Into the turbulence of Jaffna

(chapters from the author’s unpublished memoirs)


Neville Jayaweera

Chapter 1

How it all started

The story of my immersion in the turbulence of Jaffna actually begins in Badulla, in July 1963. In April of that year I had completed three gruelling years as the General Manager of the Gal Oya Development Board and had asked the Secretary to the Treasury for a posting where I could catch my breath, so to say, and recuperate. The Sec. to the Treasury obliged by posting me as Government Agent (G.A.) of Badulla, where I had served as Assistant (AGA) few years earlier and where Trixie my wife, and I, quickly settled down to a more leisurely life, working amidst the friendly and verdant villages of the Uva province.

Prime Minster Mrs Bandaranaike for tea

Our three months of quietude and recuperation ended abruptly one evening in July 1963. The Prime Minister, Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike (Mrs B) who was addressing a political meeting somewhere in my district, dropped in at the Residency (as the official residence of a GA was called in those days) for a short rest and refreshments. That was my first face-to-face encounter with the formidable lady.

I must say that contrary to the image of arrogance often associated with her, at least that evening, she was a model of grace and humility. She was accompanied by a large entourage which included two Cabinet Ministers and the regulation hangers on. Trixie had laid out “high tea” for her on her best tea service and the Prime Minister settled down to a friendly chat over tea and muffins. What struck me most about her was her friendliness and, though Prime Minister of the country, the amazing absence of pomposity. She put my wife and me completely at ease, inquiring how we had adapted to our new posting at Badulla and even inquiring after the welfare of our parents.

About twenty minutes into tea, quite casually, Mrs B turned to my wife and said, "Mrs Jayaweera, I know that you have hardly settled down in Badulla after the hard time you both had in Gal Oya, so I don't know how you will take this suggestion. My government is having a serious problem coming up in Jaffna, where we have to implement the Sinhala Only Act in all government departments from October this year. But the Federal Party is resisting it strongly and giving us a lot of trouble. They are now planning to launch a big campaign in October, called the Secessionist Movement, to coincide with the implementation of the Sinhala only policy. I understand that your husband did a very good job at Gal Oya. So we are hoping that he will do a similar job for us in Jaffna. How do you see it?”

Trixie was initially taken aback, but recovered quickly to assure her that as the wife of a public servant she would be quite happy to follow him wherever he was posted and that she was sure that as a disciplined officer he would respond positively.

Mrs Bandaranaike continued,

"I know that your husband, being a disciplined public servant will go wherever the government wants him, but I won't ask him unless you agree first, because I know it is the wife who suffers when the husband is transferred from place to place so quickly".

The Prime Minister’s concern for my wife’s feelings was most disarming, but needless to say, the ensuing conversation was short and to the point and within a week I had received orders to proceed to Jaffna as Government Agent by the end of August of that year!.

N.Q. Dias – The Tsar!

However, before I could take up my new posting in Jaffna, Mr N.Q.Dias, the Permanent Secretary , Defence and External Affairs, telephoned me one day and invited me to have lunch with him at his favourite luncheon haunt, the terrace of the Galle Face Hotel (GFH ) Colombo. At that time, N.Q.Dias was not merely the Perm. Sec. Defence and External affairs, but was also the most powerful public servant around, and because of his influence over Mrs Bandaranaike, feared and respected even by Cabinet Ministers. Some sections of the media referred to him publicly as “The Tsar”, but some of his less charitable colleagues referred to him either as Rasputin ( the Russian mystic priest who exercised a baneful influence over the Russian Royal Family in the run up to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917) or as Beelzebub ( the Biblical term for the Devil ) .

It was quite unusual for a Civil Servant of Dias’s seniority to ask a junior such as I for lunch, he being about twenty years my senior in service, and in violation of protocol as well, because the line of command under which a GA worked was from the Secretary to the Treasury to the Secretary Home affairs, and least of all did the Secretary Defence and External Affairs have a right to contact me directly. It was therefore with some apprehension that I joined him at lunch that day.

I had met N.Q.Dias an year earlier when he visited me in Gal Oya along with his assistant secretary Stanley Jayaweera (my brother) to inquire whether the Gal Oya Board could turn out boats that the navy could use for anti-smuggling work. Apart from that encounter, which was brief, I had no knowledge of this man, except by reputation.

Over a gin and tonic and a gourmet meal, Dias told me that that it was he who had suggested to the Prime Minister to appoint me as GA of Jaffna, and that he had to brush aside a strong protest from the Home Ministry that I was too junior for the job,which indeed I was, considering that I was only 33 then, whereas the job, being one of the four most senior of the 22 Government Agencies at that time, the others being Colombo, Kandy and Galle) , required a man of at least 45 years in age!! He said that he had asked for me because he had been impressed at the way I had managed the Gal Oya Board, with its notoriously militant trade union workforce of over 14,000 men, and felt that I was the man to handle the emerging turbulence in Jaffna.

For over three hours, speaking in his soft silken voice, Dias held me spell bound as he unfolded a remarkable vision of events he said will unravel in the not too distant future. He had a deep conviction that within the next twenty five years or so ( he was talking to me in 1963) , the Tamil protest will develop into an armed rebellion and that the Government must prepare from now to meet that outcome. He was of the opinion that neither individual politicians of his time, and mush less, the then government, could think so far ahead or had a clue as to what was in store for the country. I must also say that he shocked me with the blatant contempt in which he held politicians as a species, who he said were concerned only with office and power and were incapable of a vision beyond the next election or of thinking strategically. Mind you, Mrs B’s Cabinet of 1963 included such iconic personalities as Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Dr N.M. Perera, Dr Colvin R. De Silva, Silva and T.B. Ilangaratna, all of whom he seemed to hold in disdain.

Having unfolded his prognosis for the fast developing Tamil unrest he proceeded to spell out for me how he saw me fitting into his strategy. He said that my principal role as the GA of Jaffna, while enforcing the Sinhala Only Act, will be to help him develop counter measures for dealing with the anticipated uprising, and then proceeded to unfold to me his grand strategy for containing it.

The grand strategy

Even as Dias was unfolding his grand military strategy it struck me that he seemed to have taken a leaf from Germany’s famous Schlieffen Plan of 1905 to encircle Paris in the event of war. The centrepiece of Dias’s strategy to contain a future Tamil revolt was the establishment of a chain of military camps to encircle the Northern Province, all the way from Arippu, Maricchikatti, Pallai, and Thalvapadu in the Mannar District, through Pooneryn, Karainagar, Palaly, Point Pedro, Thirukovil, and Elephant Pass in the Jaffna District, on to Mullaitivu in the Vavuniya District and Trincomalee in the East. He said that there were already two military camps of platoon strength in Pallai in Mannar and in Palaly in Jaffna and a rudimentary naval presence in Karainagar, but that he wanted to upgrade them.

He said that he was aware that any attempt by the government to establish permanent military camps in the Northern Province was bound to trigger massive protests from Tamil leaders. However, he seemed to have thought out a masterly subterfuge to disguise their true intent. He said that he was planning to make a huge public issue of two national problems, namely, illicit immigration from India into Sri Lanka, and smuggling from Sri Lanka into India, and argue that in order to choke off this two way flow, which was obviously detrimental to Sri Lanka’s national interest, his proposed military camps were absolutely necessary. I was aware of a story widespread at that time that, through smuggling of goods across the Palk Straits into India, Sri Lanka was losing annually the equivalent of the cost of the entire country’s rice imports. Dias confirmed to me that it was he who had leaked that story to the press as a part of his strategy to secure his goal of silencing any opposition to his grand strategy. The whole military operation was therefore to be disguised as if it was a measure to cope with two major national problems, illicit immigration and smuggling, and that was bound to silence any dissident voices.

He went on to say that he was planning to set up a task force called TAFFI (Taskforce Anti Illicit Immigration) under the command of Lt. Col. Sepala Attygalle (later to be Gen Attygalle, Commander of the Army), ostensibly to contain illicit immigration and smuggling, but in reality designed to encircle the North militarily. He said that he will instruct Attygalle to work in close liaison with me and provide a military back-up for my administration, to facilitate which, he said he had already ordered that an SSB radio link to be installed in my private office in Jaffna. He also said that he will also be placing 3 other handpicked CCS men as GAs to the three adjacent districts, as the other actors in his grand design - I.O.K.G.Fernando to Mannar, R.M.B.Senanayake to Vavuniya and M.B.Senanayake (or Elkaduwa – am not sure who ) to Trincomalee.

N.Q. Dias’s remarkable prescience encompassed other prophetic insights as well. He also envisaged that some day in the future India was bound to stoke a Tamil uprising in Sri Lanka and that Tamil Nadu will be a source of illicit arms for the rebellion. To prepare for such an outcome he said it was necessary to develop a completely new naval strategy for Sri Lanka and proceeded to ridicule the policy current then, of building a navy comprising mine sweepers and frigates such as Vijaya and Gajabahu, which he said were only of ceremonial and prestige value, but of no use for interdicting gun-running across the Palk Straits. Instead, he advocated building a fleet of small, fast gun boats and to this end had even contacted the US Ambassador Cecil Lyon to see whether the US government might consider gifting some PT boats to Sri Lanka as a part of their foreign aid package!! That was at the height of the Vietnam War and PT boats were very much in the news. I recall that when Cecil Lyon made his first official visit to Jaffna some time later, he confirmed that Dias had made this request, but also added that Sri Lanka had neither the technical skills nor the infrastructure to service PT boats. Dias went on to say that he would submit a cabinet paper proposing that Vijaya and Gajabahu be scrapped and replaced with small fast gun boats. At that time the Dvora class FAC’s of today were not heard of, but I recall that in the mid 1960s the Sri Lankan navy did buy a hydro-foil fast boat as an experiment. However, I did not follow up on Sri Lanka’s naval development after I left Jaffna.

He also ridiculed the practice of investing in jet fighters even for training purposes and said that what Sri Lanka needed was a squadron of propeller driven ground support fighters for helping infantry on the ground and. for interdicting gun - running at sea. He talked of buying a squadron of fighter- bombers called Skyraider which were then in use in Vietnam.

Dias also unfolded to me a brand new foreign policy he was working on. He was of the view that basically Sri Lanka had no coherent foreign policy and was consequently too dependent on the West and trusted the bona fides of India which he said was a huge mistake. He emphasised the need for Sri Lanka to veer away from India and forge new alliances. He said t to this end, he was planning to open up closer relations with China as a countervailing force against India and to set his project in motion, was planning to send Mrs ich included two Cabinet Ministe on an official visit to Beijing.

As for my role as the GA of Jaffna, Dias said that while facilitating the construction of the proposed military camps girdling the Northern Province, I should be unrelenting towards Tamil demands, and wherever possible, force confrontations with them and establish the government’s undisputed ascendancy. He emphasized that the best way to engineer the government’s ascendency was by enforcing the Sinhala Only Act at any cost, and he seemed to relish the prospect of the ensuing conflict. He was of the view the government had failed so far to deal with the Tamils forcefully enough and saw me as the answer to the problem! Obviously, N.Q.Dias was seeing me as an administrative Rottweiler to be let lose within the sheep pen of protesting Tamil satygrahis!

N.Q. Dias - the paradox and the prophet

A short note on N.Q.Dias (NQ as he was referred to by colleagues) is apposite here. Actually, NQ was more than merely a public servant or a military strategist. He was an iconic phenomenon, surfing the tidal wave of Sinhala- Buddhist nationalism that had erupted out of the abyss of Sri Lanka’s history. However, to understand him fully we have to grasp two totally contradictory personalities in which he was framed.

Within one frame, along with L.H.Mettananda, F.R.Jayasuriya, K.M.P.Rajaratna, and Bhikku Henpitagedera Gnanasiha, though only a public servant, NQ marched in the vanguard of the 1956 Sinhala-Buddhist renaissance and was the archetypal ultra-nationalist. At that time it was widely known that N.Q Dias was the ideologue and the real driving force and architect of the EBP (Eksath Bhikku Peramuna) and that it was he who had minutely strategized Mr S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s (SWRD) massive victory of May 1956. Down the corridors of the Secretariat senior Civil Servants also talked of the reprisals that Dias would face from the then Prime Minister Sir John Kotalawala who had resolved that if the UNP were returned to power Dias will be charge sheeted for conduct unbecoming of a public servant and sacked. It was also widely known that when SWRD swept to power in May 1956 he offered NQ the choice of any public office he desired, but rather than choose to be the Secretary to the Treassted and that she was sure that a Civil Servant could aspire to, he chose the comparatively lowly post of Director Cultural Affairs so as to be able to consolidate the cultural gains of Bandaranaike’s great victory. NQ was also the first public servant to swap western attire for the national dress. N.Q. was also an implacable xenophobic, considering Indians, the Tamil people, the Roman Catholic Church and western culture to be abominations. Not least, he was utterly paranoid about India. Having meticulously analysed the Panikkar Doctrine which postulated the inevitability of Indian hegemony in the Indian Ocean, he believed that India had sinister designs on Sri Lanka, if not to take the island over completely, at least to keep it permanently disabled and dependent on “big brother!.

Within the opposite frame however, N.Q.Dias was also the ultimate

colonial CCS stereotype and pukka sahib. He was not fluent in Sinhala, was aloof and arrogant, was wealthy in his own right, played an impressive singles at tennis at one of Colombo’s elite clubs, and lunched regularly on the GFH terrace to the accompaniment of his favoured aperitif, gin and tonic. Although he wore the national dress, he certainly wasn’t the people’s public servant! To the contrary, everything about him, except his xenophobia, testified to a man from the decadent past, which the 1956 revolution claimed to have swept away. Not least, he never jettisoned his westernised names- Neil Quintus Dias, even as a concession to his extreme nationalist ideology ( however his children took the name Dayasiri ).Though most of his colleagues disliked him for his stand-offishness, they conceded that he was an honourable man, brilliant, disciplined, incorruptible and always observing the work ethic and traditions of the old Civil Service. As Head of the Foreign Office, he also preserved the dignity of the fledgling Ceylon Foreign Service, and kept the diplomatic corps posted to Colombo strictly on the leash, not allowing them to rampage through the country as they did in later years. When the UNP formed a government in 1965 he was forced into retirement, but emerged again in 1970 when Mrs Bandaranaike returned to power and was sent as High Commissioner to New Delhi.

Within two decades, N.Q.Dias’s multidimensional strategic vision of an armed Tamil uprising, India’s intervention on the side of the Tamil cause, and gun-running from Tamil Nadu, began to unravel exactly as he had prophesied. To that extent Dias was a political prophet as well as a military strategist bordering on genius. His grand design for strangling a future Tamil revolt by girdling the North with a chain of military enclaves was as audacious as it was brilliant. Proof of Dias’s brilliance was that, when within two decades events began to unfold exactly as he had foreseen, it was this iron pincer around Jaffna’s neck that served as the Sri Lankan Army’s bulwark against the Tamil militant groups. Had it not been for this chain of garrisons, the government would not have had platforms from which to mount counter strikes against the armed Tamil rebels who proliferated in the North during the 1980s.

NQ explained to me another important aspect of his remarkable strategic mind. He said that his plan to disperse the army away from Colombo was motivated as much by the desire to pre-empt another coup attempt similar to the one launched in the early 1960s in Colombo , by a predominantly Roam Catholic caucus, as it was intended to strangle an armed rebellion in the North. He explained to me that he did not trust the Roman Catholic officer corps of the armed services at all, and was flushing them out progressively and replacing them with officers from Buddhist schools in key positions. He said that he was also planning to hand over the garrisoning of Colombo to the Sinha Regiment which he envisaged to be Mrs. B’s Praetorian Guard.

I did not share N.Q.Dias’s ideology or world view, except very briefly, may be for a few months, when I came under his mesmeric influence. As the months rolled by and I came up against the practical issues of fair and just governance in the North I began to recoil from the Dias vision and suffered great anguish and soul searching, wondering what I had let myself in for.

However, this is not to deny that Dias was a man of extraordinary courage, totally dedicated to the pursuit of his convictions, principled, unafraid and incorruptible.

The Dias paradigm

No one can deny that within his paradigm, Dias’s grand strategy was brilliant and prophetic. However, the operative concept here is “within his paradigm”. Paradigms are not self legitimising, especially those that concern socio-political problems. While paradigms in the physical sciences have to be tested against empirical criteria, those that pertain to politics and the social sciences have to be tested against universally held values, within which they must stand up to moral scrutiny. We must ask in respect of them, whether they uphold fundamental rights, equality, liberty, righteousness, and justice for all, and promote harmony and peace among all communities, regardless of individual ethnic or religious prejudices. In that context, there are several questions to

ponder about the adequacy of the Dias paradigm and I would like to turn my attention to them later on in these memoirs.

For the moment let me turn to the dramatic events that engulfed me no sooner I had taken over as Jaffna’s new GA.

( to be continued)