7 December, 2023


Remembering Neelan’s Voice Of Moderation At Moments Of Political Extremism

By Michael Roberts

Dr Michael Roberts

Dr Michael Roberts

Neelan Tiruchelvam was a friend and fellow-researcher with whom I had interacted for many years. Late in 1986 towards the end of my long sabbatical research spell in Sri Lanka when my interests were focused on the data that eventually became the book People Inbetween (1989, Sarvodaya Book Publishing), Neelan approached me and asked me to participate in a conference of South Asian scholars scheduled for the Maldives. He wanted me to present a reflective paper on what was widely referred to as “the riots of 1915” or marakkala kolahālaya, an atrocious moment when Sinhalese people attacked the local Muslims residing in the south-western quadrant of the island.

The Maldives!! Oo la-la!! As an avid snorkeler, for me this was a dreamtime invitation.

However, it also meant work.

Neelan’s invitation was clearly guided by three considerations: (A) the theme of the proposed conference, namely, ethnic violence; (B) the fact that I had presented a paper on the “riots” before the Ceylon Studies Seminar way back in 1972[1] and (C) the pogrom of July 1983 directed at Tamils residing in the Sinhala-majority regions in many parts of the island.

The latter event was also widely referred to as “riots” – the result of widespread bondage on the part of people (including, initially, myself) within the terminology of the British administrative and legal lexicon. By the mid-1980s, however, I had broken these bonds, guided in part by the horrendous events of July 1983 and the innovative reference to these events as a “pogrom” by such scholars as Charles Abeysekera, Shelton Kodikara and Newton Gunasinghe.

The conference organized by the ICES and Neelan did not take place in the Maldives. Kathmandu was the location where a galaxy of Asian scholars was assembled under ICES auspices in February 1987: no swimming and snorkeling, but plenty of civilizational sites and stunning landscapes as sideline recreational fare amidst the stirring intellectual fare provided via the interactions with several Pakistani and Indian scholars, among them Akmal Hussain, Ashis Nandy, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Veena Das.[2]

It was not just stirring. Neelan’s request and the intellectual challenge it posed led me in a new academic direction: focusing on “communal violence in southern Asia” and the 1915 pogrom in particular. It was a quest that led me to begin writing a book on the 1915 pogrom, which in turn induced me to spend four months in Delhi in 1995 researching communal violence in the recent Indian past. This book-project then expanded into its wider context – working up another book on “Sinhalese nationalism in the British period.”

The book on the 1915 pogrom was abandoned once I was able to distil the work into two articles in one of my anthologies (Confrontations in Sri Lanka, published in 1994 by Harwood Academic Publishing). Three chapters of the work on Sinhalese nationalism were in my drawers by 1998 when my decision to concentrate on what was scheduled to be the baseline chapter, namely, a clarification of what sort of identity prevailed before the transformations effected by the British, snowballed. Yes snowballed and extended like the proverbial Jack’s beanstalk to become Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Kingdom (2004, Vijtha Yapa Publications).

But, alas, well prior to that, a calamity. Neelan had been killed—assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber at the junction of Rosmead Place and Kynsey Terrace in Colombo on 29th July 1999 as he headed towards his office and the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (BBC 1999). He was assassinated by the LTTE because he was working towards reconciliation of the island’s political divide in conversations informed by a President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose leanings towards the island’s Tamil citizens were conciliatory and a far cry from the standard Sinhala chauvinist firebrands that were (and are) part of the local scene. Assassinated because Velupillai Pirapāharan (and many Tamil intellectuals in Colombo, Jaffna and abroad) had one goal only: complete self-determination in a separate state. While that reading of the Tigers was seeping into the bones (and diary entries) of individuals such as Ben Bavinck in the Jaffna Peninsula (for e. g. Bavinck 2014: 72, 92, 100), it was, alas, not that clearly understood by many – this author included.

Some thinkers, however, were alive to the danger faced by Tamil moderates such as Neelan in the political circumstances of Tamil chauvinism under the LTTE facing Sinhala extremism in the south. He had been encouraged to leave the island and take up an academic post in USA (readily available because of his standing and connections). It was a few days before his departure that he was struck down. The moment chosen by the LTTE was symbolic: it was more or less the anniversary of the 1983 July pogrom.

Neelan’s killing was a tactical killing that had a strategic impact supportive of Pirapāharan’s ultimate goal. It furthered and finalized the conversion of the TULF of yesteryear into the TNA of the 2000s, a pliant and articulate mouthpiece of the LTTE and its project of Thamilīlam. The mass Pongu Thamil gatherings of the ceasefire period 2002-06 were eye-catching and dramatic evidence of this wholesale capitulation.

Events have moved beyond that moment of the ethnic confrontation. But the chasm, in my speculative reading from abroad, remains as wide. The sad memories associated with the removal of a moderate voice of reconciliation at this juncture underline concerns which he would have been party to. On one occasion on 2nd August 2012 Sinhala extremists even went so far as to deface the epitaph on the road where Neelan was struck down by the Tigers (Groundviews 2012). That such a symbolic blow against a voice of reconciliation should occur at such a promising stage in the island’s history highlights the power of polarity in furthering the ethnic hostilities between (some) Tamil and Sinhalese peoples.

The common phenomenon of extremisms feeding off each other is aggravated in situations when those at one end of the pole are not a singular bloc, but made up of parties or factions competing for dominance at that chauvinist extreme. Infighting among those of similar ideological disposition hinders any person or parties within the broad band of chauvinism from reaching out towards the “enemy” in some reconciliatory manner (Roberts 2014). Factionalism undermines political compromise. In such contexts and in situations of ethnic polarization the paths of moderate politicians/intellectuals are fraught with peril.

So it was for Neelan Tiruchelvam. We Sri Lankans lost a Tamil Sri Lankan committed to pragmatic modus vivendi in a difficult situation.


Bavinck, Ben 2014 Of Tamils and Tigers, a journey through Sri Lanka’s war years, Part II, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications for Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Committee.

BBC 1999 “Sri Lanka: Tamil politician assassinated,” 29 July 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/406644.stm

Das, Veena (ed.) 1990 Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Groundviews 2012 “Obliteration of Road Painting Commemorating Neelan Tiruchelvam on Kynsey Road (with photos),” 5 August 2012, http://groundviews.org/2012/08/05/obliteration-of-road-painting-commemorating-neelan-tiruchelvam-on-kynsey-road-with-photos/

Jeyaraj, DBS 2009 “Tiruchelvam, Tigers and the Tamil “Traitor” Tragedy,” http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/973 being a reprint of an article in Frontline in 1999 [www.frontline.in/navigation/?type=static&page=flonnet&rdurl=fl1617/16170990.htm

Kanapathipillai, Valli 1990 “July 1983: The Survivor’s Experience,” in Veena Das (ed.) Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, Delhi: OUP, pp. 321-44.

Roberts, Michael 1981 “Hobgoblins, Low-Country Sinhalese Plotters or Local Elite Chauvinists?: Directions and Patterns in the 1915 Communal Riots,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Social Sciences, 4: 83-126….. orig. as CSS paper, 1972.

Roberts, Michael 1985a “Ethnicity in Riposte at a Cricket Match: The Past for the Present”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 27: 401-429.

Roberts, Michael 1990 “Noise as Cultural Struggle: Tom-Tom Beating, the British and Communal Disturbances in Sri Lanka, 1880s-1930s,” in Veena Das (ed.), Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots, Survivors in South Asia, Delhi: O.U. P., pp. 240-85.

Roberts, Michael 1993 “Emotion and the Person in Nationalist Studies” in Japanese in The Shinso, Jan. 1993…. special edition on Nationalism Today (ed. by T. Aoki), pp. 127-50.

Roberts, Michael 1994a “The Imperialism of Silence under the British Raj: Arresting the Drum,” in M. Roberts, Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History, Reading: Harwwood Academic Publishers, pp.149-82.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians and the Pogrom against the Moors in 1915,” in M. Roberts, Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History, Reading: Harwwood Academic Publishers, pp.182-212.

Roberts, Michael 1996 “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 30: 245-72.

Roberts, Michael 2003c “The Agony and Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983,” Nēthra, April-Sept 2003, 6: 199-213.

Roberts, Michael 2004a “Narrating Tamil Nationalism: Subjectivities & Issues,” Review Article, South Asia, April 2004, 27: 87-108.

Roberts, Michael 2004d “Prejudice and Hate in Plural Settings: The Kingdom of Kandy,” in AJ Canagaratne (ed.) Neelan Tiruchelvam Commemoration Conference Papers, Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, pp.

Roberts, Michael 2005c “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

Roberts, Michael 2006a “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite Of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2012 “Symbolic Violence Most Nīca, Wholly Foul – the Defacement of the Neelan Tiruchelvam,” 22 August 2012, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/symbolic-violence-most-nica-wholly-foul-the-defacement-of-the-neelan-tiruchelvam-memorial-mural/

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Where In-fighting generates Fervour & Power: ISIS Today, LTTE Yesterday, 21 July 2014, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/where-in-fighting-generates-fervour-power-isis-today-ltte-yesterda/

Roberts, Michael 2015 “Targeting Lanka by Playing Ball with Tamil Extremism: 2008-14,” 24 July 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=17127&action=edit&postpost=v2

TamilNet 2005 “Record crowds throng Jaffna Pongu Thamil rally,” 30 September 2005, https://www.tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=15986

[1] See Roberts, “Hobgoblins,” 1981, a review that has subsequently been modified in Roberts 1994a and 1994b.

[2] See Das (ed.) 1990 for some outcomes. This book includes two articles on Sri Lanka from Valli Kanapathypillai and myself

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Latest comments

  • 15

    Well. Rodney King gets beaten up by white cops. The ensuing violence against whites must have been a “Pogrom” planned by blacks!

    Again, in 1915 when a bunch of Moslems threw rocks at the Dalada Procession, it must have been the Sinhala nationalists who planned the rock throwing!

    In 1957 the govt of the day enacts the Civil Disabilities act banning caste discrimination. Chelvanagam and cohorts run amok obfuscating Sinhala insignia. It must have been the Sinhala nationalists who told Chelva to fck around insulting Sinhala language.

    In 1977 Amirthaligam goes home to Jaffna taking DDC after promising Tamil Eelam. The disappointed Tamils kill 4 cops. The events preceding and after are quite well documented by Sansoni Commision. So Sansoni did not say it was all because of Tamil Eelam cause. What he said was it was all a planned attack by “Sinhala nationalists” did he?

    After the main Tamil party declares war of secession and brings it to Ceylon soil on 1983. That would have been a carefully planned conspiracy by Sinhala nationalists!. So you must have an affidavit by the head of Police at the time Rudra Rajasingham that suggest it was planned by Sinhala nationalists!

    Its a weird situation. It seems the violence that often gets labeled as “racial riots” in most countries always become a “pogrom” in Ceylon.

    Just to check if its weird, why not get the Pakistanis in England to declare a Caliphate in Bradford and see what happens with the skin heads?

  • 3

    The killing of Neelan marks the wanton destruction of one of the greatest intellectuals endowed with such humility. Bensen

  • 11

    This article purports to being an academic piece with an impressive bibliography. To me, it is more a narrative of events the author was somehow related to and the historic perspectives he attempts to portray seem rather directionless. It would have been better to simply voice a qualified opinion with minimal references in a forum such as CT.

  • 5

    The author has written a little of Neelan and more of himself. He has not done justice to remember Neelan’s multi-faceted contribition not only to enrich the academic and research think tank he created in the ICES community which he founded in 1982 but more in the political and constitutional arena. Not a word about Neelan’s landmark dissenting report on the Devolution Commission appointed by JR in 1981 when the then CJ Victor Tennekoon was the Chairman of this Commission. He has failed to mention a word about 1995 GL-Neelan package, the key architect was Neelan and not GL.This package in its originality was discarded by the the. Governement and Anton Balasingham has said after several years that this was the most acceptable solution to satisfy the aspirations of the Tamils than the 50-50 proposed by GG. We can forgive him for not writng about his role in law reforms and corporate sector development and also being the architect of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission Act through which the Free Trade Zone was established. Neelan was handpicked by JR to draft this legialation and China took this Act as a role model to establish its free trade zone.

    • 4

      I totally agree, this piece does nothing but injustice to a man of the caliber of Neelan. The author is not worthy to even untie the sandals of Neelan.

      Forgive the author. From what I can see, he in his declining years cites is own previous works (since no one else will) and re-lives his “glory” years. I have noticed that 90% of his citations are his own works.

    • 4


      Thank you for talking about Neelan’s many contributions, and you are correct that in his later years Anton Balasingham came to realize Neelan’s package was as far as the GoSL could go, given the realities of the Sinhalese psyche in Sri Lanka.

      By the way, Michael Ignatieff, the renowned Harvard professor of human rights who was later an ineffective Canadian Liberal politician, once wrote an article in The Globe and Mail of Canada, saying that he knew and admired Neelan. Despite having gone back to Sri Lanka after studying at Harvard, Neelan was still well-known in the US at the time of his murder.

      • 0

        Thanks for the info on Neelan

    • 0

      Thanks for the info on Neelan

  • 3

    ” On one occasion on 2nd August 2012 Sinhala extremists even went so far as to deface the epitaph on the road where Neelan was struck down by the Tigers (Groundviews 2012). That such a symbolic blow against a voice of reconciliation should occur at such a promising stage in the island’s history highlights the power of polarity in furthering the ethnic hostilities between (some) Tamil and Sinhalese peoples.”

    This symbolic blow against the voice of reconciliation was delivered by the defense establishment of the Rajapakse regime.

    ” Assassinated because Velupillai Pirapāharan (and many Tamil intellectuals in Colombo, Jaffna and abroad) had one goal only: complete self-determination in a separate state”

    There are Sinhala Intellectuals and political parties to whom reconciliation is equally abhorrent.

    • 0

      ” Reconciliation at any price” would be abhorrent to the great majority in Sri Lanka

  • 0

    ”On one occasion on 2nd August 2012 … …… ……… at such a promising stage in the island’s history”?
    Promising stage in the island’s history??
    Leave alone the reports by various UN entities, regional and international HR organisations in the last six years on the unabating oppression of ethnic minorities by the govt and the armed forces in the North and the East and by Sinhala extreme groups in the South. National Peace Council of Sri Lanka has been informative on this and posting its periodic political analyses on its website. To be precise,in mid-2012 G.L.Pieris had been flying to several countries, starting with the US, to tell them Sri Lanka had got LLRC working.

    What is the motive of the author to paint these years as ”promising stage in the island’s history” during election propoganda tim? Esp. after many parties that fight among themselves formed a ”Common Candidate” to defeat Rajapakse for various aspects of horrible governance relating to the whole country?

  • 0

    ”That such a symbolic blow against a voice of reconciliation should occur at such a promising stage in the island’s history highlights the power of polarity in furthering the ethnic hostilities between (some) Tamil and Sinhalese peoples.”

    NO. It shows how some Sinhalese despise ANY Tamil. Some may have been able to read what was on the epitaph and some may not. But they simply went there with the purpose of destroying some symbol of a Tamil. Sometimes someone else might have instigated them to do it – a lotof that has happened in the last 67yrs.

    Folks, do you remember the two Sinhalese murdered in 1958 because they couldn’t read Sinhala? They happened to be the friends of a friend of mine. Sometimes it is difficult to say if someone is a Sinhala or a Tamil(& we still have a debilitating conflict) and in 1958 they had to use a Sinhala newspaper to test is one is a Tamil or a Sinhalese(of course some Tamils could read Sinhala then. Now many Sinhala govt servants can read and speak Tamil)

  • 0

    Many TULF parliamentarians were murdered by the LTTE. Some of the remaining parliamentarians had to pretend to be something else to save their lives from the LTTE. Now after the LTTE leadership was wiped out, they have been free to say and do what they wish to say and do. Most of them had been with SJV Chelvanayagam and federalism. TNA had been for 13A at the end of the war but with the continuing oppression in the last 6yrs they have gone back to the original federalism.Tamils in the North and the East are not better off politically. In fact they are worse off with the unacceptably high militarisation.

    Is this author blind to what the govt does? Instead of encouraging Sinhalese parties to change their 67-yr habit and to be fair and equal to all citizens just as many sensible Sinhalese asked LLRC and Sinhalese Fulbright scholars wrote to Mahinda Rajapakse this author is trying to inflame Sinhala extremism at this juncture.

  • 0

    One would expect a decent scholar at a time like this to induce the Sinhalese to resolve the ethnic conflict reasonably. This writing encourages Sinhala nationalism indirectly.
    What is this scholar’s response to the indecent post-war treatment of those in the North and the East by megamilitarisation economically and socially?

  • 0

    Neelan was certainly a moderating influence but what about Michael Roberts?Does he consider himself a moderating voice in his various writings?Is he a part of the solution or part of the problem on the Tamil issue?

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