Today, 29th July 2001 is the second death anniversary of Neelan Tiruchelvam. Published here are extracts of a tribute by Prof Ashis Nandy. (Sunday Times)
One person who I had hoped would write my obituary was Neelan Tiruchelvam, the gifted Sri Lankan public intellectual, institution-builder and practical idealist. He was a few years younger than me and certainly looked more energetic and fitter. I often used to brag that, after my death, my enemies would have to confront a more formidable phalanx of like-minded intellectual-activists. Neelan was one of the persons I had in mind. Time and reality have a way of subverting our dreams.
Today, I have to write his obituary. It reminds me of the old Roman-or is it Greek? - definition of the tragedy of war. War, it says, reverses the normal order of things: instead of the young burying the old, the old bury the young. Perhaps, we in South Asia will have to get used to the idea of living in a state of perpetual war in the new century. Neelan and I met for the first time in the late 1960s at Chicago. He was then still a student and I a young, unsure researcher.
We almost immediately struck up a friendship that lasted more than 30 years until, two years ago, his life was cut short by a suicide bomber in the quiet, smiling streets of Colombo.
Appropriately enough, he was killed by someone from his own community. The killer and those who remote-controlled him evidently believed - like Nathuram Vinayak Godse and James Earl Ray, the assassins of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King, respectively - that the ideas and their political forces their victim represented could be thus banished from public life. Fanatics never recognise that ideas cannot be assassinated; violence only further empowers them.
All the newspapers in India and abroad that I saw after the assassination described Neelan as a moderate Tamil politician. This is conventionality pushed to absurdity. Neelan was not a moderate politician, gingerly espousing a sectarian cause. He was much more radical in his vision, ideology and intellectual framework than those who killed him in the name of an ideology precariously perched on nineteenth-century concepts of nation-state, nationalism and revolutionary violence. The federal, decentralised polity that he fought for in Sri Lanka was part of a larger vision that encompassed the whole of South Asia, still ruled by a culture of politics that was essentially a creation of the first generation of post-independence leaders, inspired by their exposure to-and admiration for-European imperial states. This culture of politics depended heavily upon bureaucracies that were illegitimate progenies of colonialism and the wog imperium it left behind.
In such a culture, a centralised, all-powerful nation-state, modelled on colonial regimes, was one of the axioms of public life. To question it was to question sanity and reason, apart from patriotism. Not merely many of his friends, but even his assassins must have loathed that part of Neelan's vision. Neelan was also one of the few scholars in South Asia who worked in the critical area of law and society and established it during the 1970s and 1980s as a crucial area of social knowledge in the region.
Neelan was a practising lawyer in addition to being a practising social scientist and politician. Indeed, his vision mediated between his intellectual and his public life. They were means of establishing a dialogue between vision, institutions and scholarship. I sometimes suspect that it was his exposure to politics that gave the touch of generosity and tolerance to Neelan's endeavours. Many, who talk of his moderation, have in mind actually his inclusiveness and his capacity to work with immense diversities. Yet, paradoxically, both these traits transcended his politics.
They had something to do with his ethical self. Among the dozens of obituaries of Neelan I have read, one of the few that have moved me deeply is by Veena Das. In it she recognises that his compassion would have even included in its scope the young suicide-bomber who took his life, fired by ideologies of violence, hatred and self-destruction that were designed to give meaning to an otherwise empty life. He would have sensed that the killer did not have much control over his own life and actions in any case.
Neelan Tiruchelvam was one of the great South Asians I have had the privilege to know. His post-nationalist universality had deep roots in Sri Lankan politics and culture and reflected his capacity to embody that embattled, threatened species: the Sri Lankan Tamil, proudly Sri Lankan and proudly Tamil. For a long time, the Tamils of Sri Lanka had come to define Sri Lanka, somewhat in the same way that the German Jews had come to define Germany by the end of the nineteenth century. Germany was incomplete without them and contemporary German society was partly their creation. However, for that very reason, the Jews in Germany provoked deep anxieties, fears and hatred in many nationalist Germans. The attempts to get rid of them or cleanse the German culture of their presence, became for these Germans a form of exorcism. That exorcism in turn was an attempt to protect oneself from the fear of losing one's 'pristine' self and a defensive manoeuvre meant to purify oneself by exorcising unacceptable selves. Unable to deny any longer that Germany itself had become a pluricultural entity, the Germans were willing to destroy the Jews - and themselves- rather than allow that edifice of denial to collapse. German racism, expressed in violence against the Jews, was an admission of defeat. For only through psychopathic violence could the Germans deny that Germany could not be defined by their own biologically 'pure' inhabitants.
However, unlike the Jews of Germany, the Sri Lankan Tamils had myths of territoriality centred on Sri Lanka. They cannot give up their memories of homeland easily and have become a wandering community. Some of them have gone out of their way to prove what we should have know long ago - that victims often make excellent killers. This has prepared the ground for a second tragedy. The homicidal rage of a section of the Sri Lankan has turned against not only their enemies but also their own self with uncontrollable venom. Seduced by the vision of a Wagnerian, they have killed off almost an entire generation of creative public figures, dissenting thinkers and activists.Of those thus sacrificed at the altar of chauvinism and blood-thirstiness, Neelan was one of the most irreplaceable. He had to be killed, probably because he could so confidently and gracefully cross the barriers of states, cultures, religions and nationalities, both within Sri Lanka and outside.
His life itself must have looked like a protest against all forms of chauvinism and ethno-religious nationalism. By being himself, he could be, as I have already pointed out, a formidable enemy. The space for South Asia as an intellectual, political and cultural entity has shrunk with Neelan Tiruchelvam's senseless death. I feel old and tired.