A trailblazer in Sri Lankan politics
Lalith Athulathmudali

Lawyer and erudite politician who strove to make a difference

A skillful orator, eminent lawyer and astute politician, Lalith William Samarasekera Athulathmudali belonged to a select breed of Sri Lankan politicians who encompassed education, charisma, class and an inherent need to serve the people. Ascending the political ladder Lalith Athulathmudali held many ministerial portfolios including education and agriculture. His greatest contribution is considered the launch of the Mahapola Scholarship scheme which continues to support thousands of financially disadvantaged undergraduates as they gain a university education. Viewed as a statesman with the potential of being the leader of the country, Lalith Athulathmudali was assassinated by the LTTE during the prime of his political career thus depriving Sri Lanka of a true leader who may have changed the political landscape of Sri Lanka.
Compiled by Tina Edward Gunawardhana

Early education

Born in 1936 to a reputed family hailing from the Kalutara District, Lalith William Samarasekera Athulathmudali‘s father was a Member of the State Council of Ceylon representing Matugama. Lalith Athulathmudali received his primary education at St John’s College Panadura before he entered Royal College, Colombo . He was an extremely brilliant student and won over 20 prizes during his school career where he was also involved in extra curricular activities. In 1951 Lalith Athulathmudali was selected as the All Ceylon Public School’s Athletic Champion in the 110 yards hurdles and he held the public school’s record for 11 years. His excellence in academia won him a place at Jesus College, University of Oxford where he read Jurisprudence. While at Oxford he won the Lord Sankey Award for Jurisprudence.

He concluded his tenure at Oxford by becoming the first Sri Lankan to be elected as the President of the Oxford Union which was a testimony to his excellent skills as an orator. He then passed his Master of Laws degree from Harvard University where he maintained an A average. His thesis was accepted and remains in the permanent collection at Harvard.

In 1959 he was called to the Bar in England from Gray’s Inn and in the same year he worked as a tutor at Jesus College and University College, Oxford.
Lalith Athulathmudali then began a career as a lecturer at the University of Singapore, Hebrew University in Israel, University of Edinburgh and the Ceylon Law College.

Entering politics

Following in his father’s footsteps, Lalith entered politics as he wanted to serve the people of Sri Lanka. In 1972 the former Prime Minister Dudley Senananayake appointed Lalith as the chief UNP organizer for Agalawatte. He was elected to the Parliament representing the Ratmalana electorate in 1977. Dubbed the ‘Hawk’ by his political opponents this brilliant orator was well known for his unmatched intelligence and vast knowledge in legal and international affairs.
To his credit during a 15 year period in his political career Lalith Athulathmudali held the cabinet portfolios of Minister of Trade and Shipping, National Security, Agriculture, Education and Deputy Minister of Defense. As Minister of Trade and Shipping, he introduced the Intellectual Property Law, established the Sri Lanka Export Development Board and the Ports Authority in the same year.

Launch of the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme

Erudite politicians of Athulathmudali’s ilk are extremely rare in politics today. He is best remembered for his outstanding contribution to higher education through introducing the Mahapola Scholarship Fund in 1981 which supports the financially needy undergraduates throughout their university life. Due to his far-sighted vision many an undergraduate was able to attain their higher education dreams. It was his belief that enhancing education was the only long term solution to eradicate poverty.

There is a personal story as to why he introduced the Mahapola concept. After Athulathmudali had completed his studies at Oxford and was studying for his BCL his father passed away. College expenses being so high, his mother was left with no other option, but to recall him. Lalith, not ready to give up, presented his case to the then Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike who took immediate measures to present a proposal to Parliament and grant him a Scholarship to continue his education, with a request to return to Sri Lanka and serve the country. Today 90% of university students benefit from the Mahapola scheme which initially started with 400 students.

In defence of the nation

In 1984, Lalith Athulathmudali became the Deputy Minister of Defense and the number of Army soldiers were increased from 6000 to 40,000. The operation in Jaffna by the army led by General Kobbakaduwa was totally supported and privately examined by Lalith Athulathmudali. The training done in Maduruoya and the Vedamarachchi operation were done under his guidance. He became a great persuasive figure for the wounded soldiers in the operation. However with the signing of the Indo Lanka Accord in 1987 the tide of public opinion against the incumbent government changed. Despite being seriously injured in a bomb attack on the parliament in 1987, Athulathmudali quickly returned to the political fray.

In the general election that followed Lalith Athulathmudali contested against Premadasa for the Presidency.
Changes in the political tide

In 1985 Lalith Athulathmudali was appointed a President’s Counsel. Despite the change in political tides at the election in 1989, Lalith was appointed the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives. He resigned from this position when differences of opinion occurred with the incumbent President. He along with Gamini Dissanayake (who had also lost his membership with the UNP) formed a new party of their own called the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) with the symbol of the eagle. Their foremost intention was to bring a new way of ruling to uplift the Sri Lankan people. Sadly this was never meant to be as Lalith Athulathmudali was assassinated by a gunman on 23rd April 1993 at an election rally in Kirulapone.

The leader Sri Lanka never had

In Lalith Athulathmudali Sri Lankans witnessed an intellectual capacity and indomitable will-power to make Sri Lanka live up to her full potential. He was not just a Statesman who stood head and shoulders above his colleagues in this country. He never failed to sway the masses with his speeches, which were always at a level that drew them to him. He felt the pulse of the people.
Lalith Athulathmudali was considered one of the most distinguished Sri Lankan statesmen. He is still remembered as a colossus in politics and his contribution which is manifold will be remembered in the annals of history.