Desigar Ramanujam was born in Ramanathapuram, South India on 17th July 1907. Upon completing his higher studies he commenced a career is journalism. In the late 1920s Ramanujam, by then an accomplished writer, came to Sri Lanka and joined the editorial staff of a Tamil Newspaper Desa Bakthan.
In 1943 he joined the teaching staff at Dharmaraja Collage, Kandy. Due to his fluency in English and Tamil he was called upon by the Courts in Kandy to assist them in translating evidences from Tamil to English. During this period, noticing difficulties encountered by the poor Tamil workers, particularly working in the Kandy Municipal Council, he went on to form an Association under the name Bose Sangam. These efforts were to safeguard the rights of Indian workers who lived in Mahiyawa and Asgiriya.
During this period several such trade unions were formed in different parts of the upcountry to represent the Indian workers brought to Sri Lanka by the British Plantation Companies to work in the estates.
In 1937, Shri Jawarhalal Nehru was sent to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) by Mahathma Gandhi to look in to the problems of the Indian workers. Leaders like Rajalingam from Nawalapitiya, Suppiah from Badulla and a few others who were leading their own trade unions met Shri Nehru.
Shri Nehru’s advised the leaders to dissolve their individual trade unions and form one national trade union to represent the Indian workers. Thus, the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC) was born. This later became Ceylon Workers Congress. Ramanujam, Rajalingam, Subbiah and few others were the founding member of CIC.
Ramanujam was elected to the Kandy Municipal Council in1943. He represented the Asgiriya ward and in 1946 became the first person of Indian Origin to be elected as the Deputy Mayor of Kandy. During this period he was credited with providing pipe-borne water to the Asgiriya Maha Viharaya of Asgiriya Chapter. He had the blessing of the Venerable Mahanayaka Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter who urged the residents of Asgiriya Ward to support Ramanujam, who served the ward for 13 successive years.
Ramanujam was elected at the first Parliamentary Elections held between 23 August 1947 and September 1947. He contested as an independent candidate in the Aluthnuwara Electorate (presently Mahiyangana) securing 46.6% of the total vote; 1437 votes ahead of his nearest rival. He defeated three candidates from the majority community. He thus became one of the seven CIC members elected to parliament in 1947.
Ramanujam worked tirelessly for the rights of the plantation worker as the joint Secretary of the Ceylon Workers Congress. He represented Sri Lanka as the workers’ delegate at several Annual meetings of the International Labour Organization (ILO). His contributions at these sessions were well appreciated.
In 1961 Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike offered Ramanujam an appointed MP seat in Parliament becaue of the close friendship he had with the late SWRD Bandaranaike and with the Prime Minister. But he declined it in favour of Ceylon Workers Congress President Savumyamurthi Thondaman; much to the disappointment of the Premier.
The Prime Minister wasn’t happy, but it took a lot of convincing by Ramanujam to make Mrs Bandaranaike offer the MP post to Thondaman.
In 1962, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) recognizing his contribution to the trade union movement and his achievements at the ILO meetings, invited him to join their organization, where he was given the task of organizing the sugar plantation workers in Mauritius. He was subsequently sent to Ethiopia to establish Trade Unions during the regime of Emperor Haisalasi.
In 1965 ICFTU appointed Ramanujam as the special representative in Singapore. His task was to persuade the National Trade Union Congress of Singapore to amend its constitution to become an internationally accepted Trade Union. He was then made to Reginal Director in South East Asia.
In the 1968 the ICFTU appointed Ramanujam as the Director of Asian Region (Where he had to be based in India). However he died unexpectedly on 4th June 1968 before he could take up the posting. Thus, the international trade union movement lost a simple human being who served the cause of the workers in Sri Lanka and internationally.
(S.P. Anthonymutthu, President Saumya Youth Foundation)