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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C

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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century > Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson

One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century

Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson

[See also Professor Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson by S.Sivanayagam]

Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson, Ph.D. D.Sc.(Econ) taught at the University of Ceylon and held the founding chair of Political Science at that University (later the University of Peradeniya) before being appointed Professor of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick, Canada in 1972.

He was a Leverhulme Research Scholar - London School of Economics, 1955, Research Fellow in Politics - University of Leicester 1964-65, Research Associate - McGill University, Canada 1970-71, Senior Research Associate - Columbia University, 1977 and Senior Associate Member - St.Antony's College, Oxford, 1977.

In 1978-83, he acted as constitutional adviser to Sri Lanka President J.R.Jayawardene.

He was the author of Politics in Sri Lanka 1947-73, Electoral Politics in an Emergent State, 1975, the Gaullist System in Asia, 1980 and Co Editor of States of South Asia, 1982, and From Independence to Statehood, 1984, and recently, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism,1999

In 1988, he wrote 'The Break-Up of Sri Lanka : The Sinhalese-Tamil Conflict ' and concluded:

"My experience in the mediatory process (1978-83) and as an inside observer of Sinhalese political behaviour (1948-87) has convinced me that the Tamil militant groups now provide an alternative leadership to the Tamil people. In the eyes of the militant sections, the civilian leadership failed in its policies when it resorted to Parliament and negotiations. The war may take several years for a final decision. The longer it takes, the more likely is it that a separate state will emerge. In the interim it is probable that patchwork compromises will be implemented, with New Delhi acting as a monitoring agent, but this cannot continue forever. Compromise agreements will, as history has repeatedly shown, not be honoured on a permanent basis. The war will be resumed. The partition of Ceylon is already a fact of history..."

Professor Wilson was not only an academic of world stature but also a political activist. As the son in law of the Tamil leader S.J.V.Chelvanayagam, he had the benefit of valuable access to material related to the early days of the Tamil struggle, and his S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism 1947-1977 : A Political Biography remains the definitive biography of Thanthai Chelva. Wilson made important contributions at several international conferences on the Struggle for Tamil Eelam and amongst his later writings was an examination of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's Devolution Proposals.

Professor Wilson passed away on at his home in Toronto on Wednesday, 31 May 2000.

Professor Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson: The Doyen of Academia

By S.Sivanayagam, formerly Editor, Saturday Review, Hot Springs, June 2000

Ever since I heard of the passing away of Professor A.J.Wilson, I had been feeling a sense of anger at myself. What paralysis of thought that made me not pick up the phone and talk to him these past three weeks ? on the last occasion that I spoke to him, I could see that he was getting feeble. His lisping made it difficult for me to follow all what he was saying. I should have realised that here was a man - my friend - whose life was slowly ebbing away. As it says in the Christian Prayer Book, in the midst of Life we are in Death. But like Birth, does Death come with prior announcement ? I should have known better.

There were many reasons for reproaching myself for not being in touch with him during the last three weeks of his life in this world. Alfie Wilson and I belonged to the same age group. He was a distinguished academic, the doyen of Academia both in Sri Lanka and in Canada. I was a working journalist in Colombo for 30 years, later to become an advocate of the Tamil cause through my writings. Our paths never crossed. Traditionally, academics and journalists do not rate each other much in life. Academics tend to look down their noses at journalists as mere purveyors of the passing scene. Journalists on the other hand think of academics as bookworms cut off from empirical truths, and writing books for each other ! As to what chemistry that made Mr.Wilson warm up to me these two years or so, I could only guess.

Although we had heard of each other, the one and only occasion on which we came face to face was at a weekend seminar at Oxford, organised by Liz Philipson of Conciliation Resources during the week ending April l998. It was a small intimate group of about ten persons, all leading activists in the Tamil cause. On that occasion he presented me with a copy of his book S.J.V.Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Tamil Nationalism, (1947-1977): A Political Biography, with the following pencilled inscription:- "For dear Siva, with much affection and my great admiration for your brilliant writing skills, A.Jeyaratnam Wilson". It was a touching gesture on his part.

I would not know many people in this computer age who send handwritten letters, but Professor Wilson was one of them. Six months ago, he faxed me seven pages of a hand written letter which he began writing from his sickbed at the Toronto General Hospital. Dated 29 November it said:

"My dear Siva, As you will note from the address I'm writing to you, I have been warded in TGH for the last two weeks having fallen a victim to pneumonia which is threatening to become chronic and could indeed be dangerous if not arrested at the right time. After being treated aggressively, I am now on the road to recovery and will be back home mid-week next week...."

That 7-page letter completed from home and faxed to me on December 2 said on top: "Private and Personal", and indeed contained very personal references to some people in public life who are anyway no longer in the land of the living.

Professor Wilson was a man who had a ringside view of politics in Sri Lanka during one phase of the country's history, and also a close familiarity with some of the important players in the political scene during that period. The fortuitous fact that he happened to be the son-in-law of the Tamil leader f twenty years, S.J.V.Chelvanayakam, helped, but it cannot be forgotten he was a political scientist by profession, and an outstanding researcher and author on Sri Lankan politics.

What impelled him, despite his frail health, to sit down and pen those seven pages? A mutual friend of ours, he wrote "was keen to have my views on the special HOT SPRING issue on our late lamented Neelan". He follows it by saying:

"Your editorial said a great deal and I think it was appropriate that a widely respected and senior journalist such as you took on the onerous task of undressing the Emperor even though he may not have had a stitch of clothing by the time you had cleared the debris. The outside cover picture was a telling illustration of abject genuflection. But I think the rumour mills of Colombo will not only re-echo your observations but as you stated be dismissive of Neelan as just a collaborator...

"I would like to thank you especially for your kind and understanding interpretation of my dealings with the twentieth century fox JRJ. My role was just as you described it, more or less a carpenter who was trying to put the pieces together. The real devil in that whole affair was Lalith Athulathmudali..."

Professor Wilson was a much-misunderstood man. The fact that he was an academic whose views were known only through his books and seminar papers, gave him in the eyes of many Tamils who had no access to these - an image of being an aloof personality removed from the Tamil political and militant struggle. That was unfortunate. How strongly he felt for the Tamil cause was known only to those with whom he had personal dialogues and correspondence, both Tamils and Sinhalese, some of whom were his pupils and admirers from the Peradeniya University, where he was the first occupant of the founding chair of Political Science. It is a pity that those who are in charge of propagating the Tamil cause in the West did not have the imagination to enlist him into the ranks. A man of his intellectual calibre and academic standing would have been an asset in justifying the Tamil struggle in the eyes of the international community.

Thirteen years ago, in 1987, he made an illuminating presentation on Sri Lanka at a hearing by the Sub-Committee on Asian and Pacific Affairs, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Congress of the United States. In a statement he made before the Committee on March 12, 1987, he said, inter alia:

"...The most pressing problem is to recognize the fact that the Tamils of Sri Lanka, and they include the Indian Tamil Plantation workers, occupy a geographically contiguous area and have, unlike in the early days of independence Qequn to look upon themselves as a nation in their own right. This comprising the Northern, Eastern and Uva provinces should be constitutionally recognised as a single Tamil unit. Powers that do not include foreign affairs, defense, currency and communication should be devolved on this unit. Constitutionally, the central government should not have the right to withdraw any of the powers devolved without the consent of the Tamil unit. Any other formula for the amendment of powers will easily pass through the Legislature and will be meaningless because the Sinhalese constitute 74 per cent of the population...."

He went on to submit before the Congress Committee an alternative proposition which in his opinion could prove "more attractive". He stated:

"The traditional Tamil areas of the Northern, Eastern and Uva provinces should constitute one unit. They could have a sovereignty-type relationship with the Sinhala Rata (the Sinhalese state). That Sinhalese state could be completely unshackled in whatever it wants to do in regard to the preservation of the land, the Sinhala race and the Buddhist faith. Each unit will have complete and unconditional control over defence, foreign affairs and land. Other subjects can be negotiated upon. The fact of a sovereignty-association relationship will at least maintain the island as one single polity on the map of the globe".

What Professor Wilson stated as "an alternative proposition" thirteen years ago looks in retrospect far in advance of what most Tamil protagonists had been mooting since then. May I exhort activists in the Tamil diaspora to take up this proposal and use it as a spring board in furtherance of our cause.

To go back to Wilson's letter where he makes references to Neelan Tiruchelvam, this is what he said:

"... I have lost in Neelan, a dear and loyal friend. He gave me encouragement, a boost always. To that extent, I will never have a replacement. He was a loyal friend, loyal to the core....".

But he had that sufficient detachment of outlook not to confuse his personal feelings towards Neelan, with his assessment of Neelan as a politician...

There were many quotable quotes in his letter, not all of which could be publicised because of the confidentiality he imposed on me, but two references to Mr.Tiruchelvam (Sr ) and Punitham Tiruchelvam could be told without causing any harm. Wilson says Mr.Tiruchelvam (Sr.) had nothing but contempt for the Tamil clerical servants who gave him trouble when he was Minister. He referred to them once as "Kalki readers". It is not clear of course why the Minister thought Kalki readers are contemptible; maybe he thought they were largely illiterate in the English language. As for the reference to Mrs.Punitham Tiruchelvam, that I think is a pleasant one to record. Wilson says how Father Thani Nayagam in good humour once referred to Punitham as "that Chola bronze". As for me, as one who had known and admired both of them, it tickled me to hear that from Wilson.

Professor Wilson was not only a scholar, he had a lighter and and lovable side to his nature. But he had a premonition of death as well. We live in a world, where we are daily recording the deaths of Tamils; Tamils of eminence, Tamil martyrs who die in battle, non-combatant Tamils caught up in the war, nameless Tamils, faceless Tamils... deaths in the middle of life. In Professor Wilson, the Tamil world has lost its most distinguished academic, its ablest historian and a unique chronicler of the past. He has left a void that cannot be filled.

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