Neelan Tiruchelvam was a friend and fellow-researcher with whom I had interacted for many years. Late in 1986 towards the end of a long-sabbatical research spell in Sri Lanka when my interests were focused on the data that eventually became the book People In between (1989, Sarvodaya Book Publishing), Neelan approached me and asked me to participate in a conference of South Asian scholars scheduled in the Maldives. He wanted me to present a reflective paper on what was widely referred to as “the riots of 1915” ormarakkala 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, this was a dreamtime invitation.
It also meant work though. 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 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 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.
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 July 29, 1999 as he headed towards his office and the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. 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 Prabahakran (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, 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 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 Prabahakran’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 Thamil Ealam. 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 August , 2012 Sinhala extremists even went so far as to deface the epitaph on the road where Neelan was struck down by the Tigers. 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 people.