Sainthamaruthu: Agitations, hopes and change of fortunes

21 February 2020 12:01 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


What would have been the response of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had a new local council been established for the Muslim dominated Sainthamaruthu area during the 
last regime?

Sainthamaruthu had grabbed the attention of the Sri Lankan people last year subsequent to 16 people including women, children and several terrorists - all Muslims - were killed in a house in that area when those terrorists blew up several bombs.

This incident took place five days after the dastardly suicide attacks by Muslim terrorists in three tourist hotels and three churches on Easter Sunday (April 21) that killed around three hundred innocent people. And the father and two brothers of the mastermind of the Easter Sunday carnage, Zahran Hashim had been among the dead in Sainthamaruthu.

Given the fact that how some politicians and the media institutions affiliated to the SLPP attempted to exploit the situation after these two acts of terrorism, spreading anti-Muslim hate among the majority Sinhalese; one could imagine the fuss they would have created, had the UNP led previous government created an urban council for Sainthamaruthu area. However, none protested when it was done by the present government last week, except for the Patriotic National Movement (PNM) which said this is the first step towards a separate Muslim State.

Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon issued an extraordinary gazette establishing the Sainthamaruthu Urban Council on February 14, bringing the total number of local government bodies in the country to 342.

The gazette notification also announced the dissolution of Kalmuani Municipal Council under which Sainthamaruthu area came, in order to facilitate the demarcation of boundaries of the new Sainthamaruthu Urban Council and the rest of the Kalmunai Municipal Council. However, the term of the Sainthamaruthu Urban Council is to commence on March 20, 2022.

However, the Government announced yesterday that it would withdraw the Gazette, for want of declaring all changes in L.G bodies at once on a future date.

The timing of the issuance of the gazette notification on the establishment of the Sainthamaruthu Urban Council was important. It has apparently been prioritized by the government having the forthcoming Parliamentary election in mind. Government leaders seem to be obsessed with the idea of obtaining two thirds of Parliamentary power in order to dispose of some of the Articles of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that have clipped the wings of the President.

Therefore, despite the minority communities having voted en-masse against the group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at all elections since 2015, government leaders seem to be bent on winning over Tamils and Muslims, before the forthcoming Parliamentary polls is held. SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the Opposition Leader promised leaders of several small Tamil parties including Varatharaja Perumal, the former Chief Minister of the once amalgamated Northern and Eastern Provincial Council in August last year to grant police and land powers to Northern Provincial Council. Contrary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s stance on devolution, a seasoned politician he is, the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Hindustan Times this month that the government would strengthen the provincial council system.

In the same way, the Premier, to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, made arrangements to reduce the cost of Hajj pilgrimage by about Rs.100, 000 for around 2000 pilgrims last month. It is against this backdrop one has to comprehend the timing of the establishment of Sainthamaruthu Urban Council.

The efforts did not go down the drain totally this time. Y.M.Haniffa, the President of the trustee Board of the Sainthamaruthu - Maligaikadu Mosque federation who spearheaded the agitations in 2017 for a separate local council for his area, thrashing all other politicians including the leaders of the Muslim political parties, had called on the Muslim people on Tuesday to vote for the “lotus bud” symbol of the SLPP, at the upcoming Parliamentary election.

In fact, the new local authority for Sainthamaruthu area is not a totally new idea, rather it is a reinstitution of one of four old village councils - Karaivahu North, Karaivahu South, Karaivahu West and Kalmunai - that existed before 1987. They were merged to create the Kalmunai Pradeshiya Sabha when the Pradeshiya Sabha system was first introduced in 1987, abolishing town councils and village councils.

This merger was not to the liking of the Sainthamaruthu people. They occasionally demanded a separate local council for their area and no major political party opposed it. United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe promised a separate local authority for the area during the Presidential election campaign in 2015. But it was not materialised.

Then the agitation for Sainthamaruthu council gained momentum in 2017 when huge demonstrations were held under the aegis of the Mosque Federation where those Muslims who oppose the idea were branded as “traitors” and a decree was announced barring the Muslim political party leaders from visiting the area for political purposes. The agitation was called by some as “October Revolution.” A fundamental rights petition was also filed in the Supreme Court in 2017, demanding a separate council for Sainthamaruthu.

The agitators fielded an independent group for the Kalmunai Municipal Council election at the islandwide local government election on February 10, 2018 and won all six wards in their area. Yet, the then UNP led government was not moved but the then Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to implement the demand at a public rally in Kalmunai on October 26 last year. Later SLPP National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa also gave the same promise during the last Presidential election campaign.

National Congress leader A.L.M.Athaullah who had emerged from the political cocoon following Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office as President had been quoted by some Tamil media as saying that all four original village councils that clustered in 1987 would be reinstituted as urban councils.

In spite of the Sainthamaruthu people having celebrated the announcement of the new urban council lighting crackers, sharing sweets and milk rice on Saturday, a section of Muslims in Kalmunai area had their reservations. They argue that there was a danger of Kalmunai, which they call the cultural capital of Eastern Muslims, falling in the hands of Tamils, as the percentage of Muslims in Kalmunai has drastically reduced with the separation of Sainthamaruthu area. Former deputy minister and special commander of the LTTE for Ampara and Batticaloa Districts Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan has also stated that there is a chance for a Tamil to become the Mayor of Kalmuani now.

Despite there being a political point in the eerie silence on the part of many groups affiliated to the SLPP over the issue, there is nothing in fact to make a fuss over it, as new local councils have been created at various times after 1987. Akkaraipattu Municipal Council was created in 2011 in a part of already existing Akkaraipattu Pradesiya Sabha when A.L.M Athaullah who is hailing from the area was local Government Minister. The Campaign for Free and Fair Election (CaFFE) protested it then on the grounds that due procedure was not followed, as the municipal council was established without declaring an urban council first.

Nuwara Eliya and Ambagamuwa Pradeshiya Sabhas were divided into four councils each in 2017, creating six new councils, due to agitations by Tamil Progressive Front (TPF). TPF argued that both the Pradeshiaya Sabhas had a population of over 200,000 each and the distance from one end to the other was about 100 kilometers in both Pradeshiya Sabha areas, whereas local councils had been carved out even for a population of 10,000 in some other areas.

The question remains as to what the ordinary people gain from creating new councils, except for the cases such as the division of vast areas such as Nuwara Eliya and Ambagamuwa. Contrary to few politicians being elected to the high posts of those new councils with contracts, perks and facilities, one has to conduct a survey to find out the gains by the ordinary people from carving out of new local councils.




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