The March of Folly Dr. Ranjith Atapattu, an exemplary figure

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By 2018-01-16

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

It was profoundly ironic that the funeral of Dr. Ranjith Atapattu took place the day after the appalling spectacle in Parliament. My attention was drawn to this by the former Secretary General, Nihal Seneviratne, the launch of whose book about better days was one of the last public events that

Dr. Atapattu attended. I saw Nihal at the funeral, where we were joined by Mahinda Rajapaksa who had come to pay his respects, but he was not allowed to stay in the background as he had wanted, given the private nature of the occasion, but was dragged off to sit next to the Prime Minister.

Dr. Atapattu was one of the most decent politicians, absolutely honest, efficient in office, and not tainted by the violence that has possessed so many of the breed. He suffered for this, when he was forced to face a by-election by his leader after the referendum of 1983.

In changing the Constitution to extend the term of Parliament by 6 years, JR pledged to clean out the corrupt. So, the day he announced the referendum he handed out undated letters of resignation which were collected, as the 'weekend' of that week had it, by his minions led by the current Prime Minister. The message that was given out was that members were expected to win their seats, these were still the days of constituencies, by hook or by crook.

Crookedness predominated, as exemplified by Paul Perera, who won Mrs. Bandaranaike's Attanagalla seat by a massive majority though it had voted for the SLFP candidate at the Presidential Election just a couple of months previously.

Paul, it may be remembered, is the father of Ronald, who heads Bank of Ceylon which gave unprecedented credit to Arjun Aloysius, and then failed to bid properly during the next Bond scam in obedience to Ravi Karunanayake. Not surprisingly, Ronald said nothing at the time, and only shopped Ravi when the Commission of Inquiry questioned him.

Dr. Atapattu was incapable of crookedness, and the vote at Beliatta went against the government. The same thing incidentally happened to Ronnie de Mel, but he was parachuted to Matugama when his undated letter was activated. Dr. Atapattu received no such favourable treatment.

Referendum

I had reprimanded him earlier for voting to have the referendum, and he was obviously unhappy, but said they had to trust their leader. When his letter was activated, I twitted him further, but he said he had been told that the party hierarchy would ensure he won the by-election, and indeed many Ministers went down to campaign for him. Among them was Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Maithripala Sirisena in the old days had a story about how he felt he had nearly been attacked at the latter's instigation during the campaign, but presumably all that had to be forgotten for the sake of the Yahapalanaya alliance. One hopes it will be remembered again as Yahapalanaya unravels, if not the alliance.

With a little help from his friends, which I suppose he was not in a position to reject, Dr. Atapattu won the election. When he gave up the seat he also had to give up the Ministry to which he had been appointed just recently, surprisingly given his seniority, but obviously JR gave preference to his own friends and relations. I asked Dr. Atapattu what he felt about losing the Ministry so soon after finally getting one, but he told me that JR had assured him that he would hold it for him. But within a couple of weeks JR had appointed the Deputy, Sunethra Ranasinghe to the position. Again, Dr. Atapattu was assured he would get the portfolio back, but it took a few weeks for this to happen after he won the by-election, and it was a shorn portfolio since Sunethra had to be kept in Cabinet after all. And given how she had expanded her wings, she was not content with just Women's Affairs, but was also given Teaching Hospitals, in perhaps the first obvious example of JR's scorn for rationality in allocating portfolios.

After that, Dr. Atapattu was less swift to leap to JR's defence, but he continued to be a loyal member of the UNP, albeit increasingly worried in recent years about the direction in which the party was being taken. But having gone away to the UN after only a brief period as a Cabinet Minister under Premadasa, he had little influence in the party after his return.

Dr. Atapattu and Ranil

The contrast between Dr. Atapattu and Ranil came home to me vividly in the early eighties, when I was staying in Matara with Henry Gunasekara, brother of D.E.W. Gunasekara. Like Esmond and Lakshman Wickremesinghe, Henry and DEW were poles apart politically, the older brothers in both cases being pillars of the establishment to which their families belonged. The younger were left leaning, and Lakshman, Bishop of Kurunegala, was one of the most forceful critics of the manner in which those who participated in the General Strike of 1980 were treated.

But I found Henry Gunasekara too highly critical of the Jayewardene Government. He was an old fashioned adherent of the UNP, deeply devoted to Dudley Senanayake and the memory of what he had tried to do, and he obviously found the style and the substance of Jayewardene's politics anathema. He declared when we discussed the situation that there were only two honest people in the UNP Government.

I was naive those days, and proud of my relations (Dr. Atapattu too was connected to us, though not as closely as Ranil). "You mean Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ranjith Atapattu," I said. He looked at me keenly. "Ranjith, yes," he said. "But not Ranil. He may not make money, but he uses thugs. That is not honest."

Watching after Dr. Atapattu's funeral the TV clip of Ranil egging on his troops to attack Mahinda, telling them how to shout in response to his Royal-Thomian type chanting, I remembered the statement of a third of a century back. That was my first inkling of what was happening to the country, and in time I learnt about how Ranil made use of Gonawala Sunil. Then, after the referendum, when the government attacked the homes of the Supreme Court judges who had upheld a Fundamental Rights application, I was sad but not entirely surprised when the man who led the mob, and claimed he had acted on his own, turned out to be a protégé of Ranil, who had signed the register for his wedding.

It is not surprising then that Dr. Atapattu disengaged himself from politics, but the loss was the country's. I realized this when I was told that, when devolution was entrenched through the 13th Amendment, and Ministries were told to arrange for greater local decision-making, Dr. Atapattu revealed that he had already gone far on this path at the Ministry of Health. He had understood, without making a song and dance about it, that smaller units were better at delivering services to the people, and he had accordingly devolved much decision making as well as management to local hospitals.

Capable Doctor

Dr. Atapattu did not claim to be an intellectual, but as a capable doctor he was obviously able to think and to plan in a manner that is not now common amongst politicians. He understood what Maithripala Sirisena has formally expressed in his manifesto though without showing any signs of implementing this, that service delivery must be entrusted to units able to understand local problems.

That indeed is what devolution should be about, not increasing the policy making powers of politicians, but rather increasing responsiveness to local needs. For this not just administrative powers, but decision-making powers within the framework of national policy, must be entrusted to those who are able to understand the needs of the people. Health and education and transport and social services are the sort of subject we should be concerned with, not Police powers and who should decide on land alienation.

Dr. Atapattu's son, Druvi did contest for the UNP but did not do well, in a context in which politics is not about service to the people, but like his father he continues, an exemplary doctor, who had to continue along with his wife to help people in the area in which the two of them had run the local hospital and immeasurably improved the quality of the service offered to the people.

Dr. Atapattu continued in retirement to serve his people, providing medicines free of charge to those he saw, unfailing in his attention to older relations in Beliatta. Recently though, his wife not being well, he had to move to Colombo to stay with his son, so the funeral was there, rather than at Tangalle. But the number of those who turned up from Down South to pay tribute to him made clear how much he had done, and how much he was loved.

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