By Namini Wijedasa –
He might have made a career out of music, had his mother not pushed him to study Law.
Canagasabapathy Viswalingam Wigneswaran is still an accomplished sitar player. The retired Supreme Court Judge was last week named as the Tamil National Alliance’s Chief Ministerial candidate for the Northern Provincial Council election.
“My mother was the one important cause for me to take up Law because that was such a passion on her part,” smiled Justice Wigneswaran, at his residence in Cambridge Terrace, Colombo 7. “But there is another interesting story.”
While he was waiting for the results of an important school examination, his mother, Athynayaki, visited a Buddhist priest in Kolonnawa who was renowned for his astrological predictions. She showed him her son’s chart and asked him whether the boy would pass his test.
The priest had asked, “Mey apey lamayekda?” (Is he one of our children?).
The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 had just been passed. Justice Wigneswaran thinks the respected prelate might have wondered whether, under the circumstances, a Tamil child could ever reach the heights he foresaw in the chart. His mother had replied that this was her son.
“He will become a Judge of the Supreme Court,” the priest said, examining the chart. “I don’t need all that,” she had shot back. “I just want to know whether he will pass his exam!”
The priest had said, “Apo pass karai, pass karai.” (Yes, he will pass).
Both predictions came true. The boy not only aced his school exams, he finished his Bachelor of Arts (London), LLB (Ceylon), Proctors and Advocates exams at Law College. But nobody had read in the tea leaves that he would one day enter politics.
Today, even after agreeing to contest the election—for which a date has still not been set—Justice Wigneswaran maintains that he isn’t really doing politics.
“A journalist from London asked me about self-determination and all the rest of it,” he related, referring to a telephone interview he had just concluded. “I said, look, these are for the politicians. I’m not a politician. I’m interested in bringing some relief for the people who are suffering.”
“For me, this (Chief Minister post) is not a political office,” he said. “It is an office by which I could serve the people. At this particular time, it is necessary for a person who is able to discuss matters with the Government, with India, with foreign countries, to be there to do this.”
That is why he was chosen, he explained: “We can’t be getting into rhetoric, clichés and various things which have no meaning. People want relief. We have to give them that relief.”
We were seated in his small sitting room which holds proof of his deep religious faith. On a low glass cabinet is a statue of Lord Ganesha with fresh, red hibiscus flowers on either shoulder. Next to it are family photographs, including a black and white image of his late wife. And above a door is a photograph of Guru Swami Premananda.
Each of the fiery speeches he has made since retiring from the Supreme Court in 2004 begins with this Sanskrit invocation: “Gurur Brahma Gurur Vishnu Guru devo Maheshwaraha Guru sakshat Parabrahma tasmai Shri Gurave Namaha.”
This is a verse of homage to the Trinity of Hindu Gods—Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the protector; and Maheshwara, the destroyer. “You are my preceptor,” it states, “And I revere you.”
But Justice Wigneswaran asserts that he takes a rational view of religion. He recently released a book that attempts to explain Hinduism in a logical manner. “There are no dogmatic principles involved,” he explained. “My philosophy is also, in that sense, a rational, non-dogmatic attitude towards life.”
How would Justice Wigneswaran balance this with the more inflexible—indeed, dogmatic—positions held by sections of the Tamil Diaspora?
“That is a difficult task,” he admitted. “My point is, look, you keep your views to yourself but I would like to do some service to the people who are suffering. So let me do my work. You go on talking what you want to talk. I’m not concerned.”
“They would like me also to take up their cause and all the rest of it,” he agreed. “These don’t concern me—whether it is self-determination, separation, that or this. That is a long-term plan. I am talking about short-term plans, about what we should do for these people.”
Civilians in the North have lost loved ones, Justice Wigneswaran said. They don’t know the whereabouts of others, their properties are occupied and they have no jobs. People from the South cultivate lands forcibly held by the army and the produce is sold to the owners of these lands. There are a large number of widows.
“There is a lot to be done for them,” he stressed. “And I would be calling upon the Government to help us in this matter because it is actually their duty to do these things. If they are not doing them and if they want the Provincial Council to look into it, the Government must help us. Revenue from the Provincial Councils also goes to the Government. They must give us our dues.”
Justice Wigneswaran has his roots in the North he now hopes to represent. His parents were born in Manipay. As for him, he was born in Hulftsdorp—“right opposite the Supreme Court”—on 23 October 1939. He has two sisters, one of whom is deceased. His grandfather is a cousin of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Sir Ponnamabalam Arunachalam.
“The two brothers were extraordinary men and I certainly have great regard for them,” he said, when asked which Tamil leaders he admires.
Justice Wigneswaran’s father, Mr. Canagasabapathy, was a public official who served in several districts. This meant his son spent the first nine years of his life in Kurunegala, where he attended Christchurch College, and Anuradhapura, where he was a student of Holy Family Convent.
At the age of 11, Justice Wigneswaran joined Royal College, Colombo to complete his school education. He was a senior prefect and cadet. He was a boxer and an athlete, a leader of English and Tamil debating teams as well as editor of the school magazine.
He led Law Students’ Union in 1962 at Law College. Its president the previous year had been Vasudeva Nanayakkara, whose daughter would go on to marry one of Justice Wigneswaran’s sons. His other son is married to senior politician Keseralal Gunasekera’s niece. The fact that his children are wed to Sinhalese has been used by opponents to question his ability to win the Tamil vote in Jaffna.
But it is not something Justice Wigneswaran makes excuses for. “When my parents were living and when we were young,” he recounted, “we never had any of these ideas except of a unified Sri Lanka. Ceylon was a unified country. We had no problems at all.”
“We were very annoyed when the Sinhala only Act came in 1956,” he said. “That is true. I started learning Sinhalese in 1955 from a very learned man, Hema Ellawala, who became Vice Chancellor of Sri Jayawardenepura University. When I heard about this Act, I revolted. I said I won’t study Sinhala hereafter. That is why my Sinhala is imperfect. I didn’t have the mind to study the language.”
“But all the same, we have never felt alien to this country nor have the Sinhalese felt alien to us,” he added. “That is why my two sons are married to Sinhalese. We don’t feel anything alien with regard to any aspect of life here. I feel completely at ease in the whole of Sri Lanka, with friends in all nine provinces.”
It is no wonder, then, that Justice Wigneswaran thinks Professor Savitri Goonesekere—a Sinhalese—would suit the position of Northern Province Governor very well. He is vehemently opposed to the presence of military in the area and does not believe an ex-army officer should remain as Governor.
“There are around 60,000 widows there for whom we are trying to do something,” he explained. “It would be ideal to have a person who is sympathetic towards them.” On the contrary, the incumbent Governor, Maj Gen (Retd) G.A. Chandrasiri, “acts like an army fellow even now”.
As we speak, the phone rings off the hook. An aide takes most of the calls but Justice Wigneswaran interrupts the interview to answer one, in particular. It was a Sinhalese counsel who said Magistrates Courts lawyers in Colombo wanted to work for his election campaign in Jaffna.
These are early days yet. But race already looks wildly interesting.
Courtesy Sunday Times