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The latest decision by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to quit the government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has caused much controversy. The timing of the SLMC’s move has led to much speculation that the party decision was tied up with the Budget’s third reading vote on December 14.
While this may be true to some extent, it would be a mistake to regard the SLMC move from that perspective alone. The political compulsions that caused the SLMC to act as it did are much more complex and problematic.
Unless the Rajapaksa regime extricates itself from its majoritarian mindset and addresses minority concerns reasonably, such tensions and convulsions seem inevitable.

Before delving into the motivating factors behind the SLMC’s current decision a brief re run outlining the reasons that compelled the party to join the government is necessary. Examining the past history of the SLMC is also required to understand the present.

Advent of the SLMC
The advent of the SLMC was a watershed in the politics of this country. The SLMC’s charismatic Leader M.H.M. Ashraff, through his vision and political acumen, demonstrated that the geographically dispersed Muslim community could be weaved into a vibrant entity. The political base of the party was the Eastern Province in general and the Ampara District in particular.

The dominant Sinhala political class had been long used to pliable Muslim politicians of both green and blue hues. Ashraff was different and stridently independent. He was however prepared to cooperate on the basis of principles and self-respect.

Ashraff forged an alliance with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1994 through a Memorandum of Understanding. The SLMC tasted political power as a key constituent of the Kumaratunga regime. The SLMC was able to satisfy its voters on a number of issues by sharing power.

But Ashraff himself was an authoritative ‘thalaiver’ (leader) who would not brook inner-party dissent. By the tail-end of that government’s tenure, Ashraff had fallen out with at least five MPs like U.L.M. “thoppi” Mohideen, M.M. Zuhair, S.M. Aboobucker, M.A.M. Hizbullah and Dr. M. Illias.

Rauff Hakeem remained the most loyal and strongest of Ashraff’s deputies. He was the rising star of the party. After Ashraff’s tragic demise Hakeem took over the reins, but there were elements hostile to him. Some of these people got around Ferial Ashraff and promoted dynastic politics.

Even as cracks began to appear in the seemingly monolithic Muslim Congress, the dominant political establishment began to exploit these. The political unity of the Muslims under a strong party was unpalatable to many.

Ashraff had enjoyed a close relationship with Kumaratunga but Hakeem did not. Complicating matters further was the unfortunate chasm between Ashraff’s widow Ferial Ashraff and his political heir Hakeem. Deep divisions were visible within the SLMC after the elections of 2000.

Though Ashraff developed the SLMC as a party of the Muslims, he eventually realised that a broader alliance was needed to expand politically in the multi-ethnic east. The SLMC Leader also perceived himself as a national leader who could help establish ethnic amity and national unity.
As a result, the National Unity Alliance (NUA) was born. Sadly, Ashraff died in the Air crash before he could give shape to his fresh political ideals.

In Ashraff’s absence the SLMC itself began to fragment. The able and articulate Hakeem was too young and inexperienced at that point of time to handle challenges to his authority. Parting of the ways with Ferial Ashraff saw her leading the NUA while Hakeem retained his hold on the SLMC.

One of the mistakes Hakeem made was to assume that the party would accept him as leader in the same way it did Ashraff. What he failed to note was that Ashraff virtually built up the SLMC after he ousted Kattankudi’s Ahamed Lebber in 1986.
In addition, Ashraff was a son of the Eastern Province and Ampara District soil. Hakeem, born in Galagedara, was not a “Kizakku Muslim” (eastern Muslim).

As such, Hakeem was forced to rely on local politicians from the east to maintain his leadership. He contested against formidable odds in Kandy District and was elected to Parliament in 2001. But people like A.H.M. Athaullah and the late Anwer Ismail emerged as powerful SLMC leaders in Ampara District.
Egoistical clashes and temperamental incompatibility led to further splits. Encouraged by those in power, Athaullah split and eventually formed the National Congress (NC).

Splits promoted
The saga of SLMC fragmentation continued. The SLMC contested the 2004 Parliamentary polls in association with the United National Party (UNP). It was confined to the opposition with the UNP as the SLFP-JVP combine fared better electorally.
The elections also saw the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) with its Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonic ideology winning several seats. Several of the JHU policies were anti-Muslim in character.

Once again, SLMC splits were promoted. Ministerial portfolios were dangled as carrots. As a result MPs like Rishard Badiudeen, Najib Abdul Majeed, Ameer Ali and Hussein Bhaila went over to the government.
They formed the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC). This left the SLMC with only six seats in Parliament. Hakeem, however, proved a point by winning handsomely in the Ampara District.

While these amusing yet deplorable antics went on, a clear political truth was being established firmly in Muslim politics. Though MPs elected on the SLMC ticket were fickle and politically disloyal, the average Muslim voter was not. The SLMC continued to win most of the seats entitled to the community and remained the single largest Muslim party.
It was the most credible Muslim political voice and Muslims identified with it as their party. At the last local authority elections, the SLMC captured 11 of 13 Muslim dominated local bodies in the east.

The 2005 presidential elections saw the SLMC hitching its wagon to the Ranil Wickremesinghe star. Wickremesinghe got overwhelming support from the so-called “minority” communities – the Sri Lankan Tamils, up country Tamils and the Muslims.
Rajapaksa got more Sinhala votes than his rival. The Tigers in an act of political stupidity and betrayal enforced a boycott. As a result Tamils in the north east could note vote in large numbers. Rajapaksa won with a razor-thin majority.
Now the SLMC was in a quandary. With Ferial, Athaullah and Rishard, etc., enjoying ministerial power, there was pressure from within sections of the SLMC that the party should join the government.
Hakeem, however, wanted to do so on a principled basis. He began negotiating another MoU with set conditions before joining the government.

Meanwhile, the Rajapaksa regime was also accelerating its campaign to win over opposition MPs with ministerial posts. Overtures were made behind Hakeem’s back to some SLMC parliamentarians. These MPs had neither the patience nor the self-respect to work out a respectable MoU.

Soon it became apparent that at least three of the six Muslim Congress MPs would cross over, defying Hakeem. In such a situation, SLMC stalwarts decided to join the government as a party without an adequate MoU being worked out.
The SLMC could not afford another split at that juncture. So the party as a whole decided to join. The rebellious MPs decided and the leaders followed.

The “marriage” was by no means an act of free will. It was virtually a shotgun wedding in which the minds of the groom and bride did not meet. It is doubtful whether the union was ever consummated politically.

Bitter irony
The bitter irony is that the SLMC which gained entry into the government to prevent another split is once again torn apart by its exit. Only four MPs – Hakeem, Basheer Segu Dawood, S.M. Hassan Ali and Faizal Cassim – have resigned their portfolios and crossed over to the opposition. . Nijamuddin and KA Baiz have not. They went “missing” amid rumours that lavish hospitality was being shown them at a posh hotel.

It can be seen, therefore, that recent history is repeating itself as far as splits in the SLMC are concerned. The important question then is, why did the SLMC risk another split to cross over? What compelled the party to discard the trappings of government office and seek the bleak desert of opposition? The simple answer is strong grass roots pressure exerted by the rank and file!
There is no denying that the Muslim community faces many problems generally and particularly in the east. Muslim MPs are duty bound to try and alleviate them to whatever extent possible. If the MPs are unable or unwilling to do so and the people who voted for them perceive it that way, then the political future of those parliamentarians is in jeopardy.

The pivotal base of the SLMC is the Eastern Province. When the LTTE was a dominant force in the province, there was much friction between the Tigers and the Muslim community. Other problems were not felt acutely.

But now the LTTE is no longer a force to be reckoned with in the east. With that contradiction removed, other contradictions are coming to the fore as far as the Muslims are concerned.
One of the major, legitimate grievances of the non-Sinhala ethnicities in Sri Lanka has been that of the Sinhala majoritarian state imposing its hegemony on the minorities. The greater contradiction has been that, as far as the minority nationalities were concerned. Friction between the minority communities themselves amounted to lesser contradictions.
Sinister designs

The conquest of the east opened up hopes for the Muslims who suffered at the hands of the LTTE. But such hopes turned into dupes soon.

This government, run by the Rajapaksa brethren and the ethno-fascist saffron brigade, soon demonstrated that sinister designs were in the pipeline for the province. The east was to be ‘Sinhalaised’ at the expense of the Tamils and Muslims.
If anyone were to ask the Tamils and Muslims of the east what the major problem in the east was, the answer would probably be “it’s the land stupid!”

Thousands of acres belonging to Muslims had been misappropriated by the LTTE. Such lands, however, have not been returned to the Muslims. Instead massive ‘colonisation’ projects are on to settle Sinhala people in those lands.
In Trincomalee District, Muslims have been restricted from fishing in the seas from Kattaiparichan to Ilangaithuraimuhathuvaaram; quarrying in Jabalmalai has been banned; and Muslim farmers have been banned from re-occupying their lands in certain places. At the same time, new settlement schemes for Sinhala people are being promoted in areas where Muslims reside.
In Batticaloa, there is a conspiracy on to carve out a new AGA division incorporating the Kudumbimalai/Toppigala regions and also extensive areas along the Chenkallady-Maha Oya Road.

Much of the lands here originally belonged to Tamils and Muslims. There were grazing lands for cattle owned by Tamil and Muslim dairy farmers and livestock breeders as well. But what is happening now is that the original owners are being kept out while preparations are on to bring outsiders (read Sinhala) in.

The sensitive issue of land is keenly felt in the Ampara District by Muslims. It is the only district where Muslims are in a majority but the demography of the region is being changed speedily by the Rajapaksa regime. If the government continues in this way, the Sinhala community will soon outnumber the Muslims.

Adding insult to injury is the symbolic imposition of a district flag. In Trincomalee it is an eagle and in Batticaloa it is a fish but in the Muslim-majority Ampara District, the flag has a lion, which is associated with the so-called people of the lion. This is now becoming a contentious issue.

Land issue
SLMC circles from Ampara District cited three specific issues concerning Muslim lands in the region. The first is about a tract of 500 acres in the Karankova area between Pottuvil and Ullai; the second concerns around 400 acres in the Pallakkaadu area in the Samanthurai division; the third is about 175 acres in the Vellaikkal-Ponnanveli areas under the Addalaichenai division.
SLMC circles point the accusing finger at the JHU’s Champika Ranawaka, who is also the environment minister, for current problems concerning these lands.

In the case of Karankova, Muslim farmers who have been tilling those lands were depicted as encroachers and evicted. The lands belong to a forest reserve, according to Ranawaka.
It is the same story about Pallakkadu lands too. As for the Vellaikkal-Ponnanveli lands, they are supposedly coming under the Digavapiya Archaeological Reserve.
In all these cases, the MPs of Ampara District resolved at the District Coordinating Committee that remedial action should be taken. In spite of this, nothing concrete has been done. Furthermore, irredeemable harm is being done by the filling-in of agricultural canals.

Some of these lands have been cultivated by Muslims decades before the Gal Oya scheme was set up. But now, using Buddhist archaeology and forest environment as a pretext, Muslims are being deprived of their ancestral lands.
This issue of land naturally causes resentment and the SLMC is under great pressure to resolve it. Despite repeated endeavours, nothing has been done by the powers that be. No pressure was exerted on Ranawaka to withdraw the controversial circular.

Land grab continues
When the Rajapaksa government faced a potential crisis last month over the voting on November 19 for the second reading of the Budget, a meeting took place among the SLMC, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle and Basil Rajapaksa.
When the SLMC raised these issues, Basil Rajapaksa was sympathetic and apologetic. He ticked off concerned officials over the phone in the presence of the SLMC and pledged action.
For a while everything seemed hunky-dory and anti-Muslim activity ceased in Ampara. The SLMC, in good faith, voted with the government. But thereafter the situation changed. Once again the land grab action resumed. Apparently, there was no stopping the Environment Minister.

With the third reading scheduled for December 14, overtures were made once again to the SLMC. With the party itself threatening to pull out of the government, these efforts were intensified.
Promises were made that remedial action would be taken after December 14 if the SLMC stayed put. But the SLMC had made its mind up to pull out of the government and vote against the Budget.
The party decision was not imposed from above. It was a decision initiated by the rank and file. The Eastern Province lands issue and other problems faced by the community had both saddened and angered party members.
These committed activists were always referred to as “poraligal” (militants) by Ashraff in the past. Now these militants were displaying political militancy within the party.

Decision to quit
The SLMC held a series of inner-party discussions. Consultations were held with the Eastern Province Mosque Federation and the Jamiyathul Ulama. The party felt strongly that the time had come to quit the government.
The 27-member Hierarchical Council, the 57-member Politburo and the 214-member Working Committee met separately and unanimously resolved to quit. It was a three-tiered decision.
Membership in SLMC decision making bodies is not restricted to the Eastern Province alone. SLMC representatives from all over the country were united in the decision. This was due to growing insecurity and a beleaguered feeling within the community.
One problem facing the Muslims is the new law about noise pollution. It has been the practice to publicly call upon the faithful to attend ‘tholugai’ (worship) at the ‘Pallivaasal’ (Mosque). Those who cannot do so pray in their homes or workplaces at the appropriate times.

This entreaty, called ‘Bhaangu,’ lasts for about three minutes and is regarded as a blessing on all those who hear it.
Devout Muslims pray five times a day. With the new laws in force banning all ‘noise’ from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., no such entreaties can be made for the pre-dawn ‘Subuhu’ prayer. The other four prayers could proclaim ‘Bhaangu’ internally, within Mosque precincts. These new laws regarding noise pollution were enacted by the Environment Ministry headed by Ranawaka.

Meat trade restrictions
Another problem affecting Muslims is about killing and transporting animals and birds for food. These regulations, seeking to prevent cruelty to animals, were also initiated by the JHU Minister. Strict restrictions have been introduced about killing animals and transporting flesh.

It is open knowledge that most butchers in the island are Muslim and that the trade in meat is dominated by the community. Thus the new laws affect that segment directly. Muslims also consume more meat than others on a per capita basis. So the community too is affected indirectly by the new laws.
Aggravating tensions over the meat issue is the forthcoming Hajj festival. Those who are unable to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca are required to observe ‘Qurbhan,’ whereby freshly killed meat is cooked and distributed as part of food to the needy at mosques or at homes on an individual basis.

The new laws are restrictive in this respect. Since Hajj is on December 21, the community is getting increasingly agitated.
By what seems at best strangely coincidental, or at worst, deliberately intentional, the three main problems confronting the community can all be traced to the JHU.

The JHU, during its election campaign, had often referred to the call to prayers by mosques and had pledged to suppress them if elected. But it was JHU ideologue and MP Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero who unambiguously and openly revealed the hatred of the party towards the Muslims.
The politician Bhikku denied that the Eastern Province was the historic habitat of Muslims. He accused the Muslims of grabbing land from the Sinhala and Tamil people in the Ampara District.

Xenophobic frenzy

Whipping himself up into xenophobic frenzy, the saffron-clad Sinhala supremacist said that Muslims should go back to their homeland, Saudi Arabia, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Muslims of Sri Lanka have a written history, dating to the 8th Century, of their existence in this country.

Hakeem in a statement made in Parliament and later at a press conference outlined the reasons for the party quitting the government. He levelled many charges against the regime, characterising it as unfriendly towards the minority communities.
If anyone had doubts about the validity of what Hakeem said, Ven. Medhananda Thero in one stroke of racist venom dispelled all such misgivings. It was the lot of SLMC Secretary Hassan Ali to refute the Bhikku firmly when addressing Parliament.
In addition to these problems, there are other prickly issues confronting the community too. More than 2,500 vacancies in Muslim schools are yet to be filled. In addition quotas of appointment for ‘Moulavi’ (Arabic teachers) remain vacant. Low admission rate of Muslims to universities is another problem.

The SLMC is also greatly concerned about the anti-Muslim acts of the Karuna faction, the TMVP, which has state backing
Another potential problem is that of the state allegedly training and arming Muslim youths. These groups, bearing different names, exist in areas like Akkaraipattu, Kattankudi, Oddamavady and Muttur.
In the short-term, these groups, along with the Karuna faction, are being used to foment Tamil-Muslim friction. In the long-term, these groups could use violence to constrict the activities of legitimate, non-violent parties like the SLMC.

The Muslim Congress also found itself virtually powerless despite being in government. An Eastern Province MP confessed that none of them could get anything effectively done for the community in spite of holding office.
Of 23 Muslim MPs, 18 were in government, holding ministerial, state ministerial and deputy ministerial posts. None of them have been unable to do anything worthwhile. They were politically impotent to do good for the community or at least prevent bad from befalling the community.

Though this state of affairs applies to the NUA, NC and ACMC, the community at large was concerned only about the SLMC, explained a Muslim Congress official. “Our people regard only the SLMC as their party. It is to us that they look up to fulfill their needs,” he said.
Under these circumstances, a greater responsibility was cast upon the SLMC to look after Muslim interests. “If the SLMC could not deliver, then it was time to go out of the government and fight for rights from opposition ranks,” the SLMC official further said.

The SLMC hand was forced to a great extent by the Mosque Federation. The federation had sent a letter to President Rajapaksa about Muslim grievances. Receipt was acknowledged but nothing further was done.
Federation Head Al Shaikh Haniffa Madani had then called upon all Muslim MPs to plan coordinated action. United action on December 14 on the Budget vote was recommended.

Only the SLMC, it seems, has responded positively to the Mosque Federation so far. Apart from consulting the federation, the SLMC has taken the initiative to quit the government.

Some Muslim journalists in the mainstream media told this column that the SLMC pullout has raised its stock among the Muslim community. The community at large had been hurt and troubled over the anti-Muslim attitude of this regime and had been disappointed over the inertia gripping Muslim MPs in addressing these problems.

With the SLMC snapping out of its political paralysis and once again asserting itself as the paramount political force of Sri Lankan Muslims, the community was now rallying behind the party.

Unenviable choices
This leaves the other Muslim parties with unenviable choices. One is to exert pressure on the government and resolve some problems, thereby scoring points against the SLMC. This, however, is highly unlikely because of the systemic anti-Muslim racism embedded amidst influential sections of this regime.
The other is to quit the government and adopt confrontational politics. A third option is to close ranks with the SLMC. If organisations like the Mosque Federation, Jamiyathul Ulama and the Muslim Council play a proactive role, the dawn of such broad Muslim unity cannot be ruled out.
The newly-visible approach of the SLMC must be seen in alignment with Hakeem’s changed leadership attitude. The SLMC Leader has matured over the years and has tried hard to balance the party evenly between competing Sinhala and Tamil interests.
The vituperative personal attacks on him as well as the opportunistic tendencies of some of his deputies seemed to have demoralised the SLMC Leader. His performance seemed weak and aimless at times.
But in recent times Hakeem has been displaying bold confidence in many matters. He has stood his ground in Parliament as the Public Accounts Committee chairman; he showed commendable courage in suspending Puttalam strongman and SLMC National Organiser Abdul Baiz from the party; he criticised the Eastern Province victory ceremony held in Colombo; and he expressed condolences over S.P. Thamilselvan’s death; now he has risked rebuke and recrimination by quitting the government.

Resettlement issues
Hakeem also spoke up for the displaced Muslims in Puttalam, refuting the President. It happened in cabinet when Badiudeen put up a cabinet paper concerning displaced northern Muslims.
Mahinda Rajapaksa lost his cool, threw the paper and lambasted Badiudeen. He said that the northern Muslims had stayed in Puttalam far too long and should be resettled in the north within three months.

While Badiudeen kept quiet, it was Hakeem who confronted Rajapaksa and said that such matters could not be done in a hurry without thought of ramifications. When the President pointed to the speedy Vakarai resettlement, Hakeem patiently argued that an analogy could not be drawn between both cases.

Hakeem’s defiance drew the admiration of many a cabinet colleague. Later Ferial Ashraff was to chide Hakeem in a friendly manner, saying he should have kept his mouth shut.
M.H.M. Ashraff personified the SLMC through his visionary and bold leadership. Hakeem was found wanting in comparison. If recent events are any indication, the time seems ripe for Hakeem, in his own right, to don Ashraff’s mantle.

The manner in which Hakeem handled the ‘quitting government’ crisis was remarkable. He did so with tactful diplomacy and without bitter acrimony. In the process he has also kept SLMC options open.
Meanwhile, President Rajapaksa must comprehend clearly the underlying compulsions behind the SLMC action. The Muslim community faces many problems. It is time for the President to address these concerns in conjunction with the premier political party of Sri Lankan Muslims.
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj@federalidea.com)