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Remembering a father figure who moulded us

August 19, 2020

 

By  Admiral (Retd) Ravindra C. Wijegunaratne,

Former Chief of Defence Staff

 

 

Fifteen years ago, I was commanding SLNS Sauyra, the flagship of the Sri Lanka Navy, stationed at the Colombo Port. I had just returned from India after finishing my tenure as Defence Adviser at our High Commission in New Delhi. Our task was to sail into deep sea towards the equator in search of LTTE arms smuggling ships. We used to patrol for 21 days at a stretch and be in the harbour for 10 days for our much deserved break.

I vividly remember that day - Friday 12th August 2005. We had our Inter Command Volleyball tournament at Welisara, followed by a dinner. Our ships are ‘dry’ at sea (meaning no liquor is served onboard when out at sea) and this party following the volleyball tournament was a good opportunity for us to relax after a 22-day dry spell.

It was around 9 PM on that day when I received a call from Madura, the Personal Security Officer of then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The Minister had promised me that he would visit my ship when I met him last time. My vessel was due to sail to Vishakapatnum Indian Naval Dockyard for medium refit - a US$ 20 million job arranged free of cost to the Sri Lankan government due to skilled negotiations of our Foreign Minister Kadirgamar! I thought the call was about the minister’s visit.

But what I heard from Madura was shocking. He said in a voice choked with emotion: “Sir, Minister was shot. His body is lying in the Colombo Mortuary. I am going back to his residence with the madam. Please come.”

So, LTTE has ultimately taken their prime target!

I rushed to the Colombo mortuary from Welisara.

On my way, my mind went back to the day that I had met Mr Kadirgamar. I had been selected to the post of Defence Adviser, Sri Lanka High Commission (SLHC), New Delhi, India in November 2001. I was given an appointment to meet the Minister prior to my departure to India 9 AM at his residence. Half an hour was allocated for the meeting. There were also two clerical workers who were going to an Embassy in a Western country also waiting to see the Minister after me. I was surprised to note that the Minister used to meet all our staff (diplomats or the clerical staff) posted to foreign missions prior to their departure. When he saw me in uniform, he asked the others to meet him first, finished their calls fast and sat with me for a long interview. He knew the Navy well; his elder brother had once commanded it. He inquired about my foreign training exposures and advised me on the important appointment I was going to hold for the next three years. His briefing aptly covered the importance of India to us.

Our half-an-hour meeting went on for one and half hours. Minister who was extremely busy but ready to spend time with a newly appointed diplomat to brief him and motivate him before he took up appointment in a foreign country! I was so impressed and determined to do my best in my new post.

When I reached the mortuary, the Minister’s body was lying on the postmortem table. The postmortem was over and the staff at mortuary were preparing the body to be transferred to an undertaker. They allowed me to see the body. His chest had been opened for the postmortem. One gunshot had gone piercing the heart damaging the main arteries. Lying on the table was the heart that had won love and respect of all Sri Lankans, Trinity rugby colours (1948/1949), the captaincy of the college cricket team (1950), Sri Lanka schools record in 110 meters hurdles, Trinity Lion in Athletics (1950), the first Duncan White Challenge cup for Athletics in 1948 and prestigious Ryde Gold Medal for best all round student at Trinity College in 1950.

Achieving glory

In 1950, young Kadirgamar went to the University of Colombo and then to the Peradeniya University to study law and graduated with an LLB (Hons) degree. He travelled to India in 1951 and 1952 for all-India university games and won 110 metres hurdles title in both years. He passed the Law College exam with a first class and took oaths as an Advocate at Supreme Courts of Ceylon. He then won scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. In 1960, he obtained a BLitt from University of Oxford and became a barrister at Inner Temple in London. He was the second Sri Lankan (after Lalith Athulathmudali) to become the President of Oxford Union.

Kadirgamar was working abroad as a reputed international lawyer until President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga invited him to serve this country. She made him a National List Member of Parliament and the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  

I consider it a privileged to have served under such an eminent Foreign Minister. He very well understood the importance of India in our foreign policy. He had so many friends there. We who served at SLHC, New Delhi, as junior diplomats always benefited from Mr Kadirgamar’s visits to New Delhi. Ministers Natwar Singh, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha, Pranab Mukherjee or Ministers Mani Shankar Iyar or Kapil Sibal were our Minister’s close friends. He always introduced us, the young diplomats, to those eminent Indian leaders.

The usually calm SLHC would become a hive of activity when our Deputy High Commissioner, Chinnaiah announced, “The Minister is coming next week”. All important briefs and reports were prepared and updated. The Minister had the habit of listening to us and getting our views. My friend Saj U Mendis, who was a First Secretary at that time, would continue his brief until the Minister said, “I got your point Saj”. He stayed with our High Commissioner, Mangala Moonasinghe at the latter’s official residence. Mr and Mrs Munasinghe looked after the Minister and his wife with love and affection. When he stayed in a hotel, I was responsible for looking after his security. He was a prime target of the LTTE. The Indian government was aware of it and provided him with maximum security.

Minister Kadirgamar was a great orator. He would come to New Delhi, taking the Srilankan flight that left Colombo in the afternoon. He used to rest for four hours in the flight and have a light dinner prior to landing at New Delhi around 7 PM. Then, he went straight to the hotel and prepared his speech to be delivered the following day. With his trusted lieutenant and personal assistant Lenagala (Lena) on his side, he would work till late in the night. When his wife accompanied him, she would ask him to go to bed. We would take over the hotel business centre and convert it into our Secretariat temporarily during the ministerial visit.

Once after Minister Kadirgamar’s speech, The Hindu editor and Ranji trophy cricketer, N Ram, who is the Minster’s personal friend, had this to write in an editorial: “When Lakshman speaks India listens.” The minister’s speeches were brilliant; he understood India well and Indian leaders respected him. He was a dear friend of India, and Sri Lanka gained tremendously from that friendship.

Among impromptu speeches the Minister has delivered, the one he made in London in September 2004 when he met the Sri Lankan cricketers during a dinner reception stands out. He highlighted the difference between National cricketers and our politicians in his speech replete with wit. (It is available at https://www.cricketmachan.com/cricstories/witty-speech-late-lakshman-kadirgamar-2004/)

While working under Minister Kadirgamar, I learnt three important things about India:

No protocol for friends: the Minister’s best friend was Pranab Mukherjee, very senior Politician from the Congress party. He was the Minister of Defence in 2004. He became India’s Finance Minister, External Affairs Minister and later the President of India. During one of the visits by Minister Kadirgamar to New Delhi in 2004, a meeting was scheduled at the meeting room of the hotel where the Minister was staying (Taj Palace Hotel) with Pranab Mukherjee, the Minister of Defence  of India. Our Minister informed me to tell him when Mukherjee was leaving his office. When I did so, Minister Kadirgamar came down in the lift from 5th floor and received Mukherjee at the entrance to the hotel. Then they went to the meeting room together. After the meeting also Minister Kadirgamar walked up to the car of the Indian Minister. Later, when I told him that as per protocol he had to receive Mukherjee at the meeting room, he said: ” Pranab Mukherjee is my friend. There is no protocol for friends! “

In a democratic country, do not forget the Opposition: When our Minister visited New Delhi, he made it a point to meet government leaders such as the PM, Minister of External Affairs, Defence Minister, etc., and thereafter the Opposition leaders.

One day, I asked him why?  He said “Ravi, do not forget, India is a democracy. In a democracy, one day the Opposition will come into power. It may be weeks, months or years. But when they come to power, they will remember you.” How true! It was a BJP-led government that was in power then. When we defeated the LTTE in 2009, India had a Congress-led government.

Indian monsoon is very important to Sri Lanka: Minister Kadirgamar would call and inquire about the monsoon in India. He would ask whether rain was heavy or mild and whether sufficient water had been received in agricultural areas or not. One day, I asked him why he was so keen about Indian monsoons.  He said, “Ravi, the Indian economy depends on the monsoon. When they get enough water, they will have a good crop of rice, wheat and vegetables. So, the government does not have to give grants to farmers and will have money to help neighbouring countries like us”. Brilliant thinking!

We miss the great Minister who groomed us. The diplomats recruited during Minister Kadirgamar’s tenure are now holding high positions as Ambassadors and High Commissioners today, due to excellent training they received from him. He wanted us to observe, learn and perform well for the country.

One day, Minister Kadirgamar was rushing to the President’s House with a junior diplomat at the time (I think its Chanaka Talpahewa) to meet President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. They were scheduled to meet the Russian Foreign Minister. Suddenly, the Minister stopped, looked at Chanaka carefully, walked up to him and adjusted his tie knot, saying, “Now you look better.” That was how the great man groomed the junior diplomats.

He was a wonderful person - a father figure. We miss him.

Courtesy : island.lk

 

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