Somasunderam Nadesan Q.C.
"To action you have a right, but not to the fruits
1904 - 1986
"...His life is a chronicle of the age,
as much as the values for which he stood were such that he has been
called the conscience of our time".- a
Tribute by Manel Fonseka, Sri Lanka Civil Rights Movement,
"...a gifted mind, a large hearted man, who would
grace any assembly of talent anywhere on earth." 'Dr. Colvin R. de Silva on his
Contemporaries', Sri Lanka Sunday Observer, 28 May 1989
Life is work and
work is worship - "God gives us opportunities to be of service to
humanity, to our country, to ourselves. You must be ready and equipped to make use of
those opportunities ...More than 2500 years ago a
great Tamil poet wrote "Every country is my country, every human being is my
kinsman". The brotherhood of man and universal love are themes central to
practically all religions of the world. From this followed human rights such as the right
to life, right to freedom of thought and speech and right to equality between man and
.... According to the Upanishads life is work and work is
worship. So in the evening of my life I have fought many a battle as a member of the Civil
Rights Movement... I have won a few and lost many. I console myself with the thought
that what matters is the fight for the cause and not the results. What is important is the
fight and the struggle for justice and not the victory nor the defeat.
The saying in Bhagavad Gita
'To action you have a right but not to the fruits thereof' has been a source of great
comfort to me in my life as it has enabled me to cultivate a sense of detachment which is
necessary for happiness and peace of mind." - from Somasunderam Nadesan's response at the Peter Pillai Award
Presentation of Peter Pillai Award -
Mr.Victor Tennekoon Q.C, 19 October 1984
Response by S.Nadesan Q.C. to Peter
Pillai Award Presentation, 19 October 1984
Establishment of the Nadesan Centre for Human Rights Through The Law,
7 October 1987
Presentation of Peter
Pillai Award to S.Nadesan Q.C.
- Mr.Victor Tennekoon Q.C
19 October 1984
The man we honour today is S. Nadesan, Queens Counsel now for about 30
As a young man growing up in Jaffna in the early part of this century he
was without ambition. Nadesan was in fact born in the same year as Father Peter Pillai
though he preceded the latter by six month's. The first time he heard of the Rev. father
was the year he sat for the Senior Cambridge. The results when published astounded
everybody for Father Peter Pillai had passed with, distinctions in every subject - 8 in
all. Nadesan passed more modestly with only one distinction - Modern European History.
After a short spell at Royal College he joined the University College.
Fr.Peter Pillai joined the university in the same year - the latter to
follow a course in Maths Honours and Mr. Nadesan a General Degree course in Science.
Nadesan resided at Union Hostel while the religious minded Father Peter Pillai was
the Catholic Hostel and it was during this period that they became acquainted with each
other. Nadesan sat for his degree exam but failed because of his poor
performance in Physics
Practical. After an year or two of idleness, being somewhat rudderless after his plan to
become a teacher had been wrecked, he joined the Law College.
After passing out he went into practice with hardly any acquaintances at
the bar. He began in the Court of Requests, but once a week on Fridays he would attend
what was called the D.C - Trial Roll Court. Here he was quite accidentally picked by a
litigious Chettiar to appear in a small matter. The Chettiar was overjoyed by the result
and his new found lawyer. He was then retained in most of the Chettiar's cases. Thereafter
he had a large practice among the chettiar community and from this he branched off into
the other fields.
I have given Mr. Nadesan's early years in some detail because when I
interviewed him a couple days ago he insisted that while he was grateful for the honour
done him by the Foundation, he did not see any special merit virtue, or talent in himself.
One saying of his I noted:
"God gives us opportunities to be of service to humanity,
to our country, to ourselves. You must be ready and equipped to make use of those
Mr Nadesan found his opportunity to serve his country in, the
legislature when under the Soulbury Constitution a second chamber known as the Senate was
set up. He remained a member until its abolition immediately prior to the First Republican
Constitution. During this period the Senators and the public were much enlightened on
constitutional principles and constitutional rights by a series of brilliant instructive
and analytical speeches in the House by Nadesan. When fundamental rights were written into
the constitution for the first time in 1972 - but I must say unsatisfactorily written in,
for provisions for giving effect to then were weak and placed in the hands of' a
Constitutional Court which each government that came into power would constitute. Mr
Nadesan challenged many laws as unconstitutional but without much success.
This kind of travelling constitutional court was abandoned in the 1978
constitution, where constitutional questions raised by Mr. Nadesan, Colvin R. de Silva and
others have had much success.
We have heard often of judge made law, particularly in countries where
English common law prevails. But I like to think the law is made by the bar even more than
by the bench. Mr Nadesan has made an outstanding contribution to public life in the field
of human rights and constitutional rights; but his talents were always unconfined. At one
time he was thought to be the expert in election petition cases.
In 1954 he was in London appearing with Sir Hartley Shawcross for Emil
Savundaranayagam fighting en extradition order. I recall Mr. Nadesan showing me Sir
Hartley's letter when he had to suddenly leave in the middle of Emil Savundaranayagam's
case. After thanking Nadesan for his assistance in the extradition case Sir Hartley added:
"I very rarely have the help of anyone with such an acute and analytical mind as you
possess and I am sorry that you will not be there when the case is resumed. I hope you
will be back in England soon - but not against me in the Privy Council!".
The reference to the Privy Council was to the case of T B Illangaratne
vs. E L Senanayake in which the Privy Council held that its jurisdiction did not extend to
the hearing of election petitions. This is a leading case on the subject and no election
petition has gone to the Privy Council since then. Mr Nadesan was for Ilangaratne and
Shawcross for E L Senanayake.
There are many stories one could relate of a man whose life is so
crowded with innumerable events. He makes friends easily and even now though past eighty
his friendships are legion. His many acts of charity none but he knows. He is a
vegetarian, he believes in nature cure and a balanced diet.
I should like in conclusion to congratulate Mr. Nadesan on being chosen
for the award this year. It will help at least to mark the tremendous debt that society
owes to him. At. the same time I would like to wish him many years of life, living it in
the way he enjoys it most, fighting for the rights of others whether those rights be human
rights or rights of a lesser order.
at Peter Pillai Award Presentation
19 October 1984
More than 2500 years ago a great Tamil
poet wrote "Every country is my country, every human being is my kinsman".
The brotherhood of man and universal love are themes central to practically all religions
of the world. From this followed human rights such as the right to life, right to freedom
of thought and speech and right to equality between man and man. Though these were the
principles embodied in the scriptures of all religions they were not followed in practice
over the years.
We saw man's inhumanity to man over wide regions of the earth. Man
became the worst enemy of man. There were revolutions in countries like the U.S.A and
France and very much later in the Soviet Union. Human rights found an important place in
the Bill of Rights and in the French Declaration on the Rights of Man.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
adopted by the United Nations in December 1948 gave concrete shape to the views of
thinking mankind on the rights of man which included social justice.
In Sri Lanka Father Peter Pillai was the foremost apostle of social
justice. What he stood for is embodied in Articles 22 to 25 of the Universal Declaration.
In 1937 Father Peter Pillai inaugurated the movement for the Restoration
of Social Order and founded the Social Justice Review.
At the inaugural conference of Social Workers Father Peter Pillai said:
"We shall now consider the necessity for Social Services. What are
the mainsprings of its action ? It may be that some are impelled to join the ranks of the
Social Service Workers from an aesthetic need. Poverty spoils the beauty of the Universe,
and this eye sore must he removed at all costs. A few others may throw themselves into the
movement in order to gain the applause of men, while still others may swear allegiance to
the standard of Social Service, purely from a desire to act for activity's sake. Needless
to say that such recruits to the army of Social Service do more harm than good. There are
however reasons which make Social Services an imperative duty. With the exception of a few
savages and of those for whom hate signified by a clenched fist, is part of the social
programme, I do not think there is anyone who will reject the doctrine of the Universal
Brotherhood of Man
To those of us for whom the Fatherhood of God is one of the cornerstones
of our religious outlook, the doctrine of the universal Brotherhood of Man cannot but
shine forth with splendour and illumine our entire life with its powerful dynamism and
make of it an inextinguishable source of beneficent activity.
But even to those few who do not go so far and so deep, the Brotherhood
of Man is almost axiomatic. How then can anyone stand by indifferent when his brother is
in distress and even in misery. Is it possible for us to enjoy the good things of life
when we know that our brother is in dire want? I know that certain extreme nationalist
theories run counter to this elementary sense of humanity. But such hypotheses are
aberrations of the intellect which cannot stand the test of time.
Social Service then as an evident corollary of the doctrine of Universal
Brotherhood, preached most strongly by Christianity it is true, but accepted by both
Buddhists and Hindus."
To Father Peter Pillai, service of God is
the Service of Man. He was a humanist. He believed in true democracy. He was greatly
concerned with the inequalities of wealth and poverty in our country. His social vision
and, his passionate concern for the welfare of human beings have been a source of
inspiration to all of us who were privileged to know him. I accept this award therefore
with great humility and with complete consciousness that my contribution in the field of
human rights is very little.
I have been interested in human rights and social justice since about
1923. After I became a lawyer in 1931, during my professional work, I had to appear
particularly during the war years in a number of cases involving civil liberties and
workers rights. I had also to appear before arbitrators and courts in respect of
From 1947 till 1972 except for a period of 2 years I was a member of the
Senate and contributed both in my speeches in the Senate and in my writings, my views with
regard to many problems of human rights and social justice.
From 1974 I gradually reduced my professional work with the view to
retiring from practice when I reached the age of 75. But this was not to be, as my
involvement with human rights and in particular the Civil Rights Movement made it
impossible for me to do so.
|According to the Upanishads life is work and work is
worship. So in the evening of my life I have fought many a battle as a member of the
C.R.M. and otherwise in the cause of the people. I have won a few and lost many. I console
myself with the thought that what matters is the fight for the cause and not the results.
What is important is the fight and struggle for justice and not the victory nor the
defeat. The saying in Bhagavad Gita "To action you
have a right but not to the fruits thereof" has been a source of great comfort to me
in my life as it has enabled me to cultivate a sense of detachment which is necessary for
happiness and peace of mind.
In the course of these fights for the fundamental rights of the people I
have been compelled to reflect on several matters including the Rule of Law.
Nowadays the Rule of Law has to be maintained more rigorously that ever
before, In a civilised society it is the laws that contribute to the civilised character
of society. It is not the men but the laws, this is the principle of Dharma. It must be
regarded as superior to all men and all other things. Dharma (Law) say the Unpanishads is
the of King of Kings far more powerful and rigid than they. There is nothing higher than
Dharma. By its prowess the weak prevail over the strong and justice triumphs. it is the
concept of Dharma from which all principles of morality and ethics flow.
The goddess of Justice is depicted as blindfolded, holding in one hand
the sword and in the other the scales of Justice, thereby affirming that Justice will be
meted out irrespective of persons, without affection or goodwill. What has to be carried
out is justice pure and simple. If Justice is to be maintained in the country those who
occupy positions of responsibility must be persons of integrity, of detachment, of
objectivity. They must not swerve from their path on account of political or other
extraneous considerations but deal out Justice. If Dharma is violated by who ever it may
be, under that very law divine retribution is inevitable.
The Rule of Law is the foundation of democracy. Democracy is a moral
concept. It is something which is pledged to the defence of truth and justice. If we
compromise with evil, with injustice, with untruth, we may gain a temporary advantage but
permanent danger will result.
What is necessary is an integration of human nature giving to it peace
of mind. This requires education and health. Health is a prime necessity. People who are
lacking in health are enslaved by diseases and other consequent factors.
We suffer from ignorance and education is the means to remove it. It
should be of the right type. The educated person should be not merely a better informed or
a more skilled person; he must be a better person and be an example of self control and
disciplined behaviour. We cannot attain an integrated personality by wealth or earning. We
suffer from mental unrest and anxiety. We want stimulants and sedatives. Malnutrition,
under nutrition and over nutrition, apart from the hectic pace of life with its stresses
and strains, is responsible for the diseases of civilisation .
Life has become soft. Health is not a commodity to be prescribed by a
doctor and purchased over the counter at a dispensary. It can only be attained if we live
in harmony with nature. We need a well ordered life: without inward peace we cannot be
happy. I do not want to say more on this matter lest I be accused of riding my hobby horse
on an occasion such as this.
I thank you Mr. Chairman, the Trustees of the Institute, and all of you
Ladies and Gentlemen and friends who are gathered here. You have humbled me with this
award. But you have honoured the noble spirit of Father Peter Pillai and of the Civil
Rights Movement of this country to which I am proud to belong.