This column shifts its focus away from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) this week and turns the spotlight on the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) instead. The premier political party representing the Muslims of Sri Lanka is once again in the grip of an intra-party crisis with the split cum defection time-bomb ticking away. The name of that bomb threatening to explode is Basheer Segu Dawood!
The 53-year-old Basheer Segu Dawood is the “Thavisaalar” or Chairman of the SLMC. The former school teacher hailing from Eravur was elected to Parliament in 2010 from the Batticaloa District in Eastern Sri Lanka. Segu Dawood is currently a cabinet minister in charge of Productivity Promotion. Earlier he was the Deputy Minister of Cooperatives and Internal Trade.
Internal dissension, splits and defections are nothing new to the SLMC. It is a prevalent phenomenon from the time when MHM Ashraff was numero uno.This tendency however accelerated and expanded after Rauff Hakeem took over the party reins. The current crisis at is due to what may be termed as a personality clash tinged with political differences between Rauff Hakeem and Basheer Segu Dawood. This clash of the Titans has the potential of erupting into a major split in the party unless remedial action is taken. This however may be too late as recent events indicate that the conflict has widened and deepened beyond the point of no return.
Tension has been simmering between Hakeem and Segu Dawood within party folds for quite a while. Yet the most recent flashpoint has been over the issue of Elections to the Northern, North-Western and Central Provinces.The three provinces have together ten administrative districts. As is well-known the Muslim Congress is contesting as a separate entity under the tree symbol. In Nuwara-Eliya it is aligned to a group of parties contesting under the mammoty symbol of the Up-Country Peoples Front (UPF).
Significantly the SLMC is not contesting under the betel symbol of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in any of the districts in the three provinces. This despite being a constituent party of the UPFA Government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Basheer Segu Dawood is opposed to this position in principle. Rauff Hakeem on the other hand was in favour of the SLMC contesting alone.
" Basheer Segu Dawood however did not remain out of Government office for long. He was appointed cabinet minister in charge of Productivity Promotion soon thereafter.This was done when Rauff Hakeem was out of the Island. Neither the leader of the SLMC to which Segu Dawood belonged nor the party was informed of this move. It also transpired that the much publicised resignation of the deputy ministerial post had been an illusion all along.Apparently the resignation letter had never been formally submitted after faxing.Thus the President had never accepted the resignation officially. It was only prior to receiving his cabinet portfolio that the earlier resignation came into force ‘officially "
The Apex body of the SLMC is the “Uyar Peedam” or High Command. It was the High Command that decided to field candidates separately for the provincial polls. There was a frank exchange of views when the High Command met to discuss the issue. The SLMC “Thalaiver” or leader Rauff Hakeem who chaired the meeting told members at the commencement that President Rajapaksa wanted the Muslim Congress to contest under the UPFA’s betel symbol as part of the Government. Hakeem said that he preferred the Muslim Congress contesting alone and outlined his reasons.Thereafter the floor was open for discussions.
Party Chairman Basheer Segu Dawood opined that the SLMC should contest on the UPFA ticket as it was part of the Government and that it would be unethical for the Muslim Congress to campaign against the Government while being part of it. Basheer had already expressed this view through the media.This argument however was challenged by a very senior member of the party, SMA Gaffoor. A lawyer by profession, Gaffoor was the first organisational secretary of the SLMC when Ashraff re-structured it in 1986. He is also the deputy head of the “Majlis Shura”, the umbrella organisation of Muslim religious organisations in Sri Lanka.
Gaffoor argued eloquently that the party should contest separately. It was widely felt that he was actually reflecting the views of Rauff Hakeem who wanted the SLMC to contest independently. Most members of the High Command thereafter took the cue from Gaffoor and tore Segu Dawood’s stance into shreds. The High Command had at one time consisted of 25 to 30 members. But in recent times Rauff Hakeem had used his powers as leader to broadbase the membership bringing in nominees from local authorities where the SLMC was represented. This had led to Rauff Hakeem gaining absolute control of the High Command now comprising more than 70 members.
Some Muslim Congress parliamentarians and a few others were also of the same view as that of Segu Dawood but maintained a deafening silence as they realised that the overwhelming majority was for contesting independently. Basheer too quit arguing after a while. It was obvious that the High Command consisting of mainly Hakeem loyalists would endorse the views of the leader.Thereafter the SLMC High Command unanimously resolved that the party should contest separately. It is the practice in the SLMC to conduct inner party debates on crucial issues but not promote division through voting. So once it becomes clear which side has a majority that decision is finalised unanimously.
Once the decision was taken the party high command also finalised the names of senior party leaders to be in charge of election-related matters in districts facing polls. Parliamentarians MT Hassen Ali, Mohammed Aslam, Muthaliph Bawa Farook and Eastern provincial councillor Jameel were placed in charge of the North. Rauff Hakeem and Eastern provincial minister Nazeer Ahamed are in charge of Kandy and Matale districts. Faizal Cassim was put in for Kurunegala. Puttalam was placed under Basheer Segu Dawood and Kalmunai Mayor Siraz Meerasahib.
According to Muslim sources Basheer Segu Dawood did not demur when appointed in charge of election work in Puttalam. However the cabinet minister from Batticaloa came out with a subsequent statement that in his view the SLMC should have contested as part of the UPFA because it was unethical to campaign against the Government while being part of it. Since the party was now contesting separately Segu Dawood stated he would not engage in canvassing for the SLMC while being a cabinet minister as it was against his conscience. He further said that if the party compelled him to campaign then he would resign his ministerial portfolio do so.
This attempt to take the moral high ground was in essence a subtle attack on Rauff Hakeem. Since Hakeem too is the minister of Justice in the Cabinet,what Segu Dawood was trying to do was draw attention to that fact and portray Hakeem in a negative light.The line projected is that the SLMC leader was an unprincipled person who was campaigning against the Government he was part of while the party chairman was a principled politician who was not campaigning against the Government to which he belonged.On the other hand if the Muslim Congress did compel him to campaign Basheer would then resign or threaten to resign his portfolio and thereby pressuring Rauff also to follow suit.
This manoeuvre was akin to what Segu Dawood resorted last year too when the Eastern Provincial Council polls were held.Then too, he had wanted the SLMC to contest along with the Government. When the party struck out independently, Basheer tendered his resignation letter to President Rajapaksa by facsimile and publicised it in the media. He was then the Deputy Minister of Cooperatives and Internal Trade. He came out with the same argument then that it was unethical to campaign against the Government one was part of and that if one were to do so then the post held in the Government should be sacrificed. The aim of this posture then (and now) was depicting Hakeem as an unprincipled opportunist at one level and if possible forcing him to resign his cabinet portfolio if possible at another level.
" Gaffoor argued eloquently that the party should contest separately. It was widely felt that he was actually reflecting the views of Rauff Hakeem who wanted the SLMC to contest independently. Most members of the High Command thereafter took the cue from Gaffoor and tore Segu Dawood’s stance into shreds. "
There was however more to this posture of seeking Hakeem’s voluntary resignation from the Government on a matter of principle. According to informed Muslim circles had Hakeem tendered his resignation last year he would not have been re-appointed as a minister. Hakeem would have been left in the lurch while Segu Dawood would have been appointed cabinet minister in his stead. This would have enabled a power shift to occur within SLMC parliamentary ranks and Segu Dawood would have engineered a move to split the party and join the Government with the breakaway MP’s.
This scenario did not materialise as Rauff Hakeem did not fall into the trap and simply stayed put as minister while campaigning against the Government. Hakeem however made amends for defying the Government by aligning with the UPFA in forming an Eastern Provincial Administration.The decision to support and be part of the Provincial Government after a bitter campaign against the UPFA was resented and opposed by a vast number of the SLMC’s Eastern rank and file. Hakeem however stood firm and threw in his lot with the Government despite his popularity eroding to a great extent among the SLMC activists described as “Poralighal”or militants by MHM Ashraff himself.
Basheer Segu Dawood however did not remain out of Government office for long. He was appointed cabinet minister in charge of Productivity Promotion soon thereafter.This was done when Rauff Hakeem was out of the Island. Neither the leader of the SLMC to which Segu Dawood belonged nor the party was informed of this move. It also transpired that the much publicised resignation of the deputy ministerial post had been an illusion all along.Apparently the resignation letter had never been formally submitted after faxing.Thus the President had never accepted the resignation officially. It was only prior to receiving his cabinet portfolio that the earlier resignation came into force ‘officially’.
Basheer was quizzed by the SLMC High Command over accepting the sudden windfall of a cabinet portfolio without the party’s consent or knowledge. According to Muslim Congress sources the former pedagogue from Eravur responded with an innocent face that it was a surprise to him also. He had been suddenly summoned to “Temple Trees” and sworn in as minister, Basheer stated. Describing the incident, SLMC sources said Basheer had replied “Kan Simittaamal” (without batting an eye-lid).
He was however not believed as almost everyone there knew that cabinet appointments did not fall out of the air suddenly without any preparation or efforts by the parties concerned. Yet Segu Dawood did childishly try to insult the collective intelligence of the SLMC High Command. Though several bayed for Basheer’s blood, Hakeem was generous to a fault and opted to accept the explanation. The SLMC leader gave his Party Chairman the benefit of the doubt. Rauff ended the matter by giving Basheer his “conditional blessings” and wishes. Hakeem also did not raise the issue with President Rajapaksa.
Now Basheer is once again causing a stir, raising the issue of campaigning against the Government while being in it as a matter affecting his conscience. There is certainly an element of truth to this assertion but what is hypocritical about this stance is that Segu Dawood had no qualms about conscience when accepting a cabinet portfolio without the knowledge of his party or in promoting SLMC support to the UPFA to form an Eastern Province Administration after fighting against the same Government at the polls.
What is more, many SLMC members suspect that the demand pressuring Hakeem to resign his cabinet portfolio and campaign is a ruse to leave the SLMC leader out in the cold. Muslim Congress sources are very sure that Segu Dawood is out to deprive Hakeem the opportunity of being a minister.They allege that they have proof of Segu Dawood asking the upper echelons of the Government to remove Hakeem as a minister when the party was trying to formulate an independent stand vis a vis the Govt. They say that the information about Segu Dawood’s “treachery” came from the horse’s mouth itself. Segu Dawood has also allegedly gone on record that he had more bargaining clout than the SLMC with the Government.
Segu Dawood’s recent actions are also resented and highly suspect in the eyes of many Muslim Congress stalwarts. At a time when the SLMC is challenging the Government at the polls, five of its key high command members deserted the party and crossed over to Government ranks. They were given nomination by the UPFA to contest in the districts of Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Puttalam. Rauff Hakeem using his powers as party leader has issued expulsion notices on all five namely A.L. Ilham, S.H.A. Careem, S.K.S. Muthaliph., M.H.M. Najath and S.A. Yehiya.The Party High Command will meet shortly and ratify Hakeem’s verdict.
What SLMC circles allege is that Basheer Segu Dawood is responsible for the defection of these five key high command members. It is being said that Segu Dawood is working against the leader and the party like a fifth columnist. They say Segu Dawood is working hand-in-glove with ministers Basil Rajapaksa and Rishad Badhiutdeen to undermine Hakeem and fragment the SLMC. He is allegedly wooing a few Muslim Congress MP’s to join him and cross over to the Government at the right moment.
Whether these suspicions are correct or the allegations justified, the crux of the matter is that a serious rift has occurred between Rauff Hakeem and Basheer Segu Dawood. In a political sense both of them are now at the chessboard waiting for each other to make a wrong move. Segu Dawood needs to get at least three or four Muslim Congress MP’s to split along with him and Hakeem will do his best to restrain the potential pole vaulters. Also given the political climate, Basheer may not opt to break away at the present juncture but would prefer to let Rauff throw him out. Hakeem knows this and bides his time until Segu Dawood makes a colossal blunder justifying his expulsion or becomes too impatient and defects on his own.
In spite of these circumstances some SLMC activists are optimistic that Basheer and Rauff can resolve their differences and reconcile. They cite past history where both had unitedly faced many challenges. Segu Dawood had been staunchly loyal to Hakeem and helped the leader overcome many different situations. Hakeem-Segu Dawood divergence is a recent phenomenon they point out.
Among all the Muslim MPs in the present Parliament, Basheer Segu Dawood is indeed unique on account of his controversial background. He is the only Muslim parliamentarian with a history of revolutionary politics as he had at one time been a prominent member of the Tamil militant organisation known as EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization).
" In spite of these circumstances some SLMC activists are optimistic that Basheer and Rauff can resolve their differences and reconcile. They cite past history where both had unitedly faced many challenges. Segu Dawood had been staunchly loyal to Hakeem and helped the leader overcome many different situations. Hakeem-Segu Dawood divergence is a recent phenomenon they point out "
Basheer, son of Segu Dawood (as he describes himself) is from Eravur in the Batticaloa District. Eravur was at the turn of the 19th century a Tamil majority area with a Muslim minority. Today it is a Muslim majority area with a Tamil minority. Eravur, Kattankudi and Ottamavaddy are the three major Muslim-populated regions in the Batticaloa district. Muslim MPs from the Batticaloa district have been elected from these three places in recent times.
Basheer born on April 17, 1960 was attracted to politics as a student and became a member of the left-leaning Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students called EROS. It is this student organisation that evolved into the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation also called EROS. In fact most organisations affiliated to EROS have the same acronym EROS -- Eelam Research organization, Eelam Refugee Organisation, Eelam Rehabilitation Organisation etc. An off shoot of the EROS was the General Union of Eelem Students (GUES) the forerunner of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).
The EROS ideology envisaged an Eelam comprising the Northern, Eastern and parts of the Uva Provinces. It spoke of people inhabiting this territory dubbed Eezham as “Eezhavar”. The term Eezhavar is applied to all people living in this territory regardless of being Sinhala,Tamil, Muslim,Malay or Burgher.
Basheer Segu Dawood joined as a member of the student organisation and later rose from the ranks to become a senior intelligence leader of EROS. Basheer served as a politbureau member of EROS from 1979 to 1994. His ostensible profession was that of a teacher.With the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 the EROS entered the democratic political mainstream. In the 1989 Parliamentary polls the EROS fielded lists of Independents in the North and East. The EROS independents won 12 elected seats and a national list seat.
War broke out in June 1990 between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE after the Indian Army had left Sri Lankan shores in March 1990. EROS was issued an ultimatum by the LTTE. The bulk of the EROS merged with the Tigers. The MP’s elected on Independent lists stopped attending Parliament and forfeited their seats in due course.
The EROS MP elected from Batticaloa was Azhaghu Gunaseelan. He too lost his MP status and later migrated to Europe. This enabled Basheer Segu Dawood who had also contested on the EROS independent list to replace Gunaseelan and become an MP. He remained as an Independent MP until 1994 when he joined the Muslim Congress under Ashraff’s leadership. Ashraff impressed by Basheer appointed Segu Dawood to the SLMC politbureau.
After Ashraff’s tragic demise Rauff Hakeem succeeded him. Soon Basheer and Rauff (both born in 1960) established a strong personal friendship and political relationship. Segu Dawood was a sheet anchor to Rauff Hakeem who was assailed by his detractors as an outsider to the Eastern province.Hakeem is from the Central Province and technically not a “kizhakku Mannin Mainthan” (son of Eastern soil). Basheer stood by Hakeem loyally and supported him amid trying situations.
He was a tower of strength to Hakeem when an inner-party revolt was staged against Rauff when he was in Oslo for Government-LTTE talks and also during the Kumari Cooray episode. Segu Dawood’s closeness to Hakeem was by itself an irritant to the anti-Rauff factions. In 2003 Basheer was made the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
Segu Dawood was however not very successful in elections during 1994 and 2000. Basheer did not contest in 2001 but was appointed MP on the SLMC national list. In April 2004 he contested elections but did not win. In September 2004 Basheer was again appointed a national list MP. In 2008 he resigned his seat to contest the first Eastern provincial poll as chief candidate for Batticaloa district.
The UPFA won and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan became chief minister. Segu Dawood functioned as opposition leader in the council until 2010. After the 2010 eletions he returned to Parliament as Batticaloa district MP.
It was during this phase that differences emerged between Rauff Hakeem and Basheer Segu Dawood. It is said that Basheer was annoyed over Hakeem and Hassen Ali abandoning the Provincial Council and returning to Parliament as MPs leaving him behind to be opposition leader in the East. Thereafter He changed his approach and focused on attaining maximum power in the Government rather than the Provincial Government. Segu Dawood also cultivated top Government ministers like Basil Rajapaksa.
Rumours began circulating soon after the 2010 elections about a possible cross over by some Muslim Congress MP’s. It was said that party chairman Basheer Segu Dawood would lead the SLMC defectors. This possibility seemed rather remote then as Basheer Segu Dawood had proved time and again that he was a Rauff Hakeem loyalist and an ardent party man. There was much grumbling against Hakeem because of the prominence given to Segu Dawood but the SLMC Leader had not relented under intra-party pressure.
In that context of his perceived closeness to Hakeem, the possibility of Segu Dawood engineering a defection seemed highly unlikely but as events unfolded the unexpected happened. It soon became an “open secret” that a SLMC trio was in clandestine consultations with the “master negotiator” of the Rajapaksa government.
Of the eight SLMC MPs the trio comprising Basheer Segu Dawood, Noordeen Mashoor and Faisal Cassim had reportedly engaged in talks with the Government and were ready to break ranks with the SLMC. Segu Dawood was to be made cabinet minister as a reward for engineering the defection.
In such a situation two other MP’s HMM Haris and SM Thowfeek also felt the urge to merge with the Government. However both Haris and Thowfeek wanted the SLMC as a party to join the Government. They were reluctant to break away from the party and join. In this, the duo differed from the trio that was ready to break from the party if necessary.
Things were now boiling down to a situation where five of eight SLMC MPs wanted to join the Government. Three were ready to break away and do so as a splinter group if required while two wanted to join the govt as a party. It appeared that only Hakeem, Hassan Ali and Aslam wanted to be in the opposition.
When the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was being formulated, Rauff Hakeem had a meeting with President Rajapaksa in Kandy. The one to one meeting ended on a positive note. Rauff Hakeem returned to Colombo and after consulting party stalwarts and well-wishers convened the meeting of the High command. After much discussion and debate the High Command resolved unanimously that the party would support the proposed amendment from opposition ranks.This the Muslim Congress did and the 18th Amendment was passed.
Soon afterwards the SLMC joined the Government in its entirety. Rauff Hakeem became Justice Minister and Basheer Segu Dawood Deputy minister of Cooperatives and Internal Trade. Despite the outward signs of amity and unity the chasm had widened between them both.
Hakeem regarded Segu Dawood’s sly negotiations behind his back to break away and join Government ranks to become a cabinet minister as a gross betrayal. In Machiavellian intrigue the “Thalaiver” outsmarted the “Thavisalar” by reaching a separate understanding with the President thus depriving a perceived “traitor” of a cabinet portfolio. This preemptive action amounted to treachery by Rauff in Basheer’s eyes.
This was followed by Hakeem reconciling with Nazeer Ahamed with whom the SLMC was embroiled in legal cases and getting back the party headquarters “Darussalam”. Nazeer Ahamed was also fielded as a candidate at the provincial polls and made a provincial minister. This irritated Segu Dawood immensely as Nazeer like Basheer was from Eravur. Segu Dawood perceived Ahamed as a political threat and felt Hakeem was building up Nazeer to counter his (Basheer) influence.
It is in this context that Rauff Hakeem and Basheer Segu Dawood are continuing with this cold war. The signs are that it would erupt into open confrontation soon as the Basheer Segu Dawood time-bomb keeps ticking away. It is indeed sad to see the premier political party of the Sri Lankan Muslims in the throes on an inner party conflict at a time when Muslim unity is the need of the hour.
A remarkable aspect of recent Muslim politics has been the consistent steadfastness of Muslim Congress supporters on the one hand and the fickleness of those elected from the party on the other. The people remain loyal to the party but some of those elected are disloyal to the leadership and by extension to the party.
Division and fragmentation has been the bane of SLMC in recent times. That history continues even at a time when the entire Muslim community feels threatened and insecure due to recent events.The Segu Dawood Saga is but a troubling chapter in Muslim Congres History.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org