By Latheef Farook –
The forthcoming local government elections once again exposes the political bankruptcy of Sri Lanka’s sinking Muslim community especially in the east. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the unfortunate outcome of national racist politics , came with the slogan of Islam and Unity, seem to have come to the end of the road.
The SLMC ruthlessly exploited religious slogans to hoodwink the people while unity disappeared following the death of SLMC founder Mr M.H.M.Ashrarf. Almost four decades after the establishment of SLMC the unfortunate state of affairs of the Muslims especially in the east is such that the main SLMC found shelter in the United National Party for political survival, positions and perks.
The splinter groups often created by leaderships of major political parties to suit their agendas detriment to the interest of the Muslim community are busy looking for alliances for survival. With campaign for the forthcoming local government elections heating up political scene in the east seems to be chaotic with senior Muslim politicians shifting alliances, abandoning all principles, for positions and incentives.
The SLMC General Secretary Hassan Ali who has been with the party since early days finally told some home truths when he called last week to end the culture of SLMC and its splinter groups serving as agents of the major political parties- abandoning the rights and dignity of Muslim Community. He told the media that once in the government they abandon burning issues of the community to ensure they do not lose their positions and perks.
Justifying his allegation Hassan Ali explained the problems faced by the Muslims in the east since independence. He said that; The minority community’s main accusation has been that the majority community which comprised only 9.8 percent of the North-East population in 1946 increased to the present level of 25 percent solely due to colonized settlements. Demarcation of borders for districts also contributed to it. Similarly the Muslim population which was 32.5 percent in the North-East during the signing of the Indo-Ceylon Peace Agreement of July 1987 has today been reduced to a mere 17 percent.
He added that during independence in 1948 the entire east starting from Trincomalee and Batticaloa to Pottuvil end was under Batticaloa district. The Sinhala population in the entire east then was around 4000.It was the time Ampara was under Sammanthurai district.
In 1961 a new Ampara district was created by joining adjacent areas such as Dehiatta Kanda, Padiyatalawa and Bintanna Pattu. Muslims suspect that this was a move to prevent the emergence of a predominantly Muslim district in the east covering Kalmunai, Pottuvil, Sammanthurai, Mutur and some other areas. With the creation of new Ampara district and the opening of Gal Oya scheme Sinhala population recorded an increase of more than a 500 percent.
Since then encroachment of Muslim areas has been an ongoing problem. Some even estimate that Muslims lost around 60,000 acres of land due to manipulations by successive governments, both SLFP and UNP, in cooperation with the bureaucracy. They had done this under various pretexts such as archaeological areas.
When Pradeshiya Sabha (Local Government Unit – LGU) borders were demarcated in 1987, the Lahugala LGU which comprised just 7085 members of the majority community was allocated a 368.2 sq. mile area while the area allocated to the minority community comprising 19,831 members was only 103.9 sq.miles. The Wevagampattu LGU comprising 6585 majority community people was given 260 sq. miles while Sammanthuraipattu LGU comprising 40704 minority community people was given only 99 sq. miles.
At district levels too, the minority communities were discriminated against. Sixty six percent of the land area was allocated for 36 percent Sinhalese in Ampara District while 70 percent of land was allocated for 34 percent Sinhalese in the Trincomalee District.
Explaining the unwritten agenda of the successive governments Hassen Ali said that even today 74 percent of the population in the Ampara district remain Tamil speaking people. However to date there was no Muslim or Tamil appointed as government agent for this district. This has been the unwritten policy of all governments.
Added to this new local authority boundaries were created in 1987 without proper delimitation commission or consulting the Muslims of the area. In areas such as Lahugala and Panama where there were less Sinhalese more lands were given while in areas such as Pottuvil where there were more Muslim population but less lands were given.
There was demarcation of boundaries for a totally different purpose after the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement. It was demarcation of areas under ‘Government’s control’ and LTTE control.
When the then UNP Government introduced the 13th amendment to the constitution to implement the Indo-Lanka Peace Agreement which was a Provincial Council level power devolution system, similar to federal concept, the majority Sinhala community perceived it as India’s aggression and a conspiracy to invade the country.
That agreement was a humiliation to the Muslim community because their leaders were not consulted and that agreement deliberately excluded the word ‘Muslims’ in its entirety. The Muslim Leadership from the conflict area declared that the Indo Lanka agreement was a total betrayal of its community.
Under the direct administration of the LTTE and many government officers acting on their instructions, the aspirations of the North-East Tamil people are being fulfilled. Similarly the welfare and aspirations of the Sinhalese community of the South are being fulfilled through their political leaders.
It is the Muslim community that has been refused its rights to administer themselves. Their welfare and aspirations remain totally ignored.
Grabbing Muslim owned lands under various pretexts has been an ongoing program.For example a UNP Minister once claimed that 12,000 acres of Muslim owned land from Pottuvil to Kalmunai belonged to Digavapiya Cheititya. However Late SLMC leader Ashraf proved that only 500 acres in this area belonged to Digavapi Chaitiya.
Forty two settlements were created to be divided equally between Muslims and Sinhalese. However, instead of 21, Sinhalese settled in 36 settlements and only eight were left for Muslims. Even here the Muslims cannot go to their settlements as the Sinhalese have taken over that too.-
There are multifarious reasons which qualify the Muslim community as a distinct national community. Simply because they remained good citizens and did not wage a militant war to win their legitimate rights does not disqualify them.
If only those ‘who waged war’ are to be given recognition that would also mean recognition of thousands of lives and mammoth properties destroyed in the war. It would, in other words mean approval of the jungle rule, ‘survival of the fittest’.
Instead of constructing buildings as signs of development, goodwill among communities and developments based on that should be undertaken. The tragedy is that international forces that come here to give us counseling are getting themselves trapped in the complexities of the problem.
This problem has been aggravated by the policy of SLMC and its splinter groups joining governments under various deals. As a result Muslims were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea and their rights were encroached.
Indications are that Muslims during the past three to four decades have seen through the treachery, corruption and immoral activities of SLMC and its splinter groups and politics of deal .Thus the inevitable need to end this shameful politics of deals.
In this respect some point out that rather than simply joining the government for personal benefits they should join governments which would attend to Muslim issues. In this regard they cited the policy adopted by Tamil National Alliance, TNA ,of not joining the government but remain outside and get Tamil issues sorted out. Tamil civil society remain vigilant. Muslims should follow the same policy and win the legitimate rights and respect of governments.
In this way the community could protect its interest especially with regard to the policy of grabbing Muslim owned lands, caused by racist elements. Need of the hour is to bring some respect to Muslim politics and restore the dignity of the community.
However this seems to be a distant reality in view of the horse trading underway in the east now in the run up to next month’s local government elections. Many suggest that decades of injustice to Muslims could be rectified only by appointing a commission with a time frame to implement Muslim issues ignored for decades by successive governments. The question is whether this will be a reality in view of the chaotic national political current environment?
Instead of simply raising Muslim issues Muslim politicians and the community should also take active part in national issues which affects the entire country.