An intellectual and an institution

Print edition : August 14, 1999

Neelan Tiruchelvam was not merely an ideas man. He was a great lover of the law and culture; he created dynamic institutions in both civil society and government; his commitment to institution-building was unparalleled in South Asia.

A FEW days before his death, Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam gave a memorial lecture for one of Sri Lanka's leading lawyers. Before the doyens of the legal community, he spoke of the Tamil epic Silappadikaram and, using its symbolism, analysed modern const itutional law, including the concepts of the unitary state, democracy and human rights. According to those present at the lecture, this was Tiruchelvam at his best, weaving cultural symbols with the cold face of the law, giving it life and meaning. They said that it was a supreme moment of triumph, a brilliant presentation by one of South Asia's leading jurists. The speech also highlighted Tiruchelvam's twin interests and the motivating forces of his life - the law and the love for South Asian culture.

Tiruchelvam was the son of one of Sri Lanka's leading lawyers and Tamil politicians. From a young age he was trained in the law by his father. He excelled in the law school and then went on to do his Master of Laws (LLM) and SJD at the Harvard Law School , where he was a Fulbright scholar. He formed a life-long attachment to this institution and often went back to teach for a semester or two. The Boston Globe carried the grief-stricken statements of his colleagues at the Law School, including the Dean, upon hearing the news of his death. On September 17, the Law School will have a special commemoration to celebrate the life and work of Neelan Tiruchelvam. Close family members have been invited to be present on the occasion.

This tribute by one of the world's leading law schools highlights the fact that Tiruchelvam was first and foremost a scholar. His political activism was a result of deeply held beliefs arising out of his scholarship and his love of ideas. He was a voraci ous reader. Despite his many commitments, he found the time to read the many books in his comprehensive library. What was fascinating about Tiruchelvam's approach to law was that from its very inception it was multi-disciplinary. His first thesis was a s ocio-legal study of Kandyan Law. Throughout his career he read books on history, anthropology, sociology and political science. He carried on a constant dialogue with the leading thinkers of South Asia, from Ashis Nandy to Gananath Obeyesekere. He drew t hem around him and their work and ideas infused the institutions of research that he set up in Sri Lanka.

Tiruchelvam's primary area of interest was constitutional law. Although his concern for human rights animated most of his work, he was interested in all aspects of constitutional law. His skills in this area were recognised internationally and he was ask ed to help draft constitutions in Central Asia and Ethiopia. It was his belief that constitutions should be consensual, not instrumental, and that they should represent the moral firmament of the society. It is this attitude that motivated his involvemen t in Sri Lanka's exercises in constitution drafting since the 1970s. Not all his ideas were accepted but he tried his best to persuade government after government that they should strengthen the chapter on Fundamental Rights in the Constitution and that a genuine scheme of devolution was the only way to meet the aspirations of the Tamil-speaking peoples of the North and the East. His idealistic belief that he could persuade Machiavellian governments to do the right thing was often criticised and ridicul ed. Only those closest to him knew that such an attitude stemmed from his belief that moral persuasion and dialogue were the only way forward, not rancour, bitterness or armed conflict.

Neelan Tiruchelvam's twin interests and motivating forces were the law and the love for South Asian culture.-K. GAJENDRAN

It is in the area of human rights that Tiruchelvam made his greatest mark and it is human rights activists all over the world who will miss his work the most. The research institutions he set up, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) and the Law and Society Trust, became important fora for human rights research and activism. Scholars and activists from all over the world, especially those from South Asia, gathered at regular intervals at these institutions to dialogue and discuss strategies of action. The two institutions have produced a plethora of books, articles and manuals on every aspect of human rights. Their journals and newsletters carry the latest developments and analyses on human rights questions in Sri Lanka and the rest of the world. Tiruchelvam was deeply concerned about the human rights situation in his own country; he was also passionately interested in the fate of Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom he sponsored a resolution in the Sri Lankan Parliament. He was concerned among oth ers about indigenous people, the Chakma tribal people of Bangladesh, military rule in Pakistan and women's rights in Afghanistan. He fought all these causes and actively worked for the protection of human rights at the international level.

Tiruchelvam's commitment to human rights made him an integral part of international civil society. The outpouring of grief in statement after statement from well-known human rights groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the special commemor ation meeting held in the premises of the United Nations in New York, testify to this fact. Their response to his death was captured at the sub-commission session of the Human Rights Commission when Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rig hts, and Chairman Aisborne Eide made special references to Tiruchelvam in their opening presentations. Tiruchelvam was also elected Chairman of the prestigious Minority Rights Group in London. The Group's commitment to his vision is so deep that it has o pened a Website on his life and work. While academics continue to mourn him, it is human rights activists who have already made his name internationally famous. He will be another martyr in their cause and another reason for their increased activism agai nst all forms of barbarism and intolerance.

Tiruchelvam's interest in the law was not limited to the Constitution. With his wife Sithie, he developed one of the foremost law firms in Sri Lanka, Tiruchelvam Associates, which is the leading law firm in the field of corporate and commercial law. Tiru chelvam's interest in this area was also from the perspective of the underdog. He was very interested in the law's regulation of the economy and in developing negotiating skills so that Third World countries could deal with multinationals. When he was a director of research at the Marga Institute, he spent a great deal of time doing research into international contracts and the need for increasing the bargaining power of Third World countries. He was inspired by the New International Economic Order and the need for a legal framework for poverty alleviation.

Tiruchelvam's other abiding interest and passion was South Asian culture. While the love of law came from his father, the love of South Asian culture was inherited from his mother, Punidham Tiruchelvam, an extraordinary woman who was involved in Tamil cu ltural life and social service. Tiruchelvam's interest in cultural studies as a whole made him focus on ethnicity as a phenomenon. He set up the ICES, which has now gained worldwide reputation. A large part of the centre's programme was related to politi cal issues of power-sharing and ethnic equity. It engaged in projects that studied devolution, federalism, language policy, land settlement and employment equity. Publications emerged as he encouraged researchers to work hard.

His rapport with young people was extraordinary. He made each one of them feel special. He expected them to put in the 24-hour day that he put into his work. He inspired them with ideas, encouraged them to read books and, as Ruwanthie Chickera said at hi s funeral, he taught them that the only difference between a dream and reality was the will power to make it happen. Dozens of young people from Sri Lanka and all over the world have passed through the ICES and the Law and Society Trust in the last 20 ye ars. When the news of Tiruchelvam's death hit the world press, phone calls and e-mail came pouring in. Many wept uncontrollably for the man who had often given them their first research idea, who had encouraged their natural creativity, and who was alway s willing to give them responsibility. His legacy is worldwide and the enormous international response is partly owing to the activism of these young people. I am certain they will not allow Tiruchelvam's name to be forgotten.

Many of the young people and interns who came to the ICES were feminists, who were drawn to its feminist research programme. Tiruchelvam was particularly interested in feminist theory and its contribution to legal paradigms and he closely followed their work. When he died, the news was contained on all the leading feminist e-mail networks with special tributes, a rare privilege for a man in a very woman's world. His last act at the centre was to encourage me with words and ideas to deal with some of the long-term issues raised by the problem of women, ethnicity and armed conflict, a lecture I was to give in Geneva as part of an ICES lecture series. He had inaugurated this lecture series against all odds to correspond with the meetings of the U.N. Worki ng Group on Minorities. He was delighted when Mary Robinson agreed to chair this meeting, put together by a Third World NGO. He read my script in detail and gave me extensive notes, as he had done throughout my working life. He was the "safety net" for m any people and many institutions. Despite his severe commitments, Tiruchelvam gave every research colleague and intern his full attention, read their work and made detailed suggestions. That is how seriously he took the world of ideas.

Tiruchelvam's interest in ethnicity was not only political but cultural. He pushed the ICES to organise cultural events. He loved films and, as a result, the centre organised a South Asian Documentary Film Festival for many years. Contemporary films were screened at the ICES. He invited musicians and dancers from different parts of South Asia to give demonstrations and lectures. Leading exponents of Kathak, Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music have passed through the portals of the ICES Colombo.

Tiruchelvam's interest in culture was not limited to specific events; it was also about everyday life. If a visitor came from abroad, he or she was given the typical "Neelan tour". They were taken to the Gotami Vihara, where the chief priest often showed them the George Keyt paintings. They were then taken on a tour of the Dutch remnants of the Fort area and, finally, at dusk, they were taken to the temple in Dehiwela, with the Buddha with the Sapphire Eyes. The priest would light the lamp near the eyes of the Buddha and after that sight, enlightenment always had a special meaning.

His love for culture was not merely confined to the culture of Sri Lanka but of entire South Asia. He collected books and compact discs on all of South Asia. He loved South Indian bronzes; Moghul miniatures and the Sakyamuni Buddha adorned his office. He would hold conferences in the ancient cities of South Asia and before he went to these cities he would study their history and culture. At the conference he would give all the participants a guided tour of the monuments and places of worship. Nothing ma de him happier than discovering the history and culture of South Asia.

Tiruchelvam and his wife were generous to a fault; they were hospitable to everyone. Tiruchelvam had time for every human being who came to see him - rich or poor, strong or weak. He would go to extraordinary lengths to help people. If he believed someon e's story he would leave no stone unturned in his effort to help them. A young couple was weeping in a corner at his funeral house. I asked them their name. They said they were Wijesinghe. They said that for every problem they would call Tiruchelvam for advice. There were hundreds of such people, including my mother and her many widowed friends. He would always have time for them and he always came up with suggestions and solutions.

Despite his love of scholarship, Tiruchelvam was also a man who believed that ideas should be put into practice. For this, against the advice of friends and family, he joined the world of politics. He tried to ensure that the ideas he had for constitutio nal law and multi-culturalism were sustained by his involvement in politics. He enthusiastically joined any attempt to change constitutions and ethnic politics. He tried to influence constitution drafting. He was instrumental in setting up the Official L anguage Commission; much of the legislation was drafted in his office. He greatly assisted the Ombudsman and the Human Rights Commission and was helping to prepare a draft Equal Protection Commission.

Since his father was a leading Tamil politician, Tiruchelvam entered politics through the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). He was deeply concerned about the Tamil people and their aspirations. He implored the Government to act with restraint in cond ucting the war. He was always for a negotiated solution. But being a pacifist and being non-violent to the core, he put his energies into drafting constitutions and creating human rights institutions in government as well as civil society.

Tamil politics nurtured Tiruchelvam and it was Tamil politics that killed him. He would spend a lot of time caring for individual Tamil victims of the war and emergency regulations. He would voice strong criticism (even if it was done in private) and hel ped the government agents in the various war-affected areas articulate their grievances about the needs of the civilian population. Several hours were spent on the telephone pleading his case with the powers that be. He was not always successful but he n ever stopped trying, believing that dialogue and discussion were the only way forward. The Tamils have lost a powerful voice that articulated their grievances within the democratic fabric of Sri Lanka.

His involvement in political life encouraged many of his civil society activities. He was a great believer in parliamentary democracy and the independence of the judiciary. He believed in the primacy of electoral politics. At the ICES, he inaugurated a p rogramme of elections monitoring for all of South Asia. The ICES brought together leaders of civil society and he took them to monitor elections in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and even Sri Lanka. When the process of constitutional drafting was on, he gathered all the leading intellectuals of the region at seminars and discussions to get their inputs into the process. He was passionately committed to non-violence and a democratic process. That was more important to him than ethnic ideology. He use d the democratic process to further the interests of the Tamil-speaking people but he was interested in all aspects of democratic life. His institutions of civil society were actively engaged in ensuring that his democratic vision would have concrete man ifestations.

Several people believed that Tiruchelvam was the most brilliant product of his generation. He was not only an ideas man. He created dynamic institutions both in civil society and in the government. His commitment to institution-building was unparalleled in South Asia. He was a creative, imaginative person who was also blessed with a practical, analytical mind. His death must not end with the triumph of mediocrity and barbarism in a country often filled with despair. It is important that his legacy be co ntinued and that those whom he relied upon help make his vision a reality.

With the death of Tiruchelvam, the world has lost a man who dreamed impossible dreams and made them a reality. Sri Lanka has lost a democrat and a peace-maker; the Tamil people have lost a man who deeply cared for their security and their aspirations; hi s colleagues have lost their inspiration and his commitment to excellence; his friends have lost his generosity and nurturing ways and his family has lost a loyal and caring husband and father. We are all poorer without him. As a columnist recently wrote : "We always kill the best." But in responding to his killing we must heed the views of his son Mithran. When a reporter of The New York Times asked him what his father would have felt about the assassination, Mithran replied that his father would not have been angry, he would have only been sad.

Radhika Coomaraswamy is United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Director, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo.

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