The Way It Is: Parliament and Politicians of the Past

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We in this country are in the throes of an impasse; a Government being asked to go by protesting youth who have continued for almost a month, colonising a part of Galle Face Green and naming it Gogotagama and moving a camp to opposite Temple Trees with name Mynagogama. Many satellite sites have been set up in other parts of the island; overseas, Sri Lankans, resident in many cities of the world, have held, and are holding protests in sympathy with ours here.  The Government which the protestors wish to push out is in disarray but the President and Prime Minister, whose departure is demanded, remain stubbornly at their posts.

In this history creating time Nihal Seneviratne, a former Secretary General of the Parliament of Ceylon, has written of his experiences and gives readers a clear picture of the Parliament during his time. He launched his second book ‘Memories of 33 years in Parliament’  at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute on 30 April. The chief guest was Karu Jayasuriya and the guests of honour were Prof. Savitri Goonesekera, D.E.W.Gunasekera, Eran Wickremaratne and Dr Rohan Pethiyagaoda. They gave brilliant addresses, commenting on the book and its value and praised the author for the book and his integrity and commitment to service. They all referred to the ongoing youth unrest which they agreed was beneficial to the country as it demonstrated unity among races and religions and aimed at the installation of true democracy in the country with elimination of dishonesty and corruption.

The publication

The just out publication has 36 chapters, most short, some of which appeared in Nihal’s earlier publication: ‘A Clerk Reminisces’. These include the two chapters of autobiography; learning and working experience in Parliament; training overseas; the hand grenade attack when JRJ was President ; Sirimavo’s Government losing by one vote and her being stripped of her civic rights; the attempt to impeach Premadasa; and the British Prime Minister Thatcher’s address to our Parliament; also Parliament’s goodbye to Nihal. Many new chapters give us valuable and unique glimpses into Parliament from 1961 to 1994 during the  premierships of Sirimavo,  Dudley S, JRJ as PM and then President,  R Premadasa and  D B Wijetunge. Within these chapters are happenings in Parliament; clashes of personality; and various pieces of micro history which may very well be documented only in this book. For example, a chapter is devoted to working with Premadasa, most certainly not an easy matter, but Nihal coped excellently. He quotes witty sayings of Parliamentarians; and adds personal glimpses of many ranging from Gamini Dissanayake through Colvin R de Silva, two Moonesinghes and many others. He was Secretary General in overall charge of the shifting of Parliament from Galle Face the new Geoffrey Bawa designed premises at Diyawanne Oya. 

 Through his retailing of his experiences joining as an Assistant Clerk under Ralph Deraniyagala and moving on to being in charge of administration in Parliament, he  reveals facets of his own temperament: steady and solid, usually unruffled, goes out of his way to oblige but draws the line, even refuses, if the order contravenes rules, laws, the Constitution. He shows, inadvertently,   how efficient an administrator he was, coping well with large calamities and minor troubles. He also got on well with his staff: stern but caring and often showing empathy. The chapter Restoring the dignity of Parliament should be read by every MP, aspiring politician and voter. Nihal would have witnessed the deterioration from the time he joined to three decades later, hence this sign-posting section hoping for improvement in MPs and their behavior.

Valuable information and facts

The tables at the end of the book are truly valuable since one can see at a glance the history of Parliament and thus a slice of the country’s political history from 1947 onwards, tabulated and clearly presented. The tables are of Heads of State since 1948 with Presidents since 1972 – first W.Gopallawa and then Executive Presidents from 1978. The next table lists Prime Ministers, and another a list of Lady Members since 1931. In the present Government there are only 12 women MPs, a very low percent of 225 members. Though basically a recollected journey of service as a top administrator, written in very simple language, Nihal Senviratne’s  Memories of 33 years in Parliament, is a pertinent and accurate history of Sri Lanka’s Parliament. It mixes facts, biographical sketches and the unseen and infrequent unexpected, unusual bumps in the August House. It is micro-historical, personal, and of human nature.

Kumari