Neelan Tiruchelvam and Sri Lanka’s democratic development


by Lynn Ockersz


More than 60 years into political independence, Sri Lanka continues with its tortuous search for the ideal constitution and now, perhaps more than ever before, the incisive constitutional and legal acumen of the Late Neelan Tiruchelvam would have proved most valuable. The point to be pondered is whether the leadership of the major political parties of this country, is turning back the hands of time by now seemingly favouring an Executive Premiership over the Executive Presidency.

This mooting of an Executive Premiership is proof that the local political community is yet to make up its mind about the way it wants to govern itself. We are also reminded by this constitutional cul-de-sac that ad-hocism, rather than a consistent constitutional vision, has been driving Lankan efforts at building a stable, democratic polity.

However, it is the forging of a national identity with which the totality of our communities could identify, which is the most pressing issue before our polity today and the fact that this question is being allowed to be eclipsed by a reversion to the debate on forms of governance, is clear evidence that the most prominent of our political players are allowing personal ambition and opportunism to take precedence over the country’s medium to long term interests. Needless to say, this fatal tendency to sidestep the political questions of the greatest magnitude would prolong Sri Lanka’s agonized cogitation over what the future holds for it.

Neelan’s constitutional labours were centred on democratic development. In fact, ethnic peace and democratic development are inseparable. It is to the degree to which a country adheres to the principle of fair play and justice towards its ethnic communities that it could be said to be evolving in the direction of a full-fledged, mature democracy. If the political leadership desires an end to communalism and the now decades-long discourse on separate ethnic identities and their disparate needs, there is no better way to ensure this than through a true democratization of the local polity which would being about justice and fair play for all. A chief means to this is the installation of a fully participatory decision-making process from the grass roots upwards; that is, power devolution in the truest sense.

Since Neelan’s constitutional acumen was channeled to these ends, he is sorely missed today. One wishes he were here to guide our frequently myopic political community with his razor-edge intellect and consistently genial and inspiring self.

No doubt, cowardly terror claimed Neelan’s life and it goes without saying that a military initiative is needed on the part of the state to put down the menace. This task has now been achieved, but Sri Lanka needs to get down to the next phase in the peace-building programme, which is the evolution of a political solution to our ethnic conflict. This latter area of endeavour was Neelan’s forte and it is not at all too late to avail of the voluminous work that he put in to help in achieving a political solution. His constitutional thinking is available in abundance at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) and the Law and Society Trust, which institutions Neelan helped establish to resolve this country’s ethnic conflict and connected issues, and which are true repositories of his thinking and constitutional wisdom and we hope these ample resource bases would be fully utilized by our polity.

Local opinion needs to understand right away that ‘development’, narrowly understood as infrastructure development and the provision of physical amenities for the people even on a countrywide scale, is no solution to the ethnic conflict. Material sustenance is, no doubt, important, but resolving the conflict calls for a different order of measures and this takes the form of a restructuring of the state to enable all sections of the people to have a decisive influence over the fashioning of public policy. All such restructuring of governing mechanisms is, of course, possible, within a united and undivided Sri Lanka.

It is towards this end that Sri Lanka’s constitutional energies need to be canalized now and there is no better way to remind ourselves about the importance of this undertaking than by keeping Neelan’s memory vibrantly alive. The Neelan Tiruchelvam Lecture Series sustained year in and year out by the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust and the ICES amply serves this purpose and it is in the fitness of things that this year’s lecture to mark Neelan’s 11th death anniversary will be delivered by outstanding Indian historian Prof. Romila Thapar. Her lecture titled ‘Of histories and Identities’ will be delivered at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Colombo, on August1 at six p.m.

Peace makers are the crying need and not demagogues who are intent in raising communal passions. Neelan proved that he was not only a peace maker but a man of peace who was prepared to pay the supreme price for his convictions. He indeed laid down his life for his fellow Lankans. May his example inspire the Lankan polity into working self-sacrificially for a just peace.



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