Sinhala Buddhist Strategist N.Q. Dias was Feared as the “Tsar”
By CBJ Jeyaraj / Daily Mirror Lk
In the article titled “1962 Coup:Takeover of Govt. Through Operation Holdfast” that was published in the “Daily Mirror”of January 29th 2022, I had written about some persons who were to be arrested and detained at the Army headquarters by the Coup d’etat conspirators.Among these were the then Finance Minister Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike who was also the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs (junior minster) and the powerful Defence and External Affairs ministry secretary Neil Quintus Dias. In the eyes of the Coup conspirators they were the “dangerous Dias duo”.
Interestingly enough much interest has been evinced by readers about N.Q. Dias. Many people have heard of him but seem to know very little about who exactly he was or what the man accomplished. Some were intrigued by the fact that N.Q. Dias was the only Permanent secretary earmarked for incarceration in the Coup conspiracy. Several Politicians, defence officials, Trade Unionists and Journalists were to be held in custody but N.Q.Dias seems to be the only permanent secy who would have been arrested if the coup had not been aborted. Many wondered why?
Former Civil servant and prolific author Neville Jayaweera had first-hand knowledge of N.Q.Dias and the role he played in the public and political life of this country. He has also written a lot about Dias offering valuable insights into the controversial as well as lesser known aspects of his life. The importance of N.Q. Dias and the possible reason for being targeted in the 1962 coup is explained well by the following lines written by Jayaweera. “N.Q.Dias was not merely the Perm. Sec. Defence and External affairs, but the most powerful public servant around and because of his influence over Mrs.Bandaranaike feared and respected even by Cabinet Ministers, and referred to publicly as The Tsar(Czar).”
Indira Gandhi- P.N. Haskar
N.Q. Dias wielded considerable influence in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike led Govt of 1960 to 65. His advice and guidance was of great value to the inexperienced Prime Minister. The role played by Dias was very much like the role played by India’s P. N. Haskar vis – a vis Indian Prime Miniser Indira Gandhi. Serving as the Prime Minister’s principal secretary,Haskar was Indira Gandhi’s chief strategist and policy adviser in the seventies of the last century. The role played by N.Q.Dias in the sixties as the Sirimavo regime strategist was also the same.
What is little-known however is the role played by N.Q. Dias in bringing Sirimavo’s husband S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to power in 1956. Dias being a civil servant holding a top Govt. job kept himself in the background and engaged in behind the scenes activity. Hence the part played by Dias in the 1956 electoral verdict has not received due recognition. More important is the fact that N.Q. Dias in his own right was a man with a vision and mission. He was a Sinhala Buddhist strategist whose goal was to unseat and exclude the UNP from the seat of power so that the Sinhala Buddhist majority would find its rightful place under the Sri Lankan sun.
Two Contradictory Personalities
It is against this backdrop therefore that I focus on N.Q. Dias in this two-part article. I shall begin with by quoting extensively from Neville Jayaweera’s writings about N.Q Dias. They provide a fascinating perspective about this complex personality. Here are the relevant excerpts –
“N.Q. Dias was more than merely a public servant or a military strategist. He was an iconic phenomenon, surfing the tidal wave of Sinhala- Buddhist nationalism that had erupted out of the abyss of Sri Lanka’s history. However, to understand him fully we have to grasp two totally contradictory personalities in which he was framed.”
“Within one frame, along with L.H.Mettananda, F.R.Jayasuriya, K.M.P.Rajaratna, and Bhikku Henpitagedera Gnanasiha, though only a public servant, N.Q marched in the vanguard of the 1956 Sinhala-Buddhist renaissance and was the archetypal ultra-nationalist. When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept to power in May 1956 he offered N.Q the choice of any public office he desired, but rather than choose to be the Secretary to the Treasury which was the highest office a Civil Servant could aspire to, he chose the comparatively lowly post of Director Cultural Affairs so as to be able to consolidate the cultural gains of Bandaranaike’s great victory. He was also the first public servant to swap western attire for the national dress. N.Q. was also an implacable xenophobic, considering Indians, the Tamil people, the Roman Catholic Church and western culture to be abominations. Not least, he was utterly paranoid about India. Having read and internalised the Panikkar Doctrine which postulated the inevitability of Indian hegemony in the Indian Ocean, he believed that India had sinister designs on Sri Lanka, if not to take the island over completely, at least to keep it permanently disabled and dependent on India.”
“Within the opposite frame however, N.Q.Dias was also the ultimate colonial CCS stereotype and pukka sahib. He was not fluent in Sinhala, was aloof and arrogant, was wealthy in his own right, played an impressive singles at tennis at one of Colombo’s elite clubs, and lunched regularly on the Galle Face Hotel terrace to the accompaniment of his favoured aperitif, gin and tonic. Although he wore the national dress, he certainly wasn’t the people’s public servant stereotype! To the contrary, everything about him, except his xenophobia, testified to a man from the decadent past, which the 1956 revolution claimed to have swept away. Not least, he never jettisoned his westernised names- Neil Quintus Dias, even as a concession to his extreme nationalist ideology. Nevertheless, his children were not named Dias and were given the Sinhala surname Dayasri. However, though most of his colleagues disliked him for his stand-offishness, they conceded that he was an honourable man, brilliant, disciplined, incorruptible and always observing the work ethic and traditions of the old Civil Service.”
Neil Quintus Dias
Neil Quintus Dias known generally as “NQ” or N.Q.Dias hailed from a privileged family in Panadura. After studying at Trinity College,Kandy, Dias went to the UK and obtained a BA degree from the University of London. He then pursued legal studies, enrolled at middle temple and was called to the bar.Thereafter N.Q. Dias sat successfully for the prestigious Civil Service examinations and was recruited as a CCS cadet in 1936.
Dias served in many different capacities as a civil servant in the pre-independence years. During the World war 2 years N.Q. Dias worked as Assistant Government Agent in several districts. This followed in the years after the war ended too. In those days the head of a Province was the Government Agent while the Asst. Govt. Agent was the district head.
Sri Lanka known then as Ceylon gained Independence from Britain in February 1948. The United National Party (UNP) formed the first Government with D. S. Senanayake as Prime Minister in 1947 prior to full independence in 1948. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke was appointed Senator and made minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development. Dias was appointed Asst. Government Agent of Matara district in the Southern Province. It was then that the first of two incidents that changed his life and set N.Q. Dias on a collision course with the Pro-Western UNP took place.
The first incident was perhaps one of the earliest instances of attempted political interference in Independent Sri Lanka. In the aftermath of the 1947 Parliamentary elections , several MP’s who had been elected as Independents joined the UNP Govt. One such legislator was Deniyaya MP Victor Garvin Weerawardana Ratnayake known as Victor Ratnayake. In 1948 a Village Headman post had become vacant in the Deniyaya electorate.Victor Ratnayake wanted one of his supporters to be appointed to the post. N.Q.Dias the AGA of Matara ignored the MP’s request and ensured that a worthy candidate was selected through due process.
The Deniyaya MP complained to the Home Minister. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who telephoned N.Q. Dias and asked him to rescind the appointment and nominate Victor Ratnayake’s “catcher” instead. The incorruptible Dias refused to do so and pointed out that the Home Minister was violating Public Service Commission(PSC) regulations. A furious Sir Oliver transferred N.Q. Dias from Matara to Trincomalee as Asst. Govt. Agent.
Though independent, Ceylon/Sri Lanka was then not quite free of British dominance or influence. The Trincomalee harbour and naval base were in the hands of the UK still.Moreover the British East Indies fleet was headquartered in Trinco.One of the customary duties of the Trincomalee AGA was to attend the numerous cocktail parties thrown by Captains of naval vessels docking at Trincomalee. The AGA was expected to be dressed in formal western attire. This was somewhat repugnant to N.Q. Dias whose hitherto dormant nationalist leanings were stirring in the post-independence period.
Wearing the National Dress
Acting on a whim, Neil Quintus Dias ordered three sets of national dress at short notice from a Wellawatte tailoring establishment. The London educated Civil servant transformed overnight into a national dress wearing patriot. This was N.Q’s symbolic act of defiance. The change of dress was revolutionary at that time. N.Q Dias was the first Ceylon civil servant to wear the national dress in an official capacity. The act raised more than eyebrows.In the eyes of many a colleague and contemporary what N.Q. did was simply “not done”.
This change of attire led to the consequential second life-changing incident. The British Governor position of the colonial era had changed into that of Governor – General in Independent Ceylon. The pre-independence Governor Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore became Ceylon’s first Governor -General.One of the traditions maintained by the Governor was to conduct an annual dinner for Government Agents and Assistant Govt agents of Provinces and Districts.The traditional Governor’s Dinner party was now called the Governor – General’s dinner party. The AGA Trincomalee N.Q. Dias and Mrs.Dias were also among the invitees to Queen’s House in Colombo.
The protocol adopted was for the invitees to present their invitations at the portico and be announced formally. Thereafter the Home Affairs minister would welcome the guests with a handshake and then introduce them to the Prime Minister. After shaking hands, the Prime Minister in turn would introduce them to the Governor – General who would ensure that the guests are escorted to the main reception hall.
Prevailing social etiquette required all male guests to be clad in black bow ties, dark dinner jackets, starched shirts and braided trousers. The ladies would be dressed in ballroom gowns or expensive sarees. But Queens House was in for a rude shock when Mr.and Mrs. N.Q. Dias arrived, presented their invitation cards and were formally announced. The Trincomalee Asst Govt Agent was wearing a white national dress.
Governor – General
Instead of shaking hands with the guest ,- as was customary – the Home Minister Sir Oliver Goonetilleke pointedly ignored N.Q. Dias and his outstretched hand. The slighted Dias then moved forward towards Prime Minister Don Stephen Senanayake . The Premier simply turned away. Embarrassed by the successive snubs ,Dias and his wife tried to turn around and return home but the gentlemanly Governor- General Sir Monck-Mason Moore known for his old world manners and charm had observed the plight of the Dias couple and breached protocol by stepping forward. Sir Henry extended his hand towards N.Q. Dias shook hands with him and Mrs. Dias and courteously escorted the couple personally to the reception hall.
Their troubles however were not over. N.Q. Dias in his national dress stood out like a sore thumb in that western attire-clad environment. The couple was ignored nay virtually shunned by their fellow guests most of whom were N.Q’s CCS colleagues.At dinner time they were seated at the lower end of the table with no one to talk to. Even the waiters paid them little attention.
“Sinhala Buddhist Renaissance”
A fuming N.Q. Dias returned home. The snubs he received in his own country for wearing the national dress hurt his nationalist feelings.His sense of national pride was aroused. N.Q. Dias vowed that night not to rest until the powerful pro-western UNP Govt was ousted and a nationalist Govt was installed in power. He also resolved to bring about a “Sinhala Buddhist Renaissance” that would restore the Sinhala language and Buddhist Religion to their rightful positions. It was a defining moment in the life of Neil Quintus Dias!
From that day of decision onwards N.Q. Dias began to strategize and systematically implement his plans. His objective was to mobilise public opinion on anti – western, anti – christian and anti – Tamil lines thereby creating an overwhelming Sinhala Buddhist ethos in the country.Since Dias was a top public servant, he used his position and status to interact with like minded persons from different walks of life.
Among those cultivated by N.Q. Dias were the Ven Madihe Pannaseeha Mahanayake Thero, Ven, Henpitagedera Gnanaseeha Thero, School Principal LH Mettananda, Prof. F.R. Jayasuriya and Prof. Wimalananda Tennekoon. At the same time Dias being a Govt. servant avoided publicity. His name never figured prominently in these pro-Sinhla Buddhist activities. N.Q. preferred to be the backroom boy and let others hog the limelight.
Subterfuge of Religion
Although his goal and mission was essentially political, N.Q.Dias adopted the subterfuge of religion to camouflage his underlying intentions. Projecting himself as a devout Buddhist, N.Q. Dias initially utilized the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress as his platform and began promoting Buddhism within the Government services. During week-days N.Q. Dias was the conscientious,hard working public servant. He served then as the Sabaragamuwa Province Government Agent in Ratnapura and later as Registrar—General in Colombo. During week-ends he travelled far and wide paying homage to Buddhist places of worship and meeting Buddhist dignitaries.
Dias broke new ground by pioneering the Government Services Buddhist Association and becoming its founder president. He followed it up by helping to set up similar Buddhist associations within different branches of the administration. Subsequently 23 Buddhist associations and societies came together as the Public Services and Local Government Services Buddhist Society Federation. N.Q.Dias was the president and an accountant Gunaseela Vithanage the secretary.
Another of N.Q. Dias’s far sightedness was the strategy of harnessing the Buddhist clergy and laity as organized political entities. Dias kept himself in the background while encouraging others to play lead roles. Initially Dias collaborated with Ven. Henpitagedera Gnanasiha Thero in attempting to bring the Buddhist clergy into a “Sangha Sabha” outside the Nikayas. Ultimately these efforts bore fruit in the form of the powerful “Esath Bhikku Peramuna”.
At another level Dias worked quietly in tandem with “Bauddha Jathika Balavegaya” founder and Ananda College Principal L.H.Mettananda to organize the Buddhist laity politically.Dias also extended strong behind the scenes support to the Buddhist Commission project launched on April 2,1954. The “unofficial” Buddhist Committee of Inquiry became popularly known as the `Buddhist Commission’. After holding sittings throughout the Country the Commission released its report on Feb 4th 1956.
Chanakya found his Chandragupta!
NQ Dias was in a sense a latter-day Chanakya seeking to expand the Mauryan empire through Chandragupta. He needed a modern equivalent of Chandragupta to establish Sinhala Buddhist hegemony over the Island. The opportunity came when Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike split from the UNP Govt and crossed over to the opposition. S.W.R.D.B also formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) . Bandaranaike born and baptized a Christian had later become a Buddhist. SWRD Bandaranaike was a man in a hurry in pursuit of political power.It appeared that the liberal, westernized, Oxford educated Bandaranaike was prepared to adopt any stratagem to achieve political success.Chanakya had found his Chandragupta!
The civil servant N.Q.Dias drew close to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1954 sans any fanfare. He established close links with the SLFP Leader while remaining in the background. Though he was somewhat suspicious of Bandaranaike’s genuine commitment towards the Sinhala Buddhist cause, Dias felt that the laird of Horagolla could be utilized to ride the crest of a Sinhala Buddhist wave that would defeat the UNP at the polls. The fact that Sir John Kotelawela was the UNP prime minister was an added advantage as the tendentious UNP leader was a vulnerable political target.
Dias devised a strategy to bring Bandanaike to power through the next elections scheduled for 1957. The country was gearing up for the Buddha Jayanthi celebration in May 1957. The Buddha Jayanthi year was to commence from May 1956. Dias planned out his electoral strategy to co -incide with the Buddha Jayanthi event celebrations in a bid to strengthen the anti-UNP electoral campaign.Making Sinhala the sole official language and redressing the historic wrongs done to Buddhists were to be the major campaign themes. Bandaranaike had for long been wanting Sinhala and Tamil to be the official languages replacing English. But S.W.R.D was persuaded to switch to Sinhala only in December 1955. N.Q played a huge role in this persuasion exercise.
1956 Parliamentary elections
The UNP Govt. which stood for parity changed track in early 1956. The Kelaniya convention of the UNP passed a resolution calling for Sinhala as the sole official language. The UNP prime minister Sir John Kotelawela opted to go in for elections a year ahead. Parliament was dissolved in February and elections scheduled for April 1956.The advent of Parliamentary elections in 1956 saw the master Sinhala Buddhist strategist Neil Quintus Dias swinging into action.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
(This article, courtesy of the Daily Mirror Lk., was first published in its Feb 19, 2022 issue-editor)