By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The advent of elections to the Eastern Provincial Council has caused the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to come under the media spotlight during the past week. There was much interest and speculation over the course of action to be adopted (or not adopted) by the premier political party of the Sri Lankan Muslim people.
Since the Tamil-speaking Muslims are now the single largest ethnic group in the sprawling Eastern Province, the voting pattern of the ethno-religious community would very much be the determining factor at the forthcoming provincial polls. With the SLMC being the foremost Muslim political party, having a significant vote bank in the east, the political conduct of the party assumes crucial importance in an eastern poll.
Further enhancing the focus on the SLMC was the party’s visible vacillation on which path it proposed to take on the polls. Proposed positions fluctuated rapidly and dramatically, thus providing much grist for the media mills. It appeared that there was a disconnect between the party hierarchy and rank and file on the one hand and divergence of opinion among senior leaders on the other.
The secretive approach followed by leading party functionaries, notably its “Thalaiver” Rauff Hakeem, did nothing to improve the situation. Finally the party was forced to take the decision of going it alone at the polls. This decision was widely welcomed at party grass root level, but had a mixed reception amidst other political circles.
The Eastern Provincial Council election is a matter of great importance to the SLMC in general and Rauff Hakeem in particular. When the first election to the Eastern Provincial Council was held in 2008, the SLMC was part of the United National Front, led by the United National Party (UNP). The SLMC contested the provincial polls as part of the UNP under the ‘Elephant’ symbol.
It was, however, the Muslim Congress that was of pivotal importance in the UNP-led front. The SLMC played for high stakes in the provincial poker game and raised the ante considerably high by fielding its top trio at the hustings. Muslim Congress Leader Rauff Hakeem, Secretary M.T. Hasen Ali and Chairman Basheer Segu Dawood resigned their Parliamentary seats and threw their hats into the provincial poll ring.
Hakeem headed the list in Trincomalee, Segu Dawood in Batticaloa and Hasen Ali in Amparai Districts respectively. Hakeem was projected as the future chief minister of the east. While the Muslim candidates did attract the majority of Muslim votes in the province, the performance of the Tamil and Sinhala candidates on the UNP list were not equally satisfactory. As a result the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA)emerged the victor. Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillaiyan, whose Tamil Makkal Viduthalaip Puligal (TMVP) contested on the UPFA ticket, became Chief Minister.
The margin of defeat was not large. The UPFA got 18 of 35 elected seats while the UNP had 15. The JVP and EPRLF (Naba) had one each. With two bonus seats, the UPFA having 20 of 37 councillors formed the provincial administration. Hakeem and Hasen Ali returned to Parliament via the National List while Basheer Segu Dawood functioned as Opposition Leader in the council. He too returned to Parliament through the 2010 elections.
The loss suffered in the eastern poll of 2008 impacted the SLMC greatly. It felt cheated as the chief ministerial trophy had eluded it, despite the party getting the most number of Muslim votes. It was an instance of being “so near and yet so far”. Ironically the Muslims who won on the UPFA ticket were also disappointed because a Muslim was not made Chief Minister (CM).
The UPFA hierarchy had got both the Tamils and Muslims within party folds to compete with each other in garnering votes, pledging to bestow the CM prize on the candidate with the most number of preference votes. Although M.L.A.M. Hizbullah of Kattankudi had the highest number of preferences, the Government chose to make Pillaiyan the Chief Minister due to other political considerations.
As the war was raging on with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) then, the Government felt an ex-child soldier of the Tigers now with the Government made a better “showpiece” nationally and internationally. Besides, Pillaiyan was easier to handle than Hizbullah. Thus, the Muslims of the Eastern Province felt that they had been deprived of a chief minister post, which they felt was rightfully theirs in the Eastern Province.
The last comprehensive census taken in 1981 placed the Tamils as the highest in the Eastern Province, with 42%. The Muslims and Sinhalese were 33% and 25% respectively. The demography had changed during the war years. It is estimated that the Muslims are now the single largest ethnicity in the province, with 38%. The Tamils with 36% and Sinhalese with 26% are second and third respectively.
District-wise, the Muslims are the largest entity in Trincomalee and Amparai Districts, while the Tamils are the majority in Batticaloa District. These statistics, however, are unofficial projections and can be confirmed or disputed when the results of the latest official census are released this year.
It is against this backdrop that the Eastern Provincial poll has to be viewed. Given their numerical strength and the fact that a Tamil was CM earlier, the Muslim community feels (and rightfully so) that the chief minister of the Eastern Province has to be a Muslim this time. This feeling is shared to a very great extent by Muslims with different political leanings. For this, the community must either form a majority or be the major defining force in the Provincial Council.
For the Muslim Congress, the matter was of not only political importance but also of prestige. If the community wanted a Muslim chief minister for the province, the Muslim Congress wanted the Eastern Province chief minister to be from the SLMC. How was this going to happen?
The political climate has changed now. The SLMC that was in the opposition during the 2008 eastern poll and 2010 Parliamentary poll was now in the Government. The party has eight seats with six elected and two nominated on the National List. The breakdown of elected MPs is two from Amparai and one each from Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Wanni and Kandy Districts. Rauff Hakeem is Minister of Justice while Basheer Segu Dawood is Deputy Minister of Co-operatives and Internal Trade.
The SLMC had contested the 2008 provincial and 2010 Parliamentary poll together with the UNP on the ‘Elephant’ symbol. By the same token it was expected that the SLMC would contest together with the UPFA on the ‘Betel’ symbol. There were, however, some difficulties in enacting this smooth scenario. Chief among them was the change in the political environment in 2012 as opposed to 2008.
In 2008 the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the chief political formation of the Sri Lankan Tamils, did not contest the Eastern Provincial poll. It was this which helped Pillaiyan become Chief Minister. This time the TNA is contesting and it is widely believed that the TNA is likely to get the bulk of Tamil votes in the province just as the SLMC may get the most number of Muslim votes.
Amparai, Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts will elect 14, 11 and 10 members respectively to the 37-member Eastern Provincial Council. Two bonus seats will be allocated to the party which wins the highest number of seats in polls.
According to election laws, the parties or independent groups will have to nominate 17 candidates for Amparai, 14 candidates for Batticaloa and 13 for Trincomalee. Tamils are around 72% of Batticaloa District, 32%of Trincomalee and 20% of Amparai District. Muslims are about 41% of Amparai, 35% of Trincomalee and 27% of Batticaloa. Sinhalese are roughly 39% of Amparai, 33% of Trincomalee and1% of Batticaloa.
With the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) component of the UPFA likely to get the most number of Sinhala votes, the ground reality is that the UPFA, TNA and SLMC are the three centres of power in the envisaged provincial poll. The TNA stock is high in the Tamil-majority Batticaloa District. The UPFA and SLMC are near evenly matched in Amparai and Trincomalee Districts, with the SLMC having the edge in Amparai and UPFA the edge in Trincomalee.
A noteworthy development in recent times has been the improved relationship between the SLMC and TNA. There is much cordiality among the frontline leaders of the SLMC and TNA. This, in a sense, is a reflection of prevailing sentiments among the Tamil and Muslim people of Batticaloa.
With the LTTE out of the picture and the north-east merger defunct, the major irritants of the Muslim people vis-à-vis the Tamils are removed. The Eastern Muslims have also made vast strides in the fields of education and socioeconomic development, which in turn has contributed greatly to the betterment of the community. Moreover, both the Muslims and Tamils of the east have common problems relating to language, lands and religious intolerance. Thus there has been a slow and steady improvement in Tamil-Muslim relations in the east.
The Eastern Province Muslims are no longer the politically insignificant entity they were in the not-so-distant past. The credit for this goes to Mohammed Hussain Muhammed Ashraff, the legendary leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress who is no more.
It must be noted that with the exception of a few like veteran Mashoor Moulana of Maruthamunai, most of the current Muslim leaders of the Eastern Province were nurtured in the political nursery of Ashraff. Parties like the National Unity Alliance, National Congress and All Ceylon Muslim Congress were/are all either off-shoots or splinter groups of the SLMC.
Thanks to Ashraff’s visionary zeal and missionary energy, the SLMC achieved many, many things during the 15 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 Ashraff’s 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.
M.H.M. 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, Ashraff’s efforts 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 eight per cent of the island’s population (1981 census), 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 artistes 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, where the ethnic ratio according to the 1981 Census (the last official count) was 42 per cent Tamil, 33 per cent Muslim and 25 per cent Sinhala. It is unofficially estimated that at present Muslim numbers have risen considerably while the Tamil component has declined and the Sinhala count has gone up marginally.
A large number of Muslims of the Batticaloa-Amparai Districts live interspersed among Tamil villages 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 fisher-folk. 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.
Though Ashraff is no more, the ideals and principles he espoused live in the hearts and minds of those followers who revered him. Muslim youths were greatly enamoured of Ashraff and flocked to his party in the late ’80s and ’90s of the previous century. Ashraff dubbed those young activists as “poraligal” or militants.
The youths of that period are now in their middle age or have entered seniorhood. The SLMC too has tasted power and this has infused the element of corruption. Nepotism and lust for power, post, perks and privileges have greatly eroded the idealistic foundations of the party built by Ashraff. Nevertheless, that idealism has not gone away altogether. Even though the name of Ashraff is “forgotten” by many of his disciples most of the time, it is always revived when elections are around the corner. The 2012 provincial poll is no exception.
The interesting feature this time was the depth of feelings among the Muslim Congress membership and supporter base that the party was not being faithful to the policies of Ashraff by its alignment with the Government. In a situation where one would have expected the party to contest with or as part of the UPFA since SLMC leaders were holding Ministerial and Deputy Ministerial portfolios, the opinion at grass root level was firmly against it.
The groundswell of opinion in the SLMC was for the party to either contest alone or in tandem with the TNA and not with the Government. The party hierarchy was even accused of selling out Muslim interests and betraying the legacy of Ashraff by aligning with the UPFA. What was even more startling was the viewpoint in the party that the party should not alienate the Tamils even if a tie-up with the TNA was not feasible. SLMC Secretary Hasen Ali strongly advocated a non-confrontational approach towards Tamils.
This change in the mood of the SLMC was remarkable when viewed against the past history of Tamil-Muslim rivalry and strife. Even the 2008 provincial poll had shades of this inter-ethnic competition where the UPFA manipulated matters to its advantage by pitting Tamils versus Muslims on a hunt for votes to gain chief ministership. The 2012 poll also could have been a potential ethnic battle had the SLMC not decided to go it alone.
The political mood and atmosphere however was not conducive to a Tamil-Muslim clash for votes in the party. While the Muslim Congress members and activists certainly wanted to be the key element in the provincial council and gain the chief ministership, they did not want this success to be at the expense of Tamil-Muslim unity. There is also a growing tendency among the rank and file to cooperate with Tamil counterparts in safeguarding common interests. The spirit of Ashraff seems to be living on still.
There was a time when Muslim leaders such as M.S. Kariapper, M.M. Mustapha, M.C. Ahmed and M.E.H. Muhammed Ali had contested on the Federal Party (Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi) ticket and won. Muslim candidates like Mashoor Moulana and Uduma Lebbe had also contested under the ‘House’ symbol but lost. There were others like the Abdul Majeed cousins who had won Pottuvil and Nintavoor respectively as Independents with FP support.
Ashraff was perhaps the last in this line of eastern Muslim leaders who wanted to maintain cordial relations with Tamils and embark on common political projects with them. When the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was formed and the separate state demand was put forward, Ashraff made common cause with the Tamil party. He formed the Muslim United Front (MUF) and signed an electoral agreement with the TULF. In 1977 MUF candidates contested on the TULF ticket in Kalmunai, Sammanturai, Muttur and Puttalam. Another assigned to contest Seruwila messed up filing nomination papers.
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 for Ashraff. The electoral results however showed that despite Ashraff’s 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.
Ashraff’s 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 total 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.
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 Provinces. Subsequent events however compelled Ashraff to change his political approach but his core values such as the necessity for Tamil-Muslim unity did not change.
Now in a different time, the values and policies of Ashraff are finding renewed relevance and fresh reception in the SLMC. As stated earlier, the removal of the LTTE from the political scene, fall of the Eelam demand, the de-merger of the north and east and the qualitative cum quantitative rise of the Muslims in the east had brought about a change in the eastern equation. The Muslims were more secure and confident now and ready for rapprochement with the Tamils. Significant sections of the Muslim Congress wanted to join forces with the TNA or at least avoid direct conflict.
This in turn affected the political atmosphere as provincial polls nomination deadline drew near. Instead of a Hobson’s choice, there were three clear options available to the SLMC. The first was to align with the Government and contest as part of the UPFA. The second was to align with the TNA and contest on a common symbol and formation. The third was to contest separately and thereafter align with either the UPFA or TNA and form the Eastern Provincial administration under a Muslim chief minister.
It was the third course of action that had a preponderance of support in the rank and file of the Muslim Congress. There was however a hitch as Party Leader Rauff Hakeem had a different perspective. This clash of viewpoints led to a minor crisis in the party. To be continued
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com.)