courageous politician with enlightened principles
The demise of Shelton Ranaraja on August 11th 2011 takes away from Sri Lanka a distinguished member of a dwindling species –Principled political leaders. The former MP for Senkadagala and deputy minister for Justice was a courageous politician with enlightened principles.
It is indeed a rare politician who is prepared to stand up against the majority of his or her political party for what one believes to be right. Shelton Ranaraja was such a person.
It was my privilege in 1981 to witness what was perhaps the finest moment in the life of Shelton Ranaraja when he voted against the no confidence motion brought against then leader of the opposition Appapillai Amirthalingam. It was an inspiring display of principled courage.
The United National Party led by Junius Richard Jayewardene swept the polls in July 1977 winning 141 of 168 seats. JR himself amended the constitution and became Sri Lanka’s first executive president in February 1978. In September 1978 a new Constitution was promulgated with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP)being reduced to a paltry eight seats the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF)having 18 seats became the chief opposition party. Appapillai Amirthalingam became opposition leader. The TULF had won the elections on a separatist platform.
Naturally there was much friction between the ruling UNP and chief opposition TULF. There were many political confrontations. One such incident occurred in July 1981.
The TULF gave notice in Parliament for a vote of no confidence against the government. The UNP regime retaliated by giving notice of a vote of no confidence against the leader of the opposition. This was an unprecedented development in the Parliamentary history of the Island.
The proposal mooted by then Panadura MP Dr. Neville Fernando was signed by 36 UNP Parliamentarians. It was widely believed and subsequently confirmed by Dr. Fernando that the no confidence motion project had the approval of President Jayewardene himself.
President Jayewardene was regarded as all powerful then. Although there were many decent, learned persons in the UNP parliamentary group none dared to defy the “almighty” JR. Hence the UNP to its eternal shame went along with what was perhaps an all time low in parliamentary annals.
The no confidence motion by members of the govt against the leader of the opposition was taken up in Parliament on July 23rd and 24th 1981.What followed was high drama of a cheap variety.
At the outset Amirthalingam wanted to explain his position and rose to his feet. Pandemonium erupted. Amirthalingam’s voice was drowned in a flood of choice epithets.
Dr.Neville Fernando objected to Amirthalingam making a personal statement saying that he could do so only with the indulgence of the House. The Speaker Bakeer Markar upheld Dr.Fernando’s objection and refused to let Amirthalingam speak. At this point the TULF walked out in protest.
Thereafter SLFP deputy leader and Medawachchiya MP Maitripala Senanayake raised a point of order and submitted three reasons for the Speaker to rule the no confidence motion out of order.
“Firstly, the vote of no confidence on the leader of the opposition did not fall within the powers of parliament. It had not happened anywhere in the world. Secondly, the leader of the opposition held his office in accordance to parliamentary convention and he enjoyed the confidence of the members of the opposition. He need not enjoy the confidence of parliament or that of the government members. Thirdly, the motion, even if passed, would not bring any result. Amirthalingam would continue to be the Leader of the Opposition even after the passage of the motion”.
The Speaker Bakeer Markar evaded the issue and said Senanayake’s point of order had been raised too late. Therefore he could not stop the no confidence motion being debated he said. The lone Communits party MP from Kalawana,Sarath Muttetuwegama chided the Speaker saying that he was letting the Govt MP’s run Parliament. The SLFP and CP members also walked out in protest.
Thus Sri Lanka witnessed the bizarre event of the Government conducting a solo performance of debating a no confidence motion against the leader of the opposition while the entire opposition had walked out in protest. No minister or deputy minister from the UNP spoke but the backbenchers had a field day.
Then followed a disgusting relay of speeches by UNP parliamentarians uttering dire threats of punishment to Amirthalingam and other TULF traitor MP’s. Horsewhipping, shooting them on Galle face green, Tying up on a post and beating, mutilation, Dumping in the Beira lake were some of the modes of punishment advocated.
The most bloodcurdling threat was about reviving an ancient form of punishment allegedly practiced by Sinhala kings in the past against traitors. The victim was to be tied by his two feet to two bent arecanut trees. When the ropes are cut the bent trees spring back upright. The victim will be torn apart.
The only minister who spoke during that debate was Saumyamoorthy Thondaman the minister of rural industrial development in the JRJ regime. Thondaman speaking in his capacity as leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress(CWC) was very critical of the no confidence motion. He also uttered a prophetic warning that undermining Amirthalingam would pave the way for an extremist type of Tamil politics to emerge.
Finally it was voting time on July 24th.Thondaman abstained. There were 121 votes supporting the no confidence motion. There was however one solitary vote against the motion. The man who voted against the UNP motion was none other than the honourable member for Senkadagala ,Shelton Ranaraja. By doing so he not only demonstrated that he was an honourable person but also helped salvage a little bit of honour at least for his party.
The “ginger group” was annoyed and angry. All sorts of remarks like traitor and Tamil lover were made. One that still lingers in memory is the pun on his name. There were shouts of Shelton “Nadaraja”. The first four letters of his surname were being replaced by four others to make his name Tamil as “Nadaraja”instead of the Sinhala “Ranaraja”.
Despite the catcalls,hoots and jeers Ranaraja did not flinch. In what was a rare exhibition of courage and principle he stood bravely against his party and voted against guided only by his conscience and conviction.
The stature and image of Shelton Ranaraja went up in the eyes of all decent people in Sri Lanka after that episode. The Tamils in particular were elated. To the end of his days,Shelton Ranaraja always enjoyed wide popularity among the Tamil people. Although he was right of centre in his political beliefs,Shelton Ranaraja’s prestige was comparable to that of the Trotskyite Edmund Samarakkody and Merril Fernando.
Shelton Ranaraja was a distinguished alumnus of St.Thomas’ College Mt.Lavinia (with a stint at Gurutalawa I believe).He was an outstanding sportsman at College and was a coloursman in Cricket,Boxing and Swimming. He continued to play Cricket when he entered Law College and captained the team.
Shelton Ranaraja was a stylish batsman but was capable of wielding the willow like a cudgel when necessary. In short a “polladiya”. He continued to play cricket for a long time while at Kandy. He played in the local tournaments even when he was in his fifties. Once he scored a century after notching up half a century in years.
He was the captain of the Kandy Lawyers Cricket eleven for many, many years. He also held the posts of Central Province Cricket Association president and Kandy district Cricket association president for several years. In later life he turned to Golf from Cricket. During the twilight of his life he kept fit by walking around the picturesque Kandy Lake.
One of Kandy’s landmarks is the Bogambara stadium. There was a time when the rise of crass commercialism threatened its future as an arena for sports. It was Shelton Ranaraja who saved the stadium for sports by opposing it being used for carnivals and tamashas. Preventing the “carnivalisation” of Bogambara enabled it to be developed as a full fledged sports stadium.
After passing out from Law College, Shelton Ranaraja established a successful legal practice in Kandy. His foray into Parliamentary politics came in 1960 when he was elected MP of the newly carved out Senkadagala constituency.
Shelton contested on the SLFP ticket in the July 1960 elections and squeaked through with 25 votes. Subsequently there was a petition and recount of votes. He continued to retain his seat with his tally increased this time to 30.
A liberal democrat to the core, Shelton Ranaraja was most unhappy with the SLFP –LSSP govt’s attempt to muzzle the press by taking over Lake House in 1964 December. Shelton was among the 14 MP’s from the govt of Mrs. Bandaranaike who voted against the press takeover. The bill was defeated by one vote leading to dissolution of Parliament and fresh elections in 1965.
Ranaraja then bade “au revoir” to active politics for a while and concentrated on his legal practice. But when JR Jayewardene took over the party in 1973 after the death of Dudley Senanayake, an invitation was extended to Shelton Ranaraja to return to politics and work in the UNP.
He accepted and was appointed organizer for Senkadagala although Noel Wimalasena who won in 1970 was the sitting MP. In 1977 elections Shelton Ranaraja’s formidable rival from the SLFP was Anuruddha Ratwatte ,kinsman of the Bandaranaikes. Ranaraja obtained 17,972(57.53%) to Ratwatte’s 12,381(39.63%)
Shelton was appointed deputy minister of justice first under KW Devanayagam and later under Nissanka Wijeratne.
When the July 1983 anti – Tamil violence occurred Ranaraja acted with forethought and got all the thugs and hoodlums in Kandy locked up by the Police.Kandy enjoyed some tranquility initially even as Colombo was burning.
Sadly Ranaraja’s orders were countermanded by the powerful minister of Industries and Scientific affaurs Cyril Mathew.Dubbed as the “Industrious minister of anti-Tamil affairs”Mathew got all those locked up by Ranaraja released. Within hours Kandy too started burning.A distraught Ranaraja lamented on this situation to journalists later.
The twin massacres of Tamil political detainees at Welikada on July 25th (35) and July 27th (17) concerned the Justice ministry directly as the prisons dept was under its purview. When efforts were underway by the defence establishment to do away with the bodies the Justice ministry intervened and enabled judicial inquests to be held. Deputy minister Shelton Ranaraja and Justice ministry secretary Mervyn Wijesinghe were greatly instrumental in this.
The Tamil political prisoners were transferred to Batticaloa after the July pogrom. There the bulk of detenues escaped in a mass break out in September 1983. There was strong pressure on the Justice minister Nissanka Wijeratne to resign and for Shelton Ranaraja to replace him. But Shelton refused on a matter of principle.
The LTTE attack on the sacred Bo tree and massacre of civilians in Anuradhapura on May 14th 1985 resulted in widespread anger and fear in many parts of the Country. A delegation of Sinhala citizens went to Shelton Ranaraja and urged that the Tamils in Kandy be expelled as a precaution.Shelton refused point blank and candidly told them that their duty was to protect the Tamil minority living amidst them instead of driving them away.
The 1987 Indo-Lanka accord and the ushering in of “peace” was welcomed by Shelton Ranaraja. A lull in violence prevailed between July 29th to October 10th 1987. Shelton Ranaraja despite being a member of the govt got involved in a mission of goodwill to the north from the South.
A group of Sinhala persons mainly medical personnel undertook a peace and reconciliation mission to Jaffna in September 1987. Among those in this mission were Dr. Sunil Ratnapriya of the GMOA, Fr,Yohan Devananda of “devasarana” in Ibbagamuwe and of course deputy justice minister Shelton Ranaraja in his private capacity.
“Permission” to visit Jaffna was sought and obtained from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) then ruling the roost in the peninsula. I vividly recall the “permission” being given personally by Gopalaswamy Mahendraraja alias “Mahattaya” the deputy leader of the LTTE at that time.
This Sinhala goodwill delegation comprised people who recognized the tragic plight of the Tamil people and supported the justice in the Tamil cause. Their mission to the north was to establish better understanding and amity with the Tamil people. Yet they had a nasty experience.
The fast unto death campaign by Rasiah Parthiban alias Thileepan had commenced. While the “Gandhian”fast went on in Nalloor elsewhere there were many incidents of friction where the LTTE was trying to provoke the Sri Lankan Police and army into unleashing retaliatory violence.
The Southern delegation was able to see this first –hand when they were travelling through areas like Valvettithurai,Paruthithurai and Nelliaddy in the Vadamaratchy division. There were occasions when their lives were exposed to danger. But the worst was yet to come.
The delegation returned to Colombo in two vehicles. They passed through several LTTE checkposts along the Jaffna –Kandy road or A-9 highway. An LTTE vehicle kept following them at a distance.
The LTTE vehicle overtook them shortly after they passed Pallai. When the Southern group reached Iyakkachchi about four miles away from Elephant Pass they found the vehicle parked by the side of the road. About six LTTE cadres with Firearms and grenades stopped them.
The passengers were ordered to get out with a few being pulled out roughly. Then the Tigers took over both vehicles with things inside and turned back towards Jaffna. The Southern goodwill mission had to walk two miles on the road towards Elephant pass. Then a south bound bus stopped and they got in and reached the Elephant pass army camp safely.
Shelton Ranaraja was deeply affected by this incident. When I spoke to him about this he appeared to be very sad but not angry or embittered. But his impression of the LTTE as a disciplined movement fighting for freedom had been shattered. He was also deeply dislllusioned about the prospects for a lasting peace.
It was this perhaps which led to his declining an offer to be the first governor of the temporarily merged North –eastern province under the Indo – Lanka accord. A.Amirthalingam and R.Sampanthan of the TULF had recommended him to President Jayewardene who consented to the suggestion. But when JR asked Shelton he refused.
Shelton Ranaraja retired from active political life after 1988. He devoted his time to his family of five daughters and to law, cricket and social service. His wife Chandra took to politics and eventually became the first woman mayor of Kandy. One of his sons in law Thilina Bandara Tennekoon is a UPFA member of the Central Provincial council.
During the last stages of his life Shelton Ranaraja grappled with cancer.He passed away at a private hospital on August 11th.His remains lie at his residence in Rajapihilla mawatte,Kandy. The cremation will take place Saturday August 13th at Mahaiyawa.Shelton Ranaraja retires to the pavilion after a productive innings where he concentrated on playing the game according to principles and rules.It is a sad day for the Country in general and the Tamils in particular because those of his caliber and courage desiring ethnic amity are becoming a rare commodity in the country.
As for me I shall always remember that day in Parliament on July 24th 1981 when Shelton Ranaraja stood alone with quiet dignity against the UNP juggernaut and acted courageously according to his conscience and conviction.(ENDS)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at