Opinion: Rising from the Ashes – 40 years at the Bar

September 24, 2020 (LBO) – Today, a name that echoes in the halls of justice on Hulftsdorp Hill is the name “Arulpragasam”. Be it as an instructing attorney, a notary, a senior member of the bar, a lecturer or even for his well-groomed appearance, the name ‘Arulpragasam’ is the center of discourse. The man behind that name, known by the famous initials ‘G.G’ is a legal powerhouse and to say the least; a force to be reckoned with, on and off court. Things, however, were not always like this.

After completing his Advanced Level examinations in 1977 Mr. Gerard Gnanavarothayam Arulpragasam was confronted with two choices that he received on the same day. One was to join a catholic seminary and the other was to enter Sri Lanka Law College. Much to the disappointment of his grandmother and family who hail from a strong catholic background, Mr. Arulpragasam accepted the offer to study law at the Sri Lanka Law College in Hulftsdorp, Colombo 12, and the rest as they say is history.

However, his initial experience at the Sri Lanka law College made him re-evaluate his choice. In 1977 Sri Lanka Law College was dominated by students from the elite Colombo schools and an impecunious student from Ragama Maha Vidyalaya had little to no place in that system. At the very inception these social barriers at Law College resulted in Mr. Arulpragasam being sidelined, marginalized and sadly left him without friends. In fact, Mr. Arulpragasam was such an outcast that he was deemed “not worthy of ragging”, an initiation ritual or tradition faced by freshers at that time.

The riots of 1977 saw Mr. Arulpragasam’s house burned down and his family were forced to start from scratch. At this point Law College was no longer a place where he was alone in the deep end but rather a lifeline to keep himself and his family afloat. The social barriers and the marginalized college life were now secondary. Mr. Arulpragasam was more determined than ever to excel at Law College and nothing else mattered.

Through sheer determination, dedication and hard work Mr. Arulpragasam topped his batch at Law College in all three years and won many awards including the Sir Lalitha Rajapakse and A. B. Cooray Memorial Prizes. What is surprising, however, is that a student with a Tamil last name sat all his Law College exams in the Sinhala language and topped the batch not once but thrice. Mr. Arulpragasam’s mother was Catholic, father was Hindu and both ethnically Tamil. After losing his father at a very young age Mr. Arulpragasam was brought up as a Catholic and his Sinhalese neighbours and friends in Ragama had a huge influence on him. He says “although I have a Tamil last name, growing up I was not looked upon, perceived or treated as a Tamil”.

After being admitted to the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka as an Attorney-at-Law on 26th September 1980 tragedy struck again on 24th July 1983, also known as “Black July”. This time Mr. Arulpragasam, his wife (whom he met at Law College) and son of 45 days were residing at his father-in-law’s house down Norris Canal Road, Colombo 10, when his house was burned down yet again. Mr. Arulpragasam says “his house was burned by Sinhalese extremists and he and his family were saved by his Sinhalese neighbours.”

Black July tested Mr. Arulpragasam’s resolve to its very core. While many Tamils including most of his immediate family migrated to other countries, Mr. Arulpragasam took a firm decision to stay in Sri Lanka. He sent his wife and newborn to stay with relatives in Jaffna and stayed in Colombo with his father-in-law, Mr. W. Rajasingham Attorney-at-Law, and they were determined to rebuild their lives. Mr. Arulpragasam says “this is our motherland. A few bad apples may have burned down our house, but we still have our intellect.” His courage and zero hatred mindset were soon rewarded when his Sinhalese clientele grew in contrast to many Tamil lawyers whose services were boycotted by the Sinhalese at that time.

Today, “G. G. Arulpragasam” is a household name. His name features regularly in the newspapers in sensational and high profile cases and is forever etched in several landmark judgments and he is much sought after in the disciplines of Civil, Commercial, Land and family Law in addition to his Notarial work. A secret to his success is his proficiency in Sinhala, Tamil and English.  

Mr. Arulpragasam was appointed by His Excellency the President as a Member of the Law Commission of Sri Lanka and is presently the Chairman of the Professional Purposes Committee of the Bar Association tasked with inquiring into disciplinary matters of the members of the Bar.  He is also the Chairman of the Lawyers’ Disciplinary Panel appointed by His Lordship the Chief Justice. Mr. Arulpragasam also gives back to the legal profession by lecturing and mentoring apprentices and junior lawyers. Moreover, he gives back to society through pro bono work and prompt action in his quest to fight for justice.  

When asked ‘what would you be if you were not a lawyer?’ Mr. Arulpragasam had no hesitation in saying that he would have been a priest. While we appreciate his devout catholic sentiment, the legal profession and the country are better served with him as an Attorney-at-Law and as a role model who emerged from unimaginable adversity, like a phoenix from the ashes.