The article first appeared in the August 1999 issue of Tribune, India. Praful Bidwai is a leading political commentator in India
The assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam, the towering Sri Lankan public intellectual, is a serious blow to the cause of democracy, peace, federalism, and ethnic reconciliation — not just in that country but in all of South Asia. The method of killing used - typical of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam, with a suicide bomber hurling himself at Tiruchelvam's car — points to the logical course that obsessive rabid, ethno-nationalism is bound to take in this region. It highlights the LTTE's menace to Sri Lanka and India. No other group in South Asia has better deserved the appellation "Pol Potist". There are lessons for us Indians in Tiruchelvam's assassination and in New Delhi's response to it.
Tiruchelvam was a splendid example of the scholar-activist — Sri Lanka's best-known fighter for human rights, who dedicated his life to ending the ethnic crisis that 16 years ago took an especially vicious turn. He put the conciliation issue on the international plane as no one else did. A Tamil, he formed a unique bridge between the ethnic minorities and the Sinhalese majority. A constitutional lawyer, he was the architect of the boldest political devolution package South Asia has seen. An intellectual, he personified the highest level of refinement to be found among scholars in our part of the world. A political strategist, he combined theory with activist practice.
Tiruchelvam was the most powerful dynamo of pluralist, federalist and democratic ideas in Sri Lanka's peace process. It is this role, not his status as a (nominated) MP, nor his membership of the moderate Tamil United Liberation Front, that put him high on the LTTE's list of enemies. His dedication to peace, reason and conciliation was anathema to the Tigers.
They killed not just a political leader but a fount of creative ideas and original thinking. Tiruchelvam’s Sri Lanka project, based upon inclusion, sharing, protection for the minorities, and respect for universal rights, was the opposite of the monolithic, fear-based, ruthlessly regimented Eelam (Tamil homeland) that the LTTE wants.
It was, perhaps a coincidence that Tiruchelvam's killing happened during the anniversary of "Black July" the terrible anti-Tamil riots of 1983. There were intelligence reports that during this period the LTTE reportedly infiltrated suicide bombers ("Black Tigers", grotesquely revered in that group) into Colombo and into Tamil Nadu. Perhaps it wanted to send out a hostile message just before the impending introduction of the devolution package in parliament by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
At any rate, the LTTE has again announced that it brooks no opposition; no political tendencies that question its monopoly claim to speak for all Tamils may flourish. Tiruchelvam was a "threat" to it not because he represented a rival mass base — which he did not — but because he stood for ideas it finds loathsome: Freedom and democracy, pluralism and secularism, consultation and negotiation.
Tiruchelvam straddled many spheres: political theory; conflict resolution; constitutional reform; parliamentary debate; activism and advocacy. He was at once at home in Sri Lanka and India, in seminars at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (of which he was co-director), and in parliament lobbying for the equality of opportunity. He was a committed modernist, and yet rooted in his own culture. His was a renaissance personality. He thought big. He radically reconceptualised Tamil politics. And yet he made it immediately relevant and accessible. His commitment to emancipatory ideas could be seen in all his work. He could argue spiritedly for minority rights while transcending the limitations of ethno-centrism. He could highlight both the particular (e.g. the plight of Tamils) and the general (universal freedom). His perspective was internationalist, unconstrained by the narrowness of vision or language, and contemptuous of ignorance and insularity.
He rose above the stereotypes of victimhood and oppression, which are recipes for a minority ghetto mentality. He refused to give legitimacy to revenge and retribution, even though he fully recognized the fact of minority oppression. He was not just a thinker, nor only a doer. He was that rarity among scholars: an institution-builder.
He set up the ICES (probably the most prestigious institution of its kind in South Asia), and the Law and Society Trust. He was also intimately involved in the Human Rights Task Force, the Official Languages Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman. He pioneered independent citizens' monitoring of South Asian elections. He organized some of the most exciting conferences, seminars and talks ever held anywhere in South Asia.
Tiruchelvam created networks and structures of like-minded South Asians. When I last met him, in April, he was planning a publishing venture. Acutely aware that non-Sinhala publishing, in any developed sense of the term is virtually non-existent in Sri Lanka, he wanted to get the ICES to collaborate with an Indian publisher and set up an indigenous capability and market.
Tiruchelvam had immense personal charm. He was soft-spoken but without false modesty. He was not given to hyperbole or strong words. But he did not pull his punches when that was necessary. He was secure enough to admit to his faults — for example, his naïve early belief that the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord would work.
He was a committed friend of India. But many Indian reactions to his death do not appreciate this. In its official reaction, our Ministry of External Affairs, for instance, only described him as "a member of the Sri Lanka parliament, an eminent lawyer and distinguished leader of the TULF". This trivialized the man. A national daily reduced him to a mere mediator in the 1987 accord, who assisted G. Parthasarathy, the architect of India's disastrous Sri Lanka policy. This is a parody of the core truth about this remarkable intellectual.