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Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (1995 | 2009).

Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail (eds.)

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« An Ethos of Ethics | Main | Event, Structure, History: July 1983, May 2009 »

The work goes on: Remembering Neelakanthan Tiruchelvam

I never agreed with Neelan Tiruchelvam, all that very much. And that was from the very beginning, the very first time I met him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in '84 or '85. He was visiting Harvard to give a lecture and was of course a renowned Tamil liberal intellectual of great stature.

I, a lowly but angry undergraduate at MIT, armed as I was with a radical vision of the possibilities of armed militancy, and what Bernard Yack has called, 'a longing for total revolution,' was suspicious of such figures.

In fact, hard though it may seem to believe now, in those days, it was rumoured in my mother's social circles that I had fallen in with bad friends and turned 'terrorist'.

I asked Dr. Tiruchelvam a question after his presentation that day and I recall being disappointed by the answer - we didn't agree. But I remember to this day the keen, open face and slightly turned head; I remember being heard. That's not merely one fond memory.

In the years after, there were many many times where his arm would be over my shoulder, his head bent, listening intently, head nodding.

It was quite soon after that first encounter that I started my now long, formal relationship with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, of which Neelan was the founder. I had taken a semester off from MIT and been offered an internship to help write a screenplay for a proposed teledrama.

I was excited by the assignment, but even more so by the atmosphere at ICES. Situated in a cozy house down Kynsey Terrace, ICES was bursting at the seams with ideas and arguments, warmed by the sun and cooled by the evening rains spraying gently through the tats of the Thatched Patio.

It was here that I first heard Benedict Anderson speak of nationalism and imagination, first encountered the work of Michel Foucault discussed in a conversation between Radhika Coomaraswamy and Newton Gunasinghe, and saw first hand Neelan Tiruchelvam work tirelessly to build what he called a 'Kynsey Terrace approach' to the world.

The Kynsey Terrace approach was both about a distinctive style and particular themes. If there is one part of that vision that I recall now with some nostalgia, it was Neelan's ability to foster real, on-going argument and dissent at the Centre. To disagree was to be at the heart of things, as long as you could articulate what your dissent was about. And Neelan solicited such, actively.

He would arrive from somewhere, on his way some where else - all distances of thousands of miles - fresh as a cup of morning tea, his light blue shirt only slightly rumpled, and sit down - his scissoring legs the one of sign of great energy that underlay his calm composure - and ask: 'What do you think, Pradeep?'

And often in those youthful days, not only would I think differently from him, but my dissent would often be even scornful and angry. But he would always listen, and hear me.

As my friend and colleague Ramani Mutteguwegama said just the other day, as we chatted about the old days: 'You could storm out of his office after a disagreement, but when you came back, Neelan would have thought about what you had been screaming about.'

But also, the next time he returned from somewhere, there would be tucked under his arm a new book he had bought for you, that went right to the heart of what you had been saying, that he'd give you with a quiet: "I thought you'd like to review this?" That was not simply the toleration of dissent, it was a way of enabling it, and deepening it, so that the righteous anger of youth might mature into a rich intellectual voice.

That was the other side of the Kynsey Terrace approach to things, the nurturing of critical intellectual traditions that would contribute to debates on nationalism, minority rights, gender rights, constitutional law, and of course, unfortunately and necessarily, our analysis of massive events of violence.

So whether it was the vexed and ever present question of re-drafting the constitution of the republic, or understanding the violence of July 1983, the Kynsey Terrace approach wasn't to result in a simple, clinched set of platitudes - it was to be a creative, original, rigorous set of ideas that would add real value to on-going debates, whether in the realm of policy or scholarship.

The Kynsey Terrace approach Neelan envisaged was about a dynamic, critical, intellectual tradition, that would be able to respond, in a located but cosmopolitan way, to the burning issues that faced this country, the region, and the global south.

This was then, and continues to be now, very crucial and urgent. Our critical intellectual traditions, its seems, have been beleaguered for some time now.

First by the almost inevitable postcolonial tension, and even disjuncture, between an under capitalized, often authoritarian state, and individual intellectual curiosities and the resources to pursue them, leading to the flight of many distinguished intellectuals to Euro-America or Australia.

But further, in more recent years, the continuous, numbing, near apocalyptic violence we have faced on all fronts has attenuated the productivity of our universities, learned societies, and their organs of publication.

Neelan stood with a handful of others in other scholarly institutions in the country, who struggled with extraordinary tenacity to work with Sri Lankan scholars both here and abroad, to preserve, enrich and enlarge that tradition.

He laboured hard at this massive task, very effectively and productively, and the fruits of his labours are embedded in the institutions he created.

But his loss, both in spirit and in person, has been almost irreplaceable, and increasingly, I fear that the rich tradition of rigorous, productive, mature debate and dissent that he did so much to build, is now in some trouble,

Our intellectual discourses are increasingly peppered with buzz words sprinkled upon us from up high-empowerment, civil society, good governance, stakeholder, road map, participation and the like, that don't really mean very much any more conceptually, and do even less real world work, practically.

For some time now, there have been serious, sophisticated, international intellectual debates on the very conceptual and practical usefulness of these buzz words, but most of us, barring a few exceptions, seem almost unaware of these debates.

We can and should think through these concepts for ourselves, but we don't - it's easier to simply think less under the cover of pragmatism. It is not that there is one way of re-thinking these concepts; my whole point is that there are many different ways, and we need to attend to them all.

We need to recall and remember Neelan's vision of a Kynsey Terrace approach, not because a dusty lane in Borella is important, but because we desperately need to own our intellectual traditions, and strengthen our ability to think critically about the society and polity which we inhabit.

If Neelan were to walk into my office today, in his socks (as he often did), a smile on his face, head tilted, and ask, 'what do you think, Pradeep?' I would have to say, as John Kennedy sort of said of something else, long ago: 'The flame has flickered, but the spark still glows. The work goes on, the cause endures, hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.'

(First published in print on the 27th of July, 2006, in the Ceylon Daily News)

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