By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Mohamed Najeeb Abdul Majeed made history when he was sworn in as the chief minister of the Eastern Provincial Council before President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday September 18th 2012. After the swearing in ceremony at “Temple Trees”, Najib as he is generally known has become not only the first Muslim Chief Minister of the Eastern Province but also the first Chief Minister of Muslim ethnicity in the Island nation.
The first Muslim Chief Minister of the East will hold office for a period of two and a half years. Thereafter the post would be filled by a nominee of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). The arrangement to share the Eastern Chief Ministership on a rotational basis was the result of an agreement between President Rajapaksa and Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem.
At the recently concluded Eastern poll the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won twelve seats and became entitled to the two additional bonus seats. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) came second with eleven seats.
The Muslim Congress which contested separately came third with seven seats. The United National Party (UNP) got four seats. The National Freedom Front (NFF) which also contested separately got one seat. With the SLMC and NFF support the UPFA was able to form the Eastern administration having twenty-two seats in the thirty-seven member Eastern Council.
Fifteen Muslim members were elected to the Eastern council this time. Seven were from the Amparai district and four each from the Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts. The Muslim Congress led by Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem had the single largest tally with seven; The National Congress (NC) led by the Local Govt. and Provincial Councils Cabinet Minister A.L.M. Athaullah had three seats. The All Ceylon People’s Congress (ACPC) led by Industries and Commerce Cabinet Minister Rishad Badhiutheen also got three seats. Both NC and ACPC contested under the UPFA betel symbol. The UNP and SLFP got one each.
Najeeb was the solitary Muslim Provincial councillor to be elected from the SLFP under the aegis of the UPFA. He won from the Trincomalee district with 11,726 preferencial votes. Najeeb is the SLFP organiser for the Muttur electoral division and Presidential Coordinator for the Trincomalee District.
Najeeb Abdul Majeed hailing from Kinniya in the Eastern district of Trincomalee is no stranger to politics having served as a Parliamentarian for over a period of thirteen years. He has also functioned in the past as a Deputy Minister and non – cabinet minister.
The new chief minister is the son of Abdul Latiff Abdul Majeed known as A.L. Abdul Majeed who represented the Muttur constituency in Parliament from July 1960 to July 1977. A.L. Abdul Majeed, a Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) stalwart, served from 1970 – 77 as Deputy Minister of Information and Broadcasting in the United Front Government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Abdul Majeed was killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on November 14, 1987 just one day before his fifty-fifth birthday. Najeeb who entered active politics after his father’s death has donned the mantle of Eastern Chief Minister at the age of fifty – five.
Najeeb A. Majeed was born on January 1st 1957. He had his early education at Kinniya Central College. Thereafter he joined Zahira College in Gampola. At school Najib excelled in track and field and was once the champion in his age group at a zonal athletic meet. He also played rugger in the positions of Prop and Lock forward. After Gampola Zahira, Najeeb went to Jaffna and studied at the St. John's Academy.
Later Najeeb moved to Colombo and became a junior executive at a Shipping firm. He also began pursuing legal studies as an external student. His life underwent a drastic transformation when his father A.L. Abdul Majeed was killed by the LTTE. Najeeb relocated to Kinniya and began following his father’s political footsteps. It was in a way an act of defiance to the forces which killed his father as well as an act of homage to his father’s memory.
Trincomalee district had two single- member electorates from 1947 to 1960. One was the Tamil majority Trincomalee Constituency and the other, the Muslim majority Muttur. Although the electorate was named Mutur which had a substantial mixed population of Muslims and Tamils, the area where Muslims were largely concentrated was Kinniya, the hometown of Najeeb. Kinniya with over 97% Muslims has been the determining factor in Muslim politics of Trincomalee.
In 1960 Muttur was made a double –member constituency to enable a Tamil also to be elected along with a Muslim. Trincomalee remained a single member electorate. This arrangement was in force till 1977. It was during this time that Najeeb’s father was elected to Parliament from Muttur. He won in July 1960, March 1965 and July 1970 and served as MP continuously for 17 years and became known as “Muttur Majeed”.
In 1977-Trincomalee district was carved into three single-member constituencies. While Trincomalee and Muttur were Tamil and Muslim majority electorates respectively, the newly-created Seruwila was a Sinhala majority electorate. After the electoral reforms under President J.R. Jayewardene where the “first past the post winner” system was converted into a scheme of proportionate representation, the entire Trincomalee district became one electoral district. The electorates of Trincomalee, Muttur and Seruwila became electoral divisions.
Najeeb had his electoral baptism in 1989 when he contested Parliamentary Elections from his father’s party the SLFP. He lost. In 1993 he contested in the Kinniya Pradeshiya Sabha hustings and was elected chairman. In 1994 Najeeb faced Parliamentary Elections again.
This was the time when the SLMC Leader MHM Ashraff had entered into an electoral pact with the People's Alliance (PA) leader Chandrika Kumaratunga. Under this accord the PA was not able to field Muslim candidates of its own in the North and East. The SLFP to which Najeeb belonged was the chief constituent of the PA. He was however the most formidable Muslim candidate who could compete with the UNP’s M.E.H. Maharoof. So was found, a way out.
Najeeb Abdul Majeed contested the polls in 1994 on the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress ticket by joining it. He was elected on the ‘Tree’ symbol with 21,590 preferences and entered Parliament for the first time. His Muslim political rival M.E.H. Maharoof won from the UNP with 17.043 preference votes.
When Parliamentary polls were held in 2000 the SLMC was once again with the PA although Ashraff was no more. Najeeb contested in the Trincomalee district and won again with 18,173 preferences. Najeeb was appointed deputy minister of Posts and Telecommunications. Subsequently there was a split in the SLMC leading to rival factions being led by Ashraff’s disciple Rauf Hakeem and Ashraff’s widow Ferial Ashraff.
In 2001 the SLMC contested along with the UNP. Najeeb who had remained loyal to Rauf Hakeem in the SLMC split up with Ferial Ashraff also contested as part of the tie up. He failed to get elected. During this time there was another split in the SLMC and a faction led by Athaullah formed another party.
The 2004 Parliamentary elections saw Najeeb bouncing back into Parliament with a rousing victory. He got 26,948 preferencial votes. Soon afterwards there was a split in the Muslim Congress where some MPs revolted against Rauf Hakeem’s leadership. Najeeb was one of the rebel MPs. Another party was formed by Rishad Bathiutheen.
Thereafter Najeeb was associated briefly with Athaullah’s party then called the National Muslim Congress. He later joined Bathiutheen’s party called then as the All Ceylon Muslim Congress. In 2007 he returned to the political roots of his family by rejoining the SLFP which was the premier constituent of the UPFA.
Najeeb was Deputy Minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils in the 2004 – 2010 Parliament. In 2007 he was made non – cabinet minister of Cooperatives by President Rajapaksa.
Najeeb is the father of four children. His first marriage ended in a divorce. He got married again recently.
Najeeb contested Parliamentary polls in 2010 and lost. Thereafter he functioned as the Presidential coordinator for the Trincomalee district and SLFP organiser for the Muttur electoral division. When Provincial Council polls were scheduled to be held in September this year, Najeeb was among the few ex- MPs who entered the fray. He was elected with 11.726 preference votes.
The Eastern provincial poll saw a “hung” council with the UPFA –NFF and TNA-UNP combines having fifteen seats each. This made the Muslim Congress with seven seats assume the role of Kingmaker in a council of thirty seven. Initially President Rajapaksa appointed a high level ministerial committee to work out political arrangements to form a majority, determine the choice of a new Eastern Provincial Chief Minister and finalise composition of the provincial ministerial board.
The four-member team of cabinet ministers entrusted with the task of finalising arrangements for the Eastern Province were Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Petroleum Industries Minister Susil Premajayantha and Youth Affairs And Skills Development Minister Dullas Alahapperuma.
The ministerial panel was engaged in detailed discussions with SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem, ACPC leader Rishad Bathiutheen, Tamil Makkal Viduthalap Puligal (TMVP) leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan and NC leader A.H.M. Athaullah. The ministers also consulted Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) stalwarts of the east.
When the discussions began the former Chief Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council “Pillaiyan”was strongly tipped to be re-appointed again as Chief Minister on account of an assurance reportedly given by the President to him prior to the Eastern Council being dissolved one year ahead of its scheduled term of office. The Govt was apparently thinking of retaining Pillaiyan as Chief Minister until another Tamil became Chief Minister in the Northern province. The Govt. intended replacing Pillaiyan with a Muslim Eastern Chief Minister after elections were held to the Northern Provincial Council in September 2013 and a Tamil Chief Minister assumed office.
These plans however underwent a drastic change after Muslim leaders of all political hues insisted that a Muslim should be made Eastern Chief Minister due to two reasons.
Firstly they pointed out that a Tamil had been appointed chief minister previously and so it was nothing but fair that a Muslim should be made chief minister this time. Secondly they stated that only one Tamil had been elected from the UPFA this time whereas seven Muslims had won on the betel symbol. The ministerial panel was reminded that although there were more Muslims elected on the betel symbol in 2008 they had consented to the Govt.’s decision of appointing a Tamil then. Now it was the turn of the Muslims.
Independently the SLMC also pressed for a Muslim chief minister. The SLMC emphasised that in a situation where the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was offering the chief ministership to a Muslim, if the Muslim Congress joined forces with the Tamil party, it would be impossible to convince its eastern supporters to accept a situation where the SLMC agrees to a Tamil chief minister.
The ministerial panel agreed with this position and informed “Pillaiyan” of the change of plan. He was told that he could not be chief minister again but could be compensated with other posts. It was also decided to appoint former Provincial Minister Thuraiappah Navaratnarajah of the SLFP as a provincial councillor to one of the two bonus seats the UPFA was entitled to. The other bonus seat went to a SLFP Sinhala representative Jinasena from the Amparai district.
When it came to the question of a Muslim chief minister the UPFA constituent parties namely Badhiutheen’s ACPC and Athaullah’s NC presented a common front. Both parties wanted M.S.S Ameer Ali of Oddamavaddi to be the chief minister. Ameer Ali was elected to the Council from the Batticaloa district. He is from the ACPC but enjoys close rapport with Athaullah.
Ameer Ali had been elected to Parliament from the Batticaloa district on the Muslim Congress ticket in 2004.He had later broken away from the SLMC and was a founder member of the ACMC which later became the ACPC. Ameer Ali was made Disaster Relief Services Minister but lost elections in 2010.
The SLMC for its part pressed its case for a chief minister from their ranks. Rauf Hakeem wanted the newly-appointed SLMC deputy leader Hafiz Naseer Ahamed to be the chief minister. Naseer Ahamed hailing from Eravur had won from Batticaloa district. Naseer Ahamed with much financial clout is regarded as being very close to SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem. It appears that firecrackers were lit by Naseer Ahamed’s supporters in Eravur upon learning that his name had been proposed for the post. There was also opposition to the idea of Naseer Ahamed being chief minister from senior eastern SLMC leaders.
SLFP stalwarts from the East including its Sinhala members insisted that the post should go to a SLFP member. They pointed out that allowing someone from a party other than the SLFP to become the first Muslim chief minister would greatly disappoint party loyalists and set a bad precedent.
If the chief minister was to be a Muslim and that too from the SLFP there was only one choice. It was Mohamed Najeeb Abdul Majeed from Kinniya. Najeeb A Majeed was the only Muslim elected on the UPFA ticket from the SLFP. Three Muslims elected on the UPFA from the Amparai district were from Athaullah’s National congress. Three Muslims elected on the betel symbol from the Batticaloa district were from Badiutheen’s All Ceylon People's Congress (ACPC). Also, the only Muslim elected from the UPFA in Trincomalee was Najeeb.
Since Najeeb comes from a family that has been linked to the SLFP for decades he had a close rapport with the Sinhala sections of the SLFP in the Trincomalee district. This was a plus point in his favour. Najeeb's father had contested on the SLFP ticket from 1960 and the family retained a reservoir of goodwill with old party faithfuls. Incidently Najeeb is also liked by many Tamils of Muttur. His late father though killed by the LTTE was popular with Tamils and worked for greater Tamil - Muslim unity.
Najeeb is also acceptable to all three Muslim parties such as the SLMC, ACMC and NC. While the Muslim Congress would object to a Muslim from Athaullah's party or Rishad's party it cannot object to an SLFP member of Najeeb's calibre. Likewise the other two parties could protest a Muslim Congress chief minister but not the SLFP's Najeeb. Besides the man is regarded as an amiable person who is liked by all leaders of all three Muslim parties on a personal level.
Under these circumstances the Ministerial panel recommended to the President that Najeeb be made chief minister. Despite this both the SLMC and ACPC - NF wanted their man made chief minister of the east. Being appointed as the first Muslim chief minister was a matter of prestige for these parties. The three-corner tousle ended finally with President Rajapaksa's direct intervention.
President Rajapaksa held a high level meeting of ministers at "Temple Trees" on September 17. Among those present were Cabinet ministers Basil Rajapaksa, Dullas Alahaperuma, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Nimal Siripala de Silva and Maithripala Sirisena. Rauf Hakeem joined them a little later.
President Rajapaksa after discussing matters in detail decided upon a formula to appoint the new chief minister for the Eastern province and also allocate provincial ministry and chairman/deputy chairman posts. The Eastern Provincial Council arrangements were finalised by President Rajapaksa on September 17 because the dates 8, 17 and 26 are said to be numerologically favourable to him. The President also wanted to swear in the new Eastern chief minister on September 18, before embarking on his trip to India. With Hakeem concurring the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)'s solitary Muslim Provincial Councillor Najeeb Abdul Majeed was formally endorsed as chief minister elect.
The other chief minister contenders are also to be accommodated appropriately. Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan while remaining a provincial councillor has also been appointed as an advisor to President Rajapaksa on Eastern Province affairs. He will also be appointed to the Economic Development Ministry under Basil Rajapaksa as Coordinator for the Eastern Province. It is very likely that some funds would be provided for Pillaiyan to devise, coordinate, supervise and implement development projects for Tamil inhabited regions of the Province.
Ameer Ali , the common candidate of the ACPC- NC combine is to be appointed to Parliament on the national list shortly. Thereafter he would be given a deputy minister post. Speculation is rife that UPFA national list MP Ms. Kamala Ranatunga will resign her seat to facilitate the Parliamentary entry of Ameer Ali. Kamala Ranatunga, a single woman will celebrate her 75th birthday on October 19.
The Muslim Congress is satisfied to some extent by the rotational arrangement. The party would be counting the days till the thirty-month period of Najeeb's tenure is over and a SLMC councillor replaces him as chief minister. Meanwhile the party is happy in depriving the ACPC and NC of the post. The Muslim Congress has also got two provincial minister posts. The party is also exploring the possibility of creating a deputy chief minister post so as to ensure smooth succession after Najeeb.
The election and elevation of Najeeb as chief minister also draws attention to a recurring phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics, namely dynastic politics. The recent Provincial elections resulted in two scions of prominent Muslim Political families from Kinniya being elected from the Trincomalee district. One of course is Najeeb Abdul Majeed who has been politically active for more than two decades. The other is a relatively fresh Imran Maharoof.
Familial politics has been a familiar feature of the Sri Lankan political landscape. The Muslim community, particularly in the East has had its own distinctive share in dynastic politics.
In the bygone days there was the legendary Gate Mudaliyar Kariapper of Kalmunai in Amparai district and his sons-in-law M.M. Mustapha and A.R.M. Munsoor and also nephew M.C. Ahamed all of whom were MPs. In Amparai there were also the Abdul Majeed cousins, one in Pottuvil (later Sammanturai) and the other in Nintavur. Former MP and current Sammanthurai Chairman M. Naushad, is the son of one Abdul Majeed and son-in-law of the other.
In Batticaloa district there was the Sinna Lebbe family where three generations of Sinna Lebbes have served as Parliamentarians. In the Trincomalee district two Muslim families have dominated politics. The two dominant Muslim familes in Trincomalee politics are both from Kinniya.
The first to make his mark was Mohammed Ehuthar Hadjiar Mohammed Ali who won in Muttur as an Independent in 1952 defeating the incumbent A.R.M. Abubucker of the UNP. In 1956 Mohammed Ali contested again as an Independent backed by the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)and won with a handsome majority.
After Mutur was made a double member constituency in 1960 MEH Mohammed Ali contested in March 60 as an Independent and was elected as second MP. The first was T. Ahamparam of the ITAK or Federal party. Mohammed Ali contested on the UNP ticket and lost in the 1960 July elections. In 1962 there was a by-election in Muttur after the demise of Ahamparam. Mohammed Ali joined the ITAK and contested under the house symbol and won. He again contested on the ITAK ticket in March 1965 and was elected as the only Muslim MP in that party. He crossed over to the UNP and contested in 1970. Mohammed Ali lost.
Later in 1977 Mohammed Ali's brother Mohammed Ehuthar Hadjiar Maharoof contested on behalf of the UNP in Muttur and won. Maharoof won again in 1989 and 1994 also. He was killed by the LTTE in 1997. The family banner was raised again in the 2012 eastern provincial poll when Imran Maharoof was elected from the Trincomalee district. Imran, the son of M.E.H. Maharoof is the only Muslim to be elected from the UNP.
The other prominent Muslim political family from Kinniya is that of Najeeb's. His father Abdul Latiff Abdul Majeed first contested Muttur in March 1960 as an Independent and lost. In a bold move he joined the SLFP and contested the July 1960 polls under the hand symbol. Thereafter Abdul Majeed won the 1965 and 1970 elections too. He lost in 1977 in a three-corner fight among UNP's Maharoof, Mackeen Master of the Muslim United Front and himself on the SLFP ticket.
After A.L. Abdul Majeed's death in 1987 at the hands of the tigers his son Najeeb entered politics. Now Imran the son of M.E.H. Maharoof also killed by the LTTE in 1997 has entered politics through the Provincial Council. Thus another generation from the two prominent Muslim political families from Kinniya are in the ring again and from opposing parties.
Mohammed Najeeb Abdul Majeed was sworn in before President Rajapaksa at "Temple Trees".In a statement issued by him after assuming office, the new chief minister pledged to serve the people of the province regardless of race and religion. Pointing out that all three main ethnicities were living together in the Province the eastern chief minister promised to preserve and foster goodwill, unity and amity among all three. Najeeb also said he would focus on developing the Eastern Province. He also said there were some problems and that he would try and resolve them through negotiations and discussions.
Najeeb's track record in uplifting his hometown Kinniya in the past is quite remarkable. Among his many achievements for Kinniya is the role he played in upgrading its status from Pradeshiya Sabha to Urban council, the creation of an educational circuit leading to establishment of new schools and enhancement of existing schools, transforming the Kinniya hospital into a base hospital and the construction of roads and parts of the A-15 highway from Muttur to Kinniya. The jewel in the crown however is the Kinniya bridge.
The Kinniya bridge is 10m wide and 396m (1,299 ft) long. It has replaced the old ferry service on the Kinniya lagoon which is surrounded by the Koddiyar and Thambalagamam bay. The bridge built with Saudi Arabian assistance is part of the A - 15 highway. It was officially declared open on October 20, 2009 by President Rajapaksa. The Kinniya bridge is the longest bridge in Sri Lanka.
It is to be hoped that Najeeb Abdul Majeed will now devote himself to the upliftment and development of the Eastern Province with the same dedication and energy he displayed towards the upgrading of his hometown. While focusing on development and economic issues it would also be beneficial to promote the scale and scope of devolution to the maximum extent possible. 'Development Through Devolution' could be his credo.
It is also necessary that he reaches out to the Tamils of the province who voted in large numbers for a party that would now be the chief opposition party. Recent political machinations should not cause bitterness among the Tamil speaking people of the "Kizhakku" (east). It is equally important for the TNA to extend a hand of friendship towards the new chief minister and forge better inter-ethnic understanding. The Tamils should not remain alienated from the provincial mainstream.
Najeeb should also be conscious of the importance of the role history requires him to play at this juncture. As the first Muslim chief minister of the Eastern Province and the first ever Muslim chief minister of Sri Lanka , the Muslim people of the Island in general and the East in particular would look up to him as a provider of solutions to their problems. And there are so many!
While Muslim parliamentary leaders have been adopting a particular approach the need of the hour is to formulate a new approach from periphery to centre. This requires a pragmatic yet visionary approach and one hopes that Najeeb will be imaginative and practical enough to give the lead in this.
"Paaraattukkal" (congratulations) and "Nalvaalthukkal"(good wishes) to Najeeb Abdul Majeed the "Muthal Muslim Muthalamaichar"(First Muslim Chief Minister)of the "Kizhakku Maahaanam" (Eastern Province)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com