By Rauff Hakeem, MP
(These are excerpts from the Keynote Address delivered at the WorldMuslim Leadership Forum, at Dartmouth House, Mayfair, London.)
Participating in governance, the SLMC had discovered was far more complex than agitation and protest. Our principal concern at the time was our demand for a territorially non-contiguous Muslim majority council that would encompass the Muslim majority areas. While this may sound rather unusual in today’s context it must be seen together with the rationale we offered at the time. The then SLMC leader Asharaff pointed out that the Muslims who constituted 33 per cent in the Eastern Province would have their numbers dwindling down to 17 per cent in the merger of the two provinces as provided by the 13th Amendment. Of course, the Supreme Court declared the enforced merger void several years later in 2008 which paved the way for elections to a demerged Eastern Provincial Council.
During the war the Eastern Province was seen as the crucible of conflict. Post conflict it can be the crucible of compromise and consensus. As a minority, the Muslims share many objectives desired by the Tamil minority. The status of the Tamil language is the most prominent of these objectives. Access to opportunity and resources for human development is another of these common objectives. As a minority, whose majority live dispersed among the majority community, the Muslim minority shares both these objectives with the Majority community as well. The Muslims are generally tri lingual. While they mostly speak Tamil at home, a considerable number of Muslim children in Sinhala areas opt to study in the Sinhala medium. In rural Sri Lanka, the government schools in most parts of Sinhala areas naturally use Sinhala as the medium of instruction. The Muslims who live in isolated pockets amid Sinhala villages learn Sinhala for two reasons. It is the most proximate facility that provides education. Most importantly, learning in Sinhala does not in any way diminish their Muslimness.
Having said that, there is no disputing the fact the Sinhala majority state, post-independence, has little patience for minority rights. While the Tamil minority immediately responded with resistance and protest, the Muslim leadership at the time adopted a policy that was later described as ‘ethnic blindness’ or as ‘politics of assimilation’. The real reason was that the Muslim law makers in parliament under the first-past-the-post system were representing constituencies with large Muslim vote banks. In the political contest between the two major contending factions popular Muslim leaders were able to muster the entirety of the Muslim vote and the Sinhala voters who opted for political loyalty. This cozy arrangement was dismantled with the introduction of proportional representation. It completely undermined the earlier arrangement and the Muslims found it hard to win in the Sinhala areas. The converse was happening in the East where the Muslim concentrations gave them not only a greater voice but also the opportunity to project an independent Muslim political platform.
While we have to advance the cause of the Eastern Province Muslims, our efforts in that direction cannot be the cause of any ethno-religious cleavages in the predominantly Sinhala provinces. One of the principal concerns the SLMC had was that the TNA is still in the process of negotiating with the state for what is described as a lasting solution. The SLMC is the child of the 13th Amendment and the proposed merger of the two provinces. The SLMC was forged on the anvil of a terrorist war as the spear that pierced the merger of the two provinces. It cannot now reverse its own history and be reduced again to become a miniscule minority in a new dispensation. The Tamil National Alliance is the heir to the former Tamil United Liberation Front which adopted the famous Vadukkodai Resolution that called for a separate state. It is not water under the bridge. It remains a stagnant pool under the bridge. We need to reopen the bridge. The crucible of conflict should not be made into a centrifuge that further separates the isotopes of ethnic antagonisms.
Why did the SLMC decide to contest the provincial council elections on its own? The answer is simple. The SLMC had to reassert its primacy as the voice of the Eastern Province Muslims.