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D. Ramanujam: An accomplished trade union leader

A. Thiagarajah - DN Tue July 17 2007

Today, July 17 is 100th Birth Anniversary of Desigar Ramanujam, former Member of Parliament and ex. Deputy Mayor of Kandy Municipal Council and International Trade Unionist.

Desigar Ramanujam

REMEMBERED: Seven years ago, on November 14, 2000, the Government of Sri Lanka issued a postage stamp to commemorate Desigar Ramanujam in recognition of his services to the political and trade union movement of this country. Today, the Postal Department is re-issuing the stamp at the request of the Up-Country Citizens Front to commemorate him on his 100th Birth Anniversary.

Desigar Ramanujam was born in Prathapa Ramanathapuram, South India on July 17, 1907. Having completed his higher studies and having commenced his career as a journalist, Ramanujam, an accomplished writer, came to Sri Lanka in the late 1920's to join the editorial staff of a Tamil newspaper, Desa Bakthan of Natesa Aiyar, a well known pioneer trade unionist of this country. Ramanujam has been inspired by the freedom movement of India through his professional association with the South Indian leaders.

His early association with Natesa Aiyar rekindled his deep civic consciousness and empathy with the oppressed plantation workers who were ruthlessly exploited by the British planters. Ramanujam was among those who raised their voice first against the exploitation of estate labour.

In 1934 he joined Dharmaraja College, Kandy as a teacher and soon became involved with the plight of the municipal workers, most of whom were of Indian origin.

The genuine interest and the desire drove this Brahmin leader who touched the hearts and lives of the so-called 'untouchables' to help the oppressed fellow human beings. He formed an association to safeguard the rights of the Indian workers. This was called Bose Sangam named after Subhas Chandra Bose, the famed freedom fighter of India.

This association was dissolved with the formation of Ceylon Indian Congress, a political body for protecting the rights of persons of Indian origin.

Ramanujam was a founder member of CIC. When the Ceylon Indian Congress was registered as a trade union, he was elected the President of its Kandy Branch and subsequently the political Secretary of the Ceylon Workers Congress which was the successor to CIC.

During this time, along with the other leaders of the Congress he worked tirelessly to uplift the socio-economic conditions of the plantation workers.

Ramanujam worked unreservedly for the cause of labour. His services to the municipal workers of Kandy won him the Asgiriya ward at he Municipal Council Elections in 1942 which he held for a number of terms spanning over 10 years.

It is noteworthy that the supply of pipe-borne water to Asgiriya Temple was effected during the time he was the Municipal Councillor for the Asgiriya ward. During this period, he was elected Deputy Mayor of the Kandy Municipal Council.

From the municipal level, Ramanujam embarked onto the national level political field in 1947, when he was elected to Parliament as an independent member from a predominantly Sinhala-speaking constituency of Aluth Nuwara defeating several Sinhala candidates.

He represented this seat from 1947 to 1952 and served all communities with equal dedication. Among his many services to the constituency was the Aluth Nuwara original bridge on Kandy-Badulla Road in Mahiyangana built during his term as Member of Parliament.

Ramanujam was devoid of much political ambition. His was a life dedicated to serving fellow human beings irrespective of their class, creed or religious beliefs. In fact, in 1961, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike offered Ramanujam a nominated seat in Parliament, but he declined it in favour of Saumyamurthi Thondaman, then President of Ceylon Workers Congress.

Ramanujam was a man of brilliant intellect. This, coupled with his excellent command of English helped him attain new heights as an international trade unionist.

Since 1956 he has participated in annual ILO conferences in Geneva as a workers' delegate from Sri Lanka consecutively for several years. In 1961 he led a group of trade unionists from Sri Lanka to study the trade union movement in Europe under a UNESCO programme.

In 1962, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) invited him to join their organisation, and he accepted the task of organising the sugar plantation workers trade union movement in Mauritius, which he carried out successfully.

Thereafter he was posted to Ethiopia to establish trade unions there. There was no trade union movement in many countries in this part of the world during this time, and Ramanujam's dedication to workers' cause and trade union movement made him accomplish the work successfully.

In acknowledging his accomplishments, the ICFTU in 1965 appointed Ramanujam as the Special Representative of the ICFTU in Singapore and later as the Regional Director, South East Asia based in Singapore from where he represented the ICFTU at conferences and committee meetings of ECAFE.

His eloquent contributions were well received in these fora. He was also a Visiting Fellow of several international labour training institutes.

Stationed in Singapore from 1965, Ramanujam rendered valuable assistance to trade union movements in Singapore, Malaysia, Phillipines and Indonesia. He also put in valuable spade work in Thailand for the functioning of trade unions.

While Ramanujam laboured to organise the trade union movement in many parts of Asia, his dutiful wife, an Indian qualified doctor, stayed behind in Sri Lanka to educate their four children and mould them into worthy members of society.

All of them are well stationed in life and only one of them, Dr. Prathap Ramanujam, Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development and Sacred Area Development is resident in Sri Lanka.

In June 1968, Desigar Ramanujam was posted to India as the Director of Asian Regional Office of ICFTU. But, he passed away suddenly on June 4, 1968 on the eve of his departure to take up that position in India.

On his death, a prestigious publication at the time, Asian Labour paid a tribute thus: Ramanujam's was a life of devotion and dedication to the cause of inarticulate labour. The free trade union movement has lost a sincere worker."

Ramanujam was only 61 years when he died, but during that 61 years he had accomplished much as a social worker, trade union activist, politician, an international trade unionist and above all, as a sincere human being who served the fellow humans unreservedly.

Today, on his 100th Birth Anniversary, we salute this gracious servant of mankind.