Ashroff’s separatist legacy is root cause of Sinhala-Muslim divide

By shenali Waduge

When elders speak of good old days prior to 1980s when Sinhalese, Tamils & Muslims lived happily & peacefully together sans nomenclatures of federalism, self-determination, separatism, jihad, terrorism etc, it makes us wonder where have we gone wrong and who are responsible. In ignoring warnings that followed armed militancy, it is imperative that we do not ignore further warnings that may lead to bigger outcomes if left unsolved. Clearly, politicians & so-called civil society representatives who had been involved in the past have failed to provide solutions which demands the rest of the community to pinpoint where the fault lines are and address them. Sri Lanka lacks political leaders that are nation-loving in all three communities.

Why is it that the fondness for political leaders of the caliber of Dr. T B Jayah, Sir Razik Fareed, Dr. MCM Kaleel, etc does not exist for present day Muslim politicians? The short & simple answer is that the former Muslim leaders co-partnered political progress of the country sans mono-ethno-religious chants & peacefully mingled with the majority while the present lot is only seeking personal goals and setting the stage to create divisions.

The start to this legacy began by none other than M H M Ashraff himself with the formation of the SLMC towing the Muslim federal line and paving the room to invite separatist elements from overseas and bartering the country for tgreed for money. He set the foundation stone for the divide between Sinhalese & Muslims with future leaders adopting ultra-fundamentalist lines resulting in Sinhalese politicians countering with similar fundamentalism.

The shift of political influence from Colombo-based Muslim leaders to more rigid Eastern Muslim leaders began with Ashraff who hailed from Samanthurai in the Ampara District. The shift in class politics emerged.

When Colombo-based Muslim leaders were aligning with and forging friendship with Sinhalese leaders, Ashraff chose to admire Tamil separatist S J V Chelvanaygam the founder of ITAK. Ashraff had even addressed ITAK events and had also been present at the infamous Vaddukoddai Conference in 1976 that appealed for separatism. The following year Ashraff created Muslim United Liberation Front going as far as to sign an agreement with A. Amirthalingam. It is no surprise that Ashraff began promoting the demand to create a Muslim majority council in the North & East. The allegiance was no different to Hakeem issuing a condolence message on behalf of the SLMC on LTTE’s Anton Balasingham’s death which infuriated the Muslim community

How many Muslims are aware that Ashraff even fielded Muslims to contest under the TULF eelamist banner and campaigned for separatism?

According to D B S Jeyraj, Ashraff’s speeches declared that even if Amirthalingam himself had abandoned goal of Eelam, Ashraff would continue to work for it. Ironically, none of the Muslim contestants won a seat though contesting from TULF.

In fact when the Indo-Lanka Accord was signed in 1987 Naranyan Swamy’s book Tigers of Sri Lanka – From Boys to Geurrillas” claims that the Indian High Commission had even given cash handouts to the SLMC. How many more cash handouts and by what others has the SLMC taken over the years? There are EROS links to SLMC as well Basheer Segudawood was a soldier in EROS.

Ashraff formed the first Muslim ethno-religious political party Sri Lanka Muslim Congress on 21 September 1981 in Kattankudy during a period when UNP recommenced diplomatic relations with Israel against opposition by Muslims.

SLMC campaigned on the slogan of Islam. At the start of SLMC political rallies Ashraff would begin by shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’

That Muslims were against the creation of SLMC is clearly depicted by Latheek Farook

M.H.M. Ashraff first mooted the idea of forming a separate political party for Muslims, many Muslims including parliamentarians, professionals and others, advised him to either give up the idea or confine the proposed political party to the east…. They warned him that an island-wide Muslim party had all the potentials to harm good relations between Sinhalese and Muslims in the rest of the country…. Justifying their warnings they explained that Muslims live in small numbers in peace and harmony with their Sinhalese neighbors in hundreds of villages and an all-island Muslim political party raising Islamic slogans, may put all Muslims into one communal camp and disturb their good relations with the Sinhalese community”

This is exactly what has happened.

In the words of Latheek Farook himself

‘Muslims are disgusted with their politicians…. betrayed by their own politicians and exploited by all to suit their agendas. The selfish politics of the main Muslim political party Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and its more than half a dozen splinter groups have brought nothing but disaster.”

That SLMC initially agreed to support the SLFP at the 1988 Presidential Elections but went on to support the UNP candidate caused shock to the Muslims in the South is also highlighted by Farook who goes on to say,

This decision considerably dented the credibility and the integrity of the Muslim Congress as well as the community, which had produced leaders of impeccable integrity and were known for their loyalty to their political parties…. One should not forget that this policy, as expected, won the wrath of the SLFP towards the Muslim community that had nothing to do with this decision.”

Furious Muslims in Colombo and other areas blamed the SLMC for harming their relations with the majority Sinhalese community. There were speculations that Ashraff was bought over by the UNP.”

 The general feeling among the Muslims is that the SLMC is today a liability”

Ethnic-based parties have not promoted peaceful relations and calls for a national consensus for banning of all ethno-religious political parties in Sri Lanka.

According to D B S Jeyraj the first violence between Muslims & Tamils took place in 1985 in Kalmunai-Karaithivu. Jeyraj claims this tension was ‘aided & abetted by the State’ UNP government. Ashraff even had to shift residence to Colombo for fear and was accused of leaving his people behind to fend for themselves.

The SLMC has been swinging alliances depending not on what merits Muslims but the personal perks accrued to the Muslims ministers doing the horse deals unfairly using the Muslim populace as bait.

The Proportional Representation soon came to be manipulated by minority parties in forging strategic alliances in exchange for votes thereby becoming the kingmakers and calling the shots. Likewise, SLMC joined Chandrika’s PA Government in 1994 contesting some districts separately while others on the PA ticket and this gave SLMC 6 seats plus 3 national list seats. Hakeem became Deputy Chairman of Committees. Hakeem had no qualms about shaking Prabakaran’s hands in 2002 on behalf of the UNP inspite of LTTE killing thousands of Muslims.

Ashraff became Minister of Ports, Shipping & Rehabilitation. What did Ashraff do with his portfolio – he filled the Port with Muslims from the East, some not even reporting to work but getting salaries. It resulted in feuds between himself and Fowzie.

At the two extremes, both Tamil & Muslim leaders have sought separate states. SLMC’s Chairman Basheer Segu Dawood demands a ‘separate Muslim State/Province’ with Kattankudy as its centre a Muslim province…. Will give a motherland and self-determination to Muslims’ and we cannot give up our demand”. The SLMC stance is that Muslims need a separate Muslim Province. Our late founder of SLMC M.H.M Ashraff too endorsed it. If a Chief Ministers conference is held a Muslim Chief Minister should definitely participate in it,”  

What is clear and distinguishes past Muslim leaders from present is the caliber of their leadership & their rhetoric. No previous leader would ever misuse their position to attack the majority as leaders like Hakeem have done. In August 2012, then Justice Minister (and leader of the Muslim Congress) Rauf Hakeem at a meeting in Kalmunai had demanded President Rajapakse should defeat ‘yellow-robed terrorism’.

Then at the other end there are the likes of Rishard Badurdeen himself a refugee who had been saved by Sinhalese and today towing a very fundamentalist line taking funding from questionable overseas groups to instill a foreign arab culture disregarding the country laws & completely ignoring appeals to stop raping the forest of Wilpattu for mono-ethnic settlements.

Anyone seeking answers to what has divided the Sinhalese & Muslim communities need only to list down elements that did not exist before 1980 to realize that these new elements are the likely reasons for the tensions. In so establishing this, the next step is to question whether these non-existent elements of the past should continue or be removed to bring better relations with the majority.



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