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
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).
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
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
Hakeem, however, wanted to do so on a principled basis. He began
negotiating another MoU with set conditions before joining the
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
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
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.
The conquest of the east opened up hopes for the Muslims who
suffered at the hands of the LTTE. But such hopes turned into
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)