22nd August 1999
"I shall not look upon his like again" (Hamlet Act 1 sc. 2)
A few days before he died, Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam gave a memorial lecture on one of Sri Lanka's leading lawyers.
Before the doyen of the legal community, he spoke of the Tamil epic, The Shilappadikaamr and using its symbolism analysed modern constitutional law, including the concepts of the unitary state, democracy and human rights. According to those present, this was Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam at his best, weaving cultural symbols with the cold face of the law giving it life and meaning. Many said that it was a supreme moment of triumph, a brilliant presentation by one of South Asia's leading jurists. The speech also highlighted Dr. Tiruchelvam's twin interests and the motivating forces of his life - the law and the love of South Asian culture.
Dr. 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 law school and then went onto do his LLM and SJD at the Harvard Law school, where he was a Fulbright scholar. He formed a lifelong attachment to this institution and often went back to teach for a semester or two. The Boston Globe carried in its pages the grief stricken statements of his colleagues at the Law School, including that of the Dean upon hearing of the tragedy. On September 17, the Law School is due to have a special commemoration ceremony to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam and have invited his close family members for the occasion.
This tribute by one of the world's leading law schools only highlights the fact that Dr. Tiruchelvam was first and foremost a scholar of eminence. His political activism was a result of deeply held beliefs arising out of his scholarship and his love of ideas. He was a voracious reader. Despite his many commitments, he would find the time to read the many books in his comprehensive library. What was fascinating about Dr. Tiruchelvam's approach to the law was that, from its very inception, it was a multi disciplinary study. His first thesis was a socio-legal study of Kandyan law and 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 them around him and their work and ideas infused the institutions of research that he set up in Sri Lanka.
Dr. Tiruchelvam's primary area of interest was constitutional law. Though his concern for human rights animated his work, Dr. Tiruchelvam was interested in all aspects of constitutional law. His skills in the area were internationally recognised and he helped draft constitutions in countries of Central Asia and that of Ethiopia. It was his belief that constitutions should be consensual not just instrumental and they represent the moral fibre of the society.
It is in the area of human rights that Dr. Tiruchelvam made his greatest contribution and it is the human rights activists in all of the world who will most miss his work. The research institutions he set up, The International Centre for Ethnic Studies and The Law and Society Trust became important for research in the human rights area and its activism. Dr. Tiruchelvam's commitment to human rights made him an integral part of international civil society. The outpourings of grief in statement after statement from well known human rights groups and NGOs and the special commemoration meeting held in the premises of the United Nations, New York are testimony to this fact. Their response to his death was captured at the Sub Commission session of the Human Rights Commission when Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chairman Aisborne Eide made special references to Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam in their opening addresses.
Dr. Tiruchelvam was also elected Chairman of the prestigious Minority Rights Group in London and their commitment to his vision is so deep that they have opened a special web site for the dissemination of his life and work.
Among Dr. Tiruchelvam's other abiding interests and passions was the immensely wealthy culture of South Asia. While the love of law came from his father, the love of South Asia's culture was inherited from his mother Punidham Tiruchelvam, an extraordinary lady who was involved in Tamil cultural life and social service. Dr. Tiruchelvam's interest in cultural studies made him focus on ethnicity as a phenomenon. A large part of the ICES programme was related to the political issues of power sharing combined with ethnic equality. He engaged in projects studying devolution, federalism, language policy, land settlement, employment equity and other related matters . Publications emerged as he encouraged researchers to work hard.
His rapport with young people was extraordinary. He made each one feel special. He expected them to put in the twenty four hour work day that he himself did. He inspired them with ideas, encouraged them to read books and as Ruwanthie Chickera said at his funeral, he taught them that the difference between a dream and its realisation was the power of will. During the nearly twenty years of its life, The International Centre for Ethnic Studies and The Law Society Trust, dozens of young people from both Sri Lanka and the outside world have passed through their portals imbuing the breath of fresh air that it emanated. When the news of the tragedy reached the outside world making headlines in the world press, the calls and e-mails came pouring in. Many wept uncontrollably for a man who had often given them their first research idea, who had encouraged their natural creativity and who was always willing to give them responsibility.
Many of the young people and interns who came to the ICES were feminists drawn to the Centre because of its feminist research programme. Dr. Tiruchelvam encouraged their ideas, was particularly interested in feminist theory and its contribution to legal paradigms and closely followed their work. When he died, the news was on all the leading feminist e-mail networks with special tributes, a rare privilege for a man in very much a feminine world.
His last act at the Centre was to encourage me with words and ideals dealing with the long-term issues raised by problems that women are faced with, 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 in tune with meetings of the U.N. Working Group on Minorities. He was delighted when Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human rights agreed to chair this meeting put together by an emerging 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 many people and many institutions. Despite all his commitments of time, he 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.
He pushed The International Centre for Ethnc Studies to organise cultural events. He loved films and the Centre organised The South Asian Documentary Film Festival for many years. He had programmes of contemporary films shown at the ICES. He invited musicians and dancers from South Asia to come and give demonstrations and lectures. Leading exponents of Bharatha Natyam and Kathak dances as well as that of Carnatic music have passed through the portals of the ICES.
Dr. Tiruchlvam's interest in culture was not confined to specific events, it was 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 monk often familiarised them with the George Keyt paintings. They were then taken on a tour of the remains of the Dutch period in the Fort. Finally in the evening, at dusk, they were taken to the temple in Dehiwela to witness the Buddha with the Sapphire Eyes. The monk would light the lamp near the eyes of the Buddha and following that act, The Buddha's Enlightenment into the true state of phenomena, had always a very special meaning.
His love of things of culture did not relate just to Sri Lankan but also to South Asian. He collected books and CDs on all of South Asian matters. He loved South Indian bronzes, Moghul miniatures and The Sakyamuni Buddha adorned his office. Prior to conferences he would visit the ancient cities of South Asia and study their history and culture.He would give all participants a guided tour of the monuments and places of worship. Nothing made him happier than discovering the history and culture of all of South Asia.
Dr. Tiruchelvam and his wife Sithie were generous to a fault. They would be hospitable to everyone and Dr. Tiruchelvam had time for every human being who came to see him whether they be rich, poor, strong or weak. He would go to extraordinary lengths to help people. If he believed someone'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 and I asked them their name. They said they were Wijesinghes. They said that for each problem they would call Dr. 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 did come up with suggestions and a solution.
Since his father was a leading Tamil politician, Dr. Tiruchelvam entered politics through the Tamil United Liberation Front. He was deeply concerned about the Tamil people and their aspirations. Whenever able, he implored the government to act with restraint in conducting the war. He always was for a negotiated settlement. But being a pacifist and non-violent to the core of his being, he put his energies into drafting Constitutions and creating human rights institutions in government as well as in civil society. He was extremely creative in the setting up of institutions but the men and women who manned them did not always live up to his expectations. Tamil politics nurtured Dr. Tiruchelvam but it was Tamil politics that killed him. He would spend so much time caring for individual Tamil victims of the war and the Emergency regulations. He would voice strong sentiments (even if it was done in private) and helped the government agents in the various war affected areas articulate their grievances about the needs of the civil population. Hours were spent on the telephone pleading his case with the powers that be. He was not always successful but he continued to try anyway, believing that dialogue and discussion was 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 in civil society . He was a great believer in parliamentary democracy and the independence of the judiciary. He believed in the primacy of the electoral process. At ICES he inaugurated a programme of election moniteering for all of South Asia.
The ICES brought together leaders of civil society and he took them for election moniteering in Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India in addition to Sri Lanka. When the process of constitutional drafting was on, he would gather all the leading intellectuals of the region at seminars and discussions to get their input into the process. He was passionately committed to non-violence and the processes of democracy. That was more important to him than ideology based on ethnicity.
Many people believed that Dr. 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 very 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 continued and that his friends take over where he left off and make his vision a reality.
With the death of Dr. Tiruchelvam, the world has lost a man who dreamed impossible dreams but made them a reality; Sri Lanka has lost a democrat and a peacemaker, the Tamil people have lost a man who deeply cared for their security and their aspirations; his colleagues have lost their inspiration and his commitment to excellence, his friends have lost his generosity and nurturing ways and his family have lost a loyal and caring husband and father. We are all the poorer without him.
As a columnist recently wrote ''We always kill the best.'' But in responding to his killing we must seek the views of his son, Mithran. When a New York Times reporter asked him what his father would have felt about the assassination, Mithran replied that his father would not have been angry, he would only have been sad.
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