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Remembering Neelan Tiruchelvam

Print edition : Feb 19, 2000 T+T-

A wide cross-section of intellectuals meet in Colombo to commemorate the life and work of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam.

SIX months after Sri Lanka lost one of its foremost political thinkers in contemporary times, intellectuals from across the globe gathered in Colombo in the first week of February to commemorate, and, in the process celebrate the life and contributions o f Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam.

Assassinated by a suicide-bomber on July 29 in the Sri Lankan capital, Neelan Tiruchelvam was a person who believed not in the glorification of death but in the celebration of life. And in a befitting honour, the organisers, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), the Law and Society Trust (LST) and Tiruchelvam Associates, celebrated the life of Tiruchelvam with a three-day programme that highlighted his intellectual and cultural essence.

Inaugurated by former Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral, the programme comprised a two-day workshop that discussed diverse topics that had a direct bearing on the course of the separatist conflict which has plagued the island since the early 1980s. Human Rights, Diversity and Plurality, Constitutionalism, and Civil Society - issues on which Neelan contributed immensely, not only in the tear-drop island but also across the globe - were deliberated upon. His pursuit of excellence was also reflected in per formances by singer M. Balamuralikrishna and dancer Alarmelvalli.

In what was perhaps the most significant contribution that emerged from the workshop, Aisbjorn Eide, chairman of the United Nations Sub-committee on Minorities and a Sri Lanka watcher since the outbreak of the conflict, mooted the formation in the countr y of a body similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of South Africa. (This suggestion apart, a significant departure, not missed by the discerning audience, was Eide's open criticism of the Tigers for acts of terror against the civilian population.)

Tracing the fierce and until now intractable nature of the conflict to mutual mistrust, Eide said that the creation of such a body would go a long way in rebuilding trust within the nation. Moreover, with most of the killings in the earlier days targeted at Tamil civilians, the need for such a body was seen as being even more crucial.

Commenting on the South African experience, Justice Albie Sachs of the South African Constitutional Court observed that the TRC there had helped in bringing to the surface buried emotions and providing a sense of relief to the relatives of victims. While the TRC was not empowered to pass sentences, the very act of public acknowledgement of crimes committed against civilians was seen as the beginning of a process of self-healing.

The move for a similar apparatus for the island-nation is also to be seen in the context of the twin internal conflicts the nation has faced since the 1970s - the continuing northern separatist conflict and the aborted southern insurgencies by the Left-r adical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the 1970s and the 1980s.

The JVP experience and the crackdown by the state continue to create nightmares for the southerners. Horror tales are narrated of midnight knocks and tyre-pyres. In the northern conflict, tales of disappearances haunt the minds of civilians.

In this backdrop of continued mistrust, Eide's suggestion came as a fitting tribute to Neelan, who saw human rights violations in any form as being objectionable. The suggestion for the constitution of a Truth Commission in Sri Lanka would have to be see n in the backdrop of several internal political compulsions in a sharply polarised polity.

Yet another concept mooted at the workshop, by Pakistani Human Rights activist Asma Jehangir, was for a cross-border approach to human rights violations. Human rights, she said, should not be the exclusive prerogative of only the nations involved, but sh ould engage the attention of civil societies across the region.

The suggestion, viewed in the backdrop of continued India-Pakistan tensions, requires deft handling. The issue of human rights violations and the concerns raised at international forums are also to be seen in the backdrop of the recent posturing by the U nited Nations on questions of sovereignty and human rights. Clearly, with external military interventions rationalised along human rights lines, the suggestion for a cross-border approach to human rights violations would have to be addressed in the more immediate neighbourhood and in regional contexts.

With constitutional reform forming the core of the Sri Lankan peace initiatives, the workshop saw considerable exchange of opinion on issues ranging from the nature of the state to the steps involved in rewriting the laws of the land.

With the Government currently involved in working out a southern consensus to address the conflict, a fitting tribute by the nation to Tiruchelvam, the pacifist and the constitutional expert, would be for it to arrive at a practical way to see the Consti tution passed in Parliament. Recent public postures in the south favouring joint movement on this count provides for optimism, albeit guarded.

While he continues to be remembered by intellectuals from the nation and in many parts of the globe, the ultimate celebration of the life of Neelan Tiruchelvam - who lived and died for the cause of a united Sri Lanka - would be the coming together of the divided nation.