The Daily Mirror published a not quite complete version of the following article, which first appeared some years back. It is published here in full.

(Text of an article published in June 2004)

Felix Dias Bandaranaike (1930 - 1985)

Felix Dias Bandaranaike died 19 years ago, on June 26th. He was not yet 55 at the time, which seems astonishing since he had loomed large on the political stage for as long as I could remember.

I first saw him in action in 1965, and it is difficult to think now that that enormously impressive figure was not yet 35 at the time. The occasion was my avid attendance at the debate on the first Throne Speech presented by the Dudley Senanayake Coalition government elected that year. My father had recently become Secretary General of Parliament, and I found the whole process of politics quite fascinating. Though my family claimed that I was more interested in the teas that were served to guests, my continuing interest in politics, and more importantly personalities in politics, assures me that greed alone was not the motivating factor.

The personal element was indeed glorious in those long ago days. I had been moved the previous year by the clarion calls for press freedom that had brought down Mrs Bandaranaike’s first government. It was only later that I realized that bribery had had much more to do with what had happened, as was the case nearly four decades later, in 2001. But in 1964, as in 2001, I had naively assumed that the end result was better for the country, not understanding that perverting democracy produces an inevitable reaction.

The first surprise I had, on attending parliament, was to discover that the supposedly undemocratic villains were actually quite charming. I was reminded of ‘1066 and All That’, where the Roundheads were Right but Repulsive, whereas the Cavaliers were Wrong but Romantic. Certainly, Dudley’s Cabinet, though doubtless very worthy, was colossally dull. The only outstanding speaker amongst them was JR, and he was subdued, perhaps a precursor to the hostility that was to erupt between him and Dudley.

But the opposition, to my surprise, sparkled. N M Perera and Bernard Soysa were spellbinding, but even more marvellous was Felix. He was both ebullient and polished, and I had no hesitation in telling someone who asked me that he was by far the best speaker in Parliament. The remark was conveyed to him, which made me writhe with embarrassment when we met, but he was perfectly natural, and we developed a friendship that lasted thirty years. I was connected to his wife, which perhaps helped, because their devotion to each other was legendary. Long before I knew of it, I had been struck by a strange habit he had of looking up to the Speaker’s Gallery at intervals throughout his speech. The reason I discovered was that Lakshmi was there, and Felix basically always played to his gallery of one.

But impressive as were his speeches in opposition, and his later record in government, one might argue that his greatest achievements were already in the past by then. His assumption of the Ministry of Finance at the age of 29, and his support to Mrs Bandaranaike in her first tentative days as Prime Minister, set the tone for innovative reforms. That government instituted concerted policies to develop local capacity in agriculture and industry and trade, through visionaries such as C P de Silva, Maithripala Senanayake and T B Illangaratne.

However it was Felix who first realized that subsidies and support have to be limited if the means are not to defend the ends, which is why in 1962 he sought to reduce the rice subsidy. Such clear understanding was in advance of his times, and his own party rejected the measure whereupon he promptly resigned. He still remains the only Minister in this country to have resigned on a serious issue of principle with regard to the rejection by his own government of policies he deemed essential.

And then there was the courage and commitment that exposed the disgraceful coup attempt of 1962. It was his cross-examination that brought all the details to light, and it was wholly unfortunate that the Privy Council, in accordance with the wishes of the government elected in 1965, quashed the convictions on a technicality. That provided much of the justification for the very radical constitutional revision of 1972, when the checks and balances that a democratic system should retain were swept away, since it seemed apparent that they were subject to abuse on behalf of the privileged.

Unfortunately, I suspect because of the shock of betrayal that Mrs Bandaranaike felt when de Sarams and Dissanayakes and de Zoysas and unknown forces behind them turned to armed violence, the SLFP government swerved left after that. A coalition was formed with Marxists in 1964, which it was thought Felix disliked, but he remained loyal. And from 1965 to 1970 he worked, in Parliament at least, in perfect concert with Trotskyists and Marxists and even that delightful old rascal R G Senanayake, to mock Dudley’s ultimately ineffective coalition.

But there indeed lies another lesson. Dudley’s coalition was a precursor of the strange alliance that now makes up our opposition, where the Tigers and the extremist monks, while not really talking to each other, make common cause through the UNP. In 1965 Dudley formed a coalition not only with the Federal Party and the Tamil Congress, but also with K M P Rajaratne’s rabid Sinhala nationalist group (ironically called the JVP), and Philip Goonewardene’s Nationalist Marxism.

The Federal Party it should be noted behaved with extreme decency when Dudley Senanayake abandoned his proposed District Councils bill, largely because of opposition within his own party, led by Cyril Mathew, though with JR it seemed lurking in the shadows. However the damage caused by the opposition, with Mrs Bandaranaike as well as the Marxists engaging in racist critiques of the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact, cannot be minimized. In this context, though it is unfortunate that Felix did not guide his party to a more enlightened view, it should be noted that he seems to have stayed aloof from the campaign.

And that indeed marks his stance during the first years of the United Front government, which was returned with a massive majority in 1977. Economic Policy and Constitutional Reform seem to have been left to the Marxists, with ultimately disastrous consequences. Colvin R de Silva, though an idealist, was also a Marxist authoritarian, and he took literally the ideal of the dictatorship of the proletariat. N M Perera meanwhile embarked on a programme of nationalization that essentially destroyed all initiative. Neither could have anticipated that the structures they set in place would be used much more drastically by a right wing government, that nevertheless kept the commanding heights of the economy as well as the state under strict government control for eleven long years more.

Felix meanwhile concentrated on Administrative Reform and later, when he became Minister of Justice, judicial reform too. His aims in both cases were to simplify and improve service to the people, and in both respects his ideas represent a social philosophy and commitment that no other politician has even remotely approached. Many agree on the need to streamline the administration to make it respond to needs, but successive administrations, beginning with the British, have entrenched and worshipped red tape. Only Felix tried to make it clear that the beginning and end of public administration should be the public.

Similarly, he tried to simplify the administration of justice, give a greater role to conciliation boards, cut the costs and time spent on and by lawyers, and generally make justice easily accessible to all. Unfortunately, before the system could be entrenched, it fell victim to a government that owed much to lawyers and in any case had no sense of justice whatsoever. To me the essential difference between Mrs Bandaranaike and J R Jayewardene has been the fact that Mrs Bandaranaike’s appointed judges went against her government (as did indeed her Speaker), whereas JR insisted on and generally obtained obsequious acquiescence.

But at the same time one has to grant that Felix too bears some responsibility for the failure of his admirable reforms. By the seventies unfortunately he was too much a one man show. It was not that he arrogated to himself more authority than a Minister should have. He was scrupulous about exercising only such powers as came within his purview, and he did not interfere with other Ministries. But, perhaps because of his experiences over the previous decade, he acted on his own, and hence failed to generate the support necessary for the consolidation of his admirable ideas.

He was, it must be confessed, an arrogant man. He had much to be arrogant about, and this became clearer, as is not uncommon with SLFP led governments, after the dismissal of the Marxists. But the result was that, under attack from both the UNP and the Marxists, he became identified as the villain of the piece.

JR took full advantage of this. Realizing that all that stood between him and unbridled power for many years more was Mrs Bandaranaike and Felix, he instituted an elaborate scheme to strip them of their Civic Rights. He began with Felix’s Permanent Secretary Nihal Jayawickrama and, when there were few protests, he moved on to Felix. Unfortunately there were few protests even then, and so he could actually subvert his own Constitution by disallowing an Appeal through a hasty Constitutional Amendment. Then he got rid of Mrs Bandaranaike, and embarked upon the heady authoritarianism that brought this country to disaster. The Referendum, the attacks on Tamils in July 1983, the hasty constitutional amendment that threw the Tamils out of Parliament for six long years, the confrontation with India, all sprang from the removal of the checks that only Felix could have provided.

I am not exaggerating in laying such stress on Felix’s abilities. It was he who pointed out, when JR first mooted the referendum, that such an extension of parliament was not in fact constitutional through a 2/3rd majority of parliament and a referendum as JR had claimed. This was what made JR then introduce an amendment, to alter the transitional provisions, whereas earlier he had claimed a referendum was within the constitution.

Felix then argued the case brilliantly before the Supreme Court, but alas by then JR had packed the Court. Though three Senior judges voted against the provision, four junior ones ruled that, once parliament had decreed a referendum, the Court had no jurisdiction. The rest is history. Vijaya Kumaratunga, who had proved himself the most effective campaigner against JR, was thrown into jail and ill-treated, and the SLFP as a whole closed up shop (sadly but perhaps understandably, given the murder of activists such as Ananda Sunil) and allowed UNP goons to run riot.

And yet, after the referendum, Felix soldiered on. He was the principal lawyer for the JVP in the case it brought against the referendum. I suspect that he might well have won the case, for by then even the more obsequious members of the Supreme Court had recognized the threat JR presented. After all, in 1983 he had orchestrated an attack on their houses when they ruled in favour of a victim of police excesses during the referendum campaign.

And that was when JR, such a genius at winning battles but losing the war, took the step that caused such misery in his last days in power. Having first defended the attacks on Tamils in 1983 as the work of patriotic Sinhalese, and therefore punished the TULF, he realized soon enough that this was more than the international community could bear. It was therefore claimed that the attacks were orchestrated by leftists. Members of the Communist Party and the NSSP (than which you can scarcely get more pluralist) were actually jailed.

The JVP however, which had participated actively in the democratic process since JR had released their leadership from jail in 1977, went underground, and took to it like ducks to water. And therefore, though one criticizes the violence they engaged in later, one has also to remember that they were reacting to the violence and terrorism unleashed upon them by the state.

Why did JR drive them underground? One suggestion was that this was his way of ensuring they did not win their case about the referendum. And though at the time I thought this implausible, I now realize that JR could well, in his childish cunning, have thought this an admirable way of killing two birds with one stone, not realizing that such stratagems are likely to backfire.

That was in 1983. So Felix had no client to challenge the results of the Referendum, which kept JR and his crew in power for another whole term, and the case had to be dropped. In any case Felix was ill now, battling with the cancer that killed him a couple of years later. But the mind had kept working relentlessly even during these dark days. And JR, the old fox, had certainly been right in realizing that Felix was his most redoubtable foe, who had to be removed if his own grip was to be tightened.

I was in England when Felix died. It was there that I had got to know him best, when he was over for his wife’s eye operation, and I fell through a greenhouse roof in trying to get into the house late at night. I recalled that incident then, and also the time when, in the midst of preparing to argue the case about the referendum, he had advised me about problems at S Thomas’. I remembered his last words on that occasion, when he told me that he thought I had been the victim of Kandyan cunning, a phrase that still resonates, when I think of his own life and his own relations.

And I thought too then of when I had first met him in 1965, when he had been the young knight jousting against the government, the brightest on that side as JR had been the brightest on the other. Listening to Felix in the first Budget Debate of that Parliament, describing U B Wanninayake with I believe it was Jayantha Kelegama preparing the estimates for the year –

Here am I, an old man in dry month
Being read to by a boy who waits for rain

it had not occurred to me that that jousting would have ended when Felix was still so much younger than JR had been then. But the ebullience, and the polish, of the boy who created his own rain, remains unforgettable.