TheVersatile and multi-faceted Nissanka Wijeyeratne

Dr.Nissanka Wijeyeratne

  • Nissanka Parakrama Wijeyeratne known popularly as Nissanka was a military officer, scholar, poet, Government Agent, Permanent Secretary, Parliamentarian, Cabinet Minister, Ambassador and above all the Diyawadane Nilame of the Sri Dalada Maligawa in a productive life spanning eight decades
  •  Nissanka Wijeyeratne’s appointment as Government Agent of Jaffna in 1961 amounted to an “Agni Pareeksha”  or trial by fire in political terms  
  • A little known aspect of Nissanka’s record as a public servant was the role he played in evolving a national emblem and flag for the country as it changed from colonial Ceylon to Republican Sri Lanka in 1972

“And one man in his time plays many parts”, stated William Shakespeare in his play “As you like it”. The above mentioned observation by the Bard of Avon is quite appropriate in describing the life and work of Dr.Nissanka Wijeyeratne whose 100th birth anniversary was celebrated on June 14. Nissanka Parakrama Wijeyeratne known popularly as Nissanka was a military officer, scholar, poet, Government Agent, Permanent Secretary, Parliamentarian, Cabinet Minister, Ambassador and above all the Diyawadane Nilame of the Sri Dalada Maligawa in a productive life spanning eight decades. This article is to commemorate the birth centenary of this versatile, multi-faceted personality who rendered yeoman service to his motherland.


Nissanka Parakrama hailing from a prominent Sabaragamuwa province family was born in Colombo on June 14,1924. He was the second son of Sir Edwin (EAP) and Lady Leela Wijeyeratne of Buddhenipola Walauwa, Kegalle. Sir Edwin Wijeyeratne served as Home Minister in the first post-independence Cabinet of Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake and was later Colombo’s envoy to London and New Delhi. Nissanka’s elder brother Tissa was a barrister and diplomat who also wrote fiery articles  in newspapers under the pseudonym “Sinhaputra”.Younger brother Cuda was a medical doctor and consultant psychiatrist.
Young Nissanka  had his primary and secondary education at Royal College,Colombo. Tertiary studies was at the then University of Ceylon where he obtained a BA  Honours degree in History.  After Varsity, Nissanka was for a brief period a military officer serving as a 2nd  Lieutenant in the Ceylon Artillery (Volunteers)  Regiment.

Ceylon Civil Service 

Thereafter he sat for the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) examination. Being successful, Nissanka Wijeyeratne joined the elite civil service. In an administrative career of more than two decades Wijeyeratne held different posts at different times such as Assistant Government Agent of Puttalam and Galle, Government Agent of Anuradhapura, Mannar and Jaffna, Permanent secretary to the Ministries of Transport, Cultural Affairs and Information and Broadcasting. 

Government Agent Jaffna 

Nissanka Wijeyeratne’s appointment as Government Agent of Jaffna in 1961 amounted to an “Agni Pareeksha”  or trial by fire in political terms.  I shall write in some detail about this as few people are aware of what had happened then. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Government headed by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was in power then. Attempts by the Government to enforce Sinhala as the sole official language met with stiff resistance by the Tamil people. 
The premier Tamil political party Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) known as Federal Party (FP) in English launched in February 1961 a huge civil disobedience campaign known as “Satyagraha” in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka known as Ceylon then. Satyagraha demonstrations conducted opposite the Kachcheris of Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts (there were no Kilinochchi, Mullaitheevu and Amparai administrative districts then) paralysed work in the Kachcheris the nerve centres of district administration. 
The Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government responded to the non -violent protests launched by the ITAK/FP in a stern, forceful manner. Policemen were stationed in large numbers at the Satyagraha venues. Military and Naval personnel were also deployed. Another response was to transfer out Tamil Government Agents and replace them with Sinhalese. 
The Jaffna GA M. Srikantha, a senior civil servant was replaced at short notice by Nissanka Wijeyeratne as the acting Government Agent of Jaffna.  He was then the GA of Anuradhapura. Nissanka took over Jaffna  amidst a volatile and hostile situation. The Jaffna GA’s official residence was then at Old Park adjoining the Kachcheri. The new GA found himself unable to enter the Kachcheri or the Old Park residence premises when he assumed duties officially on March 2,1961.
Several squatting Satyagrahis blocked the entrances. 
A joint operation combining  army, navy and police personnel was conducted to disperse the Satyagrahis, violence was unleashed on the unarmed protesters. Many were injured and 17 hospitalised. The police managed to carry Nissanka Wijeyeratne on their shoulders and drop him over a wall into the Old Park precincts. It was a “bumpy” entrance. 
Nissanka Wijeyeratne being an administrator of the “philosopher -king” mould, realised that he could not function in the Old Park residency in a climate of confrontation. Brute force could not be used against protesting unarmed Satyagrahis whenever the Government Agent tried to enter or exit the residency. So Nissanka entered into dialogue with ITAK/FP leaders and reached a gentleman’s agreement. He assured the Tamil party leaders that he would not conduct any official “Kachchri” work from the residency at Old Park. In return the GA, his staff and defence personnel should be given free access to the residency. They should not be obstructed by Satyagrahis when going in or out of the residency. This gentleman’s agreement was adhered to by both parties. 
The new Jaffna GA also  embarrassed the Government unintentionally by an honest statement he made to the media. Responding to a query about the Satyagrahis by a newspaper on March 3. Nissanka Wijeyeratne said “The Satyagrahis are very well behaved gentlemen”. He went on to observe that the campaign was of a non -violent nature and was being conducted in a disciplined manner. The Jaffna GA’s response to a media query was published in the newspapers of March 5, 1961. 
Meanwhile Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike flew out of Colombo to London on March 4 to attend the Commonwealth Conference. Prior to her departure a message to the nation by the premier was broadcast via “Radio Ceylon”. There was no TV then. In her message Mrs. Bandaranaike criticised the Satyagraha and accused the Jaffna Satyagrahis of engaging in violence. This was published in the newspapers on March 5. What the Jaffna GA said about the Satyagrahis contrasted sharply with what the Prime Minister said and caused much embarrassment to the Government. 
The Jaffna Satyagraha began intensifying in scope and scale. A people’s post-office was established. “Illegal” Stamps, stamped envelopes and post cards were printed and sold. A postal service was set up with former Senator and Jaffna DDC Chairman S.Nadarajah as “Post Master General”.  
Letters were sent to prominent Government officials using these stamps with Tamil MP’s acting as postmen. In that context a letter was sent to Jaffna GA Nissanka Wijeyeratne by Mrs. Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam the spouse of then Vaddukkoddai MP A. Amirthalingam. The letter was delivered by the then Uduvil MP. V. Dharmalingam who cycled to the Old Park residency as a “postman”.  Dharmalingam is the father of current Jaffna district MP D.Siddharthan. 
The government however came down hard on the Satyagraha after the April new year. Emergency was declared on April 18. The army cracked down on the Satyagrahis beating them with belts and rifle butts. A dusk to dawn curfew was declared in the Tamil speaking regions. The leaders of the Satyagraha including MPs were arrested and detained without trial at the Panagoda Army cantonment. The situation began returning to normal gradually with the Kachcheris in the North and the East functioning as usual. 

Anuradhapura District GA 

Thus it could be seen that Nissanka’s stint as Jaffna GA was hampered by circumstances beyond his control. In contrast to Jaffna, his earlier tenure as Anuradhapura  district GA from 1958 to 62 was constructive and commendable. When Wijeyeratne was the GA, Anuradhapura  underwent the trials of transition as the town blossomed into a city. The new town of Anuradhapura was being constructed resulting in the transfer of residents from the old to the new. This caused much tension and the GA had to cope  sensitively and diplomatically with the people. 
Apart from being GA, Wijeyeratne was also the chairman of the Anuradhapura preservation board. As stated earlier Anuradhapura was in a state of transition  due to the new town being built. Given its historic antiquity and Buddhist significance, the sacred city of Anuradhapura had to be preserved in all its glory and grandeur while modern construction needed to be encouraged. Nissanka Wijeyeratne faced up to this formidable task with tactful efficiency. Incidentally it was Nissanka who laid out the groundwork for setting up an Airport for Anuradhapura. 

National Emblem and Flag 

A little known aspect of Nissanka’s record as a public servant was the role he played in evolving a national emblem and flag for the country as it changed from colonial Ceylon to Republican Sri Lanka in 1972. Nissanka Wijeyeratne was then permanent secretary of the cultural affairs ministry. He was appointed Chairman of the National Emblem and Flag Design Committee. The emblem bestowed by the UK was replaced. 
The  new national  emblem  in use now features a golden  lion passant holding a sword in its right fore paw against  a maroon backdrop  surrounded by golden petals of a Blue Lotus flower placed on  the top of a traditional grain vase that sprouts sheaves of rice grains encircling  the border and  reflecting prosperity. The crest is the Dharmachakra, with traditional  heraldic symbols for the sun and the moon providing support. 
The national flag too underwent change in 1972 due to Nissanka Wijeyeratne. Instead of the four spearheads, four bo leaves were placed in the four corners of the flag on the directions of  Nissanka. The four leaves represent  the  Buddhist  principles of Mettha (loving kindness), Karuna (compassion), Upeksha (equanimity) and 
Muditha (happiness). 

Dedigama  Constituency 

Shortly after Sri Lanka became a republic, Nissanka Wijeyeratne retired from the Administrative service in 1973.  He joined the United National Party (UNP) under JR Jayewardene then in the opposition. He was appointed organiser of the Dedigama electorate in Sabaragamuwa province. Dedigama constituency had been the pocket borough of former UNP leader and Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake for over three decades. His brother’s son Rukman was elected Dedigama MP in a by election after Dudley’s demise in 1973. 
Unfortunately there was some political and personal friction between Rukman and UNP leader JR. Thus JR appointed Nissanka with roots in the Sabaragamuwa province as  the UNP Dedigama organiser in 1976. Nissanka Wijeyeratne contested the July 1977 elections and won Dedigama polling 24,436 votes. He beat his closest rival Dharmasiri Senanayake of the SLFP by a majority of 6732. 

UNP Cabinet Minister 

Wieyeratne was appointed Minister of Education in the UNP Government of 1977. In 1978 he was appointed minister of Higher Education also. He served as Education and Higher Education Minister until 1980. President Jayewardene appointed Nissanka Wijeyeratne Minister of Justice in 1980. He remained Justice Minister until November 1988 when the Welikade riot and mass escape of prisoners took place. Nissanka Wijeryeratne resigned voluntarily.   Thereafter Nissanka retired from active politics. 
Among his achievements as a Cabinet minister was the Universities Act No 16 of 1978. This enabled the creation of five Independent universities namely the Universities of Peradeniya, Colombo, Sri Jayewardenepura, Kelaniya and Jaffna instead of the earlier University of Ceylon. Wijeratne also envisaged the founding of the Ruhuna University and the Open University.  
As Education Minister Nissanka officially  recognised  in 1980,  the right of schoolchildren from minority ethnicities to wear uniforms in accordance with their ethnic identities and cultural traditions. This benefited Muslim and Malay schoolchildren immensely. He also introduced the concept of setting up top grade schools known as Presidency colleges in backward districts. The idea was to replicate “Royal Colleges” in the  provinces. 
It was  Nissanka as Justice Minister who was responsible for the new Courts Complex in Colombo constructed with Chinese aid. In a quirk of fate, the draconian  Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) became permanent law during the tenure of the liberal democrat Nissanka Wijeyeratne as Justice Minister in 1982. It was introduced as a supposedly temporary provision three years earlier in 1979 when K.W. Devanayagam was Justice Minister. It is said that Wijeyeratne was unhappy over the PTA but went along out of a sense of collective responsibility. The massacre of Tamil prisoners in Welikade  during “Black July” and the Batticaloa jail break and mass escape of Tamil prisoners in September 1983 also happened when Nissanka was Justice Minister. 

Diyawadana  Nilame 

The greatest of all Nissanka Wijeyeratne’s accomplishments was  his election as the Diyawadana Nilame  of the Sri Dalada Maligawa or Chief lay custodian of the venerated temple of the tooth in Kandy>.It was an achievement  most dear to his heart  emotionally. His election was an act of defiance against the prevailing feudalist traditions of the time. How this came about and other aspects of Nissanka Wijeyeratne’s eventful life would be related in detail in the second and final part of this article.  
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at 
[email protected]

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