Obituary: Lalith Athulathmudali

NEWS that Lalith Athulathmudali had been assassinated in Sri Lanka has shocked those who remember the peace-loving person they befriended at Oxford University in the 1950s, writes Patrick Renshaw. His death personalises the terrible ethnic tragedy which has overtaken the island in the last decade.

He first came into my life when he entered my room at Jesus College, where he was selling Labour Club membership. Being in his second year he was already a prominent personality. Later that term the Suez war and Soviet invasion of Hungary coincided, events which shaped the political values of a generation.

Lalith was active in all the protests. But he was also the first person from the Third World I got to know well and so helped shape my attitudes there too. Peaceful in everything he did, he was nevertheless quietly forceful in a characteristically Buddhist way. Reading law, he was determined on a career at the Oxford Union, like several other distinguished Sri Lankans before him. In a generation which included such notable debaters as Brian Walden, Peter Brooke and Tony Newton, he was successively secretary, treasurer and librarian and became president in Hilary Term 1958 - the first Jesus president since the end of the Second World War. I recall in particular a debate in which he and an invited Bryan Magee took on another invited guest, Oswald Mosley - a debate which seems more resonant now given the fact that racial bigotry eventually ended Lalith's life.

He never made any bones about the fact that his colour helped his political career at Oxford, since he could always play the role of the token black. His fellow countryman Lakshman Kadirgamer who became president of the Union the following year, was a Tamil and their respective careers were to be shaped by the ethnic conflict which later hit Sri Lanka.

They returned home both of them expecting to become lawyers and politicians quietly shaping the destiny of their newly independent nation.