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
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,
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
he had the benefit of valuable access to material related to the early days of the
Tamil struggle, and his
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
formerly Editor, Saturday Review, Hot Springs,
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
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
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.