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Somasunderam Nadesan Q.C.
In Asian Societies where popular adulation is mostly reserved for politicians and cinema stars it would be foolish to try to remember the lives of men like S. Nadesan by conventional yardsticks.
To say that the country in which he was born and which he served, the profession in which he distinguished himself and the people among whom he lived are deeply poorer by his loss, would be a trite tribute; and a hardly adequate one.
In a world that searches for consensus at the lowest common denominator, Mr. Nadesan exemplified the highest common denominator. He was an uncommon man. He will remain a perennial symbol of individual excellence; a nonconformist who stood outside systems and conventions, but yet made a mark in public life.
Mr. Nadesan was a celebrated constitutional lawyer, but that does not explain the man. He was a single minded civil rights champion, a courageous advocate of Human Rights, but that again is an inadequate way of describing him.
In the fifties and sixties when Ceylon had a bicameral legislature, he was the famed "Senator Nadesan". In an Upper Chamber stuffed with mediocrities, he was its outstanding adornment. But that was one phase of his life and achievement.
Earlier, in the twenties of the century, when a band of youths from Jaffna, fired by brave idealism and zeal, and inspired by the Gandhian struggle for Indian independence, decided themselves to stand up against British imperialism and uphold the country's right to "Purna Swaraj", Mr. Nadesan was one of those gallant youths, waging a campaign not only for political freedom but for the establishment of an egalitarian society.
The Youth Congress was spearheaded by men of the stamp of S. Handy Perinbanayagam (who predeceased him but remained Mr. Nadesan's friend and admirer) - men who were absolute non-achievers in material terms and innocent of political guile, but who challenged the system all the way and pushed the frontiers of thought nevertheless. Well, that was again one, early phase of his life.
A simple man
Left-inclined by conviction and a genuine Socialist in his thinking, Mr. Nadesan was later to become the legal confidant of Marxist parties and Trade Union leaders. He was a friend of the Bandaranaike family and a trusted political adviser, but he was also legal consultant to the Lake House empire of Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., built by Press baron Esmond Wickremasinghe as a bulwark against the Bandaranaikes.
There was no political party in Ceylon, Left, Right or Centre, which did not at some time or other seek his services in some capacity or another. But he belonged nowhere. There was no single canvas that could hold him, no political party that would absorb him, no single role in public life that fitted him. If the judges listened to him with respect, if political leaders valued his judgement, and if the legal fraternity took pride in him, it was not for any particular reason that one would place one's fingers on; it was simply that he was Mr. Nadesan.
And Mr. Nadesan was a simple man. During my journalistic years in the Ceylon Daily Mirror in the sixties when my duties took me to office late in the mornings, I used to do leisurely walks by the sea, beside the rail tracks from Wellawatte to Bambalapitiya. Trains run constantly carrying office workers from the suburbs, but the seafront used to be deserted.
Practically every day I used to cross one man, sometimes once, sometimes twice, walking from the opposite direction. At the beginning I used to see the eminent Queen's Counsel Mr. Somasundaram Nadesan dressed in a pair of khaki shorts and a shirt, both of which could have looked more presentable with a little bit of ironing, and a pair of slippers, suspiciously looking like bathroom slippers which had seen better times.
I noticed after some time that he had decided to abandon his slippers. I got a little worried later when I saw him without the shirt either. Recalling this on a later occasion while proposing a toast to Mr. Nadesan who was Chief Guest at an Alumni Dinner at Kokuvil Hindu College, I ended the narration by saying quite untruthfully of course: Ladies and Gentlemen, at that stage of Mr. Nadesan's undress at the seafront I stopped taking my walks because I shuddered to think what he might shed next! While everyone laughed, Mr. Nadesan merely looked at me with a kind of amused surprise.
Perhaps it was this supreme unconcern for personal image-building that has cost him his rightful attention in contemporary writings on the political and legal history of Ceylon. It came as a sad surprise to me only when I sat down to write this piece that here was a man who influenced thinking both in law and public life for over half a century in that country, and how scanty are the references to him in contemporary records! You may come across copious references to people who picked Mr. Nadesan's brains but hardly any about Mr. Nadesan himself. The Tamils, like the Irish produce rugged and brilliant individualists, but some of them, even without populist support manage to leave their names in history. In Mr. Nadesan it was a fatal combination - the refusal to conform plus self-effacement.
Many are the legal battles he fought on behalf of the "underdogs", and in a country like Sri Lanka where the very superstructure of the State has been built on a total lack of humanitarian compassion towards its citizens, Mr. Nadesan has been the most consistent and dedicated advocate for Citizen v. State. The sordid story of independent Ceylon's history began with the deprival of citizenship and franchise for a million Tamils in the plantations who had enjoyed these same rights under colonial rule. The legislation was challenged in the courts of law and the case Kodakkan Pillai v. Mudanayake, Mudanayake v. Sivagnanasundaram has passed into legal history. Both the Supreme Court and the Privy Council stood with the State in what can now be seen as dubious and evasive judgements. Mr. Nadesan fought and lost. That was in 1953.
But losing and winning was not the issue; he became a crusading "karma yogi", unmindful of the "fruits of the action", ever ready to do battle in the cause of righteousness. His triumph in the Paul Nallanayagam trial before the Sri Lankan Supreme Court earlier this year ( 1986), when he came out of retirement at the age of 82, to defend a naturalised Canadian Tamil, the head of the Citizens' Committee of the Eastern Province community of Kalmunai, who was facing seven charges each of which was punishable by five years' imprisonment, now remains as his crowning glory and the signing off a career that spanned more than half a century.
An incisive logical mind
For a man who became so pre-eminent in his chosen field of law (interestingly, his first stint was teaching), for a man who never looked like a legal giant nor behaved as one, for a man who cared nought for the externals, dress, appearance, deportment, social graces, not even his prose style and diction in court, what was the secret of his success ? It was his head.
Endowed with a sharp intellect and an incisive logical mind, he had the unerring capacity to get to the pith of any problem; in arriving at the essentials across a maze of nonessentials.
I remember listening to him at the Senate once, at the time Mrs. Bandaranaike was in power. He was talking about the excessive zeal shown by the administrators in implementing the "Sinhala Only" Law in Government Departments, and referred in particular to some painted sign boards in the Income Tax Department. Go and take a look at those boards, he said. There are the large Sinhala letters on top, below which was the Tamil name in small lettering, small letters mind you, and followed by large English lettering.. "What are you trying to prove by this?", he asked turning to the members in the Government ranks. "The only message you are trying to convey is that Tamils have better eyesight! Is that what you are trying to say?". By reducing the argument to its logical absurdity, he was able to pinpoint the pettiness that prevailed.
But that makes the core of the Tamil tragedy in Sri Lanka; when in 1948 political power effectively passed into the hands of the Sinhala majority, there came a frozen upper limit beyond which no Tamil could have risen, unlike during the colonial times when men of the calibre of Sir Ponnamblam Arunachalam and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan could dominate the life of the country with supreme aplomb. Mr Nadesan was 44 years old when Ceylon became a Dominion.
Born on 11th February, 1904, enrolled as an Advocate of the Supreme Court in 1932, and appointed a Queen's Counsel in 1954, he was already elected to the Senate at its very inception in 1947, and kept his seat there until the abolition of that Upper Chamber in 1971, with a one 2-year break. He was a member of the National Flag Committee in 1948, a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee which drafted the law relating to Parliamentary privilege in 1954, Chairman of the Bar Council in 1969, and a founder-member of the Civil Rights Movement in 1977.
Nadesan was the recipient of the Peter Pillai foundation Award for the year 1983 in recognition of the promotion of Social Justice and the protection of the rights of flue underprivileged sections of Society, for which ideals that dedicated missionary and educationist Fr. Peter Pillai had given his whole life.
As member of the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, his view that judicial power in that sphere should only be exercised by the Judiciary was accepted by Parliament and applauded widely. As Chairman of the Bar Council he revitalised that body; the Council set up a Special Committee to study the then proposed new Constitution of 1972, and drew public attention to some of its unsatisfactory features. Subsequent developments were to vindicate his stand.
Champion of a free press
No attempt by any Government to trespass on the Freedom of the Press, the Freedom of the Judiciary or the Freedom of Dissent went without Mr. Nadesan throwing down his gauntlet. He led the Civil Rights Movement's team of lawyers before the then Constitutional Court to oppose the Press Council Bill. When Government introduced an amendment to the law relating to Parliamentary privilege, and went on to exercise judicial power through Parliament in the farcical Ceylon Observer case, he opposed it in print. A badly-stung Government had him hauled before the Supreme Court for breach of privilege of Parliament. The trial threatened to become an international cause celebre; the International Commission of Jurists sent a distinguished English Queen's Counsel to observe the trial. Fortunately for the government's reputation, Mr. Nadesan was acquitted.
When the Government sought to amend the Constitution to provide for two seats to the Kalawana constituency, one for an elected M.P. and one for an M.P. nominated by the ruling party, the Civil Rights Movement challenged the move before the Supreme Court, and Mr. Nadesan successfully argued before the Court that such an amendment would infringe the fundamental franchise rights of the people. The move was dropped.
He also appeared in the "Pavidi Handa" case where the Supreme Court held that the confiscation by the police, of leaflets calling for a general election, during the Referendum campaign, was unconstitutional. And then came the Fundamental Rights petition before the Supreme Court contesting the Government's ban on the Saturday Review. This writer was the editor of the paper. On July 7, 1983, the office was sealed by the police, and by end September, fearing a threat of arbitrary detention by the Government, I had left the country.
I was to meet Mr. Nadesan a few months later - but in Madras. It was January 6, 1984. A friend phoned to say that Mr. Nadesan was in Madras on a private visit and was anxious to see me. I volunteered to go wherever he was - immediately. No, he said, Mr. Nadesan insists on his coming there himself. And he came, accompanied by my friend and his grandson, and carrying a marketing bag. Seeing him without dentures and with sunken cheeks distressed me, but he beamed at me even as he walked in and stretched his hand. "I have come to meet that brilliant editor I am trying to defend" he said, full of mirth.
The next one hour he insisted on telling me, chuckling all the time, how the Saturday Review case was proceeding and how he was keeping on reading out in Court large chunks of what I had written, and testing the patience of the judges. "I have to establish the policy of the paper, you know, and how do I do it without quoting from the Editorials?". "And you know," he said, switching to mock seriousness, "I can understand why the poor judges (and he mentioned two by name) were squirming. What you write can sometimes be very biting!". And he laughed again. It was on that mischievous note that he left me. That was the last I saw of him.
He was my uncle - N.Sanmugathasan, leader of the Ceylon Communist Party writing in the state owned Sri Lanka Daily News, 1 January 1987
He was my uncle. But that was not how I came to know
him. Those were the last years of the second world war. I
had finished my university studies and become a full-time
worker at the Ceylon Trade Union Federation.
Fortunately, he did not suffer from any parliamentary
delusion and, therefore, did not seek to enter
parliament. But he was persuaded to let himself be
nominated to the Senate where he remained a member of
that body from beginning to end of its existence, except
for a short break. It is not well known that he was
originally nominated to the Senate by the Communist Party
Parliamentary group with the support of a few
sympathisers, who included the late Mr. E. F. N. Gratiaen
A gifted and dedicated champion of human rights - Manel Fonseka, Civil Rights Movement in Sri Lanka Daily News, 24 December 1986:
Mr. S. Nadesan Q.C, the eminent lawyer, Senator and gifted and dedicated champion of human rights, died in the early hours of Sunday, 21 December, 1986 after a brief illness. He was in his 83rd year.
Mr. Nadesan applied his intellect and passion for justice to an amazingly wide range of human rights issues throughout his life. Beginning his legal career in the 1930s, he was noted for his incisive logic, relentless pursuit of facts and skilful and dogged advocacy. He was elected to the Senate in 1947 as an independent, and was a founder member of the Civil Rights Movement in 1971 where he was active up to his death. He was President of the Bar Council from 1970 to 1972.
In a long career of 55 years at the Bar, Nadesan was associated with a number of famous and important cases, such as the Abdul Aziz sedition trial in 1943 and this same trade union leader's criminal trespass case in 1959; the challenge to the Press Council Bill of 1972, the Fundamental Rights Applications against the banning of the Aththa and Saturday Review newspapers, and the challenging of the contention that the Supreme Court judges were deemed to have vacated office.
Amongst his most recent and successful civil liberties cases were the Pavidi Hands (Voice of Clergy) fundamental rights case concerning freedom of expression, the Kalawana constitutional issue concerning the franchise and the Daily News contempt of court case defending the independence of the judiciary, and the defence in the 49 day trial of Kalmunai Citizens' Committee President, Paul Nallanayagam which case had serious implications for the functioning of civil liberties bodies.
Nadesan was a colossus in a vanishing breed of lawyers who excel in every sphere of the profession. He was equally at ease and equally a master of his field, whether applying his extraordinary talent to a criminal trial, a tax case, a constitutional issue, a trade union dispute, a complex commercial arbitration, or a case involving international human rights standards. This versatility marked his career from its beginning right up to his last days.
But it would be wrong to think of Nadesan only in connection with glamorous causes celebres that catch the public eye. He would put equal zeal and care into a document destined solely for the eyes of a government official. He was always ready to listen to any one's troubles, and was outraged by any injustice. He would spend weeks sifting facts, mastering complicated documentation, wrestling with and overcoming obstacles, and preparing a clear and detailed memorandum making out the case for redress. All this without fee and as often as not for a person hitherto a total stranger to him.
Mr. Nadesan was himself tried - and acquitted - in 1980 with breach of parliamentary privilege, for a series of articles he had written on this subject in 1978 for the Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, he had been a member of the Joint Select Committee of Parliament which had drafted the original Parliamentary Privileges Act in 1953.
Mr. Nadesan had a unique record as an independent senator, having been a member of the Upper House from its inception in 1947 to its abolition in 1972, with a brief interruption. In the Senate he was associated with social and labour legislation and with issues relating to the national question. He made particular contributions to the question of minority rights and of citizenship for the plantation workers, both of which were seen by him in the context of national unity and national harmony.
Perhaps the most impressive of his many remarkable Senate speeches is that courageously made in the month following the April 1971 insurgency. It reflects Nadesan's passion for social justice. In it he eloquently identifies the economic and social problems which gave rise to the frustration of our country's youth for which he says the older generation of which he is part must accept the blame. It also reflects his deep concern for human rights; its plea to a beleaguered government not to dismiss out of hand allegations of excesses by the army and police, but to publicly commit itself to investigating them once conditions permit, is extraordinarily skilled and compelling.
Among his most valuable writings are his dissenting report as a member of the National Flag Committee (1950), his still extremely relevant article on Regional Autonomy, originally published in the Sunday Observer in 1957, and, in his post-Senatorial days, his book on the principles of constitution making and the 1972 Constitution, and his report on the 1980 Strike and its Aftermath written for the Civil Rights Movement.
Nadesan gave CRM the best of his legal expertise and energies.
Never a man to stand on his dignity, he would also rush to the Supreme Court Registry to personally file an urgent petition, enthusiastically go shopping in the Pettah for stationery, supervise typing and hand-deliver envelopes. Those of us in CRM who were privileged to work with him will sorely miss the wisdom, keen insight, meticulous attention to detail, and impish humour of one for whom we had a very deep affection and regard.
Although a fierce and aggressive fighter in the cause of justice he was a man of great gentleness and warmth. He was well-known for the simplicity of his life-style, his famous fruit and vegetable diet and the long, reflective walks which he took across the length and breadth of Colombo - often dressed in a pair of baggy shorts and carrying his papers in a shopping bag.
Many will mourn the death of a great human being.
Sepali Rajapaksha, Civil Rights Movement, in Sri Lanka Sun on 29 December 1986 -
Nadesan - the Philanthropist - K. Jeganathan, former Principal of Colombo Hindu College, Transkei, South Africa
I received the news of the death of Mr. S. Nadesan Q.C., with shock and grief. It was nearly a week after his death that I got the news when I telephoned a friend in Colombo.
He had returned to his home from the UK on 20 October, 1986 and I spoke to him a couple of days after his arrival. He sounded very happy and said that he was quite well. I never imagined then, that he had not many more days to live.
I know I am least competent to write about Nadesan the eminent civil lawyer or Nadesan the constitutional expert on Parliamentary Privileges or Nadesan the ardent champion of Civil Rights. I can only write a few lines about Nadesan the philanthropist who gave liberally of his time and money towards the cause of education and more particularly education for the poorer sections of the Tamils.
It was in the late forties that he shared the vision of a Colombo Hindu College with that galaxy of eminent men like Justice Nagalingam, Sir Kandiah Vaithianathan, Mr. S. Mahadevan, Senator Perisundaram, Mr. K. C. Thangarajah and others of the Hindu Educational Society. I referred to these gentlemen in my Prize Day Report of 1977 as "men committed to the sanctions of a trust higher than any the world could impose". The late Mr. S. Mahadevan referred to their vision as a "dream of dreamers''.
But the dream was partially realised and Colombo Hindu College was started in 1951. It fulfilled the need for the less fortunate Tamil children who couldn't find admission to the prestigious colleges in Colombo. The college was unique in many respects.
Its glory began to wane soon after the race riots of 1958 and the Hindu Educational Society with its band of dedicated men was eclipsed after the nationalisation of schools in 1961. In February 1974 when I was appointed Principal, I took over a college with multiple administrative problems, a defunct PTA, and a building in a very bad state of repair. Within weeks, I approached Mr. Nadesan in his Castle Lane house and I was disappointed to note his indifference. He said: "I have shed all my tears for Colombo Hindu College and I have no more tears to shed". I came away dejected and began fighting my own battles; but what I didn't realise was that Mr. Nadesan, from a distance unobserved, was assessing my bona fides.
By the end of 1975 however, he gradually moved in to help in the rebuilding of Colombo Hindu College. On his own within a month and without flourish or ostentation, he made his own substantial contribution and collected for the PTA nearly two lakhs of rupees.
He made it clear that all this should not go in his name, but in the name of the Hindu Educational Society. He was a man of action and he would act swiftly and boldly. Colombo Hindu College is just one example of Mr. Nadesan's intrinsic good-will to help the cause of education. There were numerous other schools - Buddhist, Christian and Muslim - towards which he gave liberally.
Although to the day of his death he remained mentally alert and in good health, he decided to step down from active practice nearly 15 years ago. He was at heart a socialist and led a very simple life. A man of few words but intensely sincere and selfless. Such mortals tread this earth very rarely. Mr. Nadesan is no more; but the spirit of his selfless service to the cause of education will live long in the hearts and memories of those generations whose educational development was made possible in some measure by him.
The void caused by his demise can never be filled. Though old, he had "promises to keep and miles to walk'' before he could sleep. We shall not see the like of him for a long time - perhaps never!
'Committed to justice alone and unstained by the double standards of politics' - Sri Lanka 'Sun' Obituary, 22 December 1986
Queen's Counsel Somasunderam Nadesan, acknowledged as one of the most brilliant lawyers in Sri Lanka, died yesterday at the age of 83. In recent years the grey haired legal wizard had emerged as a key figure in several legal battles for constitutional, democratic and human rights. Committed to justice alone and unstained by the double standards of politics, Mr.Nadesan carved out for himself the status of a fearless and forthright advocate of democratic procedures and social justice.
Not for him were the spoils of office or the dubious value of political power. He avoided all such pitfalls in a legal career that spanned more than half a century and carved him a lasting place at the Bar and the bastions of justice.
Somasunderam Nadesan was born in 1904 and educated first in Jaffna and later at Royal College and University College. He was enrolled as an advocate of the Supreme court in 1931 and raised to the honour of a Queens Counsel in 1954.
During his illustrious and often controversial career, he identified himself in various fields of social justice, human rights of minorities and the privileges of the individual in an ever changing society. This crusade led him to be one of the founder members of the Civil Rights Movement. He was elected to the Senate at its inception in 1947 and held office until the Senate was abolished in 1971.
Mr.Nadesan was a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee which drafted the law relating to Parliamentary privilege and his view that judicial power in this sphere should be exercised only by the judiciary was accepted by the Select Committee and by Parliament. Later he defended many who faced charges before this Committee.
The then Prime Minister, Sir John Kotalawala paid him a glowing tribute when he introduced the Bill which was unanimously accepted by Parliament.
He was elected Chairman of the Bar Council in 1969 and his chairmanship was significant in that the hitherto moribund Bar Council was revitalised to play an important role in the public life of the country.
The inclusion in the Sri Lanka Constitution of the right of the citizen to petition the Constitutional Court was one of the achievements of the Bar Council which set up a special committee to study the proposed new Constitution of 1972.
He was a founder member of the Civil Rights Movement in 1971 and his name will always be associated with human rights.
An agnostic turned seeker after truth - V.Murugesu, Attorney at law, Secretary, Sri Lanka Aurobindo Society, 30 December 1986
He lived a full life serving man and the cause of justice, but in that life, not known to many, he rose to full measure in his search for Truth. He was an agnostic, like many great men before him, but he matured to a wisdom by an experience of his own, and accepted what most of us believe in, but that acceptance was born of an inner conviction. A seeker after Truth in any field, whether it be science, medicine or the law must arrive at the goal his soul thirsts for.
Nadesan was, as we all know him, a brilliant lawyer and an intrepid fighter of his client's case or even of the cause he espoused. But it is not in relation to that field that this tribute is being paid. Many will acknowledge his greatness as a lawyer and the invaluable contribution he made to the law. But in the midst of all those achievements his soul rose to greater heights and he saw the Light and lived by it. He might not have gone to the temple, or if he did, not frequently, nor did he partake in any overt ceremonial worship. Still he lived and died by the percepts of his calling as a Hindu and his worship of the deity was from within. It is of such persons Sri Aurobindo wrote:
It was once narrated that Nadesan was arguing an appeal in the Supreme Court. Some question of law and order emerged.He suddenly, forgetting himself, as it were, went on to speak of his experiences at Putapati, the abode of peace of Sri Satya Sai Baba. He told his Lordships: "If you want to see law and order you must go to Putapati. There you will see the law and order practised by the youth." Sri Satya Sai Baba has almost revolutionised men into ordered beings with a sense of values. This episode reflected the heights to which Nadesan had climbed in the field of the spirit having attained the summits of the law.
He also had a soul thirst to listen to spiritual hymns (thevarams) and once asked that some of them be taped into cassettes and given to him. This wish was fulfilled. He died in his glory, respected and revered by those who really knew him leaving behind a life and an example worthy to be followed. It is not for us to judge our fellowmen when they have departed from the earth scene. We should learn to see in a man his greatness and his stature, for that lends to our vision too a life of beauty and harmony. Nadesan is no more but the pinnacle he reached stands radiant and aglow, so that in silence we can say: "There he is" but he can whisper back to us, the poets words:
"It was by accident, not design that a man belongs to any race.." - T.B.Illangaratne, former Sri Lanka Cabinet Minister in the Sri Lanka Daily News, 16 January 1987