Search for what is right but not for who is right - Lalith Athulathmudali | Sunday Observer

Search for what is right but not for who is right - Lalith Athulathmudali

“The time has come for me to leave
For you to live-and for me to die;
Yet who will be bestowed upon a
prosperous tomorrow,
Is it you or me?”

Even though this somewhat resembles towards a question which Lalith posed from his assassins themselves, these were the very words of ’Sophocles’ the famous Greek philosopher. And it was these words rephrased once more in the words of Lalith in 1987, when he was under medical treatment for a month and a day due to the bomb blast at Parliament:

“I was reminded that I might have faced such disasters constantly throughout my transmigration in accordance with Buddhism. I am not unaccustomed to it. I am ready to accept this as I have done in the past. Culmination might be at hand sooner than I realize, yet, that does not make me sorrowful or leave me in consternation. Inwardly, I have accepted the dissolution of my life, yet, I have been attempting to be alive while feeling it consciously and physically. But sooner or later, life will be extorted from me. Life is not something that is given yet something that is being forcefully taken away.” – Lalith Athulathmudali (Reflections on Life and Death)

The biography of Lalith William (Samarasekera) Athulathmudali consists of a series of chaotic events that resemble burning pyrotechnics.

Whenever he visited his most preferred confidante in Switzerland it had always been a much awaited affair. Even though he had a conciliatory married life after the espousal it was a matter of living apart. It took him ten years to embark on his political career. His Ministerial status was confined to short periods, hence, sustaining in those were somewhat a challenge and it was a matter of litigation for mere membership of party. He had to spin others string due to the so called ‘impeachment’.

Appropriate justification

The bomb which was aimed at J R fell on his lap. Though he performed round-the-clock for the sake of others his heart pierced by a bullet which came out from a pistol of someone in the society which he dedicated his entire life to work for. “It is quite lamentable that his assassination was in the most commendable period of his life” stated Madam Bandaranaike.

It is an abstruse matter whether his remarkable service was treated with appropriate justification. “Search for what is right but not for who is right” was his motto. He designed a strategy in accordance with the future of Sri Lanka while foreseeing the succeeding challenges by applying the knowledge he acquired locally and overseas.

The chronically established traditional Sri Lankan social background was the main state of difficulty that needed to be resolved during the implementation of his plan.

He ascertained that the prospects of the country would be in jeopardy on account of not only the traditional background but the progeny of this same society.

Every political tragedy he came across in his career was a consequence of the irresponsible act of those who stagnated in their conservative point of view. Lalith once in dialogue with Kadirgamar: “I know what sort of future there will be for us and also I know that it is in my hand that it will lie “ Then I asked what could be the delaying fact of you getting into politics” –Kadirgamar. Towards which Lalith’s immediate reply was; “It cannot be done promiscuously thus relevant education is indeed required for this”.

Lalith had his education at the University of Oxford in England and at the Harward University, USA for many years. Yet it was a much awaited period of ten years after he returned, while practising as a lawyer, that finally took him to embark on his political career with the UNP.

Michael Morris who was appointed as the president of the British- Sri Lankan parliament group in 1979, stated; “During this period I often visited Sri Lanka and had the opportunity of associating with the politicians of various capacities.

Considerable numbers of experts and intellectuals were accumulating around J R who was a brilliant politician. But what I realized was that, Lalith Athulathmudali was the most congenial young politician who was best suited for J R as well as the country”.

“Conflicts with intellectuals and experts are quite prominent in the current field of administration. Presently we are experimenting upon the systems which were unsuccessful in other countries or incoherent with our requirements and attempting to amalgamate those with existing administrative systems, instead of implementing a proper system of utilizing the intellectuals and specialists appropriately towards the prosperity”. (Stated by Lalith 1991/September)

Lalith who entered into judicial complex at ‘Aluthkade’ as an attorney on his arrival from England, subsequently joining the UNP was competent to obtain the post of Minster of Commerce in 1978.

Hence J R implemented the Open Economy by that time; Athulathmudali was quite busy associating with various international mercantile agreements and workshops as the pertinent Minister.

Lalith met Srimani De Seram in March 1978 who was attached to UNCTAD in Switzerland, a friend of his brother, Dayantha Athulathmudali, was determined to get married only in 1981 December. Due to the non-availability of a registrar in Geneva their marriage was registered through the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Switzerland.

A small evening function was arranged to celebrate the event where Dr Gamini Corea, the General Secretary of UNCTAD at the time (a relative of Srimani) was of significant presence at the occasion. Although they got married they led separate lives in two different countries until Srimani Athulathmudali returned to Sri Lanka in 1982.

Even after her arrival, it was a busy life for Lalith due to the Presidential Election scheduled in 1982. The arrival of his first baby soon to be born was the leading factor for him to implement a policy for education and of nutrient values towards the local children. The birth of his daughter ‘Sarala’ and the implementation of the concept ‘Every student is to be provided with a free glass of milk’ took place hand in hand. Soon after, a student scholarship scheme was introduced namely, “Mahapola” since Lalith emphatically believed the young generation should be well educated and possess intellect in order to build a prospective future for the country, and be financially supported to make their education sustainable.

In 1984 Lalith was appointed Minister of Defence by J.R due to his proven ability while holding responsibilities of various ministries entrusted to him in 1978.

Lalith believed Sri Lanka should be a naval transit hub in the South Asian region and brought the country towards its success of holding its level at 26th position by the year 1978 whereas formerly it was 139 out of 570.

Lalith had been recognized by the world as a humanitarian, yet so much so that the insurgents widely spread across the country, linking with the traditional conservative local community groups, that it was quite difficult for him to determine a congenial course of action in the prevailing situation.

He decided to transfer around 2,000 terrorists from northern terrorist groups who had been taken into custody in mid 1987, from Jaffna to Galle, ensuring their security. Nevertheless J R was not satisfied with this decision.

Even as Minister of Defence, he was brave enough to boycott in public the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord on 29 July 1987, and on meeting the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that same evening, he clarified the reasons for his refusal.

He expanded the security forces of the country by 60 000 soldiers in1987, which was 11 000 at the time of taking up his appointment as Minister of Defence.

The new president who was sworn in 1989 revoked the portfolio of Lalith Athulathmudali as Minister of Defence . Although it was announced by the President that the candidate who obtained the highest number of votes would be the Prime Minister, he did not comply with it, even though Lalith had obtained 235,442 votes. (see ‘Aththa’ Cartoon)

Later he was appointed Minister of Agriculture. Yet again a year later, he was appointed as Minister of Education and Higher Education. Being given the rare opportunity to be the chief guest at an award ceremony at Trinity College in England the same year indeed held his spirits high, where his daughter Sarala received the trophy for the best orator of the year, from his own hands.

As the educated society always forecast, conflicts between the traditional and cognizant communities had been continuing. Authority was not within cognitive community but regulated by alternate groups of people.

Lalith was used as the cat’s paw, by those who led a conspiracy to proceed with the impeachment, but he performed quite effectively. Undoubtedly his fate followed him throughout his life with the usual predestination, from his childhood without change, Richard de Soyza and Lakshman Perera whom he was truly fond of being obscurely assassinated. Appointments as Ministers of seven personalities including Lalith’s were abolished. His party membership was banned and in 1993, the police security allocated for him was removed.

‘Eagle’ commenced its flying instead of the ‘Elephant’ and a new political party, namely, the Democratic United National Front was formed.

By year 1993, the personal safety of Lalith was in jeopardy. Public meetings held in Pannala and Nugegoda were attacked by hooligans and while holding a meeting in Dehiwela an iron bar was thrown at him. Even under the harassment of the opportunists, he left his residence at around 4 am in the morning on 23April 1993.

That same evening, Srimani heard the news over the phone, of her husband’s assassination .Thus the country bereaved over losing yet another brilliant leader who truly endeavoured in extending his utmost contribution towards uplifting the country and its people from where it laid; a stagnated traditional state to a modern era.

Srimani Athulathmudali held Ministerial responsibilities in the later years and passed away, while Sarala currently resides abroad.