Politics

Neelan Tiruchelvam
Distinguished son of esteemed father
by Saleem Altaf

When Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, MP was named a President’s Counsel in February 1998 it marked a unique achievement in the political and legal history of this country. It was only the fourth occasion that a father and son had received Silk. Neelan’s father Senator Murugeysu Tiruchelvam was a Queen’s Counsel, who was once the Solicitor-General and a cabinet minister.

The other members of this elite father and son combination are EW Jayawardene KC and HW Jayawardene QC, HH Basnayake QC and Sinha Basnayake PC, as well as Nariman Choksy QC and Kasi Choksy PC. Unlike in the other cases, both Tiruchelvam senior and junior were legislators. Not only did they receive the highest honour that lawyer is eligible for, but they were both law-makers.

The circumstances under which the father and son had received their cherished honours could not be more different. In the late 1950s when the elder Tiruchelvam received Silk Ceylon had the trappings of plural, liberal democratic state. Human rights were respected and inter-ethnic amity was the norm. The Queen was the Head of State and colonial honours were sought after. Plaintiffs had the right to appeal to the Privy Council in London.

One would be indulging in some post-lapsarian fantasy to ignore the disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamils in 1948/49 and the pogrom of 1958. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in the 1950s was decidedly peaceful, inclusive and democratic. The conferment of silk on Mr. Murugeysu Tiruchelvam’s was hailed by the Colombo elite and the Tamil professional classes.

In 1998, when Neelan Tiruchelvam was named a President’s Counsel, Sri Lanka had descended into a pitiful morass. Sri Lanka had become a metaphor for violence and abuse of power. The country had disposed of colonial honours as part of the misguided patriotism associated with the adoption of a Republican Constitution in 1972. The honour Queen’s Counsel had been replaced by President’s Counsel, summarized by the curious acronym PC (often confused with polyester cotton and police constable). In line with the country’s decline, PC did not have same resonance and status as QC. In fact, Neelan, a lifelong opposition politician, was nervous that the conferment of PC would associate him too closely with the then President.

By 1998, a culture of violence, communalism and authoritarianism had become the norm. The 1983 pogrom and the civil conflict that ensued are the most glaring symptoms of this phenomenon. They are not the sole symptoms. Since the 1970s, successive governments have sought to both abuse power and human rights. The 1971 JVP insurrection was responded to with arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial killings. Earlier this month, an innocent remand prisoner was allegedly tortured to death while in custody. In 1982, the term of parliament was extended through an allegedly fraudulent referendum.

The state was not alone in violating civil liberties. Insurgent groups such as the Tamil Tigers and the JVP had shown the same callous disregard for civil liberties. In their protracted struggle, the Tamil Tigers have been blamed for serial assassinations, child conscription and civilian massacres. Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam, a passionate human rights advocate, fell victim to them in July 1999.

One of the most touching tributes to Neelan Tiruchelvam was delivered by the Indian scholar Dr. Veena Das in 2001. She said that Neelan would have been among the first people to lament the death of his unnamed and unheralded suicide assassin. Neelan valued the lives of all citizens in Sri Lanka’s tragedy. In one of his last parliamentary speeches he said "We cannot glorify death, whether in the battlefield or otherwise. We, on the other hand, must celebrate life and we are 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."

With the country’s appalling descent, the idealism of the Tiruchelvams, father and son, is the need of the hour. However, opportunism is plentiful and leadership is in short supply. Bickering between the political parties, notably the UNP and SLFP has effectively ended any hope of constitutional reform. All-Party conferences, Commissions and parliamentary committees have been convened, only to end in failure. The state apparatus has a communal feel to it. A single ethnic group comprises over 99% of the armed forces. The constitution awards to Buddhism the foremost place, making the non-Buddhists feel that they are `EBstrangers in their own home’. Again, the Sri Lankan government is not the sole villain. Both protagonists in the civil conflict, the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers are given to ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism. If the idealism of the Tiruchelvams should come to the country’s rescue, it will have to be in a very high dosage

 

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