17th October 1999
But Neelan Tiruchelvam, I trusted
By E. Valentine Daniel
There is a move afoot among some Tamils to serve as apologists for the dastardly murder of Neelan Tiruchelvam. In this very newspaper, a few weeks ago, a minor politician published a "point of view" that presented Neelan Tiruchelvam's assassination as justifiable and the purportedly widespread Tamil silence regarding his death as understandable. Whether the said point of view was published under duress or from a desire for recognition it is hard to tell.
I happen to be a Tamil. And I also happen to have a principled distrust of politicians, minor and major. I despise some, admire some, vote for some, and even like some, but not one of them would I trust. I don't think that I would have even trusted Mahatma Gandhi. He was an exquisite politician. But Neelan Tiruchelvam, I trusted. What manner of politician was he?
It is over two months since Neelan Tiruchelvem was killed. My initial reaction to the news of his murder was three-fold: (1) a feeling of acute nausea in the pit of my stomach; (2) waves of intense anger alternating with sadness; and (3) a thought that kept repeating itself like a wail from a siren in the form of a question: do they know whom they have lost? Do the people of the island of my birth- whether they call themselves Sri Lankans , Eelamists, Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims or Burghers - do they realize what they have lost?
Neelan could have had a position in the Cabinet for having merely uttered the simple word, "yes". After all, there is precedence for this that goes as far back as 1949, when G.G. Ponnambalam (Snr.) sold the Estate Tamils' birthright for a pottage of lentils; and Neelan wouldn't even have had to say, "Please".
He did not. Less parochially, he could have worked into any of the leading universities in the world and secured for himself a position of distinction. He chose not to. He could have made his way into the higher reaches of the United Nations or other equally prestigious international organization without having to so much as huff or puff. He preferred not to. And like most politicians in South Asia - nay, in the world - nowadays, he could have walked on to the escalator of politics that assures one vastly greater wealth at the point of egress than at the point of ingress. He remained a man of modest means, possibly poorer than when he went into public service. What manner of politician was he?
I wish I could say in words borrowed from Charles Dickens it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Such symmetry is available only in nostalgia. These are simply ugly times, made uglier by being set against one of the world's most breathtaking backdrops of natural beauty, and made ugliest of all by the murder of one of the most beautiful human beings that our country has ever produced.
Beautiful? Where greed and grandstanding have become the norm. Neelan's needs were frugal and his manner of persuading was sotto voce but effective. There are the great performers of yore- one thinks of G.G. Ponnambalam (Snr.) or Dr. N. M. Perera , or even S. W.R.D Bandaranaike - who could let loose such stinging invectives as to stun a stingray.
Lesser parliamentarians of our own days are capable of volleys that could shame a skunk. Neelan recoiled from such demonstrative antics and would not take a stick even to those who spewed venom at what he believed in deeply. Among the things he believed in most deeply was the essential goodness of all human beings and in their capacity to reason and be reasonable.
In this way he spoke ill of no one and raised his two sons to do likewise. Because he saw human beings as being essentially good he made it his fundamental task the bringing out of good in everyone. Sadly, the suicide bomber did not live long enough and did not know Neelan well enough (did not know him at all) to allow him the chance to bring out the good even in that assassin.
And what is worse, she/he blew himself or herself to bits in the misguided belief that it was only in as mindless an act as that, that courage was to be found. In the words of his son, Mithran, "he would not have been angry, he would have been sad." What manner of politician was he?
Did this assassin know what courage it must have taken for this humble man to live under the constant threat of death since 1983 just because he refused to take his seat with those who believed in extreme measures?
Did this assassin know or care that Neelan's two children barely teenagers when it all began almost sixteen years ago - lived with the constant awareness that they could lose their father to an assassin's bullet or bomb at any moment?
Did this assassin know, as I do, how many lives Neelan had saved - through his intervention at levels, high and low, national and international, legal and local, political and personal - from imprisonment, torture, starvation and death?
He cared for his people deeply. He didn't mount podiums to vent his rage at some injustice and then go home self-satisfied. He did not write articles to decry atrocity merely to provoke violence or produce a symposium and then slip away into the comforts and safety of home or foreign land.
He remained in his country, pleading, arguing, advocating, and reasoning with and for friend and foe alike. When at his home, I have witnessed him work the phones on behalf of the humblest of citizens for the justice due him or her.
Did this assassin know how many lacerated spirits of Tamils and Sinhalese (yes, Sinhalese too) resulting from this awful conflict Neelan has soothed and healed in his quiet and gentle way through counsel and conversation?
Sadly, I don't think this assassin did. His or her capacity to think and to know has already been taken away by the very ones who now presume to think and speak for a supposed majority of Tamils and hope to speak think and act or all of us. Neelan did not presume to speak for all of us at times he may not even have spoken for any of us, but he always spoke to the best in us. What kind of politician was he?
In these times when only extreme positions are the safest ones to occupy, Neelan had the courage to hold the middle course, not passively but actively, not by default but by determination. In these times when violence is mistaken for courage rather than the cowardice that it is, Neelan had the courage to embody non-violence. He was not a pacifist of convenience or complaisance but a pacifist by conviction. What manner of politician was he?
He saw clearly that no sooner than ethnic pride becomes parasitic on ethnic hate, it begins to lose its ethnic identity. We could morph the hateful faces of a Hitler, a Milosovic, an Idi Amin and a Pol Pot and hardly notice the difference.
From the very moment they court hate, intolerance and violence, Sinhala chauvinism, Tamil ethnicism, Nazi racism and Serbian nationalism all blend into evil; and evil does not differentiate into ethnic or racial or national types. Evil is singular.
Neelan, by example, taught us that we - especially we Tamils at this time in our history - could not sniff tactfully at evil and slink away. He taught us that the LTTE's killing of unarmed civilians who happen to be Sinhalese is no less deplorable than the Sri Lankans military's killing of unarmed Tamil civilians. What manner of politician was he?
Neelan was a repository of two contradictory qualities: hardness and softness. Neelan was a gentle and compassionate human being. Therein lay his softness. But nothing could stand in the way of his ideals and his resolve. Therein lay his hardness.
This combination of qualities has led me to think of him in the image of the hardest natural substance, a diamond, in a bed of the softest wool. The assassin's act was but a hammer of steel against this diamond, and by the law of moral physics the hammer has shattered against the harder diamond which has retained its crystalline integrity. What is more, the light of the fire in the heart of the diamond continues to glow, bringing to mind the glint in Neelan's soft and determined eyes that had helped us see so much we had never seen before and continues to light up the path we need to travel before we can rest or surrender.
The writer is Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University
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