We reproduce a tribute by Dr. Tiruchelvam's friend Prof. Roberto Unger of Harvard Law School. It was delivered on September 17, 1999 at a memorial held at Harvard Law School. Prof. Unger is now the Minister of Strategic Planning in Brazil.
Neelan Tiruchelvam had an idea and a passion. His idea was that we are all connected. His passion was love. Civilization grows out of trust. Neelan worked as a jurist and a statesman, to devise practical arrangements enabling trust to flourish.
We are, wrote Schopenhauer, like porcupines wounding one another with their spikes when they huddle together against the cold, freezing when they separate, and moving restlessly, back and forth, between closeness and apartness. They look for the middle distance.
Neelan recognized the need for the middle distance, not as the end, but as the beginning. From separation and protection would come self-possession strength, and from strength magnanimity. Neelan's genius was to imagine the otherness of other people.
His craft was to strike the compromises and to build the institutions that would reconcile people's claims to develop, collectively, the otherness they have and want. The schemes of reform I liked to discuss with him he considered with benevolent skepticism.
He understood, intuitively and from the outset, what it has taken me so long to appreciate: that all such plans come to nothing unless we achieve them on the ground of human reconciliation.
To do this work, Neelan had to fight - to fight, if he could, without hurting. It was fighting untainted by zealotry and self-deception, because it was informed by love.
Although Neelan was a hopeful and a faithful man, his love outreached his hope and his faith. Neelan was possessed by love: for his wife, for his sons, for his community, for his country, and for the individuals he met along the way. He had the capacity to acknowledge them as the originals they all really are and know themselves to be. The fighting without hurting brought hope to his country. To him it brought complete life and violent death.
It was Neelan's fate to come to maturity in a society torn by fear and hatred. By accepting this fate, and struggling with it, he made himself into a man. But Neelan was not the opposite of Sri Lanka. His country made him. Through him it spoke with another voice. In him it signified its intention to become greater and better than it is.
As we reach middle age, we fall into a funnel of narrowing possibilities. Around each of us a mummy begins to form. We must break out of the mummy to continue living. Neelan avoided the many small deaths that waste away a loveless and uninspired life, and lived for real until the day he was killed.
He knew that the essence of moral wisdom is to unprotect ourselves, being prudent in the little things, the better to be foolhardy in the big ones.
Into this dark world comes redeeming love, unshaken, unsubdued, unterrified. It comes and it changes us, although we would rather be ruined than changed.
Thirty years and a month have passed since I first met Neelan, only a few steps from the place where I now stand. The thing about him was his unscanny shine - from his eyes, from his skin - enveloping me, and going out, further and further into the darkness around him, and promising to last, until we can see the others, and hear their voices, and find our hearts of stone turned into hearts of flesh.
Prof. Roberto Unger, Harvard Law School