By D. B. S. Jeyaraj
September 16th was the fifth death anniversary of Mohammad Hussein Muhammad Ashraff the uncrowned sultan of the Amparai district Muslims and pioneering leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. The founder president of the SLMC was not Ashraff but the now forgotten Ahammad Lebbe of Kattankudi. It was however Ashraff who gave the Muslim Congress a new vision and direction after he assumed formal leadership of the party in 1986.
Thanks to Ashraff’s visionary zeal and missionary energy the SLMC achieved many, many things during the fifteen years he was at the party’s helm. His charisma, political acumen , dedication and sterling qualities of leadership enabled Ashraff to mould the long overlooked Eastern Muslims into a viable political entity and lead them like a latter day Moosa Nabhi or Moses through the wilderness on the route to a promised land of milk and honey . As in the case of Moses it was not Ashraffs destiny to enter the promised land as a mysterious airplane explosion obliterated one of the brightest stars of the Lankan political firmament in the prime of life.
Memorial meetings were organized in Amparai, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Kandy districts. Since his the dead leaders birthday falls on October 23rd there is no doubt that many more meetings will be held in his memory over the coming weeks. SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem and chairperson Basheer Segu Dawood played and will play prominent roles in this commemorative process.With the presidential elections set for November 17th the political significance of the memorial meetings organized by the SLMC is patently visible.
Ashraff may be no more but his spirit pervades Muslim political consciousness still. In life he was the single most popular mass figure in Eastern Muslim politics. Even in death the magical hold he retained over Muslim masses lingers on. The meetings were well attended. The Tamil media published many tributes most of them sincere and heartfelt. His loss is keenly felt. The sense of loss is compounded further by the sorry state of post – Ashraff Muslim politics. The party he breathed new life into is fragmented. His widow and erstwhile deputies fight still for his mantle. His vision for his people lies in tatters. In such a situation party loyalists and those concerned about the welfare of the Muslim community will no doubt focus on his memory at least for some consolation.
I first met Ashraff in 1977 when he was campaigning ardently for Tamil Eelam on the Tamil United Liberation Front platform. He had formed the Muslim United Front and signed an agreement with Appapillai Amirthalingam. Muslim candidates were fielded on the rising sun symbol in Kalmunai, Sammanthurai, Puttalam and Mutur. This was the time when Ashraff stated publicly that even if elder brother Amirthalingam could not deliver Tamil Eelam younger brother Ashraff would do so.
Though an uncompromising Muslim nationalist in later years Ashraff was always close to the Tamil language and its ethos. As an an old student of Wesley High School in Kalmunai and as a law student he moved closely with Tamils. Despite the vagaries of politics he retained his personal friendships. He was also well – versed in the Tamil language and literature. Ashraff was a fiery orator in Tamil. Moreover he was also a poet using Thamil as the vehicle of his thoughts.His volume of poetry was commendable though not superlative as his sycophants portrayed them. In any case few of the present crop of Tamil – Muslim parliamentarians read poetry let alone composing poems.
In spite of this affinity towards Tamil on the part of Ashraff the Muslim voters had different ideas and rejected the MUF candidateson the TULF ticket. This was an eye – opener to Ashraff. Earlier he was greatly enamoured of SJV Chelvanayagam and the federalist vision for the Tamil speaking people of the North – Eastern Traditional Tamil homelands. Ashraff was particularly appreciative of the fact that it was Chelvanayagam who raised the issue of Muslims being killed at the Puttalam mosque by Sinhala policemen. Muslim Parliamentarians including Puttalam’s Naina Marikkar maintained a deafening silence then. The electoral results however showed that despite Ashraffs desire to share a Tamil – Muslim political vision Eastern Muslims had other ideas.
Ashraff had to clash with Tamil politicians in later years in the interests of his community. This was inevitable. But unlike most of the Muslim politicians from the East Ashraff had an empathy with Tamil and Tamils. He understood Tamil grievances and appreciated their aspirations.Ashraff also realised that the fundamental problem was Sinhala hegemonism and that some understanding among minority communities was necessary to combat it. While being firm on Muslim interests Ashraff was always ready to work together with Tamils. Apart from veterans like Mashoor Moulana and the younger Basheer Segu Dawood there are few Eastern Muslim politicos on the same wavelength as that of Ashraff on this aspect.
Ashraffs relations with the TULF became strained gradually. The 1981 District Development Council elections saw the TULF going to polls in Mannar and the three Eastern districts on a Tamil slate of candidates. Ashraff wanted Muslims to be included too.This led to an already estranged Ashraff parting ways with the TULF completely..This however did not result in him joining a “Sinhala dominated” national party like other Muslim leaders of old who cut their political teeth in the FP and then merrily crossed over. Ashraff realised that the Muslims needed to charter a separate course independent of Tamil and Sinhala ppolitics. This led to his aligning with Ahammed Lebbe and co – founding the Muslim Congress.
The rise of Tamil armed militancy instilled a sense of political urgency into Muslim politics. The Kalmunai – Karaitheevu Tamil – Muslim violence of 1985 affected Ashraff directly. Fearing harm at the hands of Tamil militants Ashraff was forced to flee. He came to Colombo as a “political refugee” and was provided help by concerned Muslims including Faiz Musthapha. It was at Mustaphas chambers that Rauff Hakeem interacted with ashraff and became a devoted disciple. Establishing himself firmly in Colombo Ashraff revived and restructured the Muslim Congress. In 1986 he convened an Island – wide convention in punch Borella and formally took over leadership. Until death he remained the undisputed “Thesiya Thalaiver” (National Leader) of the North – Eastern Muslims.
I was in close contact with Ashraff during the 86 – 88 period. It was then that I saw him at close quarters forging a new vision and mission for his people. Some of his ideals seemed impossible to achieve then.Ashraff wanted the Muslims to be recognized as a separate and equal entity on par with the Sinhala and Tamil people.The Muslim people in all parts of the Country needed their own independent political party. The SLMC was to fulfil that role. The party was to remain independent of Sinhala and Tamil political overlordship. He described both as two “Saithans” (Satans) then. The Eastern Probince Muslims were to play a greater role in this . By doing so this often neglected people were to achieve their rightful place under the Lankan sun.
Ashraff was disgusted with the politics of Muslim leaders in the UNP and SLFP. He felt that these people were nothing but minions serving their Sinhala political masters without evincing real concern for the Muslim plight. One reason for this Ashraff felt was the lure of power and the attraction posed by the spoils of office. An Independent voice was necessary. For this Muslim unity was needed. Ashraff also introduced the demand for a territorially non – contiguous North – Eastern Council for the Muslims on the Pondicherry model. His aim was to create aMuslim majority council linking up all Muslim majority AGA divisions in the North – East.Later he agreed to drop this for a South – Eastern Council consisting of the Pottuvil, Sammanthurai and Kalmunai
electoral divisions in Amparai district . He was willing to support a merger of Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts with the North.
The “new” SLMC under Ashraff contested the Provincial Councils in 1988. It won 17 seats in the North – East and 12 in the Western, North- Western, Central and Southern Provinces. The 1989 polls saw the SLMC get four seats contesting independently.
Later Ashraff took a cue from Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman and entered a pre – poll agreement with Kumaratunga. Ashraffs strategy like Thondaman was to enter into electoral agreements and enhance representation for his people.1994 saw the SLMC get 7 elected and 2 national list seats. Ashraff became a cabinet minister and rendered yeoman service to the Muslims in general and Amparai district people in particular.
By 2000 his horizons broadened and Ashraff formed the National Unity Alliance. Ashraff was now prepared to beyond Muslim ethnicity and reach out to other communities. He had a blueprint for achieving lasting peace by 2012.While the SLMC was to be the flagship of the Muslims the NUA was to be wider and inclusive representing all communities. One does not know what the future may have been of the SLMC and NUA had Ashraff lived to implement his vision.Sadly Ashraff died a few weeks before the 2000 poll.
His political legacy however got fragmented. Ashraffs successor Rauff Hakeem and his widow Ferial split the party. Ferial along with Ashraffs Katankudi lieutnenant Hizbullah took over the NUA.The fragmentation process went on with Athaullah . Haris and Anwer Ismail etc splitting from SLMC and forming the National Muslim Congress. The fragmentation continued with Riyaz Badiurdeen, Ameer Ali and Najeeb Abdul Majeed crossing over from the SLMC last year. Ashraffs lofty ideal of uniting Muslims under one banner lies in tatters with his party being atomized again and again after each parliamentary poll.
Ashraffs ideal of Muslims retaining their independence and maintaining an equidistance between Sinhala and Tamil politics too has suffered badly. The belligerent intransigience of the LTTE in accommodating Muslim aspirations on the one hand and the perks and privileges offered by successive Governments on the other have led to most ex – SLMC leaders abandoning their “independence”. The ministerial, deputy – ministerial posts, corporation chairperson, director posts, ambassadorial assignments etc have overwhelmed most of these politicos. An unhealthy anti – Tamil attitude is adopted at times.The interests and welfare of the Muslim people have been ignored.
Muslim politicians of the SLMC and its various factions are stridently anti – Tamil in actions and words at times. But one does not see them adopting a hard line posture towards the Sinhala parties or ruling governments. In striking departure from the Ashraff approach these politicians are sycophantic towards the Sunhala hawks. One remembers Ashraff taking the bull by its horns in engaging Soma thero in open debate and exposing him. But the present Muslim political leadership is meek and mild. Only Hakeem makes some noise but it is faint and feeble.
Unlike Ashraff the Muslim leaders do not have any strategy or long term objective. They are yet to articulate clearly what the community needs and wants. They also do not agitate or campaign actively against the Sinhala dominated governments for their rights or concessions. Instead they adopt a wait and see attitude . But when there is movement on the ground and Tamils are seemingly on the verge of gaining politically then the Muslim leaders jump in shouting that they want what the Tamils are getting. Otherwise they say Tamils should not get anything. One of the saddest events in recent times was the Muslim Congress going to courts over teaching jobs to plantation Tamil youths in estate schools.
This negative pro – Sinhala, anti – Tamil strategy was not what Ashraff envisaged. Besides unless the Muslims artivulate their needs and agitate for it instead of trying to feast on the Tamil kill they would never gain anything worthwhile. The Muslim leaders will get perks and privileges by bootlicking those in power but the people will not get anything tangible. By discarding Ashraffs strategy of maintaining equidistance between Sinhala andTamil positions the present leaders are widening the chasm between Tamils and Muslims. This however does not absolve in any way the notorious conduct of the LTTE towards the Muslims and the tiger contribution towards Tamil – Muslim enmity.
In spite of the shortcomings and faults of their leaders the Muslims of the North – East continue to repose confidence in the former and present members of the Muslim Congress. Those in and out of the Muslim Congress continue to pay lip service to the memory of Ashraff while abandoning the ideals espoused by him. The silver lining in this is that despite continuous splits and defections the SLMC remains the authentic Muslim party still. Whatever his detractors may say of him and whatever his shortcomings Rauff Hakeem remains the best bet of the Muslims in the aftermath of Ashraff.
In fairness to Hakeem the man did try to strike a balance betwen Sinhala and Tamil positions initially. Had the LTTE honoured the agreement Hakeem signed with Pirapakaran on April 13th 2002 much of the present problems would have been avoided.Even now Hakeem is compelled to adopt a hardline posture due to LTTE objecting to third party status in talks or equal position in tsunami relief to the Muslims. I have serious doubts about Sinhala dominated governments also agreeing to Muslims being recognized as an equal third party but the tigers through their conduct have foolishly appropriated all the blame.
Muslim politics in the absence of Ashraff continues in intrigue and shifting loyalties. The Presidential stakes has given the Muslims an opportunity to rally round one banner and display its political clout.The SLMC has always backed the Presidential winner from 1989. This may be the case this time too. The Mahinda- JVP – JHU axis and its stated position has ominous forebodings for the minority communities of this Country. The Muslim political leadership should wake up to tis threat and sink their differences in the interests of the people. They should reaffirm their dedication to the ideals of Ashraff. Muslim unity preferably under one party is the need of the hour.
September 15th, 2005