“If you can make one heap of all your winnings, And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss;…..’ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch, if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,…………If you can fill the unforgiving minute, With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Eighteen years and two day ago, in the wee hours of the morning, amidst an ominous sounding drizzle, a woman with a deadly bomb strapped to her frail body and with a determination to
achieve an end so prescribed to her by her own death-dealing masters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, stood among the thousands who attended a mass meeting in support of the then Presidential Candidate of the United National Party.
The venue was “Thotalanga” (In Colombo North) and the time was twenty minutes past midnight on October 24, 1994. Gamini had a busy schedule all day, having covered four electorates in the Kurunegala district and he arrived in Colombo with G M Premachandra, the firebrand of the United National Party at about half past seven in the evening.
He went home, had dinner and a change of clothes and started for the last meeting of the day. The Candidate finished one of his signature election orations; he waved to the crowds that thronged the front of the stage and bade “good night”, then looked at his wristwatch and corrected himself by bidding, ‘”good morning”.
Those were the last words uttered by Gamini Dissanayake, Presidential Candidate of the UNP. A man who was destined to be a leader of men, a super Minister among Ministers, an intellectual-giant among intellectuals, an extraordinary advocate of human rights, a superlative thinker of both ancient and modern thought, a valiant warrior for the rural farmer, the heart-throb of the crazy cricket fans and above all a colossal human being, unsurpassed and unmatched, was felled down by another suicide bomber of the LTTE.
Where are the leaders?
The grief that swept across the country and the shattering blow that stunned the nation, has benumbed the UNP supporters and the vacuum that his departure left behind has not yet been filled, and will never be. That is the real tragedy. With each passing day, month and year, we are reminded that leaders of the caliber of Gamini Dissanayake are indeed an extinguished species.
Where to find men?
Where do we find such men? Gamini knew where to find such men and women. He found them in the remote farmland of rural Sri Lanka, on the ancient bunds of the arid zones, on the street corners of urban neighborhoods, in the shack-boutiques on a busy thoroughfare, on the playing fields of cricket and among the commonest of the common. Gamini had his moments of fragility as well to go along with those of glory, yet he never had regrets about his failures.
Gamini the man
Although the writer knew Gamini Dissanayake at a somewhat personal level, he had to get in contact with one of the closest associates of his to get some snippets of the man’s character and his policies that shaped the destiny of our country for two and half decades. I have no reason
whatsoever to doubt the authenticity of the stories he related to me.
The conclusions and the image the writer has drawn in his mind are based purely on the numerous discussions he had with Gamini’s associate. Yet the writer, in the interest of keeping this narration read-worthy, will try to present it in first person terms.
Leader of the Opposition 1994
After Gamini became the Leader of the Opposition in 1994, at one of the first meetings of the Party Leaders that was held under the Chairmanship of Speaker K B Ratnayake, the Speaker sought the permission of all Party leaders to allow Professor G L Peiris, the then Minister of Constitutional Affairs and Justice in the Chandrika Bandaranaike Cabinet to make a presentation.
Among the Party leaders that were present were S Thondaman of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Joseph Pararajasingham of the Tamil United Liberation Front, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Leader of the House and Richard Pathirana. Professor Peiris started his presentation with his usual professorial rhetoric, saying that the recent election results showed that the constituency is thoroughly dissatisfied with the system of the Executive Presidency and that he intimated to the Party leaders that the Prime Minister, Chandrika Bandaranaike sought the support of all parties to amend the Constitution of Sri Lanka since the required two-thirds majority was not there with the ruling People’s Front Government.
The 1972 Constitution and Colvin R
He also went on to say that the intention of the Prime Minister was to introduce a Constitution that would stand the “test of time’. All the Party leaders looked at Gamini Dissanayake as it was obvious that Professor’s plea was really to Gamini Dissanayake, the Leader of the Opposition. Gamini, in his usual style started and stated thus: “G L, you mentioned that the Prime Minister intends to introduce a Constitution that would stand the test of time. That is exactly what Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike said when she brought in the 1972 Constitution. In fact, the then Minister of Constitutional Affairs, Dr. Colvin R de Silva said that the only thing that the 1972 Constitution could not accomplish was to make a man a woman and woman a man.
Are you willing to do that Professor G.L Peiris?
That Constitution was changed within six short years and Mr. J R Jayewardene brought in the
present Constitution, according to which it is almost impossible to obtain a two-thirds majority for any single party in future elections. Now you are talking about introducing a Constitution that would stand the test of time. I will tell you: I have not yet talked to my Party, but I can give you the assurance now that I would get the one hundred percent support of my Party but you cannot call for nominations for the next Presidential Elections and then amend the Constitution. Don’t call for Nominations but amend the Constitution first. Are you willing to do that G L?”
Gamini called Chandrika’s bluff
There was pin drop silence. Not a single other Party leader uttered a word. All what had to be said was said by one sharp brilliant mind who took the professor to school that day. Gamini called Chandrika’s bluff. G L withdrew from the meeting saying that he had nothing to say. One could detect the brilliance and presence of mind of very high caliber and sensitivity.
Where do we find such men?
Gamini upset with JR for not appointing him Prime Minister
In 1978 after the introduction of the new Constitution and after J R Jayewardene taking oaths as the President of Sri Lanka, R Premadasa was nominated as the Prime Minister. Then there was a lunch at the President’s House for which all Ministers and Government Parliamentarians were invited. Gamini was cut up as he thought that J R would appoint him (Gamini) as Prime Minister and Gamini decided not to attend the lunch. At about 12:30 p.m. there was a call from the President’s Office to Gamini’s house on the 5th Lane. The caller had asked why Gamini was late for the lunch. The caller was told that Gamini was not coming at which time J R himself had come on line and said thus: “Gamini, I’m not going to eat until you come.” Gamini had no choice but to head for the President’s House.
Where do we find such men?
Australian High Commission and Gamini – a diplomatic spat
Then there was the episode of huge misunderstanding between the Australian High Commission and Gamini. Gamini had a press briefing and the Daily News reported that according to the Minister of Mahaweli Development, the Australian Government had committed to the funding of downstream development work in System “C”. The following day the Australian High Commissioner, Maine-Wilson issued a press release that it was not true. Gamini summoned his Private Secretary, Palitha Pelpola at the time and asked him to see the High Commissioner immediately at his residence, without making an appointment. He asked Pelpola to just walk into the High Commissioner’s Residence and knock on the door and see him and explain the situation.
When Pelpola called on the High Commissioner, he looked thoroughly agitated but had a patient ear and asked Pelpola to get in his car to go to office. While travelling with Pelpola, the High Commissioner in very intimate terms had told him, “You know one can’t get angry with Gamini, he is the most humane person in your Cabinet”.
Where do we find such men?
Lalith vs Gamini
Another memorable episode was when the leadership of the DUNF was being fought between Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini. There was no love lost between Lalith and Gamini, yet they never, ever attacked each other in public, nor did they fight in private. Lalith was most eager to wrest the leadership away from Gamini, and after so much of negotiations and talks, Gamini, against almost all the advice he had received from his supporters, conceded the first term of leadership of the DUNF to Lalith. When asked why he did this, his answer was: “If I or Lalith leave this Party, there is no DUNF and what is more important is the survival of the Party and not my leadership.
Where do we find such men?
One wonders if Rudyard Kipling penned the poem of ‘If’, describing Gamini Dissanayake.