Shelton Ranaraja known to many as “Shelly Aiya” passed away on August 11, 2011. Shelton or Shelly Aiya was a politician for whom I have the greatest respect. The lawyer who represented the Senkadagala constituency in the Sri Lankan Parliament for more than fifteen years was arguably the conscience – keeper of the Nation in his own modest way.
My regard and admiration for Shelton Ranaraja is mainly due to the fact that the former Deputy Minister of Justice was a courageous politician with enlightened principles. It was my privilege in 1981 to witness what was perhaps the finest moment in the life of Shelton Ranaraja when he voted against the no-confidence motion brought against the then opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam. It was an inspiring display of principled courage.
It is indeed a rare politician who is prepared to stand up against the majority of his or her political party for what one believes to be right. Shelton Ranaraja was such a person. This article is intended to honour and pay tribute to his memory on the occasion of his tenth death anniversary.
Punchi Banda Ranaraja
Shelton Ranaraja was born on November 3, 1926, at Ranwala in Kegalle. Shelton’s father, Punchi Banda Ranaraja was a land owner who took to politics and the law. Shelton’s father PB Ranaraja contested the State Council elections from the Galagedara constituency during British rule. He first contested the 1931 elections challenging the formidable PB Nugawela Dissawe. PB Ranaraja lost the election by 1,055 votes.
At the by-election held for Galagedara in 1934, PB Ranaraja was successful and won with a majority of 2,199. He was however defeated again at the 1936 State Council elections. EA Nugawela with 13,574 votes was the winner with a huge majority of 8,515. PB Ranaraja got only 5,959 votes.
PB Ranaraja tried his hand at electoral politics again after Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon gained independence from the British. He contested on the UNP ticket from Dambulla at the 1952 elections. He lost, getting only 2,897 votes. Thereafter he gave up electoral politics but served two terms as a UNP nominated Senator in the upper house.
Interestingly PB Ranaraja took up legal studies late in life and qualified as a lawyer. In what is perhaps a unique record both Punchi Banda Ranaraja and his son Shelton Ranaraja took their oaths as lawyers together in 1949. In those pre-Attorney-at-law days the father practiced as an advocate while the son was a proctor.
Shelton Ranaraja was a distinguished alumnus of Trinity College, Kandy and St.Thomas’ College Mt. Lavinia (with a stint at STC Gurutalawa also I believe). He was an outstanding sportsman and won colours in Athletics, Cricket, Boxing and Swimming. Shelton played in the 1945 Royal-Thomian encounter. He also came first in the 400 metres event known as the 440-yard race in those days at the public schools sports meet.
Shelton continued to play cricket when he entered Law College and captained the team. He was a stylish batsman but was capable of wielding the willow like a cudgel when necessary. In short a “polladiya”. He continued to play cricket for a long time while at Kandy. He played in the local tournaments even when he was in his fifties. Once he scored a century after notching up half a century in years.
Ranaraja was the captain of the Kandy lawyers’ cricket eleven for many, many years. He also held the posts of Central Province Cricket Association president and Kandy District Cricket Association president for several years. In later life he turned to Golf from Cricket. During the twilight years of his life he kept fit by walking around the picturesque Kandy lake.
One of Kandy’s landmarks is the Bogambara stadium. There was a time when the rise of crass commercialism threatened its future as an arena for sports. It was Shelton Ranaraja who saved the stadium for sports by opposing it being used for carnivals and tamashas. Preventing the “carnivalisation” of Bogambara enabled it to be developed as a full fledged sports stadium.
After passing out from Law College, Shelton Ranaraja established a successful legal practice in Kandy. Shelton Ranaraja was well-known for his sartorial elegance. He was regarded as the most smartly dressed lawyer in Kandy. Shelton’s faithful office clerk or “Liyanamahathaya” Simon was a familiar figure in Kandy. He was called “Kota Simon” on account of his height and was like Shelton’s shadow.
Shelton’s foray into parliamentary politics came in 1960 when he was elected MP of the newly carved out Senkadagala constituency. Although his family circle was staunchly UNP, Shelton contested on the Sri Lnka Freedom Party(SLFP) ticket in the July 1960 elections thus incurring the displeasure of several relatives. Noel Wimalasena of the UNP had won the March 1960 poll. The July 1960 election was a straight fight between Wimalasena of the UNP and Ranaraja of the SLFP. Initially Ranaraja squeaked through with 30 votes. Subsequently a challenge was mounted leading to a recount of votes. Shelton continued to retain his seat after the recount but his tally had decreased by five from 30 to 25.
A liberal democrat to the core, Shelton Ranaraja was most unhappy with the SLFP–LSSP government’s attempt to muzzle the press by taking over Lake House in December, 1964. CP de Silva crossed over with a group of 14 SLFP MP’s to the opposition and voted against the bill. Shelton was not among these 14 MP’s.Instead of planning beforehand and crossing over to the other side, Shelton Ranaraja dropped a bombshell by remaining on the treasury benches and voting against the bill. The bill was defeated by one vote leading to dissolution of Parliament and fresh elections in 1965. Shelton Ranaraja along with the other MP’s who voted against were expelled from the SLFP.
Shelton did not contest the March 1965 poll. Noel Wimalasena of the UNP was elected Senkadagala MP. Ranaraja then bade “au revoir” to active politics for a while and concentrated on his legal practice. But when JR Jayewardene took over the party in 1973 after the death of Dudley Senanayake, an invitation was extended to Shelton to return to politics and work in the UNP. He accepted and was appointed organizer for Senkadagala.In the 1977 elections Shelton Ranaraja’s formidable rival from the SLFP was Anuruddha Ratwatte, kinsman of the Bandaranaikes. Ranaraja obtained 17,972 (57.53%) to Ratwatte’s 12,381(39.63%).
The UNP led by Junius Richard Jayewardene swept the polls in July 1977 winning 141 of 168 seats. With the SLFP being reduced to eight seats, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) having 18 seats became the chief opposition party. Shelton Ranaraja was appointed deputy minister of justice, first under KW Devanayagam as minister and later under Nissanka Wijeratne. Though Shelton Ranaraja was of Cabinet-minister material, it is suspected that JR Jayewardene was wary of including him as a government minister because the Senkadagala MP was an uncontrollable maverick who only listened to the call of his conscienceShelton however served as Acting Justice Minister on several occasions.
Shelton Ranaraja’s fierce independence and political courage came to the fore in 1981 when he voted against the no-confidence motion brought in July 1981 against the then opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam of TULF by Govt MP’s. The TULF had given notice in Parliament of a vote of no-confidence against the government. The UNP regime retaliated by giving notice of a vote of no-confidence against the leader of the opposition. The proposal mooted by the then Panadura MP Dr. Neville Fernando was signed by 36 UNP parliamentarians. It was widely believed and subsequently confirmed by Dr. Fernando that the no-confidence motion project had the approval of President Jayewardene himself.
President Jayewardene was regarded as all powerful then. Although there were many decent,learned persons in the UNP parliamentary group none dared to defy the “almighty” JR. Hence the UNP to its eternal shame went along with what was perhaps an all-time low in parliamentary annals.The no-confidence motion by members of the Government against the leader of the opposition was taken up in Parliament on July 23 and 24, 1981.
At the outset, Amirthalingam wanted to explain his position and rose to his feet. Pandemonium erupted. Dr.Neville Fernando objected to Amirthalingam making a personal statement saying that he could do so only with the indulgence of the House. The Speaker Bakeer Markar upheld Dr. Fernando’s objection and refused to let Amirthalingam speak. At this point the TULF walked out in protest.
Thereafter SLFP deputy leader and Medawachchiya MP Maitripala Senanayake raised a point of order and submitted three reasons for the Speaker to rule the no-confidence motion out of order. “Firstly, the vote of no confidence on the leader of the opposition did not fall within the powers of parliament. It had not happened anywhere in the world.Secondly, the leader of the opposition held his office in accordance to parliamentary convention and he enjoyed the confidence of the members of the opposition. He need not enjoy the confidence of parliament or that of the government members. Thirdly, the motion, even if passed, would not bring any result. Amirthalingam would continue to be the leader of the opposition even after the passage of the motion.”
The Speaker Bakeer Markar evaded the issue and said Senanayake’s point of order had been raised too late. Therefore he could not stop the no-confidence motion being debated he said. The lone Communist party MP from Kalawana, Sarath Muttetuwegama chided the speaker saying that he was letting the Government MP’s run Parliament. The SLFP and CP members also walked out in protest.Thus Sri Lanka witnessed the bizarre event of the Government conducting a solo performance of debating a no-confidence motion against the Leader of the opposition while the entire opposition had walked out in protest.
Then followed a disgusting relay of speeches by UNP parliamentarians uttering dire threats of punishment to Amirthalingam and other TULF traitor-MP’s. No minister or deputy minister from the UNP spoke but the backbenchers had a field day.
The only minister who spoke during that debate was Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, the minister of rural industrial development in the JRJ regime. Thondaman speaking in his capacity as leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) was very critical of the no-confidence motion. He also uttered a prophetic warning that undermining Amirthalingam would pave the way for an extremist type of Tamil politics to emerge.
Finally it was voting time on July 24. Thondaman abstained. There were 121 votes supporting the no-confidence motion with one solitary vote against the motion. The man who voted against the UNP motion was none other than the honourable member for Senkadagala, Shelton Ranaraja. By doing so he not only demonstrated that he was an honourable person but also helped salvage a little bit of honour at least for his party.
The “ginger group” of UNP backbenchers was annoyed and angry. All sorts of remarks like traitor and Tamil lover were made. One that still lingers in memory was the cheap pun on his name. There were shouts of Shelton “Nadaraja”. The first four letters of his surname were being replaced by four others to make his name sound Tamil as “Nadaraja” instead of the Sinhala “Ranaraja”.
Shelton Ranaraja’s principled stance on that fateful day was a quiet display of courageous defiance. Earlier when the UNP parliamentary group meeting was held before the debate, only Shelton Ranaraja had opposed the no-confidence motion against the opposition leader. Describing it as a travesty of democracy, Ranaraja said it should be abandoned. Otherwise he would have no other choice but to vote against it, he said.
President Jayewardene would have none of it. JR said that Shelton could either keep away at voting time or abstain from voting but must not go against the party by voting against it. Even Thondaman would abstain after speaking out against the motion, Jayewardene informed Ranaraja.
The Senkadagala MP kept quiet during the course of the debate on the no-confidence motion while Thondaman made a hard-hitting speech. When voting time came, the loquacious Thondaman abstained but the hitherto silent Ranaraja – who was also expected to abstain — did the unexpected. He voted against the motion openly defying President Jayewardene and the UNP parliamentarians. When JR questioned him about it later, Shelton replied that he had voted according to his conscience. Knowing Shelton’s brand of principled politics, JR Jayewardene let it go at that.
This was not the first time that Shelton Ranaraja had dared to go against Junius Richard Jayewardene. It was in 1980 that the UNP government passed legislation depriving former Prime Minister and SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights. Shelton (though a deputy minister) was present at the Cabinet meeting that preceded the move in his capacity as acting minister of Justice. He opposed the taking away of Sirima’s civic rights at the cabinet conclave.
A seemingly bemused JR smiled wryly at Shelton and quipped, “you seem to be very fond of the lady.” Shelton replied “ I am not fond of any personalities. I care only for my conscience”. Later on JR told Shelton to keep away at voting time if his conscience troubled him. Shelton did so in 1980. However in the case of the no-confidence motion, Shelton went against JR’s wishes boldly and voted against it.
The stature and image of Shelton Ranaraja went up in the eyes of all decent people in Sri Lanka after the NCM episode. The Tamils in particular were elated. To the end of his days, Shelton Ranaraja always enjoyed wide popularity among the Tamil people. Ranaraja also entertained many visitors from the North at his Kandy residence after this vote.
The infamous referendum was held by JR in 1982. Ranaraja was opposed to it in principle as he felt an extension of Parliament by another term without elections was anti-democratic. He refrained from personally participating in propaganda meetings espousing the “lamp” symbol. Though he did not canvass for or against, Shelton told people who approached him to vote according to their conscience.
When the July 1983 anti-Tamil violence erupted Ranaraja acted with forethought and got all the thugs and hoodlums in Kandy locked up by the Police. Kandy enjoyed some tranquility initially even as Colombo was burning. Sadly Ranaraja’s orders were countermanded by the then powerful minister of Industries and Scientific affairs, Cyril Mathew who got all those locked up by Ranaraja released. Within hours Kandy too started burning. A distraught Ranaraja lamented on this situation to journalists later blaming Mathew.
The twin massacres of 52 Tamil political detainees at Welikada — 35 on July 25 and 17 on July 27 — concerned the Justice Ministry directly as the prisons department was under its purview. When efforts were underway by the defence establishment to do away with the bodies, the Justice Ministry intervened and enabled judicial inquests to be held. Deputy Justice Minister Shelton Ranaraja and Justice Ministry Secretary Mervyn Wijesinghe were greatly instrumental in this.
The LTTE attack on the sacred Bo Tree and the massacre of civilians in Anuradhapura on May 14, 1985 resulted in widespread anger and fear in many parts of the country. A delegation of Sinhala citizens went to Shelton Ranaraja and urged that the Tamils in Kandy be expelled as a precaution. Shelton refused point blank and candidly told them that their duty was to protect the Tamil minority living in their midst instead of driving them away.
Goodwill Mission to North
The 1987 Indo-Lanka accord and the ushering in of “peace” was welcomed by Shelton Ranaraja. A lull in violence prevailed between July 29 to October 10, 1987. Shelton Ranaraja despite being a member of the government got involved in a mission of goodwill to the North from the South. A group of Sinhalese mainly consisting of medical personnel undertook a peace and reconciliation mission to Jaffna in September 1987. Among those in this mission were Dr. Sunil Ratnapriya of the GMOA, Fr. Yohan Devananda of “Devasarana” in Ibbagamuwe and of course Deputy Justice Minister Shelton Ranaraja in his private capacity.
“Permission” to visit Jaffna was sought and obtained from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) then ruling the roost in the peninsula. This Sinhala goodwill delegation comprised people who recognized the tragic plight of the Tamil people and supported the justice of the Tamil cause. Their mission to the North was to establish better understanding and amity with the Tamil people. Yet they had a nasty experience in Jaffna.
After travelling extensively throughout the Jaffna Peninsula and meeting people from different orgnizations, the Southern delegation returned to Colombo in two vehicles. They passed through several LTTE posts along the Jaffna–Kandy road or A-9 highway. An LTTE vehicle kept following them at a distance. The LTTE vehicle overtook them shortly after they passed Pallai.
When the Southern group reached Iyakkachchi about four miles away from Elephant Pass they found the Tiger vehicle parked by the side of the road. About six LTTE cadres with firearms and grenades stopped them. The passengers were ordered to get out with a few being pulled out roughly. Then the Tigers took over both vehicles with things inside and turned back towards Jaffna. The Southern goodwill mission people had to walk two miles on the road towards Elephant pass. Then a south bound bus stopped and they got in and reached the Elephant Pass army camp safely.
Declined North -East Governor Offer
Shelton Ranaraja was deeply affected by this incident. When I spoke to him about this he appeared to be very sad but not very angry or embittered. But his impression of the LTTE as a disciplined movement fighting for freedom had been shattered. He was also deeply disillusioned about the prospects for a lasting peace. It was this perhaps which led to his declining an offer to be the first governor of the temporarily merged North-Eastern province under the Indo-Lanka accord. A. Amirthalingam and R. Sampanthan of the TULF had recommended him to President Jayewardene who consented to the suggestion. But when JR wanted to designate Shelton s Governor, he refused the offer.
Furthermore Ranaraja also demanded after 1988 July that President Jayewardene should dissolve the “long”Parliament of 11 years (1977-88) and hold fresh electioms to the legislature. After arguing strongly for speedy dissolution he resigned his acting minister of Justice Post. This move by Shelton was hailed by many and increasd pressure on the UNP government.
The presidency of JR Jayewardene came to an end in 1988. He was succeeded by Ranasinghe Premadasa. Parliamentary elections under the new proportional representation scheme were scheduled for early 1989. The UNP hierarchy insisted that those seeking nomination on the party ticket should send in applications to be appointed as organizers of an electoral division. Shelton Ranaraja protested saying it was degrading and an insult for an incumbent MP to do so. Premadasa contacted Ranaraja and asked him to apply like all the other sitting MP’s. Shelton however refused to relent. As a result he did not contest the 1989 polls.
Ranaraja retired from an active political life thereafter. He devoted his time to his family of wife and five daughters and to law, cricket and social service. He gave much of his time for social work and free legal aid. In 2001, Shelton served in the panel of the Human Rights Commission in Kandy without receiving any payment. He inquired into over 100 complaints within a period of eight months but when he discovered that recommendations made after the inquiry were not being implemented, he resigned from this panel.
Chandra Ranaraja nee Mahadiulwewa
Shelton Ranaraja took a backseat and began supporting his wife Chandra in playing a pivotal role in Kandy politics. Chandra Ranaraja nee Mahadiulwewa hailed from Mahadiulwewa in the Anuradhapura district. She came from a UNP family. Her father SH Mahadiulwewa contested the Kalawewa electorate on the UNP ticket and was elected MP in 1947 and 1952. Chandra Mahadiulwewa entered the Peradeniya University and graduated in 1961. She was teaching at Holy Cross in Anuradhapura when she married Shelton Ranaraja. He was then the SLFP Senkadagala MP. After marriage she relocated to Kandy and taught at the Kandy Girls High school.
Five “Golden Flowers”
Chandra Ranaraja gave up teaching after the birth of their five children. The Ranarajas had five daughters — Premila, Aruni, Siromi, Shamila and Anjali. Siromi and Shamila were twins. The “fair and lovely” Ranaraja girls were the toast of Kandy in their youth. Young bucks dubbed them the, “five golden flowers”. Shelton and Chandra doted on their daughters.
Chandra who actively canvassed for her husband in the 1977 hustings began to get involved in Kandy municipal politics after their children grew up. She served as municipal councillor, Deputy Mayor and then finally became Kandy’s first woman Mayor. Chandra Ranaraja was also a member of the UNP working committee. Shelly was strongly supportive of his wife in her political career. She passed away in March 2016.
Loved His Hometown Kandy
Shelton RanarajaHe retired as a lawyer in 1999 after practising for 50 years at the Bar. He devoted his life to social service in Kandy thereafter. Shelton Ranaraja loved his hometown, Kandy. He was fond of sitting on the balcony at his home and to gaze upon the panoramic view of the town with its lake and the Temple of the Tooth. In the evenings he would walk with the aid of a walking stick around the Kandy lake clad in a pair of boxer shorts, tee-shirt and a hat. He also sported a pony-tail.
As the years progressed, Shelton Ranaraja’s health too regressed. He was afflicted with cancer which affected him steadily. There came a stage when he would lament, “I won the 440 yards race those days but now I cant walk even 10 yards.”
Even as death drew nearer all members of his family – daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren gathered at his residence. They were all by his bedside in a private hospital as Shelton spoke to each one. Finally he called out to his wife Chandra, held her hand and whispered softly, “Amma, I need to go”. Those were the last words of Shelton Ranaraja. He passed away on August 11, 2011 at the age of 85.
Shelton Ranaraja’s earthly remains were kept at his residence in Rajapihilla Mawatte, Kandy for people to pay their respects to their beloved “Shelly Aiya”.. The cremation took place on August 13 at Mahaiyawa. Large crowds gathered to bid a final farewell to this upright man of the people.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an enhanced version of an article written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” in the “Daily Mirror” of August 7th 2021.It can be accessed here