Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Christie Jayaratnam Eliezer

A leader with class

by Sachi Sri Kantha, March 12, 2008

If in 1936 a group of world leaders had called on Chancellor Adolf Hitler and told him to stop the cruel treatment of the Jews, he could well have replied: ‘That is not your business, but mine. This is an internal matter.’ And he would have been legally right as international law stood at the time.

If today a similar group said something similar to a modern tyrant, and he replied it was internal matter, he would be wrong. For international law has progressed, and the welfare of a person or community is the responsibility of people everywhere.

March 10th marked the 7th anniversary of Professor Christie Jayaratnam Eliezer bidding permanent adieu to us. Coming June 12th of this year also marks his 90th birth anniversary. Thus, I contribute this note to a community leader with a class.

Prof Christie Jeyaratnam Eliezer Remember that wisecrack ‘World famous in Poland’, made by the egotistical Frederick Bronski character of comedian Mel Brooks in the movie To Be or Not to Be (1983). Well, in the quarter century lapsed since then, it doesn’t surprise one that quite a few Tamils have been anointed with their Bronski equivalents [i.e., ‘World famous in Colombo’]. In comparison to the dubious merits of these self-promoters, we indeed were lucky to have one Prof. Eliezer as a community leader amongst us, who was really world famous. Apart from being world famous, he also was blessed with that adoring trait, ‘class’ [defined in the dictionary, as ‘a set or category of things having some property or attribute in common and differentiated from others by kind, type or quality’.]


C J Eliezer in Nature January 11 1947


Ann Landers on ‘Class’

What constitutes ‘class’? I have clipped and saved the words of Ann Landers (1918-2002), America’s foremost advice columnist and folk philosopher, on this theme. Here it is, as it appeared in her syndicated column ten years ago [Asahi Evening News, July 11, 1998], the ten criteria that characterize ‘class’.

“Class never runs scared. It is sure-footed and confident. It can handler whatever comes along.

Class has a sense of humor. It knows that a good laugh is the best lubricant for oiling the machinery of human relations.

Class never makes excuses. It takes its lumps and learns from past mistakes.

Class knows that good manners are nothing more than a series of small, inconsequential sacrifices.

Class bespeaks an aristocracy that has nothing to do with ancestors or money. Some wealthy ‘blue-bloods’ have no class, while some individuals who are struggling to make ends meet are loaded with it.

Class is real. It can’t be faked.

Class is comfortable in its own skin. It never puts on airs.

Class never tries to build itself up by tearing others down. Class is already up and need not strive to look better by making others look worse.

Class can ‘walk with kings and keep its virtue and talk with crowds and keep the common touch.’ (Thank you, Rudyard Kipling.) Everyone is comfortable with the person who has class because that person is comfortable with himself.

If you have class, you’ve got it made. If you don’t have class, no matter what else you have, it doesn’t make any difference.”

I provide below one example of how Prof. Eliezer handled an annoying pest with ‘class’.

Eliezer as a Leader with ‘Class’

Recently, I was mildly amused to see Prof. Eliezer’s name appearing in one of the foot-notes of a recent research paper by Bruce Matthews (Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion at Acadia University), entitled ‘Christian Evangelical Conversions and the Politics of Sri Lanka’ [Pacific Affairs, Fall 2007, vol.80, p.470]. This professor from Canada noted in his footnote, “For example, an estimated 10,000 people turned out for the March 2001 funeral of C.J. Eliezer, a well-known Methodist and Australian Ceylon Tamil figure.”

The context under which Prof. Eliezer’s name had been cited by Prof. Matthews in this footnote is somewhat inappropriate and objectionable. And in this memorial note, I refrain from dealing with this aspect. But the point to note is that, if “an estimated 10,000 people turned out” [and that too in Melbourne] for the funeral of Prof. Eliezer, it is indeed a mark of respect he had earned by his devoted service to fellow Eelam Tamils. After all, he was neither an entertainer nor a politician.

I havw noted that Prof. Eliezer had class. Here is an anecdote which I heard when I visited Melbourne, that attests to Ann Landers’ first two criteria of ‘class’. Because of his involvement in the cause of Eelam Tamil nationalism, Prof. Eliezer and his affable wife Ranee had been at the receiving end of nuisance/harassment phone calls from a noisy, anti-Tamil crusader in Melbourne. What troubled them was that this fellow who was pestering them with such calls was one known to them and to whom they had opened their house in the past in good Christian spirit. To put an end to such nuisance, Prof. Eliezer found a simple method which worked. When the pestering call came, he calmly retorted, “Will you hold on a minute? I’ll switch on my voice recorder system.” And that effectively terminated the contact that noisy pest enjoyed at their expense.

Here is a brief note which appeared in Nature (London) journal of Aug.1, 1959 (vol.184, p. 307) contributed by Prof. R.D. Purchon that informed the international scientific community about Prof. Eliezer’s decision to move from the blessed island. To quote,

“The University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur is fortunate in recruiting Prof. C.J. Eliezer to the chair of mathematics. Prof. Eliezer is onf Ceylonese nationality; he graduated from the Department of Mathematics at Cambridge, was awarded the degree of D.Sc. in the University of London, and has occupied the chair of mathematics at the University of Ceylon since 1949. He is a mathematical physicist who is best known for his fundamental research in the field of quantum mechanics. Having served for three years as dean of science in the University of Ceylon, Prof. Eliezer will have much experience to offer in the development of the new Faculty of Science at Kuala Lumpur.”

Here is another criterion of ‘class’ for scientists, that has not been mentioned by Ann Landers. Brevity in words in expressing one’s thoughts, thus not wasting the time of fellow peers and students constitutes ‘class’. That the great Paul Dirac (1902-1984), Prof. Eliezer’s mentor, was an exemplar on this aspect is well known to students of science. An example attesting to the possession of this sort of ‘class’ from Eliezer was his communication in quantum mechanics entitled ‘Relativistic wave equations’ that appeared in Nature journal (Jan.11, 1947, vol.159, p.60). At that time, Eliezer was in his late 20s and was affiliated with Christ’s College, Cambridge University. Since this is a technical work beyond the interest and comprehension of ordinary folks, I have transcribed below a Welcome Address delivered by Prof. Eliezer in 1996, on a theme which is closer to our heart. This is a beauty of an address in exactly 700 words! [excluding the last sentence, “I wish us all a good conference.”], in which Prof. Eliezer has shown by example that words need not to be wasted in espousing one’s beliefs and convictions, forcefully and courageously.

Human Rights and the International Community

[The Welcome Address delivered by Prof. Eliezer on June 27, 1996,

at Canberra, Australia]

We now come to the Conference theme, ‘Peace with Justice’. One of the pleasing changes that have come about in our world has been the progressive recognition that the Human Rights of all people are a matter of concern and responsibility of the total international community. The late Paul Seighart in his work The Lawful Rights of Mankind has elaborated this point of view. I give a brief summary of his thesis:

If in 1936 a group of world leaders had called on Chancellor Adolf Hitler and told him to stop the cruel treatment of the Jews, he could well have replied: ‘That is not your business, but mine. This is an internal matter.’ And he would have been legally right as international law stood at the time.

If today a similar group said something similar to a modern tyrant, and he replied it was internal matter, he would be wrong. For international law has progressed, and the welfare of a person or community is the responsibility of people everywhere. I now quote from Paul Seighart:

‘Today for the first time in history, how a sovereign state treats its own citizens is no longer a matter for its own exclusive determination, but a legitimate concern for all other states and for their inhabitants.’

The laws and practices to which Dr. Seighart refers are such things as the UN Charter on Human Rights, the covenants on minorities, the protocols against genocide, and so on. These vest Human Rights on every human and sovereignty on every citizen.

Sadly there is considerable difference between theory and practice. Several governments which are signatories to the Charter, the covenants and the protocols pay these only lip service. Too many governments close their eyes to violations by friendly states. So it is that wars and conflicts continue in so many parts of the globe.

What are some causes of these conflicts? One concern is the control and use of land. I quote from Philosophies in Peace and War, edited by Prof. Gallie:

‘The would-be conqueror is always a man of peace, for he would like to enter and occupy our land unopposed. It is in order to prevent him from doing this that we must be willing to engage in war and prepare for it.’

Another concerns the claims and denials of self-determination. The UN Charter approves self-determination under certain conditions. I once heard a political scientist (Prof. Joe Camilleri) say in a lecture that something like 900 groups round the world are eligible for nationhood, while only about 200 are present members of the United Nations.

The Palestinian Delegation’s address to the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 put it forcibly: ‘Self-determination, ladies and gentlemen, can neither be granted or withheld at the whim of the political self-interest of others. For it is enshrined in all international charters and humanitarian law. We claim this as a right. We firmly assert it before you  and in the eyes of the rest of the world, for it is a sacred and inviolable right which we shall relentlessly pursue and exercise with dedication and self-confidence and pride.’

I have been speaking generally but expect that much of it will be relevant to the conflict in Sri Lanka. I conclude with a particular comment on the situation in Sri Lanka. Nine months ago, Government forces started their onslaught on the Jaffna peninsula. During these nine months, the world or local media have not been permitted access to the war zone or to report on the condition of half a million refugees. This ‘war without witness’ surely contravenes international law and practice.

Yet none of the big powers with their embassies in Colombo have cared to comment on this violation. Their cowardice is staggering. Their aim is trade and profit. An international consortium has been giving something like a billion dollars annually to the Sri Lankan Government. Some of them claim they do this to ensure stability to the place. In fact, it causes the opposite. Say that you will withhold these donations until peace, and then peace will be round the corner.

The two-day Conference will give us all a chance to discuss and reflect on these, and other matters. I wish us all a good conference.

[Courtesy: Australasian Federation of Tamil Association Souvenir entitled ‘Peace with Justice: International Conference on the Conflict in Sri Lanka’ – held in Canberra, Australia, 27-28 June 1996, pp. 6-7.]