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Sri Nissanka, the great humanitarian and statesman

Legacy Lives On

by Gayan Abeykoon
April 3, 2024 1:10 am 0 comment

In the era preceding independence, Sri Lanka, fondly referred to as mother Lanka, was graced by the presence of numerous iconic leaders committed to fostering societal progress. Among them, Privy Councilor Herbert Nissanka Mendis (H. Sri Nissanka) stood out as a quintessential figure, albeit often overlooked. Despite his European education, he gravitated towards the simplicity of life embraced by the common village folk, embodying a lifestyle steeped in the principles of Buddhism—simplicity, purity, and humility — characterising the unpretentious greatness of a visionary.

Born in 1898 at the renowned GarumuniWalawwuwa in Balapitiya, Southern Ceylon, Nissanka was the cherished only son of Diveris Mendis and dame Anoma Wickremaratne Soyza, followed by three daughters. His educational journey began at Ananda College and continued at Royal College, guided by the collective wisdom of his family, particularly that of the esteemed civic leader Sir D.B. Jayatilleke. Recognising his potential, it was unanimously decided that Nissanka should pursue legal studies at Oxford University in Great Britain, a decision that proved fortuitous as it led to his fateful encounter with S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the future Premier of an independent Sri Lanka.

Before his departure for England, Nissanka spent four years as an ordained Buddhist monk in what was then Burma, where he honed his unique ability to discern the character and destiny of individuals through physiognomy. Perhaps it was this insight that allowed Nissanka to foresee the future of Solomon Dias. The enduring friendship between Solomon and Nissanka played a pivotal role in shaping a more Sri Lanka-centric perspective in Bandaranaike as time progressed.

Widespread acclaim

Upon his return from London as a distinguished Advocate, Sri Nissanka showcased remarkable prowess in defending numerous individuals in arduous criminal proceedings, earning him widespread acclaim and esteem within legal circles during the 1930s and 1940s. His legal acumen was so renowned that even J.R. Jayewardene, destined to become the inaugural Executive President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, served as his apprentice junior lawyer.

His popularity transcended nationalistic and religious boundaries, culminating in his uncontested election as a Municipal Council Member of Wellawatta, followed by his subsequent election as the Member of Parliament for the Kurunegala Electorate in the inaugural Parliament of Sri Lanka. During this period, he assumed the Presidency of the Sri Lanka Buddhist Congress and represented Sri Lanka at numerous international forums, garnering accolades for the nation. Despite his bustling schedule, Sri Nissanka found time to author several books, including critical analyses on the Ceylon Penal Code, the History of England, Salgala Puda Bima (The Salgala Monastery), and Athugalpura Satana (The Battle of Kurunegala). Additionally, he served as the editor of two newspapers, “Sankha Nadaya” (The Clarion Call) and “Hela Diwa.”

However, it is his significant contributions to the nation as a politician and the founding figure of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that will endure in the collective memory of the common man for generations to come. Recognising the necessity for a new political party catering to the needs of the masses, Sri Nissanka, driven by his liberal principles, established the SLFP as a unifying force, bringing together members of the clergy, Ayurveda physicians, educators, farmers, and laborers under one humble emblem to challenge the entrenched aristocratic political entities of the time.

Remarkable prowess

Reflecting on this era, Sam Wijesinghe, a longstanding State Secretary and Senior Civil Servant, remarked during the Sri Nissanka Felicitation Ceremony in 2012 that Sri Nissanka’s liberal ideals, political sagacity, and foresight were evident in his advocacy for the common people through the SLFP. Wijesinghe recalled, “When we were young and impressionable, we were fortunate to hear Sri Nissanka. He possessed profound knowledge—both local and international. His adept resolution of nationalistic and religious conflicts, averting them from escalating into national crises, was truly commendable.”

Collective memory

The adage “the spouse is our better half” finds its embodiment in Mrs. Murial Nissanka, the beloved life partner of Nissanka. Together, they exemplified this sentiment. Their children—Yamuna, Geetha, and Ranjith—stood steadfast by Nissanka’s side, offering unwavering support throughout his illustrious civic endeavors. Dr. Avanthi Nissanka Karunaratne, Professor Randiv Nissanka Karunaratne, Ranjith Abeysekera, and Devika Wickremaratne are among his distinguished grandchildren, who proudly carry forward the Nissanka legacy of serving the motherland.

A humble ceremony accompanied by a book donation campaign was held at the Methmanga Meditation Centre in Rathgama, Galle, to commemorate Sri Nissanka’s 70th death anniversary. This event, organised in collaboration with Methmanga TV Channel, aimed to honour his memory and perpetuate his spirit of service, as stated by Jagath Gunetthi, the Secretary of the Sri Nissanka Memorial Foundation.


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