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Neelan Thiruchelvam - Stood for civil rights, pluralism and justice

2013 Aug 01

"A memorial lecture on the late Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam was delivered by Vasuki Nesiah, Associate Professor of Practice, New York University at the BMICH last week. Following are some excerpts from her lecture."

The theme of public and private morality in the mourning of the dead after a war, the post-war social structure and coming to terms with pluralism for a more democratic future were focused  at an in- depth presentation by Vasuki Nesiah, Associate Professor of Practice, New York University. She knowledgeably drew the attention of the audience at the 14th Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture to these themes drawing parallels with the Greek play Antigone and the Tamil epic Silapathikaram.

"In every case, in the aftermath of a war, the war victors claim the right to label one group as the victors or the patriots while the other group is identified as the “traitors”. It is this trend that seeps even into the personal experiences in mourning the death of a loved one. However Antigone , as Nesiah pointed out has become voice to oppose this trend and as it shows the character of Antigone challenges the hegemonic authority providing a voice for the minority to win their rights, in this instance, the cultural right of burying the dead according to their beliefs"


 The memorial lecture was held at the BMICH on 28th July and Nesiah was the guest lecturer at the occasion. Late Neelan Thiruchelvam was not only an eminent legislator but an accomplished academic, and he left his legacy through the research institutions he founded; The International Centre for Ethnic Studies and The Law and Society Trust for the young minds to comprehend the true spirit of law, humanity and justice. Thus as the Neelan Thiruchelvam Trust celebrated his life and mourned his loss, Nesiah aptly highlighted the importance of the very values Late Thiruchelvam stood for; civil rights, pluralism and justice.
 Before delving into her main theme, Nesiah said it was important to briefly highlight the storylines of Antigone and Silapathikaram.
The Greek play Antigone takes place in the aftermath of the civil war in Thebes. The victorious king Creon is bent on celebrating the victory rather than mourning for the dead. Antigone the protagonist is a woman whose brother has died fighting against King Creon and the play is focused upon her quest for just; her quest to give her brother a fitting burial according to their cultural beliefs.
However, King Creon has pronounced that the dead soldiers of the party should not be granted their proper burial rites, but Antigone out of sisterly love defies Creon’s edict and buries her brother.

"For Neelan, Silapathikaram  carried an important message about the relationship between justice and the courage of ordinary citizens. In addition, together with its twin epic, Manimekalai it carried the spirit of the richly pluralistic tradition of Tamil culture that Neelan wanted to celebrate"

Upon hearing this Creon is furious that Antigone did not obey the pronounced law of the land and imprisons her. Then Creon is advised that the wrath of the Gods has fallen upon Creon because of the injustice and he will pay by way of his own son’s death.
Creon’s son Haimon is also the fiancé of Antigone and she commits suicide.  Grief-stricken Haimon also commits suicide. Upon hearing of his death, Creon’s wife commits suicide cursing Creon for the death of her son. In the end, Creon accepts his blunder and the chorus calls out “Wisdom – better get some even too late”.

In Silapathikaram the protagonist is a female named Kannahi. The King of Madurai wrongly accuses Kannahi’s husband of stealing the queen’s anklet and beheads him. Kannahi storms into the palace and proves his innocence and realising the mistake the guilt ridden King dies due to his own regret. But Kannahi doesn’t stop there as she wants a total reformation of the system to replace the old system with a system of new values of justice and thus she sets fire to the whole city.
“For Neelan, Silapathikaram  carried an important message about the relationship between justice and the courage of ordinary citizens. In addition, together with its twin epic, Manimekalai it carried the spirit of the richly pluralistic tradition of Tamil culture that Neelan wanted to celebrate.

Silapathikaram was written by a Jain prince and Manimekalai was written by a Buddhist poet. They both had strong female protagonists and what some may term a proto- feminist consciousness. In this sense like Neelan himself, they stand in contradistinction to insular illiberal expressions of Tamil Nationalism” pointed out Nesiah.

Radical equality in death
In every case, in the aftermath of a war, the war victors claim the right to label one group as the victors or the patriots while the other group is identified as the “traitors”. It is this trend that seeps even into the personal experiences in mourning the death of a loved one. However Antigone , as Nesiah pointed out has become voice to oppose this trend and as it shows the character of Antigone challenges the hegemonic authority providing a voice for the minority to win their rights, in this instance, the cultural right of burying the dead according to their beliefs.

“ Antigone has had an enduring hold on our imagination of justice. In places where communities have been refused a right to mourn their dead, Antigone has been a way to claim that right. In places where states have declared a hierarchy of loss that includes both the privileged and dispensable victims, Antigone has been a way to claim the radical equality of death. In places where a war’s victors have claimed an Orwellian right to declare an official truth and underwrite a new technology of control, Antigone has been a way to resist and revolt” she said.

Nesiah went on to note that while there are different interpretations about what Antigone stands, she has recast her debate between Creon and Antigone as the staging of debate about democracy; the tension between the notion of democracy as “a form of government” and “democracy as a form of social and political life”.
“Political theorist Jacques Ranciere describes this tension as the “democratic paradox”. This is what we saw in Cairo and Alexandria as people protested against democratically elected Egyptian President Morsi. This explains what we saw in Turkey when people poured into the streets of Istanbul and Ankara to protest the authoritarian ethos of a thrice democratically elected President Erdogan.
As Khaled Fahmy notes the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi thought that winning free and fair elections was what the revolution was all about. But people did not take to the streets in Jan-Feb 2011 and risk their lives only to have free and fair elections. In fact, the vision of democracy that Tahrir Square represented was much more vibrant and the government quickly diagnosed this as a threat. Morsi then proceeded to suppress the democratic action through an array of assaults against the press, NGOs and the judiciary” she noted.

Politics of memory
Under such political and social movements and viewing them through the democratic paradox Nesiah stressed that the Antigone -Creone story can be utilized to think about the post- war social structure, how we mourn the dead and live with our differences. She highlighted that these interrelated dimensions are important to move forward in the aftermath of war.
“ Antigone Opens up pivotal questions about the politics of memory. Creon’s prohibition on the burial of Antigone’s brother presents any act honouring rebels as itself subversive of the Theban state. But Antigone burying her brother with all the Homeric rites that her community accords the dead was famously celebrated by Hegel as actions of sisterly love that was outside of an opposed to the public law of the land.
He situated the act of rebellion as an act of personal moral conscience that competed with the logic of politics and the imperatives of the state. Undoubtedly the deaths of war have private meaning. But this is not their only significance. Even today as we are gathered here to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Neelan it is not only because of those connections of family to an individual. Rather because his life and death meant something to the public sphere. This is the story of many and all of those who were killed over the past three decades in Sri Lanka. Unimaginable personal loss has been suffered, but each attack against an individual life also had a ‘larger- than–single life significance” said Nesiah.
Speaking further Nesiah said that in Antigone the stakes are not only about remembering the dead, but keeping alive multiple traditions in the public sphere.  She pointed out that Creon’s prohibition regarding  the burials is an effort to exclude other traditions in the name of creating one nation.

“There is a resonance with contemporary debates that have been taking place in Sri Lanka about the identity of a nation.  From whether we wear a headscarf to whether we wear a pottu. These are all alternative ways for individuals to be present in public space, to claim the rights of citizenship and pluralise our selective features. From LTTE’s claims to represent the Tamil community to Ashraff’s challenge to the southern leadership of the Muslim community, Sri Lanka’s minorities have a long tradition of internal contestation of claims to sole representation of their traditions and communities.
Unequivocal representations of culture and tradition express technologies of knowledge and power that can generate the very oppressive dynamics they aim to contest. In Antigone the rule of law is fore-grounded not as politically neutral foundation of post- war Thebes, but as invested in recognising particular traditions and in excluding others. It is not a framework for a post-war peace that is a shield against the return of conflict rather it carries continuities with the war” explained Nesiah.

When great trees fall
Concluding her speech Nesiah referred to Slipathikaram and said that the protagonist Kannahi is not critical only about the injustice caused to her husband but about the entire justice system that lead to implement the very system.
“Is there no honest man or is it only the sort of man who nourishes and protects the sons of his own blood? Is there no God in this country” Kannahi asks.
“Today we sometimes associate Kannahi’s burning of the city with nihilistic destruction. Yet the power of the epic and part of what Neelan took from Silapathikaram in thinking about constitutional law was the story about the fallibility of leaders and the power of ordinary citizens to bring down a corrupt system.

Rather than individualise the loss Kannahi wanted to challenge the system that produced the miscarriage of justice. This is how we honour counter memory when great trees fall, when great souls die, she noted referring to the poem by Maya Angelou.http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/172-opinion/33118-neelan-thiruchelvam-stood-for-civil-rights-pluralism-and-justice.html

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