We have reproduced the lecture in memory of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, by the former Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral.
Neelan offered his deep knowledge and commitment to democracy
By I. K. Gujral
When I was last in Sri Lanka three years ago, little did I realise that this, my next visit would see me standing before you here, joining in the remembrance of a man who should still have been with us.
I remember that terrible Thursday last July, when news reached me of that one act of cowardice that took Neelan away from us. I remember my attempt at consoling Sithie over a long distance telephone line and then writing to express my grief to Nirgunan.
In what I believe was one of his last speeches in Parliament, delivered a little over a month before he was assassinated, Neelan said: “We cannot glorify death, whether in the battlefield or otherwise. We, on the other hand, must celebrate life and are fiercely committed to securing the sanctity of life, which is the most fundamental value without which all other rights and freedoms become meaningless.”
Rights and freedoms
Neelan knew most of what there is to know about rights and freedoms, for he championed them like few others have. Although remembrance is the reason why we are gathered here, celebrating Neelan’s life is what we must turn our focus to, at once pledging ourselves, each in his own way, to the values Neelan cherished so much, to the rights of man, to his dignity, to democracy within civil and law-abiding societies.
Celebrating Neelan’s life also enjoins upon us to condemn, in the strongest and most unequivocal manner, the scourge of terrorism that has vested itself like a cancer in our midst. To recall what Her Excellency, the President of Sri Lanka said in her condolence message following Neelan’s murder, “such assassinations only help to demonstrate the arid and infertile terrain of the terrorist mind.”
No political aim is justifiable by the means adopted by terrorists. That should be amply clear to anyone whose life intersected with Neelan’s in any manner. Narrowness of a vision of what human societies ought to aspire for and of the ends that governance should serve is the philosophical bed-fellow of those who glorify terror within our countries and, equally unfortunately, across them as well. Inclusiveness and civility would stand jeopardized in our region and in many parts of the world were we to countenance those who seek to effect change through threats and wanton violence.
I do believe that one of the more important lessons to be drawn both from what Neelan did in his short life of fifty-five years and in the manner in which this brilliant life was snuffed out is the necessity of the unequivocal condemnation of the use and sponsorship of terror everywhere and in whatever form.
Deep knowledge of men and governance
Neelan was one of the many distinguished Sri Lankans I interacted with during my visits here. Rich with ideas that stemmed from his deep knowledge of men and governance the world over, Neelan brought his inimitable personal attributes to bear on the manner in which he conceptualized his ideas and his ideals. Whether it was constitution-making in Ethiopia or here, whether it was in pleading against the death penalty in the Sri Lankan Parliament, there was something more than mere eloquence that seemed to charge up this most pacific of individuals in his championing of human dignity and democracy.
If we should all, one day, as we must, be able to live and work in truly civil societies, it is men such as Neelan Tiruchelvam that would have helped make that possible. Profiting though he did from the good fortune accorded by the accidents of birth and circumstance, Neelan transcended the limits of narrow thought and hesitant action and chose to tread the harder path of attempting to change the world around him. Except that, in the case of Neelan, there were no egotistical dust-clouds raised, no seeking of fame or glory. Quietly, and with such endearing politeness, Neelan reshaped, to one extent or another, our perception of Sri Lankan and regional reality.
Again, I believe this is an occasion which calls for a reaffirmation, a reaffirmation of our commitment to transcend the confines of blinkered thought, thought bred of unwarranted fears of being crushed under the weight of the many phantoms our imaginations create for our willing but weak minds. Take Neelan’s commitment to his people, the people of Sri Lanka, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher. In his constitution, Neelan had a place for everyone to live in dignity and freedom in one united harmony.
As if there was not enough work at home, Neelan Tiruchelvam offered his deep knowledge and commitment to democracy and to the constitutional reconstruction of societies overseas as well. And that was where our paths intersected. He had invited me to join a group of South Asian Observers to witness the Pakistani polls that briefly revived a short-lived democracy in Pakistan. The demise of democratic institutions and rule of law saddens all democrats, both at home and abroad. I had not been able to join Neelan on similar missions to Nepal and Ethiopia that he had invited me to. Deputing groups of well-meaning Observers from the neighbouring countries did help in forging linkages amongst the democrats. Efforts and concerns to nourish and safeguard the democratic institutions transcend the national boundaries.
We in India are, this year, celebrating the Golden Jubilee of our republican Constitution. The world’s largest democracy is engaged in a fairly intense, collective stocktaking. The celebrations are tempered by a sort of constructive self-criticism in the awareness that, as with men, their constructs – and democracy is one such – need perfecting on a continual basis.
Poverty and illiteracy militate against the democratic aspirations of India’s millions and detract from their enjoyment of the fundamental rights constitutionally guaranteed to them. Such self-awareness only serves to strengthen India’s resolve to refine and consolidate the gains of fifty years of democratic experimentation. Such resolve is necessary to fine-tune the large and, at times, slow-moving machinery of a pluralistic democracy that is India.
Ambitions for his Nation
Like India, Sri Lanka too is a plural society where all communities can realise their aspirations within a strong, caring and united state. Neelan was one of the many sons of Sri Lanka who engaged in the construction of such a reality. No, I will not join in calling him a dreamer; what he strove for is achievable and I am confident the time will come when his and his people will be achieved.
As neighbours, India and Sri Lanka have always had a close and cordial relationship. Sri Lanka has had a special place in our hearts. Our relationship is now at least in its third millennium. Archaeologists may push it to a even more distant past. I am most pleased at what was achieved during the visit, in December 1998, of President Kumaratunga to India. The Free Trade Agreement signed between India and Sri Lanka, which I understand will be operationalised in the coming months, is a part of the SAARC leaders’ commitment at Male that decided to speedily move towards SAFTA – the South Asian Free Trade Area – with the ultimate objective of constructing the South Asian Economic Community by the end of this decade.
The region presently is confronted with some roadblocks, mind-sets, doubts and suspicions. The Indo-Sri Lankan Free Trade Agreement will serve as a ‘technology demonstrator’ illustrating to others the benefit of regional cooperation. For what is regional cooperation but another term for working towards the realization of our collective self-interests? As men must live and work together within democratic nations, so must we, as democracies, work in close and constructive cooperation within our region. There is no other choice. The sooner we bring a degree of civility to bear on these larger relationships, the sooner we will capture the true vision of Neelan Tiruchelvam.
Great earthshaking changes
Mr. Chairman, I thank you for giving me this opportunity to share these thoughts regarding the significant agenda that we will discuss here. Of all the great earthshaking changes that distinguished the last century, the most important from our point of view, and from the point of view of the vast majority of humankind, was the de-colonisation revolution. For the first time since recorded history, the planet is virtually free of colonies. It is time for us to take stock of how far we have succeeded or failed to build our nations.
We who are assembled here for this landmark conference belong to the first or second generation of post-colonial ruling class in what has come to be known as the Third World. We had led our respective peoples’ struggles for freedom or represented their nationalist aspirations. We made golden promises when our peoples entrusted us to govern our republics. How well or badly have we performed? Why have so many of our new nations succumbed to military takeovers? In our record of peoples’ welfare and uplift something to be proud of? Have the post-colonial ruling elites achieved a satisfying record of human rights? Of frontal attacks on poverty? Have we not been trapped in what is known as enclave development? Why is there so much poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, child mortality, homelessness, joblessness and denial of human rights in our societies? Is it because mostly we continued with the colonial systems of government left behind by the colonial masters? Or is it because there has been more continuity than change in our systems and styles of governance?
There are some basic requirements for the creation of civil societies. The first requirement is to build a strong and enduring legal foundation of the State and to ensure that the laws of the land are universally and impartially enforced. Secondly, an independent, efficient, honest and uncorrupted judiciary is indispensable for a civic society. Thirdly, government has to be vastly decentralised, with the people given opportunities to govern themselves and take charge of their own affairs.
Giver of everything and the sole provider
Fourthly, the concept that government is the giver of everything and the sole provider, is inimical to the building of a civil society. The citizen must be educated and enabled to appreciate that in many ways he or she is his or her own master and also responsible for sustenance of a peaceful social order based on cooperative coexistence of different interests in society. There is an urgent need for improvements in health, hygiene and greening of urban sprawls.
An enlightened civil society alone can assist in ensuring that every child goes to school, that teachers actually teach and doctors attend regularly on patients at rural health centres. The much needed sense of respect and equality for women in our traditional societies and a climate of tolerance in our lives also requires public participation. Governments alone cannot and need not run human societies nor build nations without a great deal of active and conscious help from their citizens.
Our experience in India suggests that the promises and good intentions articulated in directive principles of the Indian Constitution have to be given the status of legally enforceable fundamental rights of the citizens. The rulers must be obliged to fulfil the promises they make. People at the bottom layers of our pyramidal societies must feel and see the results of enlightened governance. This is an area where we, the post-colonial ruling elites, have failed our people most. This leads me to suggest that real change in society, both at the national and the international levels, will happen only if citizens agree on the need and the means for change. The challenge is, therefore, to create this social transformation, enabling people to actively participate in the reform process that will replace force with dialogue, arrogance with sympathy, isolation with cooperation, ignorance with knowledge, conflict with peace. We feel obliged to create ways for a better understanding and much deeper tolerance between our nations and peoples. Our task is huge, even gigantic, but the prize of this effort is invaluable.
May I thank you once again for providing me this opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.