The greatest Ceylonese Leader was Sir Ponambalam Ramanathan

Sir Ponambalam Ramanathan

By Hemantha Warnakulasuriya

In the 2012 Gallup poll, conducted by the US in the Asian region, to find the chief executive with highest approval rating, President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, came third with a 91 percent approval rating.

It was conducted by a US-based agency.

When President Rajapaksa visited Rome, I had sleepless nights with Sri Lankans living all over Italy pleading with me to give them an opportunity to see him.

A few years after his election as President another English newspaper carried out a survey amongst its reader. The public voted for D. S. Senanayake as the most popular leader of post independent Sri Lanka and President Rajapaksa came a close second.

It is important to realise that both leaders came from the rural sector. Both of them, at some point in their life, had joined their parents in cultivating crops. Senanayake formed the United National Party and brought together all ethnic groups under one umbrella. In 1947 the Cabinet of ministers, the first cabinet under the Soulbury Commission had three Tamils as Cabinet ministers, Among them were C. Sundaralingam (Minister of Trade & Commerce) and C. Sittampalam (Minister of Post and Telecommunication) and the only Muslim Minister was T. B. Jayah (Minister Labour and Social Services). He foresaw the dangers Sri Lanka would face in view of G. G. Ponnambalam’s 50-50 demand. In order to prevent any segregation, he built the Gal Oya Tank as a veritable buffer. The Gal Oya Dam was built with our own savings. Some Tamils complained that Senanayake was colonising the land belonging to the Tamils.

Under the leadership of Senanayake the Sri Lankan economy grew immensely. The post independence economic management of Ceylon was better than when it was under the colonial masters. This prompted Lee Kwan Yu to say that his Utopian goal for Singapore was to emulate Ceylon.

Eric Solheim, having met Prabahakaran, tried to conivince President Rajapaksa that the war was unwinnable war against the most ruthless and the most powerful terrorist organisation in the world. Rajapaksa told him he was for peace and not for war and he was prepared to send a delegation for another round of peace talk. And most importantly, he told Solhiem that he was from the South and under no circustances would he give in to the LTTE’s terror, Solheim may, for the first time, have seen the fierce determination of President Rajapaksa.

Even today, Senanayake is venerated as the Father of the Nation. Rajapaksa is the most popular political leader in Sri Lanka with an approval rating of 93%. He is the 3rd most popular leader in the Asian Region. But yet, who could be considered as the greatest Ceylonese of all times? It was Senanayake who said that the greatest Ceylonese of all time was none others than Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, KC!

Today, we have heard that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was once the secretary of the Oxford Union. Mr Lalith Athulathmudali and Lakshman Kadiragamar were elected presidents of the Oxford Union.

As former subjects of the British Empire, we have yet to shed our subconscious allegiance to the British Empire, to the Queen. Our subservience to a former colonial master, is ingrained in our conscious acceptance of the superiority of the former colonial powers. This is another facet of our inferiority complex.

During the heyday of the colonial Empire, we were a minuscule tiny dot in the British Empire. The British Empire was then headed by the most powerful monarch ever known, Queen Victoria. We just saw the grand spectacle and the unbelievable splendour of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations the other day. World leaders were present at the ceremony but they had the occasion to greet the Queen but no one was invited from the Commonwealth to deliver a speech.

But nearly 115 years ago on a similar occasion, where Queen Victoria the grand aunt of the Present Queen, celebrated her Golden Jubilee, one of the greatest honours ever conferred upon a Ceylonese was conferred upon Ceylonese Tamil who was chosen by the then Prime Minister of United Kingdom to deliver an oration to mark the Golden Jubilee celebration.

In the year 1897, there was absolutely no question of Ceylon becoming a independent and dominion state. It was the age of aristocracy, Victorian values and morality. The aristocrats and imperialist believed in the moral and God given duty that they had to civilize the barbarians and virtual savages living in their colonies. But, nonetheless the Prime Minister of England, Lord Salisbury, decided to invite the only representative of Sri Lanka, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, to deliver a speech at the Golden Jubilee Celebration of Queen Victoria. It was more unthinkable then than even today. Such was the reputation of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan as one of the greatest orators in the British empire. He was dressed in an immaculate long coat and turban and delivered one of the greatest speeches that has ever been delivered by a Ceylonese or a Sri Lankan. The entire audience, comprising Kings, queens, Monarchs and others were held spellbound by the eloquence of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. Queen Victoria was simply bewildered by the oratory of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. Her Royal Highness, the Queen, presented Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan with a gold medal, as a memento, for the great service rendered to the British Empire and to the empress, Queen Victoria. The only other person who received such an honour was, Siriniwasa Sasthri of India, in the year 1930, nearly 33 years after the momentous occasion, which could be compared to the greatest honour bestowed upon by any foreign government. Siriniwasa Sasthri and Ramanathan were known as the silver-tongued orators of the British Empire. They were bestowed with the same honour on different occasions. Ramanathan put the country before self. During the Sinhala-Muslim riots, he was in the forefront of the struggle to free the Sri Lankan leaders. And many leaders were taken into custody without any evidence. D. S. Senanayake, F. R. Dias Bandaranayake. H. W. Amarasuriya, A. H. Molammure, D. R. Wijewardena, Dr. Casssius Perera and E. T. de silva were imprisoned under the dreaded Martial Law. There was a fear amongst the Ceylonese community as the British shot some prisoners without trial.

Sir Ponnambalam, who was appointed the Solicitor General by the Governor, pursued a campaign against the British governor and the British Military without batting an eyelid against the imposition of Martial Law and against the arrest, detention and killing of Sinhalese who were perceived by the Imperialist as the Public Enemy. He did not consider losing his perks and purse, but took the side of the Sinhalese who had been shot by the military. Thousands of innocent men died during this purge. Lackeys and bootlickers of the of the British empires, headed by Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, the Maha Mudaliyar, conspired with the British governor Sir Robert Chalmers and out of sheer jealousy of the Pedris family betrayed the person who defiantly curbed the riots, Captain Henry Pedris. He was named a traitor and shot without trial.

The leaderless community of the Ceylonese had to appeal to Anagarika Dharmapala, who was away in India. Dharmapala appealed to the only one he believed was a true patriot and would do everything to protect Buddhism. He chose none other than a devout Hindu Tamil, Sir Ponnambalam.

Sir Ponnambalam made a scathing attack on the British Governor. He knew that under the Martial Law he could have been arrested and imprisoned for being a traitor to the British Empire. He decided to visit Britain secretly. He was warned not to leave the shores of Sri Lanka as the German gunboats were attacking the British Navy and there was a great risk of his ship being sunk. In England he met the Prime Minister and other political leaders.

His mastery of the English language and the skill he developed as a lawyer to assess facts and present them with minimum effort, were so impressive that he succeeded in having the governor transferred and the head of Military recalled from Ceylon. He eventually managed to get all the leaders released from prison. When he came back to Ceylon victoriously, there were thousands to welcome him. The leader of the Labour Party Mr. A. E. Gunasinghe with thousands of supports was there to greet him, Sir John Kotalawala and A. C. Seneviratne, a prominent businessman, said that the Sinhalese owe Sir Ponnambalam a debt that could never be repaid. They insisted that his horse carriage be drawn by Sinhalese. Sir Ponnambalam was driven through the streets of Colombo to his residence at Ward Place and some of the top families, of Sinhalese aristocracy, had no qualms about drawing his carriage through the streets of Colombo virtually carrying him on their backs. Sinhala leaders took turns to pull the carriage.

Sir Ponnambalam wrote “Take the Sinhala Nation. I have served the race all my life. In my twenty eighth year I entered the Legislative Council and never once have I thought myself to be a member of the Tamil Community only – I supported the Sinhalese interest and every other interest and treated every subject with the same sympathy and desire to do the best for all the communities. I knew through and through the men and women of the Sinhalese communities of all classes. They have all the characteristic of a great people they are decidedly considerate and peaceful.”

Let me pose this question again: Who is the greatest Ceylonese or Sri Lankan who ever lived in the last two hundred years. Senanayake and Sir Baron Jayatilleke conceded that the greatest Sri Lankan that ever lived was Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan Q.C. Names of two leaders come to mind: Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. I cannot think of any Sri Lankan leaders who would even come remotely close to them.