27 September, 2020

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Sri Lanka: Brief Shining Moment In Judicial History

By Chelvatamby Maniccavasagar

108th Birth Anniversary of Supreme Court Justice Pon Sri-Skanda-Rajah 

Judges are born, not made. On the memories of men like Justice Pon Sri Skandarajah, the high standards of the Bench were uplifted and held aloft. Born in 1905, he became an advocate in 1932, magistrate in 1938 and retired from the Supreme Court in 1967.

Justice Pon Sri-Skanda-Rajah

It is very often said that the truly great are not the men of wealth, of possessions, not men who gain name and fame, but those who testify to the truth in them and refuse to compromise whatever be the cost. They are determined to do what they consider to be right. We may punish their bodies, refuse them comforts, but we cannot buy their souls, we cannot break their spirits, whoever possesses this invulnerability of spirit even to a little extent deserves our admiration.

In fact, former Supreme Court Judge Pon Sriskandarajah possessed in ample measures all these qualities since he always considered it a sacred duty to dispense justice impartially. Further, he was always guided by the following words of one of our greatest poets Subramania Bharathiar who said that “He who forgets not God and fails not in his duty, no matter whatever befalls him and however much he suffers, will at the end attain honour and happiness”.

Early education

As a Supreme Court judge, he discharged his responsibilities with unsurpassed distinction and unsullied honour and preserved the dignity of the courts and the image of justice. The secret of his success as a good judge is that he is deeply religious and the lowliness of his character and versatility of his intellect were remarkable.

Justice Sri Skandarajah was born in 1905 in Thondaman Aru in Vadamarachchy in an orthodox and conservative family. His father Ponnu Duraiswamy and his mother Katpakam were religious minded parents who brought up their children in a religious atmosphere. As they were very religious minded and were great devotees of Lord Muruga they went on a pilgrimage to Kattirgamam and there Katpakam developed fever and diarrhoea and she breathed her last in the night of the full-moon. She had to be cremated on the banks of the Manicka Gangai. The mother having been blessed with a remarkable end to her short, but fruitful life, the offspring were too young to be taken care of by the grief stricken and inexperienced father. As such, Viswalingam and his vivacious wife, Thangammah offered to take them over and foster them. At this time Thangammah was expecting her first child to be born in September, roughly ten weeks later. The baby was a daughter and was named Kanmany who was Justice Sri Skandarajah’s cousin and subsequently became his wife.

Criminal cases

Kanmany was a very responsible young lady and although she looked forward to pursue medical studies, had to forsake this in order to enable his cousin Sri Skandarajah to move forward in the legal field. As the wife of Justice Sri Skandarajah Kanmany took great interest in Tamil language and Saiva Sidhanta, Periya Puranam, Thevarams and Thirupugal. In later years she became a well accomplished public speaker on Saiva Siddhanta at Saiva Siddhanta Maha Samajam in Virudhu Nagar, Madurai in South India and also in Singapore and Malaysia.

Justice Sri Skandarajah received his early education at Jaffna College, Vaddukkoddai where he excelled in studies and sports captaining the junior football and cricket teams and subsequently the senior teams in the same sport.

Justice Sri Skandarajah lost his father Ponnu Duraiswamy in 1921, when he was 16 years. On completion of his seconding education, he entered the University College, Colombo in 1924, where he was awarded colours in cricket, football, rugby and tennis.

Justice Sri Skandarajah entered the Law College on July 2,1928 and passed the first examination in July 1930, second examination in January 1931 and the final in July 1931 and was awarded the prize in insolvency at the finals. At the Law College he captained the tennis team. He was called to the Bar on March 17,1932 and that time J R Jayewardane and Ediriweera also took their oaths before Justice Garvin and Justice Akbar.

Justice Sri Skandarajah attended the Chambers of Francis Soertz (KC) who had a tremendous practice and great reputation. Besides, he had great respect and admiration for Sri Skandarajah. Francis Soertz became a Supreme Court judge and later he was knighted. He was endowed with charisma, a remarkable memory, a superb command of English and a brilliant flow of words.

Law reports

Justice Sri Skandarajah started practising at the Court of Requests in Colombo and thereafter shifted to Point Pedro and appeared in several criminal cases and won the admiration of many spectators and proctors. His fame and name spread far and wide and proctors at Point Pedro readily retained him. He was always equipped with the necessary Law Reports, so that he could call on appropriate references and many of the presiding judges asked for his opinion when he was not appearing in any particular case. He practised in Chavakachcheri, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Vavuniya, Mannar, Mallakam and Matale.

On May 31,1938, he was appointed as Magistrate at Dandagamuva. This was his first appointment. He was transferred to Negombo in September 1940. Justice Sri Skandarajah worked in Galle in 1944 and left for Matara at the end of December, as Additional District Judge. He also functioned as Supernumerary Judge in 1946 at Trincomalee. From July 1947 to December 1947, he served as District Judge at Batticaloa. In 1947, he assumed duties as Chief Magistrate, Colombo and when the Kelaniya Temple case came up for Trial, J R Jayewardene who was the Finance Minister then gave evidence on behalf of the accused, who were charged with breach of peace and criminal damage. When the trial concluded on February 1949, Sriskandarajah disbelieved the evidence and convicted some of the accused. The leading newspapers had front page headlines with glaring publicities. The afternoon papers carried extracts from the case giving details.

Prime Minister D S Senanayake also advised Mr Jayewardane not to give evidence saying “Justice Sriskandarajah will not hesitate to do what is right. He will not be influenced by anybody, even if he is his friend”.

The accused filed appeal, wheel’s moved behind the scenes and the new Acting Chief Justice postponed cases listed before him in Galle and turned up in Colombo to hear only that appeal. The rest of the appeals in Colombo were heard by the listed Judge, Justice Gratien. The acting Chief Justice Wijewardane who was also Chairman of the Judicial Service Commission held a hurriedly convened meeting of the commission and the Chief Magistrate Sri Skandarajah was promptly transferred from Colombo, as District Judge, Matara. From Matara, he was transferred to Point Pedro as District Judge in consideration of his decline in health. In fact, Point Pedro is the Northern most location in Ceylon from Southern most location Matara.

Religious activities

Justice Sri Skandarajah rendered tremendous service in the sphere of religious activities. The service which he performed in the Saiva Munnetra Kalagam and All Ceylon Hindu Congress should be written in golden letters.

In recognition and appreciation of his immense service for Hindu Association in Thampalakamam and Matara and several other places he was conferred the Title of “Saiva Sigamany” by the Thirugnana Sambandar Aadhernam of Madurai, South India in May 1964. He was also the first President of the Music Society of Sri Lanka. Further, he took all possible steps with the assistance, co-operation and support of several judges, educationists, man of eminence and erudition for opening of Hindu Temples in Jaffna for Harijans.

He was also a great devotee of Yogarswamy of Colombuturai, Jaffna. In fact, he rose above narrow parochialism, regionalism, sectarianism and communalism.

Undoubtedly Justice Sri Skandarajah was a comet who blazed momentarily across our skies leaving in its trail a luminescence which the passing of time can hardly erase.

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Latest comments

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    These reminiscences are of great value to the Tamil youth that they as a community has had a history of eminent personalities to emulate.The last few decades have robbed them of equally brilliant personalities like Lakshman Kadirgamar and the co- architect of 2000 constitutional proposals (Sorry I forget his name, he was gunned down by the LTTE)

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      Dr.Neelan Thiruchelvam. A LTTE suicide bomber jumped in front of his car.

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    // My learned council you seem to suffer from diarrhea of diction and constipation of thought // Justice Sriskandarahah to GG

    Justice Sriskandarahah was an exemplary judge of the highest order. He possessed all the qualities that characterize our people. My Farther knew him well. He was a great devotee of Sella- Channathi and used to spend many days at annanda- ashram run by Mylvahana Swami. He was an icon to our entire kinsman.

    One of the most interesting things was of his wife’s devotion to Justice Sriskandarahah. It was legendary. It is in my view not a co-incidence that she had a heat attack on the same day and died about two weeks after his death. I had the great blessing of looking after this remarkable lady as medical student. She was in my view a Pathini.

    He was a very remarkable person, a towering Tamil intellectual among very ordinary luminaries of the legal profession whose fame was due to copious publicity than to real merit. We need to research his life and contribution. It is unfortunate there is no biography of this austere giant.

    Regards

    Dr. N. Satchi U.K

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    We must thank Mr CM for recalling the life of Justice Sriskandaraja.He was indeed a model of integrity and rendered his judgements without fear or favor and often paid a prize for it.
    He was a good friend of my late father from their days at Jaffna College and I have heard many anecdotes about his principled ways.
    One must thank Dr.Satchi for the comment he made to GGP:What an admirable summary of GGP’s style of oratory!
    I must add that he was an outstanding sportsman and a champion tennis player even after he left the university and won many a trophy partnering I.P.Thurairatnam in national tournaments.Someone should indeed write a bigraphy of Justice Sriskandarajah.

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    CORRECTION:

    We must thank Mr CM for recalling the life of Justice Sriskandaraja.He was indeed a model of integrity and rendered his judgements without fear or favor and often paid a PRICE for it.

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