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Life and times of Alhaj H.S. Ismail

By Alhaj A. H. M. Azwer, MP, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, President, H. S. Ismail Commemoration Committee. – Daily News Sat May 17 2003

H.S. Ismail is a distinguished product of Puttalam. According to eminent Greek, Roman and Arab historians, Puttalam, Manthota and Galle had Arab settlements several centuries before the birth of Christ. Ibn Batuta, the famous Arab traveller from Morocco, when he came to Sri Lanka in 1342 AD, he visited Puttalam. Therefore, Mr. Ismail’s association with his ancient Arab settlement brings about a faint stir of historical memories.

Narrating the story of the Sinhalese, the Mahawansa records that Prince Wijaya landed in this region – North of Puttalam encircling the present Eluvankulam, Wanathavilluwa and Karaitivu areas and called it ‘Thambapanni’ (The Golden Plain) because of the golden colour of its sands.

The sands still retain its origin colour. Many persons ever since have come and gone leaving their footprints on the sands of time.

Alhaj H.S. Ismail was one such eminent personality. He belonged to a rare breed of great men, who are seldom seen in the public of this country. He led a exemplary life, displaying the highest standards of honesty, integrity and truthfulness. I might mention an incident, which eloquently illustrates the impeccable character of Mr. Ismail.

When coconuts were being plucked in his estate, he would patiently wait till the last coconut was plucked. If 2501 coconuts were plucked, he will record 2501. His honesty was such that he did not want even a single coconut that was plucked in his estates not to be included in his income tax estimates.

This was to enable the government to get his legitimate revenue.

In 1947, the first election for the first Independent Parliament of Ceylon has been announced. At the Puttalam Kachcheri the Government Agent Walwin A. de Silva accepted nominations from the sole contestant Mr. H.S. Ismail. After the nominations were closed, he waited for one more hour for objections and finding none, he declared H.S. Ismail as the winner uncontested and escorted him outside. His supporters adorned him with green garlands.

There were also people who waited outside with garlands for any other contestant. Having found no other, they put them on the G.A., whereupon for everyone’s amusement Mr. Ismail said that Mr. Walwin A. de Silva is the other contestant. The G.A.’s little son who still bears witness to this event was hanging on to his father’s hands. That child today is one of the the best-known senior journalists of this country and the Chief Editor of the Sunday Island, Mr. Manik de Silva.

Piety, humility and simplicity were the other noteworthy features of late H.S. Ismail. He held one of the highest positions in Sri Lanka as the Speaker of Parliament. There was no fanfare or ostentation about him despite his eminent position in the public life of this country. He led an exemplary Muslim life and his multi-faceted activities are an eloquent tribute to his desire to serve his fellow men.

Born in May 1901 in Puttalam to a well-respected family, young Ismail began his Qur’anic lessons in 1905. He had his primary education in St. Andrew’s College, Puttalam and secondary education at Wesley College, Colombo. He then entered Law College, Colombo, passed his Proctor’s Finals in 1925, carrying away the prizes for Law of Persons and Property, the Law of Contracts and Torts and for Conveyancing. He practised in Colombo only for a short period of time and decided to move to his hometown Puttalam.

He maintained the highest standard of legal ethics. When he wrote a land deed, its veracity was such that the Kachcheri, the Court of Law and everyone would accept it without question.

His briefs were few and far between. This was because he will not accept a case, unless he feels that it is morally correct to defend the client. If the client admitted his guilt to him he would take up the case and plead in mitigation for the offence committed before the judge.

The sight of Muslim women with infants in their arms prompted him to launch the Ceylon Baithulmal Fund (CBF). Ever since its inception, the CBF has contributed immensely for the welfare of poor Muslims. Many rich Muslims were able to make worthy use of their Zakat money by making contribution to the Baithulmal. He also addressed Muslim women on social service work and social reforms on various occasions.

He dealt with the social evils prevailing among the Muslims. He warned them that if they did not try to improve and remedy our social and economic life, we would find ourselves to be the depressed class of this Island. Everybody talks of evil but never work for the welfare of the Muslim society.

Mr. Ismail recalled the words of the late Justice M.T. Akabar who said, ‘follow the religion and the rest will follow’. He took strong exception to liquor being served at public functions. He said he would not attend any occasion where liquor was being served. True to his stand, he refused publicly to attend Muslim embassy functions that served liquor.

Mr. Ismail was the prime mover of the Puttalam hospital extension project. He wanted something done for ante and post-natal care and a maternity home for deliveries. He was instrumental in making representations to the Radio Commission for a separate Muslim section. Ever since its inception, the Muslim section of the Radio Ceylon (now SLBC) has provided yeoman service to the Muslims of this country.

Mr. Ismail also pioneered the construction of a mosque at the Peradeniya University Campus.

When a school for the teaching of Arabic and Quranic reading was declared open by Mr. Ismail, a local Moulavi in his speech said that the Holy Prophet’s saying about ‘acquire knowledge’ meant the acquiring religious knowledge.

Mr. Ismail hastened to add that it has a much wider meaning and that in this context it encompasses all forms of knowledge that is required for the benefit of mankind both in this world and in the hereafter – fiddunya wal a’khira!

Mr. Ismail maintained a diary of his public life, which is meticulously recorded by his biographer Dr. M. S. M. Anes, Senior Lecturer, department of Philosophy, University of Peadeniya. It gives an insight in to the contemporary life of his times. In it, he has mentioned about his association with the Tamil language despite not studying it beyond the 4th standard. After Sir Vaithyalingam Doraisamy in the State council, Mr. Ismail was the first Tamil speaking speaker in the Independent Parliament.

He was a source of inspiration and guide to all the Tamil speaking members. “If and when occasion arises I had always spoken in Tamil at public meetings. None is more conscious than I of my own limitations. I have to praise Allah for this state of affairs. He seems to be very kind and merciful to me,” Mr. Ismail wrote.

Being a man of serene personality did not deter him from carrying out his duties to the letter, even during crisis situations. For instance, during the presentation of the ‘Public Ordinance Bill,’ he ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms to remove no fewer than 12 disputing MPs from the chambers, among whom were political giants of that era such as Dr. N. M. Perera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Robert Goonawardene, Leslie Goonewardene etc.

Alhaj H. S. Ismail was a staunch follower of the Thabligh movement, the prime object of which is to enlist voluntary workers to enjoin Muslims to lead an Islamic life and to attend the daily prayers. His life was inspired by the highest religious ideals of Islam. As a Muslim he believed in the fundamental equality, dignity and fraternity of mankind. He was a man of PEACE, who was opposed to all forms of violence. In the pursuit of peace, we can draw tremendous inspiration from a person who was serene and tranquil. He made no distinction whatsoever on the basis of religion, race or class.

He had the unique distinction of becoming the first elected Member of Parliament in the first general election held for the Parliament of Independent Ceylon in 1947. He was elected uncontested on the nominations day. The people of Puttalam wanted Mr. H. S. Ismail to represent them and therefore no one else came forward to contest against him.

Such was the respect and admiration his they had for this illustrious son of Puttalam. Later on he also became the first Muslim Speaker in 1956 in the Bandaranayake Government.

Although he departed from us some thirty years ago in 1973, his memories have never faded away from us. On the contrary they always stay with us and act as a shining beacon to illumine the lives of all of us for generations.

The grateful people of Puttalam will be remembering him on his 102nd birth anniversary. As a tribute to his memory, the Philatelic Bureau will be issuing a stamp in his memory tomorrow (18th May, 2003) under the patronage of the Minister of Mass Communications, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar.

I had the honour to compile and edit a book containing his speeches made in Parliament, which is entitled ‘The Golden Plain’. This is the third in a series of publications containing the speeches of eminent personalities made in Parliament.

The H. S. Ismail Commemoration Committee will also be launching a scholarship fund to assist poor students to pursue higher studies, worthy tribute to a man who strived hard to uplift the standard of his community.