August 12, 2005 was the day on which Lakshman Kadirgamar was killed by a sniper of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) concealed in the house of an unsuspecting neighbour. Sri Lanka’s foreign minister par excellence had just completed his customary 1000 metre swim at the pool in his residence, when the assassin struck. Seven years have passed since that fateful day but the memory of Kadirgamar lingers still in the hearts and minds of the nation.
This fact was brought home to me last week through numerous queries from many readers. They all wanted to know the reasons for not remembering Kadirgamar in an article. Many requested nay demanded that I write about him this week. Some wanted to know about matters like the man’s life and family background and details of his professional life. Hence I focus this week about the larger than life personality of Lakshman Kadirgamar drawing extensively from my earlier writings.
The name Kadirgamar is regarded as being unique to Sri Lankan Tamils. Lord Muruga or Skanda in Kathirgamam or Kataragama is the most sacred place of Hindu worship in Sri Lanka. Names such as Kadirgamar, Kathirgamanathan, Kathirgamathamby, Kathirgamasegaram etc are derived from the deity of Kathirgamam. Names like these are seldom found in Tamil Nadu.
It is indeed interesting that a name like Kadirgamar should be borne by some members of the Christian faith in Sri Lanka . This is because some Tamils continued to retain their Tamil “Hinduistic” names even after conversion. Others took on English and American names as surnames.
Lakshman Kadirgamar belonged to a Protestant Christian family of Jaffna Tamil Vellala origin. The founder of this christianised Kadirgamar family was a native of Puloly West called Karthigeyan Kadirgamar. His staunch Hindu family renovated and was involved in managing the Point Pedro Sivan temple at one time. Karthigeyan’s first cousin Eliyathamby during colonial times was an Adhigar in Batticaloa. It is said that Adhigar road in Batticaloa was named after him.
Karthigeyan took on the name Christian after baptism but retained the Kadirgamar name. He served as the first Ceylonese Registrar – General of the Supreme Court. His wife was the daughter of Rev. Francis Ashbury of Vaddukkoddai. The Ashbury family was one of the earliest converts to Protestant Christianity in Jaffna. The Kadirgamar family through the Ashbury Connection, as once asserted by Bishop Kulendran of the Church of South India (CSI) can claim unbroken continuity from the first Protestant converts in Sri Lanka with the founding of the American mission in the early decades of the 19th century.
Karthigeyan’s eldest son Samuel Jebaratnam Christian (SJC) Kadirgamar was the man who established the Kadirgamar family in Colombo. He studied at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia then located in Mutwal. One of his dormitory mates was a lad called Wilson. Both found themselves quarrelling eternally. The STC Warden at the time resolved it in typical English public school fashion. Both were asked to don boxing gloves and slog it out in the ring with the warden as referee. At the end of it both became firm friends for life. Both became proctors and set up the law firm Kadirgamar and Wilson in Colombo.
SJC Kadirgamar married Edith Rosemand Parimalam Mather, the daughter of Edward Mather of Manipay. The Mathers apparently were engaged in commerce and traded in imported products. Two of Lakshman’s uncles were Christian ministers. The Rev. JWA Kadirgamar on his paternal side and Rev. BCD Mather on his maternal side were pastors. This Christian heritage is something which cannot be obliterated despite Lakshman’s latter day Theosophy of the Olcott variety.
Lakshman Kadirgamar, born on April 12, 1932 was the youngest of six children. The eldest SJC (jnr) or Sam Kadirgamar was the well known Queens Counsel. Selvanathan or Bhai Kadirgamar a major in the army later emigrated to the USA. Rajan was the former Sri Lankan Navy commander. Thirumalan or Mana Kadirgamar was a planter who died early meeting with a motor accident in Dickoya. With Lakshman’s death none of the brothers are now among the living.
While all his brothers were educated at Royal only Lakshman went to Trinity presumably due to the war where he studied from 1942 to 1950. He won many awards while at Trinity including the Dr. Andreas Nell Memorial Prize for Ceylon History- Napier Clavering Prize for English and the Ryde Gold Medal for the best all round student in 1950. In sports he got cricket colours, was Cricket Captain -1950. Rugby Colours-1949. Athletics Colours-1949 and Trinity Lion 1950. He came first at Public Schools, and broke the record in the 110m hurdles (15.7 seconds) in 1949. He won the Duncan White Challenge Cup-1949 De Soysa Challenge Cup-1949. was Senior Prefect in 1949.
He entered the Peradeniya University and read for an LLB degree there. While an undergraduate, he won the All Ceylon 110m hurdles title in 1951 and 1952, All India inter University 110m hurdles title and set records at Ahamedabad in 1951 and Allahabad in 1952. He was also Member of the cricket teams of the University of Ceylon and later Balliol College, University of Oxford becoming an Oxford Blue in Cricket.
After getting his Bachelor’s degree in law Kadirgamar passed the Advocates final first in order of merit. He then served as secretary to Justice ENA Gratiaen. He later went to England, becoming a Barrister of the Inner Temple and entering Balliol College Oxford.
He made history in Oxford getting elected as President of the Oxford Union. Four Sri Lankans have been Presidents. They are Kadirgamar (Trinity) Athulathmudali (Royal) Noordeen (STC) and Jeyasundharie Wilson (Methodist). Jeya Wilson, the only woman President from Sri Lanka is a niece of the late Prof. AJ Wilson.
In 1958 during the communal violence Lakshman Kadirgamar when interviewed by the media in the UK said that SWRD Bandaranaike was only a “politician” and not a “statesman” because of the violence. The next year, Lakshman was instrumental in getting a portrait of SWRD hung up at Oxford. The tradition is that any Oxford Union President who becomes head of state gets a bust. Since SWRD was only treasurer of the union he got a portrait. SWRD however was assassinated a few weeks before he was to visit Oxford for the ceremony. In his absence it was left to Lakshman to do the honours.
Many years later Lakshman Kadirgamar’s portrait was unveiled at the Oxford Union on March 18, 2005 by Rt. Hon Lord Chris Patten of Barnes CH, Chancellor of the University of Oxford. In the 183-year history of the Oxford Union he is the fifteenth office bearer whose bust or portrait is displayed in the Union building. Kadirgamar was also made Hon. Master of the Inner Temple-1995 -the second Asian to be made so after former Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.
While at Balliol Kadirgamar married an artist Angela Malik of French – Pakistani descent. He had two children. The daughter is Ajitha Perera now resident in Boston. She was a well-known media personality in Sri Lanka during the eighties and nineties. Kadirgamar’s son, an architect, is in Sri Lanka. He was named Sriraghavan Jebaratnam Christian but is generally known as Ragee.
In later years Kadirgamar divorced his first wife and married again in 1996. He married Suganthi Wijeysuriya, a lawyer and senior partner at the law firm FJ and G de Saram. Their wedding was a private one with Chandrika Kumaratunga and Gamani Corea being the attesting witnesses.
After returning to Sri Lanka in the sixties from Oxford, Lakshman Kadirgamar went about building a lucrative law practice. At the same time he began exploring prospects of a political career too. It is interesting to note that Kadirgamar at that time was contemplating a political future as an elected MP from the North. He was ardently wooed by both the Federal Party and Tamil Congress. Though he never joined those parties or participated actively in politics, Kadirgamar interacted closely with Tamil politicians like SJV Chelvanayagam, GG Ponnambalam, M. Tiruchelvam, EMV Naganathan. M. Balasundaram etc.
He also made several visits to Jaffna during this time. One objective was to rediscover his roots. Another was to scout around for a prospective electorate. Though his own family was now Colombo based there were several others of the extended Kadirgamar family in Jaffna.
He was also a keen student of history and very much interested in that of the Jaffna kingdom. Though his pro- Tiger critics used to chide him as an ignoramus in the history and traditions of Jaffna people those who have heard him speak on such subjects are amazed at his knowledge and insight.
During one of his Jaffna trips in the sixties, Kadirgamar addressed the Jaffna YMCA on an interesting theme. His lecture was titled “From Plato to Sirimavo”. When excerpts of that lecture were carried in newspapers Mrs. Bandaranaike was reportedly annoyed. Years later she herself telephoned Lakshman inviting him to join her daughter President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s cabinet of which the grand old lady was Prime Minister. She added her voice then to numerous others urging Kadirgamar to enter active politics.
What led Kadirgamar to give up ideas of entering politics in the sixties and then do so thirty years later in the nineties?
Arunachalam Mahadeva son of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam once lamented that when universal franchise was introduced he had to go “far” to Jaffna in search of a constituency though he had lived for the greater part of his life in Colombo. This was Lakshman Kadirgamar’s dilemma too when he began toying with the idea of entering Parliament in the sixties of the previous century.
Though the multi – member constituencies of Colombo Central (3) and Colombo South (2) were carved out that way to provide for Tamil representation things never turned out that way. The upper and upper middle class voters of Colombo South preferred JR Jayewardene of the UNP and to a lesser extent Bernard Soysa of the LSSP over and above any Tamil candidate.
The lower middle class and working class Tamils of Colombo Central cast their votes for Pieter Keuneman and later Ranasinghe Premadasa. Bala Tampoe in 1960 and MS Sellasamy in 1977 failed to win. Yet Sellasamy won later in 1989 under proportionate representation for the entire City. Subsequently P Devarajan, R Yogarajan, Mano Ganesan, T.Maheswaran and Praba Ganesan have also demonstrated that elected Tamil representation is possible in Colombo.
This was not the situation in the sixties. With GG Ponnambalam and SJV Chelvanayagam evincing an interest in enticing the oxonian prodigy to their ranks young Lakshman like A Mahadeva before him had to look Northwards. He had accompanied Justice EFN Gratiaen as secretary on several trips to Jaffna in the fifties.
Being secretary to the Judge was a reward for his academic brilliance in law. Apparently an arrangement had been worked out by Prof. Nadarajah in this respect with Gratiaen. Shinya was the predecessor to Kadirgamar in this post. It was as Gratiaen’s secretary that Kadirgamar played a small role in getting HL de Silva join the Attorney – Generals department.
These trips to Jaffna kindled his enthusiasm for discovering his roots. He also read up vividly on Jaffna history and familiarised himself of the evolution and growth of Jaffna . This grasp of history may have played a part in Kadirgamar’s attitude towards separatism. No true intellectual could accept the half – baked versions of history propagated by both the pro and anti – Eelam forces. Later in the sixties he began visiting Jaffna again prospecting for a constituency.
The prospective candidate’s enthusiasm however was short-lived for two reasons. One was his discovery of the state of politics in the North. Tamil nationalism had risen to the fore and demanded pandering to that concept by prospective candidates. This narrow nationalism was not to his liking. Besides he was unable to even speak Tamil to the extent of making political speeches. Also despite his ancestry there were no firm roots in Jaffna. It was doubtful that Lakshman could face the hustle and bustle of Jaffna politics let alone win.
His Jaffna based cousins gave him their candid views on his political prospects in Jaffna. Lakshman realised that his political chances in the peninsula were slimmer than the Isthmus of Aanai Iravu (Elephant Pass). He was further discouraged in his political ambition by his elder brothers in Colombo, Sam JC Kadirgamar the lawyer and Rajanathan (Rajan) Kadirgamar the Naval Commander. Both advised him to drop his political ambition and concentrate on his law.
Their father SJC (snr) had established a lucrative practice in Colombo and was also the founder president of the Ceylon Legal Society. Lakshman heeded the advice of his brothers and cousins and began focusing on the law. There are some of Lakshman’s relatives who believe that he would have never entered politics had his two elder brothers been alive. Both Rajan and Sam had passed away before Lakshman entered politics in 1994.
Kadirgamar then settled down firmly in Colombo and began building up a solid practice. He was specialised in commercial, industrial, labour and administrative law. Then came the JVP insurgency of 1971. This had a profound impact on Lakshman. Though not affected directly, the JVP revolt made Lakshman feel that he should go abroad. He felt that life in Lanka was going to turn worse with the advent of the JVP. How very prophetic! But ironically enough the very same Lakshman who left Sri Lanka due to the JVP found himself on the best of terms with the “rathu sahodarayas” 33 years later. The JVP found in Lakshman a sincere friend and guide while Lakshman recognized a “like–mindedness” on some issues.
Lakshman relocated to Britain . He pursued a legal career from 1971 to 74 during which he showed keen interest in human rights. In 1973 he was the special representative of Amnesty International investigating the Buddhist – Catholic violence in Vietnam . In 1976 he became consultant to the International Labour Organization (ILO)in Geneva . In 1978 he joined the World Intellectual property organization (WIPO) and served as its director till 1988.He was the virtual adviser on intellectual property to developing nations of Asia – pacific.
He also travelled widely. In the early eighties he was in an airplane that crashed in Greece. Kadirgamar survived miraculously by jumping through the emergency exit. He broke several bones and was bed–ridden for three months.
While Lakshman was abroad he received a powerful invitation in 1977 from Lalith Athulathmudali and HW Jayewardene to return and take up politics as a “green elephant”. HW was, I believe, Lakshman’s senior during his apprenticeship. Lakshman turned it down. One reason was that he was looking forward to brighter prospects in the UNO. In this however he was to be disappointed badly.
This disappointment and the fact that his daughter Ajitha had returned to Sri Lanka to become a well–known media personality impelled Lakshman to return home. This he did in 1988. He returned to Colombo and reestablished his legal practice. He concentrated as earlier on industrial,labour and commercial law and of course intellectual property law.
Another less known fact was that Kadirgamar was a discreet consultant avoiding limelight in a number of cases affecting Tamil detainees. He also proffered legal advice to some Tamils affected in the violence in procuring compensation. This was in association with a human rights organization.
The “second coming” of Chandrika Kumaratunga to Sri Lanka in the early nineties heralded a new dawn for ethno-politics in the country. There were high hopes that a negotiated settlement to the ethnic crisis was in sight. It was a period of idealistic fervour. It was in such a climate that Kadirgamar decided to enter politics in support of Kumaratunga. Earlier in 1988-89, Athulathmudali too had renewed his invitation but Kadirgamar declined gracefully not wishing to join the tarnished UNP.
Lakshman deciding to join the SLFP in 1994 was a significant development ,as his family, on account of its class character had been staunch UNP loyalists. Elder brother Sam Kadirgamar was the chief counting agent of Dudley Senanayake in 1965. Sam was offered an ambassadorship to Moscow which he declined. It was said that had Dudley returned to power in 1970 Sam may have been Justice Minister. Retired Naval chief Rajan Kadirgamar too was a corporation chairman in the JR regime.
Initially the person who persuaded Kadirgamar to join politics was the late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam of the TULF. He was ably supported by the lawyer Manouri Muttetuwegama – wife of Sarath Muttetuwegama(CP) and daughter of Colvin R de Silva (LSSP) – in this mission.
One of Lakshman’s relatives former Bank of Ceylon Chairman Rajan Asirwatham also influenced him in this regard. Lakshman was placed on the SLFP national list. The other big name coming into politics from academia was Gamini Lakshman Peiris. Both Peiris and Kadirgamar played a big part then in winning over voters to the SLFP from what is considered the traditional UNP constituency.
The only Tamil candidate on the SLFP with a chance of winning the hustings was lawyer Ketheeswaran in the Wanni. Kethees was the former TULF Urban council chairman in Vavuniya. But he did not win. So Kumaratunga had to appoint one Tamil as national list MP. This naturally was Lakshman.
Thus one from the Kadirgamar family became a Member of Parliament. The dominant professional strands in the family were law, Christian clergyhood, teaching and service in the armed forces. Now for the first time an active full–time politician emerged.
The new government had a majority of one through Up Country Tamil MP Chandrasekharan. He and Kadirgamar were the two Tamil representatives initially. Kumaratunga offered them both deputy– minister posts as she wanted to restrict her cabinet to twenty. Chandrasekharan accepted but not Kadir.
Lakshman who rarely projected himself as a Tamil did so then. He pointed out that his community would consider it an insult if he was only to be given a deputy – ministership. Chandrika agreed. It was a choice of Justice or Foreign Affairs. Lakshman wanted the latter. He was immensely equipped for it.
Kadirgamar proved subsequently that he was the best man for the job. In the post – independence years Defence and External affairs portfolios were the preserve of the Prime Minister. It was under JRJ in 1977 that a departure was made and ACS Hameed became foreign minister. It is broadly acknowledged that Kadirgamar was the best foreign minister the Country ever had. To many people, Kadirgamar was the best foreign minister because he spearheaded an anti–Tiger drive. But the man’s greatness was in clearing up the Augean stables prevailing in the ministry due mainly to the cronyism of Hameed and Tyronne Fernando.
It was another Tamil, Sir Kandiah Vaithiyanathan as permanent secretary who set up a modern foreign service after Independence. It was Lakshman Kadirgamar who restructured and professionalised the service. Those who worked with him from Permanent secretary to peon would vouch for this.
Another of his achievements as foreign minister was restoring good relations with India eroded greatly under Jayewardene and Premadasa. Of course Indo – Lanka relations were always good under the Bandaranaike dynasty but the role of Kadirgamar cannot be discounted lightly in this restoration. Many including this columnist have mocked Kadirgamar’s undue haste in paying pooja to any new dispensation in New Delhi like some vassal state. But it cannot be denied that the New Delhi – Colombo relationship changed in favour of the latter in recent years.
It must be pointed out that Kadirgamar’s affinity towards India and recognition of its pivotal importance in the region was based on enlightened self – interest with emotional underpinnings. Lakshman’s father was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi.
He was the chairman of a reception committee and presided over a meeting attended by the Mahatma in 1927 when Lakshman was yet unborn. Lakshman’s mother, Parimalam requested Gandhi for his autograph. The Mahatma looking mischievously at the bright silk saree worn by her refused and told her that he would do so only if she wore “ghaddar” (homespun cloth). She did not get her autograph then.
Incidentally she died early when Lakshman was only eight. It was his elder sister Eeswary who looked after him in the early years in maternal fashion. Years after her death Parimalam’s expensive “Koorai” or bridal saree underwent an exalted transformation.
When the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India was formed in 1947 and Sabapathy Kulendiran was consecrated as its first bishop SJC Kadirgamar donated the Bishops throne now at the Vaddukkoddai Cathedral. This throne which this columnist has seen personally was made out of good old Jaffna palmyrah though it looks like polished ebony. The Koorai saree was used to cover seating and the footstool. Years later Sam Kadirgamar got a velvet cover made for it.
Apart from this link with the Mahatma, I am also told that one of Lakshman’s close relatives had been a disciple of the Mahatma at Sabarmathy Ashram and another a students of Rabindranath Tagore’s Shanti Nikhetan. In that sense Lakshman too continued this historic link with India.
Apart from the political aspects there was the spiritual aspect bordering on the personal. In Lakshman’s intellectual and spiritual journey Indian philosophical thought became heavily influential. Lakshman had evolved into an inter–faith person. He was greatly enamoured of India’s greatest son Gauthama Buddha and this was no pretension caused by contemporary political compulsions.
This point was touched on by Lakshman’s first cousin Seelan Kadirgamar the historian at his memorial service. This is what Seelan reportedly observed “His (Lakshman) religious convictions perceiving common values in the four great religions, has struck a responsive chord in me as among others, and I wish to affirm in the strongest terms that they have nothing to do with his assumption of office. As a student of Indian history I place him in the great tradition in Indian history from Asoka to Akbar, Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Tagore and Gandhi – inclusive and not exclusive”. (ENDS)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com