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26th September 1999

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DP: A man who was one with the people

Reflections on the life and times of D.P. Atapattu, JPUM, Crown Proctor and Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of State.

By Sam Wijesinha

S. A. Pakeman, Sam Wijesinha, D. P.  Atapattu and Senator B. H. Dunuwilla at a C.P.A. conference in New Zealand in 1965On April 2,1917, two young students had the privilege of listening to an address by Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam delivered at the Victoria Masonic Hall, Colombo, with E.J. Samarawickrama in the chair. The subject of the address was "Our political needs". The speaker was a Cambridge University graduate who had passed a competitive examination held in London and was successful in being selected to the Ceylon Civil Service. After a most illustrious career he had retired in 1913 at the age of 60 and had been recognised with the conferment of a knighthood.

Sir Ponnambalam ended his historic address with the words, "We in Ceylon do desire that our government shall be a Ceylonese government, that our rulers shall identify themselves with Ceylonese interests and in the striking words of the Mahawansa "be one with the people.'' He concluded his address as the first President of the Ceylon National Congress which he laboured so much to form with the words from the Karaniya Metta Sutta.

"Sukhito va khemino honthu
Sabbe Satta Bhavantu Sukhisatta.''


Let all beings be joyous and safe
Let it be theirs to dwell in happiness!

The two young students who were movingly impressed by Sir Ponnambalam's words were from Ananda College - Don Peter Atapattu (father of Dr. Ranjith Atapattu) and Don Daniel Athulathmudali (father of Lalith Athulathmudali). That address not only inspired so many Ceylonese but also fired the enthusiasm of the younger generation.

It was a time when this country after almost 120 years of British rule had a Legislative Council of 21 members of whom 11 were government officers, six were government nominated, while only four were elected. Of the four elected two represented the European Rural and European Urban electorates, one the Burgher electorate and one only the Ceylonese "Educated'' electorate of 2,934 voters. The one "Educated'' Ceylonese member who, almost single-handedly advocated the interests of the "native'' people of Ceylon was Ponnambalam Ramanathan, the elder brother of Sir P. Arunachalam who defeated the other contestant for this seat by almost a thousand votes.

D.P. Atapattu joined the Ceylon National Congress mainly because he was impressed by the harmony that existed between the Sinhalese and Tamil leadership. However, he soon got disillusioned when the Sinhala leaders of the Congress allowed themselves to get entangled with the Tamils on a comparatively insignificant issue over the reserving of a seat for the Tamils in the Western Province. A timely concession magnanimously made would have avoided the irreparable subsequent political consequences.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, the father of the Ceylon National Congress, and his brother, Ramanathan, resigned from the Congress which the former had laboured so much to achieve. Sir P. Arunachalam died a few years later, rather a disillusioned patriot.

Young Atapattu and Athulathmudali turned to law studies. DP enrolled himself as a law student in 1922. He lived in Norris Canal Road and later down Flower Road 'clubbing' together with the Boralugoda brothers, Philip and Robert Gunawardena, Austin de Silva of journalistic fame and C. Ponnambalam who later became the Mayor of Jaffna. His brother, C. Sittampalam, the Mathematics scholar, in 1923 passed the Ceylon Civil Service Examination. On retirement he got elected to Parliament in 1947. He was a minister in the D.S. Senanayake Cabinet.

As a law student DP - as most law students did - taught in various schools, one such being Mahabodhi College where A. Ratnayake was Principal. He was in the first batch of students in the newly created University College. Having obtained his BA (Lond.) and become an advocate, he took to politics and won the Dumbara seat in 1931 at the first elections held under adult franchise to the State Council. DP was always proud of the dedicated and selfless service rendered to the whole country by his one time colleague in the teaching profession whom he always tried to emulate.

He was really the author of Free Education in this country. DP was admitted and enrolled as a proctor of the Supreme Court in 1927 and set up practice at Tangalle. He was born on September 17, 1899 at his home in Nakulugamuwa, a few miles to the west of Tangalle. He was the eldest in a family of seven boys and one girl-the family of Muhandiram D.J. Atapattu and his wife, a daughter of the well known Wijekoon family of the Matara district. His only sister Mrs. Dahanayaka's daughter is married to Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku, Member of Parliament.

Young DP had his early education in the school which is now called Gamini Maha Vidyalaya at Nakulugamuwa and later in St. Thomas' at Matara to which he sometimes walked almost six miles from his mother's ancestral home. Then he joined S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia. One of his teachers, I believe it was the famous T.B. Jayah who was a classics master, advised DP to join Ananda as young DP tended to have ideas that did not seem to fit in with the discipline expected by Warden Stone of S. Thomas.

At Ananda he came under the new Principal, P. de S. Kularatne, who had novel ideals for the education of the young Ceylonese and also under the influence of enthusiastic teachers fresh from the Teachers' Training College like V.T.S. Sivagurunathan.

As a member of the Ceylon National Congress DP looked up to Sir D.B. Jayatilaka who spent a lot of his time at the YMBA of which also DP became a member. Both the Congress and the YMBA influenced a number of young men in the 1920s. As a law student DP admired the law lecturers of the time-M.T. Akbar, A.R.H. Canakaratne and E.J. Samarawickrama, all three of whom became King's Counsel in due course and the two former, judges of the Supreme Court.

At the time DP joined the Tangalle Bar there were quite a number of lawyers from "outside'' like V.S. de S. Wikramanayake and his brother H.E. from Galle, Burgher lawyers like Auwardt, LaBrooy and Poulier. From the district were Ratnatunga, Wickramasuriya, Jayawickrama and Domingo. Later Wannigama, Nilaweera and a few others increased the numbers of practitioners. I am sorry if I have omitted some names.

Very soon DP achieved success at the Bar and married the daughter of the Dahanayaka family of Pananwela. It was a happy marriage where she fitted in elegantly to be the wife of a public figure with a busy professional life. Their many friends from Colombo were constant visitors to their home in Tangalle and whatever numbers dropped in on their way to Tissa and Kataragama, there was warm hospitality in the Atapattu home. She carried out her duties, always with a smile unostentatiously, with devotion and elegance. They had one son, Dr. Ranjith Atapattu and a daughter, Indrani, who married and migrated to Australia.

As his legal practice became more lucrative, he continued his interests in the people of the area. He was successful in making Tangalle eligible to be raised to an Urban Council. He became its first Chairman in 1945. He was appointed a crown proctor in due course.

He was a founder member of the hurriedly created United National Party to face the first election under the new Soulbury Constitution in 1947. That was an election at which members of the same party had, at times, to contest the same seat. DP's first experience at the hustings was in 1947 when he had to contest the sitting member of the State Council, D.A. Rajapaksa, who was also a member of the UNP. He was the father of Chamal and Mahinda of the present Parliament. Of the six elections beginning with that of 1947, four were won by Rajapaksa and two by Atapattu - those of March 1960 and March 1965 when he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of State, J.R. Jayewardene. DP had a big hand pioneering the work in respect of tourism. Neither DA nor DP ever went after office. DP also led the delegation to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference of 1965 in New Zealand. He did not contest the 1970 election. That seat was won by Mahinda Rajapaksa, thereby he becomes one of the most senior members of the present Parliament having entered it 29 years ago.

DP lived in retirement since 1970. Many were his acts of generosity to innumerable people of the area, magnanimity without ostentation. He was a kindly man who endured his illness patiently in his last few years. It was at this time that K.B. Ratnayake, the then Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Sports, who had gone to Tangalle as the chief guest of a rural function, found time to call on DP. He was deeply touched at KB's gesture of visiting an ailing colleague of the 1965 Parliament. It was KB who moved the vote of condolence on DP's death in Parliament on December 20, 1976, six days after his death. It is sad to reflect that neither D.A. Rajapaksa nor D.P. Atapattu lived to see their respective sons Mahinda in 1970 and Ranjit in 1977 enter Parliament as members of the next generation. The two families have rendered considerable service to the people of Ruhuna, and reflecting on their times one hopes that the new generations will continue to be of service to arrest the drifting towards an unfathomable future.

(The writer is a former Secretary General of Parliament)

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