The orchestrated political campaign by the Mahinda Rajapaksa -led opposition in association with sections of the Buddhist clergy and mainstream media against three prominent Muslim politicians has ostensibly succeeded. The stated aim of the campaign was to secure the dismissal, resignation and/or arrest of two Provincial Governors and a Cabinet Minister. Eastern province Governor MLAM Hizbullah and Western Province Governor Azath Salley have both resigned their posts. Industries and Commerce minister Rishad Bathiudeen has also relinquished his post and made his exit in spectacular mode. All his Muslim colleagues in Government joined Rishad in tendering their joint resignations voluntarily. In an unprecedented mass resignation , nine Muslims from three political parties comprising four cabinet ministers, four state ministes and a deputy minister resigned their portfolios together.
If the intention of those who campaigned against Bathiudeen, Hizbullah and Salley was to get the trio dismissed from office or to resign voluntarily , then their objective seems to have succeeded three folds and more. Not only the two governors and Cabinet minister but eight more in the form of cabinet, state and deputy – ministers have resigned their posts. In one clean sweep the ultra-nationalist lobby appears to have “ethnically cleansed “ the government of its Muslim ministers and deputy minister. This however is not to the satisfaction of the campaigners as their primary target Rishad Bathiudeen seems to have come out of the ordeal with flying colours. Furthermore the besieged Muslim community has gained much solace and a sense of pride by the mass resignation of Muslim ministers. It is a defiant act of unity and solidarity in the face of unjust intimidation.
An immediate consequence of the mass resignation of Muslim ministers inclusive of Rishad Bathiudeen is the fate of the no confidence motion against the minister. With Bathiudeen resigning the no confidence motion with 64 signatures has become unnecessary and meaningless. It has therefore been removed from the order book.
The Easter Sunday attacks by suicide bombers and the carnage it caused has brought in its wake multiple political repercussions. Since the perpetrators of the violence were all young Islamic jihadists, it was inevitable – though extremely unfair – that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka would be treated with suspicion. Given the acrimonious nature of politics in Sri Lanka, it was easily predictable that a political twist or twists would be given by interested parties to exploit this situation and undermine their political adversaries. This is what happened and soon some Muslim politicians were singled out and attacked. There were calls for their ouster from office and demands for their arrest.
Bathiudeen, Hizbullah and Azath Salley
Initially, there were five Muslim politicians who were targeted. They were Muslim Congress leader and Cabinet Minister Rauff Hakeem, Makkal Congress leader and Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, Western Province Governor Azath Salley, Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and UNP Colombo District MP Mujibur Rahuman. Gradually, the campaign against Hakeem and Rahuman ceased but a vicious campaign against Bathiudeen, Hizbullah and Azath Salley was pursued with vigour on a widespread scale. It was alleged without any tangible evidence that the three were linked to the terrorists responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage and that they should quit their positions or be removed from their posts. This campaign was promoted by opposition party elements in association with some Buddhist organisations and sections of the media. A no-confidence motion against Bathiudeen was submitted to the Speaker.
As stated in these columns last week, there is little in common among Bathiudeen, Hizbullah and Azath Salley apart from the fact that they are Muslim politicians who were being listed together by their detractors as having links to the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ)and Islamic State (IS) organisations. Although all three have been bundled together by those demanding action against them, the circumstances relating to ex-Cabinet Minister Bathiudeen and the two former governors are vastly different. Besides, the key figure involved in the mass resignation exercise is Bathiudeen and not the two governors. Although all three quit their posts on the same day at different times, the reasons for the resignations were different.
Since this article primarily relates to the mass resignation of Muslim ministers, the focus would be more on Bathiudeen and less on Hizbullah and Salley at this juncture. Also, it has been Rishad Bathiudeen who has been at the receiving end of sustained vitriolic attacks in recent times. More importantly, it is against Rishad Bathiudeen that a no-confidence motion was mooted with 64 MPs as signatories. It is this singular offensive against Bathiudeen that greatly influenced the mass resignation response adopted by Muslim ministers in the government. The mass resignation was more due to the Bathiudeen factor and not the other two. In order to understand the Rishad Bathiudeen phenomenon in current politics it is necessary to delve briefly into the past.
Anti-Constitutional Power Grab
October 26th 2018 was the day on which President Maithripala Sirisena and Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa engaged in an anti-constitutional power grab. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe commanding the confidence of the House was removed from office by President Sirisena who appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as premier in his place. Since Rajapaksa did not have a majority at that time, Parliament was prorogued by the President. This provided the Sirisena -Rajapaksa duo some time to cobble together a majority in Parliament. Hectic “horse trading” for the support of honourable members of Parliament was underway. Govt MP’s were ardently enticed through various incentives to cross over.
One of the names bandied about then as a potential side-switcher was All Ceylon Makkal Congress(ACMC) leader and Wanni district MP Rishad Bathiudeen. He was a Cabinet minister at that time. Bathiudeen had been first appointed as cabinet minister in 2007 by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Thereafter Bathiudeen had cultivated good relations with all prominent members of the Ruhunu Rajapaksa clan. It was opined then that Rishad enjoyed a special relationship with Basil Rajapaksa. There were allegations that Rishad was involved in much questionable activity by utilizing the “Uthuru Wasanthaya” (Northern Spring) project implemented by Basil Rajapaksa.
When Mahinda announced an early presidential election in November 2014 his hitherto trusted deputy Maithripala Sirisena devoured an egg hopper dinner with Rajapaksa and defected to the opposition the next day. Sirisena became the common opposition candidate for the Presidential elections. Though a handful of ministers and MP’s crossed over with Sirisena , Bathiudeen was not one of those. There were three ACMC Parliamentarians then namely – Rishad Bathiudeen, MLAM Hizbullah and Hunais Farook.
It was Hunais Farook who jumped ship first by joining the UNP on Nov 26th 2014. Rishad however stayed put . He even got his confidante Sihabdeen Ameer Ali appointed as national list MP replacing Mahinda loyalist AHM Azwer. This was on Dec 12th 2014 and it was presumed by many that Bathiudeen had steadfastly hitched his wagon to the Rajapaksa star. Ten days later on Dec 22nd 2014, Rishad Bathiudeen announced at a media briefing that he was quitting the Rajapaksa Govt. This in turn split the ACMC with Hizbullah and some Provincial councilors remaining loyal to Mahinda.
Rishad Bathiudeen got the same portfolio he held under Rajapaksa in the new Sirisena – Wickremesinghe Govt too. The ACMC contested the 2015 Parliamentary poll as part of the UNP led UNF and got five seats – four elected MP”s and one national list MP. Though Rishad was a minister in the “Yahapalana” (good Governance) Cabinet there was much speculation that the enterprising politician hailing from Dharapuram in Mannar was maintaining a line of communication with Basil Rajapaksa.
Competitive Intra-Muslim Politics
So when Maithripala and Mahinda tried to emulate Machiavelli and enacted the October 26 anti-Ranil coup , there were great expectations on the part of the illegitimate power grabbers that Rishad Bathiudeen and his party would switch sides. It was hoped that the ACMC cross over would help encourage more “gembas”(frogs) to jump to this side and help tilt the balance. Some even expected the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress led by Rauff Hakeem to follow suit. Given the competitive intensity of intra-Muslim politics , it was thought that internal pressure within Muslim Congress ranks would compel Hakeem to throw in his lot with Maithripala – Mahinda if and when the “Makkal Congress” crossed over.
This however did not happen. For reasons best known to them neither Rishad nor his party MP’s deserted the Wickemesinghe led Govt last year. Unable to form a majority in the House, Sirisena violated the Constitution by dissolving Parliament and scheduling fresh elections. This was challenged in courts by parliamentarians. The Supreme Court ruled conclusively and that was the end of the 52 day Maithripala -Mahinda illegitimate regime. Ranil was restored to his rightful position.While the legal drama was going on, MP’s in Parliament demonstrated clearly through several votes that the “illegitimate”premier Mahinda Rajapaksa did not have a majority in the House.
Rishad Bathiudeen and the ACMC continued to remain in the ranks of the Ranil Wickremesinghe. Subsequently Rishad’s ministerial responsibilities increased and he became Minister of Industry and Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development and Vocational Training and Skills Development. Two other ACMC parliamentarians – Sihabdeen Ameer Ali and Abdullah Maharoof – were State Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Rural Economic Affairs and Deputy Minister of Ports and Shipping respectively.
Therefore it could be seen from a Medamulana perspective that Rishad Bathiudeen had let down the Rajapaksas twice in the recent past.The first was in 2014 when Rishad crossed over to support Maithripala Sirisena in the 2015 Presidential elections after having enjoyed the powers, perks and privileges of cabinet minister office for seven years. The second was in 2018 when Bathiudeen refused to cross over from Ranil’s side to Mahinda’s side during the October 26 power grab attempt. We have in the past seen what befell those who defied the Rajapaksas when they were at the pinnacle of power. Nowadays there has been a fall from positions of power but the Ruhunu Rajapaksas continue to retain a certain degree of political power. There is also every chance that the Rajapaksas could ride back to power at a relevant election in the future. However the political targeting of Rishad Bathiudeen at this point of time seem to indicate that the “Kurakkan Sataka” is tightening noose-like around his neck.
If Rishad Had Backed The Rajapaksas
Let us look at a hypothetical situation where Rishad Bathiudeen may have thrown in his lot with the Rajapaksas last year during the illegitimate power grab. Had the power grab succeeded, Bathiudeen and his party would have been amply rewarded with powerful portfolios. Even if the power grab failed and Bathiudeen opted to remain with the Rajapaksas in the opposition , the treatment being meted out to him now would have been different. Obviously there would have been no motion of no confidence against him. If anyone had voiced criticism of Bathiudeen for alleged links or connections to the Easter Bombing terrorists as it is being done today, Mahinda Rajapaksa may have stoutly defended Rishad. Wimal Weerawansa may have embarked on a death fast reiterating Rishad’s innocence. Ven Athureliya Rathana Thera may have fasted demanding the exit of the two Governors only and not Rishad. Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera may have trained his guns on Azath Salley and Hizbullah alone. Prof G.L. Peiris may have engaged in legal sounding sophistry in support of Rishad’s innocence. Udaya Gammanpila may have presented a motion in Parliament emphasizing Bathiudeen’s innocence and denouncing the ACMC leader’s detractors. Alas!None of these happened because such a hypothetical situation as stated above never ever occurred. Had this happened things would have been vastly different.
The current political targeting of Rishad Bathiudeen by the Rajapaksa acolytes and fellow travelers is not due to the reasons mentioned above alone. It is very much due to the long standing political project of the opposition to bring down Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe through a parliamentary vote. If the opposition had genuinely felt the Government was responsible through its acts of omission and commission for the Easter Sunday explosions, the first person to fault should have been President Maithripala Sirisena. It is becoming increasingly clear that the president had acted shamefully in this regard. Since the president though nominally the head of Govt is in actuality behaving like a joint leader of the opposition and undermining the Prime Minister in whichever way possible, Sirisena would not be confronted by the opposition in any way.
This leaves Prime minister Wickremesinghe and the Govt of which he is the de facto head. If the opposition wants to censure the Govt for its poor performance then the proper thing to do would be to bring a no confidence motion against the Govt or the Prime Minister or both. But the opposition has not done so. Instead it chose to present a no confidence motion against Rishad Bathiudeen accusing him of having links to the Jihadist National Thowheed Jamath/Islamic State. The move was overtly against Bathiudeen but the covert target was Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Government.
The opposition had on earlier occasions tried to bring about the downfall of Ranil Wickremesinghe through votes in Parliament but was unsuccessful. This was mainly because despite differences all members of the United National Front Govt as well as the Tamil National Alliance rallied around to defeat the Rajapaksa led opposition. At times even the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna voted with the Govt. Thus it became clear to Mahinda Rajapaksa that defeating the Prime minister or UNF govt through a direct vote of no confidence was virtually impossible. It seemed highly unlikely that even a vote of no confidence over the Easter Sunday attacks issue would meet with success.
The Divide and Destroy Principle
The Easter Sunday attacks by Islamist Jihadists provided the Rajapaksa camp with another and somewhat different opportunity. Instead of taking on the Premier or the Govt frontally, the Mahinda led opposition decided to single out and target a solitary minister. The optics of the exercise would be as if it was an sdmonition of an individual minister for his conduct and not against the Govt on the whole. In reality it was a subtle form of the divide and destroy principle.
This was how Rishad Bathiudeen became the chosen guinea pig for this political experiment. He was to be accused of having links with the Jihadist terrorists and targeted by a no confidence motion on that count.Even though no tangible evidence had been provided or furnished by anyone of Bathiudeen’s complicity with terrorism, there were some instances of his interacting in the past with a few of the terrorist suspects. Thus it was easier to brand Bathiudeen as having terrorist links by utilizing the guilt by association fallacy.
What the opposition hoped for was a split or splits in Govt and pro-Govt ranks at the time of voting when the no confidence motion was taken up. Rishad Bathiudeen was seen as an ideal target in this regard. Rishad’s rapid rise in politics and his growing political clout was not to the liking of many in the Govt. He had also incurred the political enmity of many others in his quest for power.. Moreover the Easter attacks had an emotional impact on the Sri Lankan nation. A regrettable negative result of that impact was the increasing animosity towards Muslim people in general and Muslim politicians in particular.
The Rajapaksa camp wanted to exploit this climate to the maximum by singling out Rishad Bathiudeen as the political target. The assessment was that several of those within the UNF and outside who voted for Ranil and the Govt in earlier votes would not do so in the vote against Bathiudeen. It was expected that some may abstain from voting and that a few would even vote in support of the no confidence motion.
Plan Went Awry and Plot Failed
It was on this surmise that the Mahinda -led opposition set in motion the anti-Rishad project. But the plan went awry and the plot failed. How and why this happened would be discussed in a forthcoming article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of June 15, 2019. It can be accessed here-