Leel Gunasekara: A Public-Spirited Intellectual | Daily News

Leel Gunasekara: A Public-Spirited Intellectual

At the UN World Assembly on Ageing held in Vienna in 1982.
At the UN World Assembly on Ageing held in Vienna in 1982.

To many, Dr. Leel Gunasekera is an intellectual of the highest calibre. It seems that he is a gentleman adored and respected by many. The Daily News pays tribute to Dr. Leel Gunasekera for his 90th birthday falls today. Gunasekera has touched the lives of so many and made his mark upon Sri Lankan society.

The University of Peradeniya has produced many intellectuals, and Leel Gunasekera is one of them. Having graduated from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, he joined the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service in 1957.

Gunasekera spoke about his decision to enter the Civil Service. “When I was in the 5th Standard in the Sinhala School, my teachers gave an essay topic – ‘If I get a scholarship’. I wasn’t even ten-years-old at that time. I had no idea I would be a Government Agent one day. Even as a child my aspiration was to be an administrator. That year for the Civil Service they took only six people. And the years before me they took only four people. I also got selected to the Foreign Service, a different exam and different interview. I had to opt for one of the two, prior to joining the Civil Service. I selected the Civil Service.”

His achievements are too many to recount but he held many distinguished positions such as being the Government Agent in five districts, Secretary to the Cabinet of Ministers, Director, Department of Cultural Affairs and Social Services. During his time at the International Civil Service, he held the positions of Regional Director, Asia Pacific Youth Development for the Commonwealth Secretariat based in India (1975 - 1978) and Regional Advisor on Social Development Policy and Planning for the United Nation’s Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific ESCAP (1992- 1995) in Bangkok.

He also served a short stint as the Inspector General of Police. Gunasekera added a human touch during his tenure as Inspector General. This is what endears Gunasekera to so many – his humanity. He was never a man who fell in love with power. Indeed, he was a man who believed that power came from love. Late Ven. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratana Thera once said “Mr. Leel Gunasekera belongs to the fast dwindling calibre of Administrative Officers who continued their academic interest and also further cultured their aesthetic sensitivity”.

His achievements are not limited merely to administration but extended to the literary field as well. How did he combine his administrative and literary activities? Leel Gunasekera, he recounted that his first post was as a Civil Service Cadet in Mannar. A district he had asked for. Therefore, he had to learn Tamil. Tamil was important for his promotion. “There was a very good Government Agent who served as my boss. He was the late Mr. W. Pathirana. A very nice person. Very strict but also very helpful. He set the pace in my Civil Service career. After Mannar Kachcheri I came to Anuradhapura as Additional GA. That was a bad time after the 1957 floods with much devastation. It is there I wrote my books. They say next to Leonard Woolf who wrote “Village in the Jungle” in 1906 in Hambantota, I was the first Government Agent who has written about the people whom they looked after since Leonard Woolf,” he said.

His first novel “Pethsama” is how people looked at the Government for which he got the State Literary Award in 1962. The next was “Athsana (Signature)” about how the Government sees the people.

Indeed, Gunasekera’s novel ‘Pethsama’, caught the interest of former Bishop of Kandy, Rt. Rev. Vianney Fernando who said – “Having read his award winning novel ‘Pethsama’, I was really fascinated that a leading Civil Servant could be so sensitive to the poor villagers and their suffering. His subsequent works – ‘Athsana’ and ‘Man Nethida’ are also literary works of a very high quality and were written in readable yet elegant Sinhala. It was written in a way that would touch the hearts of any reader. It is then that we as young seminarians decided to invite Dr. Leel Gunasekera to be the Chief Guest of our Annual Gonsalves Sinhala Academy Day to the National Seminary.”

According to many accounts, Gunasekera was a family man, devoted to his children and wife. He also led a very simple life. It seems that the man was determined to instill virtue in his children. He introduced his children to Martin Wickramasinghe’s books and to Pandith Jawaharlal Nehru’s book, “Letters from a Father to His Daughter”. Apparently Gunasekera has tremendous mental faculties. They say he was able to attend to a number of matters at the same time, an ability he developed by working in the Civil Service.

Gunasekera is also religious. His daughters pointed out, that in his official capacity as Government Agent and specially Director Cultural Affairs and Social Services, he was close to religious dignitaries.

Gunasekera comes from humble beginnings. He was born in a village, 15 miles from Colombo called Jamburaliya, a very nice agricultural, rural village with highlands and paddy lands. He came from an agricultural rural background. Even though he rose to greatness as a self-made man, he never forgot his people. Rt. Rev. Vianney Fernando recalls that what really impressed him about this man Gunasekera was his sensitivity to human problems. His love of humanity enabled him to serve the cause of the rehabilitation of those involved in the youth insurrection in 1971, as the secretary to the special ministry set up for this purpose.

According to Emeritus Prof. of Economics, University of Colombo, A.D.V de S. Indraratne, Leel Gunasekera was conspicuous for his voracious reading, and always used to win the school prizes for English Essay and Oratory at different levels. Despite his being in Catholic school throughout, he did not lose touch with his home Buddhist background, and despite his heavy school curriculum, did not miss Sunday School. When it comes to his contribution to Sri Lankan literature, culture and social activities, the man is a giant.

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