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Muslim council and Merger of provinces no longer valid

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4 March 2016 01:34 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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One who is cognizant of the history of the Muslim provincial council concept might have definitely been perplexed over the inordinate concern by some people about the statement made by Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Chairman Basheer Segu Dawood on February 20 at a meeting held in Kattankudi that his party demanded a non-contiguous Muslim Provincial council.


The concern is inordinate because this concept is exactly thirty years old and has been put forward by various politicians of the SLMC time and again, probably more than hundreds of times before Segu Dawood did so. It is also inordinate as some people,had even predicted a “jihadist struggle” following Segu Dawood’s statement which is impossible in the light of his demand being so stale that it hardly has any appeal now to the Muslims, intellectually or emotionally.


The reason for this overreaction seems to be the misconstrued response to SLMC Chairman’s statement by Aman Ashraff, the only son of SLMC founder leader the late M.H.M.Ashraff. Two days after Segu Dawood made the remarks on the Muslim provincial council, adding that it was a dream of his late leader as well, Aman had written to him saying that his father never advocated a separate “Muslim State.”


Aman’s response indicates that he had mixed up the concepts of provincial council and separate State as many politicians in the south do. These politicians always interpret the institution of any kind of unit of power devolution as a division of the country.


In spite of the questions of practicality and appropriateness of a contiguous or non-contiguous Muslim provincial council in a post-war scenario, Ashraff never considered the power devolution as a secessionist concept. He not only stood for power devolution to the provincial councils and creation of a provincial council for Muslims, since the formation of the SLMC; rather he went to the extent of advocating the concept of power devolution under a federal constitution as well, during the last few months of his life.


Barely one and a half months before Ashraff was killed in a helicopter crash near Mawanella, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga presented a draft constitution in the Parliament on August 3, 2000 which provided for the creation of provincial councils under a federal set up. It was Ashraff who almost single handedly fought and defended the new draft after Kumaratunga left the House that day.


However, Ashraff or his party never supported the Tamils’ separate State demand nor did he demand one for Muslims after he formed the SLMC in November 1986, as Aman had claimed by implication. Aman in his letter to Segu Dawood says “The late M.H.M.Ashraff’s position of this matter was very clear. He said during the early course of his political voyage- “IF AND ONLY IF” the Tamils of Sri Lanka are granted a separate state unto themselves, then it is only fair that the Muslims of Sri Lanka also be granted one”


During the 1977 General elections Ashraff supported A.M.Samsudeen who contested for the Kalmunai electorate under the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) that called for a mandate for the Tamil Eelam, in line with the famous Vaddukkoddai resolution. At a propaganda meeting during that election Ashraff had reportedly said “if elder brother Amirthalingam fails to deliver you the Tamil Eelam, the younger brother Ashraff will do so”


However, after forming the SLMC he never even justified the separate State concept of Tamils, nor did he use the Tamil demand as a condition for a similar demand by Muslims. Still it would be worth for those who are interested in politics to find out the source of Aman’s claim that his father conditionally accepted the Tamils’ demand for a separate State. In fact Ashraff is still acclaimed by many for dissociating Muslim youth from the Tamil separatist movement by forming the SLMC, so that they could air their grievances. 


Nevertheless, Aman would have been correct had he quoted his father as saying that whatever was given to the Tamils must be given to the Muslims as well. This argument was first mooted by Ashraff in a statement on the eve of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. When the then Indian External Affairs Minister P.V.Narasimha Rao visited Sri Lanka to put the final touches for the Accord the SLMC made a request for an audience with Rao which was turned down by the Indian High Commission. It was against this backdrop that Ashraff issued a statement demanding that a separate Muslim provincial council be created as the Muslims in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces would be a minority within a minority in the event of a merger of these two provinces being implemented. 


Although neither the SLMC nor Ashraff had ever dissociated from the Muslim provincial council concept, the structure of a Muslim provincial council had been changed several times. In fact the SLMC was born with the demand for a Muslim provincial council covering the Muslim dominated areas of Kalmunai, Pottuvil and Sammanthurai and later it was named the South Eastern provincial council.
In 1988, the SLMC and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) led by the late Kumar Ponnambalam came to an agreement to form two ethnic provincial councils in the North and the East, one amalgamating contiguous Tamil areas and the other administratively merging non-contiguous Muslim areas of the two provinces. This was the first time a Tamil party had accepted the rights of the Muslims to have devolved power. And also this was the first time the non-contiguous Muslim provincial council idea was mooted. 


The eight-party coalition formed to contest the 1988 Presidential election under the leadership of former Prime Minister the late Sirima Bandaranaike  agreed to incorporate this agreement in its manifesto. However, the ACTC and the SLMC withdrew from the coalition due to other disagreements.
The concept took another turn when eight Tamil parties including those that supported the Indo-Lanka Accord began to find a fresh solution to the ethnic problem by 1990 and they started negotiations with the SLMC. The agreement reached was to form two Tamil and Muslim provincial councils in the North and the East and an “Apex Council”, as it was called, above those ethnic councils. However, when it came to demarcation of boundaries of two ethnic councils the talks collapsed. 


The same agreement was reached between the Tamil parties and the SLMC during talks conducted paralled to the deliberations of a Parliamentary Select Committee on the ethnic problem and the talks failed due to the same reason in 1997 as well. Later as we pointed out above Ashraff agreed even to a federal constitution. Hence, the SLMC’s call for a Muslim provincial council is not a new concept to be alarmed at nor had the party ever demanded a separate State as claimed by Aman. 


Nevertheless, Tamil and Muslim parties now have to look at the problem afresh in the post-war context. The demand for the merger of the Northern and the Eastern Provinces was primarily a strategy worked out as a stepping stone for a separate Tamil State and now it has become a prestige issue for Tamil leaders, despite its validity being highly questionable in the present context. In the same way, Muslim leaders in the East have to reconsider the validity of a Muslim provincial council in the light of the institution of the Eastern Provincial council in 2007 and other post-war scenarios.The need of the day is integration of various communities without harming their identities as well as their rights.


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