By Rajan Hoole –
The Murder of Neelan Tiruchelvam
Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam was killed by an LTTE suicide bomber in Colombo on 29th June 1999. The reactions to the murder tell us a good deal about how the ordinary Tamil people are cornered, silenced and suffocated by the elite lobby that speaks up for the LTTE. Members of this lobby – Kumar Ponnambalam (now deceased), Nadesan Satyendra and Wakeley Paul inclusive – have denounced Neelan Tiruchelvam as a traitor, and have in effect passed a posthumous death sentence on him. Fr. Xavier, a Tamil Anglican priest in Canada, when asked for his response to the murder by a Canadian human rights activist, replied that he had prayed about it. As though in answer to his prayer, he produced several responses from fellow Tamils. Among them were suggestions such as declaring the day of the murder a pubic holiday to commemorate the suicide killer who rid the Tamils of a traitor!
Thinakkural, the Tamil daily in Colombo edited by Sivanesachelvan, editorially mourned the loss of Neelan Tiruchelvam who had personally been helpful to the editor. The next day, the same paper published a cartoon justifying the murder. The cartoon in the form of the neck of a man wedged between the cutting edges of an instrument associated with moderation, depicted the ordinary Tamil man being crushed by the moderates, among whom Neelan was prominent. The members of the LTTE lobby revealed to worst in themselves. It was as though they would all be affronted by anyone seeing the slightest good in the dead man.
*Photo – Sithie Tiruchelvam and Neelan Tiruchelvam
Another group of LTTE-leaning Tamils pointed to thousands of tragedies affecting ordinary civilians and said that by comparison they could not find sorrow in their heart for Neelan Tiruchelvam. Many of them also suggested that Neelan’s activities as a democrat and human rights activist had no meaning for the Tamil people as the latter had neither democracy nor human rights. The main issue was avoided. The civilians wanted an end to war. But could not, owing to the LTTE’s intolerance of democracy, organise and speak for themselves. It is in this unenviable plight of the Tamil community that Neelan Tiruchelvam’s role became indispensable.
A particular red herring above is the insignificance of his death as compared with thousands of other war-related deaths. Neelan Tiruchelvam met his end in an extraordinary tryst. He was killed by an organisation that set its agents to stalk him for weeks or even months and then picked a martyr who was put through a singular religious ceremony. Bound by an oath to the Leader as to a god, the martyr was sent to destroy Neelan along with himself.
This raises poignantly an entirely different set of questions. It is a deliberate killing with a religious significance. The killer was ceremoniously blessed by the Leader and exhorted to receive comfort in joining the spirits of other ‘martyrs’ whose souls would attain eternal bliss with the birth of Tamil Eelam. How uncannily different a world to that of urban LTTE supporters? Clearly, the LTTE found Neelan an immense threat – surely, an amiable academic pottering around with constitutions and legal treatises and a welcome guest at reputed fora around the world.
Why did a leading section of the Tamil community find it necessary to belittle his contribution, impugn and ridicule him and brand him a traitor? Far from being a military threat to the LTTE, this largely self-effacing man came into some modest prominence by working with members of the Government to draw up a new constitution to meet the aspirations of Tamil people. This effort no doubt gained credibility through Neelan Tiruchelvam’s sound international connections – not least in India and the USA.
It also tells us why his role was important. Neelan, although he would have been a respected academic, would have had little political significance, had there been freedom within the Tamil community to discuss political issues. Indeed, not even one seminar was held in Jaffna University to discuss the Government’s political package that was a crucial development, even if only to reject it. The Tamils were placed in an unenviable situation. They needed a political solution but were not allowed to discuss its content. They had become totally dependent on an enlightened government implementing a solution acceptable to the Tamil people. The constitutional exercise hinged on gentle and friendly persuasion from Neelan and a few others in the role of compassionate Tamils.
This was not a task that Neelan had asked for. It devolved to him by default, because of a singular pathology in the political life of the Tamil people. They were not allowed to say what they wanted by the LTTE, which in turn refused to engage in political talks because it could not. The most equitable settlement in the world cannot satisfy a man who has assumed godhead to himself and sent hundreds of others to self-inflicted martyrdom in his name. He can neither state nor defend what he wants and has made it a capital offence for anyone else to speak for the community. Thus, the most sober human aspirations of others become a potent challenge to him. Neelan thus took on a very ordinary, innocuous task without first understanding where it may lead to. This is the plight of the Tamil people saddled with ‘sole legitimate representatives’ who cannot leave them in peace.
The London-based Tamil Times, to its credit, brought out an issue commemorating Neelan. Tributes to him as well as condemnation of the crime of his murder came from eminent figures and colleagues around the world. But from his own people, particularly his own class and his own age group who went to the same elite schools in Colombo, and like him to some of the prestigious universities in the world, what came out was venom. The educated are usually good at saying polite things, hiding their true feelings. But here was jealousy, more vicious for being so patently puerile. There is something dreadfully disturbing in the ego-centric approach to the world one sees in many educated Jaffna men.
It must be said however that many ordinary Tamil people who live in dismal conditions in the North-East were deeply concerned by the killing of Neelan Tiruchelvam. Everyone who is privileged to go to the world’s prestigious institutions of learning would be taught the cultural nuances and mannerisms of the world’s elite. When they depart this life in a manner that shakes the complacency of this protected class, there would be the ritual praise and expressions of solidarity. All this has nothing distinctive to say about the human qualities of the man.
Moreover, his party, the TULF, cannot claim any credit for leading the Tamils, leave alone being a serious political party. Having given birth to the LTTE they are yet to come to terms honestly with their common history, and so continue trapped within it. When the LTTE killed Nadarajah, Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran and Sambandamoorthy in the late 80s and made its intentions clear, the others should have taken on full security and challenged and exposed the LTTE. But they carried on avoiding naming the killers of their fellows, and tried instead to get close to LTTE sympathisers, passing messages, whitewashing the LTTE and even grovelling to its tune.
The LTTE bided its time and picked them off one by one – Thangathurai, Mrs. Yogeswaran, Namasivayam, Sivapalan, Mathimugarajah and Tiruchelvam – all going to the grave in their turn in the sure and certain knowledge that their Party would not stand up for them. The Party members prevaricated and pretended that it could be anyone other than the LTTE. The Party created the conditions for their dead to rest in dishonour and for people to attack their dead – these malignant personal attacks were among the ugliest manifestations in Tamil society.
An incident illustrates the reality of the TULF leadership and their private sentiments as opposed to what is said in public. A Sinhalese DIG of Police was sent to enhance a TULF leader’s security after Neelan Tiruchelvam was killed. He told the officer, “Son, I am a religious man. I always believed that God will determine the span of my earthly sojourn. But now I know that it will be determined by the man who is ensconced in the Mullaitivu jungles. Son, you do what you can.” He later recounted, “When drunken policemen attacked the house of the Yogeswarans in 1981 forcing them to flee for their life, the Tamil youth led them to safety. Now see how things have changed. These young Sinhalese policemen have to place their lives at risk in order to protect me!” It illustrates a peculiar dilemma faced by the Tamil community as a whole after a liberation struggle.
Placing Neelan Tiruchelvam’s life in its correct perspective, which people can readily identify with, would be to celebrate him as an ordinary compassionate man – one among those thousands of Tamils killed who did not aspire to hero status, who shunned risks, but were caught up almost unawares in a situation where doing the decent thing promised dire consequences. Faced with this unsought dilemma, they decided to be decent and paid the ultimate price.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here