In Praise of Neelan’s Voice of Moderation at Moments of Political Extremism

Michael Roberts, courtesy of Colombo Telegraph where the title is slightly different and where Vibhushana has indulged in an assassin’s sniper-shot-in-words that is of the same order as the actions of those Sinhalese extremists who tried to deface the epitaph for Neelan in 2012 at the location of his murder — in effect underlining my concluding note (though that is not Vibhushana’s intent)

NEElan paiing defaced=GV Pic in 2012, courtesy of Groundviews

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.

NEELANNeelan’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).

neelan's car -BBc Neelan’s mangled car, 29 July 1999  —Pic from BBC

Scared ICES woman  … and a shocked passer-by – –Pic from BBC

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.

53- Pongu Thamil Geneva 2003 Pongu Thamil in Geneva, summer 2003 — Pic from TamilNet

55. TNA adopts LTTE salute at Pongu Thamil TNA leaders and supporters affirm total support for LTTe with Tiger salute,-at Trincomalee in March 2002 — Pic from Sunday Times

See Michael Roberts: Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014, pp. 97-100 for more images and for clarification of the Pongu Thamil activities (ISBN 978-955-665-231-4) …

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Also see Tamilnet for details of this gathering–


Pics from Tamilnet, 30 Sept 2005, …

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,

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,

Jeyaraj, DBS 2009 “Tiruchelvam, Tigers and the Tamil “Traitor” Tragedy,” being a reprint of an article in Frontline in 1999 [

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,

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Where In-fighting generates Fervour & Power: ISIS Today, LTTE Yesterday, 21 July 2014,

Roberts, Michael 2015 “Targeting Lanka by Playing Ball with Tamil Extremism: 2008-14,” 24 July 2015,

TamilNet 2005 “Record crowds throng Jaffna Pongu Thamil rally,” 30 September 2005,


[1] See Roberts, “Hobgoblins,” 1981, a review of the 1915 assaults 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.

ADDENDUM: the first comment in the original  Colombo Telegraph presentation of this article is as follows: “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?” Vibhushana  July 29, 2015 at 12:18 pm


Filed under constitutional amendments, devolution, governance, historical interpretation, life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, reconciliation, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, unusual people, world events & processes, zealotry

3 responses to “In Praise of Neelan’s Voice of Moderation at Moments of Political Extremism

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