September 16th 2017 is the seventeenth death anniversary of Mohammad Hussein Muhammad Ashraff, the uncrowned sultan of the Amparai district Muslims and legendary leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). The pioneering president of the SLMC was Ahammed Lebbe of Kattankudi with whom Ashraff co-founded the party in September 1981. It was however MHM Ashraff who gave the Muslim Congress a new vision and direction after he assumed formal leadership of the party in 1986.
Thanks to Ashraff’s visionary zeal and missionary energy the SLMC achieved many, many things during the fifteen years he was at the party’s helm. His charisma, political acumen, dedication and sterling qualities of leadership enabled Ashraff to mould the long overlooked Eastern Muslims into a viable political entity and lead them like a latter day Moosa Nabhi or Moses through the wilderness on the route to a promised land of milk and honey.
As in the case of Moses it was not Ashraffs destiny to enter the promised land as a mysterious airplane explosion obliterated one of the brightest stars of the Lankan political firmament in the prime of life. Until death he remained the undisputed “Thesiya Thalaiver” (National Leader) of the North – Eastern Muslims
The tragedy of September 16th 2000 involving an MI-17 helicopter of the Sri Lanka Air Force above the Urakanda mountain range in the Aranayaka area in Kegalle district of Sabaragamuwa province resulted in the death of this dynamic political leader . Along with Ashraff were killed 14 others including crew members, security personnel, personal staff and political supporters.
Investigations were launched to ascertain whether the crash was an accident or the result of sabotage. Various conspiracy theories were afloat after Ashraff’s death. The results of the investigation are yet to be publicised fully. Whatever the final outcome of the probe, there is no denying that the demise of Ashraff, has created a vacuum in Muslim politics that is yet to be filled.
MHM Ashraff was a pioneering leader of Sri Lankan Muslims in particular and the country in general. He was ahead of his times in more ways than one. He realised the vast untapped political potential of his community and strove to charter a course that would have enabled his people to have their grievances redressed and aspirations fulfilled. At a time when the conflict within the island was perceived in simplistic terms as a “Sinhala versus Tamil” issue, the efforts of Ashraff brought to the fore the problems faced by Muslims.
The eloquent and effective advocacy of the Muslim cause by Ashraff led to a general awareness that the seemingly intractable ethnic crisis was not merely a Sinhala-Tamil bilateral issue but a trilateral one involving Muslims too.
The Muslims of Sri Lanka, also known as Moors, have a unique ethnic identity. Constituting 9.6 % per cent of the island’s population, they are distributed somewhat evenly with about two-thirds of them in the seven predominantly Sinhala provinces and the rest in the Tamil majority North and East.
The bulk of the community including sections living amidst the Sinhala population speaks Tamil at home and are classified as Tamil speaking. The medium of instruction in most Muslim schools is chiefly Tamil. The community has also thrown up a number of Tamil scholars, writers, poets, journalists and artists who have reached eminent positions.
In spite of this, the community does not perceive itself as being “Tamil” but “Muslim”. The Muslim self-perception is based on ethno-religious and not ethno-linguistic lines. This socio-cultural reality has acquired sharp political dimensions in recent times.
Although they are a scattered population, Sri Lankan Muslims have their single largest concentration in the Eastern Province .A large number of Muslims of the Batticaloa-Amparai districts live interspersed among Tamil village s along the littoral areas known as “Eluvaankarai” (Coast of the Rising Sun). The hinterland to the west of Batticaloa lagoon known as “Paduvaankarai” (Coast of the Setting Sun) is predominantly Tamil.
The majority of the Eastern Muslims are farmers and fisherfolk. The East consisting of Muslim “enclaves” with substantial Muslim votes has helped the Eastern Province Muslims to elect at least four to six parliamentarians from the Province at each election. The Eastern “bloc” has at times constituted almost 50 per cent of the total Muslim representation in Parliament.
Despite this advantage, the overall leadership of the community was not in the hands of the Eastern Muslim. The comparatively advanced Muslim leaders from the Central, Western and Southern provinces were in charge, lording it over the Muslims from the Eastern backwaters. All this, however, changed with the arrival of Ashraff.
Ashraff was born on October 23, 1948 in the Muslim village of Sammanthurai in Amparai district. He grew up in the town of Kalmunai, in the same region. After schooling in Kalmunai, Ashraff entered Law College where he passed the examination with first class honours. Ashraff went on to acquire a bachelor’s and later a Master’s degree in Law from Colombo University. The latter feat was achieved in 1995 when he was a Cabinet Minister. He took silk in 1997 as President’s Counsel.
Though an uncompromising Muslim nationalist in later years, Ashraff was always close to the Tamil language and its ethos. As an old student of Wesley High School in Kalmunai and as a law student he moved closely with Tamils. Despite the vagaries of politics he retained his personal friendships with Tamil classmates and colleagues. He was also well – versed in the Tamil language and literature.
Ashraff was a fiery orator in Tamil. Moreover he was also a poet using “Thamizh” as the vehicle of his thoughts. The volume of poetry published by him was commendable though not superlative as his sycophants portrayed them. In any case few of the present crop of Tamil – Muslim parliamentarians read poetry let alone compose poems.
Ashraff began his political career like many an Eastern Muslim leader as an admirer of the Tamil father figure S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, the founder leader of the Federal Party. He was greatly enamoured of Chelvanayagam and the federalist vision for the Tamil speaking people of the North – Eastern Traditional Tamil homelands.
Ashraff was particularly appreciative of the fact that it was Chelvanayagam who raised the issue of Muslims being killed at the Puttalam mosque by Sinhala policemen. Muslim Parliamentarians including then Puttalam UNP Pariamentarian Naina Marikkar maintained a deafening silence then.
Ashraff spoke on F.P. platforms and in 1976 attended the historic Vaddukkoddai Conference where the newly formed Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) unanimously adopted the demand for a separate state of Tamil Eelam.
I first met Ashraff in 1977 when he was campaigning ardently for Tamil Eelam on the TULF platform. He had formed the Muslim United Front along with Lawyer A M.Samsudeen of Kalmunai and signed an agreement with Appapillai Amirthalingam. Muslim candidates were fielded on the Sun symbol in Kalmunai, Sammanthurai, Puttalam and Mutur. Another assigned to contest Seruwila failed to submit nomination papers at the last minute.
Ashraff himself did not contest but actively campaigned in 1977.This was the time when Ashraff stated publicly that even if elder brother Amirthalingam could not deliver Tamil Eelam younger brother Ashraff would do so. The highlight of Ashraff’s speeches then was his bombastic pronouncement that even if Amirthalingam himself abandoned the goal of Eelam, Ashraff would continue to strive for it.
In spite of this affinity towards Tamil Eelam on the part of Ashraff, the Eastern Muslim voters had different ideas and rejected the MUF candidates on the TULF ticket.
This was an eye – opener to Ashraff. The electoral results however showed that despite Ashraffs desire to share a Tamil – Muslim political vision, Eastern Muslims had other ideas.While the Tamil candidates of the TULF swept the polls, no Muslim from the party won a seat in the polls.
Ashraffs relations with the TULF became strained gradually. The 1981 District Development Council elections saw the TULF going to polls in Mannar and the three Eastern districts on a Tamil slate of candidates. Ashraff wanted Muslims to be included too. He was rebuffed.This led to an already estranged Ashraff parting ways with the TULF completely.
However this did not result in him joining a “Sinhala dominated” national party like other Muslim leaders of old who cut their political teeth in the FP and then merrily crossed over. Ashraff realised that the Muslims needed to charter a separate course independent of Tamil and Sinhala politics. This led to his aligning with Ahammed Lebbe of Kattankudi and co – founding the Muslim Congress.
After Ashraff parted ways with the TULF the MUF had entered a state of decay. The SLMC was inaugurated on September 21, 1981. At that point, the SLMC was more or less an Eastern outfit concerned more with socio-cultural than political issues.
The July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom and the consequent escalation of armed Tamil militancy led to a situation where the possibility of Tamil Eelam began looming large on the political horizon. The Eastern Muslims became increasingly insecure and apprehensive of their future in a potential “Tamil” state.
On the other hand, the contemptuous manner in which the J.R. Jayewardene regime dismissed the Muslim opposition to the resumption of diplomatic relations with Israel touched a raw nerve in the community. Ashraff was instrumental in organising protest demonstrations over the issue. However, Sri Lankan Muslims at that point of time were immune from the global trend of growing Islamic consciousness and radicalism.
The Muslim community in the East also produced a new generation of educated and ambitious youth. All this created a suitable climate for Ashraff and his brand of politics to arrive on the national scene. The rise of Tamil armed militancy instilled a sense of political urgency into Muslim politics.
The catalyst was the outbreak of violence between Tamils and Muslims in the Kalmunai-Karaitheevu areas in 1985 which was aided and abetted by agents of the state and Tamil militant groups. The Kalmunai – Karaitheevu Tamil – Muslim violence of 1985 affected Ashraff directly. Threatened by and fearing harm at the hands of Tamil militants, Ashraff was forced to flee to Colombo.
In a controversial utterance Ashraff compared his flight from Kalmunai to Colombo to that of the Holy Prophet”s “Hijra” from Mecca to Medina. This led to many heated rebuttals. It was pointed out that the Holy Prophet had ensured the safe passage of his followers to Medina before following suit whereas Ashraff had left Kalmunai first leaving behind his supporters.
Ashraff moving to Colombo as a “political refugee” was a significant milestone in his life. In the nation’s capital, Ashraff’s political horizons began to extend beyond the East. He recognized the widespread disappointment prevalent among the Muslim masses with their elitist leaders. Ashraff identified the need and yearning of the community to assert boldly and articulate their identity.
Ashraff was disgusted with the politics of Muslim leaders in the UNP and SLFP. He felt that these people were nothing but minions serving their Sinhala political masters without evincing real concern for the Muslim plight. One reason for this Ashraff felt was the lure of power and the attraction posed by the spoils of office. An Independent voice was necessary. For this firm Muslim unity was needed.
Establishing himself firmly in Colombo Ashraff, revived and restructured the Muslim Congress. In 1986 he convened an Island – wide convention in “Punchi” Borella and formally took over party leadership after gently easing out Ahamed Lebbe.
I was a witness to this eventful moment in the history of the Muslim Congress. I attended the convention in a journalistic capacity along with my departed friend and colleague MPM Azhar of the “Virakesari” who later edited the “Navamani” Muslim weekly. There was magic in the air as the Muslim delegates took their decisive step on a long journey that still continues.
I was in close contact with Ashraff during the 1986 – 88 period. It was then that I saw him at close quarters forging a new vision and mission for his people. Some of his ideals seemed impossible to achieve then.Ashraff wanted the Muslims to be recognized as a separate and equal entity on par with the Sinhala and Tamil people.
The Muslim people in all parts of the Country needed their own independent political party. The SLMC was to fulfil that role. The party was to remain independent of Sinhala and Tamil political overlordship. He described both as two “Saithans” (Satans) then. The Eastern Province Muslims were to play a greater role in this . By doing so this often neglected people were to achieve their rightful place under the Lankan sun.
Ashraff also introduced the demand for a territorially non – contiguous North – Eastern Council for the Muslims on the Pondicherry model. His aim then was to create a Muslim majority council linking up all Muslim majority AGA divisions in the North – East.
Ashraff gradually redefined the objectives and redrafted the constitution of the Muslim Congress to make it an all-island party. It was formally accredited by the Election Commissioner and allocated the symbol of the tree on February 11, 1988.
The “new” SLMC under Ashraff contested the Provincial Councils in 1988. It won 17 seats in the North – East and 12 in the Western, North- Western, Central and Southern Provinces. The proportionate representation system helped the fledgling party to record an impressive showing in the provincial council elections. The Muslim Congress had come of age.
Although he was not happy with the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of July 1987 which he felt neglected the Muslim viewpoint, Ashraff supported its provisions. The Muslim Congress participated in the North-East provincial council elections of 1988 and became the chief Opposition party there to the administration headed by Annamalai Varatharajapperumal.
The SLMC also supported the victor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, in the 1988 presidential elections. In 1989 the Muslim Congress contested the parliamentary polls independently and won four seats. Ashraff himself was returned from Amparai district with a massive number of preference votes. The SLMC discovered that in spite of its all-island appeal the four parliamentary seats it was able to garner came from the North-East alone.
Ashraff realised that if the party was to maximise its representation, tactical compromises would have to be made and strategic alliances with major parties formed. In 1994 he did just that in the accord with Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance.
Ashraff took a cue from Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman whom he greatly admired and entered into a pre – poll agreement with Kumaratunga. Ashraff’s strategy like Thondaman was to enter into electoral agreements and enhance representation for his people.
1994 saw the SLMC get six elected and two national list seats. The SLMC contested under its own symbol in the North-East and on the P.A. ticket in the other provinces.
The SLMC played a constructive “Queen maker” role to install the Chandrika Kumaratunga government in a hung Parliament. Ashraff became Minister for Ports, Shipping and Rehabilitation. Later he lost shipping in a reshuffle. Two other SLMC members, Hizbulla and Aboobakr, became Deputy Ministers. SLMC general secretary Rauff Hakeem became Deputy Chairman of committees.
Ashraff’s ministerial tenure was eventful and controversial. He was accused of providing Muslims jobs on a massive scale in the various harbours coming under his purview. Colombo, Trincomalee and Galle were cited as examples.Likewise he was faulted for giving priority to Muslim areas in the matter of rehabilitation and Development projects. The harbour at Oluvil was an enduring and endearing dream for Ashraff.
A tempestuous feud between Ashraff and another senior Muslim Minister from the SLFP , AHM Fowzie, saw sparks fly at regular intervals.This led to Ashraff throwing political tantrums at every turn and threatening to resign. In one episode of its kind, his resignation over the Fowzie issue was not accepted by President Kumaratunga.
There was also the incident where Ashraff charged that lands belonging to Muslims in the Ponnanveli area had been acquired by the state and incorporated into the Digavapi sacred area. He was challenged to a public TV debate by the Ven. Soma Thero. Ashraff took the Bhikku on in a debate conducted in Sinhala and argued coherently and conclusively.
Another controversy arose when Ashraff wrote a poem in Tamil addressed to Lord Buddha. This poetic device had often been resorted to by other poets in the past. But when Ashraff did so there was heated criticism. Ashraff did not flinch and countered his critics defiantly.
Ashraff was also autocratic in his handling of party affairs. He was the supreme “Thalaiver” and brooked no nonsense from within. At the time of his death, he had suspended the party membership of three MPs and sent a show-cause notice to another.
Apart from the charismatic sway Ashraff had over the Muslim masses, his strength was his adaptive flexibility . The SLMC’s fundamental demand had been for the creation of a territorially non-contiguous Muslim majority council consisting of the Muslim divisions in the North and East. Ashraff’s rationale in this issue was to preserve for the Eastern Province Muslims their 33 per cent representation as far as possible in a proposed merger situation where it would have dwindled to 17 per cent.
The inspiration for the territorial non-contiguity principle was the Indian model for the Union Territory of Pondichery. There the regions of Pondichery, Karaikal, Yanam and Mahe though far apart geographically came under a single administrative system. Since they had been former colonies of France and shared a common “historic” heritage they were administered together in Independent India.
When he found the demand for a territorially non – contiguous unit unachievable, Ashraff substituted it for the South Eastern Provincial Council comprising the territorially contiguous electoral divisions of Sammanthurai, Pottuvil and Kalmunai.He was also willing to support a merger of Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts with the Northern Province.He was prepared to give that up too if it became necessary and opt instead for a merged North-East with adequate safeguards for Muslims including a de-merger proviso by referendum in 10 years’s time.
Ashraff also wanted to carve out a distinctly Muslim –majority coastal district known as Kalmunai out of the existing Amparai district. He was however hesitant in some respects because he feared the contemplated littoral district could be deprived of adequate land and water resources.
Ashraff had to clash with Tamil politicians in later years in the interests of his community. This was inevitable. But unlike many of the current crop of Muslim politicians from the East, Ashraff had an empathy with Tamil and Tamils. He understood Tamil grievances and appreciated their aspirations.
Ashraff also felt that the fundamental problem was Sinhala majoritarianism and that some understanding among minority communities was necessary to combat it. While being firm on Muslim interests Ashraff was always ready to work together with Tamils. There are few Eastern Muslim politicos on the same wavelength as that of Ashraff on this aspect.
While the interests of his own community were paramount for him, Ashraff was also extremely sympathetic to the Tamil problems and grievances. Except where the interests of Tamils and Muslims clashed directly, he tried to help realise the legitimate aspirations of Tamils.He also arrived at an understanding to achieve a working relationship with the Ceylon Workers’ Congress representing Tamils of Indian origin.
Ashraff’s greatest virtue was perhaps his metamorphosis from a “sectarian” leader to a “national” one. By 2000 his horizons broadened and Ashraff formed the National Unity Alliance. Ashraff was now prepared to look beyond Muslim ethnicity and reach out to other communities. He had a blueprint for achieving lasting peace by 2012.The NUA’s birth indicated that the one-time “Tamil Eelamist” supporter who pioneered an exclusive party for Muslims had reached an evolutionary stage where his outlook was blossoming into a broader nationalist perspective.
While the SLMC was to be the flagship of the Muslims the NUA was to be wider and inclusive representing all communities. One does not know what the future may have been of the SLMC and NUA, had Ashraff lived to implement his vision. Sadly Ashraff died a few weeks before the scheduled poll on October 10th 2000. Ashraff’s life being snuffed out at a critical state was a setback to the limitless possibilities offered by the grand alliance at that juncture.
Ashraff may be no more but his spirit pervades Muslim political consciousness still. In life he was the single most popular mass figure in Eastern Muslim politics. Even in death the magical hold he retained over Muslim masses lingers on.Ashraff memorial meetings are well attended. The Tamil media publishes many tributes most of them sincere and heartfelt. His loss is keenly felt.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org