Lakshman Kadirgamar’s Jaffna Tamil Christian heritage
Wednesday, 16 August 2023 02:17 – – 870
Kadirgamar was one who defined himself first and foremost as a Sri Lankan
When the LTTE broke faith and war resumed in 1995, Kadirgamar was greatly disappointed. Once it became clear that the war had to be prosecuted to its fullest, he acted in typical ‘team member’ style and lawyer-like fashion. He felt he was part of the Government team and played according to rules. He was also like a Barrister arguing his brief. He made a case out for the Government in international fora and decimated the case for the other side
Lakshman Kadirgamar’s 18th death anniversary was observed last Saturday. The former foreign minister fell victim to a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) sniper in Colombo on 12 August 2005. Kadirgamar was one who defined himself first and foremost as a Sri Lankan. This endeared Kadirgamar to a very large number of Sri Lankans. However the fact remains that he was by ethnicity a Tamil and a Christian by religion. His parents hailed from Jaffna. This article focuses on Lakshman Kadirgamar’s Jaffna Tamil Christian heritage.
Lakshman Kadirgamar was born on 12 April 1932 to Tamil Protestant Christian parents of Jaffna origin. But in later life he refused to conform according to those labels. He never denied that he was a Tamil, but claimed to have transcended such labels. At a time when the Tigers (LTTE) and their acolytes were trying to equate being Tamil with being a pro-Tiger, Kadirgamar stood out ‘far from the madding crowd’. For that he was ridiculed as a ‘token’ Tamil, dubbed a traitor and ultimately assassinated.
When the BBC Hard Talk interviewed Kadirgamar some weeks before his death, he was asked about being called ‘traitor’. Kadirgamar responded to it magnificently. He said that all of us are given labels at the time of birth and that he too was given one. If being Tamil meant supporting the LTTE in acts like child conscription, killing opponents, denying democracy and pluralism, etc., he was not prepared to do so. If that resulted in him being called traitor then he ‘would be absolutely delighted in being called one,’ Kadirgamar said.
The name Kadirgamar is unique to Sri Lankan Tamils. Lord Muruga or Skanda in Kathirgamam or Kataragama is the most sacred place of Hindu worship in Sri Lanka. Names such as Kadirgamar, Kathirgamanathan, Kathirgamathamby, Kathirgamasegaram, etc., are derived from the deity of Kathirgamam. Names like these are rarely found in Tamil Nadu.
It is indeed interesting that a name like Kadirgamar should be borne by some members of the Christian faith in Sri Lanka. This is because some Tamils continued to retain their Tamil ‘Hinduistic’ names even after conversion. Others took on English and American names as surnames.
Lakshman Kadirgamar belonged to a Protestant Christian family of Jaffna Tamil Vellala origin. The founder of this Christianised Kadirgamar family was a native of Puloly West called Karthigeyan Kadirgamar. His staunch Hindu family renovated and was involved in managing the Point Pedro Sivan temple at one time. Karthigeyan’s first cousin Eliyathamby during colonial times was an Adhigar in Batticaloa. It is said that Adhigar Road in Batticaloa was named after him.
Karthigeyan took on the name Christian after baptism but retained the Kadirgamar name. He served as the first Ceylonese Registrar-General of the Supreme Court. His wife was the daughter of Rev. Francis Ashbury of Vaddukkoddai. The Ashbury family was one of the earliest converts to Protestant Christianity in Jaffna. The Kadirgamar family through the Ashbury connection, as once asserted by Bishop Kulendran of the CSI Church can claim unbroken continuity from the first Protestant converts with the founding of the American Mission in the early decades of the 19th century.
Karthigeyan’s eldest son Samuel Jebaratnam Christian (SJC) Kadirgamar was the man who established the Kadirgamar family in Colombo. He studied at S. Thomas’ College travelling to Mutwal from Jaffna by boat. One of his dormitory mates was a lad called Wilson. Both found themselves quarrelling eternally. The STC warden at the time resolved it in typical English public school fashion. Both were asked to don boxing gloves and slog it out in the ring with the warden as referee. At the end of it both became firm friends for life. Both became proctors and set up the law firm Kadirgamar and Wilson in Colombo.
S.J.C. Kadirgamar married Edith Rosemand Parimalam Mather, the daughter of Edward Mather of Manipay. The Mathers of yore were engaged in commerce and traded in imported products. Two of Lakshman’s uncles were Christian ministers. The Rev. J.W.A. Kadirgamar on his paternal side and Rev. B.C.D. Mather on his maternal side were pastors. This Christian heritage is something which cannot be obliterated despite Lakshman’s latter day adherence to Theosophy of the Olcott variety.
Lakshman’s father was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. He was chairman of a reception committee and presided over a meeting attended by the Mahatma in 1927 when Lakshman was yet unborn. Lakshman’s mother Parimalam requested Gandhi for his autograph. The Mahatma looking mischievously at the bright silk saree worn by her refused and told her that he would do so only if she wore “Ghaddar” (homespun cloth). She did not get her autograph then.
Incidently Lakshman’s mother died early when he was only eight. It was his elder sister Easwary who looked after him in the early years in maternal fashion. Years after her death Parimalam’s expensive Koorai or bridal saree underwent an exalted transformation. When the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India was formed in 1947 and Rev. Sabapathy Kulendiran was consecrated as its first bishop, S.J.C. Kadirgamar donated it to the Bishops throne now at the Vaddukkoddai Cathedral. This throne which this columnist has seen personally was made out of good old Jaffna palmyrah though it looks like polished ebony. The Koorai saree was used to cover the seating and the footstool. Years later Lakshman’s elder brother Sam Kadirgamar got a velvet cover made for it.
He never denied that he was a Tamil, but claimed to have transcended such labels. At a time when the Tigers (LTTE) and their acolytes were trying to equate being Tamil with being a pro-Tiger, Kadirgamar stood out ‘far from the madding crowd’. For that he was ridiculed as a ‘token’ Tamil, dubbed a traitor and ultimately assassinated
Youngest of six
Lakshman was the youngest of six children. The eldest S.J.C. (Jnr.) or Sam Kadirgamar was the well-known Queen’s Counsel. Selvanathan or Bhai Kadirgamar, a major in the army later emigrated to the USA. Rajan (Rajanathan) was the former Sri Lanka Navy commander. Thirumalan or Mana Kadirgamar was a planter who died early meeting with a motor accident in Dickoya. The only girl was Lakshman’s elder sister Eeswari who married 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. 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. Thereafter he went to England, entering Balliol College – Oxford and becoming a Barrister of the Inner Temple.
While at Balliol Kadirgamar married an artist, Angela Malik, of French-Pakistani descent. He had two children. Daughter Ajita a well-known media personality, son Ragee (Sriraghavan) an architect. Kadirgamar later divorced his first wife and married again in 1996. He married Suganthi Wijeysuriya, a lawyer and senior partner at the law firm FJ and G de Saram.
MP From the north
After returning to Sri Lanka in the ‘60s from Oxford, Lakshman Kadirgamar 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 actively in politics, Kadirgamar interacted closely with Tamil politicians like S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, G.G. Ponnambalam, M. Tiruchelvam, E.M.V. Naganathan and M. Balasundaram.
Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, son of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, once lamented that when universal franchise was introduced he had to go “far” to Jaffna in search of a constituency though he had lived for the greater part of his life in Colombo.
This was Lakshman Kadirgamar’s dilemma too when he began toying with the idea of entering parliament. With G.G. Ponnambalam and S.J.V. Chelvanayagam evincing an interest in enticing the oxonian prodigy to their ranks, young Lakshman like A. Mahadeva had to look northwards.
Kadirgamar had accompanied Justice E.F.N. Gratiaen as secretary on several trips to Jaffna in the ‘50s. Being secretary to the judge was a reward for his academic brilliance in law. Apparently an arrangement had been worked out by Prof. Nadarajah in this respect with Gratiaen.
Visits to Jaffna
Years after his trips to Jaffna with Gratiaen, Kadirgamar undertook several visits to Jaffna during the early sixties. 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.
The trips to Jaffna kindled his enthusiasm for re-discovering his roots. He also read up vividly on Jaffna history and familiarised himself of the evolution and growth of Jaffna. He was a keen student of history and very much interested in the Jaffna kingdom. Though his pro-Tiger critics chided him as an ignoramus in the history and traditions of Jaffna, people who have heard him speak on the subject have been amazed at his knowledge and insight. There are few with Kadirgamar’s knowledge of Jaffna history in the camp of his detractors.
Lakshman’s trips to Jaffna prospecting for a constituency did not bear fruit. The prospective candidate’s enthusiasm was shortlived 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 Lakshman’s liking. Besides he was unable to speak Tamil to the extent of making political speeches. 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 very slim. He was further discouraged in his political ambition by his elder brothers in Colombo, Sam J.C. Kadirgamar the lawyer and Rajanathan (Rajan) Kadirgamar the Naval Commander. Both advised him to drop his political ambition and concentrate on his law. Lakshman heeded the advice of his brothers and cousins and began focusing on law.
Kadirgamar then settled down firmly in Colombo and began building up a solid practice. 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 relocated to Britain in 1971.
Returned home in 1988
After spending 17 years away from Sri Lanka, Lakshman returned home in 1988. He re- established his legal practice in Colombo. Kadirgamar concentrated on industrial, labour and commercial law and intellectual property law.
A fact less known was that of Kadirgamar being discreetly consulted in a number of cases affecting Tamil detainees. He also proffered legal advice to some Tamils affected in the violence in procuring compensation. This was in association with a human rights organisation.
The politics of Chandrika Kumaratunga in the early 1990s heralded a bright, new dawn for the country. There were high hopes that a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict was in sight.
It was in such a climate that Kadirgamar decided to enter politics in support of Kumaratunga.
Lakshman was appointed MP from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led People’s Alliance (PA) National List in 1994.
Thus one from the Kadirgamar family became a Member of Parliament. The dominant professional strands in the family were law, Christian clergyhood, teaching and service in the armed forces. Now for the first time an active full-time politician emerged.
During one of his Jaffna trips in the ‘60s Kadirgamar addressed the Jaffna YMCA on an interesting theme. His lecture was titled ‘From Plato to Sirimavo’. When excerpts of that lecture were carried in newspapers Mrs. Bandaranaike was reportedly annoyed. Years later she herself telephoned Lakshman inviting him to join her daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s cabinet of which the grand old lady was Prime Minister.
The new government had a majority of one through Up Country People’s Front (UCPF) MP Periyasamy Chandrasekharan. He and Kadirgamar were the two Tamil representatives in the Government. Initially. Kumaratunga offered them both deputy minister posts as she wanted to restrict her cabinet to 20. Chandrasekharan accepted but not Kadir.
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 to be given only a deputy-ministership. Chandrika agreed. It was a choice of Justice or Foreign Affairs. Lakshman wanted the latter. He was immensely equipped for it. Subsequently Kadirgamar demonstrated that he was the best man for the job.
When Kadirgamar became a cabinet minister he had visions of a just peace with honour for the Tamils. Like many of us he too shared the hope that the war was reaching an end and a negotiated settlement with the LTTE was in sight. One of his early speeches where he praised Prabhakaran for having “fought a good fight” was a classic and an index of his prevailing frame of mind at that time.
But when the LTTE broke faith and war resumed in 1995, Kadirgamar was greatly disappointed. Once it became clear that the war had to be prosecuted to its fullest, he acted in typical ‘team member’ style and lawyer-like fashion. He felt he was part of the Government team and played according to rules. He was also like a Barrister arguing his brief. He made a case out for the Government in international fora and decimated the case for the other side.
Let me conclude this article with a few excerpts from an interview given by Lakshman Kadirgamar many years ago. The “Lanka Academic” website had a question and answer session with Kadirgamar. Some of his observations then reveal his thinking on some crucial issues.
A fact less known was that of Kadirgamar being discreetly consulted in a number of cases affecting Tamil detainees. He also proffered legal advice to some Tamils affected in the violence in procuring compensation. This was in association with a human rights organisation
“The PA is for a federal-type structure which could give minorities, and particularly the Tamils, ample autonomy in their regional affairs without allowing the disintegration or break up of the Sri Lankan State. Therefore, two principles are important – (1) to allow autonomy as much as it is necessary; (2) to ensure safeguards against any type of disintegration, break away or secession. We also believe that given current international developments and the challenges that our country is facing we need to have a rather strong system at the centre as well.”
“Therefore, we propose considerable power sharing at the centre in addition to devolution of power to the regions or the periphery. There are several minorities in the country and their geographical spread is such that we need to ensure a full measure of human rights and safeguards and their participation at all levels of government from periphery to the centre.”
“There is another factor that we have to take into account. There is a system of federalism in India which is not as broad as in many Western countries. What was primarily in the minds of the Indian Constitution makers when they devised a federal form of government for India was to preserve the unity and integrity of that country without allowing for its disintegration.”
“This principle applies to South Asia in general considering the existence of several secessionist movements in our midst. We also have to take into account our own evolution towards a federal type of system since the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1987. We already have in place some extensive measures of devolution of power, of course, with major structural impediments. … But the whole matter needs further and fuller discussion on a national scale in the light of evolving events on the ground in the North and East which throw doubt on whether the LTTE truly wishes to have a federal form of government, notwithstanding public statements to that effect.”
On discrimination against Tamils:
“There was a time when, for instance, the use of Tamil for official purposes was not recognised and there was discrimination against the Tamil-speaking community in respect of education and employment. The Tamils had grievances. That cannot be denied. The situation is much better now. But since independence the ethnic policy of successive governments has been characterised by a lack of foresight, mismanagement and broken promises – the Bandaranike/Chelvanayakam pact and the Dudley Senanayake/Chelvanayakan pact are examples”.
On LTTE and armed struggle:
“As for your question whether the Sri Lankan Tamils would have been better off if the LTTE did not drag the country into a bloody civil war, my personal view is that socio-economic and political questions can never be resolved by war. But one must try to understand why a generation of young Tamils who had witnessed unsuccessful satyagraha campaigns and other peaceful attempts to secure redress for their grievances came to the conclusion that there was no alternative but to resort to arms.”
“However, as the armed conflict has progressed it has become increasingly clear that war cannot resolve the problems that led to war in the first place. Many Tamils, even those of a moderate persuasion, hold the view that if the LTTE had not taken up arms the question of a negotiated settlement of the ethnic problem would never have been considered by any government in the South. The same group of moderate Tamils would, I am sure, now say “enough of war”; the armed conflict must end; a solution must be found through negotiations.”
“As for the homeland question I do not think the vast majority of Tamils, whether they presently live in Sri Lanka or abroad, would prefer to live under Mr. Prabhakarn’s rule, rather than in a free, democratic, united Sri Lanka where the rights of minorities are adequately safeguarded”.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com.)