Another split in the Muslim Congress?
By D.B.S. JEYARAJ
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress “Thavisalar” Chairman and National List Parliamentarian Basheer Segu Dawood is in the eye of a political storm. The fifty–two year old politician from Eravur in the Batticaloa district has resigned his post as Deputy Minister of Co-operatives and Internal Trade but continues to retain his MP seat and party chairmanship. Segu Dawood’s dramatic move seems to suggest that the premier political party of the Sri Lankan Muslims may be heading for another split in the near future unless remedial action is taken.
Segu Dawood has reportedly faxed his resignation letter to President Rajapaksa on August 23rd.Prior to his resignation, he had a discussion with Sri Lanka Muslim Congress(SLMC) leader Rauf Hakeem where he informed the Justice Minister of his decision to resign. Later he informed party General secretary and National list MP M.T. Hassen Ali officially of his resignation.
The resignation came in the wake of a minor controversy that has been raging around Segu Dawood after he addressed a public meeting in Eravur on August 20th. The frank views expressed by Basheer at that meeting had resulted in a wave of protests within sections of the party.
What aroused the ire of party stalwarts most were the complimentary references he made towards former MP and current chairman of the Eravur Urban Council, Ali Zaheer Moulana, who is also contesting the provincial poll on the United People’s Freedom Alliance(UPFA) ticket. Basheer had allegedly wanted people voting for the betel symbol to vote for Moulana while not uttering a word in support of Hafiz Nazeer Ahamed who also hails from Eravur and is the chief SLMC candidate for the Batticaloa district contesting on the tree symbol.
Subsequently insinuations have been made within sections of the SLMC and media that Segu Dawood was conspiring to break away from the SLMC and accept a cabinet minister post after the Eastern provincial poll. There were media reports that a disciplinary inquiry may be held against Segu Dawood for the public pronouncements he made in his hometown Eravur.
There were also protest demonstrations in Basheer’s home turf Eravur against him. An effigy of Segu Dawood was burnt publicly. Segu Dawood was forced to issue an apologetic statement clarifying his position. Later in the night mysterious fires occurred in two commercial establishments on AMK street in Eravur. One was a jewellery store and the other a TV repair and maintenance unit. It is said that the owners of these establishments were in the forefront of the protests against Segu Dawood.
It is against this backdrop that Basheer Segu Dawood tendered his dramatic resignation. In comments to sections of the media and in a press statement Basheer revealed the reasons for his decision. Referring to recent developments within and outside the SLMC, he stated that he had wrestled with his conscience for many days since the party filed nomination papers for the Eastern provincial poll before arriving at this decision.
His decision to resign the deputy ministership was due to two reasons explained Segu Dawood. Firstly he wanted to disprove that he was seeking ministerial office by resigning even his deputy minister post. This would demonstrate that he was not after ministerial office or power. Secondly he did not want to utilize the trappings and assets of deputy ministerial office while campaigning for the SLMC against the Government as a matter of political ethics.
Taking the high ground, Segu Dawood in his statement said that holding office while campaigning in elections against the Govt amounted to a conflict of interests. He stated that though he had wanted the SLMC to contest as part of the UPFA at the Eastern poll the party was now contesting separately and challenging the Govt. As such he felt that the party should resign Govt posts and face the polls on an independent platform.By saying so after resigning, Basheer seemed to imply that Hakeem too should resign his cabinet minister post .
Basheer reiterated his loyalty and commitment to the Muslim Congress and said that he would now actively canvass for the party in the coming days as a free man without the burden of office. By doing so he would prove that he was not lusting for a cabinet ministership and that he was not working against the party or trying to split it.
Despite Basheer’s explanation and avowed intention of remaining in the party as chairman and MP the response in the media by SLMC secretary Hassen Ali to Segu Dawood suggested that the issue was not over yet. He said that the party was unable to devote greater attention towards the Segu Dawood issue as the SLMC was fully engrossed in the election campaign. Ali observed that Segu Dawood had discussed matters with party leader Hakeem and that the issue would be dealt with by the “Thalaiver”(leader). Hassen Ali also emphasized that the Muslim Congress did not rely on individuals and was not concerned with personal issues.” Despite anyone departing the party will always remain. It cannot be destroyed. This applies to every one including Basheer Segu Dawood”.
As Hassen Ali correctly said the SLMC is currently focused on the Eastern provincial poll. It is highly unlikely that the party would divert its energy towards the issue at present. With only two weeks to go for voting day the SLMC will devote its time and resources towards campaigning. This period will also provide an opportunity to gauge and assess Segu Dawood’s professed intentions. Will he campaign actively and strenuously for the SLMC or not?
Segu Dawood will no doubt campaign for the party but it appears that he would not engage in propaganda for any individual candidate. This stance would help Basheer to avoid canvassing in favour of Hafiz Nazeer Ahamed of Eravur. It is the return of this prodigal son to SLMC ranks that had aggravated the perceived estrangement between Hakeem and Segu Dawood. Basheer sees Nazeer Ahamed as a threat and in a bid to counter it has reconciled with his erstwhile rival Ali Zaheer Moulana. It is this “Eravur triangle” of political inter-play that has contributed immensely to the current crisis.
It is premature to predict what lies in store for Segu Dawood in particular and the Muslim Congress in general after the Eastern elections are over. With the UPFA and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) competing to win the highest number of seats the SLMC may determine who forms the Eastern Province administration. The thrust of Rauf Hakeem’s campaigning has been exactly that.
There is however the unknown factor of potential horse deals after the hustings. It is in this context that the political conduct of Basheer Segu Dawood assumes greater significance.Notwithstanding his claims of not hankering after a cabinet portfolio, observers of the Sri Lankan political scene do not rule out the possibility of Segu Dawood joining the Government independent of the party along with a few dissident SLMC Parliamentarians.
This possible scenario can be averted only if Rauf Hakeem resolves differences with Basheer Segu Dawood without unnecessary delay or proscrastination.Chief among issues needing to be addressed would be that of Nazeer Ahamed. The prickly nature of that issue indicates that it would prove insurmountable. Die hard supporters and well-wishers of the SLMC would however hope that Hakeem and Segu Dawood would be able to iron out differences thereby avoiding another split in the party.
In spite of prevailing circumstances quite a few SLMC stalwarts are optimistic that Basheer and Rauf would 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.Therefore “Hope springs eternal”in these SLMC “breasts”of a Rauf-Basheer rapprochement that would cement party unity at a critical juncture in the history of the SLMC. It is also in the interests of the party and leader to retain a person of Segu Dawood’s calibre within Muslim Congress folds.
Among all the Muslim MPs in the present Parliament, Basheer Segu Dawood is indeed unique on account of his colourful 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 organization known as EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization).
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 17th 1960 was attracted to politics as a student and became a member of the left–leaning Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students called EROS.It is this student organization that evolved into the Eelam Revolutionary Organization also called EROS.In fact most organizations affiliated to EROS have the same acronym EROS. (Eelam Research Organization, Eelam Refugee Organization, Eelam Rehabilitation organization etc).An off shoot of the EROS was the General Union of Eelem Students (GUES) the forerunner of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF).
This penchant for EROS has been jocularly attributed to the movement’s pioneering founder Eliyathamby Ratnasabapathy. It is said in lighter vein that EROS means Eliathamby Ratnasabapathy and Others.
The EROS was considered to be the most “intellectual” of Tamil militant movements at one time. It was also the first organization to send cadres for arms training with Palestinian guerillas.It was also the EROS which pioneered explosive attacks in Colombo.With the passage of time the greater part of the EROS located on home soil under Balakumar merged with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) while the overseas component tried to function as an independent entity under Shankar Raji.
The EROS ideology as articulated through its journal “Tharkeegam” edited then by “Sinna Bala” and through the book “Eezhavar Idar Theera” written by Ratnasabapathy envisaged an Eelam comprising the Northern,Eastern and parts of Uva province. It spoke of people inhabiting this territory dubbed Eezham as “Eezhavar”. The term Eezhavar 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 organization and later rose from the ranks to become a senior intelligence leader of the EROS. 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 left Sri Lankan shores in March 1990. The EROS was issued an ultimatum by the LTTE. The bulk of the EROS merged with the tigers. The MPs 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 MP. He remained as an Independent MP until 1994 when he joined the Muslim Congress when Ashraff was its leader. Ashraff impressed by Basheer appointed Segu Dawood to the SLMC politbureau.
After Ashraff’s tragic demise Rauf Hakeem succeeded him. Soon Basheer and Rauf (both born in 1960) established a strong personal friendship and political relationship. Segu Dawood was a sheet anchor to Rauf 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 amidst trying situations. He was a tower of strength to Hakeem when an inner-party revolt was staged against Rauf when he was in Oslo for Govt-LTTE talks and also during the Kumari Cooray episode.Segu Dawood’s closeness to Hakeem was by itself an irritant to the anti–Rauf 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. The bulk of votes from Eravur went to Ali Zaheer Moulana of the UNP. With Hizbullah from Kattankudi and Mohideen Abdul Cader from Ottamavaddy getting a sizable number of votes, Segu Dawood failed to get a sufficient number of preferences to be elected.
Basheer became an MP again in December 2001 after being appointed on the SLMC national list. He did not contest in 2001. In April 2004 he contested elections but did not win. In September 2004 Basheer was again appointed as national list MP. In 2008 he resigned his seat to contest the first Eastern provincial poll as chief candidate for the 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 Parliamentary poll he returned to Parliament as a national list MP.
It was during this phase that differences emerged between Rauf Hakeem and Basheer Segu Dawood. Initially these differences pertained to the question of joining the Government. In the final analysis it all came down to the issue of being elected on a platform opposed to the government and then jettisoning it in a bid to cross over to the treasury benches.
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.
This tendency began even during the time of the legendary Muhammed Hussain Mohammed Ashraff. In 2000 when Parliament was at its tail end of tenure five of the seven SLMC parliamentarians were at loggerheads with MHM Ashraff. Only Hakeem was not estranged with the leader at that time.
After Ashraff’s demise on September 16th 2000, Rauf Hakeem took over party reins. In the October 10th 2000 Parliamentary polls the SLMC obtained eleven elected and appointed MPs. There was a split between Ashraff’s widow Ferial and Hakeem. Seven MPs crossed over to the opposition with Hakeem while the other four remained with the Chandrika Kumaratunge regime. The Ferial Ahraff faction took over the National Unity Alliance (NUA) in opposition to the SLMC.
In 2001 the SLMC contesting with the UNP got twelve MP seats.Once again there was inner-party division. Party Chairman Dr.Hazarath led a revolt of sorts when Hakeem was away from the country participating at the peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). Hakeem returned in a hurry to cope with the crisis.
Subsequently when elections were announced in 2004 the SLMC dozen had been halved. Six MPs including Athaulla, Anwer Ismail, Haris and Azeez were out of the SLMC. Athaulla formed the Muslim National Congress to compete with the SLMC.
Despite the Ferial Ashraff and Athaulla factors the SLMC under Rauf Hakeem once again fared best among Muslim parties at the 2004 polls. The party had ten seats. Alas! Fragmentation began again. A group of four led by Rishad Badiutheen broke away and joined the govt of Chandrika Kumaratunga. The group included Najeeb A Majeed and Ameer Ali. The All Ceylon Muslim Congress was formed by this group.
There was a second split among the remaining six after Mahinda Rajapakse became President. Three of the six namely Faisal Cassim, Nijamudeen and KA Baiz wanted to break away and join the govt. In a bid to prevent the party breaking up again, the SLMC took a policy decision and joined the government together as a party.
However the party found itself constrained and constricted under the Rajapakse regime. There was also a groundswell of opinion at the party grassroots that the SLMC should return to the opposition. When the party did so Nijamudin and Baiz refused to return. So there was a split again and only Hakeem, Hassan Ali, Segu Dawood and Faisal Cassim came back.
This sordid track record of MP’s getting elected on the Muslim Congress ticket and then crossing over to the govt has been the curse plaguing Rauf Hakeem’s leadership in the recent past. With this Damoclean sword of party break-up hanging overhead the Muslim Congress leader has been severely curtailed in exercising a powerful leadership role in many matters.
This SLMC history kept repeating itself again and again and again and again as tragedy,farce , tragic farce and farcial tragedy.It happened after 2010 too. When Parliamentary polls were held the Muslim Congress contested as part of the United National Front on the elephant symbol of the UNP. During the election campaign in 2010 the Muslim grapevine was then humming that some of those given nomination on the SLMC ticket would cross over to the government side soon after winning.
In a bid to avoid the break –up phenomenon Rauf Hakeem obtained written guarantees from prospective candidates that they would not leave the party. Some Islamic religious leaders also drove the point home. It was also said that some candidates had sworn oaths to such effect in Mosques. One had reportedly pledged eternal party loyalty in Mecca.Despite all this the rumour mills worked overtime that a party split was imminent after elections. Given the SLMC track record few would have argued against that as break-ups had been regular practice in the past.
The SLMC obtained six elected MP’s and two national list MP’s in 2010. Those elected were Rauf Hakeem from Kandy, Noordeen Mashoor from Wanni, SM Thowfeek from Trincomalee, Basheer Segu Dawood from Batticaloa and HMM Haris and Faisal Cassim from Amparai district. Hassan Ali and SM Aslam from Kalutara district were nominated on the national list. Subsequently Noordeen Mashoor passed away and his place was filled by MB Farook the lawyer from Mannar.
Rumours began circulating soon after elections about a possible cross over by some Muslim Congress MP’s.There was however one aspect to the prevalent rumour that made it sound unlikely. It was said that party chairman Basheer Segu Dawood would lead the SLMC defectors this time. This possibility seemed rather remote as Basheer Segu Dawood had proved time and again that he was a Rauf Hakeem loyalist and ardent party man. There was much grumbling against Hakeem because of the prominence given to Segu Dawood but the SLMC Leader did not relent to intra-party pressure.
Basheer Segu Dawood of Eravur in Batticaloa district and SM Hassan Ali of Ninthavur in Amparai district were regarded as the right and left hands of Rauf Hakeem.All three had resigned their MP seats and contested the Eastern provincial council elections together.While Hakeem and Hassan Ali returned to Parliament as national list MP’s, Segu Dawood remained provincial council opposition leader until the 2010 election.
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 Rajapakse government.
Of the eight MP’s of the SLMC the trio comprising Basheer Segu Dawood,Noordeen Mashoor and Faisal Cassim had reportedly engaged in talks with the Rajapakse govt master negotiator and were ready to break ranks with the SLMC.Segu Dawood was to be made cabinet minister as reward for engineering the defection.
There was however a hitch as president Rajapakse was in no hurry to entice the SLMC trio as the govt had 144 MP’s at that time and needed no additional support to bolster it. There was also the problem of allocating portfolios.
While the anticipated split was in limbo. Pressure was mounting on Muslim Congress MP’s to join govt ranks. The main reason for this was the internal crisis of the UNP. The petty squabbling and byzantine intrigues within the grand old party made it obvious that the UNP was destined to be in a state of permanent opposition for many, many years. The SLMC too was doomed to be without any taste of power as long as it was aligned to the UNF it was felt.
In such a situation two other MP’s HMM Haris and SM Thowfeek also felt the urge to merge with the govt. However both Haris and Thowfeek wanted the SLMC as a party to join the government. They were reluctant to break away from the party to 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 MP”s wanted to join the govt. 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.
Meanwhile events began overtaking. President Rajapaksa had earlier been exploring the possibility of reaching a consensus with opposition parties and substituting the executive presidency with an executive premiership. Suddenly the President abandoned the search for a political consensus and reverted to his original idea of extending the terms of office a President could hold. He also had other Constitutional changes in mind.
This change of plan necessitated a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The President acted fast. The SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem was urgently summoned to Kandy where the President was attending the Esala perahera celebrations. An urgent one to one meeting was held at President’s house between the head of state and the SLMC leader.
The one to one meeting ended on a positive note. Rauf Hakeem returned to Colombo and after consulting party stalwarts and well-wishers convened the meeting of the supreme hierarchical body known as the “Uyar Peedam” or 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 as a party in its entirety. Rauf 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 both.
Hakeem regarded Segu Dawood’s sly negotiations behind his back to break away and join Govt ranks to become a cabinet minister as gross betrayal.In Machiavellian intrigue the “Thalaiver” outsmarted the “Thavisalar” by reaching a separate understanding with the President which deprived a perceived “traitor” of a cabinet portfolio. This action amounted to treachery by Rauf in Basheer’s eyes .
The scene was thus set for further moves and counter moves on the SLMC chess board between Hakeem and Segu Dawood. A noteworthy feature of this was the induction of Hafeez Nazeer Ahamed by Rauf Hakeem and Ali Zaheer Moulana by Basheer Segu Dawood. It is this great game of political chess that we are witnessing today.(ENDS)
NEXT: Entry of Hafeez Nazeer Ahamed and Ali Zaheer Moulana.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org