Leading a Minority Muslim Community – a Sri Lankan Experience - Sri Lanka Muslim Congress

Keynote Address at the World Muslim Forum, delivered by Leader, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Minister of Justice of Sri Lanka Hon Rauff Hakeem, MP, Attorney at Law, LLM (Col),  On September 26, 2012 at Dartmouth House, Mayfair, London

Ladies and gentlemen:

It is a privilege and a pleasure to address the World Muslim Leadership Forum. My task  today is to share with you the Sri Lankan experience  in  leading a minority Muslim  party .  The invitation I received also informed me that I was free to suggest another topic. Why should I suggest another topic? A politician who refuses to share his experience with a distinguished audience such as this ought not to be in politics at all.  I cannot think of an unknown singer from Sri Lanka refusing to sing at a theatre in the London West end.

It is a great opportunity for me to share my experiences as the Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress with an international forum- A forum that provides a platform for Muslim leaders of the world.  In doing so, I will be placing before this distinguished forum my experiences and those of my party. They will naturally include our achievements and our failures. We have had our share of exultations and anguish. I will endeavour to give you as complete a picture as I could paint of the aspirations and the tribulations of the Muslim people of Sri Lanka who share their Island home with the Majority Sinhala people and the larger Tamil minority.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress is the first political party in Sri Lanka that sought to give a voice to the Muslims of Sri Lanka in terms of   political representation.  For the purpose of my task today, I will assume that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress of which I am the leader is leading ‘the’ Minority Community in Sri Lanka.

To begin with, I should say that Sri Lanka is a democracy with a diverse society. It accepts the principles of pluralism in order to meet and confront the challenges of competition and compromises which are integral to a developing democracy.

Role of a Minority Party: Future of Hope

The Muslim community too has politicians with different views and they belong to other political formations. But, I can confidently say that the Muslim constituency in Sri Lanka follows the leadership of my party.  If a leader is measured by the strength of the followers ready to listen and act, the SLMC passes that litmus test. But, more than the number of followers and the number of seats in the national parliament, the ultimate measure of leadership is what the leader of the Minority group has achieved in terms of moulding the attitudes and value judgements of the people whom you represent.

There is another measure the leader has to measure up to. It is the ability and the success of obtaining the best and the most appropriate solutions, advantages and remedies that need the consent and the accommodation of the Majority. In fact, that is the only purpose of a political party that represents a minority in a parliamentary democracy, where nothing substantial is achievable except by consensus and compromise. It does not mean that a minority party has to avoid agitation and protest. Indeed, they are vital elements in the success and the effectiveness of a party that leads a Minority. But, the ingredients of protest, agitation, accommodation, opposition, endorsement and sometimes even reluctant surrender need to be carefully mixed in producing the elixir needed to keep your followers healthy, content and cared for facing their future with hope.

What is the future with hope that I envisage for our people who are an ethno religious minority in Sri Lanka?  As Muslims, we are a minority.  I hold the office of Minster of Justice, not as a Muslim but as a member of parliament and a leader of a political party that is a constituent member of the ruling coalition that commands a majority in the house.  My role as a Muslim member of the Cabinet can be compared to an Architect who is also a devout Muslim.  Let us imagine this architect who is designing an auditorium for a school. He deploys his expertise in designing the auditorium by first taking note of the lay of the land. Then he takes note of the seating capacity, the maximum length of beams that will support the roof and then proceed to determine the height and the width of the columns on which the beams would rest. He may try to avoid locating supportive pillar that may obstruct a clear view from all angles. He may adorn the roof of his structure in the shape of a dome that is akin to Islamic Architecture provided he is commissioned by a Muslim. Very often his clients may want a pinnacle reflecting Buddhist architecture. Sometimes it may be a Christian Cross.  That is how the cities to the east of the Indus River have evolved throughout history.

Just as that devout Muslim Architect, I too must take note of the brief. I too must be aware of the number of seats occupied and vacant in the auditorium. I must also take into account the acoustics of the building and modulate my voice.  The sound system used may be the most modern or it may require repair. It is also possible that the sound system may not work at all and I have to rely only on my vocal chords. Then, there is the message I wish to give the audience. If it has more hecklers than patient listeners I may well have to decide whether I should continue with address or change the script. In this case, I am a little different from the Muslim architect. He has the luxury of adorning it with a beautiful dorm that reflects Islamic architecture. He may also design it with a Buddhist pinnacle or a Christian Cross.  In my experience, I have learnt and I always remember that the  people I represent are occupying a limited number of seats in the Auditorium and the Sound System is not within my control , that I may have to rely on my own vocal chords , that at times I may have to deviate from my prepared script. Above all, I must remind my people that what is atop on the roof of this auditorium is not a Dome symbolic of Muslim architecture. I must always remind my people in the auditorium that the roof no matter what is on top of it serves us all by giving us shade, protecting us from the wind and rain. It serves the purpose of a roof.

Objectives in a Plural Polity: Emerging Needs and Democratic Recognition

These remarks are intended to define the space that is available for a Muslim minority to define the functions and its role in Sri Lanka and how it is perceived by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.  We certainly have achieved some of our objectives.  The setting up of the South Eastern University in the Muslim populated Eastern Province and the development of the port city of Oluvil are land mark achievements.  Our youth are increasingly attracted to higher education with many seeking careers in the new knowledge based occupations.  Many Muslim students from rural backgrounds whose parents do not qualify to be described as affluent now pursue disciplines of Medicine, Engineering, Marketing and Accounting.  They are both males and females whose ambitions are fuelled by their parents. This reflects not progress per se but progress in behaviourism and the emergence of a new frame of mind.

The Muslims whose faith reached the shores of Sri Lanka through traders sailing their dhows with the aid of the trade winds were identified with only commercial activity. Yet, we have a large number of Muslims engaged in agriculture and fisheries.   They need to be brought in to the second decade of the 21st century. That is one of our pressing challenges.

In order to avoid any doubts or puzzles that you might encounter later on, I should place before you certain historical events that have a direct bearing on my narrative.

The first European colonials to set foot on Sri Lanka were the Portuguese who found Muslim settlements on the coastal belt. They did not take kindly to the Muslims who were traders and sailors who linked the Sinhala monarchy in the interior with the outside world.  The Portuguese immediately labelled them as ‘Moors’. The Ceylon Moor was a term that was later adopted by the British administrators who classified the Muslims of Sri Lanka as Ceylon ‘Moors’. The Muslims who were brought in by the Dutch were classified as Malays.  When Sri Lanka gained independence from the British, it had three distinct communities of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. There was also a small group of European lineage who were called Burghers. The Tamils of Indian origin who were settled in the hill country as indented labour, constituted another segment of the population. Their status as citizens was not quite resolved until the ’70 s and ‘80s of the last century.

Plural Polity: Post Colonial and Post War Nation Building Challenges

The recognition of the Muslims of Sri Lanka as a minority group that needed representation in governance occurred much before the advent of the post colonial nation state.  The British throughout their administration up until their withdrawal after independence provided for communal representation first by unilateral nomination and later by limited franchise followed by universal adult franchise.  What I seek to impress on you, Ladies and Gentlemen, is that the concept of a plural polity was well entrenched when Sri Lanka obtained its Independence 65 years ago. The post-independence representative democracy promoted a tendency for majority dominance and the two indigenous constitutions that were adopted in 1972 and 1978 also served to place both Minorities –Tamils and Muslims in the margins. The Tamil resistance of Majority dominance created a conflict which has mercifully ended with a military defeat of a separatist, terrorist movement. The fundamental causes of conflict are yet to be resolved.  The greatest challenge faced by the Muslim community in Sri Lanka was that it had to steer clear of the conflict while preserving its own identity.

These remarks are made in order to drive home a simple yet a fundamentally essential fact required in this discourse. The democratic nation state of Sri Lanka established in 1948 wielded political power and enjoyed the status of a sovereign state.  Yet, as post colonial discourses testify, the nation within its borders was yet in a state of incubation.   In fact, I should say it is still struggling to be born. The post war reconciliation process is a part of that struggle.

The Muslims are dispersed all over the island and speak Tamil interlaced with Arabic words. The majority of Muslims, that is around 65% live in various pockets of Muslim settlements scattered in the South, Central and the Northwest of the island. They are well integrated in their environments.  I, myself come from a small town in the Central Province, where my father served as a head master in a Government school. About 35% live in the North and East. The Muslim concentrations in the East of the island are the areas that the Minority Tamils claim as their traditional areas of habitation.

It is these Muslim concentrations  in geographically contiguous areas who now find themselves in a position to be  specifically Muslim centric in the politics of  parliamentary  democracy where the former  first  past the post election system has been replaced with  proportional representation.

The violent Tamil separatist movement displayed a cruelty and ferocity unmatched in history on all who stood on its path. They held and contested the lawful government on a large swath of territory in the North and East. The state was fully   engaged in mortal combat with these separatists to re impose its writ.  The Muslims who spoke Tamil and were settled in the east from the time of Sinhala monarchs were an impediment to the objectives of the separatists.

This larger Muslim population found itself sandwiched between a separatist, terrorist insurgency that demonstrated its virulent hatred towards the Muslims who lived in the lands they claimed as their territory and a state whose principal preoccupation was reclaiming that territory.  The political representation of the embattled Muslims was in the hands of a few Muslim politicians who could only hope to influence the state through the main stream political parties which they belonged to.  The ground reality was of course that these Muslim politicians were mere Muslim ornaments in those political groups. The main political parties used them to demonstrate their commitment to the plural polity of the country. However, the beleaguered Muslims in the Eastern Province realised that their representatives were not loud enough to be heard over the din of battle.  The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress provided them with the megaphone they needed.

Deepening Muslim Grievances: Emergence of a Voice

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was formed at a meeting held at   Kattankuddy in 1981 by a small study group of   politically articulate, educated and young Muslims of the Eastern Province. They represented an ethos that was essentially Islamic yet provincial centric. They spoke fluent Tamil. They were deeply conscious and proud of an Eastern Province Muslim tradition that was epitomized by scholars, writers, poets and artists. Yet, they were Muslims. Not Tamils.  This new emphasis of an ethno religious Muslim identity wedded to a geographically defined territory emerged from the most densely populated predominantly Muslim town of Kathankudy located on the shore line that is called “Eluvaankarai”  which means the “Beach of the Rising Sun”.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was into its tenth year when the cataclysmic events of 1990 brought home the reality of its historical mission. The terrorist LTTE destroyed more than two hundred mosques in the Eastern Province. The forced expulsion of more than 90,000 Muslim men, women and children was one of the largest human displacements in the 20th Century and caused great anguish among all Muslims in the country and brought the plight of the Sri Lankan Muslims into sharp focus nationally and internationally.

The ferocity of the violence perpetrated by the LTTE fortified the claim made by the SLMC for greater political autonomy.  The SLMC now became the undisputed voice of the Muslims who were disillusioned with those who claimed to represent Muslims interests in the two major national parties.    The Muslims of the Eastern Province were much larger in numbers with far deeper roots to the soil.

‘Muslim Nation’ Formation: Effective Voice and Leveraging Power

Now, I must explain the backdrop to these events.  With India intervening as a probable mediator, the government of Sri Lanka signed the Indo-Lanka accord in 1987. This accord completely ignored the demographic composition of the North and the Eastern province. The agreement described the Northern and Eastern Provinces as “areas of historical habitation of Tamils of Sri Lanka. It also stipulated a temporary merger of the two provinces which was, subject to a referendum in the Eastern province within its first year.  This was given constitutional recognition through the Thirteenth Amendment. It established provincial councils with limited powers. This failed to appease the Separatists. What it did was that the Muslims of the north and the east became a distinct Minority within the new merged provincial council while the Tamils became a numerical majority. The Sinhala residents in the merged council though reduced to a minority was not marooned in hostile waters. The Muslims whose traditional settlements were mostly on the coastal belt and between the ocean and an inhospitable interior were certainly marooned in the rough seas of ethnic diversity which was now fast turning into ethnic adversity.

This was the first major challenge faced by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.  The Indian intervention, The Sri Lanka response, The Indo Lanka Accord and the Constitutional solution in the shape of the 13th Amendment were all decided upon or negotiated on the basis that it was a bi lateral process involving the Sinhala Majority and the Tamil Minority. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was the voice of the Muslims of the Eastern Province and the Northern Province that now insisted that the Muslim community in the contested areas were a people and the term “Muslim nation” entered the political lexicon of Sri Lanka for the first time.  The SLMC was relentless in its insistence that the Muslims of the North East traced their roots to the time of the Sinhala monarchs who gave a royal charter to the Muslims to transport salt from the coast to the Kingdom in the hill country.  The SLMC had to walk the talk. It had to walk alone. It was virtually a walk on rope where balance was required.  The SLMC did succeed in making the bilateral issue a trilateral discussion, the end of which is yet to be reached. But at that point of time we not only made the Muslims of the Eastern province a party to the discussion but we also gave them an effective voice and a power to leverage the balance between the two major national political formations who were contesting for power in the national parliament.

Reservation and Resistance: SLMC’s Democratic Alliances

The SLMC expressed serious reservations on the Indo Lanka accord of July 1987 which completely ignored the Muslim point of view and what the Muslims considered as needed to guarantee their well being in the new provincial administration. Despite these misgivings, the SLMC did not follow the path taken by the then opposition which also had some leading Muslim politicians in their ranks. They decided to express their opposition by boycotting the elections to the new North East Provincial Council.   The SLMC participated in the North-East provincial council elections of 1988 and was the main Opposition party in the council.

In the Presidential election that followed in the same year of 1988, we in the SLMC supported the UNP candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa. In 1989, the Muslim Congress contested the general elections and won four seats in the Parliament. The SLMC founder leader the late Mr MHM Ashraff was elected with a phenomenal number of preference votes. The SLMC fielded candidates in several districts including Colombo which has a large Muslim population. It had traditionally elected one or two Muslim parliamentarians. Yet, the SLMC won only in the Eastern Province. Thus, it made a strategic realignment and faced the 1994 general elections in alliance with the People’s Alliance which formed the PA government under President Chandrika Kumaratunge.

It was a watershed event which ended the 17 years of UNP rule that introduced a free market economy, the 1978 Constitution with an Executive Presidency and a parliament elected on proportional representation by district in place of the first past the post system in defined constituencies revised periodically by a delimitation commission.  It was the period in which the country experienced the 1983 racial riots in which hundreds of Tamils perished. Several thousands were rendered destitute, while thousands of others sought refuge in India and Europe.  The cataclysmic events of that period also included an armed insurrection by Militant Sinhala youth and    a far more fierce conflict with the LTTE separatist movement which relied on Terrorism that soon established a new bench mark for savagery. The State succeeded in suppressing the Southern insurgency.  The conflict in the North was to last three decades ending with the total physical annihilation of the terrorist movement by military means.

As already explained, the SLMC provided the leadership to the Muslim community during these traumatic years maintaining an unambiguous loyalty to the elected government that represented the authority of the state.

The 1994 general election propelled the SLMC into centre stage of national politics. Our support to President Chandrika Kumaratunga provided the crucial majority to her in parliament. The SLMC leader was appointed Minister for Ports, Shipping and Rehabilitation. Two other SLMC members were made Deputy Ministers.  I was then the General Secretary of the party and was appointed Chairman of Committees.

Provincial Council Elections: Crucible of Compromise and Consensus

Participating in governance, we 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 Mr Asharaff   pointed out that the Muslims who constituted 33 per cent in the Eastern Province would have their numbers dwindling down to 17 percent 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.

My presence here today is after a hectic battle for control of the Eastern Province, Provincial Council which for the first time will have a Muslim Chief Minister. Although he contested from the ruling UPFA, we of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, contested on our own in order to maintain  our Muslim political identity.  I think instead of recounting more historical details I should explain to you the backdrop of the recently concluded Provincial Council elections, our election campaign, the results we obtained and the appointment of the Chief Minister.

I have explained to you how the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was formed and why. I have also provided you a picture of the politics of identity and ethnicity that created the space for a Muslim centric political  party such as the SLMC. Our main plank was that the violent conflict between the Majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils has had an enormous impact, a negative impact on our interests and our security. What we seek is redress for our grievances caused by the conflict as well by the reasons that caused the conflict.  I hope our position is well understood. As a minority, we Muslims experience the same disadvantages as the Tamil minority. However, our community has historically adopted a policy of accommodation with the majority Sinhalese in the Sinhala majority areas and with the Tamils in the Tamil Majority areas. The Eastern province demography dictates that all three communities are equal stakeholders.   At the height of the conflict, the Eastern Province was described as the crucible of conflict.  Today, Sri Lanka is a country where the war has ended. It has won the war. It now has to win the peace. Post war, it can be the crucible of compromise and consensus.  The recent elections returned seven Muslim members who contested from the SLMC while seven Muslims who contested from the ruling alliance also were returned. The Tamil National Alliance won 11 seats and the Opposition UNP won 4 seats. The TNA invited the SLMC to form an administration in alliance with the UNP. They even offered the SLMC the office of Chief Minister.

On the other hand, the ruling UPFA had 15 seats and wanted us to join them to form an administration with one of their Muslim members as Chief Minister.  At the national level the SLMC is already a constituent member of the UPFA coalition and I happen to be a member of the Cabinet of Ministers. I am the Minister of Justice.  You may now ask why the SLMC contested the provincial council elections as a separate party.  You may then also ask me why the SLMC decided to join the UPFA and form an administration   with a Muslim member who is not in the SLMC as chief minister when the SLMC could have taken over the administration of the council with an SLMC Chief Minister by joining with the opposition UNP and the TNA.  The answers to these questions will, I hope provide a deeper insight in to the title and subject of my address today – The Sri Lanka experience of leading a Muslim Minority party.

Common Minority Grievance: Political Assimilation versus Independent Platform

As I said, earlier 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 amidst 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, I need to go back if only for a brief moment.   There is no dispute on the fact that the Sinhala Majority state, post independence had 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 cosy 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. I have already presented to you the genesis of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.

Reassertion of SLMC’s Primacy: Resilient Political Movement

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 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.  Had we agreed to contest as a part of the ruling alliance, the party would have been compelled to share its number of slots with several Muslim groups who are in the government at the centre with bases in the East.  Indeed, it is their democratic right. We, in the SLMC that offers the most tangible political leadership to all Muslims in the country needed to demonstrate to all parties of the Government and the Opposition that the SLMC is a resilient political movement that is pragmatic in political accommodation and steadfast in its political principles.

I hope I have shared the Sri Lankan experience of leading a Muslim minority party to your satisfaction. I could have made a more structured presentation if I had to write it. This is in the form of an address.  It is shall we say a twenty-twenty game. Not even a one day international. Before I return to the pavilion, let me quote from the Poet Iqbal who sums up the role I envisage for the party that I was destined to lead after the accidental demise of the founder leader of the party.


Thou didst create the night, but I made the lamp.

Thou didst create clay, but I made the cup.

Thou didst create the deserts, mountains and forests

I produced the orchards, gardens and groves.

It is I who made the glass out of stone

And it is I who turn a poison into an antidote.