Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam Memorial Oration

On the occasion of his 155th birthday

by Kanaganayagam Kanag-Isvaran, President's Counsel, January 8, 2008

In a world gone mad on race and religion and which has made politics the jugglery of race antagonism and religious hatred, it behoves us to remember and emulate Sir Ponnambalam  Arunachalam’s  quality of mind, his sacrifice and his unselfishness, in order to preserve the liberties that he won for us, and the understanding that he assiduously  propagated, - that liberty and justice are for all. Without exception.

My introduction to Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam came about when I was barely eight years or so old.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam I remember that day very well, for reason that, it was the occasion on which a large portrait of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was hung in my father’s Chambers, at our house in Jaffna.

This was the third. Of the other two which were already there, one was of my father’s mother and the other of Mahatma Gandhi.

I asked my father, whose picture it was, and he replied, that it was Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, a great Tamil Patriot and the brother of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan.   Sir Pon. Ramanathan was a household name for us, as my father was  closely associated with the Ramanathan Trust and we used to visit Ramanathan College for Girls, at Maruthanamadam, where my mother was educated, during the life time of Lady Ramanathan and Hon. S. Natesan who was married to their daughter Sivagamasunthari.

Later I was to become acquainted,  with Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, who used to visit our home regularly, which was then the office of the United National Party in Jaffna, when Sir Mahadeva was contesting the Jaffna seat against Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. Later in my early teens, sometimes when my father used to travel to Colombo for the meetings of the Senate, I used to tag along and on occasions we have visited  Sir  A. Mahadeva at Ponklar.

I am  therefore greatly honoured to have been invited by the Chairman and Trustees of the Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam Trust to deliver this year’s memorial oration.

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam whose 155th birth anniversary we commemorate today was a great public servant and patriot, in the true sense of these words. He lived in a time of great social change and spearheaded the growth of elite political consciousness, elite politics and constitutional evolution. He, more than any other man of his time, helped to lay the foundations of the freedoms which we later came to enjoy and take for granted.

Those freedoms  stand undermined and threatened  today.

Born on the 14th of September 1853, he was a leader respected and trusted by all communities, and an inspiration to all who cherish high ideals. The first Ceylonese to enter the then Civil Service through the open door of competition, he held several positions of high responsibility, including judicial posts in various parts of the island.

His achievements are too numerous to mention here, but special note should be made of the fact that he has been rightly called the father of the  Ceylon University movement which he spearheaded at the very dawn of the 20th century in January 1906, and which eventually  led to the establishment of the Ceylon University.

In the political field, he convened what was probably the first Political Conference which had met in Ceylon for at least a hundred years, at the Victoria Masonic Hall, on 15th December 1917. It was convened  to debate and consider constitutional reforms, and he  was elected to Chair the Ceylon Reform League and the Ceylon National Association.

In his Presidential Address, that day, he spake thus,

“The time is therefore auspicious……………… win for ourselves as large a measure of constitutional reform as possible.

We demand the liberty to take our share in the burden of this responsibility, to manage our own lives, make our own mistakes, gain strength by knowledge and experience, and acquire that self confidence and self respect which are indispensable to national progress and success. We seek to be in our own country what other self-respecting people are in theirs, self-governing, strong, respected at home and abroad, and we ask for the grant at once of a definite measure of progressive advance towards that goal.”

These words have special meaning for us today.

Two years later, on the 11th of December 1919, in his Presidential Address at the Public Hall, Colombo as the first President of the Ceylon National Congress, espousing the case for Representative Government for Ceylon, when ideas of self-determination were the common currency of political thought, he was overjoyed on that occasion to proclaim -

 “we have done once and for all with our petty differences and      dissensions………………whatever one’s creed, race or caste may be……………”

and ended his speech by quoting from the ‘Karaniya Metta Sutta’,                   

“Let all living beings be joyous and safe,

 May it be theirs to dwell in happiness”

But sadly, Ladies and Gentlemen, that was not to be.

Today we might even ponder whether it will ever be?

A misunderstanding, to use an euphemism, soon developed between the Sinhalese and Tamil members of the Congress over the question of representation, which caused an estrangement between him and the Congress. He surrendered his office of Presidency of the Ceylon National Congress in October 1920.

In order to organize and possibly guide Tamil public opinion he founded the Ceylon Tamil League in 1923, but did not live long enough to guide our fortunes. On a pilgrimage to the sacred shrines of India, in the midst of his devotions he passed away on the 9th of January 1924.

Since then a strange destiny has hung over Sri Lanka and she has ever since been wandering in the desert. 

We have come a full circle. Death in the midst of devotion.

My interest in Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam was rekindled when I started my legal career in Sri Lanka in 1966. Soon I came across his treatise – “A Digest of the Laws of Ceylon” Volume I, published in 1910.   Appendix IV to this book gives extracts from one of his best known judgments, the Adippola Sannas case, from Chilaw, which related to the grant -Sannas – (strip of copper plate) of the tank of Adippola at Chilaw to a ‘Suriya Chetti of Telugu Country’ by King Buwaneka Bahu of Kotte, in 1247 Saka Era, equal to 1325 of the Christian era. It is a masterly study of the social history of the people of the area.

I was fortunate later to have been able to acquire a copy of this rare book for my library. Searching for his other writings, I was equally fortunate, some six  months ago, to be able to acquire  his “Sketches of Ceylon History” written in 1906, and “Speeches and Writings of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam” – Volume I,  published in 1936.

Reading about him it seems to me, that to him, life was a duty. He loved fair play and justice.  He  held in contempt the vulgarity of the demagogue.

In a world gone mad on race and religion and which has made politics the jugglery of race antagonism and religious hatred, it behoves us to remember and emulate Sir Ponnambalam  Arunachalam’s  quality of mind, his sacrifice and his unselfishness, in order to preserve the liberties that he won for us, and the understanding that he assiduously  propagated, - that liberty and justice are for all. Without exception.

But the way for that, it seems, is not yet smooth.

There are now many more wrongs than ever suffered by our peoples in this Island.

How easy to divide for ever.

New forces are at work among us.

We should therefore, as a body politic,  seek to achieve what Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam tirelessly worked for all his life to impress upon future generations - that political power is a serious responsibility.

He taught us that responsibility should be recognised as a precarious and extremely frail and perishable good, depending on a whole range of economic, social, political and cultural factors; and that the breakdown of a single one of them is capable of  triggering off destructive chain reactions leading to large scale disintegration and corruption of the sense of responsibility.

He showed us that responsibility presupposes the motivation, and the ability and the possibility to choose between alternatives.  That it presupposes predictability and accountability.

In a pluralistic society such as ours I would add another, sensitivity. One should be sensitive to every group's socio-economic, cultural and ethnic concerns.

But if the truth be told there is a yawning gulf of suspicion, hatred and fear.

Any twinge of conscience on account of this, we would seem to soothe with  offerings in the name of religion.

It is a self-evidently the truth that you cannot hold any man in the gutter without staying there yourself.

The only real help you can give is to get off his back.

A whole generation of our youth has been deprived of opportunities of education and normal life during the formative years of their life. They will surely pass into adult population with irremediably stunted powers and narrowed outlooks.

Will this not  affect the whole quality of the national life?

Deprived of all power and responsibility, their capacities will be dwarfed and stunted. Forced to live in an atmosphere of inferiority, could they ever rise to the full height to which their manhood is capable of rising? Hypnotized into thinking that they are weak and inferior, no greater disaster can overtake a people.

Two nations warring in the bosom of a single state – not of principles, but of race.

The lesson to be learnt from the lives of great patriots like Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, is that we still can regain our self-confidence, nothing can daunt us and nothing is beyond us.

I truly believe that had Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam  been alive today that would be the message he would want conveyed.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would conclude with the burden of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s “A Message to the Country” delivered in 1918, which is that we must spiritualise  public life by reverting to the ideals of our forefathers and establishing an aristocracy of intellect, character and self-sacrificing service.

I thank you.



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