When I think of the death of Lakshman Kadirgamar, my mind goes back to the bullets that brought to an end the life of Mahathma Gandhi. Pandit Nehru in a broken voice had this to say:
"The light has gone out of our lives, there is darkness everywhere. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years; and a thousand years later, that light will be seen in this country, and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate present; it represented the living truth . . …….. the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom."
When Kadirgamar died, there was a spontaneous reaction of sadness on the part of many in all walks of life that a light that shone and stood for certain ideals and values of the nation had been extinguished. No lesser person than Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India, broke down when he heard of Lakshman Kadirgamar’s death. Kadirgamar was his contemporary in University days in the U.K. They interacted again when Manmohan Singh was Head of the South Commission in Geneva and Lakshman Kadirgamar was at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Later they met over and over again in the context of sometimes fraught India and Sri Lanka relations in Delhi and elsewhere. Most of all, the Indian Prime Minister considered him a friend, and a man with whom he could speak in a language of commonsense.
The younger generation of Sri Lankans yearns for icons to look up to. Just a few generations back, men of the calibre of D.B.Jayatilaka, D.S.Senanayake and Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam set the standards in the political firmament.
That era saw a generation with a love and pride in their country, and hope and confidence in the future. It was into this milieu that Lakshman Kadirgamar was born. Lakshman was bequeathed with the heritage of the family of Mudaliyar K. S. Kadirgamar of Manipay, who was Deputy Registrar of the Supreme Court and the Chief Tamil Translator of the Government of Ceylon. He learnt his law and values from his father S. J. C. Kadirgamar, founder President of the Law Society of Ceylon and a dedicated member of the YMCA. He thrived under the benign shadow of his brother, the distinguished lawyer, S.J.C. Kadirgamar. Q.C. On his mother’s side, too, there were distinguished legal luminaries like the Puisne Judge H.W. Thambiah and Clement. A. Mather. Sadly, his mother died when he was very young but he was brought up by his sister Iswari Richards.
The Kadirgamar home, Trinity College Kandy, and Peradeniya University were the three most important hallmarks of his upbringing. At Trinity, he came under the influence of the Principal Mr C. E. Simithraaratchy. There, too, was the Co-Vice Principal, Major Burrows, who had joined Trinity after he left his post as ADC to Lord Mountbatten and a host of dedicated teachers like Hilary Abeyratne to mould his character. Kadirgamar’s love for Trinity was boundless. Throughout his life, Newbolt’s words of his College song echoed ceaselessly in his mind when he thought of his days in school.
"We will honour yet the School we knew,
The best school of all;………
……..They were great days and jolly days,
At the best school of all."
At Trinity, he achieved what any student would have wished for. Both in sports and academic studies he excelled. From his speeches and his conduct it was evident that a future leader of this country was in the making.
From Trinity, Lakshman went to Peradeniya. There he came under the influence of Sir Ivor Jennings, the Vice Chancellor, and Sir Francis Soertsz, who had acted as Chief Justice in 1939, 1945 and 1946.
Sir Francis was a Professor of Law at the newly formed Law Department of the University of Ceylon. Another of his mentors was the Dean of the Law Faculty, Professor Nadarajah, who was perhaps the greatest legal historian Sri Lanka has produced. The University at Peradeniya was in its embryonic state, with only the Law faculty in existence and hardly a hundred students.
After Peradeniya and the Law College, Kadirgamar entered Balliol College, Oxford. It was here that he acquired the Balliol tradition at its best. Language in his speeches began to show a mental precision. Every word – plain, lucid, terse, direct and no frills had its mark. The eloquence was honed in the debating chamber of the Oxford Union and in due course, he was elected President of the Oxford Union.
Years later, his Oxford training made him incomparably the ablest debater in the Sri Lanka Parliament. Speaking without notes, his eyes fixed implacably on the Opposition front bench, his mellifluous words created confidence among all those present in the House and he held their attention spellbound.
In 2005, almost fifty years after he left Oxford, his portrait was unveiled at the Union. This was a singular honour bestowed by the Oxford Union on only 15 others in its 183 year history. Kadirgamar had this to say about his education which underlined his love and loyalty to his country and a value system which guided his public life till the very end:
"……I would like to, if I may, to assume that I could share the honour with the people of my country. I had my schooling there, my first university was there, I went to Law College there and by the time I came to Oxford as a postgraduate student, well, I was relatively a mature person. Oxford was the icing on the cake but the cake was baked at home (applause)."
In 1994, Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunge offered the Portfolio of Foreign Minister to him. It was a post he was fit to adorn; as Foreign Minister he never found himself unequal to the occasion. His presence raised the image of the Government in the outside world as he was already acknowledged internationally. Moreover, a Prime Minister in search of a solution to the ethnic problem needed a Tamil representation at the highest level.
Kadirigamar, however, did not look upon himself as a Tamil, except by birth. He had gone beyond ethnicity. This did not lessen his sensitivity to the traumas which various segments of the body politic were subjected to. During his entire period as Foreign Minister he strove to alleviate these trials.
It was his stand against terrorism and hostility to separatism, as a Tamil, that was a defining moment for him, and indeed the country. Initially, he was slow to take up the anti-LTTE cause. Once convinced, however, he lent unrivalled intellectual weight, power and force to give it shape.
Taking over as Foreign Minister was an enormous financial sacrifice. Did he have to do it? He was conscious that his life was in danger not only during the period he was Foreign Minister but most likely till the end of his life.
Perceived aberrations of the mind of would be assassins were not likely to diminish. They were more likely to intensify with time. Yet, there was a path of destiny that Lakshman had to take.
This story may give some inkling. I am relating it with the permission of Shirley Fernando, a senior lawyer and President’s Counsel who had gone to Kankesanturai for a case with Lakshman. While the two were there, they decided to visit an Astrologer, called Kandiah. The agreement was that one had to deposit Rs 50.- before the astrologer agreed to give an opinion. ( Rs 50.- in those days may have had the equivalent of Rs 1000. today.)
After receiving the money and an interview, the astrologer, would declare whether he could give an opinion or not. If the astrologer felt he was unable to give an opinion he would return the money immediately. Alternatively, if he was able to give an opinion, the money was retained.
In the case of Shirley the money was returned. In Lakshman’s case, the astrologer predicted among other matters that he would be "King of Ceylon". Thirty years after that prediction, at his death the Editor of the Island newspaper, totally oblivious of the interview with the Astrologer, carried a front page editorial referring to him as the "Uncrowned King of Sri Lanka". To many he certainly was the noblest son of Sri Lanka in recent times.
In his final days, his strongest supporters came from quarters which one would not have expected and even from the extremist elements of the JVP.
How was it possible that one who, in a sense, through his education and upbringing was the embodiment of a patrician, could inspire major segments of society? He commanded a rare degree of confidence of the JVP in particular because they found nothing mean or petty in the man. He was above intrigue, kept his word, and showed them a great deal of courtesy and consideration in his dealings with them. His radicalism was always easy to underestimate because of his refusal to compromise on his liking for western dress, thought and way of life.
These thoughts expressed by him at a lecture connected with comparative religion at the Celestine Fernando Memorial Lecture 1992, may give some insights into his character and personality:
"…………….a great unification is taking place in the deeper fabric of men’s thoughts. Unconsciously perhaps, respect for other points of view, appreciation of the treasures of other cultures, confidence in one another’s unselfish motives are growing. We are slowly realizing that believers with different opinions and convictions are necessary to each other to work out the larger synthesis which alone can give a spiritual basis to a world brought together into intimate oneness by man’s mechanical ingenuity…." He was the personification of this synthesis.
Lakshman had a knack of inspiring those he met. Though he had many an onerous task, he was always open to meet people and find out how others were thinking. There was never the slightest tinge of superiority or arrogance.
Peter Jay former British Ambassador in Washington and later Economics Editor of the BBC, and a contemporary of Kadirgamar at Oxford, had succinctly put down these thoughts sent for the Commemoration Volume published at the unveiling of his portrait: :
"At the risk of embarrassing you further I would add one personal note. Your dignity and integrity through all the vicissitudes of Union politics impressed me hugely all those years ago when we were young and eager. It led me going through the adult world telling those I met that the nicest and most decent man I ever met, came from Sri Lanka, and was President of the Oxford Union. His name was Lakshman Kadirgamar……………"
It was this quality which made the JVP to agitate for him to be made Prime
Minister in 2005. It was this quality which made Mahinda Rajapakse say in a stirring address at the funeral oration: "Lakshman, your name is written in gold in the annals of Sri Lankan history."