By Palitha Pelpola –
Was Gamini Dissanayake a racist? – Remembrance On His 75th Birth Anniversary
In the annals of the civil war that raged between the Sri Lankan security forces and Tamil militants led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and other terrorist organizations, the burning of the Jaffna Public Library was a momentous event. It has been chronicled that an organized mob of Sinhalese origin went on a rampage on the night of June 1, 1981, burning the library. In the fair opinion of many independent observers, it was one of the most vicious examples of ‘ethnic biblioclasm’ of the 20th century. At the time of its destruction, the library was considered one of the major libraries in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts.
According to ill-founded rumors, roguishly generated by powerful insiders of the then UNP-led government itself, among the main culprits who led this insensitive and coldhearted plunder was Gamini Dissanayake, the then Minister of Mahaweli Development and Lands And Lands Development and a very close associate of President J R Jayewardene. However, in terms of the contents of the Memoirs of Edward Gunawardene, the then Deputy Inspector General of Police, Gamini Dissanayake was vindicated beyond any reasonable doubt, of this dastardly act. Nevertheless, propagandists of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its Presidential Candidate in 1994 went to town on this unfounded allegation that Gamin was behind the burning of the library. Dr. Carlo Fonseka, a well-known social scientists and a loud hailer for the so-called ‘left’, was one of the main antagonists who accused Gamini Dissanayake, without any evidentiary material in his possession. He used the Presidential Elections-platform to hurl these innuendos, posing as an authentic source of information.
Yet it was quite magnanimous of Carlo Fonseka to have dissociated from these false allegations after reading Edward Gunawardena’s memoirs. He went as far as admitting to being delusional at the time he was indulging in these falsehoods. According to his own words, “EG was our man on the spot and he was an eye-witness to the event. Chapter XI titled: Who burnt the Jaffna library? gives a clear, authoritative and comprehensive account of the Jaffna Library Fire. It riveted my attention. It disabused my mind of an illusion, or rather I should say, a delusion. In psychiatry, a delusion is defined as a false belief persisted in despite evidence to the contrary. I now think that the period in question was one in which “the time was out of joint” in our country and EG was born to set the historical record right. Owing to my delusion that it was Minister Gamini Dissanayake who burnt the Jaffna Library, I became guilty of an act which will remain a permanent source of regret in my life. Allow me to use the privilege of appearing on this platform to try and make amends for the injustice I inflicted on Minister Gamini Dissanayake”.
My own account of these allegations about the burning of the Jaffna Library might be even more relevant in that as Gamini Dissanayake’s Private Secretary at the time, I am fairly sure that GD, as he was fondly called by his close associates, was nowhere near Jaffna. He was engaged in the District Council Election campaign in another district in Uva Province. I was in Nuwara Eliya myself at the time and we learnt about the burning of the Library late night on June 1, 1981. But today some Tamils, both in Sri Lanka and overseas still believe that it was Gamin Dissanayake who was responsible for the burning of the ‘treasure trove of the learned’ in the peninsula. Unfortunately for Gamini Dissanayake, Carlo Fonseka came out clean a way too late and after his demise. Even that came after the publishing of the memoirs of Edward Gunawardena. Consequently, in the context of vindication and clearing of Gamini Dissanayake’s name and removing one blemish, if any, that he had on his name, Carlo Fonseka’s confession has no meaning, nor does it have any weight, to be really honest. Gamini Dissanayake when he was living and even after his demise, is being judged in the most unfortunate fashion. While the Tamils, especially the Diaspora passed judgment on Gamini as an anti-Tamil and a ‘racist’, some Sinhalese leaders, specifically in the so-called intelligentsia and some current politicians, labeled him as a pro-Tamil politician. That indeed is a very unfortunate status a politician would like to find himself in. Remember, Gamini was one of the victims of the murderous suicide gang of Prabhakaran. He was killed by the LTTE and he was hated by the militant Tamil organizations. And one other major causes for which Gamini is held in contempt by both fringes, anti-Sinhalese and anti-Tamil, for his bold and creative role he played in the crafting and implementing the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution.
All this and other related events and information need to be taken into serious consideration when one ascertains whether Gamini Dissanayake was a racist or not. Oxford dictionary defines racist as thus: ‘someone who believes that other races are not as good as their own and therefore treats them unfairly’. In terms of that definition, most of today’s Sinhalese politicians including the leaders of the last regime of the Rajapaksas are confirmed racists. But Gamini Dissanayake, whether in the narrow context of the definition of the word, or when taken against a backdrop of the vast programs undertaken by him, his public conduct of affairs and when staffing and obtaining professional advice from his private and official staff, Gamini Dissanayake was one single leader in the government of J R Jayewardene from 1977 to 1989 and thereafter until his death who remained a very balanced human being as a private individual and an exemplary politician who wished to serve Sri Lanka as one single nation without any prejudice towards any person or a group or class of persons based purely on race, caste, faith.
Sri Lanka today is not the same country that was there during Gamini’s life which spanned only fifty two years. The illuminating effect Gamini had on the landscape of politics, his passionate involvement with whatever the subject he handled at the time, his courageous stances on politically sensitive issues were all traits of an admirable politician whose commitment to the lofty ideals of politics was total and complete as it could possibly be. His appeal to varied issues that confronted Sri Lanka in the last couple of decades of the last century might not be relevant today. But his engagement with those issues and the methodology and equanimous attitude towards those issues do matter in any time, past, present or future. His exposure to the geopolitical equations that were in play, his more-than-cordial relationships with global leaders, he being accepted as one single person in whom one can place full trust when engaging in matters political, industrial, trade or whatever relevant to the very existence of our country as a sovereign member of the family of nations.
Detractors and critics of Gamini Dissanayake might indulge themselves in perverted pleasure of disparaging him as a racist or a traitor to the cause of Sinhalese-Buddhists. Voyages into search of truth may be hard and filled with many a storm and tempest; they may be navigating some of the most modern and state-of-the-art ship and your ultimate port might be a deserted island or a utopian land. But when voters are asked to cast their votes in an election, when they are asked to place their trust in one single person to navigate that ship in troubled waters and in stormy environs, Gamini Dissanayake’s name would appear right on top. All the past election results in respect of Gamini’s performance in them are ample testimony to his magic appeal and ensuing readiness to embrace the electorate as his brothers and sisters from wherever they appeared, North, South, East or West.
Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard said: “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations – one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it – you will regret both”. In that context, let me share with you some info which I have not shared with anyone to date. During the Presidential Election campaign in 1994, Hamilton Wanasinghe, the then JOC Commander, contacted me and asked me to advise Dissanayake not to visit the East. When I asked him why, he said that there is imminent threat to his life from the Tigers. At the time the Chandrika Bandaranaike government had given bare minimum security to Gamini and majority of the security personnel was from private sources. When I intimated this to GD, his reply was thus: “Palitha, I am a politician, my place is among the people. If I decide to get away from that environ, then I must get out of politics”. In fact I could not cancel any commitment that he had made to the campaign schedule. In hindsight, that was the undoing of Gamini Dissanayake. Yet when all pens are down and voices are mute, from D S Senanayake to the current President and Prime Minister, Gamini Dissanayake stands singularly as a Sinhalese Buddhist leader who stood by the basic Buddhist principle of
“Najachcha Wasalo Hothi, Najachcha Hothi Brahmano
Kammana Wasalo Hothi, Kammana Hothi Brahmano
One does not outcast by birth or Genius by birth
Thus will be outcast by deed or will be genius by deed”
The writer can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org