Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Tribute to Senator Murugeysu Tiruchelvam QC

The 30th death anniversary of the late Minister M. Tiruchelvam, QC took place recently.
Mr. Murugeysu Tiruchelvam QC and former Minister of Local Government and Solicitor-General belonged to a band of men with a vision and a mission. His political sagacity, robust patriotism, practical wisdom and great administrative skill made him one of Sri Lanka's great statesmen. In the political field he was a Cabinet Minister, a Member of the Senate and a leading figure among the people of this country.

Mr. Tiruchelvam, who was born in 1907, grew up in Malaya, where his father Mr. V. Murugeysu was an officer in the British colonial administration. Soon after the first world war ended in 1918, Mr. Murugeysu sent his two elder sons Tiruchelvam and Rajendra to St. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia.

This move was recommended to Mr. Murugeysu by the son of one of his friends - Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, an old Thomian who was then pursuing a legal career in Colombo. It was felt that St. Thomas was superior in academic standing to any institution at the time in Malaya, even the famous Victoria Institute. St. Thomas College had an exalted reputation at that time, having been dubbed the Eton of the East.

Mr. Tiruchelvam entered politics in the early 1960s after a long and distinguished career as a government legal officer. Having reached the high office of Solicitor-General, he set his sights on contributing to the greater good of the country as a politician.

Mr. Tiruchelvam was the chief advisor and principal political strategist of the founders of the Federal Party. Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, QC. Mr. Chelvanayagam, who was nearly a decade senior to Mr. Tiruchelvam, had played a leading role in shaping Mr. Tiruchelvam's educationl career and legal career. He was the guide and mentor to Mr. Tiruchelvam's foray into politics.
His early years were shaped by struggle and civil disobedience. In 1961, a mass satyagraha was staged by the Federal Party to protest against the Sinhala Only Act. Mrs. Bandaranaike's government jailed Mr. Tiruchelvam and more than 30 other leaders of the Federal party in Panagoda for over six months.

Today, the mass incarceration of so many political prisoners would be met by international outrage. But the world was different in 1961 and this cruel act of oppression went largely unnoticed. In 1965, the UNP and Federal Party entered into a coalition pact, after the Senanayake Chelvanayagam pact. The famous press magnate Esmond Wickremesinghe was the mediator between the two parties.

Mr. Tiruchelvam entered the Senate and was named in Dudley Senanayake's Cabinet as the Federal Party nominee. During his tenure as the Minister of Local Government, Mr. Tiruchelvam played a leading role in administrative reforms.

He was also instrumental in the passage of the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act and the creation of the Jaffna University. In September 1968, due to the inability of the UNP government to implement the Senanayake-Chelvanayagam pact and a dispute with the Prime Minister, Mr. Tiruchelvam resigned. Incidentally, Mr. Tiruchelvam's deputy Mr. Ranasinghe Premadasa (who later became President) succeeded him as Minister of Local Government. Mr. Tiruchelvam had great confidence in the potential of the youthful Mr. Premadasa. Mr. Tiruchelvam continued in the Senate till its abrogation in 1971.

His last years were spent in the context of the worsening ethnic relations in the country, particularly in light of the 1972 constitution. Despite the worsening situation, Mr. Tiruchelvam was resolutely in favour of a united and plural Sri Lanka. He was opposed to the 1976 Vadukkodai resolution that demanded a separate state of Tamil Ealam and advised Mr. Chelvanayagam against it.

He died suddenly on 23rd November 1976 at the age of 69. His passing away was a loss to the whole country, because he was a strong voice for peace and moderation.
(This appeared in the Ceylon Observer on 24th December 2006)
Senator M Tiruchelvam QC, former Ceylon Minister

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