A great force for good

Published : Aug 05, 2000 00:00 IST

In the midst of spiralling violence, Neelan Tiruchelvam held steadfast to the cardinal principle of his political faith - non-violence. He was deeply distressed by the intolerance and increasing violence within Tamil society.


Why is this age worse than earlier ages? In a stupor of grief and dread have we not fingered the foulest wounds and left them unhealed by our hands? - Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet.

NEELAN TIRUCHELVAM quoted these moving lines in the Sri Lankan Parliament on November 16, 1998. Neelan was participating in the budget debate and was highlighting the sharp regional disparities and inequities in Sri Lankan society. While the economy of t he south, despite the indirect effects of the war, had a sustained growth rate of more than 6 per cent, in the north 90 per cent of the people lived below the poverty line. The majority of them were dependent on government doles and relief programmes. Un employment in the Jaffna peninsula stood at 60 per cent, and, according to Neelan, "30 per cent of the population lives on the one meal a day". He described the tragic predicament of Sri Lanka by quoting the Russian poet again:

All has been taken away; strength and love My body, cast into an unloved city... And only conscience, more terribly each day rages, demanding vast tribute. For answer, I hide my face in my hands... But I have run out of tears and excuses.

Twelve months have elapsed since the passing of Neelan Tiruchelvam. The ugly and cruel deed of a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bomber snuffed out the life of a great personality who represented all that was noble and great in human civi lisation. Imbued with visionary idealism, Neelan unceasingly worked "to take the bitterness out of the ethnic divide and to heal history's wounds". As Malini Parthasarathy wrote in her tribute in The Hindu, "The Tamil political spectrum, which has been subjected to the LTTE's devastating annihilation tactics, has become much poorer with the stifling of the community's democratic conscience."

I first met Neelan Tiruchelvam in early 1983, and after that pleasant encounter I used to call on him whenever I visited Colombo. He showed unfailing courtesy and my discussions with him enabled me to have fresh insights into Sri Lankan society and polit ics. In measured words, in a persuasive manner, he always expressed hope, despite the terrible tragedy that had befallen the island. With his vast knowledge of comparative politics, he used to draw interesting parallels and point out how in similar situa tions other countries had tried to solve ethnic imbroglios. He often brought to my notice new books and articles. In mid-1985, Neelan asked me to read Golden Threads, authored by President J. R. Jayewardene (J.R.) and published by the Sri Lankan G overnment. Unfortunately, this publication has not received from the Sri Lanka specialists the attention that it deserves.

The book is interesting because it throws light on Jayewardene - the man and his mission. The book, which claims "to be a sketch of the history of our land", is divided into three parts. The first part deals with post-544 B.C. up to A.D. 1815. According to Mahavamsa, Prince Vijaya came to the island in 544 B.C. and the Kandyan kings surrendered their sovereignty to Britain in A.D. 1815. By beginning the island's history with the arrival of Prince Vijaya, Jayewardene completely blacks out the earl ier rich history of the country; he also pushes to the margins Tamils and other minority groups who have no "mythic charter" of their presence. Nor does Jayewardene consider 1948, the year in which Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was granted Independence, as a l andmark. More interesting, the third part begins with the United National Party (UNP) coming to power and Jayewardene becoming the Prime Minister in 1977.

Throughout the book, Sri Lanka and the Sinhala nation are used to convey the same idea. Jayewardene projects Sri Lankan Tamils as intruders who disturbed the peace and harmony of the island. The book states: "In the first quarter of the thirteenth centur y from South India came the Magha - the tiger. The wasteland that he created became the kingdom of the malaria, the domain of the anopheles breeding prodigiously in the dark stagnant waters of the great irrigation works." Jayewardene did not displ ay even an iota of sympathy for the minority groups, who became victims of communal riots, which became regular events in the post-Independence period. He referred to terrorism thus: "A world phenomenon raised its ugly head in the North and the East and some Tamils joined them to press for separation. In 1980 these activities increased and the killing of the Sinhala security forces in the North in 1983 was followed by Sinhala-Tamil riots throughout the island." By equating Tamil grievances and the resul tant violence with terrorism, Jayewardene clearly proved that he was not a neutral, non-sectarian head of state. When the communal holocaust took place in July 1983 - a "dark night of the collective soul" as Jonathan Spencer rightly described it - Jayewa rdene failed not only to express any sympathy for the victims but to condemn the lumpen sections of the Sinhalese population that ran amok in the Tamil areas of Colombo.

On another occasion, dealing specifically with Jayewardene's role in the exacerbation of the ethnic conflict, Neelan Tiruchelvam pointed out that J. R. could have easily entered into serious discussions with the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) soon after the massive victory of the United National Party (UNP) in the 1977 elections. The manifesto of the UNP had spelt out in a fair manner the accumulated grievances of the Tamils. The party held out the promise that if voted to power it would convene an all-party conference to find an amicable solution to the ethnic issue. Unfortunately, Jayewardene failed to take the initiative and the island slowly but steadily drifted into a quagmire. Neelan pointed out that J. R. recognised his failure to take de cisive action towards the resolution of the national question as his "biggest disappointment". Participating in the debate in Parliament on a resolution condoling the death of Jayewardene on November 19, 1996, Neelan referred to two incidents to substant iate his point. He quoted from a letter Jayewardene had written to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1987. He wrote: "It is a pity, of course, that the realism and pragmatism that contributed to the evolution of the constitutional setting for nati onal political life in a plural society did not come earlier. But my sorrow is tempered by the realisation that the very bitterness of the fruit has taught us the lesson." In another context, immediately after the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, reporters asked him why he had not moved more rapidly. He replied candidly: "It is a lack of courage on my part, a lack of intelligence on my part, a lack of foresight on my part."

We used to discuss frequently India's role in the ethnic conflict. Neelan had great admiration and respect for G. Parthasarathy, his negotiating skills and, above all, his deep knowledge of the complexities of the problem. G.P. developed a "special relat ionship" with TULF leaders. During the Indira Gandhi era, New Delhi's Sri Lanka policy was based on the premise that since the TULF was the elected representative of the Tamils, it should be encouraged to negotiate with Colombo. Neelan used to refer to f requent dialogue with G.P., when he used to counsel that the Tamil stance "should be guided by internally consistent principles and not on the expediency of the moment". Given the Sinhalese fears of any federal arrangement, G.P. used to impress on the Ta mil leaders that the "substance of the Tamil demands would need to be woven into a scheme without the emotive content or the terminology which could trigger Sinhala resistance."

The unit of devolution remained, as it remains even now, a ticklish issue and an exasperated G.P. decided to make a direct appeal to Jayewardene. Neelan referred to a meeting G.P. had with J.R. on August 6, 1983 "in the company of Thondaman and one other leader" (was it Neelan?). G.P. presented the case for a larger unit of devolution. "It would result in an augmentation of power and resources. Tamils would need to be offered a package of proposals which seem a reasonable alternative to their demand.

Jayewardene seemed tired and exhausted. He listened to the presentations without comment. He seemed listless and it was not clear whether he had absorbed any of the points made. As the meeting ended and the delegation descended down the wrought-iron stai rcase at the President's house, G.P. observed reassuringly: "I am 73, Thondaman is 70, but the old man upstairs is in his eighties. Age must take its inevitable toll." Jayewardene, however, remained enigmatic. He had in fact followed the arguments and ag reed next morning to the creation of Provincial Councils."

From the point of view of India-Sri Lanka relations, it was unfortunate that the Rajiv Gandhi-Romesh Bhandari team sidelined G.P. That had disastrous consequences. The badge of legitimacy which the TULF had was removed by New Delhi and the recalcitrant T amil militants were frogmarched to Thimphu. And, as expected, the militants put forward unreasonable demands. The Thimphu talks ended in failure.

Another point deserves mention. G.P. was deeply sensitive to the fact that a Sinhala consensus was an essential pre-requisite for any lasting solution. Otherwise the competitive Sinhala politics would vitiate the issue. The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord failed t o address this basic question. While one section of the government led by Jayewardene and Gamini Dissanayake supported the Accord, another, and equally powerful, section, led by Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and National Security Minister Lalith At hulathmudali, did everything to sabotage it. Without a Sinhala consensus the Accord itself became a source of discord in Sri Lanka.

Neelan Tiruchelvam used to point out that the India-Sri Lanka Accord was in many ways a continuation and an improvement on Annexure C. It endeavoured to provide a "conceptual framework for the resolution of the ethnic conflict and to outline institutiona l arrangements for the sharing of power between the Sinhala and the Tamil communities." What is more, the Accord declared that Sri Lanka was "a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual plural society" consisting of the Sinhalese, the Tamils and Muslims. It further recognised that the North and the East "had been areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking population." Neelan underlined the fact that these features had important "ideological significance in framing the policies of bilingualism, the provin cial council scheme and the temporary merger of the northern and eastern provinces as the unit of devolution."

Neelan often referred to the fact that the Provincial Council system did not bring about a change in the unitary character of the state. He further highlighted the point that the Centre was vested with the power to "determine national policy on all subje cts and functions", which enabled it, under the guise of protecting national policy, to make legislative inroads into the sphere devolved to the provinces under the provincial list or the Concurrent List."

The Provincial Council of the North-East had only a short life of 17 months: November 1988 to March 1990. It lacked financial resources. What is more, by "disingenuous mechanisms" such as characterising a subject as coming within the purview of "national policy", central authority was re-established in agrarian services and on the national transport corporation. Education was a devolved subject, but by characterising a school as a "national school", it could be brought under Colombo's control. The Presi dent also established Divisional Secretariats (which were under the control of the Centre) and they undermined the Provincial Councils. According to Bradman Weerakoon, former Presidential Adviser, a Divisional Secretariat acted as a government agency rig ht to the grassroots, which made any kind of power devolved to the Provincial Councils ineffective. In his inaugural address to the India-Sri Lanka Consultation on Devolution, Constitutional Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris admitted: "In fact, we have no devolution at all, decentralisation yes, local government yes, devolution no."

It is well-known that the devolution proposals suggested by the Chandrika Kumaratunga government had the full backing and support of Neelan Tiruchelvam. In fact, he has made his own contribution in fine-tuning some of the important provisions. He repeate dly pleaded for a bipartisan approach, so that the proposals did not get entangled in competitive Sinhala politics. As Prof. Peiris pointed out a few days ago, "Neelan was a source of stability and assurance, a solid anchor in the turbulent seas around u s. The gusts, the tempests were all around us, and there he was, offering assurance, stability, order. That is the great force for good which this country has lost irretrievably and forever."

In the midst of spiralling violence, Neelan held steadfast to the cardinal principle of his political faith - non-violence. He was deeply distressed by the intolerance and increasing violence within Tamil society. He wrote poignantly: "As the political l eaders committed to constitutional means were marginalised, Tamil militancy grew. It was even asserted by some that the violence of the victim was on a different moral plane from that of the oppressor. This was a dangerous doctrine, for the violence of t he victim soon consumed the victim, and the victim also became possessed by the demons of racial bigotry and intolerance which had characterised the oppressor. These are seen in the fratricidal violence between Tamils and Muslims, in the massacres at the Kathankudy mosque, in Welikanda and Medirigiya, and in the forcible expulsion of Muslims in the Jaffna and Mannar districts." In his last speech in Parliament on June 15, 1999, Neelan declared: "We cannot glorify death whether in the battlefield or othe rwise. We, on the other hand, must celebrate life and are fiercely committed to protecting and securing the sanctity of life, which is the most fundamental value without which all other rights and freedoms become meaningless."

Neelan Tiruchelvam was a superb seminarist and was an effective communicator. For those in the academic profession, he was a role model. The words of T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets aptly describe Neelan's communicative skills:

Every phrase and sentence that is right Where every word is at home Taking its place to support the others, The word neither diffident nor ostentatious An easy commerce of the old and the new, The common word exact without vulgarity, The formal word precise but not pedantic, The complete consort dancing together Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning.

Professor V. Suryanarayan is former Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai.

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