The lost generations of the UNP: A.C.S. Hameed

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 5 2021
Columns The lost generations of the UNP: A.C.S. Hameed

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Sirisena Cooray came into prominence only under President Premadasa and faded away in the year after Premadasa was assassinated, on 1 May 1993. Abdul Cader Shahul Hameed had been prominent under both JR Jayewardene and Premadasa, but he too faded away after the 1994 Election though he continued in Parliament until his death in 1999. But in effect his shelf life ended when he resigned from the Chairmanship of the UNP at the end of 1994.

Before I look at that eventuality, I should describe the major roles he played in two successive Governments. J R Jayewardene made him Foreign Minister when the UNP won the 1977 Election, the first Sri Lankan Foreign Minister as is proudly proclaimed in account of his career for before that the Prime Minister had been, from independence onward, also Minister of External Affairs as well as Defence.

Hameed was an inspired choice for those were the days when the Islamic countries first played an important role on the world stage, following the hike in oil prices following the Yom Kippur War. Before that there had been Islamic countries of great importance on the world stage, but that was because of the personalities of their leaders, Nasser of Egypt and Sukarno of Indonesia. But the emergence of the Organisation of Islamic Countries on the world stage happened only in the mid seventies. And now they were basically opposed to the socialist leaning Non-Alignment that Nasser and Sukarno had exemplified.

I have no doubt the need to develop good relations with the now wealthy Islamic countries, with their reliance on migrant labour from poorer countries, figured in JR’s reasons for appointing Hameed to this vital position. But, he also wanted to keep control of Foreign Relations, and Hameed had been amongst his most faithful followers in the preceding period. In the battle for the UNP between JR and Dudley in the early seventies, following on the hostility that had developed between them during the previous UNP Government, Hameed had been the only senior member of the UNP, and indeed the only one in Parliament, who backed JR to the hilt. And this he continued to do over the next eleven years. 

The 1947 Defence Pact

He played his part faithfully, including flying to Britain in 1983 to try to invoke the 1947 Defence Pact when J R feared that India threatened invasion. But that request was turned down, and in general Hameed was never seen as a heavyweight. His only lasting legacy as Foreign Minister was to increase dramatically the number of Muslims in the Ministry. Of course this may also have been due to the fact that Muslims had been allowed English medium education in the preceding period, and the Muslims I knew in the Foreign Ministry later on were good officers and excellent in their English. But I do not think that had been the only criterion for their recruitment. 

That Hameed was not taken seriously was apparent from the fact that in the all important negotiations with India after the two countries came to loggerheads he was not involved. He was sent with proposals in April 1986 when he went to Delhi for a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement, but those were ignored and instead Rajiv Gandhi sent one of his Ministers to Colombo with more far-reaching proposals which were in essence accepted after a flurry of terrorist activity in and near Colombo. But of course it was important for JR to have someone he could rely on to follow his lead, as he succumbed to Indian pressures, while the other senior members of his Cabinet objected to what was going on. 

Though he had been faithful to JR, Hameed also served Premadasa well, and was indeed given substantial responsibilities. Initially he was Minister of Higher Education and under him Arjuna Aluwihare as Chairman of the University Grants Commission started what would have been a radical rehaul of the University system had Premadasa not been killed. Before long Wijetunge who had taken over sacked Aluwihare, and that in effect ended the reform process.

State Minister of Higher Education

Hameed served as the Minister only for a year for in March 1990 Lalith Athulathmudali was made Minister of Education and Higher Education, the portfolios being combined for the first time since 1980. But Hameed was kept on as State Minister of Higher Education and I recall Lalith telling me, when I saw him in the hope that he would move rapidly on reforms, not aware then of what Aluwihare was planning, that Hameed had been kept there to keep an eye on him. He said therefore that he could not do much in Higher Education but would concentrate on Education, and I did in fact accompany him on visits to training colleges for as always he was thorough in his approach. But he did not manage much before he left the Cabinet in the middle of 1991 with the effort he made together with his old rival Gamini Dissanayake to impeach Premadasa. However, Higher Education, or rather the universities, were left to Aluwihare, who continued to innovate.

Hameed had been made Minister of Justice in 1990 and Premadasa then gave him a greater responsibility when he got him to chair the All Party Conference he had summoned to resolve the Tamil question after war had broken out again with the LTTE. I myself thought Hameed painfully slow in trying to achieve consensus, raising objections when we were getting close to agreement on the one or two occasions I attended the meetings. But I did not go regularly and Chanaka Amaratunga who did got on well with Hameed said he was doing his best. Hameed used him to draft a lot of the conclusions reached, which suggested he was sincere. But of course with the impeachment, and much more for Premadasa to worry about after that, the discussions came to nothing. 

After Premadasa’s assassination, in May 1993, D B Wijetunge who succeeded brought Hameed back as Minister of Foreign Affairs. He had also become Chairman of the UNP after Ranjan Wijeratne’s assassination, and was by far the most senior member of the Cabinet, the only other person apart from the President who had been a Cabinet Minister since July 1977 being Wijepala Mendis. Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom D B made his Prime Minister after Sirisena Cooray refused the post, had initially been Hameed’s Deputy at Foreign Affairs in 1977.

Second stint as Foreign Minister

But this second stint as Foreign Minister was Hameed’s swansong. Wijetunge had a parliamentary Election in August 1994 and lost. Ranil Wickremesinghe who had been his Prime Minister lost the leadership of the UNP parliamentary group to Gamini Dissanayake, who had come back to the party before the election. I suspect that would have disappointed Hameed who had remained with the UNP as Ranil had when Gamini left the party at the time of the impeachment. But then, Gamini too was assassinated, and Hameed might have thought his influence in the party would be restored. However, this was to reckon without Ranil Wickremesinghe’s personal predilections. 

Ranil turned him down

Hameed had worried about the fact that a separate Muslim party had emerged under Ashraff, putting in jeopardy what had seemed relatively solid support for the UNP from that community. In 1989, Premadasa had reached an agreement of sorts with Ashraff who had been delighted to win four seats in the General Election, three in constituencies and one through the National List. By 1994 when Ashraff, having been treated with contumely by Wijetunge, supported Chandrika Kumaratunga and the People’s Alliance, he won seven seats which provided Chandrika with a majority in Parliament. There were a couple of National List vacancies since the suicide bomb that killed Gamini Dissanayake had taken several other lives and Hameed told Ranil to appoint a Muslim from the Amparai District to try to stem the rising support for the SLMC. But Ranil turned him down, and instead added insult to injury by nominating instead to Parliament a youngster called Dinesh Dodangoda.

There was no rationale for this, and no one took seriously Ranil’s claim that he brought in the boy because he wanted to show the UNP’s commitment to the new generation. It was a personal choice, and there were grave suspicions about the nature of their friendship, a journalist indeed telling me once that Dodangoda had blackmailed Ranil about going public about that if he was not put into Parliament. That may have been farfetched, but the journalist claimed to have, or to have heard, a recording of the conversation. 

Hameed was bitterly disappointed and resigned from the position of Party Chairman. He was replaced by Karu Jayasuriya, who had returned that year after having served as Ambassador in Germany. Karu went on to be Mayor of Colombo and was so successful that Ranil pulled him out to contest the next Provincial Council Election, and then he was in Parliament though given a ridiculous Ministry when the UNP won the 2001 General Election. That, as Ilika Karunaratne by now devoted to Ranil claimed, was because he could not be trusted.

Hamid was dead by then. Little was heard of him after he gave up the Chairmanship, which Ranil generally filled later with close personal friends, such as Charitha Ratwatte and Malik Samarawickrema, Kabir Hashim being an exception – and now the subservient Vajira Abeywardena. 

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 5 2021

More News