By Latheef Farook –
Intense discussions have been underway ever since the government announced its decision to bring about constitutional changes. Numerous seminars, symposiums and open discussions were held by various interested groups from all communities to ensure their rights in the proposed constitution.
Emphasizing the need to ensure the rights of all communities President Maithripala Sirisena said, “We must safeguard the rights of all communities, to prevent re-emergence of terrorism.”
“Public would be given the opportunity to decide whether they need a new Constitution, Constitutional amendments with an Executive Prime Minister and a nominal Head of State. The government has not taken a final decision on the proposed Constitution. We do not know whether it would be a new Constitution or amendments to the current Constitution. We also have to decide on the electoral reforms and what to do with the much criticized Preferential Voting System” he added.
However already a section of the Sinhalese community declared that they wanted a unitary constitution with Buddhism as state religion, but failed to speak about the rights of the minorities and status of other religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
Learning lessons from the recent history moderate elements in the majority community suggest the need to respect minority rights.
Tamil National Alliance has forwarded its own suggestions to protect the interest of Tamils.
In the case of Muslims, the National Shoora Council, umbrella body of around 18 Organizations, has called for suggestion from all sections in the community to be discussed by legal experts to prepare their own proposals to be submitted to the proposed new constitution.
However Muslim politicians so far seems to be indifferent and have failed to get together leave alone discussing means to protect the interest of the community. They remain divided though the forthcoming constitution will seal the fate of the communities and the country for years to come.
However many point out that Muslim politicians’ indifference is not something new. They were integral part of the Rajapaksa government till last minute when it unleashed violence against Muslims. They were only keen on safeguarding their positions and perks and not the interest or the dignity of the community.
They joined President Maithripala’s camp at the eleventh hour when they found the Rajapaksa days were numbered and the community has already made its decision to vote for President Sirisena.
This gave the clear message to SLMC opportunists to switch over Maithri’s winning camp.
If we are to believe rumors the SLMC joined the United National Party led coalition under a deal which perhaps may have sealed their mouths, tied their hands and legs. Thus their inevitable indifference and overall silence on almost every issue concerning Muslims.
The SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem began discussing with the TNA, the outdated proposal for the creation of a territorial non-contiguous Muslim majority council consisting of the Muslim divisions in the North and East based on India’s Pondicherry model.
Many questions his wisdom of calling for such an enclave especially in the current highly charged anti Muslim atmosphere with Sinhala racist elements appears to be awaiting an opportunity to unleash violence on Muslims.
However the need of the hour is for proposals to ensure the rights of Muslims throughout the island.
They point out that Minister Hakeem has no right to negotiate on behalf of the Muslim community as his SLMC has only six seats and lost its position as the community’s leader . In fact the Muslim leadership has virtually collapsed and the community is passing through a period of leadership crisis and suffering a great.
There are other Muslim parties too in the parliament. For example Minister Rishard Badurdeen’s Makkal Congress has five members and the United National Party has four.
It is essential that the SLMC, along with others, discuss the subject, take their views and jointly prepare a set of proposals highlighting the entre Muslim community’s interest.
Thus Minister Hakeem has no right to negotiate on behalf of the Muslims without consulting the other Muslims in other parties. This is a decision he should have taken after consulting and getting the views of Muslim parliamentarians and intellectuals of the community.
In this regard many Muslims point out that Tamils failed to win the hearts and minds of Muslims especially in the north and east of the country and show that the two communities could live together despite LTTE atrocities towards Muslims and bitter past. The Tamils’ attitude towards Muslims in the aftermath of the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 resembles the attitude of defeated President Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s failure to introduce measures to win the heart and minds of defeated and wounded Tamils.
This is the reason why the Muslims fear TNA’s call for the merger of North and East. They justify their fear by saying that the North East merger is to their disadvantage as it was proved ever since President JR Jayewardene was forced to sign on the dotted lines the controversial 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord which was negotiated in strict secrecy.
In signing the Indo-Lanka Accord and the temporary merger of North and East provinces neither India nor Sri Lanka paid any attention to the interest of the Muslims, though they constitute a large sizeable part of the population of the two provinces. Muslims were kept in complete darkness about the Accord .They were not even briefed about the merging of the two provinces, though this move involved their destiny. India and Sri Lanka simply treated Muslims as if they were non-existent though they constitute more than 33 percent of the total population in the Eastern province and the merger of the Northern and Eastern reduced this to nearly 17 percent.
The Muslim community’s fear proved right subsequently as they had to face untold miseries and hardships in the provincial council of the temporarily merged North-East province which reduced them into a minority within a minority. But there was no way they could express their views as there was no proper political platform or organisation which could highlight their grievances. Muslims were a voiceless and disorganised community then as they are now.
Yet the Muslims were keen to live in harmony with Tamils as they have done so in the past for several centuries.
However they now ask if the Tamils cannot live in a Muslim majority divisional secretariat how could the Muslims live in a Tamil majority divisional secretariat. If Tamils can’t live in a Muslim majority divisional secretariat the question is how the Muslims could live with Tamils in the merged North-East province.
The Tamils have created separate divisional secretariat exclusively for them in several areas where there were Muslim majority divisional secretariats such as Nintavur and Karaitivu, Sammanthurai and Naavithanveli, Akkaraipatu and Aalaiadivembu and many more. There is one divisional secretariat for Kalmunai, but the Tamils want a separate divisional secretariat for them in Kalmunai.
They point out the Tamils also placed obstacles for Muslims in the north in resettling in their own lands. They were also accused of blocking the town and country development program in Kalmunai and its outskirts.
Living in harmony is in the interest of the two communities. However, under the existing circumstance, Muslims ask, how could we live together?