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been replaced by President’s Counsel, summarized by the curious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