S.S. Balasubramanian BSc, FCA, ACA(India), CGA(Ontario)

The Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Commemoration Meeting and Memorial Oration were held on 17th February 2024 at the Ghaffoor Hall, Zahira College, Colombo. The Memorial Oration was delivered by Prof. M. Sornarajah, Emeritus Professor of Law, National University of Singapore, distinguished old boy of Royal College, LL.B (University of Ceylon, First Class Honours), LL.M (Yale Law School, U.S.A.), LL.M, PhD and LL.D (University of London) on the subject of “The Law in the Speeches of Senator Azeez, the Muslim Tamil Leader of Ceylon, and its Present Significance”. He is a world renowned legal academic and professional as per his impressive curriculum vitae. He is very modest in saying that the reason for this distinct honour is because of his growing up with Mohamed Ali, the son of Senator Azeez, from the age of five years in 1947 at Royal Primary School in the Tamil medium. At the outset he recalls his admiration for Senator Azeez developed, by saying, “- – My father, who did not want my horizon to be limited to his own person as a mid-level public servant, told me that I should look to Senator Azeez as my model, for he was a fellow Jaffna man, a product of a Hindu College like him, a scholar in Tamil, steeped in the knowledge of Hindu texts but also the pre-eminent leader of the Muslims – -“ He quotes his teacher Mr. Lakshmana Iyer at Royal College, himself a formidable Tamil scholar, who held Senator Azeez out as the preeminent speaker of the Tamil language of his time, and that he had never heard a man speak Tamil so as to bring out the mellifluous tones as Senator Azeez did. He grasped the kind invitation of Ali to give the Azeez Oration in memory of a great Muslim Tamil Leader who provided inspiration as he grew up.

When I recollect the greatness of Mr. Azeez, I am always reminded of my school days in Vaideeshwara Vidyalaya from 1944 to 1951 where I had my entire secondary school education. Mr.Azeez himself has been an alumni of the same school, of course very much before me. I could recollect that during then, the two personalities associated with the school as old boys were always Swami Vipulananda and Mr. Azeez, both of whom were held in high esteem. During instances where praising of the greatness of the institution was made, it was hardly possible without reference to these two names.  As mentioned by Prof. Sornarajah, the former became the chair of Tamil at the University of Ceylon who later was invited to be the professor of Tamil at the Annamalay University in India-the foremost of the institutions for Tamil. Mr. Azeez held many high positions with the government excelling in each such functions. He gave them up to take over as the principal of the educational institution in the country – Zahira College, which under him was not just the premier Muslim college in the country, but through his foresight a college in the first rank of secondary educational institution in the island. 

Prof. Sornarajah chose the topic of the oration because, being an international lawyer, both as an academic and a practitioner, he felt competent to assess the thinking on the law contained in Senator Azeez’s speeches in the Senate. He was often apologetic that he was not a lawyer but his understanding of the law and the impact that it would have on society surpassed that of many of his colleagues. In this context, I very much

like the way Prof. Sornarajah analysed the way the law is formulated and enveloped in the conventional terms which differs from the notions on which the Hindu law or the Islamic law is based. In the latter, the law had deep roots in notions of justice, morality and noble ideals. Thus the thinking of a human person is shaped from childhood. From inception the life of Senator Azeez was rooted in the values and traditions of Islam and Tamil Saivaism as practiced in Jaffna. These beginnings make to understand the philosophy that guided Senator Azeez in making laws while he was a Senator. It has been said that while at Jaffna Hindu College, he excelled in Hinduism but the prize was not awarded because he was not a Hindu. It is a sad story of discrimination that Jaffna Muslims were to experience later.

The other aspect of Mr.Azeez’s greatness which Prof. Sornarajah has elaborated is his devotion to and interest in Tamil. Like my good friend Mr. Lakshmana Iyer, he too has been a recipient of the Sahitya award – a prestigious recognition of one’s work in Tamil. His love towards the great epic of Kambaramayanam has prompted him to pay it a tribute “…..Its story is intended to guide human life”. Later he recorded how he came into contact with Ramayana as adopted in Indonesia and Malaysia, both Muslim countries. This reminds me of the great Tamil scholar – Justice Ismail of Chennai, India who was a judge of the Supreme court of India and who was an authority in Kambaramayanam.

Prof. Sornarajah says that Senator Azeez has spoken on several important bills in the Senate, but he selected three topics for his oration.

Abolition of Capital Punishment

The early bills on the abolition of capital punishment sought to suspend capital punishment for a period of time so that it could be later introduced if violent crime increased. Senator Azeez supported the bills but it was clear that he was for total abolition and not its mere suspension. He characterized capital punishment as “a primitive form of punishment. Humanity has been moving towards abolition of capital punishment”. He made the statements in 1956 when there were only 36 countries in the world that banned capital punishment. Since he spoke by 2023 the death penalty was abolished in 112 countries and 23 countries have suspended executions. In Sri Lanka the penalty exists but there is a moratorium on executions. Senator Azeez believed that the taking of life is a form of inhumane punishment. Extra-judicial killings by the authorities have increased. Accountability for such killings is non-existent. In that context, the progress that has been made through the non-execution of capital punishment appears to be an illusory gain. The misuse of many presidential pardons have caused public concern which Prof. Sornarajah elaborated in legal terms. It demonstrates the yawning gap that has arisen between the pursuit of ideals by good men and women as in the days of Senator Azeez to a state of decadence when there is so much of deviance from moral standards that go without being sanctioned. The notion of sanctity of life is virtually non-existent in this country which has Buddhism as its state religion. Should not the basic notion of ahimsa, the love of all human life, not be the criterion for governance in this country? Does that not include that all human beings are treated equally and the worth of their lives be guaranteed?


One interesting speech involves the introduction of a bill on the prosecution of bribery. It is a demonstration of how squeamish a subject the prosecution of bribery was in 1954 long before it became a major cause of the rot that ate deep into the political and economic structure of the country. An argument against it put forward by some Senators was that it violated the human rights of potential suspects.

It is strange to read the speech of Senator Azeez on the Bribery Bill today when bribery has led our country to economic ruin because he was speaking against the characterization of the Bribery Bill as against fundamental rights. He scoffed at the idea that the Bill could ever violate such rights.  He pointed out that the “allegations of bribery are so wide and frequent that it has become a matter of paramount importance”. He wanted a specialised machinery like that under the Attorney General to deal with the issue of bribery. He supported a Bill which would vest the power of prosecution in the hands of a single officer over both public servants and members of the legislature on the ground that there should be an accumulation of expertise in a single entity to grapple with this growing problem in the country. The opposition to the Bill on bribery on human rights grounds indicates the pliant views that were taken of the phenomenon at times when the problem was beginning. There was no momentum towards the creation of strong institutions against the practice of bribery. Senator Azeez had said in his speech : “.. in a young democracy like ours, it is very essential that all possible steps should be taken against bribery and accusations of bribery”. That warning

was not heeded. Bribery was to consume the economy of the country in time to come. The institution of strong enforcement machinery to prevent bribery, as suggested by Senator Azeez, and meaningful prosecution of those who took bribes may have prevented the problem. Instead, a soft view had been taken.

Prof. Sornarajah says, as the IMF pointed out, wide-spread corruption has been the cause of the economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Politicians and public servants have been stealing the wealth and the resources of this country. There has been no accountability. There is a Bribery Commission and adequate laws on bribery. But, prosecutions of bribery seldom occur. Though the public knows who committed bribery, there is no effort to prosecute the persons involved because they hold power in the state. Where proceeds of bribery are taken out of the country, simple procedures exist for the recovery of such money with hardly any cost to the state. The World Bank runs a programme for the tracing and recovery of assets stolen by leaders of states. The United States government also provides similar assistance. To invoke such assistance, all that is required is for the government is to ask. But, no such effort has been made by the different governments of Sri Lanka simply because corruption exists at high levels. The rooting out of corruption is a prerequisite for any economic development in Sri Lanka. Senator Azeez spoke about this long ago.

The Ethnic and Religious Strife

Prof. Sornarajah says that for seventy five years since independence the ethnic and religious strife have afflicted our country and has been the root cause of our misfortunes. During this period no issue has taken up the energies of the rulers as the acquisition of power by the majority Sinhala ethnic group. The foresight that Senator Azeez had in warning against the dire plight that would befall the country in the course which had been adopted was born of deep wisdom and understanding.

Senator Azeez’s longest and most brilliant speech in the Senate was in opposing the Sinhala Only Bill. He characterised this bill as the “shortest Bill ever introduced but fraught with the gravest of consequences – – – consequences that will outlast the present generation”. How accurate those words have turned out to be. The effects of the Bill outlasted his generation and will outlast several future generations to come. The problems it generated will remain unsettled for a long time and until it is settled, our country will be in turmoil. Senator Azeez prefaced his speech on the Bill by stating that he was a democratic socialist who had the interests of the common man in mind. It was a canard of the rulers at the time. Senator Azeez elaborated on the problems that would be created and warned against stoking racial and religious passions and the descent into tyranny. He said that the Muslim community would be the most affected by the language change, and portrayed them as specially disadvantaged by the Bill. He advocated that the Muslims should know four languages, they being Tamil, Arabic, Sinhalese and English giving his reasons.

Prof. Sornarajah thought that Senator Azeez must have gone through an inner conflict. The two leading Muslim organisations, All Ceylon Muslim League and All Ceylon Moors’ Association had agreed to support the Bill and suggested the inclusion of the clause “with due recognition being given to Tamil and English, provided that fundamental rights of the minorities in respect of religion, culture, language etc. are incorporated in the Constitution”. (The inclusion of strong provisions on the protection of the fundamental rights of the minorities was advocated because the constitution had proved inadequate). The majority of Muslims lived in the South and spoke Sinhala though many spoke Tamil at home. They preferred a practical approach to the issue, which did not accord with the interests of the Tamil minority or, perhaps with the Tamil speaking Muslims of the East. The Sinhala Only Bill did not provide for the clauses stipulated by the two Muslim organisations, but they supported the Bill. Senator Azeez voted against the Bill with his Tamil colleagues in the Senate.

The Sinhala Only Bill led to the alienation of the Tamils, it also began a fragmentation of the Muslims and there began an evolution of a separate identity of the Muslims in the East. Senator Azeez, a Jaffna Muslim, lived as AGA Kalmunai amongst the Muslims in the East who produced great Tamil poets and literary figures. They loved Tamil but they loved their religion more. He could not have shared readily in the pragmatic view of other Muslim leaders accepting Sinhala as the only official language. He understood the position of the Tamils and stated views favourable to federalism as an eventual solution to the crisis that was brewing.

In response to the Throne Speech announcing the introduction of the Sinhala Only act, he spoke at length on the status of the Tamil language. He pointed out that democracy was not the rule of the majority but the rule of their people. Sadly it is not so today.

Senator Azeez regarded Jaffna as his “homeland”. He did contemplate a possibility of a federal solution as a last resort as said in the address to the Throne speech. He said, “if it is found to be the constitutional device available, when all efforts have failed and all remedies have been denied, to prevent the sure emasculation and the final extinction in Ceylon of the Tamil language, I can, in those circumstances, appreciate the federal principle and even, subscribe to it”.

Senator Azeez spoke at length of the economic effects of the Sinhala only Bill affecting the Muslims. This has been seen recently in Muslim businesses being attacked. He said that he was not happy about the communal tension that prevails consequent to the communal riots in 1958 “setting back progress by several years”. He spoke at length on this problem and warned of dire consequences, which we have witnessed.

Prof. Sornarajah has analysed the speeches exhaustively and commented at length on many other matters of interest affecting the country citing Senator Azeez’s foresight and vision and their present significance. It is recommended that the entire Oration is read by everyone which certainly is very informative and a treat.

The hybrid term he used as Muslim Tamil Leader of Ceylon is clarified by saying “He was an undoubted leader of the Muslim community. Without a shadow of doubt, he had all the vestiges, in scholarship of Tamil and Tamil Saivaism and Tamil literature to be quintessentially fit to be a Tamil leader, surpassing other Tamil leaders of his times in the attributes of greatness that a Tamil leader should have”. It is a great tribute to Dr. Azeez.

In concluding Prof. Sornarajah says that, for a lawyer, reading the speeches of Senator Azeez provides an insight into the care with which he approached his task as a law-maker. It is a sad commentary on the political affairs of our country that it is difficult to find someone who matched his analysis and foresight on matters he dealt with. The deep learning he committed himself to as a young man, his religious understanding of moral issues of his days born from Islam and Hinduism and his experience as an administrator in public service, guided his approach to the problems he faced as a legislator. In my estimation, by learning, conduct, his sacrifice of powerful positions to serve his people as an educator, his fearlessness in espousing unpopular views and the power of oratory in both English and Tamil qualify him to be regarded as an exceptional figure in the history of this country. It is an honour for me to have spoken of such a man.


Ali states that he was with Sornarajah as classmates for thirteen years, but had no inkling of his father’s advice to look up to Dr. Azeez as his role model, until he saw the draft of the Oration. At Royal Primary School in the Tamil medium classes, the two Muslim boys were ahead of the others. The teachers were kind to Ali, which he realized much later was due to their respect for his father from Jaffna as a Tamil scholar and versed in Hinduism which was well known and as Principal of Zahira. At Royal College he was aware that his teacher Mr. Lakshmana Iyer was a close friend of his father.

(S.S. Balasubramaniam graduated in Science from the University of Ceylon and served period of articles at Turquand, Youngs & Co. He qualified as a Chartered Accountant and was a Partner in the same firm until he left in 1986 and lives in Canada. He has an interest and deep knowledge in Tamil literature. He was just senior to Ali in the University and at TY&Co.)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.