Life and Times of Lanka’s Finest Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar

by D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Sri Lanka’s finest Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was assassinated in Colombo by a suspected sniper of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) a decade ago. His death was mourned by the nation at large as a tremendous loss to the country. The void caused in Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs sphere after the demise of this great statesman was never filled properly.

I have written extensively about Lakshman Kadirgamar in the past. I shall therefore rely on some of those writings in compiling this commemorative article about him.

Let me begin on a personal note. My late father though older than Lakshman was a contemporary of his at Law College in 1954. I was born in 1954 and apparently Lakshman K was at the hospital to see the new babe. He also came for my baptism and there was a yellowing group photo of Law college students with Lakshman also included in the family album.

My father lost touch with Lakshman in the sixties but always spoke highly of his brilliance. He also said that Lakshman though inarticulate in Tamil was deeply concerned about Sinhala being made the sole official language, the 1956 and ’58 violence and the suppression of the Satyagraha campaign in 1961. My father never accepted the Tiger accusation that Kadirgamar was oblivious to the Tamil plight.

Tamil national question

I made contact in 1994 with Lakshman Kadirgamar in my professional capacity as a journalist due to the efforts of the late Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam. I was then editing my own Tamil weekly in Toronto. Kadirgamar had become a Cabinet Minister and was taking a keen interest in helping resolve the national problem.

Neelan asked me to speak to Kadirgamar as the new Minister was very keen on gaining an insight into the Tamil national question. I think we spoke about four or five times on the telephone. One call in particular was extremely long extending for about 90 minutes.

I found him very much interested and concerned about the Tamil issue. He was a keen listener and extremely polite even when disagreeing with something. I was then an ardent Tamil nationalist believing fervently in the bona fides of the LTTE. I was one of those Tamils who thought naively then that the LTTE was fighting for the welfare of the Tamil people and not in the interests of its leadership. Like many Tamils of a similar mindset I thought that the LTTE was prepared for a just, equitable and honourable settlement in a united but not necessarily unitary Sri Lanka.

Kadirgamar was extremely receptive and agreed that federalism would be the ideal solution. But he had reservations on two counts. One was that he felt any realistic solution had to be acceptable to the majority of the Sinhala people as otherwise it would not be implementable.

Therefore he opined that the concept federalism should be avoided and the term maximum devolution substituted instead. Secondly he said that any settlement had to be on lines acceptable to India. Therefore powers to be devolved to the periphery should not go too much beyond the Centre-State relationship parameters of India he felt.

Political reconciliation with the LTTE

Apart from this he too subscribed initially to the school of thought that a settlement was necessary with only the LTTE from the Tamil side. Though the LTTE would have us believe otherwise, the Kadirgamar of 1994 firmly believed in political reconciliation with the LTTE.

Kadirgamar spoke with a lot of Tamils to assess the situation. One person with whom he discussed the issue frankly and deeply was the late CSI Bishop of Jaffna Rt. Rev. D.J. Ambalavanar. I suppose that most Tamils like myself would have told him that the LTTE was keen on a settlement but had to tread the path of transition warily and slowly.

He accepted and firmly pushed that line within the folds of Government in 1994 and early 1995.He was thoroughly shattered in 1995 when the LTTE broke faith and resumed hostilities on 18 April. My last conversation with him was a few days after this. Kadirgamar was agitated despite his customary aplomb. He was critical of me and all those who spoke positively of the LTTE. I remonstrated and when there were signs of a prolonged argument he wound up the conversation abruptly. We never spoke to each other thereafter.

Early life

Lakshman Kadirgamar’s parents were Samuel Jebaratnam Christian (SJC) Kadirgamar and Edith Rosemand Parimalam Kadurgamar nee Mather. Lakshman Kadirgamar, born on 12 April 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. His eldest sister Eeswari was married to Dr. A.M.D. Richards.

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 and 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 and was Senior Prefect in 1949.

He entered the Peradeniya University and read for an LLB degree there. While an undergrad he won the All Ceylon 110m hurdles title in 1951 and 1952. All India inter University 110m hurdles title and set records at Ahmedabad 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 E.N.A. 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 Oxford Union Presidents. They are Kadirgamar (Trinity), Athulathmudali (Royal), Noordeen (S. Thomas’) and Jeyasundharie Wilson (Methodist). Jeya Wilson, the only woman President from Sri Lanka, is a niece of the late Prof. A.J. Wilson.

Portrait at Oxford Union

In 1958 during the communal violence, Lakshman Kadirgamar when interviewed by the media said that S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was only a “politician” and not a “statesman” because of the violence. The next year Lakshman was instrumental in getting a portrait of S.W.R.D. hung up at Oxford. The tradition is that any Union President who becomes head of state gets a bust. Since S.W.R.D. was only Treasurer of the union he got a portrait. S.W.R.D. however was assassinated a few days 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 18 March 2005 by Rt. Hon. Lord Chris Patten of Barnes CH, Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Lakshman was the 15th 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.

Family life

While at Balliol Kadirgamar married an artist, Angela Malik, of French-Pakistani descent. He had two children. The daughter is Ajita who was a well – known media personality in Sri Lanka during the ’80s and ’90s. She has now returned to Sri Lanka after living for many years in the USA. Her son Keira Perera is Kadirgamar’s only grandson. Kadirgamar’s son, an architect, is also in Sri Lanka. He was named Sriraghavan Jebaratnam Christian but is generally known as Ragee.

In later years Kadirgamar divorced his first wife. He 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.

Law and politics

After returning to Sri Lanka in the ’60s 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 in actively in politics, Kadirgamar interacted closely with Tamil politicians like S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, G.G. Ponnambalam, M. Tiruchelvam, E.M.V. Naganathan, M. Balasundaram, etc.

Jaffna Roots

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.

The 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 .Though his pro-Tiger critics chided him later as an ignoramus in the history and traditions of Jaffna people, those who have heard him speak on the subject were amazed at his knowledge and insight. There were few with Kadirgamar’s knowledge of Jaffna history in the Tiger camp.

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 ’60s 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) Kadirgamar 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.

Life overseas

Kadirgamar then settled down firmly in Colombo and began building up a solid practice. He 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.

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 ’80s he was in an airplane that crashed in Greece. He survived miraculously by jumping through the emergency exit. He broke several bones and was bedridden for three months.

Return home

While Lakshman was abroad he received a powerful invitation in 1977 from Lalith Athulathmudali and H.W. 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 Ajita had returned to Sri Lanka to become a well-known media personality impelled Lakshman to go back home years later. This he did in 1988. He returned to Colombo and re-established his legal practice again. He concentrated as earlier on industrial, labour and commercial law and of course intellectual property law.

Entry into politics

The “second coming” of Chandrika Kumaratunga to Sri Lanka in the early ’90s heralded a new dawn for reconciliatory 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. 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 (CP) and daughter of Colvin (LSSP) – in this mission.

Chandrika Kumaratunga became Prime Minister of a People’s Alliance Govt. in 1994. 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.

The new Government had a majority of one through Up Country Tamil MP P. 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 20. Chandrasekharan accepted but not Kadirgamar.
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.

Best man for the job

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 J.R. Jayewardene in 1977 that a departure was made and A.C.S. Hameed became Foreign Minister.

It is broadly acknowledged that Kadirgamar was the best Foreign Minister the country ever had. To Sinhala hawks, 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 in the Ministry due mainly to the cronyism of A.C.S. 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 presidents Jayewardene and Premadasa. Of course Indo-Lanka relations were always good under the Bandaranaike dynasty but the role of Kadirgamar cannot be discounted in this.

Political conduct

In later years I wrote many articles about his political conduct. A few praised him but most were harshly critical. My main concern was his lack of empathy with affected Tamil victims of the conflict. I felt he could have spoken out on many issues affecting Tamils instead of focusing only on the LTTE in international fora.

The other bone of contention was my feeling at one point of time that he was somewhat obstructive of a peace settlement with the LTTE. Once again I foolishly believed that the LTTE was genuinely coming into the political process and that Kadirgamar was not being responsive. I particularly felt that seeking international bans on the LTTE when the Tigers needed de-proscription at home was totally counterproductive.

With the wisdom of hindsight I now realise that Kadirgamar was right about the true nature of the LTTE. Once his initial faith was shattered he became increasingly doubtful about the LTTE. He also felt that the LTTE had to be cut down to size if a truly lasting solution was to be achieved. For this he felt international pressure was necessary and hence his protracted campaign advocating Tiger proscription.

Kadirgamar also felt that stringent safeguards had to be set up before the LTTE was encouraged further in the peace process and concessions made available. Though he was instrumental in getting Oslo in as facilitator, he soon felt that Norway was not playing fair and said so publicly.

This does not mean that I endorse all what Lakshman Kadirgamar said or did. I do feel that he was playing more to the Sinhala “gallery” in many things. Being a citizen of the world and being a real Sri Lankan, etc., are all very good but no man claiming to be truly enlightened can remain silent in the face of evil. In Sri Lanka it was not only Tiger “terrorism” that was evil but also Sinhala “chauvinism”. He never spoke out boldly against the latter.

His heart was in the right place

People acknowledge that Lakshman Kadirgamar was above caste, creed and community. This may be very well so. But this does not excuse his silence on crucial matters. Also some say he was truly “Sri Lankan” and not Tamil. Fine again! But being truly Sri Lankan does not mean accepting and justifying Sinhala hegemony indirectly or directly.

Kadirgamar did insist upon Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and rightly so. But he did not dwell too much on the necessity for equality between the various communities being a prerequisite for maintaining unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Despite these shortcomings, his heart was in the right place as far as the rights of Tamils and other minorities were concerned. Kadirgamar was of the mindset that these rights had to be applicable to all peoples inhabiting Sri Lanka. If justice and equal rights were ensured for all Sri Lankans, then the Tamils too as an integral component of Sri Lanka were entitled to protection under those guarantees.

Without fanfare and publicity, Kadirgamar played a quiet role in trying to enshrine those rights in the Draft Constitution of 2000. That attempt proved abortive and five years later Lakshman Kadirgamar too was no more.

(This updated version of an earlier article is e-posted here to denote the 13th death anniversary f Lakshman Kadirgamar who was assassinated on August 12th 2005)

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at