News Features

 Amarasiri Dodangoda     

A leader who spoke for the voiceless

By Bhagavadas Srikanthadas
Two great men won the hearts of the people from the Galle district, during the last century, by rendering exceptional service to the community they served, identifying with their joys and woes to the very last. Due to some strange coincidence both had close links to Richmond College, Galle. The first, Rev W J T Small, after graduating from Cambridge University, came to Galle to function as principal of Richmond College, later making Richmond Hill his home until his death in 1978. The legendary Dr. Wijeyananda Dahanayake, a product of Richmond College, made it a point to consolidate his ties to the needy of Galle despite his national fame. The latest addition to this pantheon of great men is Amarasiri Dodangoda, also a product of Richmond College, who was Minister of Justice and Law Reforms when he passed away on May 30.

Amarsiri Dodangoda was born in the early 1940s, in a hamlet in the Baddegama electorate, where his ancestral home is situated where the Gin River gently touches the regions undulating landscape. Those of us who visited him forty years ago were fortunate enough to have a wonderful panoramic view of the countryside from the front garden of this house; a view denied and eviscerated during the last two decades, following construction and building works around the house. His father a successful Galle businessman valued honesty more than profit and his mother was a well respected lady in the village, known for the great trait of helping the poor.

I first came to know Dodangoda in the early 1960s at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. As undergraduates, though we pursued different disciplines, student politics forged a close friendship between us. Reflecting upon this after a period of time, I recall the interesting discussions I had with him in the corridors and kiosk of this seat of higher learning, on topics ranging from history to Sinhala literature. His love for mother tongue was exceptional. With extraordinary ease he could recite verses from Kavsilumina, a lengthy poem based on the well known Kusa Jataka story, and make clear to those around him the richness of this classic.

Amarasiri Dodangoda acknowledged on umpteen occasions how, Prof. E.R. Sarachchandra, one of his teacher at the university, made an indelible mark on his thinking through his stimulating lectures. It was his influence which encouraged Amarasiri Dodangoda to develop a love for theatre. His interest in theatre was not merely confined to Sinhala plays but spilled over to Tamil and English. In this context, I cannot escape a wave of nostalgia, when I recall going with him to see at Lional Wendt Theatre an English production, Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, and a Tamil play staged in Colombo by Professor Maunaguru, a contemporary of ours at Peradeniya.

On completion of his undergraduate studies he opted to teach, and joined the staff of the Vidyaloka Pirivena. This institution, built on an edifice of oriental ethos, gave the rookie teacher an opportunity, while preparing his students for examination oriented courses, to instil values essential to carving out good citizens. During this period he also made available his services to youth and peasants from his home town, when time permitted. Working amongst the less privileged brought to the surface the admirable leadership qualities of this dedicated and conscientious young teacher.

1971 is considered a watershed year in Sri Lankan history. Our motherland was seething with social unrest and the April insurrection was seen as the first attempt by an organised political party to overthrow an established Government of Ceylon by resorting to armed struggle. Ruthless measures were taken by the state to crush the insurrection, in the process Amarasiri Dodangoda was detained in police custody for a week. Undoubtedly this was seen as a travesty of justice since he never even remotely subscribed to the ideology of the political party behind the insurrection. Many believed a local politician, used to a sybaritic life-style, considered the energetic teacher to be a challenge to his political career, and were instrumental in getting him arrested.

These harassments failed to dampen his enthusiasm, nor his desire to serve the community. Soon he joined the Sri Lankan Education Service. As an educationalist he took an active part in many discussions that led to the over-haul of an out dated school curriculum which tilted in favour of institutions attended by children from affluent backgrounds. The ‘white paper’ on educational reforms, subsequently presented, reflected several of Dodangoda’s suggestions emphasising the need for vocational and aesthetic education at secondary and tertiary levels, based on a national curriculum.

Soon it dawned on him that life as a bureaucrat fettered his creative skills and limited any ability to interact with people. In 1977 he resigned from the government service and went around the country addressing meetings in support of transport workers who went on strike, demanding a wage increase and better working conditions. Strikes paralysed the country leaving a twitchy Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, with no option other than calling for an early election.

The 1977 general elections initiated Amarasiri Dodangoda to national politics when he was asked to stand as candidate in a southern electorate, representing a coalition cobbled together of several Marxist oriented political parties. On this occasion though he failed to garner enough votes to enter parliament yet the nation, captivated by his oratorical skills, was given an opportunity to assess the leadership qualities he manifested during the campaign.

The general election resulted in the United National Party landslide under the stewardship of J.R. Jayewardene. On the heels of political change at national level, on successfully completing his studies at Law College, Amarasiri Dodangoda was admitted as an attorney- at-law of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. As a lawyer he took a common sense approach in interpreting various provisions of law and regulations even when pitted against seasoned lawyers. Not surprisingly both bench and bar admired the dignified manner in which he conducted himself in court while straining every nerve and sinew to get the best result for his clients.

New prime minister J.R. Jayewardene, in order to consolidate his power, got the parliament to endorse a new constitution that elevated him to the position of executive president; using the absolute majority the UNP enjoyed in parliament, he took steps to deprive several opposition politicians, who were seen as a thorn in his side, of their civil rights - including Mrs. Bandaranaike. These measures were seen as a recipe for disaster, affecting the smooth functioning of a democratic system. However they left the SLFP in a disarray and the party’s leader, Mrs. Bandaranaike, sank into a miasma of despair. Not long after these developments she sought Dodangoda assistance in revitalising the party, by appointing him as organiser for the Baddegama electorate.

This human dynamo took his appointment as a challenge, working round the clock at a grass roots level and showed his mettle at a by-election held in 1983. The final count showed that the people of Baddegama elected him as their representative in parliament with a comfortable majority. After ten years serving as a member of parliament, in 1993, he resigned to build the SLFP regional base later that year, in the Southern Province. When elections were held for the Southern Provincial Council his party won and he was appointed as the Chief Minister.

However within a short period he resigned from the Provincial Council to contest parliamentary elections in 1994. On this occasion not only was he elected, but also his party, the SLFP, was able to form a government, after seventeen years in the wilderness. Since then he has held several portfolios including Local Government, Public Administration and Home Affairs; Vocational Training and Rural Industries; and at the time of his demise was still functioning as Minister of Justice and Law Reforms despite failing health.

As Minister of Justice he strongly felt there should be some mechanism to prevent jails getting overcrowded. Statistics showing a fair portion of those languishing in our prisons were incarcerated for failing to pay fines due to indigent circumstances worried him. On one occasion he pointed out to me that letting such a state of affairs continue would result in creating recidivists instead of reforming unlucky inmates. Another area which he felt called for immediate attention was the juvenile justice system, according to him a long neglected issue. In this regard he was interested in finding out how far jurists in the western countries moved towards rehabilitation as an alternative to retribution when dealing with young persons.

Today, at a crucial moment in the history of our nation, we have lost a man of great wisdom and noble qualities. Amarasiri Dodangoda will go down in history as a person who lived to serve the needy and speak for the voiceless; a person who remained with the SLFP through thick and thin from the day he first entered parliament; a person who led a squeaky clean life in a world tainted by corruption and opportunism.
Dodangoda is survived by his wife, a well known Colombo lawyer, and two sons.