The Muslims and Eastern Elections

With the election to the Eastern Provincial Council drawing near, all the parties seem to be wooing the Muslims who form the significantly large A?a??E?ethnicA?a??a?? group throughout the East. In one of the three districts of the East, Ampara, they are clearly the largest single group. Hence the sudden interest in Muslims among the other parties, large and small. The ongoing ethnic conflict affects the Muslims in a very real way. But successive Governments have paid little attention to the concerns of the Muslims and when negotiations take place and agreements are reached, the Muslims have generally been ignored as an interested party. But it is not strange to see the same parties who ignored, and sometimes were hostile, to the concerns of the Muslims, falling over each other to woo the Muslim vote at an election. And so it has been this time as well. Chief Ministerships and other political inducements are being offered; the same offers are being offered to Tamil groups without a twinkling of an eye!

The Muslim leadership since Ashraf has matured and the fez cap no longer turns to the direction in which the political winds blow. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which Ashraf founded in 1986, initially did not find favour with the conservative Colombo-based Muslim leadership. But today, it undoubtedly represents a wide cross-section of the Muslim community throughout Sri Lanka, as elections over the past decade have shown. After AshrafA?a??a??s untimely death, it is a pity that a group has broken away on the question of leadership of the party. But it is only a question of time before the party re-unites. The present leadership has shown commendable responsibility in carrying forward AshrafA?a??a??s legacy. It is this that has made the party reject political overtures from groups across the political spectrum, that both in the past and now continue to disregard Muslim concerns. These groups seem to show concern for Muslims only at election time.

Buy lithium batteries

The origins of Muslims in Sri Lanka

Digoxin annual sales

Unfortunately, there is no clear historical evidence regarding the origins of the Muslims in Sri Lanka. But the common belief is that the Muslims migrated to Sri Lanka from a variety of Asian regions A?a??a?? from West Asia, South Asia and East Asia. Their ethnic origins are probably a mix of diverse elements, though perhaps a significant majority migrated, like many other Sri Lankans, from neighbouring South India. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan once claimed in a presentation to the Royal Asiatic Society that the Muslims in Sri Lanka were ethnically Tamils. This caused an uproar among the Muslims. Clearly, Ramanathan made this claim with political considerations. The fact that the Muslims in Sri Lanka speak Tamil is no evidence of their ethnicity. But even though historians are yet uncertain of their ethnic origins, it is clear that the Sri Lankan Muslims today have a distinct and separate identity and must be recognised as such.

This also shows the hollowness of the claims to ethnicity of many groups who form the Sri Lankan community. Perhaps a generation or two ago, all Muslims, including Malays, spoke Tamil as their home language and A M A Azeez was to claim it was their mother tongue. But today, many Muslims, particularly in the Western Province, have been educated in Sinhala and some of the present generation Muslims speak little Tamil. But this is true of the Tamils as well. There are many Tamils who have been educated in Sinhala, have adopted Sinhala names and some even embraced Buddhism. )There was this recent controversy over a Tamil Buddhist girl, educated in Sinhala, who won a Fifth Grade Scholarship place but refused admission to Visakha Vidyalaya presumably because of her ethnicity.) Historians and anthropologists have pointed out that there are many Sinhala and Tamil groups living in different parts of the country, who now claim an ethnic identity which was different from that of their forefathers.

The Sri Lankan Muslims also fall into this category, like many other Sinhala and Tamil groups, who cannot be given a distinct ethnic identity. But they have a distinct identity as a community with particular concerns of their own. That is why they feel disappointed when they are excluded from negotiations to resolve the National Question. Without entering into the controversy over traditional homelands, just as Tamils have traditionally been in occupation of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the Muslims have also been in traditional occupation of the same provinces. For trade and other reasons, both Tamils and Muslims occupy pockets in other Provinces as well; and in recent times after the opening up of irrigation schemes, the Sinhalese occupy pockets in the Northern and Eastern Provinces too. Whilst conceding the need for each group to preserve their identity and to resist attempts to assimilate them by chauvinists with a political agenda, it is necessary for us to acknowledge that Sri Lanka is now a mix with ethnic boundaries getting blurred.

Historic Grievances

The Muslims have traditionally been a pacifist group in Sri Lanka. They were settled in trade, farming and other occupations, did not engage in overt religious proselytisation and did not engage in any organised violence against other communities. On the contrary, they have been the victims of violence over the years. Although we rightly criticise the colonial rulers for the heavy-handedness with which they handled the 1915 disturbances, we must also acknowledge that the Muslims then were the victims of hate and violence. In more recent years, they have been the victims of chauvinists who A?a??E?ethnically cleansedA?a??a?? them from the North. Thousands of them still remain as internally displaced in the Puttalam district. The same chauvinists desecrated the Mosque at Kattankudy and killed hundreds of worshippers in cold blood. Irrigation schemes and the introduction of new colonists from outside particularly in the Ampara district saw acres of land tilled by the Muslims being taken away. This process is being re-asserted in recent times through an extremist group who are part of the present Government.

Agreements were reached in 1958 and again in 1965 between the Tamils and the then Governments to devolve power to the North and East. In both instances, Muslim concerns were not accommodated. Muslim (and other minority) interests have been ignored by successive Governments. Muslims quite rightly feel that unless specific guarantees are in place, even a devolved administration, which naturally will be dominated by Tamils, in the North and East will continue to ignore Muslim interests.

Devolution and the Muslims

Part of the difficulty in devolving power is that the Muslims do not occupy a contiguous area in the North and East. In the East where they share almost equal numbers with the Tamils, the Muslim and Tamil villages almost alternate each other along the coast from Valaichenai to Pottuvil. Under ideal conditions, this is a welcome mix but in the present political context, it presents severe administrative problems. Having a non-contiguous Council for the Muslims may involve insurmountable practical constraints. One way out may be to carve out two contiguous Regional Councils out of the present Eastern Province with one having a Muslim majority and the other, a Tamil majority, with clearly defined safeguards to ensure that minority interests (which will include the Sinhala minority as well) within each Regional Council are protected. But this is thinking into the future when hopefully there will be a political will to ensure peace and justice for all communities living in our country.

For the present, the Muslims along with other Sri Lankans have to grin and bear. The forthcoming provincial election is not going to bring them any solace. But the SLMC is right not to opt out of the election, however farcical it may turn out to be. Undoubtedly for reasons of political expediency, the SLFP has shamelessly entered into an agreement with the TMVP which, despite all the rhetoric, remains an armed militant group that terrorises the civilian population. Using the TMVP for short term political gains will surely lead to longer term problems for the country, as we learnt to our cost by the Premadasa Government arming the LTTE for short term gains.

True liberation for the people of the East (and indeed for the people of the North and the rest of the country) will come about only when true democracy is restored; when our political leadership realises that a resolution of a political problem cannot come about by military or militant action but only by a political will to ensure fair, just and good governance.


0 Responses to “The Muslims and Eastern Elections”

  • No Comments

Leave a Reply