Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam
True nationalist and patriot of Ceylon
The Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam Memorial Oration, delivered by Dr. Brendon Gooneratne on January 19, 2009
Ponnambalam Arunachalam was the youngest son of Gate Mudaliyar A. Ponnambalam. He was born on September 14, 1853 to a highly respected and very well-educated, professional family from Manipay. His eldest brother Ponnambalam Coomaraswamy had a distinguished career as a Proctor and was the Nominated Tamil Member of the Ceylon Legislative Council from 1893. The next eldest child of the family, his brother, Ponnambalam Ramanathan, an Advocate, succeeded their uncle, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, as the Nominated Tamil Representative, serving from 1879 to 1893, and later on from 1921 to 1924.
Ponnambalam Ramanathan was also elected to the Legislature as member for the Northern Province (Northern Division) seat and occupied it from 1924 till his death in 1930. In addition to this appointment, Ramanathan was the island’s Solicitor-General from 1893 to 1906 for a period of 13 years, acted as Attorney-General on several occasions, and retired as a pensionable officer in 1906.
Both the elder brothers of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam were educated at the Colombo Academy (now Royal College), and then at Presidency College, Madras. Like his older brothers Ponnambalam Arunachalam, had his early education at the Colombo Academy, but, having won the English University Scholarship in 1870, he entered Christ College, Cambridge. He took with him a reputation as a student of exceptional merit, recommended by Sir Walter Sendall, Director of Public Instruction.
At Cambridge, he proceeded to annex the Foundation Scholarship. As a student, Ponnambalam Arunachalam was in a position to watch the changes made by Disraeli to the voting system in Britain and stored his observations for future reference.
Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, who was Arunachalam’s mother’s brother, had been a friend of Lord Houghton, Palmerston and Disraeli, in the London of the 1860s. Disraeli’s unfinished novel, Falconet, which was published in the London Times after the author’s death in 1881, featured a character named Kusinara, ‘an inhabitant of Ceylon’, who, although a Buddhist, is thought to have been modelled upon Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy. Sir Muttu was the first Ceylon Tamil to receive a knighthood, and the first non-Christian Asian to be called to the English Bar.
Lord Houghton had this to say of him: “I held him in great esteem. He has never received due credit for the energy with which he opened the Bar of England to all Eastern subjects of the Empress of India.” Sir Muttu’s only son, Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, world-famous art critic and author, who played a pivotal role in the cultural revival of India and Ceylon, died in 1947 in Boston USA where he had worked in the Fine Arts Department for many years.
The three Ponnambalam brothers and their cousin Ananda Coomaraswamy grew up in the cultural atmosphere provided by Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, under his kindly protection and guidance. They thrived on it. While at Cambridge, Arunachalam distinguished himself in both Classics and Mathematics. In the records of Christ College he is referred to as ‘a brilliant mathematician and an able classics scholar’. Among his tutors at Cambridge were Fletcher Moulton (afterwards Lord Chief Justice), Professor Reid, Dr. Peile and Rev. Skeat.
He moved in some interesting circles which included the two Lyttletons, Gerald and Eustace Balfour, Professors Maitland and Foxwell, Rev. Cunningham, Lord Tennyson (eldest son of the Poet Laureate), Alexander Harris and Edward Carpenter. Carpenter, a notable radical, cherished a warm, life-long friendship with Arunchalam and paid a most eloquent tribute to his friend after his death by publishing a selection of Arunachalam’s letters to him in a book entitled ‘Light from the East’.
Arunachalam had qualified for the Bar and was looking forward to a legal career, but on his return to Ceylon in 1875 his uncle Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy persuaded him to sit for the Civil Service examination. He did so, and his talent and academic excellence ensured that he was the first Ceylonese to enter the Civil Service through open competition.
Arunachalam was now appointed to the Government Agent’s office in Colombo and then to a series of judicial posts in various parts of the island. This was a policy unofficially adopted by the British Government of the day, which effectively debarred outstanding Ceylonese from taking high office in Government and instead appointed them to various parts of the island in different capacities, such as District Judges, Police Magistrates and Commissioners of Requests.
Another talented person who was given the same runaround was Paul Pieris, later Sir Paul, the scholar and historian. Sir Paul Pieris put his time in the provinces to good use, by researching and writing excellent books on successive periods of Ceylon’s history, of such distinction that he was later to become the first Asian to receive a Doctor of Letters degree from Cambridge University.
Arunachalam’s talent and hard work attracted the attention of Sir John Phear, a great Chief Justice of Ceylon, who specially commended his work to the Governor and the Secretary of State. Sir John said that only two men in Ceylon rose to the standard of what judicial officers ought to be one was Berwick, the other was Arunachalam.
When he was District Judge of Batticaloa and in the Fourth Class of the Civil Service, Sir Arthur Gordon appointed Arunachalam over the heads of about thirty seniors, among whom was Mr. (late Sir) Alexander Ashmore, to act in the office of the Registrar-General and Fiscal of the Western Province. A protest memorandum was lodged with the Secretary of State. But Sir Arthur Gordon, who obviously recognized merit when he found it, had his way and Arunachalam took office as Registrar-General.
Arunachalam now set himself to reform the Fiscal’s office which had become a den of corruption and inefficiency. He reorganised the Departments of Land Registration and Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages, for which he was warmly congratulated by the Governor.
The Times of Ceylon, reporting at the time Arunachalam entered the departments, on the Administration Reports on Land Registration and Vital Statistics, observed that they were places where chaos and corruption held merry sway. Fraud was rife. Dishonest deals often took precedence over genuine dealings, and everybody’s property and title were endangered. Not very different, I am afraid, from the Sri Lanka of today.
The measure of the man may be seen in the way he set about reforming the Registrar-General’s Department. Sitting by the side of the various clerks as they performed their tasks, he patiently learned their work before launching the reforms by which he stopped the unconscionable delays and dishonesty prevailing in the registration of deeds, and ended the practice by which official work was being conducted as a form of private practice with fees levied privately for its discharge.
He started a real record room, supplied it with a system and an index and founded a Benevolent Society which saved many a clerk from the grasp of money-lenders as well as from social disgrace and penury, paid many a widow and orphan and made clerical lives lighter and brighter. These activities were notices by a distinguished American statistician, who informed the Governor of Ceylon that “there is not published in the entire United States a report equally valuable and comprehensive”.
Governor Sir West Ridgeway entrusted the organisation of the 1901 Census of Ceylon to Arunachalam. The report elicited the thanks of both the Governor and Secretary of State. But it was Armand de Souza, Editor of the Ceylon Morning Leader, and influential paper of the day, who wrote:
“The curious reader .... will find the Report which introduces the Census of 1901 perhaps the most luminous dissertation on the ethnological, social and economic conditions of the Island. In Sir P. Arunachalam’s Account of the history and religions of the Island in his Census Report would be found the language of Addison, the eloquence of Macaulay and the historical insight of Mommsen”.
In 1906 Arunachalam was appointed to the Legislative Council. In 1912 Governor Sir Henry McCallum nominated him to the Executive Council, as a personal appointment; and on his retirement from the Public Service in 1913, he was knighted in recognition of his distinguished service to the country.
In 1913, a new phase in Arunachalam’s life began. In this year he joined a political movement demanding self-governance for the people of Ceylon. In an historic lecture entitled ‘Our Political Needs’, given at the insistence of D.R. Wijewardene, Arunachalam crystallized the arguments for self-government. In 1915, he was elected the first President of the Ceylon Social Service League for the upliftment of the poorer classes in Ceylon.
In 1917, he founded the Ceylon Reform League, and in 1919 he delivered an address to a Sinhalese conference under the patronage of F. R. Senanayake, for the purpose of organizing Peoples Associations throughout the Sinhalese districts of the island for political, social and economic improvement. This movement directly gave birth to the Lanka Maha Jana Sabha. On December 11, 1919 the Ceylon National Congress was inaugurated, with the unanimous election of Arunachalam as its first President. It was he who advised various political organizations such as the Ceylon National Association, the Ceylon Reform League, the Chilaw Association and the Jaffna Youth Association to unite into one body and lodge a joint appeal for political reform.
The Jaffna league joined the Ceylon National Congress on a condition: namely, that in a reformed Legislative Council there would be a special seat for the Tamils of the Western Province. When it was found that the reformed Legislative Council of 1921 set-up by the Government did not have such a seat for a Tamil, a situation resulted, the results of which were ultimately destructive of Arunachalam’s hopes for national unity.
Many independent thinking people had expected that at the elections which followed in 1921, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, who had been the first President of the Ceylon National Congress, which owed its creation largely to his enthusiasm and energy, would be elected the Member for the Town of Colombo, while Sir James Pieris, a prominent member of the Low Country Products Association, would be elected to represent that Association. What in fact happened was that the Low Country Products Association elected Sir Henry de Mel to represent them, while the Town of Colombo elected Sir James Peiris (brother-in-law of Sir Henry) unopposed.
Sir Ponnambalam Aruna-chalam’s untimely resignation from the Ceylon National Congress following this election result marks the beginning of the distrust that arose between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities thereafter, which has culminated in the horrendous ethnic war which has devastated our country in so many ways. Meanwhile, other matters occupied his mind. He became the first Ceylonese to be elected President of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. As President of the Saiva Paripalana Sabai, he took much interest in Hindu cultural matters. And, notably, he was the first person to start agitating for a University for Ceylon.
Sir Ponnambalam Aruna-chalam’s contribution to the field of education was that of a pioneer. In his notes to the Director of Public Instruction he stated that the fundamental defect in the system of elementary education in Ceylon was that English was employed as the medium of instruction.
In a real sense, as has been pointed out, he was the father of the concept of ‘Swabasha’. Unfortunately this idea was worked upon by later politicians who mis-read it, totally rejecting English, which could have been the link language unifying the different ethnic groups of Ceylon. Since at that time the people of Ceylon were still functioning as a united family, the need for a link language did not assert itself. The paths of History are littered with missed opportunities, and sadly, this was one of them.
Another missed opportunity was listed in a book by a Sinhalese journalist published two years ago. I would like to read this out verbatim as published in this book: “When I was detained in the Magazine Prison after the ‘71 Insurgency, I met five Tamil youth who were arrested for leading a ‘black flag’ campaign protesting the standardisation of education. Among the detainees was Kasiyanadan, who aroused Tamil nationalist sentiments in the younger generation with his poetry.
He was a calm and composed disposition, and his full beard and lean body made him look like a yogi. A story he told me, in jail, with deep emotion, shocked my Sinhala psyche to the core. Before 1956, both Sinhala people in the South and Tamil people in the North received telegrams in English. Members of both communities who could not comprehend the language would need to go in search of someone conversant with the language in order to have the telegram read.
The leaders of both communities had come to an agreement to remedy this humiliating situation; they agreed to moot Swabasha or the indigenous language policy. However, when contrary to the agreement S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike implemented the Sinhala Only Policy, the Sinhala people received their telegrams in their native language, but the Tamil people were given no choice but to have their telegrams sent to them in Sinhala, a language which was alien to them.
He explained how under this new policy, the Tamil people had to go in search of someone who understood the Sinhala language in order to have their telegrams read. Kasiyanandan asked how something which was judged to be an insult to the Sinhalese people could not be considered an insult to the Tamil people as well. What is clear is that simple issues, not resolved in the initial stages, were permitted to multiply into complex crises, ending in bloodshed.
Another example of lack of foresight on the part of majority is what we still see on the roads everyday. Signboards stating the roads in Colombo and elsewhere are still in English and Sinhalese only. Rarely, if ever, do signboards contain the names of roads in Tamil. Why cannot officials who are paid to do this job rectify this? Thoughtful persons would agree that the lessons of history, if studied with attention, could be used to avoid the mistakes made in the past, so that with foresight the destinies of nations and peoples could be guided in a proper direction.
It is my firm conviction that even at this moment it is not too late to rectify the glaring errors that have divide our own society. Good will and magnanimity from the majority Sinhalese, reciprocated by the other communities, could still heal our wounds and point the way to a saner, safer world in the years to come. Sir Ponnambalam Aruna-chalam has been rightly called the Father of the Ceylon University Movement as he was responsible for the Ceylon University Association which was formed in January 1906.
In his memorandum to the Governor, Sir West Ridgeway, requesting the Government to appoint a Commission to report on educational progress and needs, Arunachalam appealed to the Government to create a Ceylon University; or at least to raise Royal College to the status of a University College which would be of lasting benefit to the people and a fitting monument to His Excellency’s rule in Ceylon.
He suggested that Ceylon and Indian History and Geography could replace English History and Geography on the curriculum of such an institution. “His Excellency on October 15 decided to take no action” was the negative response he received from the Governor’s Secretary. When Professor Marrs, the first Principal of the University College, heard of Arunachalam’s death at Madura on January 9, 1924 while on a pilgrimage worshipping at the Hindu temples in South India, he summoned the students of the University College to the main hall and addressed them in these words:
“Gentlemen, I have asked you to assemble here at this hour as a mark of respect to the memory of one who was in a very real sense the Father of the University project in Ceylon. Little or nothing has been said of that side of his activities which to those who were in close touch with him was the inspiration of his latter days - the side which concerns you and me as members of an institution so dear to his heart, the Ceylon University College.
I may remind you that Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam presided over the public meeting which was called to consider the question of the establishment of a University in Ceylon on January 19, 1906. From that day to the day of his decease Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam has pursued his object to use his own words, ‘without let or restraint’, undeterred by the doubts of men without vision or the delay to which an untried project must, I suppose, always be subjected by conservers of tradition.”
Sir Ponnambalam Aruna-chalam has been honoured by the erection of his statue in Parliament Square in 1930, and by the unveiling of his portraits at Royal College and at the offices of both the Ceylon National Congress and the Ceylon Social Service League. His name graces Arunachalam Hall, the first Hall of residence to be opened to students at the University of Peradeniya in 1951, and a commemorative one-rupee postage stamp was issued in his memory on March 10, 1977.
philosophical and religious contributions were collected and published in 1937, with the title Studies and Translations. Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar in his foreword to this anthology wrote: “The world cannot be sufficiently grateful to Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam for having in his philosophical and religious ‘Studies and Translations’ unlocked these treasures of thought and of language to those wholly or partially unacquainted with the wonders of Tamil thought and Tamil poesy”.
Looking back on Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam’s career, we contemplate a life studded with immense contributions in a range of different fields of endeavour. Those contributions by which he will always be remembered include;
* His membership and Presidency of the Royal Asiatic Society
* His role as Founder President of the Ceylon Saiva Paripalana Sabha (a religious organisation which encourages the practice of Hinduism)
* The re-organisation of the Registrar-General’s Department (a Herculean task, magnificently performed)
* The formation of the Ceylon National Congress whose real potential for national unity was destroyed by the petty self-interest of some influential sections of the Sinhalese
* His original and outstanding contribution to the establishment of the Ceylon University College.
* The steadfast belief in the unity of his country’s various communities in a single Sovereign State, which he carried with him throughout his life.
Sri Lanka has been bereft of Statesman-like leaders since the demise of Mr. D.S. Senanayake and Sir Oliver Goonetileke in the 1950’s who put the national interest first. We have however not been short of politicians of every hue clamouring to become Members of politicians of every hue clamouring to become Members of Parliament and Cabinet, crawling out of the woodwork. Sir Ponnambalam Aruna-chalam stands out as an outstanding leader of honesty, integrity and achievement, and is beacon to us all. Most of us would have been satisfied by association with one or other of such monumental endeavour. But Sir Ponnambalam Aruna-chalam seems to have been a human dynamo - a true nationalist and patriot of Ceylon.