In memorium

Neelan Tiruchelvam:

Tragic protagonist of moral choice in public life

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Neelan Tiruchelvam, in whom the elements were so mixed as to make him a virtuous and great human being, was killed on 29 July 1999. He was a man who was gentle and always affirmed the worth of all human life. Why should he have his own life (which he valued for the sake of his immediate family – his wife, Sithie, and his sons, Nirgunan and Mithran, and, for the sake of an extraordinary extended family of friends and colleagues all over the world) snuffed out by a suicide bomber? Only Neelan could best answer this question. He could do that because he was devoted to sustaining morality and civility in public and private life. At a time when barbarism has taken over political life in South Asia, and in many other parts of the world, he was truly a tragic protagonist because virtue in public life has become an oxymoron.

It is a grim commentary on the times we live in that self-proclaimed Tamil patriots killed Neelan because, unlike them, he was a true Tamil patriot. Neelan did not describe himself as a Tamil patriot, partly because he was much too modest to claim credit for the virtues that he possessed. More importantly, because he knew very well that those claims of patriotism made by others are all too often a façade for chauvinism and intolerance of others. Neelan understood well that patriotism is a virtue primarily founded on attachment to a political and moral community, and only secondarily to the government of that community. It was his identification with the Tamil community that made him use the symbolism of the Tamil epic, Silappadikaram, in his brilliant analysis of constitutional law, days before his death, affirming in the process that he was essentially pluralist and not in the least parochial. He was killed because we happen to live in times when there is really no patria, and patriotism is no longer what it was meant to be.

Neelan was a tragic protagonist of the cause of justice for Tamils in Sri Lanka. He knew very well that the government of his country did not represent the moral community of its citizens, neither Sinhalese nor Tamil. Neelan’s loyalty to the Tamil community – a cardinal virtue in a true patriot – could never be confused with loyalty to anyone who claimed the right to rule without the moral consensus of that community. Moral consensus of the Tamil community with its long civilizational history, Neelan believed, must include respect for universal human rights and the rule of law. Neelan did not think that justice for the Tamils implied derogation of claims of justice for the Sinhalese. He was not choosing between allegiance to one principle at the expense of another. This is what made him a tragic protagonist of morality and virtue. Tragic, because we live in times which lack a unifying conception of human life that can give moral judgments an objective basis, instead of regarding, as we do in this age, all moral choices as essentially subjective and arbitrary.

Neelan Tiruchelvam set for himself the task of resolving the crisis of modern constitutionalism. The crisis arises from an intense faith in the normative capacity of modern constitutions to empower disadvantaged groups and ensure fundamental rights, on the one hand, and intense skepticism arising from the failure of constitutions in many societies to uphold human rights and democratic values, on the other. He was acutely aware of the absurdity of the Sri Lankan and other constitutions that imposed a mono-ethnic state on a multi-ethnic polity. He was engaged in a fundamental reappraisal of the nature of the nation-state and associated concepts of sovereignty.

Another predominant concern of Neelan Tiruchelvam was how to render intelligible and meaningful existing norms and values in constitutional discourse, which largely derive from post-Enlightenment Europe, for cultures and civilizations that have had a very different history. He was convinced that respect for fundamental rights, as presently drawn up in the post-colonial constitutions of South Asia, could be ensured only when they are linked to the cultural and religious traditions of people. These traditions, Neelan knew, emphasise communitarian conceptions of justice and conciliatory and consensual approaches to conflict resolution. Indeed, Neelan’s solid scholarly work was on conciliation as a mode of dispute resolution and how it could be fitted into the given framework of post-colonial constitutions in which adversarial modes resting upon notions of individual rights, as opposed to group rights, predominate.

Neelan Tiruchelvam had a modern mind, always receptive to the requirements of the present day even though he valued and recognized that in concepts such as dharma there is an absolute timelessness. He sought to draw upon traditional concepts of good governance in South Asia and imaginatively weave them into modern constitutional discourse in an honest effort to dispel the unreal nature of much of bureaucratic and judicial practice in the region. The death of this man, therefore, is a huge setback to the process of building moral and political consensus on concepts such as federalism, secularism and affirmative action that have broken down in India.

Although Neelan recognized that it is only by being part of a continuing tradition and civilization that the peoples of South Asia can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, he was very worried that atavistic and essentially feudal ways of living, ossified and unevolved, were being revived by fundamentalist forces. Renewal and reconstruction of tradition, Neelan believed, is needed in order to reconstruct social and constitutional arrangements in the region to resolve its inter-ethnic and inter-group conflicts.

Neelan Tiruchelvam was an optimist. He firmly believed, unlike many who have witnessed the intensity of violence of ethnic conflict, that the worldviews of the traditions of both the Sinhalese and the Tamils have common civilizational foundations, and therefore, the conflict can indeed be resolved. As a true philosopher, he understood that apparently incommensurable and intractable differences can be resolved and settled if the contending parties stood back from their disputes to examine what rational procedures are possible to end those disputes. Neelan was a practitioner par excellence of practical judgment. That is why he consented to be a Member of Parliament, and could engage himself in the task of devising constitutional reforms. He knew that by choosing to engage in a practical way in a process for peaceful and non-violent resolution of the ethnic conflict he was putting his own life in danger.

But he was a good man with practical intelligence who knew that the exercise of courage consists in the ability to distinguish it from the recklessness that Tigers take to be courage. Neelan was deeply distressed that so many young men and women have died in vain, because they never had the opportunity to cultivate their character and their intelligence so as to be able to see that their leaders were sacrificing them at the altar of an unsustainable goal. His deepest sorrow was that the traditions of both the Sinhalese and the Tamils were being corrupted because of the lack of virtues of character and intelligence in their leaders. By killing him, the leaders of the Tamil Tigers have killed the one leader of their community who not only had a sound knowledge of what is good for the community but also possessed the necessary goodness of character. It has been truly said that a man cannot have practical intelligence unless he is good, and Neelan abounded in practical intelligence.

Neelan has been rightly acclaimed as much more than a brilliant thinker and theorist. He was also a doer and an institution-builder. The International Centre for Ethnic Studies and the Law and Society Trust in Sri Lanka are two of the institutions which he founded, besides scores of others whose work on democracy, human rights and law he inspired. By virtue of his intellect and character he was able to draw the best and the brightest young people around him and motivate their adherence to ideals and vision. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, is one of his many moral and intellectual heirs, including his sons, Nirgunan and Mithran. As Neelan was a happy family man, with a spouse in Sithie who matched all of his noble qualities, he lived up to the obligations of reciprocity and values supportive of children and the elderly. More to Neelan’s credit than all this, it must be said that he had an extraordinary grasp of future possibilities for the good life of human beings which their past has made available to their present. The institutions he founded will remain important because he has given them a futuristic, not atavistic, agenda.

I close this tribute to Neelan Tiruchelvam with the most intense sense of grief that I have ever known. I grieve the loss of a mentor and friend. I grieve the loss to Tamil tradition and to our common South Asian civilizational culture. Neelan had the quality to give his politics an intensely personal quality. As there was absolutely no evil in him, he would have seen his own death as a tragic consequence of the confrontation of good with good. That is why, as Radhika Coomarswamy reported, his son Mithran told The New York Times that his father would not have been angry about his assassination; he would only have been sad.


R. Sudarshan