demala brothers, they will do well especially people like SankRalingam to remember that racism from the Tamils will be met with racism from the Sinhalese. So if you want to ethnically cleanse the North of Sinhalese and Muslims you have absolutely no right to live in the South. If that is clearly understood then there should be no problem
Tamil from the north / October 25, 2017
Percy, no Sinhalese man or woman should fear living in the north. This country belongs to all. The only question is, what are you going to do in the north. Unless of course you are a doctor, lawyer or businessman/woman, you have no hope there. But if you are willing to take a chance and start some lucrative venture, by all means you should go there and do something to uplift this country. I remember when I was there, the best breads were baked by Sinhalese bakers. All ran away due to these LTTE buggers.
Sinhala_Man / October 26, 2017
Precisely, dear TFTN. Staring government tourist hotels, maintaining a military presence just to assert that we have a right to bethere should not be what we do.
Yes, I’m sure that you will welcome the Sinhala bakers who genuinely contributed to the lives of the “ordinary Tamils”. Those who talk so much of having a right to live there, must go without political sponsorship, as citizens of Sri Lanka who, apart from wanting to capitalise on possibilities of enriching themselves, also have a positive attitude towards the people of the North.
never mind who is to blame more for the War; those going MUST have a commitment to building good relations – else wh move in to those areas at all?
Tamil from the north / October 26, 2017
Sinhala_Man, absolutely I will welcome our Sinhala brothers and sisters back to Jaffna. Though I live in Canada, I still want to see we all get along well. These Sinhala bakers did not suddenly show up in Jaffna those days. They were there for ages and just like the racism in the south, there was racism in the north as well. It is good that these bakers ran away, I presume some of them are still alive because of that. Had they remained in Jaffna, the LTTE would have finished them off. If Tamils can live in the south, why can’t the Sinhalese and Muslims live in the north? But the military should leave and forced settlement should not happen. If a Sinhalese person wants to go to the north for good reasons, why not. Go and uplift the economy of the entire nation. I had a Sinhalese friend in Jaffna who played in my evening football team. I brought him into the team. I left the country to Canada around the same time the unrest was starting. I privately told him, get out of the north and go back to Moratuwa (I think he is from there). Jaffna was not a safe place the way things were going and he agreed. The next time when I went to see him whether he was interested in playing another match, he was gone. I wished him all the best in my mind and hope he has done well for himself today.
Jimsofty / October 26, 2017
Tamil From the Frozen North. It does not m,atter. don’t come back to Sinhale.go back to Tamilnadu if you want to come.
Tamil from the north / October 28, 2017
Jim Shitty, who gives a crap what you think. You are a class A idiot. Stay that way.
Justice & Fairplay / October 25, 2017
“Racism from the Tamils” if any, shall be dealt through the Law of the land, and NOT through the “Racism from the Sinhalese”.
As a Sinhalese and a Buddhist, I totally reject your statement and further wish to say you have no right to speak on behalf of all Sinhalese.
Speak for yourself Percy. We are tired of racists in our midst, never mind from which race they come.
Percy / October 25, 2017
If I am not mistaken the writer of this article is an ex police constable who was pushed up the ladder by Gamini D for leading goo da attacks on Gs political opponents
Percy / October 26, 2017
Tamil from the North_I applaud your attitude. But the tragedy is that none of the Tamils anywhere in SL spoke out against ethnic cleansing while existing comfortably in the South.An intellectually challenged person calling himself “justice and fairply” says that racism from the Tamils will be dealt by the law. If that is the case so will racism by the Sinhalese. The question seem to completely by pass his capacity for thinking.It is the Tamil leadership that led Tamil racism.people like Prabakaran,Ponnambala, and now Sampanthan.That is my view and I do not seek “justice and fair plays” endorsement for my views. Who knows whether he is Sinhalese or Tamil or for that matter whether he is fish or fowl. Who cares?
Thassim / October 26, 2017
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Justice & Fairplay / October 26, 2017
Well, by the looks of it, it appears GD comes out overwhelmingly in the negative at the end of the exercise. Good try though, PP.
However this discussion has led to a great show of amity among some Sinhalese and some Tamil gentlemen who have written in, and that is one plus GD has achieved, posthumously.
There however will be no prices offered for the answer to the question: Which Sri Lankan Minister institutionalized corruption in this country?
Balan Nadarajah / October 27, 2017
We had enough of racism, discrimination and politicking in once our beautiful, peaceful and prosperous island. Still we have not learnt lessons even after going thru so much turmoil for so many years. Even the current politicians from both sides are playing the same games. Why not we think countries like Singapore, Mauritius and other small countries where many races live side by side peacefully. The only reason being one common language used. In those countries people Indian, Chinese, whites, Africans live and share the same. The language, religion and culture should be practised at home. When you come to public, all people should share the same Language, and common goal to uplift the country. If the politicians and the people do not change for good, the country will go into more chaos and even backwards.