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14th June 1998

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A Politician and a Gentleman

George Rajapakse
It was long before the late George Rajapakse rose to ministerial eminence, or even entered parliament, that I first came to know him - at Royal College as schoolmates. Before he entered the college hostel at “The Maligawa” he was boarded for a short time at a private house in Bois Place, off Greenlands Road (now Isipathana Mawatha) where I was myself staying with my grandmother, at No. 103, to go to school.

He was always smiling, broadly exposing his teeth but the light in his eyes showed that the smile came from the heart and was not superficial.

George and two of his siblings, and I went daily to and from school by rickshaw, very often travelling at the same time in the parallel vehicles chatting with each other, exchanging school gossip and sometimes urging the two rickshaw-pullers into races.

Though he was a few years younger to me, this “generation gap” between us in terms of school life was overcome by the out-of-school rickshaw-ride relationship! Even in early boyhood George began to show signs of the personal qualities which later characterised his life and career.

He was always smiling, broadly exposing his teeth but the light in his eyes showed that the smile came from the heart and was not superficial. He had a sense of fun, and a mischievousness completely free of malice.

He was fond of cricket and eventually played for Royal, scoring two centuries in the same match against Trinity College (in 1943 I believe) and captaining the team in 1944 when Royal lost to St. Thomas’ that year by an innings! Thus, as a young cricketer hardly out of his ‘teens, he learned “To meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same”. This ability, and his display of it, came to be a hallmark of George’s later public career.

Graduating from the University of Ceylon, he qualified as an Advocate and soon had a lucrative practice in the criminal courts of the country. This helped him to clear the heavy debts his father, D.M. Rajapakse, had left behind him when he died suddenly in 1945 leaving behind a family of seven young children besides his widow.

It was not long before George abandoned law for politics to continue the work his father had been unable to complete. His father had laid the foundation of the “Rajapakse Phenomenon” in the politics of the south - which has persisted to this day. D.M.Rajapakse faced with the grim conditions of life of the hundreds of the poor, landless peasants of the area trying to fight a relentless hostile natural environment, appreciated and realised where their duty lay.

People oriented policies and measures were urgently needed in the place of the outmoded, semi-feudal economic structure that existed. These were regarded at the time as being too radical and suspected as being “socialist”.

Herein lay the progressive, liberal, far-seeing political philosophy of the “Rajapakse tradition” - always somewhat ahead of conventional and cautious conservation.

It was into this scene that George’s father had stepped in 1936 when he was elected to represent Hambantota in the State Council, and which he continued to do until his sudden demise in 1945 . His younger brother (D.A.) was elected unopposed at the by-election held to fill that vacancy.

With the reforms introduced by the Soulbury Commission in 1947, the number of Parliamentary seats for the Hambantota District was increased first to two and then, in 1960, to three.

He was successfully contesting one of these seats - Mulkirigala - that George Rajapakse entered Parliament and national politics in 1960 at a very young age.

He continued to hold it without a break for sixteen years; until his own untimely death in 1976.

When he was first elected to parliament in 1960 I was myself already embarked on my diplomatic career abroad. Although I wrote to congratulate him and wish him well, our personal meetings became necessarily rare, being restricted to the occasions when I was back home on holiday.

Keeping track of his progress in Sri Lanka from wherever I was, I was not surprised to learn that he had been appointed Junior Minister of Finance in July 1960, in Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Administration.

Indeed, I was even less surprised to learn that two years later, in August 1962, George had resigned from that office, principally in protest against the decision of the Government to remove the subsidy on rice which he was certain would cause severe hardship and distress to the poor of the country.

By this act of his, George Rajapakse, a Junior Minister and a promising young member of the ruling political party of the time lit a flame that day, thirty six years ago, the light from which, though unfortunately growing dimmer, could yet lead us out of the gloom that encircles our public life today.

His legal training, his political background and his social awareness combined to make him a valuable Member of Parliament and a formidable debater.

He was critical of the unthinking and indiscriminate acceptance of institutions, he queried whether Parliamentary government as practised was truly representative of the people and their needs and aspirations, he was sceptical of the effectiveness of the bureaucracy, and was concerned about waste and bribery. High office sat lightly and easily on his shoulders.

He was able to distinguish dignity from pomposity, respect from servility and loyalty from sycophancy.

The legacy that George Rajapakse’s unfortunately short life has bequeathed to us - but particularly to those in our public life - is that it is by no means impossible for one to be, at the same time, a politician and a gentleman.

– Neville Kanakaratne

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