Muslims’ dilemma on ethnic politics

21 November 2020 01:26 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Muslim parties taking sides alternately with both main parties had not been an issue among the Muslim community in the past as the leaders of those parties were awarded with ministerial portfolios which were considered useful to the community (Pic AFP)

The gap between Muslims and the Rajapaksas seemed to be narrowing following the latter’s landslide victory in the 2018 local government election

The passage of the very constitutional amendment saw the infidelity of a Sinhalese, a Tamil and six Muslims

The repeated portrayal of the new government as a Sinhala Buddhist government by its leaders further alienates the minorities

 

Many Muslims in Sri Lanka might have agreed at least for a moment with the Sinhalese who are against ethnicity based politics when six Muslim Parliamentarians voted in favour of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution Bill on October 22, breaking rank with Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) under which they returned to the Parliament. 


The frustration over the six MP’s defection was not due to any demerits of the 20th Amendment, but due to the disgrace that was brought in for their community by these Parliamentarians by striking a secret deal with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujan Peramuna (SLPP) before the passage of that piece of legislation. 

The war and the merger are no longer issues in Sri Lankan politics. However, the lack of inclusiveness of the major political parties in the country still validates the existence of ethnic parties including those of Muslims


Crossing-over from one political party to another or stabbing in the back is not the legacy of a particular community or a particular party. The passage of the very constitutional amendment saw the infidelity of a Sinhalese, a Tamil and six Muslims. But the infidelity of Muslims had earned them even a Sinhala adage - Thambige thoppiya herena herena peththata, which can be roughly translated as the moor’s skull cap would turn to any side. 


The Muslim political parties, especially the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) as well as the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) which represents the up-country Tamils have been constituent parties of the Governments led by both the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the past, despite the two main parties being popularly considered to be diametrically opposite in policies, which in fact is not the case. Therefore these three minority parties are always seen as turncoats. 

When Eastern Muslims who did not wish to place their destiny in the hands of the Tamil leaders demanded representation at the Thimpu talks in 1985, President Jayewardene questioned who the Muslim representatives were, compelling Muslims to find a valid answer


Although the EPDP too had supported Governments headed by the SLFP and the UNP in the past they never boasted of being king makers thereby making its political swinging unnoticed.


Muslim parties taking sides alternately with both main parties had not been an issue among the Muslim community in the past as the leaders of those parties were awarded with ministerial portfolios which were considered useful to the community. However, joining the Rajapaksas is now seen as abhorrence after the last Rajapaksa rule during which Muslims were harassed by certain groups which Muslims suspected of being backed by the Rajapaksas, using issues such as the famous Halal controversy. 


The gap between Muslims and the Rajapaksas seemed to be narrowing following the latter’s landslide victory in the 2018 local government election, but the relationship was again worsened after the anti-Muslim riots in Digana and attacks on churches and tourist hotels by a small group of Muslim terrorists on last year’s Easter Sunday. 
It were the politicians and the media supportive of the SLPP that were in forefront then in demonizing Muslims. They saw an armory in every Muslim house and mosque. Even the education minister under the previous Rajapaksa regime, who gave Moulavi teacher appointments to the students passed out from Madrasas, was seen on TV describing Madrasas some of which were hundred years old as breeding grounds of terrorists. 


The repeated portrayal of the new government as a Sinhala Buddhist government by its leaders further alienates the minorities. And finally the cremation of cadavers of Muslims died of COVID-19 brought the situation to a head. It was against this backdrop that six Muslim MPs provided the much needed assistance to the SLPP government to adopt the 20th Amendment, heightening the frustration among their community and posing a question among them on the existence of ethnic political parties. 


In fact, Sri Lankan Muslims do not have any specific political cause such as a separate State to achieve. Their opposition to the demand by the Tamil leaders for the merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces is one that can be continued along with the Sinhalese. Hence, one can argue against the existence of Muslim political parties after the demerger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces in 2006 by the Supreme Court. The possibility of a remerging the two provinces is out of the question since India that compelled its southern neighbour to merge the provinces in 1987 has openly abdicated it in 2017. 


The necessity of Muslim political parties could be seen in the context of war in 1980s when the eastern Muslims were harassed by both sides of the war. President J.R.Jayewardene who supported the US bloc during the Cold War is said to have asked the Muslim leaders of his party to leave the party if they were not agreeable to opening of an Israeli Interest Section in the US embassy in Colombo. When Eastern Muslims who did not wish to place their destiny in the hands of the Tamil leaders demanded representation at the Thimpu talks in 1985, President Jayewardene questioned who the Muslim representatives were, compelling Muslims to find a valid answer.


Tamil armed groups used the Muslim areas for their attacks against the armed forces. These attacks resulted in reprisals of the State machinery in the same areas and on the other hand when those armed groups found lack of support from the Muslims they unleashed their wrath against the latter. Over 500 houses were set on fire by the LTTE in Kalmunai and adjacent areas in 1985 and the five ruling party MuslimMPs from the east were then accused of not protesting it at least in Parliament. Referring to the formation of the SLMC by M.H.M.Ashraf in November 1986, veteran Journalist Mervin de Silva while testifying before the “Mossad Commission” in 1991 said that the major parties had activated what he described a politically “passive community.” Then the SLMC demanded a South Eastern Provincial Council against the Tamils’ north east merger demand. 


The war and the merger are no longer issues in Sri Lankan politics. However, the lack of inclusiveness of the major political parties in the country still validates the existence of ethnic parties including those of Muslims. Leaders of those parties (as the case with minority parties) weigh issues on the basis of votes they could draw from the majority and minority communities at future election rather than evaluate them according to their merits and demerits. The PR system further pushes the three main communities to think on ethnic lines during elections. 
When the country was brought close to a nation-wide pogrom similar to the one that devastated the country in 1983 through a controversy over Halal certification in 2012/13, no major party, even those who claim to be Marxists or those businessmen who obtained the certificate without being influenced by anybody came forward for a genuine discussion. The government of the day neither prohibited the certification nor intervened to calm down the situation. 


The response by those political parties has been almost the same in respect of issues such as the “wanda Pethi” controversy in early 2019, Islamophobic campaigns during the Digana riots and following the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, controversy over Dr. Shafi’s alleged sterilization of Sinhalese women and the current cremation row. Muslims were left to their leaders and their fate, leaving further room for ethnic politics. 


The dilemma that is faced with by the Muslims now is that they are compelled to have their own community representatives for their voice to be heard, but their representatives are being always bought over by those who do not wish to voice for them.   

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