The 84th anniversary of the death of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (SPR) fell on November 30. SPR has been described as the “Greatest Ceylonese of all times” by no lesser persons than Sri Lanka’s first Prime MInister D. S. Senanayake and Sir Baron Jayatilaka. Sir John Kotalawala described him as “a leader with wisdom and vision”. [...]

Sunday Times 2

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan: “The greatest Ceylonese of all times”


The 84th anniversary of the death of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (SPR) fell on November 30. SPR has been described as the “Greatest Ceylonese of all times” by no lesser persons than Sri Lanka’s first Prime MInister D. S. Senanayake and Sir Baron Jayatilaka. Sir John Kotalawala described him as “a leader with wisdom and vision”. It is appropriate that we commemorate his death anniversary fittingly by remembering his services to his motherland.

Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan

He fought against the tyranny of the British Government taking up the cause of the Sinhalese when arbitrary and oppressive measures were taken against them by the Government of Ceylon during the Martial Law period in 1915. Among the oppressive measures taken by the Government of Ceylon, listed by SPR, were:

*The arrest and incarceration of influential and loyal Sinhalese gentlemen, without an iota of evidence against them.

*The trial of civilian citizens by Courts Martial after the cessation of the riots, and while the ordinary courts of justice were uninterruptedly sitting.

*The unjust dismissal and dishonour of loyal public servants.

*The obtaining of an Order of Indemnity from the Privy Council, avoiding public discussion, in the Legislative Council, of the acts done, and proceedings held, under Martial Law.

Failing to obtain justice from the government of Ceylon, he travelled to London risking arrest and imprisonment under Martial Law, and the German gunboats when WW 1 was raging, with a brief to the Secretary of State for Colonies. He succeeded in having the Governor who was the representative of the reigning Monarch of the mighty British Empire, and the head of military, recalled, and in obtaining other redresses. His brief to the Secretary of State was as a book titled “Riots and Martial Law in Ceylon, 1915.” The 314 page book was printed by St Martin’s Press in London.

I quote a few eloquent extracts from this book which is in my possession.

“Believing the British Empire to stand for Justice, Freedom and Good Government, we pledge ourselves, as citizens of the greatest Empire in the World, to maintain the heritage handed down to us by our fathers.” (emphasis is mine)

‘Preface’ (to the book)

“I beg to call the attention of the sympathetic reader to the following extract from The Ceylon Legislative Council Debates of the 14th of October last, in explanation of the need for this book – to obtain through the Rt. Hon. the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the British Parliament the redress which I failed to get from the Government of Ceylon on behalf of the Sinhalese:

“The non-official members of Council, Sir, dare not turn a deaf ear to the lamentations of the people as expressed in their petitions before us. If we do, we shall lay ourselves open to the charge of betraying the trust reposed on us by His Majesty the King and the people alike. I believe, Sir, the Legislative Council has received about 350 petitions already, and I know not how many more have reached Your Excellency. I have a heap of them here on the table addressed to you, which I have not yet presented.

“When I read these petitions, Sir, I feel very sorry. I feel that I must do something for the people who are groaning under the misfortunes which they have suffered for no fault of their own. And I expect you, Sir, who have been sympathetic and have extended to me your private friendship, to try and do something for the people on this extraordinary occasion. I have gone among them and I have seen grown-up men and women weeping bitter tears owing to the untold sufferings that have been imposed on them by the atrocities of the Martial Law, and by the illegal and unrighteous acts of the Commissioners appointed by Your Excellency, not knowing how inexperienced, and how wanting in the sense of justice -
“His Excellency the Governor: Mr Ramanathan, there are three of them here and I am sure your words do not apply to them.

“The Hon. Mr. Ramanathan: I wish them to stand up and answer, Sir.

“His Excellency the Governor: I am sure you do not make any imputations against any member.

“The Hon. Mr. Ramanathan: Sir, I have seen the work of the special commissioners, I have heard of their doings.

“His Excellency the Governor: I take it that your remarks do not apply to any members of this Council

“The Hon. Mr. Ramanathan: Private friendship, Sir, has nothing to do with pubic duty. That is my creed, and this is a most uncomfortable day for me. I have been called upon to do a duty that is most unpleasant, but which I must do at any cost, because the just cries of the people are dear unto God, and to the British Throne and to you Sir. If any Hon. Members who have been charged with the duty of administering the Government have done wrong, it is for them to rise and say, in the presence of this assembly, ‘I have done wrong; I desire that my work should be thrown away, and that others better advised than I have been should do the work in the manner it should be done.’

“I beg your Excellency’s forgiveness, and the forgiveness of my honourable friends who are sitting round this table, if, in the discharge of my duty, I have to say some things painful to them, but far more painful to myself. I will ask them to bear with me, because in the complicated circumstances of the case there should not be a pronouncement upon only the official side of it, but there should be a careful consideration of, and an unbiased pronouncement on, the other side of the case too, which is the case of the people that I am trying to lay before your Excellency.

“I believe that those who have been called by the King to do their duty to the people will do it when their eyes are opened, and make the contentment of the people their greatest concern. We may reasonably expect them to see that the rights and liberties of the people are conserved, and that nothing will be done to shake their confidence in the righteousness of the British Government.”

“P. Ramanathan”

It is also known that not only was SPR deeply involved in Hindu and Christian religious concepts, but was also deeply involved in the revival of Buddhist activities of Ceylon associating himself with Anagarika Dharmapala and Sir Henry Olcott.
Oh, for the bliss to be alive to see such leaders with wisdom and vision again in Sri Lanka!!

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