Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam
“Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind,” wrote the metaphysical poet John Donne. The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has extracted a heavy human toll. In my personal capacity as a Sri Lankan Tamil and in my professional capacity as a journalist, I have lost count of the number of people related or known to me who have encountered violent deaths. But no man’s death as a result of the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka has diminished me as that of Dr. Neelakandan Tiruchelvam.
Born on 31 January 1944, Neelan Tiruchelvam, was brutally assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 29 July 1999. He was 55 at the time of his death. Ever since his demise, I have written several articles about Neelan. Drawing much from such writings I write this article to mark the 23rd death anniversary of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam on 29 July 2022.
I always recall with grief the last 50-minute telephonic conversation I had with him just 35 minutes before he was killed. I was one of the last persons to speak to him on that fateful day. I spoke with him on the telephone from Toronto for 50 minutes from 7:50 a.m. until 8:40 a.m. (Sri Lankan time). I used to call him regularly those days. Usually he winds up the conversation after a while saying, “You are going to run up a massive phone bill”. But on that day he was in a mood to talk and was pensively reflective. When I ended the conversation he seemed a little surprised.
Thirty-five minutes later Neelan was killed at 9:15 a.m. on his way to office at Kynsey Terrace as the explosive-strapped “human bomb” assassin waiting for him near the Kynsey Road-Rosemead Place junction threw himself upon his vehicle. When the office aide Rajah rang me from Colombo to convey the tragic news I could not believe it. “I spoke to him only a little while ago,” I wailed. Sadly the loyal Rajah too is no more having passed away some years ago.
Kynsey Road/Rosemead Place
Whenever I cautioned Neelan about his safety he had a fatalistic attitude about death. “No one can prevent it when it happens, we just have to go on doing what we have to do,” he told me once. He also seemed to have a premonition about how he was going to die. “There are countless vehicles in Colombo now. There is a traffic jam at every junction. All security measures become a mockery if my car is held up. None of the police assigned for my safety will be able to do anything.” How prophetic were those words. The lone assassin slipped easily between vehicles held up at the traffic snarl at Kynsey Road/Rosemead Place and blew himself up.
In a few seconds of lunacy the tigers murdered the foremost intellectual in contemporary Tamil politics. The void created is yet to be filled. It is particularly felt at this juncture as the Sri Lankan Tamils flounder in a rudderless, leaking boat on choppy waters deprived of able sailors to steer the boat safely ashore.
One of his finest speeches in Parliament was made on 15 June 1999. Neelan Tiruchelvam spoke about celebrating life and stated we must be “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”. Tragically the man who emphasised the sanctity of life as the greatest human right was killed six weeks after the speech.
Tiruchelvam’s intellectual legacy
When Neelan’s 13th death anniversary was observed in 2012, Dr. Asanga Welikala wrote a commemorative piece titled “Democracy, Pluralism and Constitutional Law: Remembering Neelan Tiruchelvam’s Intellectual Legacy”. Much of what Asanga Welikala wrote then illustrates the absence of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam in current Tamil nationalist politics. Here are a few relevant excerpts:
“The absence of Neelan’s theoretical competence is perhaps nowhere felt more acutely today than in relation to Tamil nationalism, the federalist tradition of which he represented in Parliament at the time of his death. With Neelan’s assassins themselves vanquished, post-war Tamil nationalism finds itself in a state of ideological disarray and strategic confusion. While this has not, so far, resulted in electoral depletion, post-LTTE Tamil nationalism’s erratic constitutional self-representations suggest the lack of a rigorous theoretical core which could form the solid foundation of a coherent set of politico-legal claims in appreciation of the new political reality.”
“As a result, Tamil nationalism can be found fluctuating wildly (sometimes within the course of a single political speech) between conflicting constituencies and objectives, resorting to mechanical comparativism with institutional models ranging from Switzerland to Southern Sudan, or to hackneyed categories of orthodox international law, none of which have a clear or logical relation to Tamil nationalism’s interests, purposes and prospects in post-war Sri Lanka.”
“This in a global context in which sub-state nationalisms elsewhere are at the forefront of the interrogation of traditional democracy and state forms, and the development of constitutional theory and law in new and exciting ways in the accommodation of all forms of pluralism. These developments of course do not have automatic application, but with intelligent contextualisation, of the sort that Neelan excelled in, there is no doubt that Tamil constitutional claims could be more consistently and better articulated than they are at present.”
Neelakandan Tiruchelvam, well-known as Neelan or Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, strove ceaselessly to achieve a peaceful solution to the Tamils issue. He dedicated himself to that cause with a sense of purpose. Although he could have easily enjoyed a lucrative academic or professional career abroad, he chose to remain in Colombo through very trying circumstances and pursued his vision of a lasting political settlement where all communities, including that of his own, the Sri Lankan Tamils, coexisted with justice, dignity and peace. In that context, his death was an irreparable loss to the country in particular and humanity in general. The widespread grief and condemnation expressed by a spectrum of international leaders and human rights organisations at his killing demonstrated the extent of his contacts and was a tribute to his untiring yet unpublicised efforts on behalf of the Tamil people.
Plight of “our people”
Although a citizen of the world in every sense Neelan also felt deeply about the plight of “our people” as he would refer to the Tamils when talking to me. It was this concern about the Tamil predicament and the yearning to do something meaningful about it that drew me very close to him. At the same time Neelan was not ethno-centric and realised fully that ultimately a solution acceptable to all sections of the people had to be found.
Devolution proposal package
The advent of Chandrika Kumaratunga as President in 1994 opened up fresh political space for Constitutional reform. New proposals providing greater devolution were formulated. The legal, constitutional and political expertise of Neelan Tiruchelvam along with that of the then Constitutional Affairs Minister Prof. Gamini Lakshman Peiris contributed greatly to the formulation of the devolution proposal package in 1995. The LTTE and its supporters were critical of the constitutional reforms proposals, known generally as the devolution package, which sought to find a solution to the decades-old ethnic strife. These proposals were hailed by impartial academics as the most progressive breakthrough in the political sphere of resolving the Tamil national question.
While Sinhala hardliners accused Neelan of promoting separatism by trying to push through the devolution package, the LTTE and its cohorts charged him of betraying Tamil interests. These contrasting allegations made by the hawks on both sides were proof enough that Neelan Tiruchelvam was on the right track in seeking a negotiated settlement that would provide maximum devolution within the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka.
Neelan’s fault in LTTE eyes was the co-authoring of this set of constitutional reform proposals with Prof. G.L. Peiris. These proposals released on 3 August 1995 were described as the “GL-Neelan package” by sections of the media. Within a few days of the package details appearing in the newspapers, the LTTE summoned a news conference on 11 August 1995 at their Chundikuli headquarters in Jaffna. It was held by the LTTE’s political adviser Anton Stanislaus Balasingham and LTTE’s Political Wing Head Suppiah Paramu Tamilselvan.
Balasingham condemned the package even though it had not been submitted to the Tigers formally. Rejecting the package as an act of treachery against Tamils, Balasingham went on to say, “The Government is operating with an absurd and ridiculous scheme that proposes a political solution to Tamils and a military solution to the Tamil Tigers. This scheme is based on a misconceived fantasy that the LTTE and the Tamil people could be separated by enticing the Tamils with a devolution package.”
That was the green light! Thereafter the vicious campaign against Neelan began in the Tamil and even sections of the English media. He was called a traitor to the Tamil community because he participated in a positive exercise of constitution-making instead of rabble-rousing like some other Tamil sycophants of the LTTE.
Best power sharing scheme
Few bothered to analyse the package constructively. Despite its shortcomings the GL-Neelan package was the best possible scheme of power sharing to be evolved in post-independence Sri Lanka. As Neelan himself said, “The proposals of August 3, 1995 represented the boldest attempt to redress the imbalance in the relationship between the different ethnic groups through devolution of power to the regions.”
Neelan with characteristic modesty and disdain for hogging the limelight played down his involvement in the 3 August proposals known as the “GL-Neelan” package. In private and in fora that mattered, Neelan stoutly defended the package. He would often lament that much of the mud slung at him in Tamil circles was “ill-informed” and without any grasp of what the package was all about. He was very proud of the package but accepted that it had its shortcomings from a Tamil point of view. What he felt was that the package was the best possible available as a starting point.
A particular source of satisfaction was the proposed change of the unitary state into a union of regions. He felt that if there was a Tamil consensus around it and the LTTE lent its bargaining clout the package could be enhanced further. Alas! That was not to be and the LTTE campaign sought to undermine the package as a complete sell-out.
With the LTTE taking up cudgels against the package and the war intensifying, the Chandrika Kumaratunga government too altered its approach. Naturally, Neelan was placed in an unenviable position while his critics became increasingly strident. On the other hand, the original package itself underwent a series of revisions. The end result of all this was the systematic whittling down of the original package to which Neelan had contributed immensely. The 3 August 1995 package lost much of its lustre when presented formally as government proposals on 16 January 1996. The Parliamentary select committee proceedings saw the devolution proposals being diluted further when tabled as a white paper on 24 October 1997.
Allegations against Neelan
The unfair criticism and allegations against Neelan continued in the Tamil world. One of the worst instances of false allegations was the charge in sections of the Tamil media about Neelan undertaking a sudden trip to the USA to poison Washington against the LTTE, whereas he had only gone to be with his brother at a time of deep sorrow due to a bereavement in the family.
In the prevailing climate of hate where every act of Neelan was being distorted in negative portrayals those close to him were able to persuade him to say “au revoir” if not “adieu” to Sri Lankan politics. This was a very reluctant decision as his involvement in politics was motivated by a missionary zeal.
Minority Rights Group
Neelan became chairman of the much respected UK based Minority Rights Group for a four-year term. He consoled himself by saying that he would spend the next few years fighting for minority rights globally and focus on his own country later when the need for his role arose.
He was also scheduled to lecture at Harvard University, USA for the fall term in 1999. He was quite excited about it and went to Italy for a month to prepare for the assignment. Neelan was planning to resign his parliamentary seat and formally suspend his political role prior to his departure to Harvard in September 1999. The LTTE had other ideas and struck him down before those plans materialised.
The LTTE neither confirmed nor denied involvement in Neelan’s killing. The modus operandi however bore the Tiger stamp conclusively. Tiger propagandists and LTTE fellow travellers had been blatantly transparent in their criticism of Neelan before and after his death. In fact I was forced to engage in an acrimonious exchange with the late Kumar Ponnambalam in the columns of ‘Sunday Times’ in the process of defending Neelan.
About two years after Neelan’s demise, I took up the issue of Neelan’s killing with Anton Balasingham in a telephone conversation. He listened to me patiently but avoided a pointed reply saying nothing except “appadiyo” (is that so) placatingly in Tamil. At least three other prominent personalities close to the LTTE hierarchy were also evasively silent when I had raised the same issue before.
Reduced in scope and scale
After Neelan was assassinated by the LTTE, the devolution package he conceptualised in its original form was further eroded. In the short-lived honeymoon period between the PA and UNP the devolution proposals got reduced in scope and scale. With Neelan’s demise there was no one from the Tamil side to contribute positively to this exercise. Ultimately a reduced version of the original 3 Aug. 1995 Neelan package came to Parliament exactly five years later on 3 Aug. 2000, but even the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) refused to support it. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was formed in 2001, two years after Neelan’s death.
Kumaratunga in her address to Parliament while presenting the proposals did not even mention Neelan’s name despite his having paid the supreme sacrifice. And then the UNP did a somersault and refused to support the bill co-drafted by it. Kumaratunga backed it.
18 months later the political scenario changed drastically. The LTTE entered a peace process with the UNP in February 2002 and began talking to a ‘Sinhala’ government about power sharing.
G.L. Peiris-Anton Balasingham
Lo and behold! The chief government negotiator was none other than G.L. Peiris with whom Neelan had engaged in constitution-making, years ago. The Tiger chief negotiator was the very same Balasingham who dismissed the ‘GL-Neelan’ package derisively earlier.
The GOSL-LTTE talks achieved a significant breakthrough in Norway when the negotiating parties decided to “explore” a federal solution. Despite this advance, the talks thereafter failed to follow through with exploratory moves in subsequent meetings.
Meanwhile Anton Balasingham made a startling revelation on 11 March 2003 when he spoke at the ceremonial opening of an LTTE bank (vaippagam) at Kilinochchi. The speech was reported in full in the Jaffna based “Uthayan” of 13 March 2003. Here is the relevant excerpt:
“1995 aam aandu Neelan Thiruchelvam arasamaipputh thirutha varaibhu ondrai samarppithhaar. Athu sariyaana varaibhu. Athu etkakkoodiyathu. Aanaal pinnar 2000 aam aandu antha varaibhin adippadayil Chandrika oru thirutha varaipai samarppithaar. Antha varaibhu Neelan Thiruchelvathin varaibhin oru araikkuraiyaana oru thokuthiyaagum.” (Neelan Tiruchelvam presented in 1995 a draft amending the constitution. That was a correct draft. That was acceptable. But later in 2000 Chandrika submitted an amended version based on that draft. This one was only a half-baked version of the earlier draft by Neelan Tiruchelvam).
After vilifying Neelan as a traitor and the 3 August 1995 devolution package as an act of treachery for years the LTTE was now acknowledging the merits of Neelan’s draft. After condemning the “GL-Neelan” package, Balasingham was now praising it. The wheel had turned full cycle. But Neelan was no more. After denigrating Neelan as a traitor and killing him, the LTTE was now praising him.
Neelan’s vindication was in every way a condemnation of the Tigers. If Neelan’s draft was indeed correct and acceptable then what was the ‘sin’ he committed to deserve a horrible assassination? If his draft was all right then why did the LTTE orchestrate a campaign calling him a traitor and describing the 3 August 1995 package a betrayal?
Even though Neelan was vindicated in a way, the brightest star in the Tamil political firmament is no more and nothing can ever bring him back. The loss to his family, friends, colleagues and associates is irreplaceable. So too is the loss to his community, country, the intellectual realm and humanity at large.
Let me end on a personal note. I had a very close relationship with Neelan. It was as a journalist on the Tamil daily ‘Virakesari’ that I first began interacting with Neelan Tiruchelvam. My relationship with him grew over the years as I moved into English journalism via ‘The Island’ and later ‘The Hindu’.
Elder brother and sister
Neelan was my friend, philosopher and guide. He was greatly instrumental in moulding my career. He was in a sense my political mentor. Neelan had great influence over me in imparting knowledge, stimulating thought, shaping my career and moulding my beliefs. I will always remain grateful for the advice, knowledge, assistance and help provided by him during various phases of my life. Neelan and his wife Sithie were like an elder brother and sister to me. I was truly blessed to have their friendship and affection. Sadly Sithie too passed away in 2014. Both remain forever in my memories and thoughts.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com.)