Photo courtesy of Tiruchelvam Associates

(written for the 21st Death Anniversary of Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam)

This is the time to remember Neelan and Sithie Tiruchelvam. Along with Kumari Jayawardena, their living rooms were spaces where scholars and activists from all over Sri Lanka, South Asia and the world came to think, discuss, break bread and just laugh. They helped build institutions that brought together the best of young people from all over world with inquiring minds and a thirst for justice. This was the 1980s and the 1990s. It was a time when ideas were important. Today we are all implementers. Along with people like Charles Abeyesekere, Suriya Wickremesinghe, Savithri Goonesekere and Gananath Obeyesekere they created a sense of solidarity and a space for the “community of the sensitive” to be protected and warded off from the brutality that was taking place outside.

I met Neelan and wife Sithie when I was an undergraduate in the United States. Then followed a pattern that I have come to recognize with countless young intellectuals all over the world. Neelan and Sithie opened their living room and made it the centre for debate and discussion for South Asians, creating a sense of an intimate community that, though scattered, lingers even today. For years after Neelan’s death, Sri Lankan members of the intimate community would meet on the day of his death anniversary and paint the place on the street where he was assassinated. Reclaiming the space that was our motto. The paintings were erased in the name of beautifying Colombo.

Committed to the ideas of excellence in scholarship combined with activism for social justice, Neelan and Sithie were a nucleus around which scholars of South Asia, young and old, gathered. Neelan would awe us and Sithie would challenge us so that we became better human beings and better citizens. It was a Camelot moment in the history of research centers in Sri Lanka and came at a time where a desperate Sri Lanka was searching for anchor with regard to political, social and economic identity.

Neelan always had a vision of building a modern, plural society that drew from its traditions but moved forward into the future. He created the International Centre for Ethnic Studies that was primarily an institution with a combination of lawyers, historians and anthropologists who researched the richness of the diverse cultures of South Asia but also analysed constitutional and legislative frameworks that could give effect to that diversity. Neelan’s own PHD thesis was on the Gamsabhavas, the village councils in Sri Lanka’s past that resolved conflict non-violently.

A founder member of the Law and Development movement of the 1970s and 80s, Neelan created the Law and Society Trust which has dedicated itself to the study of law with reference to political, social and economic structures. Spearheading social and economic rights was another dream of Neelan’s. Drafts of a constitutional chapter on economic and social rights formulated remains available and will probably the basis of any new chapter on fundamental rights.

Many people feel that Neelan was the most brilliant constitutional lawyer that Sri Lanka has ever produced. No one could beat him in terms of conceptualizing the law. He was able to bring the law alive and formulate provisions that captured the nuances and differences that animate every day politics and everyday life. We sorely miss him today. His dream was to find a constitutional solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. He may have lost his life in pursuit of that objective; ruthlessly killed by those like the Roman soldiers in Regi Siriwardena’s poem, who could not understand the brilliance of Archimedes drawing theorems on the ground. We do not know where future constitutional discussions would lead us. Any sustainable, future constitutional framework that is forthcoming will inevitably build on the hard work done by Neelan and the institutions he built.

Neelan was also a politician and a Parliamentarian who truly believed that law could be an instrument of social change and development. Lisa Kois has edited a collection of selected parliamentary speeches and you see the research and vision that he wished to pursue. It was a vision of democracy, pluralism and justice, an anathema to what many are trying to instigate today whether in the north or south of the country. His budget speech interventions were only crafted after extensive discussions with leading economists. He was the first parliamentarian to push for LGBT rights and equality during the debates on the Criminal Code. Along with fellow members like Sarath Amunugama he helped pass a resolution requesting the Myanmar generals to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.  Parliament gave him a forum from which to disseminate his ideas and approaches, many of which were way ahead of his time.

Neelan was first and foremost a peacemaker. He exhausted every angle possible to try and bring peace to Sri Lanka. He had intimate knowledge of global peace processes and strong friendships with peacemakers from around the world. Whether it was South Africa, Colombia or the Southern Philippines he expressed solidarity with people who struggled for peace against all odds. He would bring down leading negotiators and participants from peace processes and have them interact with local policymakers and the public. He always wanted to avoid a bloody end in Sri Lanka, an end that would strongly polarise the polity and further traumatise the people of the north and the east. The historical juggernaut and the blinkered vision of Tamil leaders only pushed towering figures like Neelan aside. Today we are left with the ashes.

Though a defining figure in the field of the law and the social sciences, Neelan along with Sithie introduced all their younger colleagues to the world of art and culture, to theatre, literature, music and dance. ICES has hosted film festivals, music festivals, sponsored dance performances and foregrounded art exhibitions. When Mr. Regi Siriwardena was alive it was a centre for discussion on national and global literature. For the community of artists who gathered around ICES and other such institutions, art was not only about self- expression, but a crie de coeur deeply vested in the political and social moment in history; an expression of people’s visions, suffering and pain.

The Thatched Patio, the makeshift seminar room in the back of the early ICES, the memory of which evokes nostalgia in many of us, was a place for discussions and conversations that, despite the mounting social and political tensions in the 1980s, left a generation of scholars and activists feeling that the possibilities were endless. A cruel fate awaited those dreams. Still Neelan and Sithie’s ideas and generosity that created a community of the sensitive must be resurrected, and we must unite with other groups and institutions in search of our common humanity if we are to survive these difficult times.

Today’s death anniversary reminds us that we are not alone in our profound anxiety and that the post corona anguish and soul searching take part in many areas of the world. Neelan was absolutely clear that the windows of his institutions would be open to the world. He was excited about new ideas and, being a voracious reader, acutely aware of developments in the world that were pioneering. He would make it a point to have discussions with everyone, not only the west, but also India, China and Japan. His institutions also had institutional links with research institutions in Senegal and South Africa.

Peace and human rights were Neelan’s driving force. He felt everything could be discussed. Everything could be resolved. The only people who would not speak to him were the Tigers. He would invite the best and the brightest from around the world to lecture, discuss and interact with the Sri Lankan community. He was often like a child and wanted everyone to share in his discovery. One of the major gifts he brought us was Arundati Roy before she became the star she is today. Sithie was by his side, she was the moral conscience of the community of the sensitive. She empowered young people and gave them a nurturing home. Our brushes with geniuses, local and international, were vetted by her and her generosity made such evenings possible.

If we listen carefully, we can hear Neelan and Sithie inviting us into their living room for one such encounter.