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Remembering Justice Ramanathan: A Man for All Seasons

Deshamanya, judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, President of the Court of Appeal, Honorary Bencher of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn, member of the Permanent Council of Arbitration in Hague, Governor of the Western Province, Chancellor of the Uva Wellassa University, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, Rotarian and Trustee of the Sri Ponnambalavaneeshvara Kovil: all these he took in his stride. While success and recognition were undoubtedly welcomed he was never overwhelmed by them. Till the end, he remained a sincere and much loved friend and counselor to many people from different walks of life drawn from across the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka. To us all, he was just Rama and that is how he wished to be remembered. No one in recent times commanded as much personal respect and affection from so many as did Rama.

Pathmanathan Ramanathan was born on 01 September 1.932 into a conservative Tamil Hindu family. His father, Sangarapillai Pathmanathan was a well known broker in a leading Agency House and also a knowledgeable planter and spokesman for Low- Country Plantation interests. His mother, Srimani (nee Rajendra) was the grand- daughter of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, lawyer, statesman, politician, educationist and Hindu Philanthropist who made an immense contribution to Sinhala Tamil amity in the last century.- Among his close kinsmen were Ananda Coomaraswamy the internationally recognized interpreter of Hindu Buddhist art and thought and Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam founder President of the Ceylon National Congress that brought together the different strands of opinion in a common endeavour to fight for the freedom that we now enjoy.

His early education in Colombo was at St Joseph’s College. He then proceeded to India and joined Montford High School a leading missionary Public School in South India. It was a happy period in his life since he distinguished himself both in sport and studies.

From India, he was sent to the United Kingdom to further his education. After a brief spell at St David’s College, Lampeter in Wales, he was admitted to Gray’s Inn to read for the Bar. He lived in London House, a Hall of Residence for Commonwealth Students. He was an institution there: with an engaging personality, he was very popular with students from several parts of the Commonwealth including Sri Lanka. Many of them remained his lifelong friends. Some of the Sri Lankans who were his close friends during this period themselves went on to become well known in their chosen careers both in Sri Lanka and abroad. Among them, to name only a few were: Dr. Tony Gabriel, Dr. Mano, Muttucumaru, Dr Gihan Tennekoon, Sinha Basnayake, Desmond Fernando, Palitha Kirthisinghe, Dr Lal Jayawardene, and Ajit Jayaratne. These years in England broadened his horizons and gave him the self confidence that underpinned his lifelong determination to "‘do it his own way". It was apt that Frank Sinatra’s recording of the song "My way"was played at Rama’s funeral in accordance with his wish.

Returning to Sri Lanka as a Barrister at Law, he was admitted as an Advocate of the Supreme Court and initially "devilled" with Lakshman Kadirgamer who enjoyed a wide practice in the Industrial Courts. After a brief spell at the Private Bar, he joined the Attorney General’s Department in the late 1970s. This gave him a lot of pleasure since his great grandfather, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan had been Solicitor General over 75 years before. The Department gave him the opportunity to exercise his multiple talents. He enjoyed the criminal side of the Bar to which he was initially assigned in the Department and was respected for his sense of fair play whether prosecuting in the Assizes or arguing Criminal Appeals in the Court of Criminal Appeal (CCA) on behalf of the Attorney General. In the CCA, he was pitted against such formidable Advocates as Dr Colvin R. de Silva and E.R.S.R. Coomaraawamy both of whom thought highly of him.

In the Department, he made many friends: G.P.S de Silva and Sarath N. Silva (both of whom later became Chief justice) and Faisz Musthapha among others.

It was not long before he was appointed to the Bench, first as a High Court judge followed in fairly quick succession as a judge of the Court of Appeal (of which he became President) and as a judge of the Supreme Court. A sensitive, modest courtroom presence, Justice Ramanathan presided over the cases before him with a measured, calm assurance. Held in high esteem by those encountering him in a professional capacity, Ramanathan was known for his consistency, honesty and unwillingness to prevaricate. Advocates in his court and their clients knew that they were guaranteed a fair hearing and went away satisfied with their day in his Court. He did not seek in every case to settle the law on a point for all time by a display of great erudition and precedent but sought to dispense with justice according to law as he understood it in the case before him. To him the life of the law was experience, not logic. These qualities earned him the complete respect of his colleagues and members of the Bar.

On retirement, Ramanathan was a much sought after public speaker. He involved himself in many voluntary activities including those of a Rotarian and a Freemason. He gave freely of his time and experience whenever his advice was sought. He enjoyed his tenure as Governor of the Western Province and in the brief period he served as Chairman of the Human Rights Commission he did much to reorganise the body to enable it to better respond to the needs of the many who sought its’ help.

His wife Mano, cared for him with devotion and love throughout their many happy years together. He passed away peacefully at home on 07 December 2006 surrounded by his wife and two close friends of long standing, Nimal Jayawardene and Ranjan Gooneratne.

His passing was shock, but there are many like my wife and myself who will continue to cherish Rama’s memory and be grateful for his friendship and loyalty. He was truly A Man for All Seasons.

Muttusamy Sanmuganathan

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