By Palitha Pelpola –
“The important thing to know about an assassination or an attempted assassination is not who fired the shot, but who paid for the bullet.” ~ Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios
Two dozen years have gone by after the assassination of one of the greatest men who towered over the political life in Sri Lanka in the second half or the Twentieth Century. Gamini Dissanayake, as I knew him from the year he first entered Parliament in 1970, never ran out of steam. When the average line Minister or Parliamentarian at the time was most preoccupied with mundane duties in his or her electorate, Gamini tackled big things. His vision knew no horizon. Unlike other great politicians of his time such as J R Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake and R Premadasa, Gamini was neither behind nor ahead of his time. He just fitted into the present as present was defined then.
For instance, J R was far behind his time when he assumed power in 1977. J R, in fact should have been the Prime Minister of Ceylon in the wake of the death of D S Senanayake. When Dudley asked him to take over the wheels of the State in 1951, (source: Pages 258 and 259, JR Jayewardene of Sri Lanka by Professor K M de Silva and Howard Wriggins) J R refused realizing that Dudley was much more acceptable to the country at the time. Dudley had one significant advantage over anyone else as he was the son of the deceased Prime Minister D S Senanayake. Nevertheless, while J R’s refusal to take over the reins set him back almost two and half decades for his ambition of leading Sri Lanka, Dudley’s takeover proved that he was not ready for the grueling trail of political intrigue. R Premadasa on the other hand, who would not have risen to the pinnacle of the United National Party (UNP) but for the fact that J R foresaw the immediate future of the Party lay in the hands of a populist leader whose appeal to the déclassé of Sri Lankan voters, as a hardworking politician whose work and hobby both were politics, as a an ambitious self-driven politician was unmatched and unmatchable at the time and even since then. Yet when R Premadasa, the champion of the déclassé, voice of the poor and an exceptional leader of the underprivileged became a victim of a bomb-blast, some took to the streets and lit crackers expressing their relief or somewhat joy at his death.
Being cheerful at anybody’s demise is an absolutely despicable response to someone’s death. Collective cheerfulness assumes and injects even a more gruesome element into it making it seem ‘acceptable’ or forgivable in specific circumstances. R Premadasa, with all his political plusses and minuses, did not deserve such human trash. Those who happened to light crackers at the death of R Premadasa exhibited, if not anything else, a tremendously low sense of enmity and vengeance.
Bandaranaike’s assassination was the first political assassination in our short history of post-Independence era. Bandaranaike was one single politician who, whether one agreed with his groundbreaking policies or not, whose rhetoric never matched his performance as a pragmatic political leader. In fact his deficiencies in astute leadership of a nation ultimately tragically led Mapitigama Buddharakkhitha, a leading member of the five pillars of his political platform, ‘Sanga, Veda, Guru, Govi and Kamkaru’, to plan and plot his slaying. Bandaranaike led this country for three short years. Some of the policies and programs he injected into the country’s polity had some far reaching effects which are being felt even today. The ill-effects of the Sinhala-only policy, nationalization of some profit making companies and turning them into loss-making ones and placing financial burdens on the country’s ailing GDP are not very fond memories of the man.
The other two political assassinations, those of Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, belong to a totally different genre. Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake were both men of immense stature and education. Their charisma glowed wherever they chose to go. They were neither behind nor ahead of their times. By 1977, Gamini had had already been baptized by fire. His very entry into politics in 1970 was remarkable, to say the least. Dudley Senanayake’s read on the gullibility of our voters was much to be desired and below par for an experienced politician like him, four times Prime Minister. Dudley Senanayake was quite sure of victory at the 1970 elections. What happened on the contrary was complete sweep for Sirimavo Bandaranaike-led coalition. The only UNP newcomer to Parliament was, when giants fell by the way side, solitary figure of Gamini Dissanayake.
Yet Gamini lost his seat due to an election petition and ironically, when Felix Dias Bandaranaike introduced an act in Parliament to pave the way for Nanda Ellawala of Ratnapura, who like Gamini was unseated by way of an election petition, to contest again, Gamini was one of the beneficiaries of this ‘act’ by Felix Dias. From that time onwards, Gamini Dissanayake had his focus on much higher ideals instead of just being satisfied with being a Parliamentarian or even a frontline Minister. Gamini never stopped from then on. He once told me that he was one of the best products to market and, do exactly that- market him as one of the best political products.
He also knew his boundaries on the political philosophy that he chose to follow. After learning of the demise of R Premadasa, Gamini and I were travelling back to Colombo from Kandy. He asked me a direct question: ‘Palitha, can we work with Chandrika and the SLFP?’ Before I could reply, he answered his own question. ‘We can’t. The gulf between the UNP and the SLFP is too wide. Our political philosophies are way too mutually exclusive. Our problem was with Premadasa, not the UNP. I’m going to meet Wijetunga (President D B Wijetunga) and rejoin the Party that elected me many a time to Parliament. I’m going back home!’ He said. Gamini’s marketability was exhibited without a shadow of doubt when the Leader of the Opposition slot became vacant. After leaving the Party and having worked against it and the then leader R Premadasa, Gamini came back and defeated Ranil Wickremasinghe by two (2) votes to become the Leader of the Opposition. The UNP parliamentarians wanted a ‘winner’ who could take the Party back to power.
One memorable event during the Presidential Election campaign in 1994 was when Gamini was surrounded by the so-called intelligentsia in the country in an open debate. Gamini shredded them to pieces and showed the country what an intellectual giant she would be privileged to be led by when Gamini Dissanayake held his sway in the midst of a politically-charged debate was televised to the country. Gamini’s death was the most consequential one in the Twentieth Century. There is no argument about that.
Political assassinations have occurred in human history more than one could write about in volumes. More and more such assassinations will recur in the future too. In an unforgiving and brutally competitive sphere of human endeavor, politicians, especially in not-so-democratic countries which have not blossomed out to be full and all-inclusive liberal societies- countries that are governed by ‘republican constitutions’- are deeply engrossed in populist and people-oriented politics. In such environments, opportunities for political assassins are aplenty and a quick rise to power is so alluring. Of all political assassinations, from S W R D Bandaranaike, R Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali to Gamini Dissanayake, with all due respect and empathy for others, Gamini Dissanayake’s assassination stands out as the most effective and consequential one in terms of depriving Sri Lanka of a potential, as J N Dixit, the former Indian High Commissioner if Sri Lanka wrote in his book, ‘Assignment Colombo’, a ‘Nation Builder’. In fact it was the unkindest cut of all.