The making of a nationalist – Experiences that shaped NQ’s nationalist resolve
by Neville Jayaweera
Nationalism is a paradox. It imparts new life to moribund societies and launches them into new orbits. Paradoxically however, once restored to a new life, the selfsame societies tend to deny to other societies the new life they had striven so hard to achieve for themselves.
When I was the Government Agent (GA) of Jaffna in the early 1960s, it used to be the practice for me to lunch with N.Q.Dias, Perm Sec. Defence and External Affairs, ( hereafter NQ) whenever I came down to Colombo, which was at least once every two weeks. One might ask what necessitated such regular meetings between an incumbent GA and the Perm. Sec. of Defence. It was just that the political and security situation in Jaffna was so volatile that regular meetings between the GA and the Perm. Sec Defence were considered de rigueur.
It was at one of these meetings that N.Q. Dias unfolded the following dramatic story to me which my secretary Shanmuganathan who always accompanied me, recorded short-hand.
The recorded narrative
A few years after Independence, N.Q.Dias had been posted as Asst Govt Agent ( hereafter AGA ) to Matara ( at that time the designation “GA” applied only to the Heads of Provinces and the designation ” AGA” applied to Heads of Districts within the Provinces.)
A vacancy occurred for a Village Headman (VH) in the Morawak Korale of the Matara District, and the post was advertised for applications from the public. In those times the post of VH was highly prestigious and much sought after because it bestowed on the selected candidate a high profile and considerable power within the Wasama. In fact, only candidates from “respectable” families (high caste, good connections and propertied) were considered for selection!
The selection process itself added to the visibility and prestige of the post. First, the applications were vetted by the Kachcheri Mudaliyar at the Kachcheri and a preliminary cull was done by him and a list of those who passed the cull was referred for further scrutiny to the Police for checking-out criminal records, not only of the candidate concerned but of family members as well.
Once the list was finalized the whole village would be invited to attend a public interview of candidates by the GA or AGA. The invitation to the public was delivered through hand bills posted up on prominent places within the village, in places of worship, and by the beating of drums.
A tradition established for over a 100 years was that neither politicians nor “prominent” people were allowed to interfere in the selection process and the GA’s/AGA’s selection was final and absolute. The candidates would be interviewed in the full glare and hearing of those assembled, often numbering over a few hundreds, and any member of the public would be permitted to challenge the veracity of the information supplied by the candidates and even to cross-examine them. Apart from that, no one could interfere in the selection process.
However, in this instance, even before the interview process started, Victor Ratnayake, UNP MP for Deniyaya, and Junior Minster, telephoned NQ and told him that he wanted a particular candidate appointed to the advertised post. NQ told the MP that if he tried again to influence the selection process he (NQ) will disqualify the candidate concerned.
After a long interview process the AGA (NQ) made a selection and convening another public meeting of the Wasama, announced the selection, and asked for any objections from those assembled. No one objected. Whereupon the Kachcheri Mudaliyar issued the selected candidate his letter of appointment.
A few days later NQ received a phone call from the then Home Minister Sir Oliver Goonatilleke, that he ( Sir Oliver) was displeased that he (NQ) had not accommodated the local UNP MP’s request, and asked him (NQ) to reverse his decision and appoint the local MP’s nominee. NQ not only refused but also pointed out to the Minister that he was in violation of PSC Regulations.
Within 48 hours NQ received transfer orders as AGA to Trincomalee.
N.Q.Dias throws down the gauntlet
In actual fact, this was not merely a punishment transfer but also had other motives. The UNP government of 1947/48 was aware of NQ’s nationalist leanings and the transfer to Trinco had a sinister motive. At that time, Trinco was the HQ of the British East Indies Fleet and it was de rigueur for the AGA to attend cocktail parties which captains of warships anchored in harbour threw regularly, which the AGA had to attend, dressed in tuxedo. This was wholly repugnant and totally anathema to NQ.
NQ decided to hit back. On his way to take up his new appointment he stepped off for a few days in Colombo and ordered three sets of national dress from a tailor in Wellawatta. However, before proceeding to Trinco he had first to report to the GA of the Eastern Province at Batticaloa, under whom the AGA of Trinco District functioned.
On arrival at Batticaloa by overnight train, NQ went to the Rest House and donning his brand new National Dress proceeded to the Kachcheri to report to the presiding GA, Mr H.W. Holmes. (In 1949 the GAs of all nine provinces were still Brits!)
As was customary in those times, there stood outside the GA’s office an imperious looking gentleman, the GA’s personal Aarachchi, side- whiskered and wearing a gold braided sash across a shoulder with the insignia of his rank, engraved on a brass plate – GR V (George Rex the Fifth)!!!
In 1949 the National Dress was still a rarity and the pompous Aarachchi looked NQ up and down and asking him what he wanted showed him to a bench, while he himself resumed sitting on the Aarachchi’s high perch. When he did not seem to be getting any attention, NQ handed the Aarachchi his official visiting card engraved “N.Q.Dias- CCS. Assistant Government Agent Trincomalee”, and told the Aarachchi that the GA was expecting him. The Aarachchi took the card, blinked at the “CCS” clearly engraved on it, and looked up and down NQ in disbelief!!. However, the bewildered Aarachchi walked into the GA’s office and hesitantly handed NQ’s card to the GA who asked the Aarachchi to show the new AGA in. However, when NQ walked in, evidently perplexed at the sight of this man in a national dress, the GA looked at him and said, “Will you please wait outside until I call you. You cannot see me except by appointment. I am expecting the new AGA Mr Dias”. NQ replied ,”Sir, I am your new AGA. I am NQ Dias”. At that, the GA looked aghast and after a short pause to recover from the shock asked NQ, “If you are the new AGA why are you dressed in that garb. I cannot allow you to assume duties as AGA of Trincomalee unless you are clad decently”. NQ replied, “Well sir, this is my preferred dress, and this is what I propose to wear in my official and ceremonial capacity also”.
Meanwhile the GA did not even offer NQ a chair but asked him to return to Colombo and tell the Home Minister what had transpired and that he will not accept NQ as his Assistant at Trinco. NQ returned to Colombo the same night and reported to the Home Minister Sir Oliver what had happened. This time however, Sir Oliver was incensed over GA Holmes’s impudence and promptly reported the incident to the Prime Minster D.S. Senanayake who was even more irate that a white Civil Servant had dared to defy the authority of the government of the newly Independent Ceylon as if the colonial government was still in authority.
The Prime Minister asked the Home Minister to get his Perm Sec to call for Holmes’s explanation, and confirming NQ’s appointment to Trinco ordered him to proceed immediately to his new station. A week later Holmes himself was transferred out and went on leave prior to retirement.
A dinner party at the Queen’s House
A few weeks after NQ had taken over as AGA in Trincomalee, he had to attend the formal dinner which the Governor ( now Governor General) gave every year to the GAs and the AGAs of the Provinces and Districts . The Governor’s annual dinner to the GAs and AGAs was a formal event and all invitees, along with their wives, had to be dressed de rigueur, which meant that all the GAs and AGAs were dressed in black bow ties, dark suits, starched shirts and braided trousers, except that in this instance Mr N.Q.Dias AGA Trinco was dressed in a white National Dress.
At the Queen’s House, the Governor’s official residence, there were lined up on the flight of steps leading up to the reception hall, one ahead of the other, the Minister of Home Affairs, the Prime Minister and his wife, and the Governor General , all dressed in formal dinner suits and evening gown or expensive sarees.
As the invited guests arrived under the portico of the Queen’s House, they had to hand in their invitation cards to the Master of Ceremonies at the door and he would announce aloud, “Mr and Mrs etc, etc” whereupon the Home Minister would shake hands with the invited guest and his wife and introduce them to the Prime Minister and he would then introduce them to the Governor General.
On this occasion too, the protocol was followed meticulously, until it was the turn of NQ Dias and his wife to be announced. N.Q. handed the invitation to the Master of Ceremonies who bellowed out “Mr N.Q.Dias AGA Trincomalee and Mrs Dias”. N.Q held out his hand to Sir Oliver for the customary welcome hand shake but Sir Oliver simply ignored him and turned the other way. Climbing another step, N.Q. held out his hand to Prime Minster D.S. Senanayake who likewise ignored him and his wife, and turned away.
N.Q. and his wife were so dreadfully embarrassed at the two snubs they had just received that they turned to walk away. Whereupon, seeing the shameful happenings on the stairs, Governor General Lord Soulbury himself came down a few steps and took N.Q. by his hand, and after shaking hands with Mrs N.Q. took them back into the main reception hall.
The evening’s dinner party was an ordeal for NQ and his wife. The practice at these dinners is for the GAs and AGAs and their wives to sit according to their seniority in service, the most senior sitting immediately next to the GG or the PM who sat at the centre, on either side of the table. NQ, being the most junior AGA found himself seated right at the end of the table, so that both literally and metaphorically he was an outcast and even the waiters barely acknowledged him. Even his CCS colleagues and their wives ignored NQ and his wife.
NQ’s National Dress had made him an object of loathing and shame to everyone present at the evening’s dinner party.
It was at that dinner party that NQ’s sense of national identity which had been simmering within him for years finally conflagrated. He experienced at first hand the depths of degradation and shame to which 450 years of colonialism had reduced his people and he saw in the UNP, in D.S. Senanayake and in Sir Oliver, both dressed in black bow tie and starch fronted white shirts, performing like circus monkeys and caricatures of Sinhala leaders.
While driving home that night NQ resolved that from that day onwards he will not rest until the UNP and the culture it represented, the Senanayake –Kotalawala ethos, was finally destroyed and buried. NQ’s mind was such that once he had set it on achieving some goal he would not relent until he had achieved it. However, that was still in 1949 when the UNP-Senanayake-Kotalawala star was still burning bright and the prospect of snuffing it out did not seem even a distant prospect.
Undaunted, NQ gets down to work
Undaunted, NQ got down to work. Fortunately, the UNP government had given him the relatively inconspicuous post of Registrar General which left him with plenty of time in which to pursue his own goals. He started building a base among the Buddhist monks and adopted the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress as his platform. While still a CCS official, he traversed the country on weekends visiting temples. There was nothing the UNP government could do about that although the CID was on his tail all the time. His real anchor was Henpitagedera Gnanasiha with whom he first floated the idea of a Sangha Sabha (which after 1951 metamorphosed into the almighty Eksath Bhikku Peramuna) His next break came when SWRD crossed over in the early fifties. Now, NQ found in SWRD a truly powerful mascot for his nationalist revolution. However, SWRD’s half Oxford-elitist background did not find favour with NQ but as a mascot for the drive to overthrow the UNP’s cultural ethos and establish a Sinhala-Buddhist ethos, he served NQ’s purposes ideally.
Simultaneously, the emergence of Sir John as the new UNP leader suited NQ’s rallying cry ideally. Sir John was an abomination, given to a grossly materialistic life style. The coterie of men and women he rallied around himself was reminiscent of the life-style of the most debauched Roman Emperors. All this was fuel for NQ’s cause.
NQ Dias strategizes the obliteration of the Senanayake-Kotalawala caucus
By 1954 NQ’s had established links with SWRD and though still a CCS official, was able to stay in the background while he strategized the course of the new SLFP’s ride to power. By now, in addition to Henpitagedera Gnanasiha, he had also rallied to his cause the Mahanayaka Madihe Pannasiha, L.H.Mettananda, F.R.Jayasuriya, K.M.P Rajaratna, Prof Wimalananda Tennekoon, and an assortment of other nationalists.
NQ used the island-wide preparations for the up-coming Buddha Jayanthi celebrations which were to fall in May 1957 as fuel for his own campaign to overthrow the hated Westernised-UNP ethos. He brought under the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna all the Nikayas for the final assault on the UNP in 1956 and equally he took an active role in forging the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna herding into its fold the likes of Philip Gunawardena, W.Dahanayake and K.M.P.Rajaratna.
N.Q. did all these things without any publicity. He kept in the background content to work only as thinker and strategist for the cause.
However, when the revolution came in 1956 and the UNP was swept out from office NQ did not go into a celebratory mode. He knew that the old order would use every attempt for a resurgence and he was also dubious about SWRD’s own commitment to the Sinhala Buddhist cause. NQ knew that SWRD was essentially an opportunist with no enduring emotional links to the Sinhala-Buddhism and was only riding the wave of its historical resurgence. NQ turned down offers from SWRD for any senior post he wanted and he chose instead the relatively inconspicuous position of Director of Cultural Affairs which made SWRD suspicious of his intentions. SWRD’s suspicions were well founded. Actually NQ’s choice of the Directorate of Cultural Affairs was again evidence of his strategic mind. This post gave him an opportunity to work more closely with the Sangha and consolidate its role as a political power-house, and under its guise, he used funds to step up Buddhist political activities across the land.
By 1959, SWRD had become aware of moves by a coterie of disaffected nationalists comprised of Henpitagedera, L.H.Mettananda, K.M.P.Rajaratna and a few others to put up NQ to replace him, and as the groundswell of disaffection began to grow, SWRD became more suspicious of NQ and his coterie. SWRD’s assassination in Sept 1959 was the culmination of that process.
However, it must be said to NQ’s credit that at no time did he put himself up, or consent to be put up, as a contender for SWRD’s job, and his loyalty to SWRD personally, and to the SLFP government, never wavered.
As if In recompense, following the failed Coup attempt of 1962, and her assumption of office as the new Prime Minister, Mrs B asked him to take the key post of Permanent Secretary Defence and External Affairs.
Following his appointment as Perm. Sec. D&EA, with the access he now had to Mrs B, N.Q. proceeded systematically to dismantle the UNP’s power base. The UNP’s power base was a formidable structure, with roots embedded in 400 hundred years of colonial history and dismantling it required a strategic brain of a high order. Suffice it to say that NQ carried out a master piece of political surgery never attempted since. The telling of that story will require a whole book and most certainly it cannot be compassed within the limits of a newspaper article.