Tamil Pundit Kartigesu Ponnambalam Ratnam (1914-2010)
by Sachi Sri Kantha, January 3, 2011
“K.P. Ratnam asked the Minister of Trade & Shipping: (a) Is he aware that in the letter the MP for Kayts had written on 31.10.78 to the Chairman of the Sri Lanka State Trading (Textile) Corporation (Salu Sala), he had asked the chairman not to send him in Sinhala Only, the catalogues that are sent to him, but to send them in Tamil? (b) Is he aware that the chairman of that corporation had sent the MP for Kayts letter L/ST/3/6/78 dated 15.11.78 that stated the action had been taken to send the Members of the Northern and Eastern Provinces the catalogues in English? (c) Will action be taken immediately to end this practice of communicating with the Tamil people in English instead of communicating with them in their mother tongue? (d) If not, why?
Lalith Athulathmudali (Minister of Trade & Shipping): (a) Yes. (b) Yes. (c) Yes. (d) does not arise. [Note by Sachi: The Minister had answered this question in Tamil, to be in line with the spirit of the question posed.]
The news that I had expected for some time that Pundit Kartigesu Ponnambalam (K.P.) Ratnam had died in Colombo on December 20, 2010 at the age of 96 was saddening for me. There have been quite a number of scholarly Tamil pundits in Eelam. But, there was only one Tamil pundit who became a successful politician, late in his career. That honor belongs to K.P. Ratnam.
Pundit Ratnam represented the Kilinochchi constituency (from 1965 to 1970) and Kayts constituency (from 1970 to 1983), by winning the three general elections consecutively in 1965, 1970 and 1977. In late 1960s, after he became the Federal Party MP for Kilinochchi, I used to see him frequently in Rudra Mawatta, Wellawatta. His younger brother Somasundaram lived there. Somasundaram’s elder son Muhundan was my classmate at the Colombo Hindu College. Though I never had the opportunity to talk with Pundit Ratnam, I have heard then from elders that this unassuming man, always dressed in the Tamil national costume of veshti (orvetti) and saalvai, was a Tamil scholar and a politician MP. Later in the 1970s, after he became the TULF MP for Kayts, he became the butt of some silly jokes from the young Tamil militants due to his unassuming behavior and late entry into Tamil politics in his 50s. In the party filled with attorneys to the brim, K.P. Ratnam was an exception. But, he was a team player though.
Pundit Ratnam’s exceptionality was not a hindrance to his career as a legislator. As a teacher in Tamil, he had had first hand experience about the constitutional rights and the erratic implementation of Tamil language in daily life by the lackadaisical attitude of Sri Lankan bureaucrats. What I appreciated much about Pundit Ratnam’s parliamentary career was his incisive questions to ruling party’s Cabinet ministers and the bureaucrats who served them. He became the champion ‘question shooter’ in the parliament. Almost all his questions were related to the daily life and sufferings of Tamil and Muslim minorities, during 1965 and early 1980s.
Below, I provide some samples for his talent, as I have culled from the few issues ofParliamentary Debates (Hansard) in late 1970s, which I have with me now. Again, it could be noted that Pundit Ratnam brought into parliament his verve as an enthusiastic, intrepid pedagogue; repetitively asking questions – for right answers. If he had an equal among the Sinhalese legislators, I can point out Wijayananda Dahanayake (en eccentric short-term Prime Minister during 1959-1960), who was also a school teacher. Whether the answers delivered by the harassed ruling party Cabinet ministers (who depended on the lackadaisical bureaucrats) to Pundit Ratnam’s questions were right indeed or ‘fixed’ statistically (to satisfy only parliamentary decorum) have to be evaluated with a tinge of skepticism!
A brief profile of Pundit Ratnam appeared in the Ceylon Daily News Eight Parliament of Sri Lanka 1977 and provides a summary of his career before he was elected to the parliament in 1965, is as follows:
“Born on March 10, 1914, he is a Saivite by religion and was educated at the Vellanai Anglo-Vernacular school, the Tellipalai Union school, Government Training College, Kopay, and the University of Madras. He is a B.A.Hons (London), B.O.L.(Madras), M.A. Madras, a Montessori Diploma. He took to teaching as a profession and was headmaster of the Moolai Senior Secondary School (1934-1940). He next became an Inspector of Schools (1942-43), Lecturer in Tamil, Government Training College, Colombo (1943-56), Research Officer (Tamil) (1963) and Lecturer in Indian Studies, University of Malaya in 1963. From 1958 to 1963, he was a visiting lecturer at Navalar Hall, Colombo.
Mr. Ratnam has, among other things, been President, Colombo Tamil Sangam (1958-61), and President of the Tamil Radio Artists Association (1952). He has also been President of a number of Tamil cultural and research associations, and editor of the Tamil World in 1965. He has represented the All Ceylon Tamil Writers’ Associaton at the Asian Writers’ Conference held in 1957 in New Delhi, attended the 25th International Congress of Orientalists, held in Moscow in 1960, and the 26th Congress of Orientalists held in New Delhi in 1964.Mr. Ratnam was the first recipient of the Ceylon Government scholarship for Tamil research. He has published more than 12 books, and contributed a number of articles on literary and cultural topics to magazines in South India, Sri Lanka, Burma and Malaysia. As a research officer, he was in charge of the preparation of the glossary of official terms and phrases in Tamil. An honor was conferred on him in recognition of his scholarship and services to the Tamil Language and to Hinduism. Mr. Ratnam has visited Burma, Malaya, Thailand and Singapore in the course of his work and studies.”
Three of K.P. Ratnam’s notable books in Tamil were, Thavaram Illai (1948), Ilankayil Inpath Tamil (1956) and Nootandugalil Tamil (1961).
Founder Member of the International Association of Tamil Research (IATR)
Pundit K.P. Ratnam was also one of the 60 founder members of the International Association of Tamil Research (IATR), which was convened on January 7, 1964 in New Delhi. Under the auspices of IATR, five International Tamil Conference Seminars were held periodically, from Kuala Lumpur (1966), Madras (1968), Paris (1970), Jaffna (1974) and Madurai (1981). Following the retirement and death of Fr. X.S. Thani Nayagam in 1980, and the ‘politicisation’ primarily implemented by Tamil Nadu State Governments by MGR, Karunanidhi and (later Jayalalitha, since 1988), the power of IATR withered and the subsequent International Tamil Conference Seminars lost their moorings.
Some Examples of K.P.Ratnam’s Questions in the Sri Lankan Parliament
The November 8, 1979 issue of Hansard carried the following question:
“K.P. Ratnam asked the Minister of Trade & Shipping: (a) Is he aware that in the letter the MP for Kayts had written on 31.10.78 to the Chairman of the Sri Lanka State Trading (Textile) Corporation (Salu Sala), he had asked the chairman not to send him in Sinhala Only, the catalogues that are sent to him, but to send them in Tamil? (b) Is he aware that the chairman of that corporation had sent the MP for Kayts letter L/ST/3/6/78 dated 15.11.78 that stated the action had been taken to send the Members of the Northern and Eastern Provinces the catalogues in English? (c) Will action be taken immediately to end this practice of communicating with the Tamil people in English instead of communicating with them in their mother tongue? (d) If not, why?Lalith Athulathmudali (Minister of Trade & Shipping): (a) Yes. (b) Yes. (c) Yes. (d) does not arise. [Note by Sachi: The Minister had answered this question in Tamil, to be in line with the spirit of the question posed.]K.P. Ratnam: May I know from the Hon. Minister what action he proposes to take in regard to section (c) of my question.Lalith Athulathmudali: [Note by Sachi: answering in English] All depends on the translation of the catalogues. These catalogues are found originally in English. So it will take time to translate them into Tamil. Since you do not want them in English I will not send them to you until I have them available in Tamil. Action means action immediately. We have already started on it. Only thing is, by the time you get them the catalogues may be out of date. But I hope you will not raise objection on that ground. (Interruption) It is not a question of treating. It is a question of physical availability of time. Most of these catalogues come from abroad; you cannot help it; you cannot ask them to work in Sinhala or Tamil. But I recognize your constitutional right to have them in Tamil, and you will have them. But the Constitution also does not say that you can give it at once because it accepts human problems of translation and so on. But the better thing would be, since the hon. Member for Kayts is a distinguished scholar of Tamil, if he can translate them for me if I send them in English!”
The Oct.4, 1979 issue of Hansard carried not one, but three questions of K.P. Ratnam. All three questions and the answers given were still of interest now.
Question on the Use of Tamil in Institutions under Ministry of Industries
“K.P. Ratnam asked the Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs: (a) Is he aware that the letter seeking information regarding craftsmen in his electorate which was sent by him to the MP for Kayts on 1978.08.31 was also in Sinhala only? (b) Is he aware that his Ministry and the Departments and Corporations under his Ministry communicate with the Tamil people in Sinhala with an English copy? (c) Will he take firm action to put into operation the right the Constitution grants to Tamil? (d) If not, why?N. Denzil Fernando (Deputy Minister of Industries & Scientific Affairs): (a) Yes (b) No (c) Yes (d) Does not arise.”
At that time, the Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs was Cyril Mathew, who had a reputation as a racist, anti-Tamil baiter. It could be that, rather than he answering this question, he had deputed his response to the Deputy Minister of Industries and Scientific Affairs.
Question on Tamils and Muslims in the Armed Services
“K.P. Ratnam asked the Minister and Deputy Minister of Defence: (a) Is he aware that on 1978.11.30 stated in Parliament (column 286) that out of the 2,170 personnel in the Sri Lankan Navy, 146 persons were Tamils and 100 were Muslims? (b) Likewise, will he state the total number of personnel and the number of Tamils and Muslims respectively, in the (i) Police, (ii) Air Force, (iii) Army? (c) If not, why?T.B. Werapitiya (Minister and Deputy Minister of Defence): (a) Yes (b) No (c) For security reasons it is not proposed to answer this question.”
[Note by Sachi: Mr. Werapitiya’s answer to the (c) section of the above question seems incomplete to me. Three important words stated in the next sentence would have completed the answer. It should have been, “For security and ethnic discriminatory reasons it is not proposed to answer this question.]
Question on the rationale of University Admission Policy
“K.P. Ratnam asked the Minister of Education and Minister of High Education: (a) Will he state what the rationale is behind the fixing of the following percentages for the admission to the Universities – (i) 30% on merit (ii) 55% on district population, and (iii) 15% for backward districts? (b) Who is responsible for the calculation of these three percentages? (c) What is the number of places available for admission in 1979 in each faculty in each university and its affiliated colleges and campuses?Lionel Jayatilleke (Deputy Minister of Education): (a) The present Government decided to abolish the standardization of raw marks obtained at the Advanced Level Examination for the purpose of University admission, and to admit students on the basis of raw marks. Admission on raw marks had also been done prior to 1970. It had been the experience of University authorities that the regulation of admission on raw marks causes a serious imbalance in that districts, such as Colombo and Jaffna, which provide better educational facilities send in to the Universities a number of students which is out of proportion to their population. Conversely, students from districts which are educationally underprivileged, failed to obtain an adequate number of places. Generally speaking, admission of students solely on raw marks gives an undue advantage to the urban population to the detriment of the rural population, which is in the majority. Meaningful steps are being taken by the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to provide the rural population with adequate educational facilities, but considering the magnitude of the problem and the restraints such as inadequacy of funds and the dearth of qualified personnel, a few years are bound to elapse before the beneficial effects of these measures are realized.In the meantime, certain steps have to be taken in order to correct the imbalance resulting from admission based solely upon raw marks. The admission figures in respect of the last few years were studied and a submission was made by me to the Cabinet of Ministers, which appointed a sub-Committee (consisting of Cabinet members) to consider and to report on the manner in which admission for 1979 should be made. An analysis of the relevant statistics by this sub-Committee revealed that a greater balance between the urban and the rural areas will be ensured if 30 percent of the available places in any given course of study was filled on the basis of merit determined on an all-island basis, 55 percent of places in proportion to the population of the 24 revenue districts; and the balance 15 percent from among the students of the 12 districts which were identified as being educationally under privileged.(b) The three percentages above referred to were determined by the Cabinet Sub-Committee on the basis of statistics relating to University admission during the past few years.(c) Please see Annex.University of Peradeniya: Medicine 170 (includes 50 for dental surgery and 30 for Veterinary Science), Agriculture 110, Engineering 250, Science 200.University of Colombo: Arts 380, Medicine 150, Law 50, Science 180.University of Kelaniya: Arts 680, Science 95.University of Jayawardenepura: Arts 400, Science 100, Management Studies 280.University of Moratuwa: Engineering 196 (includes 40 for Architecture and 21 for Applied Science).University of Jaffna: Arts 200, Medicine 70, Science 250.Ruhuna University College: Arts 200, Medicine 90, Agriculture 25, Science 80.Dumbara Campus, University of Peradeniya: Arts 710.Faculty-based Total: Arts 2,750; Medicine 480; Agriculture 135; Engineering 436; Law 50; Science 905; Management Studies 280.”
[Note by Sachi: Mr. Jayatilleke’s answer to the (a) section of the question was incomplete and hides many delicate political secrets that were faced by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s regime in 1970, such as the April 1971 terrorist insurgency initiated by the JVP. The ‘media-wise standardization’ scheme introduced in 1971 and 1972 was based on anti-Tamil discriminatory principle, to soothe the tempers of rural Sinhalese students. The entry bar for Tamil medium students who sat for the exam from the privileged Colombo district was higher than for the Sinhala medium students who sat for the same exam from the same Colombo district. I should know, as I was one of the Tamil medium students who sat for the G.C.E. Advanced Level exam from Colombo district in December 1970. It was the last time, the practicals exam was held for four science subjects, namely Chemistry, Physics, Botany and Zoology at the universities in Colombo and Peradeniya. Since then, the practicals exam was abolished for the G.C.E. Advanced Level examinations, on the grounds that the students from Colombo and Jaffna districts had an undue advantage in training for the practical exam, as schools from other districts had inadequate facilities and lack of science teachers for training students in practicals in science subjects.]
On Bank Robberies in Sri Lanka
The February 8, 1979 issue of Hansard carried the following question relating to Bank robberies in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) that occurred from 1970 to 1978. The rationale for this question was that during that time Cyril Mathew and his media minions in the ruling UNP made some fuss in the parliament and print media by linking the bank robberies to the then rising young Tamil militancy.
“P. Ganeshalingam (on behalf of K.P. Ratnam) aksed the Minister of Finance and Planning: (a) Will he give the following particulars with regard to the bank robberies that have taken place in Ceylon during the nine years from 1970 to 1978: (i) banks where robberies took place, (ii) amount of money robbed, (iii) amount of money recovered, (iv) action taken by the police against the culprits and the sentences the culprits got from the law courts, (v) the banks closed after the robberies, (vi) the robberies in respect of which the culprits have not yet been caught. (b) If not, why?M.H.M. Naina Marikkar (Deputy Minister of Finance and Planning): I will table the Answer as it is a long one. The answer tabled is as follows:”
[Note by Sachi: For convenience, I provide below, only the answers provided for (i) and (ii) for section (a) of the question; and summarise the essence of details for the other sections. The amount of money robbed is in Sri Lankan rupees and cents. For convenience, I have numbered the listing also, from 1 to 30.]
1. Peoples Bank, Homagama 504,400.002. Peoples Bank, Elpitiya 298,559.843. Peoples Bank, Weligama 442,324.914. Peoples Bank, Gangodawila 634,315.665. Peoples Bank, Puttur 495,000.006. Peoples Bank, Galnewa 37,153.007. Peoples Bank, Nallur 1,180,000.008. Bank of Ceylon, Mutur 47,224.009. Bank of Ceylon, Kongahawela 18,018.3110. Bank of Ceylon, Palugaswewa 78,101.0011. Bank of Ceylon, Pologama 76,931.0012. Bank of Ceylon, Mahalakotuwa 21,622.8413. Bank of Ceylon, Senaratpura 36,450.0014. Bank of Ceylon, Weregama 11,381.0015. Bank of Ceylon, Yakalla 60,879.0016. Bank of Ceylon, Kotte 5,770.0017. Bank of Ceylon, Giritale 48,759.0018. Bank of Ceylon, Kibissa 93,518.0019. Bank of Ceylon, Manipay 28,045.8020. Bank of Ceylon, Puttur 30,259.0021. Bank of Ceylon, Palugamam 13,776.8522. Bank of Ceylon, Karandeniya 10,058.5623. Bank of Ceylon, Elayapattuwa 5,181.0024. Bank of Ceylon, Kaithady 16,036.0025. Bank of Ceylon, Pulastigama 40,000.0026. Bank of Ceylon, Neluwa 33,385.8227. Bank of Ceylon, Malabe 8,606.0528. Bank of Ceylon, Pothupitiya 21,921.2529. Bank of Ceylon, Walagedara 10,000.0030. Bank of Ceylon, Kurunchunkarny 55,460.00”
To sum up, only 8 (items 5, 6, 7, 8, 19, 20, 21, 24 and 30) of the 30 locations were in the North-East regions of Sri Lanka. Only in 10 of these 30 locations, some portions of the money robbed were discovered. Culprits have not been apprehended in 29 out of 30 robberies. Only for item 14 (Bank of Ceylon, Weregama), it was mentioned “5th accused has not been apprehended”, which means that first four accused have been apprehended. That tells much about the professional incompetency of the Sri Lankan police services.
The August 3, 1978 issue of Hansard provides the following response made by K.P. Ratnam regarding the priority telephone ‘trunk calls’ booked from Jaffna.
“K.P. Ratnam: Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement with regard to the reply given by the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications to my question yesterday in this House. This is what the hon. Minister said: ‘I must crave your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, to bring to the notice of Members the abuse of privileges that are allowed to Members in respect of telephone calls. On this day there had been 108 priority calls from Members.’According to the figures given by the hon. Minister, all the priority calls booked at the Jaffna ‘Trunks’ number 108, and the calls booked by the Members are as follows: MP for Chavakachcheri 3, MP for Kopay 2, Leader of the Opposition 2, MP for Jaffna 7. In all only 14 calls were booked by the Members of Parliament of the Jaffna district. These 108 calls included the calls booked by the Kachcheri and all other government institutions, including the police.A. Amirthalingam: Maybe the Army also!K.P. Ratnam: It is not correct to say that the Members of Parliament had initiated 108 calls through the Jaffna Exchange. Only 14 calls were booked, and of those, four were cancelled. So, they got only 10 calls, of these 108 calls. I want to set the record right.M. Vincent Perera (Minister of Parliamentary Affairs & Sports and Chief Government Whip): I will bring this to the notice of the Minister concerned. If possible, the hon. Minister might give a reply in the course of the day.”
Yes, Pundit K.P. Ratnam had a penchant for setting the record right. As a teacher-scholar and a parliamentarian, his services to the Tamil community at large will not be forgotten. To commemorate his Tamil scholarship and memory, I will prepare for posting shortly his review paper entitled ‘Tamil Studies in Ceylon”, that appeared in a volume ‘Tamil Studies Abroad’ (1968, pp. 137-145), edited by Xavier S. Thani Nayagam.
Ceylon Daily News: Eight Parliament of Sri Lanka 1977, Lake House, Colombo, 1977.
I.A.T.R. Who’s Who, released on the First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, April 16-23, 1966.
Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), August 3, 1978, columns 924-925.
Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), February 8, 1979, columns 687-707.
Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), October 4, 1979, columns 843-853.
Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), November 8, 1979, columns 1503-1505.
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